Anatomy of the Kashmir crisis

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An interview with Sanjay Kak

September 8, 2008

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Kashmir as Indian security forces impose a round-the-clock curfew across the valley.

More than 30 unarmed Kashmiri protesters have been killed by Indian forces in the last few weeks in an effort to stamp out mass demonstrations that have shaken the disputed region, which is partitioned by India and Pakistan, and where India has maintained a military occupation in the section it controls.

The demonstrations were sparked by the announcement of the transfer of 100 acres of public land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, but have since snowballed into a province-wide revolt. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have taken to the streets demanding “azadi” (freedom) and their right to self-determination. In response, Indian military and paramilitary forces imposed a curfew and media blackout, and have fired on large, unarmed rallies, killing dozens and injuring hundreds.

Sanjay Kak is a filmmaker whose recently completed documentary, Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom) was made over a period of several years in Kashmir. I interviewed him on August 16, days after the mass protests began .

WHAT IS the significance of the Kashmiri uprising?

I THINK part of the problem is that in India, our attention always comes in at the tail end of the story. Here it comes in when there is an explosion of resentment against the granting of lands to the Amarnath Shrine Board, and then we all act mystified: “How can there be so much resentment against something so small?”

That’s because no one paid attention to what’s been happening in the year prior, or the five years prior or, indeed, 18 years prior to this event. So there’s a kind of structured amnesia about what events bring us to this place.

And this is not an accident. Particularly when it comes to Kashmir, in India, it is a structured amnesia.

You’ve got more than 500,000 Indian soldiers in Kashmir. They are sitting in literally every street and village and by-lane and crossing and water-point, and then you begin thinking that peace has returned to Kashmir. But it hasn’t. You’re just sitting on top of people.

Then the media dutifully starts wheeling out the spin, and you’re told, “Oh, tourists are returning to Kashmir, all is well, the militancy is gone.” And everybody begins to believe it.

I once had a conversation with an army officer, and he said, “Things are very peaceful here now. As a Kashmiri, you should come and visit, as often as you like.” “Peaceful” is not a word I would use to describe what was around us, even where were sitting, in the officers’ mess, with a breathtaking view of the grand Wular Lake.

“But colonel, there’s a soldier with an AK-47 every 30 feet,” I said.

“No, no,” he said, “we’ve got the situation under control.”

“So when will you leave?” I said, “You know, troop reductions–cut by, say, 20 percent?”

“No, no, that’s out of the question,” he replied. “Everybody would be out on the streets, there would be an uprising.”

On the ground, that colonel commanding a military unit in Kashmir knows the score. The Indian security apparatus has taken 18 years to build a stranglehold on Kashmir, to control every aspect of daily life over there. That is the kind of “peace” that they hammered onto Kashmir.

In the wake of the armed uprising of the 1990s, which was represented as “terrorism” and an “Islamic jihad,” they managed to do what they had to do, because Indians–and the rest of the world–were a little confused about what was happening. But what are they going to do now, when there are no weapons in this uprising? There are just hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets. What are they going to do? Are they going to just start firing? And how many will they kill?

This is the real significance of what we are seeing. Until now, even ostensibly sympathetic Indians would throw the question at the Kashmiris: “Why did you take to the gun? You took to the gun, and you alienated the Indian people.”

This time around, they haven’t brought the gun out. They are coming out in vast numbers and demonstrating for what they believe in. They are coming out in the ways that Indian democracy ought to believe in. Only this time, the same liberal intelligentsia who wanted them to give up the gun are now calling these vast assemblies “violent mobs” of “extremists”!

In a sense, the Indian state is hoisted on its own petard, flummoxed. [Indian rulers] do not know how to react to this situation.

THE SPIN that the state and the media have been putting forward, how far back does that go? When did they begin to present Kashmir as a “pacified” province?

IT IS difficult to give a precise date, but I would say that by around 2000, the army, in a sense, had a handle on the situation, and that’s when they came up with “Operation Sadbhavna” (Operation Goodwill).

