Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Politics of Kashmir and the politicking of petty nationalists

Time for a new compact of respect with the valley

Security anxieties were less intense, but Republic Day 2011 still proved a contentious occasion. The country’s main opposition party showed little inclination to participate in official observances, since its principal leaders were focused on Jammu and Kashmir and on reprising a nearly 20-year old formula – since fallen into disuse -- on the therapeutic value of raising the national flag in Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk on the occasion. The processionists embarking on this expedition into the unknown, included the leaders of the party in both houses of parliament – each unwilling to give the other a free pass in the bitter struggle to be designated prime ministerial nominee in the next general elections.

The entire procession was detained on arrival in the Jammu region and bundled off to Punjab state. A deal was struck soon afterwards, offering the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the consolation prize of hoisting the national flag in Kathua district, a long way from its original destination. Much like the original author of the Lal Chowk flag-planting adventure – who too seemed positively relieved to accept a compromise that was a pale shadow of his original intent – the BJP’s current leadership seemed quite happy to take Kathua as a surrogate for Srinagar.

In the BJP world-view, successive governments at the centre, not to mention those that have held the reins in the state of J&K, have been in serious breach of the nationalist compact by failing to defend the right of every citizen to unfurl the national flag in any location of her choice. This affront to nationalist sentiment is firmly rooted in the supposed policy of minority appeasement that successive Indian governments, from the moment of independence, have been guilty of.

Most other parties, including the BJP’s political allies, saw a certain perversity in the assertion of the freedom to raise the national flag in Srinagar, when that city and indeed, the entire Kashmir valley, are only limping back to a semblance of normalcy after months of strife and street violence. For the people of Kashmir, the issue over the last year or more of escalating civil unrest, has been about the denial of basic freedoms. This is a denial starkly apparent in violent deaths in street protests and unending days of curfew. And this denial that Kashmir suffers is mirrored in the higher freedom – otherwise known as impunity -- enjoyed by security forces and intelligence agencies that supposedly enforce the nationalist compact.

The BJP’s Republic Day expedition to Srinagar was about emotive sloganeering that would drown out all meaningful conversations about these issues. It was about asserting a higher freedom that ostensibly only those who swear allegiance to the “nationalist” compact can claim to enjoy. And nationalism is a virtue that the BJP is exclusive custodian of. This course of adventurism is consistent with the record of the Hindutva fraternity’s interventions in the Kashmir issue over the years. Stretching back to the traumatic aftermath of partition, the fraternity has as Balraj Puri, one of J&K’s most respected public figures, reminds us, never had a policy on Kashmir, except one of confusion and prevarication.

Freedom demand: not quite so outlandish

For most of India, it has seemed beyond strange to hear slogans of azaadi resonating through the long weeks of street protests in the valley last year. It has been emotionally troubling – for some, deeply offensive -- to view wall graffiti in all parts of Kashmir, ordering India out with all the baggage that it has brought along. What possibly could be the meaning of these battle cries, which for those weeks of turbulence were on every Kashmiri’s lips?

Beyond the sheer implausibility of an azaadi demand, it is in the perception of most Indian citizens, beyond permissible political sloganeering to seek a breakup of what they consider the sacred topography of the nation. This is a land that was retrieved from colonial oppression, secured from planned balkanisation and built up as a homeland where all could live under a constitutional order. To permit the people of Kashmir to pursue their foolhardy dream of azaadi would be to begin the rapid unravelling of the nation state, with constitutional governance collapsing and life reduced to a state of anarchy.

Late in October last year, a day-long conference was held in the national capital under a banner proclaiming azaadi as the only way forward in Kashmir. Lost in the din that ensued and the repeated demands that the more prominent participants in the conference – notably the writer Arundhati Roy – be booked for sedition, was any effort to engage with the issues raised in day-long discussions that were for the most part, conducted in a tone of rational civility.

