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A New Narrative War in Kashmir

A New Narrative War in Kashmir

How New Delhi is Trying to Spin an Alternative Story of Kashmir to One Against It

(OPINION)

Vivek Singh for StoriesAsia

Every year on Oct. 27, Kashmir shuts down on a separatist call to protest against the arrival and what’s seen by many locals as a takeover of Kashmir by the Indian Army in 1947. But this year, for the first time, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government organised functions to observe Oct. 22 as a black day. This day in 1947, Pakistani Pashtun tribals had crossed over into Kashmir, triggering a chain of events leading to the then J&K Maharaja Hari Singh acceding to India on Oct. 26, which, in turn, led to India sending its army to defend Kashmir on Oct. 27.

This has set up an interesting narrative contest in Kashmir with New Delhi seeking to take on the reigning narrative against it by projecting Pakistan as the villain of the piece. So, in the run-up to Oct. 22, billboards went up in Srinagar that called the tribal invasion as a black day for Kashmir. And later, Oct. 26 was observed as the Accession Day.

Jaag gaye Kashmiri jawan, Kashmir chod do Pakistan (Kashmiri youth have woken up; they want Pakistan to leave Kashmir),” went the slogan scrawled across a billboard alongside a brief description of what happened on Oct. 22.

A small unknown group of youth also protested against Pakistan outside the office of the United Nations Military Observer Group (UNMOG) in Srinagar. They held a banner urging the world to intervene to liberate the part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s administration. Also, the National Museum Institute of  History of Art, Conservation and Museology organised a national symposium and exhibition on “Memories of 22 October 1947.”

Meanwhile, the Hurriyat faction led by the detained Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a proponent of the merger of J&K with Pakistan, once again called for a shutdown on Oct. 27, the day the Indian army landed for the first time in Kashmir. But the call was observed in breach only, something that has happened for the first time in last 30 years.

But the neglect of Geelani’s call can’t be read much into, nor does it imply a rethink on Oct. 27, which continues to be seen by separatists as a forcible takeover of Kashmir by India. The rationale behind this thinking is that the instrument of accession with India was signed by Maharaja when he was on the run from Kashmir as a result of the then ongoing tribal invasion. So, accession is seen as inherently illegitimate and without reference to people of Kashmir detracting from its sanctity. This thinking has a wide resonance across Kashmir, giving parties and politicians who subscribe to this perspective an instant recognition and credibility.

Two dates – Oct. 22 and Oct. 27 – thus represent two narratives around which most of Kashmir’s politics revolves. In fact, there are three narratives on Kashmir – Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri. Ever since British  India partitioned in 1947 and Kashmir emerged as a bone of contention between the newly created nation-states of India and Pakistan, these three narratives have interacted, overlapped and clashed almost daily. The Pakistani narrative champions Kashmir’s merger into the neighbouring country and is represented by a broad gamut of the separatist political and militant groups. Support for this is only second to one for Kashmir’s independence, as attested to by several opinion polls.

But among the three, the narrative against New Delhi has held the most sway, and subscribing to it has become a rite of passage for the politicians and social activists in the Valley to gain credibility among people. It is a deeply entrenched sentiment that originates from Kashmir’s troubled history of the past seven decades and underpins the separatist politics, militancy and vast swathes of public sentiment which, in turn, is even played to also by the mainstream politicians.

Ambitious Bid

After revoking Article 370 of the Constitution, which took away Kashmir’s autonomy, the government wants to change this narrative by aspiring to create an alternative benign discourse about New Delhi in Kashmir and try to rally people around it. This is a far-reaching enterprise involving erasing of the public memory and building an alternate reality from the ground up. 

Pitting Oct. 22 against Oct. 27 is emblematic of this project. And this is being done by creating an alternative set of public and political voices invisibly backed up by the state that plies a pro-New Delhi version of events. In this case, a smattering of people who stood outside the UNMOGP with anti-Pakistan banner in their hands.

However, this is not a one-off effort. Since the withdrawal of Article 370 on Aug. 5 last year,  the centre has embarked on a series of steps to put in place an alternate reality to replace the old reality. Kashmir that existed before Aug. 5 and the one after that are thus two distinct realities. And this difference is not just the one between the old autonomous state and the integrated, federally-administered area of India that the state has been turned into now. It is the complete political, social and even cultural makeover that is being attempted. It spans the effort to remake the physical world the people inhabit, reframing of the narratives they hear and reshaping of their minds.

So we have a new political entity in the form of Apni Party, headed by the businessman-turned-politician Altaf Bukhari, who doesn’t seek restoration of Article 370 but just statehood. Now we also have a media that has been reduced to faithfully reproducing government propaganda. This can be gauged both from their news content which is largely devoted to covering government activities and also from their opinion pages which eschew any political commentary. Besides, there has been a sustained campaign to silence the social media handles plying what’s deemed as an anti-national narrative. In August, the cyber cell of J&K Police said it had 300 social media accounts under the radar “for spreading propaganda and lies.”

This effort is also apparent in the name-changing spree. The recent months have witnessed the authorities removing the name of the National Conference founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah from institutions and other Kashmir landmarks named after him. Ironically, Sheikh is regarded as a key figure who tied J&K’s lot with India over Pakistan in 1947.

Little Impact

Has the alternative narrative taken root in Kashmir? Or to put it differently, does it pose any challenge to established political narratives? The answer appears to be in the negative.

“The reason for this is that unlike established narratives that stem from the popular sentiment,  the pro-India discourse is officially sponsored and has no credible voices to peddle it,” said Naseer Ahmad,  author of Kashmir Pending. “So, there are fewer takers for it among the people.”

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But, Ahmad agrees that this hardly detracts from the significance of the “new conversation” being coercively deployed in the public sphere. “What we have now is the Naya (New) Kashmir of the (incumbent central) government in the form of a new political and social structure complete with an alternative narrative and alternative facts,” said Ahmad. “This is expected to recast the discourse in Kashmir over time and veer Kashmiris towards New Delhi’s point of view.”

But this is far too ambitious a project: a discourse that defines itself in adversarial terms to New Delhi has been in existence in Kashmir in varying degrees since 1947. It has since withstood the ebb and flow of Kashmir’s politics, even the phases when Kashmir was absolutely a normal place – say from 1975 when the accord between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah was signed ending 23-year-long struggle for self-determination to 1989 when the armed separatist movement began.

However, the difference now is that the centre has taken absolute control of J&K following the abrogation of Article 370 and that is challenging the existing narrative, account by specific account, backed up by the state power. For example, when former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti in her presser said she wouldn’t raise the Indian flag until J&K’s flag was returned, the BJP held the Tiranga Yatra (march) of its own in Srinagar and Jammu.

Will this detract from the abiding appeal of the discourse against New Delhi in the Valley? Not necessarily. But the centre must evaluate its ongoing Kashmir mission against its possible outcome in the months and years to come. Establishing peace in the region and winning the trust of Kashmiri people could serve as a good reference point.

As things stand, the narrative war is likely to be scaled up going forward. With separatist outfits almost defunct as a result of the detention of their major leaders over the last year and all means and media of getting their message across to people closed off, the public space has, for once, been opened for a free play to a national narrative. The success and failure of this experiment will go a long way to determine the contours of “Naya Kashmir.”

(Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in this article is the personal opinion of the author. The facts and the opinion appearing in the article do not reflect the views of StoriesAsia and StoriesAsia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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