Having caught the valley in a vice-like grip, the army was now going to be benevolent: they would come with sewing machines, and hold sewing classes for girls in the village; they would build computer centers, or a bridge, or a water pump somewhere.

It was a strategic thing, a good amount of money was being put out, and it was a bit mystifying. Why was the army doing what the civil administration ought to be doing? Obviously for a whitewash in the media, to paper over what was going on.

Now, for such a hot zone of conflict, Kashmir is a very interesting place. It’s very strange that almost none of the mainstream channels or newspapers have non-Kashmiri reporters. Ordinarily one would say, how nice, they only have Kashmiris reporting on Kashmir! But look at the flip side, and think of how easy it is to put pressure on someone who’s on the ground, and has family, relatives, children.

If you or I, out of Delhi (or New Jersey), were posted in Srinagar [the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir], chances are that we would report what we see. We would probably survive only for a year, or two or three, and then get out of there.

But if you are a local journalist, you can’t get out, can you? I know several very fine journalists in Kashmir, but eventually their output is totally choked. You can put tremendous pressure on people on the ground without having to kill them or beat them up too often (although even that does happen once in a while). They are always under scrutiny and pressure. The gatekeepers up in the news organizations are the people who finally control the news flows? This, of course, is not unique to Kashmir; it is true anywhere in the world.

This tight control of the media was well in place by about 2003, and that’s when you begin to see this “opening up” being touted. S.K. Sinha, a retired army general, was appointed governor of Jammu and Kashmir in 2002. He threw himself passionately into the business of promoting the Amarnath yatra [an annual pilgrimage of Shaivite Hindus].

By 2003, there was a kind of self-assurance on the part of the security establishment. They thought they had it licked militarily. They had a grip on the armed militancy, which was the only thing they could see and worry about.

But if you go to Kashmir, and travel outside of Srinagar, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out the resentment and the anger. The impact of having 500,000 soldiers is incredible. Whether or not people are passionate about azadi (freedom) and what form their notion of azadi takes, what they are extremely passionate about is getting the Indian army out of there.

What we are seeing today is the fact that, spontaneously and simultaneously, people are coming out in the hundreds of thousands from all across the valley. They are responding to the everyday humiliation, the everyday beatings and checkings, and just the continuous presence of security forces in their backyard. Just having [those forces] there constitutes such an enormous pressure on the people. They just exploded.

TALK ABOUT the Amarnath yatra and the protests in Hindu-dominated Jammu for the acquisition of land in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

I SEE these protests as the last act of a fairly well-planned strategy of provocation.

In 2003, I traveled through Kashmir. Governor Sinha had already taken over as chairman of the Amarnath Shrine Board. I was shocked at the militarization of the yatra (pilgrimage), and the fact that all along the way there were banners of the Indian paramilitary forces, the [Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)] and [Border Security Force (BSF)], welcoming the pilgrims.

When I did the yatra myself in 1989, there were no more than 20,000 pilgrims, but through design, and an elaborately constructed political economy, this pilgrimage has been transformed into something that drew 500,000 people this year! Governor Sinha extended the period of the pilgrimage too, from its traditional 15 days, to a month, and now, three months. He had even talked of making it an all-year pilgrimage.

To me, this is not just some hair-brained idea of an ex-army general. The area that the pilgrimage goes through is an area where there are currently no military cantonments. The pilgrimage already gives them a natural excuse to cordon off these areas for months at a time. The governor and the Amarnath Shrine Board, and their enthusiasm, have helped gradually make this yatra central to Hindu sentiment. People are going in busloads to Amarnath, from places where people had never heard of Amarnath.

New gods, new shrines, new pilgrimages emerge all the time in India, but not so rapidly, and not with the full collusion of the state. There are buses from Jammu, there’s security organized, free food for the pilgrims. In the years that the [Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP)] was in power, north India saw an explosion of tax-exempt trusts, whose sole job was to take people to Amarnath. They received large amounts of money from rich traders in north India. These trusts set up free kitchens along the route. So, if you wanted to do the pilgrimage, all you had to do was get to Jammu. Once you get there, there are subsidized buses and there’s free food.