Aside from the perception that a pathway towards azaadi had to be found to bring peace to Kashmir, which they shared and endorsed by their presence on the same platform, there was seemingly little else in common between the participants in the conference. And even azaadi would have meant different things for each of the participants. For some on that platform, azaadi probably meant being governed by a clerical order, under a legal regime derived from the religious scripture of the majority faith. For others, it might have meant being governed by a legal regime based on what are thought to be “universal” principles, which equally respect all systems of faith, whether represented in Kashmir or not. Many still, would have perhaps not thought along those lines at all, preferring to leave consideration of the details for a later stage. Almost all on that platform would have believed that political autonomy was the essence of azaadi, though there could have been differing perceptions of the degree to which it would be feasible. And if autonomy from India and Pakistan was how some conceived the state of freedom, others would have understood it to mean a concurrent degree of dependence on both states for ironclad security guarantees.

Azaadi as an ideal is impossible to argue with, since individual liberty and the protection of group rights are essential guarantees of the Indian constitution. If the people of Kashmir have for all the years of the Indian republic -- and with rising insistence over the last twenty years, argued that they do not enjoy the freedom they were promised – the knee-jerk reaction would be to brand them all as unworthy citizens who need to be disciplined with an iron hand. The more considered reaction would be to reflect on how true India has been to its sworn republican values. How has Kashmir become an exception within a constitutional arrangement that guarantees the basic rights for all? How is it that Kashmir has become a zone of unfreedom where the liberties promised by the Constitution are no more than a chimera? And most importantly, how does Kashmir continue to suffer the stigma of disloyalty, worthy of no more benign mode of governance than the iron heel?

Azaadi has no clear contours: it is how people feel

These questions could engage a great many minds in many months and years of debate. But the way forward in Kashmir has to be found before that debate is settled. And if that is to happen, it would simply be unrealistic to expect that all minute details of the state of azaadi that Kashmir aspires to, would be be worked out in advance. The urgent task of peace and reconciliation cannot be hostage to this unreasonableness. People who believe that they are on the verge of momentous political change, are unlikely to have a clear or coherent idea of what the future is likely to be – except to believe as an article of faith, that it would be better than their present. The people of India when it stood on the verge of independence in 1946 had diverse and divergent expectations of what the future political order would be. Their leaders’ confusion on this score, was perhaps even more profound.

In the year before India attained independence, a British civil servant of the Raj who went on a horseback expedition through Punjab to ask the people what they understood by azaadi. What he found was a variety of responses: some felt that azaadi meant liberty from the local money-lender; some thought it meant a more congenial neighbourhood where people of alien faiths and cultures would not be present; some thought it was freedom from taxes; some thought that it meant a state of prosperity where people would not hesitate to pay more taxes. Some felt that azaadi meant barbaadi, that the harmony between Sikh and Muslim would be disturbed and disrupted – and that both sides would suffer.

Points of convergence existed even in this diversity – possibly in terms of getting the British out, though even that cannot be taken for granted. In the six decades since 1947, the concepts of “independence” or “Pakistan” and “partition” have been filled in with a depth of meaning that was lacking at the time that the British pulled out of India in tumultuous haste. But to read these back into history as aspects that are in some senses eternal, would be to distort the process by which people create their histories. This is a process that is often disregarded in the post facto construction of nationalist mythologies.

Britain abandoned the jewel in its imperial crown, though the departure of the British from Indian shores would not have meant an immediate change in perceived reality for most Indians. At the peak of the raj, the number of British nationals involved in the civil services and military rank and file, in administering the empire, was never more than a few tens of thousands – for a population at independence that stood at 300 million. There is no absolutely certain figure, but 100,000 Britons as administrators and soldiers in all of India in 1947 would be a clear over-estimate. And given the population of India then, this would represent a ratio of one Briton for every 3,000 Indians.

