Parvaiz Bukhari is an independent Kashmir-based journalist whose articles appear in major South Asian newspapers, journals and magazines. He was interviewed by David Barsamian in which he talks about Kashmir and many other related issues.
Give a sense of what life is like in Kashmir, day-to-day interactions that average Kashmiris would have with one of the largest military forces anywhere in the world.
For the first few years it’s been alternating between some sort of triumphalism and people get together and to express themselves in some political way, and a sort of widespread depression because of what they have to go through in their daily lives given the number of armed forces, both federal and local police, watching people all the time. On an average day, for example, it’s not possible for a Kashmiri citizen not to come across an armed soldier, whether from the Jammu and Kashmir State Police, which is as militarized as a military can be, or from any of the central federal forces deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. The bases are in every nook and corner of Kashmir. There are camps of Rashtriya Rifles, which is a counterinsurgency unit; the Central Reserve Police Force, which is another federal force deployed across Kashmir, and there is the Border Security Force in some of areas.
If you don’t encounter a camp or if you don’t come across a check post on a daily basis, what generally happens is you hear conversations—from people who describe what the forces have done at this or that place. There are atrocity stories and stories of indignity. And over a period of time, you can imagine how what is happening directly or indirectly to you, accumulates in one’s mind. They are always conscious of it and responding to it. And it has an effect. It produces a behavior that almost always means you’re living in fear. Even if you personally don’t experience something indignifying, you hear the stories. And those stories are constantly resonating in your mind. So people are living in fear all the time, even if it doesn’t mean a direct confrontation with an armed soldier.
An average person then designs his behavior, how he spends his day, responding to what is happening in his mind because of the presence of armed forces. It’s now become sort of national Kashmiri behavior to be constantly living in fear. And if you don’t keep all that is happening around you in terms of an extremely militarized situation in your mind, you sometimes feel nervous, am I not taking care of something. Such is the extent of this internalized fear that’s almost now been normalized as something that’s okay, that people live with daily.
Have there been any studies and have you done any reporting on the effects on children?
There are very few formal studies, done by professionals or academics or institutions about what is happening to children, of youth, or women separately or of groups of people. But some people have come out with some information. For example, there is this only-psychiatric diseases hospital in Kashmir where the doctors have reported consistently before the armed conflict began in Kashmir that the hospital would receive maybe 10- or 12,000 patients in a year. That figure by the middle of 1990s and by 2000 had gone up to 100,000-plus. That’s just an indicator of what is happening to people in terms of mental health. This despite the fact that most mental illnesses and mental trauma that Kashmiris suffer in their daily lives is not reported. Only extreme cases reach the doctors. So that is one indicator of what is happening.
In terms of what is happening to children, we’ve seen it in our families, we’ve seen it all around us. When we were kids, we used to go everywhere and play and interact with nature, with our surroundings, with people of all kinds. But after this situation started, which was in 1989—and it’s been worsening ever since despite the armed militancy having been brought under control and reduced to a few hundred now—what is happening is that small kids have been restricted to their immediate families. There is much less interaction with the larger society, even in the neighborhoods. There are kids in Kashmir who don’t know their cousins, for example. We’ve seen the effects of that in the current generation. They’re now in a position to notice the disconnect that’s been imposed on them because parents are always scared of their children going out.
That’s also now been in some sense been responded to by the youth. That’s also visible in the anger. People who grew up as kids in the 1990s, are now in their early twenties or late teens. They’ve started figuring out what has been happening to them in their childhoods. And part of the anger is also responding to that condition and an impulse to see that change for the better.
What has the pressure and the stress done to gender relations inside families?
Again, not many studies, but in terms of reports that have been put out by professional doctors and mental health practitioners, there is heightened tension within families. More marital discord has been noticed in the past decade or so. Many professionals have ascribed it to the fact that men and women separately suffer different kinds of trauma which they do not deal with when they’re together in the family. And that has accumulated, and within intimate relationships within the family it’s produced chasms that result in discord between not just husbands and wives but young women and older women and between young men and older men also.
