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What Went Wrong With the Kashmir Struggle?

What Went Wrong With the Kashmir Struggle?

There are thousands of individual cases that can qualify as symbols of the suffering witnessed in Kashmir Valley over the past three decades. But the one that comes to my mind immediately, by virtue of its having happened in recent past, is that of a man hugging his father’s grave following his release from jail 23 years after his arrest on trumped-up terror charges. When Ali Mohammad Bhat, 48, reached Srinagar on July 20, a fortnight before the revocation of Article 370 which granted Jammu and Kashmir state its special status under the Indian constitution, he went straight to the grave of his parents in a nearby burial ground. Once at his father’s grave, he dropped to the ground and held the mound of soil in a tight embrace, crying inconsolably, as he did so. He also put his ear to the ground as if trying to hear some response from inside the grave.

His father, he told journalists later, had moved from pillar to post for his release. “He died longing for my return. But I couldn’t even attend his funeral.”

Photo: Militants in a Srinagar neighbourhood in 1991.

Bhat, along with three others, was accused of being involved in the 1996 Samleti and Lajpat Nagar bomb blasts in Rajasthan and Delhi respectively, which between them had killed 27 people. However, the court concluded that the prosecution had failed to provide evidence of conspiracy, adding there was no proof to establish any link between them and the main accused, Dr Abdul Hameed (who hails from UP ) whose death sentence was upheld.

The video of Bhat’s visit to his parents’ graves had gone viral at the time, sending a wave of sadness across the Valley. To its numerous viewers, it served as yet another poignant reminder of the colossal sacrifice and suffering the people of Kashmir have experienced. More than 70,000 people have lost their lives in the struggle for azadi (freedom), and their graves dot the thousands of burial grounds across the region. The tragic fallout of these killings continues to play out in the everyday lives of thousands of families. There are more than 200,000 orphans and around 50,000 widows,  according to a study by the UNICEF a decade ago.  Many more have been added to this number since then. What’s more, an estimated 8,000 people have gone missing. Mass unmarked graves have been found in many areas in the region, revealed ironically by the erstwhile state’s own human rights commission.

But far from gaining any political concession from New Delhi, Kashmir has even been stripped of its partial autonomous status within the country. It has also been divested of its separate constitution and flag, and, more importantly, Article 35A, a feature of Article 370, which barred outsiders from buying land. Moreover, India even downgraded the state into a union territory, which gives New Delhi a direct control over its affairs.

This has confronted the long-running separatist movement in the region with its moment of reckoning. Thirty years of unspeakable sacrifice and suffering have nothing to show for itself. This still dawning realization has plunged Kashmir into a state of shock. More than three months after the Indian government’s August 5 move, the Valley continues to observe shutdown and the private transport remains largely off the roads.

The ideological agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party on Kashmir is rightly blamed for the withdrawal of Article 370, but the inherent shortcomings of Kashmir movement aren’t any less culpable for bringing the erstwhile state to this pass. Looking back, it has been a freedom movement driven primarily by sacrifice and suffering. At the same time, it has been a movement largely bereft of agency and strategy: the people who struggled and suffered enjoyed little power to think for themselves and decide. On the contrary, India and Pakistan have always acted and decided on their behalf. The longstanding dispute between the two countries over the region and their respective narratives have always overridden the narrative of Kashmiris.

Kashmiris could not directly talk to New Delhi and reach an understanding without the involvement of Pakistan. Islamabad wouldn’t allow it. Similarly, India wouldn’t talk to Kashmiris if the latter wanted Pakistan on board. Multiple rounds of dialogue over the past one and a half decades between New Delhi and Kashmiri separatists were eventually undone by this underlying logic. Kashmiris were and remain little more than foot soldiers in the lingering battle between India and Pakistan over the control of the region, which they both claim and administer in part.  Aspirations of Kashmiris, their struggle to realize them, and their enormous sacrifices have had little independent reality or weight of their own. Their story has always been subsumed inconspicuously in the larger India-Pakistan narrative..

Kashmiri Miscalculations

Photo: Youth wearing shrouds at the forefront of a protest rally at Srinagar’s Amira Kadal in 1989. This was one of the earliest protest rallies in Kashmir Valley before militancy began.