Today, for a population of 5 million in the Kashmir valley – formally known as the Kashmir division of J&K state -- India has an estimated troop deployment, military and paramilitary, that remains a closely guarded secret. Kuldeep Khoda, Director-General of Police for J&K, was kind enough to reveal to this team, that the number of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel deployed numbers 58 battalions in the Kashmir valley. A recent media report by a journalist known to be intimately connected to the security and intelligence agencies, puts the army deployment in counter-insurgency operations – under various formations of the Rashtriya Rifles – at 32 battalions.

Taking an average battalion to be about 1,000, this amounts to 90,000 armed persons – already near what the British raj needed in order to maintain itself in a land of 300 million.

The figure of 90,000 is of course a serious under-estimate, since it only covers the army deployments that are designated to be on active counter-insurgency operations. There are more deployed in patrolling and static guard duty, not to mention the many at the border with Pakistan, including those manning artillery and air-defence units. People in Kashmir believe that there is probably one armed person of the Indian army and paramilitary for every 12 of their number.

There is also a fairly overheated figure put out, that no less than 1.5 million acres (about 600,000 hectares or 6000 square kilometres) of land in the state is under the occupation of the security forces. This may seem alarming, since the total area of Jammu and Kashmir is just 222,000 square kilometres, of which about half is outside Indian control. Of an estimated 110,000 square kilometres that India does control, the area alleged to be under the occupation of the armed forces is 6,000 sq km. This figure, which Kashmiri human rights groups have little hesitation to project as authentic, would be by any criterion, an extraordinarily high ratio.

The official figure, per a reply by the Union Defence Minister to a Rajya Sabha question, is that 72,561 acres (about 30,000 hectares or 300 square kilometres) of land in all of J&K is under the armed forces. No separate estimation is available for the Kashmir valley alone. But it needs to be noted that the valley is perhaps the most densely settled, with the largest expanse of cultivable land among the three regions of J&K state. And the total area of the valley is just over 15,000 sq km. According to the Defence Ministry, of the total land under occupation by the armed forces, 46,891 acres (about 190 square kilometres) has been hired or requisitioned “recently”. This is inclusive of about 15,892 acres (about 60 square kilometres) of orchard and agricultural lands. A rent is paid on these lands which is revised every five years. The last such revision occurred in February 2008. If the land hired or requisitioned “recently” were to be assumed to be entirely in Kashmir, that alone would be over 1.2% of the total land area of the valley. This does speak of a rapid and intrusive growth of the military presence in the Kashmir valley.

There is obviously greater transparency called for from the Indian government, both in terms of its troop deployments in the Kashmir valley and the land that has been appropriated, not just by the three uniformed services, but also by the CRPF, BSF and other paramilitaries.

Understanding Kashmir’s state of unfreedom

Irrespective of the figures, which the government releases only with extreme reluctance, the indubitable reality is that the people of Kashmir see the presence of the military and the occupation of parts of their land – including orchard and farmland – as abiding proof that they live in a state of unfreedom. The substantive content of azaadi cannot be very easily described, but the absence of freedom is a very visible reality in Kashmir. It literally strikes the observer in the face, in the intrusive and often overbearing presence of uniformed personnel across the length and breadth of the valley.

The uprising in Kashmir, after the heavy-handed response that it first elicited, led to some loud thinking within official circles about the possibility of thinning the heavy security presence and allowing the normal rituals and routines of civilian life some unimpeded space. Earlier talk about withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) subsided rather rapidly, and even the few verbal concessions to the need to bring down the visible and obtrusive presence of troops in Kashmir, has invited some rather revealing responses.

Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai’s full intent in declaring a possible reduction of 25 percent in force levels in Kashmir within a year, as a “confidence-building measure”, is not clear. It may have been an offhand thought put out in a moment of reflection before an academic audience. It may have come out of a deeper process of consultations within duly constituted official bodies. While announcing this at a public forum in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, Pillai also proposed that residents of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (or Azad Jammu and Kashmir as it is known in those parts) would be granted “unilateral six-month entry permits” for meeting family members on the Indian side.

