India’s moral claim to Kashmir has never seemed more fragile

India’s moral claim to Kashmir has never seemed more fragile

Kapil Komireddi,

India has spent the past decade lying to itself about Kashmir. The Pakistan-sponsored insurgency of the 1980s was contained. Elections were being held in the valley. People were defying militants to vote in them. Separatism was a cause of the fringe. Merger with Pakistan was the obsession of an infinitesimal minority. It was time to resettle the Hindu Kashmiris cleansed from the valley in the 1980s.

The reactions to the ongoing eruption of violent protests in Kashmir reveal the depths to which such comforting lies percolated the Indian consciousness. India is shocked to discover that, far from being stifled, the fervour for independence has intensified and infected sections of Kashmiri society once regarded as reliably pro-Indian. Indians are surprised to learn that the large sums of cash Delhi has poured into Kashmir has not endeared them to Kashmiris. Half a million Indian soldiers are deployed in Kashmir. They no longer seem capable of restraining Kashmiris without randomly distributing deaths and disabilities among protesters. Politicians currently in power in Delhi cannot fathom the crisis of legitimacy that stalks the state in Kashmir.

The appearance of calm in Kashmir began to shatter last summer with the killing of Burhan Wani. A charismatic young advocate of independence from India, Wani was a militant who lived by the gun. His eloquent exhortations for “Azadi” from India, recorded and uploaded to the internet, made him a cult figure. In his last video, he offered “advice” to Kashmiri officers: turn your weapons on India. He was hunted and killed by Indian armed forces, who branded the operation the “biggest success against militants” in decades. Kashmiris saw things differently. There was a public outpouring of grief to the news of Wani’s death. A 100,000 crowd gathered at his funeral. Within days, Kashmir was consumed by civil unrest. Dozens of protesters were killed by Indian forces. There were as many funerals for the dead and every funeral became an occasion for renewed protest. India, having imposed a curfew, initiated a “non-lethal” crackdown. In practice, this meant firing “pellet guns” at crowds of protesters. The “pellets”, loaded with lead and designed to penetrate the soft tissue of the body, mutilated and blinded hundreds of Kashmiris.

A Kashmiri student throws a chair towards Indian security forces during clashes in Srinagar. Mukhtar Khan / AP

As Kashmiris bled and went blind, what was striking was the refusal of a large number of Indians even to acknowledge their torment. India’s voluble news media tripped over themselves in urging the government to be even more unsparing. Insulated from any meaningful debate on New Delhi’s conduct in Kashmir, many Indians fell back on old shibboleths to make sense of what was unfolding there. In these uncomplicated narratives, Kashmiri Muslims who protested against New Delhi were naturally Pakistan-sponsored jihadis. Indian armed forces were incapable of wrongdoing. And Kashmir, without exception, was an “integral” part of India. This is a belief system that asserts India’s ownership of Kashmir by effectively disenfranchising Kashmiris.

The Indian army continues to function under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir.

One of the cruelest pieces of legislation on India’s statue books, the AFSPA grants immunity from prosecution to the troops operating in Kashmir and other restive regions of the country. India advertises itself to the planet as the world’s largest democracy, a nation of laws, but consider the plight of the Kashmiris who have been persecuted on the mere presumption of being enemies of Indian democracy – and then denied the legal remedies of democratic India to challenge that premise. Kashmiris are vilified at the slightest provocation as fifth columnists and deemed unworthy of the protections afforded to citizens in other parts of the country. But they are expected, in all circumstances, to pledge constant allegiance to India.

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Elections have so far been the most dependable measure of allegiance. Kashmiris queuing to vote in elections have routinely been heralded as proof of Indian nationalism’s vindication. Strangely, the absence of voters in this month’s by-election in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is not being interpreted as confirmation of the near-death of the appeal of Indian nationalism to Kashmiri Muslims. Only seven per cent of the electorate turned up to vote in the by-election held on April 9. The poor turnout was put down to violence. But when the vote was held again in 38 polling stations the following week, voter turnout dropped to 2 per cent. In all, 702 people turned up to vote. Not a single vote was cast in many of the polling stations. Many in the government blame threats by Pakistan-backed separatists for the abysmal turnout. But this excuse is a non-starter, because the power of the separatists to disrupt elections is no match for the capacity of the security apparatus to maintain order.

To identify the failings of the state is not to exonerate its adversaries. Pakistan has played a thoroughly destructive role in Kashmir. It has trained and armed militants. Its decision in 1963 to sign away to China large chunks of territory over which it had no sovereignty made it clear that it was motivated primarily by the desire to humiliate India rather than help Kashmiri Muslims. Moreover Pakistan, having presided in Bangladesh over the worst atrocities ever committed against a predominantly Muslim population, cannot expect India to accept Islamabad’s self-appointed position as the champion of Kashmir’s aggrieved Muslims.

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Yet, after granting all this, it is also true that India’s moral claim to Kashmir has never seemed more fragile. India could once credibly argue for Kashmir’s place within its fold because the religion of a majority of Kashmiris – which is the basis of Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir – was irrelevant to full citizenship of a secular state. But as India transforms under Narendra Modi from a quasi-secular state to a de facto Hindu-supremacist state, it can no longer invoke the foundational arguments of Indian nationalism to retain Kashmir. A Hindu India cannot accommodate religious multiplicity any more than an Islamic Pakistan can. An India that has ceased to be secular has lost its moral right to Kashmir.

India is in a vicious mood. Religious minorities in states that are undisputedly Indian live in terror of a vengeful majority licensed by the government. In such a place, at such a time, Kashmiris are not likely to garner much sympathy.

Hindu Kashmiris, driven from their homes by the separatists and used as pawns by Hindu nationalists, will continue to rot away as refugees in Jammu. Muslim Kashmiri separatists will continue to perish in their futile but unremitting confrontations with security forces.

A surface calm may once again return to Kashmir. But when the next eruption occurs, India will have no right to be surprised.

[Courtesy The National]