If you look at that phenomenon outside the family, what’s happening at a most frightening pace, is that people are getting more and more disconnected with the passage of time. There are very few opportunities to connect. At the family level that’s one aspect. At the societal level, that’s a much bigger, more horrifying phenomenon that I’ve noticed. When people try and look for opportunities to connect they begin to encounter problems. They see how connecting at a social or at a political level imposes costs in terms of how the security and intelligence agencies—and there are many in Kashmir—report that. So much so that people are now beginning to say, “Look here, we are being reported on even from within our kitchens.” That heightened surveillance produces psychological consequences.
As with the French in Algeria and the Israelis in Palestine, there is an extensive network of paid informers. This, too, must have a huge societal impact, because if you’re just having a conversation with someone, you don’t know who that person is and what you might say that could get back to the security forces.
What that does is buries trust. That’s, again, another cataclysmic thing that has happened in Kashmir. It’s very difficult to find people trusting each other. If you’ve not had a long association, you really are not sure who you’re talking with. I’ve been reporting on Kashmir for several years. I talk to people in the intelligence community and in the bureaucracy. Several times I’ve met top, powerful officials who mention there are anywhere between 150,000 and 170,000 people who work as informers at various levels. Some of them do it voluntarily and some are trapped in a situation where they’re compelled to do that. Imagine in a society which is just 7 million, if you have 150,000 informants. These informants could send text messages or call or walk into a police station or an intelligence office or an army or a reserve police force camp and provide information. What that has done is again further produced a disconnect within the social system in Kashmir, because, asyou said, people are rarely sure about who they’re talking with if it’s not been preceded by a long association at work or socially.
To enforce its rule, New Delhi has, according to scholar Angana Chatterjee, “a collaborator class in Srinagar that undermines the will of the Kashmiri people.” What about the political structure with Omar Abdullah as the chief minister? Is he seen as a tool of New Delhi’s?
Very much so. You have to understand how elections happen in Kashmir. There is a clear divide. Political parties who fight elections are called the pro-India political parties. And they are, ironically, called the mainstream political parties. The last election happened in an environment where people had revolted against New Delhi. The reason that triggered that revolt was a land deed. The government decided to transfer a patch of mountainous land to the Hindu Shrine Board. And in response to that, people just assembled. But in Kashmir now, what has been happening consistently is that a protest may start on any demand. It ultimately ends up being about independence, the end of Indian rule.
The last elections took place after a massive peaceful and unarmed mobilization of people against Indian rule in Kashmir. At that time people in Kashmir thought it unimaginable that another election could be held within the same parameters. But then elections were held and the mainstream pro-India political parties went to people campaigning and they said these elections are for managing our day-to-day administrative affairs and this will have absolutely no impact or effect on the future of the Kashmir issue. People did come out to vote in large numbers.
But then when Omar Abdullah became the chief minister after his party got the majority vote, then the vote, in the media, as well as by the politicians in Delhi, was interpreted as a vote for India. It was almost like a municipal election, and yet it was allowed to be interpreted as a vote for India. That further eroded the credibility of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Then events happened, such as the two sisters-in-law were found mysteriously dead on the banks of a shallow stream and people suspected men in uniform had abducted, raped, and then killed them. And the way Chief Minister Omar Abdullah responded to that, almost going by what the intelligence establishment’s assessment of that incident was, further damaged his credibility. By now I think the majority of people in Kashmir are pretty clear what Omar Abdullah represents, and they make no secret of it. He’s called “Delhi’s representative in Kashmir.”
And he comes from a fairly distinguished family. He is related to Sheikh Abdullah.
Yes. That family is known as the first political family of Kashmir. His grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, was seen in Kashmir as someone who legitimized the otherwise “illegal” instrument of accession by the then maharaja, Hari Singh, the Dogra autocrat who ruled Jammu and Kashmir before 1947, and Delhi. No doubt Sheikh Abdullah was the most popular and most prominent leader of modern Kashmir. But after the events of 1953, when the special relationship that was brought about between Srinagar and New Delhi through Article 370 that still exists in the Indian constitution, his popularity began to fade. He began to be seen as someone who was instrumental in bartering away the special status that Kashmiris thought they had within the Indian union. And by1989, when an armed rebellion broke out, his grave had to be protected by Indian soldiers and the police. Such was the unpopularity of his legacy. He was seen as the principal villain who bartered away Kashmir and its interests to New Delhi.
