“I am free today,” claimed Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir and a prominent ‘pro-India’ politician from the valley, addressing reporters outside his Gupkar residence in Srinagar on 13 March 2020. This was over seven months after he was placed under house arrest following the de-operationalisation of Article 370 by India on 5 August 2019. Abdullah, an octogenarian, was later formally arrested and booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), often referred to as a ‘lawless law’, which allows for up to two years of detention without trial.
“This freedom will be complete when all leaders – Omar, Mehbooba ji and all the other leaders… are released,” Abdullah said following the revocation of his PSA order. Such a conception of ‘freedom’ is characteristic of the politics of erasure of Kashmir by the Indian state – of its history, its blood and its memory. The reactions to the release of the “top Kashmir leader” and “veteran politician” varied from noting the significance of this step, to emphasising its importance for restarting the process of electoral politics in Kashmir. Omar Abdullah has since also been released, and over social media many Indian journalists and activists have been interested in debating whether he should keep his beard, and if he should write a book. Omar, on his part, is happy to share workout tips. As we write this, the last chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, has been shifted to her home, where she will remain under detention. There are also reports that other pro-India leaders (those who administer India’s administrative control in Kashmir) will be released from hotel and hostel detentions in the coming days.
Kashmir has witnessed the same story being rehashed with different jargon, as pro-India politics now defines themselves either as ‘pro-resolutionists’ demanding statehood, or pro-India politicians speaking the language of development and change.
However, the fact that hundreds of youth, and almost the entire ‘pro-freedom’ leadership in Kashmir (those who reject the legitimacy of Indian rule over Kashmir), have been behind bars for seven months and more has been conveniently pushed under the carpet again. As is the very legitimacy of pro-India politics in Kashmir.
New binaries, old script
A day before the decision on Article 370, sensing the prevailing tensions, representatives of various parties, including National Conference (NC), Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Jammu & Kashmir Peoples’ Conference (JKPC), and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), issued the Gupkar Declaration. They unanimously resolved to defend J & K’s special status and to safeguard the ‘legitimate interests’ of the people of the state. Year after year, NC, PDP and JKPC have promoted their politics on the notions of autonomy, self-rule and achievable nationhood respectively; the newly launched JKPM was also speaking of peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. With these ‘principles’ under threat, the creation of this united front was also a move to keep the space open for such political positioning.
With the Indian state’s history of installing and removing governments at will to continue its illegal hold over Kashmir, it was not hard to guess that a new political arrangement would soon be created. Therefore, the Declaration was also a preemptive attempt at creating a new model for future politics. The ‘pro-resolution pro India’ politicians who claim to be fighting to uphold Kashmir’s special status must now pit themselves against pro India politicians who take no open position on the issue. Instead, the latter speaks about corruption and the lack of development in the state due to the flawed politics of the previous regimes.
With former PDP politician Altaf Bukhari floating his new party, Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, a new political dynamic seems to have been set in motion. In an interview following his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bukhari spoke of the years of misrule, lies and dynastic politics by the regional parties in Kashmir; the infamous 1987 election rigging; and the need for “sach ki siyasat” (politics of truth). He went on to say that this was not a time when “Pakistani namak aur sabz rumaal” (Rock salt and green handkerchief) could be used to woo people. This was a reference to “soft separatism” – an allegation used to challenge the loyalty of these parties when it suits the state’s interests, as well as highlighting the symbolism used by these parties to gain credibility in Kashmir. Leaders of the National Conference party used to display rock salt (Pakistani salt) and a green handkerchief to show how they respected and acknowledged people’s love for Pakistan.
The narratives of ‘mainstream’ and ‘separatist’ are picked, uncritically, and reused such that they are normalised in popular discourse, duly propagated by the media.