The BJP thinks it has timed this very well. In the run-up to the next [general] elections, they don’t really have an emotive issue to galvanize the “Hindu” vote. Now they have created one: “It is our Amarnath. How can these Muslims stop us?”

The keepers of the shrine have actually been Kashmiris–and those credited with discovering it, Kashmiri Muslims, in fact. But there’s already some debate generated about whether the “discovery” ought to be credited to Muslims at all, and whether the shrine is 150 years old or 3,000 years old.

In India, everything has antiquity. Whether this cave existed 3,000 years ago or not, it had certainly fallen into disuse, and was discovered by a Muslim shepherd and his family 150 years ago, and they reported it. They became the custodians of the shrine, and a share of the offerings went to them. A Hindu mahant (priest) was responsible for the religious part of it. Of course, under Governor Sinha, even the mahant has been cut out of the Amarnath Shrine Board, and is one of its most trenchant critics.

Meanwhile, the yatra has become a travesty. If you’re rich, you don’t even have to walk up the route. You can stay at the lake-front Palace Hotel in Srinagar, and take a commercial helicopter–taking off from the governor’s estate–to the shrine and back.

Two years ago, a well-known Hindu preacher held a special camp for his rich disciples. For about a week, these people were being ferried by choppers to and from the shrine. Sixty or 70 helicopters taking off and landing barely 200 meters from the shrine. The ice formation that is at the heart of the pilgrimage, the Shiv Ling, melted before the walking pilgrims even got to the cave!

Meanwhile Kashmiri Muslims, separatists and others alike, have been going blue in the face saying that they have never obstructed the yatra, but that isn’t heard. For all of them, the aggressive pushing of the yatra by the governor was like driving a shaft into the heart of Kashmir. [Author and activist] Gautam Navlakha refers to it as an attempt to annex land. It seems like Palestine and the Israeli settlements.

You could come to that [comparison] just by looking at Kashmir, but believe me, it’s no coincidence. The Indian security establishment’s fascination with Israel is very strong. It has not just to do with military equipment, but with how [the Israelis] operate. The Indian army, which is one of the most experienced in the world in counter-insurgency and dealing with the suppression of civilian populations, is rivaled only by Israel. When India and Israel are locking arms in this loving embrace initiated by the earlier BJP government, you can be sure that all kinds of ideas are going back and forth. It’s not just conjecture anymore–it is bubbling through. You can see it.

In fact, one of the key proposals put forward by the [Hindu right-wing] Panun Kashmir (Our Kashmir) organization is for a homeland that is a fortified enclave. Their discussion lists are full of talk about Israel–they are fascinated by that model.

THE FACT that it has taken the form of mass protests–does this come from the sense that armed militancy hasn’t gone anywhere? How have the protests in Jammu influenced the mass character of this explosion?

LET’S BE clear. What you are seeing today isn’t really about 100 acres of land for the Amarnath yatra. That just happens to be the last straw. In Jammu, while they can go blue in their face saying that there is no political party involved, that this is totally spontaneous and so on, there is no doubt that it is totally and tightly guided by the Hindu right, in particular the BJP.

The first thing people did in Jammu was to come out onto the streets carrying Indian national flags. Immediately a polarity was established between the “anti-national” Kashmiris of the valley, and the nationalistic protesters of Jammu.

The second thing they did was to announce an economic blockade of the valley. The valley is connected only by a slender highway that goes through Jammu and across the Banihal Pass. Once the outrage about the blockade began to be reflected in the Indian media, suddenly there were all these planted stories, asking whether there ever was a blockade, or not. There was even a newspaper report claiming that this was a plot by the Pakistani [Inter-Services Intelligence].

