The widespread use of fear and intimidation, having rammed through a particular vision of India – 37 days and counting – must be called out at every twist and sordid turn.
Shehla Rashid Shora has been a voice of sobriety. Her stand, nuanced and even-handed. I trust what she says while rubbishing the blatantly engineered reports that masquerade as news. That a series of tweets from this 20-something activist sends the mighty Indian state burrowing into the IPC is as pathetic as it is indefensible. This is the action of a haughty, unconfident state that routinely settles upon the softest of targets to reiterate a misplaced sense of omnipotence. It does so at the cost of its dignity and credibility.
Never has Indian media been this powerful and in a position to stand up for what’s right. And, never has Indian media been so obsequious. It has allowed the state to go unchallenged allowing individual liberties to be run over. It has gone from ‘duty to report without fear’ to fear-mongering to its latest avatar: a tactical arm in the government’s intimidation project with publications on Twitter and WhatsApp blending with demagogues of prime time.
It was difficult not to come away nauseated by a recent video clip in which Shehla was mobbed by journalists as she tried to defend her tweets. Microphones were jabbed into her face, a crowd of twenty plus males pushed, shoved and ganged-up. They cut off her arguments while baiting her for a sensational byte that passes for news in our country today. The equanimity with which Shehla stood her ground till she had delivered her statement in full was a lesson in how aggression may be deflated with a pinprick of poise.
It is censorship that causes fear and terror. It is the spread of disinformation, misinformation and the absence of information that cause rumours, unpredictability and destabilisation. Censorship is anti-national. Censorship is seditious. Censorship breeds hate and fear where we need compassion and understanding.
When the media and government have all but abdicated their role in this regard, individual citizens like Shehla have to take up the baton. If the government believes that she is wrong, that there is no high handedness by the armed forces and that peace and calm actually prevail in the Kashmir Valley, it should simply call out Shehla’s claims and allow the free flow of information. That it does exactly the opposite, using the law to silence her, speaks volumes.
The grace that should characterise the largest democracy in the world, the compassion of the land where the thoughts and ideas of the Buddha and Gandhi flourished are missing today. Where is the largeness of heart and inclusiveness? And if these qualities are to be given a go by, where at least is the political thinking?
Shehla is a young Kashmiri woman. She is articulate, intelligent and educated in one of the finest institutes of our country. She is a candidate who could effect that much needed compassionate and empathic approach between the corridors of power in Delhi and the people of the Valley. Rather than hounding and threatening her with jail, shouldn’t the Indian state be engaging with her?
Is there much to be gained in understanding Kashmiri sentiment to bring real (un-curfewed) peace on the ground? The opportunities presented by a Shehla is belied by myopia and delusion of the state. Time after time, New Delhi has had opportunities to resolve the Kashmir crisis by engaging with the local people through those who occupy the middle ground. And every time, New Delhi has decimated this middle ground by blundering or with arrogance.
Outreach not part of the plan
Is it possible that this government is so inured to the anguish and pain caused by its actions that it has become hypnotised by their own propaganda? Do they actually believe that the people of Kashmir welcome the revocation of Article 370 and Article 35A and are grateful for being imprisoned in their own homes? While they have, in the finest detail, worked out how to repress basic human impulses in military, demographic, legislative and administration terms, they seem to be unconcerned by oppression, fear, anguish and suffering – the real human collateral. Clearly, outreach to the population of Kashmir is not part of the plan.
So when many governments before have failed – that too, when Kashmir was a special state with its constitution and flag – does this government truly believe that when Kashmir is a vassal of New Delhi, things are going to turn peachy? Or would they acknowledge that this has just given the Kashmiri freedom movement a new rallying cry? There is a feeling among those who know and understand Kashmir that the blood that will flow after the blockade is lifted will dwarf the past 30 years of militancy and separatism. The government has perhaps not worked out, or worse, doesn’t care that without a state government, the moral responsibility for this and everything that comes hereafter will be that of New Delhi alone.
In a video ex-finance minister Yashwant Sinha, fresh from having visited Kashmir, recounts meeting a person quite high up in the government. Having patiently heard Sinha on the alarming humanitarian crisis in the Valley, this gentleman chillingly explained that the government has put into place something called the ‘doctrine of state’ somewhat in the tradition of Machiavelli, Chanakya and Metternich. This doctrine states simply: “use force to quell rebellion”.