From the NC-PDP binary, Kashmir has witnessed the same story being rehashed with different jargon, as pro-India politics now defines themselves either as ‘pro-resolutionists’ demanding statehood, or pro-India politicians speaking the language of development and change. As Kashmiri anthropologist Mohamad Junaid notes, “The simultaneous Delhi meeting with the hastily cobbled-together ‘apni party’ and Abdullah’s release is designed for them to compete with each other over who will be more willing to compromise and collaborate.”
Owing to the recently modified domicile law for Jammu and Kashmir, these parties have found an opening for gaining relevance in the current political scenario. This law allows for people who have resided in Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years or have been ‘central government’ employees stationed there for 10 years to be eligible for domicile status. Instead of limiting the right to hold land and apply for jobs to permanent residents or state subjects, as was the case earlier, the domicile law will make all those with domicile status eligible for the same. As expected, the pro-India parties expressed anger and betrayal over it, with the outrage reduced to jobs and reservations, and ‘special status’ forgotten. That is precisely the kind of politics they have been practicing, within the limits set by the Indian state. With Altaf Bukhari having met Amit Shah prior to the legal amendment, the party can present themselves as harbingers of change and development for Kashmiris. That the conditions for domicile, as they now stand, allow for non-state subjects to be eligible for domicile status, reflecting a policy of settler colonialism (as the August 5 decision showed), will not be mentioned in the statements and demands of these parties. This even as they talk of the amendments being ‘cosmetic’ and remain evasive on the issue of the restoration of statehood.
This has been a decades-old tactic pursued by India, bringing in a small percentage of ‘collaborators’, as they are best known locally, pitted against each other in order to downplay the aspirations of the majority, and project to the world that democracy is functioning in Kashmir. Kashmiris articulating their aspirations is a direct challenge to the status quo that the Indian state seeks to maintain in the region through a military occupation aided by local collaborators. Thus, violence is used to brutalise the collective that dares to aspire and the individual who refuses to back down. The cycle continues.
In creating and re-creating flawed binaries, what is often left out from the political discourse around Kashmir in the Indian mind is pro-resistance politics, centred on Kashmiris’ right to a life of dignity and freedom.
Bukhari had nothing new to tell Kashmiris about what his party represented. He remarked that these parties won parliamentary seats by selling the narrative of protecting the special status and yet could not safeguard it. He said his party will not mislead people and will work to achieve what is possible:development, employment, tourism,agriculture and horticulture.“All laws that are applicable to the rest of the country must be made applicable to us as well,” he added. And, of course, that one important line to seek credibility: the detention of, and cases against, Kashmir’s youth. Interestingly, Bukhari, one of the richest politicians in Kashmir, is known to have been instrumental in the success of the 1984 state-led coup to replace Farooq Abdullah as the chief minister – part of a now familiar strategy of silencing pro-Indian Kashmiri politicians who are seen as not ‘toeing the line’.
Taking into account Kashmir’s history, subsequent attempts by the Indian state to strengthen its control over the territory, the cultivation of collaborators, or making them irrelevant at will, there is only a single frame within which all these parties can be placed: status quoists. Their politics have centred around grabbing power, remaining in power and continuing the writ of the Indian state in Kashmir, articulating their demands within the framework of India’s Constitution and bringing up issues of special status, autonomy, and self-rule from a vernacular standpoint. They have affirmed unquestioning acceptance to the highly contested accession to India, so there is no question on whether or not they are pro-resolutionists.
Commentators have already started talking of JKAP as having ‘pro-Centre’ inclinations (as if the rest of the pro-India parties have a different inclination) attempting a binary where none exists. If there is pro-resolution politics in Kashmir, it is one that centres its demands and aspirations on the United Nations resolutions for the right to self determination of Kashmiris. In constantly engaging in the cultivation, dethroning and rebranding of the collaborator class, India is only continuing its systematic policy of trying to erase pro-resolution Kashmiri aspirations.
