Stones and Bullets – A Ground Report from Kashmir
SRINAGAR — After thirty hours of non-stop plane journeys and gruesome waiting periods I finally touched down in Srinagar, my birthplace. It boasts the sprawling Lake Dal, a vibrant bazaar, the historical ‘old town,’ and the much acclaimed tulip gardens. The most prolific claim to fame of this heavily fortified city, however, is the unfortunate distinction of being at the heart of the oldest land dispute since the Second World War. Srinagar is the capital of the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
I am visiting home after a tense two year stint. Much of Srinagar was swept away by raging floods a year and half ago. A pitiful number of houses, including my own, had been reduced to rubble. In a strange, almost morbid way, I was excited to breeze through a new Srinagar. Expecting a city that has endured seventy odd years of heart wrenching conflict to start anew is naive at best. Four hours into being in Srinagar were enough for my baseless optimism to wither away. I am about to complete an entire week of my stay, all of which has been (and continues to be) spent under state imposed curfew and simultaneous calls for hartals (civilian shutdown) reading almost three dozen obituaries of unarmed civilians shot to death by Indian forces. The internet has been religiously suspended (reminds me of an account describing living in Mobarak’s Egypt that stressed the suspension of the internet), interference in phone services, ATM machines out of cash, and exhausting grocery supplies.
This is the best and the worst time to be in Srinagar for one can easily sense the changing essence of the Kashmir dispute – from land to that of dignity, the changing of its forbearers and from armed militants to a passive population to now a disenfranchised youth. Here’s what happening on the ground.
The history of the Kashmir issue is vast, often controversial, and has typically rallied in bilateral channels between India and Pakistan. There is much literature subjecting the Kashmir dispute vis a vis India and Pakistan, and the nuclear standoff over it. There has been little analytical effort to articulate the strong sentiments that pervade the valley itself. The limited mainstream literature that exists on the native sentiment toward the Indian forces is mainly colored by the paranoia of the invincible hand of the ISI. While there may be a whiff of substance in the allegation of foreign inspired disturbance, its over amplified use mostly renders the entire analysis miserably shallow. There has been far less literature to comprehend the raw, almost sanctified emotions that grip the average household in Kashmir. A more recent disgruntled manifestation taken up by the youth of Kashmir is the practice of pathraw, stone-pelting.
A careful stroll through the ogling streets of Maisuma, an otherwise vibrant neighborhood with closely packed houses and intricate alleys, helps one survey the brewing emotions of which the Indian state seems to have no, or as good as no, idea. Maisuma typically contributes the better number of stone throwers should any such demonstration take place. One could easily fall into the obvious analytical trap of ascribing the resentment of one neighborhood to an entire society, only that in the Maisuma case does not fall into that trap. This current movement of defying the state imposed curfew and thronging the streets by males, typically aged anywhere between 13 and 35 coming from lower and middle class, all across the urbanized city of Srinagar is reflective of a larger disconnect that the Indian state must address when it can, if it can anymore.
Masked in colorful scarves, these young people are rather ordinary in their lifestyles. Usually attending an educational institution, they exhibit a faint religious/doctrinal obligation, some even are simply bored with the curfew and find the “exercise” rather amusing. The most recurring emotion articulated by street vendors, school teachers, housewives and senior academics and fifth graders, is that of humiliation at the hands of the Indian state. Quite a few, I was told by a University Professor, liken the practice of stone pelting to the stone pelting that often occurs in the streets of Palestine. “It’s almost as if these two peoples have a collective conscience in which has accumulated an overwhelming amount of humiliation.” Whether genuine or not, this collective grief that seems to exponentially grow within the conscience of these peoples deserves mention.
Almost every time stones are hurled by angry teenagers at fully armored army vehicles, civilians drop dead by the bullets of the armed forces. This past week has been particularly sad, and reveals the short sighted policy of the Indian state to address the estrangement of an entire people.
After Indian forces hunted a 22 year old tech savvy militant named Burhan Wani who had developed quite a following through Facebook, there was a natural reaction within the native population in yet another outburst of the ever growing identity clash that the past three generations of Kashmiris have bequeathed to each other. Burhan’s funeral procession held in a rural area in Southern Kashmir was thronged by 200,000 people despite there being a strict curfew. One would imagine that the Indian state would reflect on the shortcomings of their brutal, self- defeating policy once 200,000 people chose to risk their lives and partake in the funeral rites of a declared enemy of the state, and maybe reach some sensible, pragmatic conclusion. The response however was rather unsurprising.
Thirty four unarmed civilians have been killed thus far and a staggering 800 (by conservative figures) have been seriously injured. A leading hospital in the city after a brief survey of those injured declared that “ninety percent of the injured have a significant chance of losing eyesight.” The violence unleashed by the Indian forces has been profound enough to have invoked an explicit statement from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon chastising the Indian state for unduly clamping down on dissent. Amnesty International, yet again, issued a scathing report on the horrific standard operational procedures that the Indian forces were using to handle the demonstrations. The humanitarian violations are only at the shores of the oceanic problem that the Indian policy, or lack thereof, has created in Kashmir – a polarized, humiliated middle class.
The Indian State needs to lift its head from the sand of denial and take cognizance of the naked, fearless rebellion that stares at its large armored convoys. The disenfranchisement that even an amateur like myself can spot while glancing at the deserted streets of Srinagar, or can hear in the voices of the average Kashmiri, should be acknowledged and disavowed by the Indian state. The measures that the Indian state has been employing in Kashmir lack an acceptance of there being an identity clash. Until the resentment of the people is met with concrete political goodwill, bureaucratic astuteness, and most of all with a sense of dignity for a Kashmiri life, the streets will continue to be a battleground of stones and bullets. The ghosts that the Indian State creates while clamping down on the angry middle class will only come to haunt them in the most unwelcomed ways.