A hundred and twelve lives, most of them young, some very young, were lost in Kashmir when the army, paramilitaries and police forces opened fire on several occasions from June to September in 2010. That was only six years ago. The latest reports indicate that around twenty three lives have already been lost in the last two days alone, in the aftermath of state troopers, soldiers and paramilitaries firing at funeral protests, after Burhan Wani, a twenty two year old insurgent, who had acquired the aura of a folk hero in Kashmir, was killed in an ‘encounter’, along with two of his associates, on Friday morning in a village in Kokernag.
Several more people have sustained serious injuries. The body count is likely to rise. Curfews have returned, phone and internet links are suspended, but nothing seems to keep people from spilling out onto the streets, and unlike previous instances, the communications ban seems to be unworkable. No one can pretend that Kashmir is not in crisis, again, today.
The people in power, at the state and the centre, were different in 2010. Omar Abdullah, then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was offering mealy mouthed rationalizations for killing kids then, while Mehbooba Mufti, was weeping crocodile tears. It is the other way round right now. Omar is being ‘sensitive’, Mehbooba, who the roll of the dice has placed in the position of chief minister now, is ’sullenly’ presiding over a badly timed by-election victory. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was silent then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is playing percussion instruments in Africa now. If Nero played the harp while Rome burnt, Modi beats drums while Kashmir goes up in flames.
In other words, the Indian occupation of Kashmir was business as usual then, it is business as usual now. Its only the body count that might distinguish one episode of the venality of the occupation from another. At the moment, we can only hope that the number of young people being killed will remain within two digits. But this is highly unlikely. The spiral of funerals, shootings, funerals and more shootings is unlikely to wind down too soon. This nightmare has only just begun.
As far as India’s assault on the people of Kashmir is concerned, the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same. ‘Confidence Building Measures’ rise and fall, The principal parts and their players change, governments come and go, parties change shape, size and color, coalitions are done up and undone, the one thing that remains the same is the fact that the occupation of Kashmir by the military forces of the Indian Republic stays founded on a basic and fundamental immorality – the lack of consent. The ‘largest democracy in the world’ is afraid to confront the ‘will of the people’ in what it considers to be its crown. India’s pretence at being the ‘largest democracy in the world’ will ring hollow as long as it keeps the people of Kashmir ‘integrated’ into coffins with bombs and bullets.
A friend, who happens to be Kashmiri, reflecting on the events of the past few days, posted on her Facebook wall – the cryptic, yet crystal clear comment – riffing off the psychopath’s anthem from the film Darr – “Tu Han Kar, Ya Na Kar, to Hai Meri – K, K, K, K” – meaning, regardless of “whether you say you yes, or no, you, K, K, K, K, are mine”.
Like any ordinary, garden variety, obsessive psychopath, the Indian nation state’s possessiveness about Kashmir has nothing to do with the ‘yes’, or ‘no’ of its people. The love that Indian nationalists have for Kashmir, like the love that the character played by Shahrukh Khan for his K-K-K-Kkiran, is a lethal embrace. It doesn’t care for how suffocating a stranglehold that passion can be. Had it been any different, then the decades of denying the right to a promised plebiscite would not have produced so many Burhan Wanis in so many coffins in so many villages, towns and cities of Kashmir.
The killings of 2010 did not stop time,just as the killings of the 1990s did not, although their intensity should have made even time hesitate. The hours and days should have stopped in their tracks. Clocks and calendars should have gone on strike, but they did not. Summer gave way to autumn, which gave way to winter. Several winters passed. Elections, a deluge, and the daily humiliations of cordon operations, searches, checkpoints and the casual violence born of the highest military-to-civilian ratio in the world produced its own casualties.
In October 2010, Burhan Wani, then sixteen years old, was on a motorcycle, with his brother Khalid Wani, and a friend. They were out on a bike ride, through Tral, the area that they had grown up in, as teenage boys do, anywhere. They were stopped at a Special Operations Group Picket of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and ordered to get cigarettes for the troopers. Khalid went and got the cigarettes, Burhan and the friend waited. After the transaction, for no apparent reason, the troopers pounced on the boys, beat them up severely, damaged the bike, which had been Khalid’s pride and joy. Khalid lost consciousness. But perhaps it was Burhan who suffered the greatest injury, and that injury, an invisible one, was what any self respecting young person with a sense of dignity might feel when beaten for no reason other than the fact that he is there to be beaten.
The foundation for this casual violence meted out by people in uniform on people who do not wear uniforms lies in the circumstances and history of a violent occupation. When power rests on nothing other than the fear and injury that it perpetuatess in the minds of a population then its violence becomes a banal habit. Burhan Wani had seen six cousins turn up at doorstep in coffins as a child. His brother Khalid, who had never been a militant, was killed recently, for no identifiable reason – other than that he had been to see Burhan in his forest hideout. In Kashmir, a young man does not have to die for a reason. One might as well ask the question the other way round. What circumstances have continued to let a young man live, without a pellet in his eye, without a bullet in his spine, without crutches and wheelchairs and bouts of intense psychological trauma? Death requires no reason in Kashmir, it is life that demands an explanation.
Four months of killings on the streets produced an ideal atmosphere for the maintenance of the Indian Republic’s peace in Kashmir in the autumn of 2010. Policemen stopped some teenagers, cocked their loaded guns at them, demanded cigarettes, beat them to pulp. Business as usual.
