Where is the Kashmiri intifada headed?

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The cry of “Azadi!” (“Freedom!”) from the streets of Srinagar and Pampore has now reverberated across the Kashmir valley and beyond. Images of banners calling for “Freedom,” held aloft by throngs of Kashmiri protesters, are sending out an unmistakable message across the airwaves, breaking through even the sophisticated barriers of the neoliberalized Indian media landscape.

The immediate trigger for the Kashmiri intifada was the Amarnath land transfer decision, but unfortunately for the Hindutva brigade that engineered the Jammu protests, the explosion that followed in the valley has radically redefined the terms of public debate. As Arundhati Roy points out in her most recent piece in Outlook,

To expect matters to end there was of course absurd. Hadn’t anybody noticed that in Kashmir even minor protests about civic issues like water and electricity inevitably turned into demands for azadi? To threaten them with mass starvation amounted to committing political suicide.

She writes:

Not surprisingly, the voice that the government of India has tried so hard to silence in Kashmir has massed into a deafening roar. Raised in a playground of army camps, checkpoints, and bunkers, with screams from torture chambers for a soundtrack, the young generation has suddenly discovered the power of mass protest, and above all, the dignity of being able to straighten their shoulders and speak for themselves, represent themselves. For them it is nothing short of an epiphany. Not even the fear of death seems to hold them back. And once that fear has gone, of what use is the largest or second largest army in the world?

Roy’s article is an excellent analysis that both celebrates the eruption of a mass revolt in the valley, and at the same time questions the politics of the leadership of the movement. I really think that Kashmir is at a major turning point. If so, then it will shake up the status quo, not just in Jammu and Kashmir, but in the subcontinent, and even wider.

Hundreds of thousands of people have marched in nonviolent protests almost every other day since August 11. This mass movement shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, the leadership of various “separatist” groups were caught napping. Not so much napping, as demoralized and resigned, and more or less reconciled to not seeing any major change in the near future.

It appears that Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the pro-Pakistani “separatist” leader, has emerged as the figurehead of the uprising, at least for now. Geelani and others like him are labeled “separatist” by the Indian state and media. However, while they call for Kashmir’s secession from the Indian state, they advocate its annexation by the Pakistani state. Meanwhile, those who advocated complete independence from both India and Pakistan, such as Yasin Malik‘s Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, have, at best, played a symbolic role in this uprising, and seem to have little traction, either with the masses on the ground, or with the international media.

Kashmir is at a crossroads. As Roy points out, the question of azadi (freedom) is very much on the table now, as is the question of what kind of azadi, and for whom? Who gets to decide? Will the Kashmiri intifada throw up new leaders with a new vision for change? Or will the the political brinksmanship of the old leaders lead the movement into the cul de sac of international diplomacy?

But there is a greater danger lurking. Here is Roy again:

Already the spectre of partition has reared its head. Hindutva networks are alive with rumours about Hindus in the Valley being attacked and forced to flee. In response, phone calls from Jammu reported that an armed Hindu militia was threatening a massacre and that Muslims from the two Hindu majority districts were preparing to flee. (Memories of the bloodbath that ensued and claimed the lives of more than a million people when India and Pakistan were partitioned have come flooding back. That nightmare will haunt all of us forever.)

There is absolutely no reason to believe that history will repeat itself. Not unless it is made to. Not unless people actively work to create such a cataclysm.

However, none of these fears of what the future holds can justify the continued military occupation of a nation and a people. No more than the old colonial argument about how the natives were not ready for freedom justified the colonial project.

Will the Indian government succeed in regaining control of the situation? How? The Indian military’s much-ballyhooed counter-insurgency tactics will have to work overtime in the face of what is clearly a mass, nonviolent revolt. And unless the masses of the valley can be somehow demobilized and sent back to their homes, the Indian state apparatus will find it difficult to quietly co-opt the leadership on the ground. The Kashmiri leaders are now in full view of their constituencies. What they say, and more importantly, what they do, will be watched very closely by the people.

Things are developing very rapidly, and it is impossible, of course, to predict where things might go from here. One thing we can say: A potentially world-historical event seems to be taking shape before our eyes. Its resolution, one way or another, will have lasting consequences, which will be felt far beyond the subcontinent.