Kashmir’s High Price for Demanding Independence
Sep 26, 2016
24 Min read time
In the name of fighting radical Islam, Indian troops have gone to war with civilians.
A Kashmiri youth with an eye injury from pellets fired by Indian security forces during a protest in Srinagar on August 5. Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images
At his home in Baramulla, in Indian-administered Kashmir, my father tuned his old Philips radio to Radio Pakistan. The people of Kashmir turn to the station in moments of despair or distress, of which there is no shortage. It was early July, and a gentle voice came on: the crescent moon had been seen and therefore the festival of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, would be celebrated in Pakistan on Wednesday, July 6. Across the eastern border in India, no one had caught sight of the new moon, so All India Radio announced the observation of Eid for Thursday. In no time loudspeakers from at least a dozen mosques broke the silence of the night with full-throated, upbeat announcements that Kashmir, like Pakistan, would observe Eid the next day. This was a conscious choice that reflected the deep hostility in Kashmir toward India. However, it would be a gross misjudgment to conflate this with a love for Pakistan. Despite a long history of wide cultural and trade links the people of Kashmir share with Pakistan, which precede its modern creation as a nation-state, most Kashmiri favor independence from both India and Pakistan.
But Kashmir, it seemed, would pay a high price for its choice to celebrate with Pakistan. On the evening of July 8, about seventy miles to the south of Srinagar, the twenty-two-year-old popular guerrilla leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen insurgency, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who had evaded capture for six years, died fighting Indian troops. The Hizbul Mujahideen came into being in 1989 as a voice of the pro-Pakistan constituency in Kashmir, advocating for Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan. Many of its fighters take inspiration from the ideology of the right-wing sociopolitical organization Jamat-i-Islami, the South Asian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Until the creation of the Hizbul Muhahideen, Kashmiri armed resistance against India had been dominated by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a Kashmiri nationalist group that called for complete independence. However, to strengthen its strategic interests in the region, in the 1990s Pakistan stopped aiding Kashmiri nationalist fighters and instead began arming insurgents from factions such as Hizbul Mujahideen. As a result some of the nationalist guerillas became a target for assassinations by pro-Pakistan guerillas. Yet for the most part populist sentiment continued to favor all Kashmiri guerilla fighters, regardless of their particular political bent, so long as they resisted India.
Indian forces mounted their assault against Burhan during the third day of Kashmir’s Eid al-Fitr celebration, among the holiest of days in the Islamic calendar. Very early the next morning, Burhan’s mourners began pouring into Tral, the fighter’s hometown not far from where he was slain. The crowd reached thousands within minutes; the mourners, many hysterical with grief, wanted a glimpse of the man whom they saw as a hero, the warrior who had stood up to India since the age of sixteen. Soon as many as 250,000 people—perhaps the largest gathering in Kashmir in recent times—packed the town’s narrow streets, open fields, and orchards. Spontaneous unarmed protests broke out, with mourners chanting, marching, throwing small rocks, and burning a few police posts.
Doctors believe that the number of eye injuries is too great to assign to accident, that the government has adopted a deliberate strategy of blinding protestors.
The response from Indian forces was swift and brutal. The District Hospital Anantnag, in southern Kashmir’s principal town, reported that afternoon that four demonstrators had died from bullet injuries and dozens more, including many children and women, suffered bullet and pellet wounds.
However, word of the violence directed against Burhan’s mourners did not put an end to large demonstrations. On the contrary, mass demonstrations erupted elsewhere in Kashmir.
Since then, as unarmed protests have continued, Indian forces have become increasingly desperate to suppress them. Internet and cell phone service has at times been cut, and for several days in July, Kashmir’s newspapers were shuttered by the state in an effort to strangle the protests and keep the outside world from learning about what is happening. Eighty-five protestors so far have died, and at least six thousand demonstrators have suffered bullet and pellet wounds, many crippled and blinded by their injuries.
Indian forces insist that they are responding to protests largely with nonlethal crowd-control tools, such as teargas and pellets. But as casualties mount, the evidence suggests that they are using these weapons intentionally to maim or kill as many protestors as possible.