But despite that, it was again his son, Dr. Farouk Abdullah, the present chief minister’s father, who then became the chief minister, and then he handed over power, like his father, Sheikh Abdullah, had handed over the reins of his party, the National Conference, to Omar Abdullah. So people also resented that dynastic rule.
But briefly for some time after the elections Omar Abdullah did represent some hope, and people thought that local matters might be taken care of better, their day-to-day lives might be made easier. Because Omar Abdullah did make promises that he would work for removal of the harsh laws. For example, there is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives the federal forces, the army in particular, sweeping powers to arrest, kill on suspicion or search and destroy properties suspected to be used by anti-India rebels. There is also the draconian law called the Public Safety Act, which allows the state to detain people for up to two years without trial and without charges. He did promise that he’d try to repeal these laws but could not do it, and then people realized he doesn’t have the power. He’s a function of Delhi’s thinking in Kashmir and he could not deliver on his promises. And his initial credibility waned.
The spark that ignited the initial rebellion in 1989 was, in fact, rigged elections. I’m interested to know, what was going on under the surface in Kashmir in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of organizing.
An impulse of breaking away from India has existed ever since 1947, when India and Pakistan came into existence. There has been a very, very strong opinion in Kashmir that this region should have naturally been a part of Pakistan, but the Partition of 1947 occurred and the first war between India and Pakistan ensued, and then the line of control, the ceasefire line, was put into place. But a political grievance has existed ever since in Kashmir that it was by force that India brought Kashmir under its control. And since Sheikh Abdullah’s party, the National Conference, was seen as a representative of the Kashmiris’ interests because it had fought against the Dogra autocracy before 1947, it was seen as leaning towards India. And people who resisted the National Conference and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah began seeing themselves persecuted in many ways, because they were the opposition. They were not necessarily only for Pakistan. There were also elements that wanted Jammu and Kashmir to be an independent country around the time.
So slowly, when things did not go in the opposition’s way it started organizing. In the early 1970s we had the beginning of an armed rebellion. A group of young people came together and formed a group. They were known as the al-Fatah movement. It was an armed group, and the idea was to overthrow Indian control in Kashmir and liberate it. But since it was not a large group, they were very craftily co-opted. And today, you will find many members of al-Fatah in the police force at high levels and as bureaucrats. Many of them got into the system, they were co-opted in that manner and that movement was neutralized. But despite that, opposition to Indian rule has continued.
And then around the time of the 1987 elections, there was an understanding within the opposition that we need to get into the same space, which is the electoral politics and the legislative assembly, and express our opposition instead of creating a movement that the system that governs Kashmir can deem as illegal. They decided to come under the banner of the Muslim United Front. It was a spectrum of political bodies and groups who decided to contest elections.
That’s when the trust in the electoral system as it operates in Kashmir was finally buried, because they said, We entered the system that is considered legitimate by New Delhi, and even there the elections were rigged and we were not allowed to represent ourselves or the people who believe in what we believe in. The consequence was that, in the estimation of the opposition, the space for Indian electoral politics as practiced in Jammu and Kashmir was finished off, it was completely neutralized. And I think it was only natural that people thought of an armed rebellion after that.
What is the space that Kashmir has historically occupied in the Indian imagination?
In ancient India people referred to the Shankarachaya temple. There is a hill in the middle of Srinagar. Atop it is the Shankarachaya temple. In the Indian imagination it’s been seen as one of the seats of Hindu learning before Islam arrived in Kashmir in the 14th century. But after 1947 it has acquired a different space. It became a representation of India’s secular ideal, because it was the only Muslim-majority area that by circumstances remained in India or was forced to be with India. So it represents that secular idea, because it was the only Muslim-majority part of India, not a part of Muslim majority Pakistan. That has been played up to generate fears that if Kashmir goes, that means India’s secular character, the idea of India, is invalidated. But then Kashmiris are asking the question, if the idea of India is dependent on keeping a people hostage, then we don’t want to be a part of that idea, that can allow a people to be kept hostage for an idea to survive as a nation.
