Kashmir from Orient to a State of Exception

[This essay has been published in The Funambulist Issue 8, Nov-Dec 2016]

Ather Zia


Kashmir, the Orient

Historically the global imagination has often reflected on Kashmir, the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom through scenes of colonial idyll, wilderness, and romance. This imagery was fine tuned through works like “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance” a poem written in 1817 by Thomas Moore an English poet. Photographs from the bygone era are replete with soft verdant valleys, majestic peaks capped with snow, white water river’s forcefully rushing down the mountains; wild flowers and gazelles and gentle lambs. An odd native or two may be seen lurking, but more of less they are shown in service of the Sahibs, an honorific title for Englishmen.


Kashmir has always been a tragic beauty. When the star of Western colonial power was in full ascendancy, Kashmir was being handed over from one tyrannical rule to the next. In 1846 the British colonials sold the valley along with its sprawling provinces to the Hindu Dogra kings. The Dogras remained in the British protectorate and were annually required to present the crown with one horse, twelve shawl goats, and three pairs of finest Kashmiri shawls. This historic treaty included the sale of not only the land but also its people.


The 100 year of Dogra rule were ruthless. While the colonial travellers eulogized Kashmir’s rejuvenating natural beauty, leisure inspiring environs, and deep solitude, the native’s who were mostly poor and broken under tyrannical rules were amply admonished for their primitiveness and general aura of servitude. But the Kashmiris, even when burdened by centuries of de-facto slavery also had the hallmark resilience of people fighting for identity. By the early 19th century while India was fighting for the ouster of British, Kashmiri’s were fighting for overthrowing the Dogra monarch, which by 1944 congealed into the famed Quit Kashmir movement.


And that was then.


Kashmir, the Colony

After the end of British rule in 1947, when Pakistan and India came into being the princely state of Kashmir was simplistically forced to choose either of two dominions. According to the partition logic independence was not an option and as Muslim majority state Kashmir would go to Pakistan. The Dogra monarch, who was a Hindu, was famously plied by India even when he had signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan. He ended up drawing a treaty of accession with India, the authenticity of which continues to be disputed. The monarch fled Kashmir, after which a full-scale war between India and Pakistan ensued over the territory.


Pandit Nehru India’s first prime Minister took the issue to the United Nations in January 1948. In the complaint India reiterated its pledge of a conditional commitment to a “plebiscite or referendum under international auspices” to settle Kashmir. The United Nations brokered a “cease-fire line”, splitting the region into two. This line has since been renamed as Line of Control or LOC for short. The one-third of the territory became a semi-autonomous entity within Pakistan known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). The two-third of the region including the valley of Kashmir was taken under Indian control. The United Nations deployed a Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan and promised to hold an internationally monitored plebiscite to decide the fate of Kashmir. Kashmiris strongly demand that Independence be added as an option to reflect their desire for nationhood; a desire, which they say is older than India or Pakistan.


The plebiscite was never held.


Kashmir, the Postcolony

The years that followed the beginning of the Indian administration in Kashmir can at best be called as “management” of what most Kashmiris call “Jabri-qabza” (occupation or forced-possession). A mix of dubious electoral politics involving rigging, installing pro-India administrators, quashing opposition, and incarcerations and heavy militarization has kept Indian governance afloat in Kashmir. In 1965 an armed struggle for liberation known as the Al-Fatah movement started but was swiftly suppressed by India. After years of repression against the pro-freedom political resistance, Kashmir again rose in an armed struggle against India in 1989. It was a popular indigenous movement supported by Azad Kashmir and Pakistani patronage. In the last 33 years, India has increased its troops to over 700,000 in the region. Emergency laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA) have been implemented in order to tighten Indian military’s grip. There is roughly one Indian soldier for every eight Kashmiris, making Kashmir one of the densely militarized zones in the world. Human Rights organizations claim that until now, more than 70,000 Kashmiris, both combatants and non-combatants have been killed, and over 8000 have disappeared.