• • •
During a recent visit to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, every face bore the scars. In bed after bed and row upon row, young men’s eyes were concealed behind black shades. Approximately six hundred people treated there have sustained eye injuries from pellets; about one hundred of them, according to eye specialists at the hospital, have been partially or completely blinded. The hospital’s doctors believe that the number of people suffering from such injuries is simply too great to assign to accident or chance, that the government has adopted a deliberate strategy to blind protestors.
There is no reliable count of pellet cartridge injuries throughout Kashmir but it is believed to be in the thousands. As the cartridge explodes in the air, it launches a shower of metal shards, lacerating anyone nearby. Some of the injured are simply bystanders: a cartridge burst outside the window from which fourteen-year-old Insha had been peering at a funeral procession and the pellets tore up her face. When another projectile exploded, two sisters—Zohra (age five) and Sobiya (age four) first thought it was the blast of a firecracker, and then the pain started. Zohra has pellets embedded in her abdomen and legs and Sobiya has them in her left leg.
Such a weapon can easily be lethal if it hits a vital organ. On the night of August 2, twenty-three-year-old security guard Reyaz Ahmad Shah had just completed his shift at an ATM and left for home on his motorbike. In the darkness, a pellet cartridge was aimed at him. He fell off the bike and lay there until someone passing by saw him, lifted him into his vehicle, and brought him to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital. He had been already dead for some time. The pellets had lacerated his spleen and kidneys. At first the government denied he had died from the pellet injuries, but an autopsy proved otherwise.
In other cases state violence requires no weapons, a point driven home for my family recently. My brother-in-law’s elder brother, Gowhar Masoodi, went out to see his parents, about whom he had received no news since mobile phone service was cut and a curfew was enforced. His mother insisted that he stay for dinner. On his way home, three to four policemen came out of the darkness and pounced on him. They beat him for fifteen minutes at the edge of the highway before lifting him into a jeep, in which they transported him to Parimpora Police Station in Srinagar. Gowhar had never participated in a demonstration and yet he was attacked, as anyone can be now. For two hours he pleaded with policemen that he is father to two young children, and that he had just gone to see his ailing parents and was returning home. Eventually he was released. He has since undergone surgery to repair his shoulder, which was shattered. He also sustained two broken ribs. Yet he will recover; this is what passes for good luck now.
• • •
This is not the first time that the people of Indian-administered Kashmir have sought their freedom through populist protest, nor is it the first time that Indian forces have responded with astonishing violence. Tucked away in the mountains of northwest Kashmir is Baramulla, a town in which I was born, and where, on a cool April night in 1990, when the almond trees were in flower, Indian troops shot my cousin in the street where we had played hide-and-seek as children.
Already by then it had been a long and torturous wait for the light of freedom to shine on the Kashmir valley. Its people had grown weary of decades of broken promises by Indian leaders that the people of Kashmir would have an opportunity to decide their own political future. Years of repression, abuse, and the denial of political rights had accumulated a great deal of rage against India, and it erupted into an explosion of mass protests across Kashmir. A cry of freedom rose from hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets: ay zaalimoo ay ghasiboo Kashmir hamara chauud dau (o despots, o occupiers, get out of our Kashmir).
On a cool April night in 1990, Indian troops shot my cousin in the street where we had played as children.
We marched hand-in-hand, laughing, singing, believing freedom was just round the corner and that soon we would watch Indian soldiers climb into their vehicles and wave us goodbye forever. We believed we could appeal to the democratic ideals of India, a country that never tires of calling itself the largest democracy of the world. Just to our west, country after country in Eastern Europe was toppling authoritarian regimes and the Afghan Mujahideen had overthrown the Soviet forces. So we believed that we could do the same. Alas, the gaiety of the almost daily demonstrations proved to be short-lived. One night, under the dim glow of street lamps, dozens of Indian troops slipped into the old quarter along the high and willowy banks of the Jhelum River, where they killed my cousin, Rafiq Bhat, and two other men outside their homes. They did not come looking for my cousin in particular; such killings were not aimed at punishing anyone in particular but rather at crippling the entire community. In this fashion, the pro-independence demonstrations were put down by Indian troops, with hundreds killed in massacres across the length and breadth of Kashmir.
