On 28 May this year, the Economic Times, India’s leading business daily, carried a story titled, ‘Kashmir survey finds no majority for independence’. That is a curious headline. What is ‘no majority’? Either there is majority or there is not. Robert Bradnock conducted this survey for Chatham House, a leading British think-tank, Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control. The survey was conducted in the autumn of 2009, and the copy mentioned that 44 percent in Azad Kashmir and 43 percent in Jammu & Kashmir favoured an independent Kashmiri nation state.
Similar was the reporting of the survey in other Indian papers. They omitted some details, though. They did not mention that the survey was conducted not just in Kashmir but also the Jammu and Ladakh regions. They did not mention that even after factoring in Jammu and Ladakh, the total support for India was 21 percent and for Pakistan 15 percent. So if there was a three-way poll, the whole region’s average figure of those supporting independence (43 percent) would win hands down. Most of the rest (14 percent) favoured making the LoC a permanent border, which means sealing the status quo, something India and Pakistan came very close to doing in 2007. This 14 percent comes only from Poonch (94 percent), Rajouri (100 percent) and Jammu (39 percent).
Further, they did not mention that in the district-wise results the greatest support for independence was in the Indian side of the Valley – an astounding 95 percent in Baramulla, 75 percent in Srinagar, 82 percent in Badgam, and 74 percent in Anantnag. Pulwama and Kupwara were not surveyed. The highest support for India was 80 percent in Kargil and 67 percent in Leh, 73 percent in Udhampur and 63 percent in Kathua. In Jammu district, it was 47 percent – ‘no majority’. In Azad Kashmir, 50 percent wanted to be with Pakistan.
Now read the ET headline again. ‘Kashmir survey finds no majority for independence’. The story does not tell us what they found a majority supporting. If we have to be polite, we can say that such manipulative reporting of a detailed survey amounts to the Indian media being in denial of the fact that Kashmiris don’t want to be with India. If we have to call a spade a spade, we can say that this amounts to telling us a lie.
The Delhi media started taking note of the killing of protestors in Kashmir only since 11 June this year, when the police killed an eleven year old student with a tear gas shell ripping apart his skull. When the protests begot more killing and more protests, it became a front-page story only by 30 June, by when eight had been killed in 15 days. The deaths escalated even faster since then, and the Indian government seemed to be worried only about managing the Delhi media and not the situation on the ground. The Delhi media tried hard to give the impression that something mutual was happening between protestors and forces in the Valley, and not a repression. For a detailed account of the manipulations of the Delhi media, see Sanjay Kak’s report in this magazine last month.
It was by the second week of August that too many had died. The killings continued and continue – the toll since 11 June stands at 62 as I write – but the Indian media has shifted its tone a little, expressing sympathy for the Kashmiri. The Economic Times in particular has published numerous articles trying to give us the Kashmiri point of view, and amongst the channels, NewsX has been the most honest. But by and large the impression that this is not a repression prevails, the spin doctors and psy-ops departments of the Indian government are being allowed to use the media for disinformation campaigns. If you still want to hear the uncut version of daily events, you will have to go to Facebook and Twitter.
The media’s nationalist rhetoric has given way to a sense of contemplation no doubt, but there are still too many questions that the media is loath to ask. Most obviously, what would the stone-pelting youth in Kashmir do if the security personnel were to go away? At whom would they throw stones? To find the answer, one would have to know why stones are being thrown at the security personnel in the first place. At first glance, it would seem that this is done because they are soldiers of an occupation, representatives of the Indian state. But that only comes later. First, stones are thrown at the security personnel because these forces deny people the right to assembly and protest. A rare case of basic, honest reporting came from the BBC, which quoted a bullet-hit boy from his hospital bed: ‘I don’t know what I did to deserve this. I did not pelt stones. I knew that if we pelted stones we could be shot at. But I still got a bullet in my stomach. I don’t understand.’
What do Kashmiris want?
Typically, Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Hurriyat Conference calls for a strike, often days in advance. People come out to protest and demand separation from India. If the security forces do not stop them, as happened on occasion during 2008, the people simply converge at a central point of the town or city, larger numbers come out and protest. The slogans are predictable. ‘Hum kya chahtay? Azadi! (What do we want? Freedom!)’ ‘Cheen ke lenge! Azadi! Manmohan se lenge! Azadi! Sonia se lenge! Azadi!’ (We will snatch it! Freedom! We will take from Manmohan! Freedom! We will take from Sonia! Freedom!)
Militancy may be almost finished in Kashmir, but the crowds pay homage to the contribution of the armed guerrillas: ‘Aayi, aayi! Maut aayi! Bharat teri maut aayi! Lashkar aayi! Lashkar aayi!’ (It has come, it has come, India your death has come. Lashkar has come, Lashkar has come!) They also pay homage to those who have given their lives to the Kashmir struggle, placed anywhere between 70,000 and 135,000 – and counting. They sing, ‘As-Salam Shaheedon! As Salam! (Salutes to you, martyrs, salutes!) Those who die for the struggle are buried in martyrs’ graveyards.