The cry for azadi
Narratives seen in newspaper headlines, commentaries and analysis in India have often referred to pro-India parties as the ‘mainstream’ as pitted against the ‘separatism’ of the pro-freedom camp. The former are promoted as the legitimate representatives of Kashmir, even if voices from the ground scream otherwise, while the latter are depicted as being funded by and carrying out the nefarious designs of the neighbouring enemy. Popular protests are rejected as propaganda; stone pelting is reported as something done by a miniscule percent of misguided youth. The support for azadi (freedom) and Kashmiris’ lack of inclination towards India is said to emerge from alienation and disillusionment fuelled by the corrupt regimes. The narratives of ‘mainstream’ and ‘separatist’ are picked, uncritically, and reused such that they are normalised in popular discourse, duly propagated by the media.
For a people who have witnessed killings, torture, enforced disappearances, mass graves, rapes, mass blinding and house demolitions, 5 August was another story to commit to collective memory; not a beginning, not a diversion, not a rupture.
In creating and re-creating flawed binaries, what is often left out from the political discourse around Kashmir in the Indian mind is pro-resistance politics, centred on Kashmiris’ right to a life of dignity and freedom. That the state machinery deems it necessary to put an entire people under siege, to jail all the resistance leaders, to book hundreds of youth under lawless laws, just to ensure the erasure of the cry of azadi from Kashmir, demonstrates its failure to legitimise its presence in Kashmir.
5 August, 2019, however, was not a breakdown of the old system to allow a new one. The complete siege, with its violence, impunity, information blackout and media gags, with deciding the course of Kashmir’s ‘development’ and ‘empowerment’ miles away in New Delhi, is only a continuation of the decades of illegitimate exercise of power. The communications shutdown was an added means to torture the collective Kashmiri psyche, to deprive it of the right of access to telephones, mobile services and the internet.
For a people who have witnessed killings, torture, enforced disappearances, mass graves, rapes, mass blinding and house demolitions, 5 August was another story to commit to collective memory; not a beginning, not a diversion, not a rupture. Akin to settler colonialism, it was yet another means to suppress the cry of freedom from Kashmir.
How successful could such strategies be? Given the varied tactics of the Indian state, overt and covert, outrightly militaristic or benign narratives of winning hearts and minds, Kashmiris have also evolved multiple ways of resistance. From homes to streets to more institutionalised forms of resistance, these spaces produce counter-hegemonic narratives to challenge the might of a militaristic state.
Right from 1947 when Indian troops landed in Kashmir to the present day, political repression by the Indian state has come in different forms. From sending pro-Pakistan activists into exile or behind bars to using Peace Brigades to instil fear to brutal counter insurgency to curb the armed struggle, this violence has continued unabated. As a result, the movement for self-determination has also witnessed varied shifts over the years to subvert this subjugation by a militaristic state.
However, with the uprisings between 2008 and 2010, and in 2016 when widespread protests were quelled with violence, what was clearly visible was the public support of, and involvement in, the resistance movement. The Indian state could not hide the resistance anthem of azadi echoing from every corner of the valley as thousands took to streets demanding freedom. Kashmiris were again reclaiming the public sphere from the jackboots of Indian soldiers. In recent years, fierce stone pelting as people battle bullets and pellet guns and thronging to encounter sites to save trapped militants even if it means being in the direct line of fire, tell a story of unflinching resistance.
The choreographed meetings and photographs of Dal Lake still can’t hide the near total absence of Kashmiris from the landscape as well as the narrative.
The state has also strengthened its surveillance and mechanisms of control. The varied structures of resistance politics in Kashmir are in a state of abeyance because of the onslaught by the Indian state over the last couple of years. This is not to say that the state allowed it any space prior to that, even though the pro-freedom groups resorted to subverting the restrictions imposed and did not rely on the spaces the state could ‘afford’ it. However, any semblance of a structure that was previously seen seems to have undergone an almost-total elimination now.
This brutal response came into action with Operation All Out in 2017. The operation was apparently aimed at wiping out all the militant groups in Kashmir but in practice the Indian state blurred the lines between civilians, protesters and armed militants, criminalising all in the categories of enemies, anti-nationals and ‘terrorist’ supporters.