Up until that point, few Kashmiris had taken up arms against India, even though popular support for independence was overwhelming. Some dozens had crossed the border to Pakistan, undergone training in military camps, and come back with weapons to start a military front against India. Following India’s violent suppressions of nonviolent mass protests in the early 1990s, though, tens of thousands of young men, among them two of my other cousins, both in their early twenties, made their way through snow and minefields into the training camps set up by Pakistan’s army. The streets were no longer filled with populist demonstrators. Rather, the chanting was replaced with gunfire and bomb explosions. The Indian troops imposed lockdowns for days on entire towns, forcing residents to give up guerillas hiding in their homes. When people resisted, the troops used rape, extrajudicial killings, loot, arson, and destruction of property to break their will. Far from pacifying the population, this provoked more and more young people to go to Pakistan, returning with military training and deadly arsenals of weapons. Outgunned and outmanned by a much superior army, both the nationalist and pro-Pakistan guerillas targeted civilians, Muslim and Hindu alike, for collaborating with India.
Around the same time we began seeing men in our neighborhood who spoke unfamiliar languages. To bolster Kashmiri guerrilla fighters—which is to say, to escalate its war with India that it is playing out in Kashmir—Pakistan had sent men from the CIA- and ISI-funded Afghan jihad. Many of them were Afghans. The irony was not lost on me. Kashmiris still recall the brutality of Afghan rule in Kashmir some two centuries back. Yet such men were now seen as our saviors, defending us from an army out to humiliate and dishonor their fellow Muslims.
The Indian army actively pursued reprisal against guerrilla fighters and those who gave them shelter, or simply sympathized with their cause. Our neighbor at the time, Abdul Jabbar Mir, was a follower of Jamat-i-Islami. One day the army showed up at the Mirs and demanded to see the head of the family. His wife and children pleaded with them not to take him away. The soldiers dragged him through our back alleys as terrified neighbors peered through small gaps in the curtained windows. A few days later, his body was returned to his family, covered in torture marks and with limbs and ribs broken.
Fifteen years later the Kashmiri resistance had steered the movement in a new direction. Young Kashmiris no longer went to Pakistan to train. Instead resistance was more homegrown. A young man by the name of Burhan Muzaffar Wani had come to embody the deep sense of injustice endemic to his generation of Kashmiris, who feel their tribulations will end only when the last Indian soldier had been driven from their homeland. A technology-savvy fighter who adroitly used social media to reach out to young Kashmiris, he frequently invoked the term zulm, or oppression, to recruit young men to the cause of freedom. Carrying an assault rifle, he would rail against India for suppressing “our voice and our resistance movement,” and proclaimed in the same breath that with the support and blessings of Kashmiris, “we will defeat India on every front.”
The security apparatus of the Indian state and the Indian media maintains that men such as Burhan are driven to violence by the spread of “radical Islam” in Kashmir. This explanation is self-serving and fails to take any responsibility for how the violence inflicted on Kashmir by the Indian state has left India increasingly unable to control a population chafing under grinding military control. While the idiom of Kashmiri resistance movement derives its mode of expression from the theology of Islam, what drives resistance against India is the denial of honor, justice, and political rights.
During the uprising of 2010 Burhan was a sixteen-year-old boy, and one day while he and his brother were riding a motorbike in their town, a few Indian troopers stopped them, asked them to fetch a pack of cigarettes, and then beat them to a pulp. A few days later Burhan left his home and never returned until his funeral six years later, when tens of thousands of mourners bid him farewell. In his death he has unified a bitterly polarized resistance movement, split between nationalist and pro-Pakistan camps, and ironically has fueled some of the longest unarmed protest demonstrations against India in Kashmir.
