Eerie Silence: The Trauma of Kashmir in the Larger Context of the Fight for Democracy and Human Rights

Rafia Bano, 23, was injured by pellets in the courtyard of her house. Photo: Quratulain Rehbar, Kashmir Walla/The Wire

I wrote this piece about the Kashmir issue last week, trying to go beyond the chest-thumping and belligerence to the trauma of the Kashmiri people. Also making the point that brandishing Pakistan flags at protests about the injustice in Kashmir does not help the Kashmiri people. Thirdly, this struggle must be situated in the larger context of the fight for democracy and human rights, relevant beyond India. Published in Naya Daur and Hard News. Some related must-read pieces besides those linked in my piece: ‘Separate Fact From Fiction’: A Letter to PM Modi From a Kashmiri by Salman Anees Soz, India must stop weaponizing the pain of Kashmiri Pandits by Nishita Trisal, Arundhati Roy, The Silence Is the Loudest Sound; and this searing piece in The Wire: Ground Report: Agony and Casualties in the Valley in the Immediate Aftermath of Shutdown. And this: The Mental Health of Kashmiris is Everybody’s concern: Dr KalaMy piece below.

PERSONAL POLITICAL

Beena Sarwar

The social media noise and majoritarian chest-thumping in India and Pakistan about Kashmir crowds out a critical factor in the equation, the Kashmiri people. It overshadows their trauma. And it obscures a larger context: the ongoing fight for democracy and human rights in India, that is relevant elsewhere too. 

Trauma. People rendered voiceless and invisible by curfew and communications shutdown. Families unable to connect with their loved ones, a black cloud of silence shrouding the area, preventing people from reaching loved ones in Kashmir and vice versa. Never before have even telephone landlines been cut off like this.

Ashwaq Masoodi: 1975 revisited.

Journalist Ashwaq Masoodi who landed in Boston for the Nieman Fellowship a few days ago, was unable to reach her parents in Kashmir for days after saying goodbye to them in Srinagar.

“It’s not that I spoke to them every day when I was working in Delhi”, she said when we met. “Just the feeling that I can’t talk to them…” Her voice trailed off, eyes bright with unshed tears.

Censorship

Trauma. Media blackout. Journalists smuggling copy out on pen drives. Two weeks after the clampdown, even where the internet has started working, it is slow and patchy. “Although there is no direct press censorship today in Kashmir, blocking all means of communication is, in fact, a form of censorship. It has prevented any information about what Kashmiris feel about these developments and what is happening there from reaching the rest of the country”, writes Kalpana Sharma in her blogpost comparing the current situation to the 1975 Emergency.

Ironically, the last report Ashwaq Masoodi wrotebefore leaving Delhi for Kashmir in mid-July was about the 1975 Emergency. People she interviewed talked about the ‘eerie silence’ of that time. She experienced it for herself in Srinagar after curfew was imposed and all communications cut off, 4 August. 

Trauma. Preventive detention. Political leaders and activists placed under house-arrest or jailed, invoking the colonial-era law the British used to run India for 200 years, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen pointsout.

Trauma. ‘Development’. Investors eyeing a region where a pre-partition Dogra-era lawhas restricted outsiders from owning land in Kashmir, includingchildren of Kashmiri women married to outsiders. Similar restrictions exist in other states too — Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Nagaland (Myth No 1 about Article 370: It prevents Indians from buying land in Kashmir, Scroll, May 2014). 

Trauma. Implied sexual violence. The videos circulating on WhatsApp of men joking that they are now free to go ‘get Kashmiri girls’ are no laughing matter in Kashmir, still haunted by memories of Kunan Poshspora. Rape is an old weapon of war, used not just by security forces but also militants.

Visceral pain

For many, the BJP government’s unilateral revoking of Kashmir’s special status feels akin to “a visceral, agonizing pain, like the blade of a sharp knife slowly cutting into your skin as you lay motionless, unable to scream or resist. After days of psychological trauma and mental exhaustion, Kashmiris finally understood what it was they were preparing for. In the end, it was all about the land” (Ashwaq Masoodi, States of Kashmir: How to disappear a people, N+1, 17 August 2019). 