In a few days, the army secured the highway within the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but the trucks were still not making it through to the markets of Delhi. They were being attacked in Punjab, which is where the BJP came in. Even Kashmiri Sikh bus drivers were beaten up. What is significant about this economic blockade is that the one tenuous link that connects the everyday life of a Kashmiri to India is trade.

Kashmiris are very good traders. Having sealed the borders on the Muzaffarabad side, having put a cap on the natural flows of trade and commerce in the Kashmir Valley, which was all on towards the Pakistani side of the border, blockading this highway was like choking its windpipe. That’s what has made this as powerful as it is.

“Muzaffarabad chalo” (“March to Muzaffarabad” in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir): the slogan is very significant. If we are being held for ransom every time, people seemed to be saying, with threats to choke off supplies to the valley, then we’ll find a way out of it. There was unanimity in the valley. There was no confusion. The confusion was only on the editorial pages of the Indian newspapers. The media held complicated debates about the origins of the Amarnath shrine, but every time they generate this sort of fluff, you know that they are afraid to talk nuts and bolts. So we get stuck in the details, and lose any sense of what people are really thinking and feeling.

It’s not a coincidence that, even as we speak, another march to Muzaffarabad has been announced. Of course, they don’t imagine that tomorrow the borders will open and the trucks will roll in to Muzaffarabad. But, if we are talking about a tangible element of azadi, along with getting the army out, this–trade across the border–is the other issue on which nobody will disagree.

In the absence of any one clear leader or political party, you have to watch and see: What’s the consensus? The consensus seems to be that people want to be on the streets, and that they are not asking for an armed struggle. That seems to be quite obvious. There have been no statements by the militant groups, whereas normally they comment on everything. They also have seen that the people are not asking for them. Even the so-called hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani said a few months ago that the armed militancy needs to pull back. No one’s saying that they haven’t served an important function, but a different phase has begun now.

If you are interested in democracy, then what has been happening in Kashmir is extremely interesting. A population that has been beaten and battered over the last 20 years has seen a consensus that seems to be coming through, throbbing through, the crowd. Three months ago, even the “separatist” leaders seemed quite resigned to the status quo. There was this debate about whether or not to participate in the coming elections. It was a lukewarm, tired time, a kind of defeated time. But now, suddenly, even those separatist leaders have been pulled back into the thick of it. It’s a different world now, a different atmosphere.

Last month, during the agitation around the Amarnath shrine, people took over the clock tower in Lal Chowk, in the center of Srinagar. This clock tower has become symbolic of the presence of Indian security forces, because the BSF and CRPF hoist the Indian flag there on Independence Day, and the Indian flag flies there.

That flag was brought down, in front of the CRPF forces. The flag of the Awami Action Committee, a green flag with a crescent and star (often mistaken by the media for a Pakistani flag) was hoisted in its place.

Yesterday, August 15, there was a complete hartal (strike). There was no one on the streets until 2 p.m. Then, at 2:30, thousands of people showed up in Lal Chowk. Once again, the CRPF had to move back. The Indian flag was brought down again.

This, to me, is a sign of great self-confidence. The security forces are all around. They say they’ve been given an order to “go soft.” But what else can they do in this situation? I can’t believe that, at a time when India is proclaiming itself a world power and a great democracy, that they are willing to kill 500 people a day. And that’s what they’ll have to do to regain control of the situation. Even the incredible ability of Indian state to ride out crises will be tested in the months to come.

Since August 11, we’ve seen mobilizations in the tens of thousands, and even higher.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a senior separatist leader and a former militant, was shot and killed at point-blank range during the protests a few days ago. Today was his chehrum, his memorial service. Close to 200,000 people showed up for that, and they’ve announced another march to Muzaffarabad. It would be foolish to imagine that this is a just a bit of pressure cooker letting off a little steam. That’s happened in the past, but this is different. Everybody has agreed that they have not seen such numbers since 1990-91. One reason for this, of course is because of the crackdown that ensued then. But now everything has changed.

THE BJP has launched a nationwide agitation, so has the [Vishwa Hindu Parishad]. They have the capacity to organize, and they are organized. Let’s talk about the response of the left. It seems so imbalanced.