In other words, in the eyes of most locals, when the Indian state tries to prevent public congregations, it is preventing a freedom struggle. Apparently, the embarrassment of killing nearly an average of one protestor a day since 11 June for simply protesting is, for the Indian state, lesser than the embarrassment of thousands of Kashmiris marching through the streets demanding freedom from India. Such is the desperation of the Indian state to make sure that public congregations do not happen that, during the recent curfew, government officials have convinced local banks to change the settings on their cash machines, such that a customer can withdraw only a thousand rupees a day, and don’t have money to stock supplies and are forced to call off protests and strikes.
If the mainstream Indian media was honest, it would have to show the many walls through Srinagar that bear the words ‘Go India go’, written in English for the world to read. But the New Delhi establishment wants to deny that this is a freedom struggle, that there are people who do not want to identify themselves as Indians. What is at stake here is the sovereignty of the Indian state and the idea of India itself.
In India, the mainstream media’s portrayal of the ‘unrest’ in Kashmir has used a hundred lies to hide one truth: that it is a freedom struggle not dissimilar from the one the peoples of the Subcontinent waged against the British. And so we hear various words such as alienation, anger, dialogue, economic package, human rights, justice, jihad, Lashkar-e-Toiba, militants, Pakistan, peace, stone-pelters, separatists, talks, unemployment. In the Indian media’s understanding of Kashmir, azadi takes a backseat. The media repeats its own faleshoods about Kashmir so often that it begins to believe it. This leads it to ask such questions as, ‘What do the people of Kashmir want?’ The Kashmir experts are brought out and they repeat the aforesaid words. This despite the fact that the Kashmiri is trying to tell all onlookers, even at the cost of so many lives, just one thing: ‘Hum kya chahtay? Azadi!’
News anchors trot out such ‘evidence’ as the Hurriyat’s protest calendars to show viewers that the protests are ‘organised’ rather than spontaneous – the subtext being that the army killings are somehow justified. Of course the protests are organised: this is a freedom struggle, and the people come out on the streets fully knowing they might not go home alive. The stone-pelter’s provocation is a moral one. In the young Kashmiri’s hand is not just a stone but his life, and he is willing to give it away as long as the Indian is willing to acknowledge that it is a just demand for freedom. Much of the Indian people and establishment wants to deal with the situation by denying exactly this – referring instead to ‘separatists’, as though this was a mad, isolated minority fuelling trouble by ‘misleading’ the youth into becoming miscreants.
The media misrepresentations that filter down to the average Indian’s drawing room affirm the mainstream beliefs about Kashmir. If at all the word azadi is uttered, it leads to programmed statements from the Indian: Kashmir is an integral part of India, an independent Kashmir would not be economically and strategically viable, the Kashmiri struggle is illegitimate because it is not secular, Kashmir belongs not just to its Muslims but also the Pandits who were driven out, giving Kashmir azadi would fuel more secessionist movements – and so on.
The Kashmiris have answers to all these questions, but the Indian is not looking for answers. The Indian does not want these reasons for denying Kashmir azadi challenged. No doubt these questions have some merit, and if the Kashmiri and the Indian were to be in dialogue both could undoubtedly move towards a more nuanced understanding of each others’ position. Yet the dirtiest word in Kashmir today is dialogue. The Kashmiri considers the events of 2010 to be an achievement – collectively they are referred to as the ‘Quit Kashmir Movement II’, complete with a Wikipedia entry. The movement this summer forced New Delhi, again, to offer dialogue, even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh woke up from his slumber to make such an offer only on 10 August – after 60 days and some 50 deaths. Yet the azadi leadership has refused the offer. When the prime minister was giving his televised speech in chaste Urdu, Kashmiris on Facebook and Twitter – some of whom are the same people who have taken to the streets this year – were commenting in real time about how all the offers made by the prime minister were time-buying tactics. Soon, the bloggers said, ‘peace’ would return to the valley and New Delhi would say all is well.
Too much attention has been focused on Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, and he has been blamed by many quarters for not being able to handle the situation. This, despite the fact that when the killings first began, Abdullah openly said the CRPF was ‘out of control’. He was stating a fact – the security situation in the state is only nominally under his control. Abdullah and his ministers were travelling within the city by helicopter to evade public ire, and when Delhi forced him to visit the hospital where bullet-hit youth were admitted, he was shouted at and pushed around by wailing mothers. In his interviews to the media what has come across is a man trying to express helplessness, almost confirming the charge on Srinagar’s streets of his being a ‘puppet’ despite having won an election that wasn’t rigged for a change. The opposition BJP and others demanded that he be sacked, a demand cleverly echoed on Srinagar’s streets. Cleverly, because then they can point at Delhi’s high-handedness in ruling directly without so much as even a puppet! No wonder then that Delhi has ruled out sacking him.
A key aide of Omar Abdullah met Syed Ali Shah Geelani, currently the tallest leader of the Kashmiri movement, and asked him to bring calm to the Valley and ask people to be ‘peaceful’. In exchange he was promised ‘political space’. A man Delhi had demonised all these years now had to come to India’s rescue! The promise of political space has since been reneged – he is again under detention.