Within hours, the general who heads the Army’s northern command came up with his own opinion: that a troop cut would not be feasible given operational requirements in the Kashmir valley. Army chief of staff, General V.K. Singh meanwhile, put in his assessment that troop levels would have to be reviewed in Unified Command Headquarters for Kashmir, based in Srinagar.

Less consequentially, but with the symbolic importance that it represented a viewpoint that portrays itself as the “nationalist mainstream”, the J&K state president of the BJP, Shamsher Singh Manhas, came out with his own opinion: “It is an open fact that India’s administration over Jammu and Kashmir is based on presence of armed forces here. So if there is troop-cut then neighbours like China Pakistan and Afghanistan won’t sit silent. Such decision will prove detrimental to the integrity of India”. Manhas also virtually rubbished the proposal to allow entry permits for Kashmiris on the other side of the Line of Control, on the grounds that the requisite climate of trust with Pakistan could never be established.

The final word on this series of exchanges came when Defence Minister A.K. Antony clarified that the 25 percent target for troop reduction would apply only to the CRPF and other paramilitary forces, not to the army.

It does not take great sagacity to see that civilian political control over the armed forces, a principle central to democratic governance, is under pressure in Kashmir and indeed, could soon start eroding. The shift in the balance of power in matters of immense political sensitivity, was apparent soon after the Machhil killings in April last year. As Kashmir’s uprising raged on and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh scheduled a visit to the valley, chief minister Omar Abdullah observed that Machhil cast a shadow of doubt over every supposed encounter involving the elimination of terrorists. A greater sense of accountability was needed, if necessary through amendments in AFSPA. A PTI report quotes Abdullah as saying: “Obviously there will be serious repercussions and doubts will emerge. J&K police is flooded with such complaints and enquiries about encounters are now going back more than five-six years and in some case even eight years”. The problem in part, arose from the impunity that AFSPA afforded: “because it is built for the armed forces, Army is the judge, jury and the hangman. Therefore, there is absence of transparency as a result of which people have lost faith in the system”.

The army command for its part, affirmed its commitment to full transparency in all cases involving the right to life. It promised full cooperation in the Machhil killings inquiry and swore allegiance to any decision on AFSPA by the political leadership. Beyond this ritual obeisance to civilian leadership, the army command did assert its own will, by gently reminding the public that AFSPA was a necessary legal cover for armed forces personnel engaged in anti-insurgency operations.

A further intervention from the uniformed forces came with the army chief of staff General V.K. Singh, advancing the public alibi that the necessary legal action against persons behind Machhil could not be initiated because of the infirmities of the criminal justice system in Kashmir. Responding to a question on why the army was blocking legal proceedings under applicable criminal law, General Singh was quoted as saying: “I don’t know how much you are aware of the legal system in the Valley. There are various pressures out there. You are aware of Mian Abdul Qayyum, who was president of the Bar Association and is now in detention. He has been rabidly anti-Indian … With this kind of situation, what kind of justice would we expect or legal provisions would be followed, is the question mark. And that is why as per the laws and procedures laid down, we would like to complete our inquiry before we come to a conclusion”.

Impunity the rule

If Machhil was about an alarming distortion of the system of rewards and incentives for armed forces serving in Kashmir, the killing of 17-year old Zahid Farooq in the Nishaat Brane area of Srinagar in January last year, was about security personnel being carried away by a fit of vengeful rage. There too, the prosecution has lost its way in the labyrinth of the justice system, with the BSF intent on exploring every diversionary tactic available.

Police in Kashmir believe that the Machhil and Nishat Brane killings will be a departure from the past pattern, since they have found a way to cut through the thicket that could impede the course of justice. If past experience is any indication, this is either bravado or simple disinformation to deflect public scrutiny. A similar display of unswerving purpose was staged for public consumption after it emerged that five innocent civilians had been killed by the army in the Pathribal encounter of March 2000. It was proclaimed as retribution for the thirty-four members of the minority Sikh community who had been killed just days before, and evidence that the army had the will and ability to identify and retaliate against those responsible for terrorist crimes.

