Violence in Kashmir does not take place within a vacuum, and the Indian government will only aggravate it further if it does not concede that its root causes lie in its treatment of Kashmiris.
On a cold afternoon of February 14, a young man Adil Ahmad Dar drove a car laden with explosives into a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian soldiers on a highway in Kashmir. The resulting blast left Adil along with close to fifty soldiers dead. Such a large-scale loss for Indian forces in Kashmir is rare.
The typical stories of deaths that come from Kashmir are ones of Kashmiri civilians and rebels at the hands of the Indian forces. Those deaths barely trickle into the mainstream news in India and when they do the usual responses range from civil society indifference to nationalist jubilation.
The February 14 attack has quickly turned the indifference of New Delhi’s elite into indignation and the grotesque jubilation of the Hindu nationalist BJP government and Indian media into a vengeful rage.
The instant reaction of the Indian government was to look across the border and lay the blame on Pakistan. Pakistan, which has often expressed “moral and diplomatic support” for the Kashmiri right to self-determination, denied any involvement in the bombing.
Immediately after the attack, a militant Kashmiri organisation Jaish e Mohammed claimed responsibility by releasing a video of Adil explaining why he was going to attack the Indian soldiers even at the cost of his own life.
Jaish’s chief Masood Azhar apparently lives in Pakistan, yet it is unclear whether he directed the strike, or if it was local Kashmiri rebels who planned it and cobbled together a bomb. The highway is heavily guarded, but not immune to attacks.
At the time of writing, dozens of villages near the attack site have been put under military lockdown. The Internet remains shut across the region preventing Kashmiris from responding to the hateful propaganda against them on Indian media. Crowds of Indian nationalists have gathered in Indian cities burning Muslim properties, assaulting Kashmiri students, and threatening mayhem.
The attack comes only days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech in Kashmir’s capital Srinagar in which he threatened Kashmiris demanding independence from India with dire consequences and asked his forces to “break the back of militancy.”
Modi and his national security administration are known for nationalist posturing and public bravado.
Since he took power in 2014, Indian policy in Kashmir became even more trenchant and militaristic than before. Unlike his predecessors who showed some flexibility and occasional political suave, Modi remains trapped in his own hardline image. He has consistently refused to engage Kashmir’s pro-freedom leadership in dialogue, has relied on his war-mongering military generals to shape the narrative on Kashmir, and has, in general, not presented any peaceful, political, or diplomatic solution to the long-standing question of Kashmiri independence as a sign of India’s weakness.
A life-long member of a Hindu supremacist organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi sees the question of Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, as an assault on Hindu nationhood and Indian territorial integrity. As part of this warped ideological perspective, he persistently revs up his Hindu nationalist base into a frenzied hatred against Pakistan, a posture that has regularly paid him good electoral dividends, even though these incessantly come at the cost of Kashmiri lives.
After a similar attack on Indian soldiers in Uri in Kashmir in 2016, Modi had announced that his military had launched reprisal attacks called “surgical strikes” against “terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” Whether those “strikes” actually happened or not remains highly contested (Pakistan claimed they never saw the “surgical strikes”), so does the actual outcome of such attacks if they did, but Indian media (including films) see “surgical strikes” as an “achievement” for Modi.
A recent Bollywood film “Uri,” reminiscent of Rambo-style movies of the 1980s, celebrated the doubtful strikes, with its makers cravenly trying to please Modi and his national security advisor Ajit Doval. As the elections near, Modi has used dialogues from the film to deflect attention away from his government’s economic missteps, crony defence deals, and job creation failures.
The newest attack has come at a particularly ripe time for Modi. Indeed he will try to milk it, even if that involves putting the entire region at grave peril, to win elections that are just two months away.
Over the last few days, Indian experts in blood-curdling TV “debates” have been calling for “splintering Pakistan.” Others have demanded “air-strikes” or “limited ground incursions” at the least. The few sober voices in India that point to the dangers of nuclear conflagration and the general delusional nature of Indian militaristic discourse have been squeezed out as effete and inadequately enraged.
What is also instantly apparent to those who follow the situation in Kashmir closely, accusations against Pakistan are a way to deflect attention from Indian military and policy failures in Kashmir.
Since 1990, when the Kashmiri independence struggle became a mass movement, Indian policy in Kashmir has been primarily driven by a military logic. The Kashmiri movement was suppressed brutally, on multiple occasions leading to massacres of dozens of unarmed Kashmiris. As the political space for a peaceful struggle was squelched, Kashmiris were forced to take up arms.
The armed struggle, led by a few thousand poorly trained Kashmiris, was, of course, never a military match for India, which had close to three-quarters of a million of its soldiers deployed in the region.