When on 5 August Geelani made his Gandhian-sounding appeal to the youth to not be violent, the anger against him was palpable among Kashmiris online. They smelled something rotten, wondered how New Delhi managed to make Geelani do such a thing, and pledged that the movement could not be over so suddenly. Not yet – it seemed as though the stone-pelting youth thought, however unrealistically, that with every passing day of protests, killings and curfew, azadi was coming closer. In 2008 a protestor on the street told me that if their leadership fails them they would bring a new one – Geelani had to issue a ‘clarification’ the next day.
As I write it is mid-August, and the media is reporting ‘tension’ again in Kashmir. Two protestors in the border town of Kupwara have been shot dead, Kashmiris demanding azadi in Jammu have been arrested, and curfew is being announced again. This will continue for at least another month, until the frigid Kashmiri winter sets in. Yet next summer, 2011, will see more of this, without doubt. For with every additional life lost, the Kashmiri screams again that the lives of the martyrs cannot go waste. India (or, for that matter, Pakistan) can offer the Kashmiri anything but azadi. The Kashmiri is laying down young lives before guns to tell anyone watching that he will accept nothing but azadi. With such a logjam, what is the way out?
Many sensible Indians have been arguing that the way out is demilitarisation. New Delhi’s advice, given freely and with some arrogance, to Colombo after it killed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and finished off the Tamil Tigers was that the war was not over, that there was a need for a political reconciliation. But New Delhi has not done the same in Kashmir. Under pressure from the security hawks, Prime Minister Singh has not had the courage to trust the Kashmiri and demilitarise and allow the space for reconciliation. Instead, the Indian state’s actions in Kashmir have served to send the message to Kashmiris that they have lost the war and that India has won. New Delhi has been rubbing salt in the wounds by insisting that ‘normalcy’ has returned, that the state is in a ‘post-conflict situation’. The Kashmiri uprising for three consecutive summers now is the Kashmiri’s way of telling us that it is not over.
Between 2004 and 2007, Delhi’s secret negotiations with the Musharraf government, and American pressure on Pakistan, made the Pakistani establishment turn off the militancy tap in Indian Kashmir. India started crying victory, describing it as a ‘post-conflict situation’. India said there was ‘peace’ and ‘normalcy’ and tourists were back. This was the time to trust the Kashmiri and start demilitarising. Not doing so amounted to rubbing it in, as if to tell the people they had been defeated.
Had India trusted the Kashmiri and started demilitarising in 2007, perhaps this would not have escalated so. As noted earlier, at whom would the Kashmiri throw stones? The opportunity is not completely lost, perhaps. Demilitarisation would perhaps bring about a debate in Kashmiri society about azadi, and New Delhi could bolster voices of reconciliation by taking four more steps more: removing draconian laws, releasing political prisoners, bringing a closure for families who are still looking for their sons, and facilitating a return for Pandits who want to do so. In fact, New Delhi has not taken a single step – in fact, it is going to the other extreme by using brute force, almost suggesting that it prefers to deal with militants than the politicians and the people they represent who shout azadi on the streets.
Many Kashmiris will not like this suggestion. They will say they want nothing but azadi; they will say that they do not identify themselves as Indians and cannot be forced to do so, with or without the Indian Army on their rooftops. They will say that too much water has flowed down the Jhelum, carrying their blood in it, for them to simply start waving the Indian flag. The Kashmiri says he is willing to struggle this way for generations to be free from India. In other words, Kashmir will continue to burn for a long, long time to come.
But one suggestion, first for the Kashmiri: engage directly with the Indian. The Indian state does not have the courage to move forward in any direction that the Kashmiri would like, because Indian public opinion would not back it. Yet Indian public opinion will not change because the Indian media will continue to lie about Kashmir. The only option left for the Kashmiri is to talk directly to the people of India. Some of that is already happening through conferences, seminars and online forums. But there needs to be much more. How will the Indian know the Kashmiri’s story unless you tell them? The story the Kashmiri has to tell us will, to begin with, only be about azadi. But when we ask the difficult questions – about Jammu and Ladakh, about minorities and Pakistan, about Article 370 and other solutions such as an open LoC – newer positions and ideas could emerge on both sides.
There may be no solution to masla-e-Kashmir in the near future, but the first step to solve a problem is to acknowledge that there is indeed a problem. The Indian often wonders why the Kashmiri wants azadi, why the Kashmiri cannot be happy with free and fair local elections, why the Kashmiri cannot be happily Indian like the Tamil or the Bengali. The uprising in Kashmir has been a great moral victory for the Kashmiri, because they have shown who the oppressor is, changing the narrative from that of the Pakistan-backed ‘terrorist’ killing Indians to that of India killing Kashmiris just because they do not want to call themselves Indians.
Step two, thereafter, could be a dialogue between the Kashmiri and the Indian, which brings about a softening of Indian public opinion on Kashmir and lets the Indian state make bold, meaningful moves.
~ Shivam Vij is a journalist based in Delhi.