Had the government cared to read history, it would have known that dissent is not rebellion; that brute force has never triumphed over individual liberty. Sadly this only serves to clarify an inability to comprehend the extent to which the Kashmiri will go to preserve her aspirations for self-determination. That despite the might of 700,000 troops over the past 30 years, the spirit of defiance burns bright and undiminished in every Kashmiri. That hereafter, Kashmiris will view themselves not as citizens but victims of a colonised and occupied state.
What is most disheartening is that the government fails to appreciate that these actions have rendered a struggle that privileged self-determination over sectarian concerns to a dangerously simple religious binary. Any future conflict that will bloody the streets of Kashmir will be characterised as a struggle between Hindu occupiers and Muslim natives.
Backed into a corner
This government has backed itself into a corner with no options left. It has alienated its torchbearers – politicians who argued in favour of Indian administration will now be seen as traitors by their kin. It has alienated about 4,000 to 6,000 detainees (no official confirmation), some as young as 13. Could this give militants a new line to recruit in the future?
What is more, having been introduced to each other in jail by the Government of India, they are at this very moment sharing stories of persecution and developing a common sense of violation that will unleash itself in the months and years to come. The government has forgotten that militancy in Kashmir was catalysed by those who were thrown in jail after the ‘rigged elections’ of 1987. It has, indeed, forgotten the role that British jails played in our very own freedom struggle.
It has alienated political workers, local leaders, human rights workers and activists – vital earpieces to understand what people are thinking, those who act as checks and balances on the radical and extremist fringes.
Frighteningly, the government also has a list of mosques and imams who have been intimidated to not speak against the reading down of Article 370. Will that stop them?
I need hardly to recall the 8 million people of the Kashmir Valley who are under house arrest. The anguish of the mother who is unable to buy milk for her child. The slow decay of the father who needs dialysis treatment. The shattered dreams of the daughter who, having paid her online college fee, is unable to take her exams. And the thousands of Kashmiri students studying in far off and often hostile Indian cities, unable to pay their fees and meet their basic needs.
It has alienated people like Shehla.
What then must be done?
To avoid the looming catastrophe, the government must swing into a conciliatory mode immediately. The high court has given Shehla interim protection against arrest, but the Delhi police should proactively drop the embarrassing case of sedition slapped on Shehla. All other similar and frivolous cases must be dropped. Then, without waiting for the court to decide, the government should admit that keeping the Valley under lockdown indefinitely wasn’t part of the plan. Prisoners should be released. Article 370 and 35A should immediately be restored.
The government should, through the use of any credible intermediaries that may be left (or, indeed, willing) attempt to restore normalcy as quick as possible. It must ensure that the crisis in health and economy, which they refuse to admit, are swiftly addressed. It must get kids out of jails and back in schools, where a counselling programme towards peace should be initiated. A good place to begin this healing process would be via the same imams who they have on their lists.
In the rest of India, it should put its vast media machine and the army of trolls into reverse gear and manage public sentiment that is out of control. It must reign in the hate-mongering in TV studios. The government should retire its choreographed dancers, drum beaters, and pull off the deeply offensive video clips that show brutal domination of our people. And it should ask potential investors in Kashmir to deploy their surplus cash into the beleaguered Indian economy.
Finally, when all this is done, it should go back to the people of J&K and consult them about the future of their state. The only people who matter when it comes to the status of J&K are the people of the state.
However, this needs humanity, humility, wisdom, compassion and inclusiveness – qualities that are in short supply at present. So, what is likely is that we will have to wait till enough lives, livelihoods and dreams of the armed forces and the Kashmiri youth have been culled at the altar of religious pride and a misplaced idea of what India is about.
Perhaps, we will have to wait till what is happening in Kashmir happens across the country. The thing about authoritarianism is that once it has devastated one group, it needs to move on to some ‘other’ to continue its rampageous life. So, it is only when the people who were till yesterday dancing over the corpse of Article 370 and 35A get a taste of oppression and the heavy hand of the state themselves, will we begin to realise that Kashmir is merely a lab rat for the rest of India. That what happened in Kashmir yesterday is going to be our tomorrow.
Ashvin Kumar is an Oscar-nominated, two-time national award winner. He has made films on Kashmir for the past ten years, most recently the feature film No Fathers in Kashmir.