Post-1990, Kashmir has also played into the Hindu majority narrative that it has been one of the seats of Hindu learning and must always remain. In both cases, whether people in India look at India as a secular nation or as a Hindu majority, a nation of Hindu consciousness, both ways they appropriate Kashmir, taking from ancient history as a seat of Hindu learning in the subcontinent and post-1947 as something that represents India’s secularism.
How has Delhi projected Kashmir to the rest of the world?
There are several things. Firstly, post-1989, when the armed rebellion began, it was projected as a terrorist movement. Everything was interpreted as terrorism. Nothing was ascribed to Kashmiris as their wish. It was always interpreted from the points of view of some other who was not Kashmiri.
They were being manipulated by Pakistan.
It’s a fact that armed militancy was supported by Pakistan, particularly initially to a great extent. That was also used against Kashmiris, that it’s not the people of Kashmir who are seeking the end of Indian rule but it is instigated by Pakistan. And when that militant movement was militarily crushed, people changed their ways of representing themselves. From 2008 onwards, people came out in the hundreds of thousands and demonstrated peacefully, saying the same things that militants supposedly stood up for.
Then there was an attempt again to discredit the people representing themselves, and new words were coined. For example, the Indian army started calling peaceful mass protests demanding political rights as “agitational terrorism.” Terrorism was attached to it. So that in the Indian imagination, whatever happens in Kashmir, in the demand for political rights that the Kashmiri people have been all about for the last so many decades, it can be described in a terminology that justifies reprisal by the Indian state. And things have never been attributed to Kashmiris themselves. The youth in the summer of 2010, when hundreds of thousands of them came out in the streets and fought Indian forces with stones in their hands, as soon as that situation was in the securitized sense under control, then the system again began attributing names, name-calling to their protests. For example, now the police are saying that most of the youth who protested were drug addicts.
So it’s a long cycle of denial. It’s the denial of the reality on the ground in Kashmir as far as representing what is happening in Kashmir to the outside world.
And in the post-September 11 atmosphere, particularly in terms of Washington’s view of Kashmir, and the rest of the world, for that matter, an urgent link is made between Islam and Muslims and violence and terrorism.
Terrorism and being Muslim have become almost synonymous. But things are changing. Yes, 9/11 and the events after that did help India portray Kashmir in that paradigm, that Kashmiri Muslims are amenable to terrorism and manipulated by the “terrorist” state of Pakistan.
Which is an ally of the United States.
Which is an ally of the United States in their war against terror. In the process education and the use of the Internet has spread in Kashmir, and people read more and more about how they were represented internationally by India and by Pakistan and by people who came from outside and wrote about Kashmir. So by 2008-2010, young Kashmiris were aware of how they were being represented. And it was not about them, it was all about manipulation. And they began thinking about what to do about it. I think that what we’ve seen happening over the last three summers in Kashmir in terms of huge peaceful mobilizations and protests is a response also to that misrepresentation of who Kashmiris are. The young, who were aware of how they have been projected, want now to speak for themselves, they want to represent themselves, they want to tell the world who we are. They want to take away all the opportunities for others to tell people what they are doing and who they are.
Another issue that Delhi raises whenever Kashmir is discussed is the treatment of the Kashmiri pandits, the Hindu community that has deep roots in the valley.
Yes, it’s unfortunately been used against Kashmiri majority Muslims. It is definitely a very sad, tragic thing that happened in 1990, when most of the minority Kashmiri pandits, the Hindus, had to leave. It was a set of circumstances for which both Kashmiri people as well as the Indian state were responsible. Nevertheless, a tragic thing happened. People migrated.
But what I find disturbing is this minority of Kashmiri pandits, Hindus, who had to because of circumstances move out, were used as a tools to batter what even this group of minority Kashmiri pandits want to be representing, that is, some of them call it Kashmiriyat and some of them call it the uniqueness of Kashmiri culture. Mind you,, there has been a very long history of very amicable relationship between the two communities. Most Kashmiri Muslims were originally Kashmiri pandits. They were Hindus before Islam arrived in Kashmir in the 14th century.