HOW THE Hindu right is going to use this situation is quite apparent. The BJP isn’t publicly involved right now in Jammu, because they don’t want to put it on a boil right now. The elections are still months away, remember.

So let’s talk about the liberal left. I think this is a very important question. After a long period of amnesia about Kashmir, in the last three or four years, because of so-called “normalization” and because Kashmir seemed to begin to appear less “threatening,” with calls for azadi seeming to have dissipated, everyone began tut-tutting about human rights in Kashmir and today, Kashmir is flooded with Indian do-gooders, all talking about brotherhood and peace and love.

NON-GOVERNMENTAL organizations (NGOs)?

THERE ARE thousands of them. There are some 3,300 NGOs registered with the government in the valley now, and there is even an official ban on registering NGOs because there are too many of them. They don’t want to talk politics, because in this context that would mean a separatist agenda. But they can talk about human rights and occasionally critique this or that aspect of the army. So I am very curious to see how this bunch is going to respond now

IN THE early 1990s, Indian society found it easy to turn its back on Kashmir. It was possible for them to say this was an armed Islamist upsurge, and they couldn’t possibly have truck with it. How are they going to respond now? Already I can hear some of them saying, “Is it surprising that the CRPF opened fire when crowds are demolishing their bunkers?”

YES, CROWDS have come out and demolished CRPF bunkers, but what have they demolished them with? Not with bazookas, but with their bare hands. What else are they to do? And the panic! The panic the moment that they see a Pakistan flag. So long as you are a sobbing widow, or an orphan, or someone who’s been tortured, a charity case, Indian civil society has found a place for you.

Now there are people who have had a very good line on Kashmir, a consistent line, and one respects them. People like Gautam Navlakha, and civil rights groups in Andhra Pradesh. But broadly speaking, this is not the case–and the people who will be most found wanting will be the orthodox left. They will come out on a humanitarian basis, but when it comes to nationalism, when it comes to the flag, when it comes to the territorial integrity of India, there is no one more passionate than the left in India. It’s not a coincidence that the only people who have publicly and officially come out in favor of self-determination are those in the extreme left, the Maoists. As you move toward the fringe of the left, you find some openness, but not among the mainstream liberal lot.

WHAT SHOULD we be doing? Whom can we look to in the valley, and how should Indian progressives orient themselves?

IT’S NOT very easy. Kashmir does not make it easy for us to simply say, “Here are the nice guys and I’m with them.”

Personally, that’s been an important journey for me. At a time when the world is being consumed with Islamophobia, here is an uprising in a Muslim-majority province that is mobilized on the basis of a religious metaphor, and yet what they are asking for has a historical and moral validity.

So that’s what makes it so challenging. In that sense, it’s a very good opportunity for us to confront our own prejudices, and it makes for an interesting problem for progressives. Progressives are very anxious about messing around with anything that is religious, aren’t they?

I went to make a film in Kashmir five years ago. I am a Kashmiri pandit from Delhi, and yet I was met with nothing but decency in the course of making the film, because I went nihattha (unarmed), with a curiosity and an openness to hear what they are saying. Just by going in and listening and learning about it, people can do a lot.

But there’s more. If India is indeed on its way to becoming a superpower and the great democratic hope and so on, then it is time to call its bluff. There must be a political solution to this. The military solution, as we know, stands exposed. It hasn’t worked in 18 years. These last two months have shown that it simply did not change people’s minds.

The last two months have also exploded the canard that the common people are not involved in this. Well, right now, the militants’ guns are invisible, and the people are clearly in the forefront. If you are seriously committed to democracy, as I think we all should be, then Kashmir is becoming a more and more an interesting place–because it is posing new, urgent questions that need answers.

So far, the debate on Kashmir has been tightly controlled by Pakistan and India. What Kashmiris are actually thinking and saying hasn’t been heard, and that’s the challenge for all of us today. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity for all of us.

First published in Socialist Worker