Azadi Resurrected: A Referendum In Blood

Ather Zia

As I write this, it is the 51st day of protests in Kashmir. The number of those killed by the Indian forces is 69+; the injured are more than 8500; more than 570 have had their eyes ruptured by pellet shotguns. Not all of those killed and maimed were active protesters. The internet and pre-paid mobile phone services continue to be blocked. Towards the last week of August, the day curfew intensified and night curfew was also effective. Newspapers were forced to cease publishing as the PDP-BJP government grappled with the burgeoning protests. Facebook also blocked and censored many users posting about the Kashmir situation. To combat the rising protests, the government brought in the Border Security Force, which re-entered Srinagar after 11 years. All these events followed the killing of Burhan Wani, a 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen fighter who was killed on 7 July 2016. Burhan, who hailed from a well-to-do educated family, was seen as the face of the indigenous Kashmiri movement for self-determination.

The Valley has been witnessing an increasing surge in anti-India and pro-freedom demonstrations. Hospitals have become war zones; medical supplies are falling short and doctors are working overtime. The air in the Valley is laden with chilli and pepper gas. People on foot, on bikes and buses call the “Chalo”, a name given to freedom marches towards destinations such as shrines or popular landmarks. Women’s participation in the current uprising has been vigorous, and creative. To the extent that Muzaffar Beg of the PDP said that the night curfew was being imposed because women were organizing protests after-hours when finished with household chores. The Kashmiri Sikh community has joined the freedom marches as well.

Kashmiris are in the full swing of a pure unfettered resistance to India. The air is charged, and also desperate. The famed Azadi song of Kashmir resonates in the rallies. Masjids are aflame with freedom songs and eulogies for the maimed and killed. Songs exhorting the revolution from the early 90s have made a comeback, while new lyrics and slogans are being stringed to reflect the present moment. Night vigils, defying curfews, are organized in neighbourhoods. Soup kitchens are in full go to help communities tide over food shortages; others address the gap in medicine supply and aid the wounded and sick in the hospitals. Neighbourhood “curfew schools” are keeping kids abreast with their study curriculum. The Kashmiri diaspora is rallying around consulates globally, and is engaged in on-the-ground and social media campaigns. What had started as demonstrations and in-absentia funeral prayers for Burhan has ended up becoming a full-blown uprising that continues till date. It seems that revolution in Kashmir is always brimming beneath the surface and the demand for Azadi is a live-wire; never “not active.”

Today, the Kashmiris are inconsolable and reluctant to let go of the momentum that their demand for freedom has gained in the past 51 days. Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister heading the BJP-PDP coalition, is desperate. These days in Kashmir the only thing she is noted for are her gauche politics, aggressive demeanour, contrary actions and statements that suggest that her party has no game-plan except to secure their hold on seats of power. Rajnath Singh has made two forgettable visits to the Valley. The journalists he met also faced an extremely high-strung Mehbooba Mufti. During one of the many absurd moments in the press conference, Ms. Mufti tried to prove her allegiance to Kashmir by recounting how in the past she had saved young boys from the brutality of the Indian army. As she listed human rights abuses at the hands of Indian security personnel, Rajnath Singh was left awkwardly nodding in a show of support while she incriminated the army. This moment was symbolic in telling Kashmiris that the only treatment New Delhi had for Kashmir was that of cosmetic appeasement. Rajnath Singh rehashed the hackneyed narrative of development, which Kashmir emphatically says is not the answer to their demands. Also, stubbornly attributing this spontaneous and grassroots uprising to Pakistan’s machinations is taken as an affront by the Kashmiris.

The current protests have reinforced quite a few important home truths about Kashmir; and what ails it — and not just since 1947, but before India and Pakistan became separate nations. Since 1953 India has steadily eroded Kashmir as an independent territorial entity. Come 1972, the Shimla agreement downgraded it as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, negating the Kashmiris entirely. Soon after, India usurped Kashmir as an “internal/domestic issue.” The armed struggle of 1989 did bring Kashmiris back into attention but Pakistan’s shadow loomed large on the indigeneity of the movement.

Since 2008, with the armed militancy at an all-time low, a strong grassroots resistance has been gathering momentum. It started with what is now known as theAmarnath land row, and quickly turned into a pro-freedom uprising. Ironically, the year of the 2010 when the UN took Kashmir off its international dispute list became another milestone when the grassroots again seized the power of protest against India. This was the year of “Ragdo Ragdo Bharat Ragdo” — a sloganeering repertoire accompanied by actions of trampling Indian symbols. More than 200 were killed and 2000 maimed by the Indian forces.

Come 2016, and the street protests and pitched stone battles have again taken centrestage as the epitome of anti-India resistance. The level of defiance in Kashmir is at an all-time high. Even if the Kashmiris have seized their power through laying down their lives and limbs, they have a clear agreement that their fight is for Azadi and nothing less. This uprising once again drives a nail into the coffin of those Indian narratives that undermine Kashmir’s resolution by the a historic, nationalistic and myopic analytics such as “underdevelopment,” “mismanagement,” “unemployment,” “alienation,” and “failure to integrate.”

Today in Kashmir, Azadi as an active demand stands resurrected. No strategies of “winning hearts and minds,” or the ilk of the Abdullahs, Muftis, Hasnains or Dulats, or the Indian soldiery, have succeeded in making Azadi any less desirable for Kashmiris. Even though it’s not a great help to the indigenous Kashmiri movement, the US State Department has said that it sees Kashmir as a political dispute (rather than, by implication, as a terror concern) — a small mercy even as the “bilateral issue” cliché continues. In the context of current protests, while the UN recycled its regrets on the loss of lives and reneged on its mandate for political intervention, theUNCHR sought to enter Kashmir to assess the human rights violations, which did cause a flicker internationally. The word Referendum which the government of India had put into cold storage has also made a comeback in the Indian mainstream. The grey zone that the PDP was conjuring up to negate the historic polarity between pro-freedom and pro-India stands in Kashmir has been decimated. This summer the call of Azadi, and self-determination has become clearer; Kashmiris have given a referendum in blood and are awaiting the one on paper.

The piece first appeared on Huffpost, check original here

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