So it’s really tragic. And the kind of politics around the displacement of this minority makes it harder and harder for this community to return to their homes. In a sense they have become a tool of the right wing Indian politics rather than displaced a minority whose rights should be safeguarded.
I’ve heard that the central government actually encouraged the pandits to leave Kashmir.
There are allegations. There are many people who believe that the New Delhi-appointed governor in 1990 actually made it possible for most of the Kashmiri pandits to leave. But these are contested claims. The fact of the matter is that in those days there was a sudden eruption of gun-toting armed militants, and there was the beginning of an extremely aggressive military response from India. It was a very difficult situation for everybody who lived in Kashmir at that time.
But what makes it controversial and difficult to deal with is the fact that people are struggling to understand what was it that made a particular community decide to leave and go somewhere else, to India; and the majority community, the Muslims, who were living under exactly the same conditions but did not have that option. That is a question that is still troubling both communities in Kashmir. There have been these contesting claims. People have denied it vehemently. The Governor, Jagmohan at the time has denied that he had any role.
But then you come across different stories. Some people acknowledge that transport was made available by whoever. Was it a state agency or someone else, nobody knows. Some people say they heard what was being said from the mosques and they saw how some of the members of the Hindu community were threatened and killed, and killed brutally, in cold blood. All those conditions. It’s a phenomenon that will need a lot of patience to be studied and understood, what exactly happened. But finally it’s again a political consequence of a political issue.
The summer of 2010 saw a major shift in transformation in terms of tactics and strategies. You earlier mentioned the last three summers. But it seems to have become particularly acute in the summer of 2010. What happened?
I think this is a response, one, to accumulated anger and humiliation of the Kashmiri people at the hands of the military and the Indian state. At one level it’s a response to that. At another level it’s a reaction to the unacknowledged demands of the Kashmiri people for the resolution of the status quo. Kashmiris have been wanting to make it clear ever since the ceasefire line, the line of control, as it’s being called now, came into existence, that that needs to change. Kashmiris want an end to political uncertainty. Several things have happened from the side of Kashmiri people to deal with it: elections, armed militancy, other mobilizations. But nothing has changed.
What happened post-1990 was that everything was being dealt with militarily, and so much so that now in Kashmir, it is militarism that rules. Nothing is guided by either law or by policy. Everything is dealt with by intimidation. And these young people who we saw explode on the streets in the summer of 2010 have grown up in an environment of extreme fear. I think this generation is beginning to overcome their fear. Or maybe that atmosphere of fear has normalized itself and that is now the basis. People want to break free of that. People want to live dignified lives and they want to break free from the militarized conditions that they are living in. And we are talking about a generation that has not seen anything but a militarized Kashmir, which plays out in all kinds of brutal ways that you can imagine.
You’ve written, “The new generation of separatist leaders seem to have made a conscious decision not to take up arms, a move to retain moral supremacy over Indian occupation. This represents a major shift in tactics.”
I believe so. I think it’s been a long process of internalizing of what armed rebellion achieved and what it did for Kashmir. If there was a belief in 1990 that it was possible to overthrow Indian control of Kashmir through an armed rebellion, people have now realized that it was not militarily possible and it was not an achievable military objective. People have also realized over the period of time that what was sought to be crushed militarily has in fact become more entrenched and more widespread and more pronounced and more clear in people’s minds.
Since Kashmiris also have lived the experience of a military response to their armed uprising, in the process they’ve also discovered the power of peaceful protests. So if there was a silent debate within Kashmiri society, particularly young people, after the events of 1990 about what an armed insurgency or armed militancy or armed rebellion could achieve, over a period of time—and post-9/11 also helped clarify a lot of thinking about it—it was that it can only serve a purpose of making a point, of creating a political space that has to be used in different ways. I think the new generation of Kashmiris realize this fact more clearly than any other: that it is peaceful mobilization around ideas that will get them their political objectives, without denouncing what the armed rebels stood for. I think they represent a change in terms of tactics rather than the objectives. The objectives remain the same, the tactics have changed.