AFSPA has given the Indian troops a power that facilitates arbitrary arrest and detention as well as extrajudicial executions. A state of siege exists in Kashmir where every civilian is under as much surveillance as any armed militant, if not more. Bunkers, lookouts, army camps, patrol units, and mine resistant armored vehicles have become part of the landscape. Under AFSPA which the Indian army considers a holy word the troops can “arrest without warrant, any person who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest.” Almost everyone in Kashmir is always under reasonable suspicion, hence never far away from being shot, “disappeared” or being incarcerated, raped, or beaten. These have become common stories, which every Kashmiri household bears as painful legacies.


Kashmir, a State of Exception

Since 2008, armed militancy has receded and the pro-freedom movement has taken a major turn towards civilian uprisings, including public demonstrations. A new genre of protestors has also emerged: they are known as the Sangbaaz (those who throw stones). These protestors engage in pitched-street battles with Indian troops armed with nothing but rocks. These Sangbaaz are just boys-next door with no special combat training whatsoever. Their qualifications at best include being able bodied and their utter fury at the Indian hegemony. While the rock throwing has been called the Kashmiri Intifada, alluding to Palestinian protests, this mode of combat is not new in Kashmir. Folklorists trace the origins of rock throwing to the period when in the 16th century Mughal rulers from Delhi annexed Kashmir. At that time, bands of Kashmiri men called “dilawars” (bravehearts) would fight the Mughal soldiers by throwing rocks at them.


This summer, nearly 556 years later, Kashmiris are once again fighting to liberate their homeland from yet another protracted foreign rule this time again operational from Delhi. As of writing on September 22, 2016) this it is the 76th day of government imposed curfew and extreme military force that has been used against people. Street protests, stone battles and demonstrations continue unabated. People are singular in their demand for freedom from India and self-determination. This fresh uprising began on the evening of July 7, 2016 when, along with the much-needed showers breaking a hot summer came the news that Burhan Wani, a popular militant, had been killed by the Indian forces. Burhan, as a mere 15 year old, had joined militancy in 2010 in the aftermath of a major uprising. In the last six years, Burhan had become the face of indigenous Kashmiri movement for self-determination. He was idolized amongst younger generation and fan pages in his honor had sprouted all over social media. Burhan had become the face of the digital age of Kashmiri freedom movement.


Burhan’s death unleashed a volcanic angst against India. Historically, India has been given to labeling the pro-freedom protests as “law and order” situation,. The political demands of Kashmiris have often been sidelined as disaffections of unemployment, or alienation. Indian political apparatus also subsumes the pro-freedom movement for Kashmir into the global terrorism debate, thus continuing to ignore a serious dialogue on self-determination with the Kashmiris. In the last two and half months, more than 80 people have been killed, over 11000 injured and over 500 youth have been made vision impaired or blinded. The Indian government has authorized the use of pellet shotguns originally made for hunting animals as non-lethal methods of crowd control. The pellet guns have caused the massive injuries in eyes, face as well as mortal fatalities. International human rights organizations have denounced the disproportionate use of force against protestors who are usually unarmed or at the most bear rocks. Such has been the degree of lethal force used both on protestors and non-protestors that UNCHR is persisting in its demand to enter Kashmir to investigate the HR abuses committed by the India forces.


In September, two months after Burhan’s killing, as the curfew and protests entered its third month Sayar Shiekh a 15-year-old boy became one more casualty in what has been called India’s “war on people.” The events preceding Sayar’s killing are telling of the everyday tragedy that Kashmiri lives have become. Sayar’s parents say that he rose early to take a bath, and then wore new clothes because he had finally decided to join what turned out to be his first and last protest. A ninth grade, a prodigy at mathematics, Sayar had long dreamed of laying down his life for Kashmir’s liberation from India. On 7 September he got his wish. Sayar’s dream and legacy are symbolic of the extent to which the Kashmiris, both old and young have been pushed to the wall by the Indian excesses and the deep neglect of their demand of Independent nationhood. Like Sayar many young Kashmiris today dream being martyred for Kashmir’s liberation. They do not care if they are unarmed or only bearing rocks. These Kashmiris are in full knowledge that their protest will be quelled with disproportionate force by the Indian authorities.


Their struggle for self-determination under UN auspices continues.


Find this essay also here on its original publication journal the Funambulist site: https://thefunambulist.net/articles/guest-columns-kashmir-orient-state-exception-ather-zia


Leave a Comment