It is possible that Burhan the teenager died that day when his brother’s motorcycle was stopped so casually, so callously. It is possible that Burhan the ‘militant’, who grew to be ‘militant commander’ was born that very same day.
Within a few weeks Burhan disappeared into the mists of the forests of South Kashmir. He emanated, over the years, in the form of videos shared over social media, playing cricket, listening to songs through his headphones by a campfire, posing, like a slightly silly macho young man with guns that he should never have had to feel the need for, that were thrust on him by the fact that ‘men with guns’ is the most important face of itself that the Indian state shows to Kashmiris. The militancy that is generated is the mirror of the occupation’s protocols. Armed men beget armed men. Commander Burhan Wani was produced and destroyed by the Indian state, which made it impossible for a young, intelligent, charismatic man like Burhan to salvage his dignity by any means other than that of being an armed combatant.
In Burhan’s last video, he speaks of targeting soldiers and policemen, those who represent the armed might of the Indian state. As far as statements go, this video is by not very different in spirit from an Indian solider saying that he would target an armed insurgent, in Kashmir, or any other enemy. This is the kind of dull propagandist machismo that is a routine feature of the communiques of an armed conflict. In war, (and Kashmir is a battlefield, which is proven simply by the overwhelming presence of the Indian army and paramilitaries on Kashmiri territory) those who take on themselves the mantle of being soldiers, fight their adversaries, and often feel the need to say that they will. The Indian army does it as much as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
But there are a few other things that Burhan Wani says. He says he and his fellow fighters will not touch Hindu pilgrims on the Amaranth Pilgrimage in Kashmir. He says that the pilgrimage is their right, and nothing should prevent them from undertaking their religious duties. He also says that they will not hurt Kashmiri policemen who do not hurt them. He appeals to Kashmiri Pundits to return and live again as neighbors with Kashmiri Muslims, but says that any efforts to make what he calls ‘Israeli’ style ‘settlements’ (referring here to the the armed and fortified Israeli settler enclaves within West-Bank-Palestine) will be resisted. The video is in fact a list of the people Burhan Wani says he will fight, together with a list of the people he says that he will not harm. The second category outweighs the first.
The conduct that the Indian state has demonstrated in response to the crowds that gathered at the protests to mark Burhan Wani’s death show us that the standard operating procedure, at least as of now, for the Indian state represents a spirit opposite to that of Burhan Wani’s declaration. At least as far as honour is concerned, Burhan won, the Indian state lost. Unlike Burhan and his band, the armed might of the Indian occupation is making no bones about the fact that it is out to get unarmed civilians. They are shooting at young people, boys, girls, old women, at anyone who comes in their way. They are attacking ambulances carrying injured people. They are entering hospitals, attacking doctors and nurses, and lobbing tear gas shells into intensive care units, suffocating patients with respiratory diseases. They are breaking every single code that governs the conduct of what might be thought of as an ‘honourable’ war.
It is under these circumstances that the client politicians of the occupation make appeals to parents to keep children indoors, so that they do not come in the way of soldiers bullets. This indicates the extent to which the occupation understands, and has internalized, its own savagery. The officials and politicians of the occupation are not making an appeal to soldiers not to aim at the bodies of young people, because they know that such appeals will be meaningless. The chief spokesman of the Jammu and Kashmir Government walks out of a press conference when pressed for answers about why so many people are being killed. There is a rare candour in this breakdown of a ‘press conference’.
The newsrooms of Delhi and Mumbai are already full of people volubly gloating as the body count rises. Editors of respectable newspapers are calling the fallen Burhan Wani, a ‘pig’. News anchors are demanding to know why the insurgent and those being killed by troopers should be given the dignity of a burial, why, instead, their bodies should not be burnt and have their ashes scattered instead. This is how India is taking back Kashmir. This is how India is losing Kashmiris.
At least in this instance, the Indian state and its disgusting clients in the media and political class have not had the courage to demonstrate the promise of a soldierly compassion that Burhan Wani had held out, that no violence would be done unto unarmed civilians, whatever be the conditions of battle.
I would have liked to have met Burhan Wani. We would probably have, (in fact I am sure that we would have) had a lot of disagreements, serious disagreements. About nationalism, about what he might hold out as the goal of national-liberation, which I would only see as illusion. About means and ends in politics. About faith, certainty, and doubt, about how the calcification of identities imprison political imaginations, about the eternal difference between war and revolution. But for that to have happened he needed to have lived and played some more cricket, or even faced the consequences of an arrest, and a trial, if charges more substantial than the making of internet videos and wearing costumes could have been proven against him. Given his charisma, his intelligence, his youth, and his obvious following, he might have been able to play a part in the scenarios necessary for finding peace and freedom in Kashmir. He might have been able to be a part of the future, not the past, of Kashmir.
Every young person who is dying or injured in Kashmir today could have been a part of that conversation. Every fatality is a cancelled conversation. Perhaps even a difficult cancelled conversation. Whatever else may or many not happen over the next days, weeks, months, we can say one thing with certainty. Without that conversation there will be no peace, no freedom, in Kashmir, or in India.
For that conversation to occur, we need to arrive at a situation where the casual violence of an occupation does not kill a teenager’s spirit, repeatedly. That requires a much greater courage than even the fighting spirit that can be mustered by an occupying army.
For that to happen, India needs to become what it takes to be a peaceful and friendly neighbour, not a violent occupier, of Kashmir.
I know that in my life-time, despite what the idiots who are in power think, that day will come.