Is there any interest in Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela and the tactics that they used?
People have talked about it, but I don’t think any of these big characters in world history find too much resonance in today’s Kashmir. Because Kashmiris realize that these men existed in different times and did not have to face up to the kind of militarized control structures that they encounter in Kashmir. People are struggling to evolve new ideas that may resemble what Mandela or Gandhi have done in their times, but I haven’t still discerned a direct mass resonance to either Gandhi or to Mandela. But people are trying to create responses from the situation that they find themselves in. They have to respond both to military control as well as misrepresentation and deceit. So it’s not a straightforward situation where direct inspiration could be had from such historic figures.
A whole generation has grown up in Kashmir since the rebellion started in 1989 in an atmosphere of what you’ve called “deepening militarization.” What can you say about their class background, level of education, and political awareness?
They come from all classes. They’re definitely better educated than the youngsters of 1990 were who picked up the gun. They’re definitely more aware of what is happening, not just in Kashmir but around the world. They’re more clear about what they’re looking for than the previous generations. And I think they’re also aware of the fact that whatever they have done so far in terms of representing themselves and protesting, it has still not produced any new politics, both in India about Kashmir and within Kashmir about Kashmir. The people we saw in the streets fighting Indian forces in the summer of 2010 are still struggling to believe in one single way that can help them achieve the objective of political rights.
The level and scope of the summer of 2010 rebellion caught the attention of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. She made the comment, “We must ask ourselves why people in Kashmir are so angry and hurt.”
If after 20 years of what’s been happening in Kashmir the president of the Congress Party still needs to ask what makes people of Kashmir angry, it reflects a very pathetic understanding of what is happening in Kashmir. It’s not difficult to understand how people inside a huge jail can feel. For me, both as a journalist and as a Kashmiri, Kashmir is nothing more than a huge, huge jail today, where no rules apply, where every rule applies, where the only objectives of the state are to control the people rather than anything else. I wonder at statements like these when Indian politicians say, “What is it that Kashmiris want? What is it that makes them angry?” I think it’s the most naïve statement that can come from any politician. To me, it doesn’t reflect a lack of understanding of what happens in Kashmir. I think it reflects much more than :that the willful, deliberate ignorance of what the Indian state is doing in Kashmir.
Is there a unified conception of azadi, of freedom, or are there differing views on that?
On the surface there is a view that Jammu and Kashmir should be an independent country between India and Pakistan. There’s another view, most predominant in the Kashmir valley, that Kashmir should have been a part of Pakistan. But things have been changing. If there is clarity and unanimity about one thing in the majority of those who protest Indian rule in Kashmir, it’s that people should be able to decide about their future. And when people demand a definition of what Kashmiris mean by azadi, I think that’s asking for too much. These questions can be asked during transitions, not when a military aggression is on for a people. I think this is an unfair question to ask at a time when there is no space for free discussion, when there is no democratic space for engagement in terms of ideas and arguments, and when there is not even space for simple political protests. When everything is being dealt with through military means, it’s an unfair question to ask. This question should be asked if a space is allowed to evolve. And that would call for a transitional period, where people can think freely and express freely. That’s when this question becomes genuine. Asking this question is like you put a person in chains and ask him, “Can you demonstrate if you can fly?” It’s not possible.
So then, perhaps, along those lines, discussions about the status of Ladakh, another part of Jammu and Kashmir state, and Jammu itself would not be appropriate.
No, I think the time to talk about these things is always, always appropriate. But there is a problem. When you talk about the people of Ladakh, you don’t know whether you’re talking about people of Leh, or the people of Kargil, which are two regions within Ladakh. One is Buddhist majority, another is Muslim majority. When you look at the Ladakh area as such demographically, then it is again Muslim majority. When you look at Jammu, barring three districts, it’s again a Muslim majority.
