The Kashmiri narrative

Indian paramilitary troopers in Kashmir on August 5, 2019. (Photo by Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In mid-February, a young man named Adil Ahmed Dar killed 44 Indian paramilitary officers in a suicide bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama district. It was the deadliest attack against Indian soldiers in three decades. Dar was from a local village, but the militant group that claimed responsibility was based in Pakistan. Fears escalated of a confrontation between the two countries, both nuclear-armed. “Our neighbor will not be allowed to destabilize us,” India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. A few days later, India retaliated by firing rockets into a remote part of Pakistan. The White House called for Pakistan to end its support of Kashmiri “terrorists.” 

International news outlets, relying mainly on India and Pakistan analysts to explain Kashmir, distorted the reality on the ground. The New York Times, for one, noted that “an insurgency that was once stoked by Pakistan may have taken on a life of its own, as Kashmiris become more disenfranchised and angry at the central government in Delhi and its use of force.” According to the Times, as well as The Washington Post, the BBC, and other outlets, Kashmir is a “disputed territory”; the attack was Pakistan’s doing rather than part of a long history of regional uprisings. These reports—framed, as Kashmir stories have been for decades, in geopolitical terms, as a rivalry between India and Pakistan—failed to recognize the political struggle led by locals, who have rarely seen their home covered from their point of view. “The Kashmiri narrative doesn’t exist at all,” Feroz Rather, a Kashmiri fiction-writer, told me, “because the two states have held it hostage.” 

For many Kashmiris, the media’s persistent focus on the India-Pakistan binary misses a key part of the story: free will. Several resolutions passed by the United Nations enshrine the right to self-determination in Kashmir. One, from 1948, determined that the dispute between India and Pakistan should be resolved through a referendum that would allow Kashmiris to decide their fate. But neither India nor Pakistan held up its end of the bargain: Pakistan refused to pull back its military presence until India did, and a vote was never held. India’s constitution, ratified in 1949, granted Kashmir the right to self govern, but India’s government gradually eroded the region’s autonomy. Over the decades, there have been renewed calls for independence, and for a referendum to take place. Yet the movement has gained little traction in the news, as India has framed Kashmir as an “internal matter” that does not need the international community to help resolve.

Soon after the Pulwama attack, several members of the Kashmir diaspora sought to change that. Hafsa Kanjwal, an assistant professor of South Asian and Kashmir history at Lafayette College, got on the phone with about a dozen friends and colleagues: How could they amplify the idea that Kashmir wasn’t just in crisis when India-Pakistan tensions were high, that Kashmir has been in a state of war with India for years? Together, they formed Stand With Kashmir, a group that aims to center the Kashmiri perspective, in part by encouraging journalists to quote more local voices. “We are trying to push that there was already an indigenous uprising,” Kanjwal told me. 

In the months that followed, SWK organized teach-ins at public forums and at universities in New York and Chicago to cover the basics of Kashmiri history. Kanjwal published an op-ed in The Washington Post to place the Pulwama incident in the context of what the group considers to be a “colonial occupation.” Describing violent mob attacks against Kashmiris across India following the suicide bombing, she wrote, “If there was any doubt that most Indians do not consider Kashmiris as their own, and only lay claims on the land, that doubt has been effectively quashed.” 

Then, on August 4, 35,000 Indian troops descended on Kashmir. Modi’s government made a critical announcement: India would revoke articles 370 and 35A of its constitution, which had granted Kashmir semi-autonomous status and prevented non-Kashmiris from buying property in the territory. The move was a vindication of what many Kashmiris have been saying for years: India did not care for Kashmiris or their autonomy. It only wanted Kashmir, and now was taking it. 

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In large part, international news coverage has failed to provide a more nuanced picture of Kashmir because India has made the story about fighting “terrorism.” India has long accused Pakistan of spreading militancy in Kashmir, but after 2001, when the United States declared a Global War on Terror, India was able to cast separatists as “terrorists” and frame Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination as “terrorism.” Though India and the US decried the Pulwama incident as a “terror attack,” the bombing targeted Indian soldiers, not civilians.