The Delhi-based rights organization Anhadis attempting to address some of the psychological, emotional and mental trauma through a series of ‘sharings’ for Kashmiri students in Delhi, besides activists and intellectuals. The first such session on 18 August, planned for three hours, continued for six. A drop in the ocean of tears.

Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru initially refused to impose India’s will on Kashmir at the “point of the bayonet” or to “stay against the wishes of the people”. This changed in the late 1950s. The rhetoric has since upheld Kashmir as an integral part of India, its ‘atoot ang’ (jugular vein).

Pakistanis are too familiar with the trauma of oppression. But Pakistan’s outrage about Kashmir stems also from seeing Kashmir as rightfully theirs, as part of the ‘unfinished business of Partition’. And because Kashmiris are fellow-Muslims. The sectarian violence, censorship, political victimization and human rights abuses in Pakistan add an element of irony and hypocrisy to the outrage.

Trauma. Being treated as a bone in a dog fight. Kashmir is not merely a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, but a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, who must be consulted on any decisions about their future, as the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, has been saying for the past two decades. 

All Kashmiris

The people of Jammu and Kashmir means all the people, not just the Muslims of Kashmir Valley. 

The Pakistan view rarely recognizes that Kashmiris are not a homogenous entity. Besides the Muslim-majority Valley, there is the Buddhist-dominated Ladkh – where many are celebrating their new Union Territory status – as well as large populations of Sikhs, Hindus and Dogras. The essence of Kashmiryat (the spirit of Kashmir) has historically been their strong interfaith relationships, their secular nature, and the Sufi strain of Islam they adhere to.

Until the forced exodus of the Kashmiri Pundits from the Valley in 1990 following a series of targeted killings and attacks, “you couldn’t tell a Rafiq from a Ram”, says New York-based poet Rafiq Kathwari.

The pain of the exiled Pundits is real, even if their losses are miniscule compared to the thousands of Muslim Kashmiris disappeared, imprisoned, tortured and killed. 

Acclaimed Gandhian theatre director M. K. Raina, tending to his sick mother in a Srinagar hospital vividly remembers the killings, militants roaming openly, the “Islamic” slogans blasting from mosque loudspeakers, and the panic this created. Many of his fellow Pundits left secretly, including close friends and relatives. After his mother passed away – her funeral hard to arrange given the situation – he too left Srinagar with his father and brother. Refusing to let his Kashmiri Pundit identity trump his humanity, he continues to go and work with young people of all faiths on theatre and art projects in Kashmir, helping them process their own trauma.  

Gandhian theatre director M. K. Raina refuses to let his Kashmiri Pundit identity overshadow his humanity.

Existential issue

Kashmir is an existential issue for Pakistan because all her rivers originate in Indian-administered Kashmir. India needs to appreciate this, but does not, as the late South African water expert and Harvard professor John Briscoe wrote in his seminal piece suggesting some ways out of the conflict. His ideas involve eschewing ego, which neither party seems capable of doing.

War-rhetoric between India and Pakistan again dominates the narrative, amplified immeasurably in the age of social media and made to look more important than if they were contained. The situation is creating a crisis not just for nuclear-armed India and Pakistan but for the world, as Boston University professor Adil Najam points out

Even US President Donald Trump is trying to get his two ‘good friends’ Imran Khan and Narender Modi to de-escalate even though he has simplified the issue into Hindu-Muslim. To view the situation solely through the lens of an India-Pakistan conflict or a Hindu-Muslim prism is to willfully ignore the Kashmiri people and their Kashmiryat.

The dominant narrative gives the impression there is no alternative but to use force and/or armed militancy. Violence is a slippery slope, a negative downward spiral from which it is hard to emerge. As human beings, we have the ability, intelligence and creativity to find alternatives. While we’re at it, let’s put the Kashmiri people front and centre, and consider what has helped and what has hurt them.

Armed militancy has not helped the Kashmiris. The invasion of Kashmir soon after Independence in 1947 by Pakistani tribesmen catalysed India’s intervention, invited by the panicked Maharaja of Kashmir. In 1999, after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, the Kargil ‘war-like situation’ pushed regional tensions to new heights from which perhaps we have never recovered.

