It was a breezy, clear day with little traffic on the highway out of Srinagar when the driver of my Tata Sumo taxi veered to the edge of the road and stopped. “Army convoy,” he said, suddenly tense, pointing to a line of trucks hogging the centre of the road. A soldier in the lead vehicle popped out of the roof, waving a red flag. Another, opposite the driver, leaned out of the truck and waved a long lathi. “We must give way.”
As an Indian and the son of a police officer, I was brought up with an agreeable view of men and women in uniform, even living a year in a paramilitary camp. As an Indian with a somewhat idealistic—if naive—notion of living in a democracy where no one had special privileges, the Kashmiri driver’s fear was irksome. I certainly knew things were different in Kashmir, but I could not accept the loss of my democratic privilege. “Keep driving,” I insisted. “No one can force us off the road like this.” He did not respond. The convoy was upon us. The soldier with the lathi leaned further out and violently thwacked our roof. I was startled, the driver flinched. “You see,” he said, and pulled off the road entirely.
I felt humiliated and angry. Could the army be this arrogant elsewhere in India? My little footnote was nothing, of course, compared to the humiliation and violence ordinary Kashmiris — terrorists or stone-throwers aside — experienced. I remember a colleague’s husband, bureau chief of a national television channel, describing how two CRPF troopers stopped his car at a checkpoint near the Dal Lake and said “chal murga banja”, hold both ears, squat and hop. Like me, he was used to certain privilege and was enraged. Then, he realised that the road was deserted–and that he was Kashmiri. “Anything could have happened, and no one would have known,” he said. He became a murga. The incidents I narrate unfolded during the summer of 2010, the year 112 mostly young Kashmiris were shot dead during clashes with security forces.
As the summer of 2016 kicks in, the hitherto calm town of Handwara in north Kashmir has erupted into a familiar cascade of riot, death, riot, death. There is calm now with four army bunkers removed, which means they weren’t needed. In one of the world’s most militarised lands — first-time visitors are always startled by soldiers and weapons everywhere —alienation continues to grow, which is a bit of a non sequitur, considering that the resentment is decades old. Denying Kashmiris rights due to all Indians is now standard practice. Imagine the outrage if you were asked for get a licence to run a WhatsApp group — as the government proposed this week, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Kashmir’s youth “to dream to do something”. Whatever the government in Delhi, the hand extended to Kashmir has usually been clad in an iron glove.
That is why I found it ironic when the Congress’ P. Chidambaram wrote last week in the Indian Express that as home minister he believed a “militaristic approach” would only “exacerbate the [Kashmir] conflict”. During his tenure Kashmiris were increasingly denied the right of democratic protest, and draconian laws were ruthlessly enforced. After the torrid summer of 2010, when I met Chidambaram and explained how everyday humiliation was alienating more people, he dismissed these as “stray cases”.
I noted then that India faced an angrier generation quietly taking over the Kashmiri street and mind from older separatists. To be sure, the behaviour of security forces wasn’t the only reason: Many stone-throwers then admitted to being paid, meaning the pot was frequently stirred; and Wahabbi Islam was displacing Kashmir’s gentler sufism. In 2016, the ill-treatment of Kashmiris outside the Valley and the rise of the Hindu right further hardens the uncompromising nature of young people. As one recently said on his Facebook page, sympathetic Indians believe they have no problem with the chant: “Hum kya chahate? Azaadi!” They forget — or ignore — the Kashmiri said, that we also say: “Azaadi ka matlab kya? La ilaha illall’ah”, implying, freedom for Allah’s — and Islam’s — glory.
Despite a relatively calm 2015, the new generation is so widely inimical to India that engineers and post-graduates have taken to the gun, and disconcerted soldiers have seen — for the first time — locals swarming into the line of fire to help millitants escape. Swelling attendance at burial marches of millitants indicates the extent of separation.
Five have died, so far, in this year’s rioting, sparked by what now appears to be a dubious accusation of a soldier molesting a school girl, although — as is so often the case in Kashmir — agendas often obscure facts. India’s shaky credibility in the Valley was instantly dented when officials released an illegal video — made at a police station — that revealed the young woman’s identity. Kashmiris are only too aware that security forces often fudge facts, extra-judicial killings have gone largely unpunished and that soldiers legally get away with rape and murder. The girl says no soldier touched her, but it won’t make a whit of difference to the young men who relentlessly attack security forces any chance they get.
An argument I often hear is, “What about the human rights of security forces?” I do not envy the armed representatives of the Indian State in Kashmir. But the security forces are there to secure not just India’s boundaries but the idea of India as a composite democracy that appreciates diversity of opinion, race, language and creed. As Kashmiris question both the boundaries and idea of India with greater vehemence, it is incumbent on the security forces to demonstrate vastly greater maturity and restraint (which some do) than the stone-throwers. To equate the security forces with disaffected young men only questions the training and competency of soldiers, demeans India’s democracy and confirms to Kashmiris that India wants their land, not them.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
2015 Kashmir Despatch