India maintains 500,000 troops in the region, making Kashmir the most militarized place in the world. Since 2016, when Indian forces killed a prominent separatist leader and mass protests erupted, almost a thousand people—civilians, as well as armed forces—have lost their lives. More than six thousand people have been injured or blinded by pellet-firing shotguns. According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, based in Srinagar, the capital, 586 people died in 2018, including 160 civilians, making it the deadliest year in a decade. Last year, for the first time, the UN released a human rights report on Kashmir; it condemned Pakistan and India’s excessive use of force, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and lack of investigation into these matters, while Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, found that the two countries “inflict untold suffering.”

Lately, according to Nitasha Kaul, a novelist and a Kashmiri political scientist at the University of Westminster, the rhetoric of “terrorism” has morphed into Islamophobic speech, especially with the ascendancy of the Hindu Right in India. “It’s tempting for many actors just to see Kashmir, especially Kashmir valley—because of its Muslim-majority population—as something that’s about Muslims in a violent uprising,” Kaul told me. She pointed out that there have been instances, such as in the eighties and nineties, when Islamic militancy was prominent, and hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus were forced to flee their homes. But that’s not the case now, she said, and blaming Islamic fundamentalism for unrest in Kashmir dismisses the broader question of self-determination among the region’s various regional and religious groups.

Kaul described Kashmir as a “mobilizing issue” for the Hindu Right. The hostility has been advanced by online trolls who attack anyone in the press trying to represent the voices of Kashmiris. Reporters and academics have observed that the Modi government and his party uses social-media trolls to target Kashmiris who might be seen as sympathetic to the independence movement. In 2016, Facebook accounts of several Kashmiri activists who lived outside of the region were suspended, or saw posts deleted, after Facebook received complaints that they violated community standards. Modi’s government has, in the past, requested that Twitter block hundreds of users for “objectionable content.” Since it was created earlier this month, Stand With Kashmir’s Instagram account has been suspended four times.

 

As the troops stormed in, New Delhi imposed a complete shutdown of the internet, cell phones, and landlines in Kashmir, rendering the region a communication vacuum. It is the most complete blackout in Kashmir’s history, and it continues today.

India has imposed similar restrictions frequently. According to the Software Freedom Law Center, a legal organization based in New Delhi, India has leveled 179 internet shutdowns in Kashmir since 2012 (the first year the organization started tracking them).  The longest, in 2016, lasted 133 days. So far this year, there have been 57 shutdowns. Journalists based in India can, to some extent, report from Kashmir, but they have limited access to Kashmiris outside of Srinagar, while Kashmiri journalists face harassment and intimidation by armed forces. Stories suffer from lack of access; chaos goes unrecorded. Nishita Trisal, an anthropologist studying Kashmir, told me that blackouts “allow a projection of normalcy.”

On August 6, for example, Barkha Dutt, a prominent Indian journalist and a columnist for The Washington Post based in New Delhi, conducted an interview with the director general of police in Kashmir. In Dutt’s telling, there was “relative peace and calm” on the streets. The police director spoke about kids playing outside and motorbikes rolling by, saying that revoking the articles that sanctioned Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status was “in the interest of the state, in the interest of the people.” A week later, when reports and videos of protests against the Indian state emerged, Dutt released an interview with the district magistrate, in which she suggested that people’s anger was due to the blackout. Her report didn’t mention the question of Kashmir’s sovereignty.  

Over the past few weeks, Kanjwal, Kaul, and Trisal have been accused of erasing the history of Kashmiri Hindus or of being terrorist sympathizers, because of articles they’ve written, lectures they’ve given, even for tweets they’ve liked. Kanjwal described this month as a “pivotal moment,” both for Kashmir and the world’s awareness of the situation there. Writing for The Washington Post, she called India’s move the “beginnings of a settler colonial project in Kashmir,” comparing the dynamic to that of Israel and Palestine. 

But some wonder if the global focus on Kashmir will be too short-lived, and too narrow. International media seem more offended by a lack of access to the internet than by the pellets that blinded hundreds of Kashmiris three years ago. “The communications blackout has been kind of a crucial barometer of how bad things have gotten,” Trisal told me. What will happen when the internet comes back on?

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Rozina Ali is a freelance journalist covering Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Middle East. She is a fellow at Type Media Center. Follow her on Twitter @rozina_ali.