The crude fiction, written for U.S. President Bill Clinton’s arrival in Delhi on a much heralded state visit was soon exposed. But its authors remain unpunished, and needless to say, Chhattisinghpora has vanished into a blackhole of historical memory.


The mixture of themes to emerge in the recent public dialogue on the armed forces in Kashmir, underlines many of the principal claims of the azaadi movement. Though emanating from a non-official source, the statement that the army alone holds Kashmir for India, is a strong affirmation that the alienation of the people of the valley is rapidly becoming irreversible – and is recognised as such by mainstream politics.

The penchant that army personnel have shown for speaking up in public on governance issues, is vivid illustration that politics is rapidly making way for a purely military calculus in Kashmir policy. And despite the ritualistic obeisance to the virtues of transparency and accountability, the refusal by the uniformed services to be subject to the judicial system in the valley, speaks of the deep investment they have made in the indefinite sustenance of the prevailing climate of impunity.

Add to this the complaint that this team encountered with few exceptions -- that Kashmiris in every other part of India are constantly made to feel like aliens who do not belong, as potential terrorists who should be watched over – and the shallow pretence that Kashmir is like any other part of the country is decisively blown apart. The Director-General of Police for J&K admitted that this was a serious issue, responsible for much ruffled sensitivities in Kashmir. And the Union Home Ministry recently conceded the point when it sent out a circular to all state governments, urging that prevalent attitudes towards Kashmiris, marking them for special scrutiny and suspicion, be changed. This extraordinary measure, reportedly, followed the advice of the three-member team of interlocutors who have been given the mandate to engage with a cross-section of Kashmiri society, to explore possible ways out of today’s crisis.

Truth-telling and accountability

If accountability is the essence of democracy, the key feature of institutions in Kashmir is that they have been conditioned to be accountable to Delhi rather than the people of the state. And accountability to Delhi means actively pandering to every real and imagined insecurity of the Indian ruling establishment. Every manner of violation of the fundamental rights in Kashmir is permissible if it is seen to serve a purpose for the ruling establishment.

A glimmer of a new awareness -- that political accountability needs necessarily to kick in on all sides -- was evident in January when Abdul Ghani Bhat, the leader of the Muslim Conference and an element in what is known as the moderate faction of the Hurriyat, admitted in a public address in Srinagar, that all too often, the azaadi movement had targeted its best and brightest. The two cases Bhat mentioned were the killing of the Mirwaiz, Maulvi Farooq in May 1990 and Abdul Ghani Lone in May 2002. In both cases, the murders were traced to hardline elements within Kashmir’s azaadi movement, intolerant of any public reservations about accession with Pakistan.

Expectedly, there was a fair degree of coverage in the mainstream Indian media about this admission of culpability by one of the leaders of the Kashmir movement for azaadi. A similar effort at dissection and analysis was not evident when Wajahat Habibullah, a former chief secretary of J&K, came out with a startling admission in a 2008 book, pointing to certain depths of India’s policy in Kashmir that have remained out of bounds for all analysts. In April 1993, Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, a respected medical practitioner in Srinagar and one of the leading lights of the JKLF, was murdered in the city. It was then attributed to a Hizbul Mujahedin militant. But Habibullah now reveals that the murder was part of an elaborate plot to eliminate a person who was regarded as troublesome, simply because he seemed reasonable, articulate and principled.

Guru’s murder was undoubtedly committed by a Hizbul Mujahedin militant, but he had been sprung from prison by the police with the specific mandate of carrying out the hit. And just to ensure that there would be no breach in the compact of secrecy, the killer was shot dead in his safe haven shortly afterwards by the police, who then proclaimed another great triumph in the battle against terrorism.