It’s a very wrong thing to look at Kashmir in terms of the demography of three regions and in terms of the religious composition of the populations of the three regions. I think it doesn’t help to say Buddhist Ladakh, Muslim Kashmir, Hindu Jammu. I think it doesn’t help to say that these three regions have very clearly different aspirations. I think that there should be political instruments to measure these things rather than demographics based on religious denominations, and then design or interpret aspirations of these three regions on the basis of what their religious composition is.
I think it also contradicts the idea with which the Indian polity approaches Kashmir. If it’s a secular point of view, why is it okay to look at Kashmir in terms of one region is one religious denomination, another region is another religious denomination, another is another religious denomination. I think that’s a contradicting approach to understanding the aspirations of people there. And I think this also somehow at some level reveals a certain amount of deceit or misrepresenting Kashmir in a deceitful manner by ascribing these aspirations to religious groups alone.
Do you think Kashmir is seen through a colonial prism in the rest of India, particularly in the media?
I think so. Not in the sense in which colonialism operated and was understood before the partial decolonization of the subcontinent. But in a neocolonialist sense, definitely, yes.
New Delhi, in response to the uprisings of the summer of 2010 has announced new initiatives and new interlocutors. Are these, in your view, cosmetic approaches or are they actually substantive?
From what I understand from what the three interlocutors that New Delhi has appointed to suggest a solution to the Kashmir political issue, what they’ve been saying and doing, it now looks to me that it’s a cosmetic effort.
They’ve spoken to a few thousand people in Kashmir. How can three people come up and say that most people in Kashmir do not want azadi, whatever azadi means for them also? How can they say that most people in Kashmir want strengthening of Indian institutions rather than anything else. While, as what we’ve seen, on the contrary, very clearly being articulated on the street and also in cyberspace—Facebook has now become one of the nice little measures of how young Kashmiris are thinking—how can they say that? And when people who are expected to be neutral are supposed to be suggesting ways of approaching a political solution of the Kashmir issue, how can they say things that are patently statist as far as the Indian position on Kashmir is concerned? So I don’t think these efforts are going anywhere.
Obama came to India in November of 2010. Did he have anything to say about Kashmir?
He did not say anything until the point that a press conference journalist asked him a question. Then again he did not say much. Obama said pretty much the same thing that the U.S. officialdom has been saying about Kashmir, that we are encouraging India and Pakistan to talk. I really don’t know what they mean by this. Obama, of course, apart from that did not mention Kashmir during his address and in interactions here, besides, of course, making pitches to sell wares.
And no comment about what one human rights group in Kashmir calls “a reign of repression.” I understand also that there was a very significant WikiLeaks document dealing with Kashmir.
Yes, it talked about what every Kashmiri has known for 20 years to be happening, and even more. And nobody outside of Kashmir has ever acknowledged. That torture is widespread and a majority of the young, and including sometimes very old, 80-year-old people, have been put through the worst forms of torture. It was the first time that some kind of a confirmation from outside Kashmir came that the Indian state was fully aware of the widespread torture that federal forces and the state police had been doing in the hundreds of camps that people get detained in. And it must have been very embarrassing for those people who have been maintaining that India has an impeccable record of human rights in Kashmir. But in Kashmir for the young, literate generation it was a moment of catharsis, perhaps the first time that somebody from outside this region has known and acknowledged and has told the world, Look what has been happening to Kashmiris.
Have the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, with the subsequent overthrow of deeply entrenched regimes, inspired or animated the struggle in Kashmir?
It has definitely informed the discussions in Kashmir, both in cyberspace and in drawing rooms and restaurants. But these developments happened at a time when the militarized governing structure in Kashmir had taken back control of the street post the events of summer 2010. These developments have definitely energized debate, and people are talking about the differences between what people in Tunisia wanted and what they did for it, what people in Egypt wanted and what they did for it, and what people in Kashmir want and what they ought to be doing for it. They’re drawing inspiration, but at the same time they’re also trying to understand the differences in terms of the situation. For example, a major thread of discussion post-Tahrir Square in Kashmir has been to look at, Egyptians just wanted change. We are looking for liberation, freedom in the first place. They exercised their right of asking for change. We don’t even have that right in the first place. So it is enriching the debate.