A rebel's life in Kashmir
Kashmir eventually returned to an unquiet “peace of the graveyard” phase in the early 2000s as Pakistan’s support to the rebels first dwindled and then thoroughly dried up. The peace was uneasy because the fundamental question of Kashmiri independence remained unaddressed even though tens of thousands of Kashmiris had ended up dead or were forcibly disappeared, leaving a nation in perpetual grief.
The Indian military presence remained at strength even though the rebel numbers had come down to the low hundreds. Backed by Indian nationalist rhetoric and impunity laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the military not only acted as an occupation force but one that penetrated the deepest recesses of everyday life in Kashmir.
This era also marked a political realignment. As Pakistan played the peace bugle and persistently called for dialogue with India, Kashmiris, crushed under the occupation, were left in the lurch.
Indian policy, now directly shaped by right-wing Hindu nationalists, not only saw Kashmiri rebels as a problem but Kashmiri demography in general as an issue to confront.
With military infrastructure in place and no visible resistance in sight, Indian rhetoric increasingly turned to fully assimilating Kashmir’s territory, with a variety of “solutions” offered to deal with Kashmiris who opposed such manoeuvrings. It was in this context that the next phase of the Kashmiri movement began, with protests starting over issues like land transfers in 2008 transforming into full-blown demonstrations for independence in 2010.
These unarmed protests were quashed brutally. But its remnant scars, as well as the public memory of past repressions, created a new generation of Kashmiri rebels who relied purely on the passionate support of Kashmiris. It is this generation of rebels, backed by unalloyed public support in Kashmir, that has brought things back to the boil.
Most of these new rebels are ill-trained and use rudimentary weapons that they sometimes snatch from police officers. Most end up dead as soon as they join the rebels.
A typical scene of a rebel’s life starts with harassment, beatings, and arrests at the hands of Indian police. Then they suddenly emerge on social media with declarations of having joined the rebels. This is followed soon afterwards with hundreds of Indian soldiers cornering one or two them and killing them in spectacular displays of firepower.
Each rebel killing is preceded by Kashmiri youths coming in-between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri rebels to try and save the latter and followed by tens of thousands of Kashmiris joining in funeral processions and mourning. The youths who join the rebels came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds—poor and middle class, PhDs and high school-dropouts—but they often have the same story of police harassment and violence as part of their biography.
In the past three years alone around a thousand rebels and civilians have been killed, mostly in military operations. Every year since 2016, the numbers have increased (247 in 2016, 384 in 2017, and 413 in 2019). In comparison, the Indian military’s losses have been minimal. It is not a surprise then that the February 14 attack has come as a rude shock to the Indian public sensibility which takes Kashmiri deaths as a routine matter not worthy of serious consideration.
The soldiers who died in the latest attack belong to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a paramilitary force primarily responsible for controlling crowds. They are despised across the region for their use of pump-action pellet guns on protestors and non-protestors alike which has led to full and partial blinding of hundreds in recent years.
Typically, CRPF soldiers are recruited from poor, rural areas of India, which makes this attack all the more tragic.
In Kashmir, Indian soldiers usually evoke complex feelings of intense dislike and, occasionally, inexplicable compassion. Kashmiris dislike Indian soldiers as a violent arm of an unremitting occupation, but compassion possibly because of an instinctual awareness of the socio-economic circumstances these soldiers come from.
The February 14 attack may bring catharsis to a people who have been persistently on the rough end of state terror, but most Kashmiris simultaneously grieve the loss of human life. It is the belligerence of the Indian government that has led to a hardening of emotions among Kashmiris.
Adil Ahmad Dar, who blew his car up to kill the soldiers, came from a village close to the site of the attack. His father has said the boy, like so many others, was beaten up and humiliated by Indian soldiers.
In the video, Adil seemed calm but determined to take revenge. Under normal circumstances, young men like him would prefer to work and make ends meet. Rural Kashmiri men have historically tended to be gentle, compassionate, and indisposed to violence almost to a fault.
The pattern of young people like Adil turning to militancy is a result of the structural violence embedded in the occupation. Indian experts are quick to either blame Pakistan or “Islamic extremism,” without acknowledging the conditions within which certain ideologies acquire a pull.
Instead of using this moment to stir hate and fear among its citizenry, the Indian government could take up a comprehensive review of its policy in Kashmir. It could begin by easing the pressure from the thousands of villages in Kashmir that are struggling under the Indian jackboot. It could initiate a serious political dialogue with Kashmiris. But, crucially, India could start an open conversation with itself about the occupation in Kashmir.
This is not the time for irresponsible war-mongering; it is time to take a pause and think. But that would be to hope for too much.
It's time to talk about the occupation in Kashmir, not a war over it.
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