When this strategy of silencing voices of moderation and reason ran its course, the Indian state evidently changed tack and began arming an extremist fringe that would fight on its behalf. From the mid-1990s on, the counter-insurgency strategy deliberately sought to arm insurgent elements that had since disavowed the azaadi objective, in part in response to financial inducements, for the rest under torture.

Kuka Parray, a former Ikhwan-ul Muslimeen militant, played a major role in enforcing the will of the Indian State when general elections to the J&K state assembly were held in 1996, winning himself a seat in the process. He fell out of favour soon afterwards, lost his seat in the 2002 elections and his life in an ambush – conducted in Kashmir’s remembered history by men in police uniform – in September 2003. He remains the canonical case study of a militant who ostensibly saw the light and decided to fight India’s cause against the jihad, never making too fine a point of distinction between preventing and preempting terrorism.

Another case came to light in 2010 when the name of Ghulam Mohammad Mir was listed in the Republic Day honours as recipient of the Padma Shri. It was an identity that mystified even the most knowledgeable observers of Kashmir and was only revealed after several days to belong to a man popularly known as Muma Kanna. And it was a name that in his native village and the wider area, had “become synonymous with extortion, torture and extra-judicial murders”. The national award confered on this person, as the Kashmiri journalist Muzamil Jaleel observed, “came as a rude shock”. With “zero tolerance” for human rights violations then being declared policy, the award was read as an “open endorsement” by the Indian State, of Kashmir’s “brutal past where private militias had become notorious for extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion in the name of counter-insurgency”. “It also exposed a fundamental disconnect between Kashmir and New Delhi. Awarded for public service, Kanna is only viewed as a public tormentor in Kashmir”.

Humanity under threat

On January 31 this year, two sisters -- Arifa and Akhtar -- were dragged out of their one-room home in Sopore’s mohalla Muslim Peer and shot dead by unidentified gunmen. The following day, the town witnessed sporadic demonstrations and some expressions of public grief at the killing of the two young daughters of a daily wage-earner. The state authorities issued a strongly worded condemnation, which was a virtual challenge to the militant groups to spell out a clear and unequivocal position. The JKLF condemned the act and the groups yet to foreswear violence and believed to be controlled from Pakistan – the Hizbul Mujahedin and the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba – denied involvement.

As with numerous other killings engineered by faceless individuals and groups that claim to act in the cause of azaadi and arrogate to themselves the right to punish those deemed guilty of transgressing a rigid moral code, this most recent crime did not initially attract the kind of wide public condemnation as the Shopian killings in 2009.

On the first Friday following the killings, Sopore shut down in belated, though unanimous protest. Women took to the streets in one of the first public protests against a killing attributed to the militants. And a representative of the separatist Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, arrived in Sopore to express solidarity with the protests.

That very night, 24-year old Manzoor Ahmad Magray was shot dead near his village in the Handwara area of northern Kashmir. The army admitted to the killing but insisted that proper rules of engagement had been followed. The youth had been given adequate warning to turn himself in after he walked into a night-time ambush. Since he chose instead to flee, the army had adequate cause to shoot to kill.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah would have none of it. He travelled from the winter capital of Jammu to Handwara to meet the family of the slain youth and spoke out in unusually strong language against army tactics. The J&K police have been ordered to treat Manzoor’s death as a case of murder and to investigate accordingly. The family has meanwhile advanced its own claim: that Manzoor was picked up from his home and shot dead by the army.

As Kashmir’s biting winter slowly gives way to the spring thaw, the various actors on its political stage prepare for a new round of contestation. Unlike all other parts of the country, some of these players bear arms and bring that coercive power to the bargaining table. Firepower from the so-called “secessionist” side is nowhere near matching the greater ammunition that the Indian State brings to the table. And all evidence is that little has been learnt from Kashmir’s long years of turbulence.

No comments: