Gun Salutes for August 15, 2008

Anniversaries are good opportunities for reflection. I write this in the early hours of 15th August, 2008, the 61st anniversary of Indian independence.

The events of the past few months, and the past few days, in the Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir have demonstrated how well and how equally (or not) the police, paramilitaries and armed forces of the Indian Republic treat different kinds of protesting crowds. The facts that I am about to discuss are good measures with which to think about the relationship between acts of power, different kinds of people, sovereignty, life and death in the Indian nation state as it has evolved over the past 61 years.

The region of Jammu in the province of Jammu and Kashmir has been caught in the grip of a fierce agitation against the revocation of the land transfer to the Amarnath Shrine Board. We have all seen footage of angry SASS (Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti) activists brandishing trishuls, setting up roadblocks and burning tyres, the agitation has spread to different parts of India

As of August 10, the following has taken place (in Jammu)

“…* 18 cases have been registered in connection with communal violence in which 20 persons were injured, 72 Kulas (hutments) of Gujjars were burnt down, 22 vehicles damaged and several trucks carrying supplies looted. “These are only reported incidents. Many such incidents have taken place, which have not been reported so far,” the officers told the team.

* 117 police personnel and 78 civilians were injured including two policemen who were lynched and are “battling for life” in PGI Chandigarh while six civilians were killed, including three in police and Army action.

* 129 cases were registered against the rioters. A total of 1171 arrests were made but most of them are now out on bail.

* 10, 513 protest demonstrations and 359 serious incidents of violence have taken place across Jammu in which 28 government buildings, 15 police vehicles and 118 private vehicles have been damaged…”

The information given above is quoted from – “Dangerous divide: Jammu officials put it in black and white”by Muzamil Jaleel, Indian Express, August 10, 2008. Muzamil Jaleel culled this information from a briefing delivered by government officials in the Jammu region to a visiting ‘all party delegation’

As is clear, of the reported deaths in the Jammu region, two are of policemen, who were attacked by the pro Amarnath Land Transfer agitationists. Two of these are suicides, both of whom have been hailed as ‘martyrs’ by the Shree Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti activists. Only three out of six deaths, in the past twenty or so days of relentless and violent agitation, which included intimidation of truckers on the Jammu Srinagar highway can be attributed to police or paramilitary action. Each of these deaths is unfortunate and deserves to be condemned.

In two further and separate incidents, the VHP, BJP, Shiv Sena and Sangh Parivar and allied organizations ‘Chakka Jam’ that paralysed roads in major cities yesterday, two more people died, because they could not reach hospitals on time. These two people were the ‘collateral damage’ of the upsurge of patriotic sentiment displayed by activists sympathetic to the SASS agitation in Jammu.

On the other hand, in the part of the Kashmir valley administered and occupied by India, in the past few days alone, in several instances of firing on unarmed mobs, have led to the deaths of 30 people. Many of these deaths occured when unarmed crowds tried to accompany trucks carrying fruit (which had earlier been prevented from proceeding towards markets on the Srinagar Jammu highway) towards Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Fruit growers in Indian administered Kashmir were at the forefront of attempting to salvage precious stocks of produce by taking to the ‘Muzafarabad Road’. Apart from the 30 confirmed dead, several more are in hospitals, injured in critical conditions, and there lives are endangered by the fact that life saving medicines are in short supply due to the economic blockade of the Kashmir valley.

The difference in treatment of two different kinds of crowds is easy to see. In one instance, more than twenty days of continuing, violent agitation result in two deaths by police firing. In another instance, less than a week’s agitation results in 30 deaths. Clearly, the loss of lives in the Kashmir valley does not amount to much in the calculus of power. A rough arithmetic of sorts would indicate that a comparison of two casualties (in Jammu) to thirty casualties (in Kashmir) means that agitating Kashmiri lives are approximately ten times less significant (or more expendable) than agitating Jammu lives. The agitation in Jammu has harped often on how it is discriminated against in comparison to Kashmir. In one sense at least there is some truth in this charge. In the matter of the expenditure of bullets by the Indian state, there is no comparison at all between Jammu and Kashmir. When it comes to ammunition, way more bullets are spent in Kashmir than is the case in Jammu.

It is clear, that the Indian state’s armed might does not confront rampaging Jammu mobs if they hold the tricolour and shout nationalist slogans, or slogans in favour of the Amarnath Shrine Board’s desire for land in the Kashmir Valley, even if they sometimes lynch policemen. On the other hand, unarmed fruit growers and ordinary people on the streets of the Kashmir valley are sitting targets for trigger happy police, paramilitary and army personnel. Guns can be, and are being aimed at their heads.Unlike Jammu, no policemen or armed forces personnel have been killed, at least until now, in the course of the fruit growers agitation in the Kashmir valley.

As, independence day dawns, a clear pattern emerges. When push comes to shove, the Indian state has no hesitation in expending its bullets in some cases, and in showing exemplary restraint in others. Mowing down crowds that hold the tricolour flag aloft doesn’t look good on TV. But, obviously, a little bloodletting in the streets of Srinagar on the eve of Independence day is good for ‘national’ morale.

Now, if, you were one of those who happens to be the kind of person who the state seems to be willing to favour with a shower of bullets at any given opportunity, would you be celebrating ‘Independence Day’? What would you be celebrating, – your freedom to fall to a policeman’s gun?

No wonder they play national anthems with gun salutes. A hail of bullets makes for the most fitting percussive accompaniment to poignant displays of national pride in India today.

(Apologies for cross posting on Reader-List)

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