Over the last decade, while Burhan and his ilk of homegrown nationalists were taking up arms and relying on guerilla tactics, unarmed populist resistance has also been growing in popularity. Instead of firing guns, this strategy of resistance stages anti-India demonstrations and then, when Indian forces respond, protestors will often begin hurling rocks at troops. Throwing small, sharp rocks at Indian forces has acquired currency among political dissenters because it is perceived as being a less dangerous form of resistance than is becoming an armed fighter. But as the Indian security establishment has struggled to cope with the ferocity of stone-throwing protests across Kashmir, it has responded to protestors with increasingly vicious and brutal tactics. Men in combat fatigues belonging to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Indian paramilitary unit, often fire their automatic rifles into crowds of protestors, killing and wounding many.
On the morning of June 29, 2009, Amir Rashid Mir, a nineteen-year-old college student, was shot by Indian troops. Amir was waiting in the center of town for a bus to take him to his college a few miles away. There was a commotion nearby: a few protestors, chanting “Go India, go back!” came forward and threw stones at some CRPF officers. The officers retaliated with their automatic rifles. One of the bullets pierced the head of Amir. Three days later he died in a hospital in Srinagar. Tens of thousands of residents came out to bid farewell to Amir, just as they had his uncle, Abdul Jabbar Mir, our neighbor who had been killed in army custody seventeen years earlier. In Amir’s funeral procession was the daughter-in-law of another neighborhood family, the Pirs. The mourners wound their way through the narrow streets, chanting “Asalaam asalaam ay shaeedo asalaam” (Peace be upon martyrs).
The lie that all Kashmiri activists are radicalized Muslims allows India to suppress populism with the West’s approval.
The Pirs’s daughter-in-law, Anjum, was walking hand in hand with other women in the procession when they came into sight of police and paramilitary blocking the far end of the bridge to the south. Although the mourners didn’t have to cross the bridge to reach the martyrs graveyard to the north, some young men grew enraged at the sight of the officers and ran across it, throwing stones at the troops. The officers fired a volley of teargas projectiles directly at the mourners. One hit Anjum in the head. She dropped there, as the funeral procession continued despite the terror among the mourners. Anjum lay for months on a hospital bed, somehow holding on to life. My mother knew her as a warm, cheerful woman; today she is like a ghost, lost, depressed, barely coping with the demands of raising her young children.
While their daughter-in-law was still recovering, the Pirs’ eldest son, Adil Farooq, a college student, led a protest on the bridge spanning the jade waters of the Jhelum River. On that afternoon, Adil was unable to dodge an incoming teargas projectile because a cloud of teargas had blinded him. Like Anjum, he was struck directly in the head. Adil underwent several unsuccessful surgeries, and today remains completely paralyzed on one side.
I remember a time when protests were still a relatively safe option to voice political dissent because the police aimed the teargas projectiles above protestors’ heads. The canisters traveled in an arc and landed behind the demonstrators, spewing noxious clouds. But their aim has changed.
In the past decade, the scale of Indian violence against unarmed Kashmiri protestors has often stunned human rights activists. The 2010 uprising was eventually crushed after six months; about 120 protestors died and untold numbers were injured.
But the damage does not even approach the harm sustained in the current round of protests. Khurram Parvez, a noted human rights activist in Kashmir, puts the number of casualties well above 6,000 and notes that nearly 70 percent have bullet and pellet wounds above their waist. When I spoke with him on August 20, he said:
Three people died from pellet wounds, a firearm that India said was nonlethal. So the pattern we are seeing is that the design was to kill as many demonstrators as possible. We believe there were dozens of injured protestors that didn’t go to hospitals for treatment because there were police informants taking down their names and the police would have persecuted them later. They arranged for their treatment at private clinics. Children as young as four have been sprayed with pellets and there are dozens of women who have been injured, too. So far more than sixty protestors have been killed by Indian forces.
In the first week of August a government bulletin claimed that around 3,000 police and paramilitary personnel have been wounded in clashes. However, Khurram believes that the number of Indian personnel reported wounded is “wildly inflated,” and that the real number is probably closer to 300. Police casualties have been minimal: two officers have died so far from the protests, one from a bomb thrown at them by guerillas and one drowned after his car was pushed into water by protesters.