“Kargil was a mistake”

In 2000, Barkha Dutt, accompanying the Women’s Peace Bus to Lahore after Kargil asked then dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf if he now admitted Kargil was a mistake. 

“Kargil was a mistake…” he repeated. Then, in the brief stunned silence that followed, he laughingly added, “I will never say that”. 

Musharraf tried later to resolve the Kashmir issue and may even have come close. However, the Musharraf-Vajpayee four-point formula died a premature death due to various factors.

Brandishing Pakistani flags at Kashmir solidarity demonstrations does not help the Kashmiris. Photo: Trafalgar Square, London, 15 August 2019 – a protest led by Kashmiri students with support from South Asia Solidarity Group and SOAS India Society.

Brandishing Pakistani flags at demonstrations in London, New York or Boston does not help the Kashmiris either. It only supports the narrative in India that Kashmiris are traitors and makes it easier to dismiss the Kashmiri struggle for rights as Pakistan-backed. And it takes away agency from the Kashmiris, as if they are not capable of speaking for themselves.

Pakistani involvement also repells Indians who oppose the BJP’s actions in Kashmir. One Indian Muslim woman in Boston who was planning to go to the Kashmir solidarity demonstration last Saturday changed her mind when she saw the word ‘occupation’ on the poster. “I am against what is happening in Kashmir, but I believe Kashmir is part of India”, she said. 

Pakistanis would do well to remember how they feel when Indians agitate against human rights abuses in Pakistan. 

But rights activists on both sides can join hands in solidarity, as many Pakistanis have done, joining Indians abroad in expressing solidarity with Kashmir and condemning the Indian government’s undemocratic actions. For example, endorsements to a statement signed by 150 Harvard students, faculty and alumni from around the world, or the letter initiated by a Nepali activist, endorsed by over 250 South Asian activists and academics

Neither India nor Pakistan have ever acknowledged or apologized for any wrongdoing. Those who blame the insurgency in Kashmir solely on external forces are turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses, brutalities and corruption in the region, and to the Kashmiris’ visible and growing discontent and alienation with India.

India’s beleaguered human rights activists are courageously fighting on, concerned citizens in India, members of Left parties, the National Alliance of People’s Movements, trade unions, students, women, civil society organizations, and others standing in solidarity with the Kashmiri people. They are demonstratingpublicly in every major Indian city and dozens of small towns. 

Solidarity

Members of the Kashmir Solidarity Team who visited J&K August 9-13, have given a scathing indictment of the situation. “We state that, as Indian citizens, we vehemently reject the Government of India’s treatment of Jammu and Kashmir and its people. We assert that any decision about the status or future of Jammu and Kashmir that is taken against the will of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, is immoral, as well as unconstitutional and illegal”.

The team found the whole of Jammu and Kashmir “a prison, under military control”. Their demands, clear and bold are:

* Immediately restore Articles 370 and 35A
* No decision about the status or future of J&K to be taken without the will of its people
* Restore communications with immediate effect.
* Lift the gags on the freedom of speech, expression and protest from J&K with immediate effect. “The people of J&K are anguished – and they must be allowed to express their protest through media, social media, public gatherings and other peaceful means”.
* Immediately lift the gags on journalists in J&K

The battle is also being fought on the legal front.As of 18 August, no less than nine petitions had been filed in Supreme Court of India challenging the cancellation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, its bifurcation, and the media clampdownin Kashmir. 

There is a tenth petition, filed by dozens of Kashmiri Pundits, Sikhs and Dogras, M. K. Raina tells me. There may be others. 

What is happening in Kashmir is part of a larger fight for democracy and human rights, against totalitarianism, authoritarianism and fascism, as underlined by the National Convention in Defence of Democratic Rights being convened 31 August-1 September 2019 in New Delhi. 

Organised by some 20 people’s groups, the convention will address the “undermining of the cherished constitutional freedoms of association, expression and speech” that threatens human rights activists and people’s movements in India.

I can think of other places where such conventions would be relevant too.

Personal Political is an occasional syndicated column (c) BeenaSarwar. 

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