To get back to the texture of the occupation, there is a village in Kashmir you’ve reported on that has been under curfew for more than one month. What does that mean, to be under curfew?
Perhaps you’re talking about Palhalan. It’s a large village in Baramula district and for me it represents what is happening all across rural Kashmir today. During last summer, it was under curfew for 39 days at a stretch, which doesn’t mean that those were the only days that people spent under curfew. When curfew is formally imposed, it means that nobody can come out, there are shoot-on-sight orders. If you’re seen, you can be shot at. You simply can’t go anywhere. And the people of Palhalan, for various reasons, have been dealt with more harshly than any other Kashmiri village. Perhaps because there was a good number of armed militants initially in the 1990s that came from Palhalan. And Palhalan has consistently, whatever the level of repression or military response or the state of militancy, whatever side has been on top, resisted very vocally Indian rule of Kashmir. The consequence has been that the people of Palhalan during last summer could not even travel in buses when the transport was plying from one area to another. Even public transport buses would be stopped on the highway, and they would check passenger ID cards. And if it was Palhalan written on it, those people would be dragged out of buses. Residents of Palhalan, students who went to write exams, were dragged out of exam halls because it has developed a very clear character that it will not accept Indian rule of Kashmir. And they face the consequences.
Palhalan perhaps represents an extreme of that thing, but there are many areas, rural areas, villages in Kashmir. Sopor is another area, for example, which has seen both heightened militant activity and heightened military control by the state. The condition there is the same.
The New York Times at the end of 2010 ran something called “The Year in Pictures.” I was very interested, because it reveals something of a lexical transformation that I hadn’t noticed before in the U.S. media and particularly in The New York Times. The caption under the photo said that a young girl mourned the death of a cousin in Srinagar who was shot by Indian security forces in “Indian-administered Kashmir.” That’s what I was interested to see, that The New York Times is now using that particular term.
It’s very interesting, and I think it was made possible by not just the events of the summer of 2010 but also the fact that people for the first time found an opportunity to report themselves. What people were doing in Kashmir was not only a function of how it was represented by the Indian state or the mainstream media or anybody else. But they were for the first time using social media, like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and they were reporting themselves. It really did travel far and wide. And for the first time some people outside of Kashmir realized, Oh, well, Kashmir is not only about what the Indian mainstream media, the Indian state, or the Pakistani state has been telling us, but there is something else happening. Because Kashmiris could, through social media, report for themselves for the first time, I think that made a huge difference. And the events of the 2010 summer perhaps represent the end of Kashmiris being always represented by somebody else.
How did you get involved in journalism and who inspires you?
I am a Kashmiri. I had all my education in Kashmir except the last year of my master’s degree, which was at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi at the department of mass communications center there. It just so happens that when I completed my master’s, the armed rebellion in Kashmir broke out. It was a time when I was fully geared and mentally prepared to sort of jump out there in the sea and do something and prove something for myself. I came to Delhi to work, and what was happening back home in Kashmir was not just disturbing and unsettling, it also energized the urge to do something more.
But trust me, between 1990 and 2004 I was only an absentee Kashmiri. I visited my family a couple of times a year and I thought I understood what was going on. But when I finally went back home to Kashmir in 2004 and started working out of there, I began to realize how far removed I was from the ground reality and the horrors that people were living in. And from 2004 onwards I began understanding the real nature of the horrible situation that Kashmiris had found themselves in for so many years. It may be a exaggeration, but after I started living in Kashmir after 2004, I think I became a journalist after that. I think everything else that I did till then in the name of journalism was kid’s play compared to what’s happening in Kashmir. What I’m trying to say is that I found it very difficult to write about the truth of Kashmir, because it has almost been relegated to repeating the official story. And it was so difficult to write about the ground reality, because it was difficult to find attributions. People were hesistant. They were afraid of being quoted. They always talked between the lines. That was my basic first test of journalism.
And regarding what inspired me to become a journalist, I think it’s my own little understanding of what truth is, maybe, and how it is represented. When I see the gulf in between and the contradictions, I think that provides a constant source of inspiration to journalism.