• • •
Since their creation as postcolonial nations, Kashmir has been a strange obsession for Pakistan and India—not to mention China—with all three laying claim to parts of the region. In the international effort to quell the dispute between these three nuclear powers, the hopes and wishes of the nearly ten million Kashmiri have rarely factored, in particular the hope that many share of becoming independent. Over the course of the twentieth century, Pakistan and India fought one another in multiple wars for control of the region, with Pakistan succeeding in taking control of the northwest. India meanwhile came to control the majority of the Kashmir Valley through a treaty with its deeply unpopular and despotic ruler, Hari Singh, under terms that Kashmiri governance would be devolved—conditions that India has never honored. It is this region, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, that India now struggles to control in the face of widespread rejection of its rule, a revolutionary impulse Pakistan has been only too happy to support for its own reasons.
In the post-9/11 landscape, the religious divide between Pakistan and India—between Islam and Hinduism—has gained renewed salience: in particular, the canard that all Kashmiri independence activists are radicalized Muslims has provided a powerful rationale for India to suppress populist demonstrations, under the approving gaze of the West. Whereas in the past Indian atrocities in Kashmir typically met swift condemnation from Western leaders, now they are generally seen as lamentable but unavoidable aspects of the so-called global War on Terror. Obama and his administration have generally taken the line that Kashmir is an internal matter for India to resolve, although they have at times vacillated.
In this environment, the security apparatus of the Indian state has spun the tale that the horrors visited upon the people of Kashmir are not the fault of India, but rather of Islamist militants, funded by Pakistan. India has even decided to champion certain factions of Islamism in Kashmir that are perceived to be pro-India. From these factions, local pro-Indian Muslim police, bureaucrats, and politicians have been handpicked to serve as the vanguard of India’s counterinsurgency. Outfitted in the guise of Islam, this campaign seeks to counter all forms of Islam that India believes pose a threat to its interests in Kashmir. India’s championing of some forms of Islamism has had a profoundly polarizing effect on the region, pitting family and neighbors against each other, often erupting into skirmishes. Holy men from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, South Africa, the Central Asian republics, the United States, the UK, and Sri Lanka have been invited to summits in Kashmir, where they have incited hatred against fellow Muslims. India’s intent is clear: a divided population is easier for it to control.
In April, Shiv Murari Sahai, the head of the intelligence wing of the Kashmir police, delivered a lecture in New Delhi, “Jihadi Terrorism: Radicalization and Counter Measures,” before an audience of top security and police officials. In his talk, Sahai insisted that Kashmir was beset by the same Islamism that had incited young Muslims to target Westerners in violent attacks. He informed the audience that there were two religious movements “gaining ground” in Kashmir: Jamat-i-Islami, the South Asian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jamiat Ahli Hadith, the South Asian version of Salafism.
The men from my hometown who went to Pakistan for training were not inspired by religious extremism, but the desire for a life free of Indian control.
It was the same ill-considered hypothesis peddled by many governments in the West and the Middle East, which argues that Muslims who resort to “terrorism” are motivated to do so by extremist Islamic beliefs. Aside from fueling Islamophobia, such an analysis serves as a kind of smokescreen, suggesting that all political violence engaged in by Muslims the world over is motivated by the same theology—rather than, for example, the complexities of a nearly seventy-year-old struggle for political independence. It was not Islamism that pushed Kashmiris to take up arms against India in the early 1960 to demand the fulfillment of the promise, made thirteen years prior by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and demanded by the UN, that Kashmiris would decide their own political future by plebiscite (a vote that has still never occurred). There was scarcely a trace of Islamism then in Kashmir. Likewise, when in the 1990s two of my cousins and dozens of young men from my hometown made the treacherous journey, through snow and minefields, into Pakistan to undergo military training, they were not inspired by religious extremism. Rather, they pined for a life free of Indian military control. There was hardly anyone among them who had gone to a darsgah (religious school). Many of them, like my cousins and me, attended St. Joseph’s School, a century old institution run by Roman Catholic missionaries.