At the local level, the Kashmir struggle had over the years come to follow a mechanical set of strategies that only created a perception of resistance to New Delhi than actually resisting it. Calls for numberless hartals and chalos (marches) were often pursued for their own sake rather than being geared to some end. They became routinized as a ritual and a habit, devoid of any meaning or purpose. In fact, hartals and chalos ceased to be the symbolic examples of protest that they are and became the movement itself, resorted to intermittently through the year with calendric regularity. So much so that hartals and chalos were called and observed for six months on end in times of spontaneous public unrest following a major human rights event or an excessive government measure. And at the end of it, the prolonged shutdown of businesses left thousands of people jobless rather than inflicting any harm on the government.   

In time, the government got it all figured out and took it in its stride. The world and media learnt to look the other way. Hartals became normalized as a routine which only hurt people, and never the government at which they were directed.  

While leaders thought they were resisting, and people also perceived it so, they were losing the ground.

In time, these fixed strategies created a new culture, where anything thought or done which didn’t conform to it was viewed with suspicion. The narrative and notions about the movement became more and more uninformed and unchallengeable. They remained in circulation unruffled by the changing ground-realities, taking on a faith-like dimension where you do things to flaunt and validate your abstract belief. Azadi ceased to be a real-life goal to be pursued with  strategies that  were informed by awareness of the factors and the forces that moved the world.

For example, there was little realisation of the egregious power disproportion between Kashmir and New Delhi and how a course of action should always be informed by an understanding of this unhelpful equation. Elections and the electoral process were stigmatized to a point where this whole space became a refuge of the people who wanted to enjoy a good life and exercise some petty power devoid of any conviction. There was little awareness of the shifting geopolitics and the need to acknowledge and adapt to it. The Kashmir movement operated in an insulated world of its own, loathe to rethink its approaches and re-adjust its calculus. What passed off as an azadi movement was mere hartals, chalos and election boycotts put on an endless loop. There was no rational assessment of what Kashmiris were up against and what it entailed for them. Nor was there any understanding of possible scenarios that could unfold and how best to pre-empt or deal with them. That’s until Kashmir ran into the revocation of Article 370 which has confronted the state-turned union territory with the spectre of a demographic change, creating a question of survival for the people..

The lack of agency undercut much of Kashmiri initiative. The India-Pakistan narrative always overshadowed that of the people of Kashmir, making the erstwhile state a site of two simultaneous struggles melded into one: Kashmir’s local movement for freedom and India and Pakistan fighting for the control of the region.. The India-Pakistan dimensionccomplicated the situation. It removed the scope for a direct engagement between Kashmiri separatist groups and New Delhi. On the other hand, India and Pakista couldhold talks without taking Kashmiris on board.

Along the way, the Kashmiri struggle, though animated by local aspirations, lost its distinct identity and blurred into Pakistan’s cause on the region  whose extension it came to be perceived globally. The failure of the Kashmiri leadership springs from their inability to foreground the Kashmir cause.

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What Now?

Photo: People offering funeral prayers for the nine people killed by security forces at Mashali Mohalla in downtown Srinagar in early nineties. 

The revocation of Article 370 was wilful and undemocratic, but it has, at least for now, changed the game in Kashmir and also in relation to Pakistan. Both the struggle by Kashmiris for azadi and Pakistan’s efforts to wrest Jammu and Kashmir from India have apparently been checkmated. The choice for Kashmiris has never been starker:  they have to either surrender to the new constitutional reality which has forcibly subsumed Jammu and Kashmir within the larger Indian identity and resistance to it. Ditto for Pakistan. A new troubling dynamic has been lodged into the situation in Kashmir and into the relations between India and Pakistan which guarantees a deeply uncertain future.

This has created a big question mark over Kashmiris’ future strategy. As it is, the ritual use of hartals, chalos and election boycotts will only be a rehash of tired old ideas stretching back decades.

Militants lining up on both sides of a hilly trail in South Kashmir to show off their strength to the media in 1991.

For Kashmir’s separatist leadership, the symbolism of the protests has supplanted the strategy.  And static thinking has become a virtue and a sign of steadfastness. They haven’t relocated themselves and their politics to the changed geopolitical context and failed to recalibrate their approaches and methods that have continued unchanged since the outbreak of the armed resistance in 1989. What’s more, sufferings and sacrifices haven’t been tied to a considered, long-range plan of action. More tragically, once the sacrifices are made, victims are forgotten and fresh suffering is sought and encouraged.

It can only be hoped that the loss of the autonomous status leaves the Kashmiri leadership across the separatist-pro-establishment divide with some learning to guide them in the future. Without that they are bound to repeat the same mistakes time and again and end up only hurting their own people than New Delhi. .

The views expressed are of the author. All images by Habib Naqash.


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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