In the second week of February 2020, when Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s health deteriorated, anticipating a military clampdown, a funeral route plan was issued by the Pakistan chapter of the Hurriyat Conference that he headed till recently. The anticipatory route plan was not surprising. Over the years, the politics of Hurriyat in Kashmir has relied on such techniques and strategies, be it hartaal calendars, chalo calls, the commemoration of massacres, or the observation of black days in Kashmir.
What was surprising, however, was the statement coming from the Pakistan-based office of the Hurriyat. Even this was responded to by the suspension of mobile phone services that had been restored only recently. The story behind this not only sheds light on the current scenario of the pro-resistance political structure but also highlights the dark reality of how the Indian State has responded to any aspirations to challenge the status quo in Kashmir. The severity of control is such that Hurriyat is not even able to issue a statement or in case it does, local newspapers are forced to censor what they publish about them. The media is pressured into revealing their sources. Journalists are detained when they report on JKLF statements to send a clear message not to publish statements from pro-freedom groups. People are put behind bars for their social media posts. Collective punishment has been a strategy for decades, one that a lot of people have taken note of only post August 2019.
It is the culture of resistance that is mainstream in Kashmir.
The state has, in equal measure, sought to curb both the militant movement and the popular, public structure supporting it. The preparation for the current phase goes back to 2017 when India’s National Investigation Agency arrested seven Hurriyat leaders and a businessman, with other businessmen being summoned for questioning on allegations of ‘terror funding and subversive activities.’ The NIA raided many locations in Kashmir, sealing many properties and assets and freezing many accounts. This was supplanted by hundreds of revolving door detentions of youth, many who were then booked under the Public Safety Act. Women leaders like Asiya Andrabi and her associates were picked up and slapped with different cases and her organisation, Dukhtaran-e-Millat, was subsequently outlawed and banned. In the run-up to the 5 August reading down of Article 370, one of the largest socio-political organisations in Kashmir, Jamaat-e-Islami, was banned. Many Jamaat members were arrested and properties seized. This was followed by the banning of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), and the arrest of Yasin Malik and others.
This period also witnessed the world’s longest internet shutdown, preceded by thousands being put behind bars, including the pro-India politicians whose detention was however restricted to house, hostel and hotel detentions. While their detention attracted much media attention, the arrests of thousands of pro-freedom activists and youth across Kashmir, and claims of custodial torture, were largely erased. Jails in Kashmir ran out of capacity, and hundreds were shifted to prisons outside Kashmir – from a cancer patient to a lawyer suffering from heart ailments, to youth whose families had no idea where exactly they were taken.
What is instead prioritised by the state and glorified by the media is what Kashmiri author Mirza Waheed refers to as “rent-a-diplomat tours”, where the government takes delegations of foreign diplomats on tours to Kashmir to showcase how normal it is. The choreographed meetings and photographs of Dal Lake still can’t hide the near total absence of Kashmiris from the landscape as well as the narrative. That such tours need to be arranged in the first place speaks volumes of how popular support for the Indian state’s presence in Kashmir really is.
It is the culture of resistance that is mainstream in Kashmir. Despite the coercion that resistance outfits have faced over decades, and in recent months, people across the valley responded uniformly with a spontaneous civilian curfew for months, without anyone issuing protest calendars. Markets and shops changed their timings in protest despite attempts by the armed forces to forcefully keep them open. The shops would open for a few hours in the early morning and late evenings, to counter the normalcy narrative as well as to challenge state hegemony in defining people’s way of life. There were no massive protest rallies this time but the silence was loud enough. There were still protests in places like Anchar Soura in Srinagar which attracted a lot of attention since residents had dug trenches and erected barricades to prevent Indian forces from entering the locality.
So, while Farooq Abdullah claims he is free now, for Kashmiris, this only means one thing – freed by the Indian state, to further pursue its writ in Kashmir. That of a separation from the aspirations of the people. Unless, of course, his prayer for ‘true freedom’ is truly answered.