This is not to say that radicalization is not a real concern, but Indian brutality against Kashmir does not suppress it but rather exacerbates it. Indian violence against demonstrators and its refusal to acknowledge the struggle for self-determination merely drives young people into the arms of recruiters. In particular, Islamist militants in Pakistan actively use the plight of Kashmiris to incite young men there to engage in jihad against India for oppressing their fellow Muslims.
• • •
During the last eighty days of uprising, India has deployed its violent arsenal to attempt to crush the resistance and yet it has failed. It seems the country is now becoming desperate. As I write in September, Indian troops have escalated the violence. Members of the army, paramilitary force, and the police have begun slipping into villages at night and subjecting unarmed civilian men, women, and children to brutal beatings. Some ten miles to the east of Srinagar is Khrew. On the night of August 17, the Indian army went in, dragged the people out of their homes, and beat them. The beating was so cruel and merciless that a young lecturer in English, Shabir Ahmad Mangoo, died. Dozens of other residents have been hospitalized with injuries. Kashmiri newspapers, which have recently been allowed by officials to begin publishing again, are filled with harrowing stories pouring in from all across Kashmir. One neighborhood in Baramulla was subjected to the same treatment; dozens there were wounded by beatings and pellet cartridges. A day before, my wife, our children, and I cowered in our home as we learned of an eight-year-old boy struck by a shower of pellets in Srinagar, a few miles from where we live. He was hospitalized, in critical condition, his chest shredded by metal.
Radicalization is a real concern, but Indian brutality against Kashmir only exacerbates it.
By mid-September India had widened its repression of the uprising and imprisoned most of the resistance leadership and hundreds of pro-freedom demonstrators across Kashmir. Even rights campaigners have not been spared. Khurram Parvez, who had been meticulously chronicling atrocities of Indian troops against the unarmed demonstrators, was taken away from his residence, in Srinagar, by the police one September night. A few days before his arrest, Indian immigration officials in New Delhi prevented Khurram from boarding a flight to Geneva. He was to attend a United Nations Human Rights Council session there to brief the organization on the atrocities committed by Indian troops in Kashmir.
Just how much the persecution of Kashmiris at the hands of India inflames passions even outside of Kashmir became clear last week. On the morning of September 18, four militants with guns, incendiary grenades, GPS, and energy bars came undetected from the other side of divided Kashmir, trudged down a treacherous mountain trail, and attacked a fortified Indian army base in the border town of Uri, some twenty-two miles west of Baramulla. The early morning assault, which caught the Indian soldiers unawares, allowed the attackers to inflict heavy loss on the Indian army. Eighteen soldiers died and at least a dozen were wounded before the Indian Special Forces killed the four guerillas in the retaliatory fire. Indian leadership vowed vengeance, accusing Pakistan of aiding the attackers. Pakistan responded by saying India was seeking to distract the world’s attention from atrocities it was inflicting to crush the uprising in Kashmir. There is no denying the fact the attackers came from Pakistan, as they did on so many occasions in the last twenty-five years. But it is equally true that India’s violent reprisals against Kashmir have made incursions of foreign Islamist militants into Kashmir easy because they enjoy support of the local population. It is no wonder that the speech of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, at the UN General Assembly in New York won praise in Kashmir for declaring that “peace between India and Pakistan cannot be finally achieved without resolution to the Kashmir dispute.” By contrast, there has not been a single voice of sympathy during the eighty days of bloodshed from anyone in the Indian political establishment. It is easy to understand then why Pakistan’s flag has flown high during most of the demonstrations in Kashmir.
Still, the only way the suffering can be stopped is for India to begin a political process to engage both Kashmiris and Pakistan in a substantive dialogue, to arrive at a solution acceptable to all. India cannot misread the uprising against it as instigated by Pakistan, just as the latter must not misinterpret Kashmiri aspiration for freedom as a desire to become part of Pakistan. Pakistan cannot win Kashmir by infiltrating it with Islamist fighters and India cannot hold Kashmir by beating its people into submission. Kashmiris have endured foreign occupation continuously for the last six centuries, and yet they have outworn them all, albeit at a great cost: the Moguls, the Sikhs, the Afghans, the British, the Dogras, and now China, India, Pakistan.
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September 26, 2016
24 Min read time