How Kashmiris are navigating the increasing threat of Hindu nationalist mobs in big Indian cities and why many of them are moving back to their conflict-torn home.
On a late February morning, with border tensions gripping India and Pakistan, I received phone call after phone call from my family members and relatives, each one asking me to return to my home in India-administered Kashmir.
I was on a postdoctoral teaching fellowship at a university in a small north Indian town close to New Delhi. I was so engrossed in teaching the winter course on 'critical thinking' that I rarely paid attention to daily news reports citing incidents of mob violence against Kashmiri people in the different towns and cities of India. But when my parents urged me to return, I suddenly felt exposed to the possibility of encountering violence just like my fellow Kashmiris were facing in other parts of the country.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the disputed Kashmir since the two entities emerged out of the ashes of British colonialism. The two countries have engaged in countless border skirmishes but never before have mobs led by Hindu nationalists pursued Kashmiri people in India's urban strongholds in supposed retribution for Indian soldier casualties in the restive Kashmir region.
This time, the trigger was a suicide bombing on February 14 that claimed the lives of 45 paramilitary soldiers in Pulwama, a southern district of India-held Kashmir.
War talk dominated leading Indian news channels. Loud and rambunctious prime time TV hosts held vacuous debates and fuelled the frenzy of revenge. The hysteria found its public expression in the form of countrywide protest rallies, seeking military action against Pakistan and inciting hatred toward Kashmiris. Outside several college dorms where Kashmiri students resided, menacing mobs gathered — in some instances breaking in and beating up a few — calling out "shoot the traitors of India", while many others elsewhere asked for "nothing short of a war".
The mob anger was vindicated by Indian politicians from the ruling establishment including the country's Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spoke with a shrill nationalist rhetoric. While India's then Home Minister Rajnath Singh said they would choose the time and place to avenge the killings, Modi assured Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir that they "have been given a free hand" since "the blood of the people is boiling".
Although my parents were concerned about my wellbeing, they didn't seem to care much about themselves. They seemed to have reconciled with the possibility of facing a military reprisal, a resolve Kashmiri people have gained over three decades of conflict, in which custodial killings, torture, rampant detentions and raids and curfews have been a norm. I envy them in some way. At times I feel being away from Kashmir for 16 years in pursuit of an education and academic career has left me with a burden of longing for home and a smouldering guilt for leaving my parents behind. It becomes worse when you begin to feel vulnerable to frequent bouts of public outrage triggered by the acts of rebellion the Indian state faces in disputed Kashmir. And suddenly with a hard thump reality hits and you realise your identity makes you distinguishable in mainland India and you can be harmed for no crime of yours — no matter how accomplished you are. You're just a Kashmiri, navigating different forms of hostilities. From renting an apartment to setting up business, the odds are stacked against you.
In search of a home
Almost a decade ago, when I moved to New Delhi to pursue a masters degree in philosophy at India's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, I struggled to make a home for myself. Although real estate agents tried their best to negotiate an apartment for me and my friend, a fellow Kashmiri, many simply slammed their doors on us, and on one occasion we were asked to chant the favourite slogan of Hindu nationalist groups — Bharat Mata ki Jai, or Long Live Mother India. On another occasion, a hotel owner backtracked on his room offer after scanning my identity card and reading my Muslim name and Kashmiri identity.
The portrayal of the Kashmiri struggle for the UN-sanctioned right to self-determination as an "anti-national" movement began in 1989, when an armed rebellion against New Delhi's rule broke out in Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir. Almost every political party of India — from the far-right to center to left — demonised it, first by describing it as Pakistan's "proxy war" and later by conflating it with terrorism caused by groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh.
In the following decades, Kashmir became one of the most underreported stories, while repression by Indian armed forces went unrestrained. Although India has long maintained at international forums that Kashmir is its "internal matter", denying access to the United Nations and other human rights groups to investigate alleged war crimes, it has unabashedly weaponised its soldiers with black laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows an Indian armed personnel to kill anyone on a whim.
The years of an unflinching military approach to the dispute not only resulted in gross human rights abuses in the troubled region but also galvanised hatred in mainland India against regular Kashmiris. We have now come to a point where a common Indian refuses to look at Kashmir from a rational humanistic perspective. Whenever Kashmiri militants or unarmed civilian protesters are gunned down, Indian Twitter and Facebook users applaud the killings, drawing sadistic pleasure from them and writing messages such as, "Pigs dispatched to hell" and "killing terrorists is okay, why is the government handing over the bodies to their families?"
Amidst the growing climate of antagonism, I still don't want to give up on Indian society. I believe there are a few spaces left in India where a Kashmiri is allowed to thrive. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I pursued my masters and later postgraduate doctoral degrees in philosophy, continues to be an institution devoted to intellectual engagement on Kashmir. Both liberals and Marxists in such spaces, at least, acknowledge the complexity of the Kashmir dispute and oppose human rights excesses committed by the Indian military.
But even liberal or left-leaning institutions of India are facing an onslaught from far-right groups backed by the ruling BJP. In 2016, the BJP government charged several student leaders at Jawaharlal Nehru University with sedition. They were accused of hosting an event in the memory of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man who was hanged in 2013 for his alleged role in attacking the Indian parliament in 2001, and chanting "anti-national" slogans.
The arrests triggered a debate on Indian nationalism. As most of India's television journalism is heavily influenced by the ruling BJP, the party dominated the debate and also took the liberty of labelling anyone critical of them as anti-nationals.
As Marxist and centrist parties faced another electoral defeat from the right-wing BJP in the recent elections, a small minority of Indians who previously made efforts to understand the Kashmir conflict from human rights perspective are now fighting their own battle; a struggle to defeat the Hindu nationalist forces who celebrate Mahatma Gandhi's killer Nathuram Godse and have no regard for one of the country's prominent founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Today's India leaves Kashmiris between a rock and a hard place. The choice of abandoning the professional life in big Indian cities is as difficult as leaving home in the first place. In Kashmir, we have to navigate the military conflict. In Indian cities, we now live with the fear of lynch mobs. Both ways, it's an awful situation.
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