Enlightenment, it seems, has finally dawned upon the Indian government. The words of wisdom that came out of yesterday’s all-party meeting on Kashmir, convened by the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh point to that “Constitution of India provides ample scope to accommodate any legitimate political demand through dialogue, civil discourse and peaceful negotiations”. This is the consensus the meeting reached arrived at.
The importance of these words lies more in the facts they betray than the ones they apparently want to say. The statement asserts that the protest in Kashmir is a ‘legitimate political demand’, a fact the Prime Minister and his cabinet was trying to brush away all this while. It would serve as a reminder of the fact that the Home Minister of India and his colleagues have often blamed the protests on everything, right from that they are influenced by the players across the border (the favourite punching bag) to the mischievous secessionist forces (often adding Islamist for good measures) and has tried to delegitimise the protests in that sense.
The Prime Minister went a step further while noting his pain and finding it “indeed tragic” and expressed shock and anguish on seeing “young men and women, even children, joining the protests on the streets.” Here was a Prime Minister admitting the popular support and the participation the protests have, while rubbishing the claims made by his colleagues or the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir that the protestors belong to a fringe of Kashmiri population.
Going by these candid and honest, even if unintentional, admissions the meeting could have led to a serious step forward for restoring peace in Kashmir. But then, moving towards peace requires the intent as the most primary requisite and that was plainly missing from the meeting. The enlightened statements, in that, proved to be bereft of any intention to convert them into a reality so much desired by the Kashmiris.
The realisation, even if it took three decades and more than 70000 lives to dawn upon, that it was possible to accommodate ‘any legitimate political demand through dialogue, civil discourse and peaceful negotiations’ should have led the Prime Minister to introspect that why his government did not try to achieve this over at least last seven years when he was at the helm of affairs? What stopped our ‘affable’ and ‘uncorrupted’ Prime Minister from exploring those possibilities all this while? The only thing that could match his honesty in accepting the protests as legitimate would have been his acceptance of his failure in achieving peace through peaceful negotiations.
The enlightenment brought out by this meeting is a ruptured one, one that has high sounding words but no intention to carry them out. The Prime Minister, while exhorting people to return to peace and expressing the willingness of his government to have a dialogue with “anybody or any group that does not espouse or practise violence”; forgot to tell how to achieve that. Just to make a few things clear, unlike earlier protests this protest is not being carried out by some ‘group’ or even ‘groups’. It is a popular protest with the participation of even ‘children’ as per his own admission. How, and why, would people stop throwing ‘stones’ violently at security personnel in the face of brutally violent repression carried out on them?
One does not need to consult treatises to understand that ensuring peace is the responsibility of the state and not of the citizenry! Or the Prime Minister, and his government, has treaded this basic understanding off with some perverse logic of governance! How else would one explain his brazen attempt of shifting the onus of establishing peace on the people while delivering a veiled threat that “discussions can take place only if we have calm and public order?” Who does Indian state want to talk to if not these people? Talking to those in the chairs of power in Kashmir is definitely not going to serve any purpose as they are viewed as nothing but of having dubious record of being typical collaborator with an occupying force for personal gains.
The issue that the Prime Minister, and the remaining members of the meeting, left untouched was that what the government was doing from its side to bring that elusive peace. The real issue behind protests in Kashmir is not of some neurosis. The protestors do not have some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder that leads to protest including stone pelting. These are real people; citizens the government had forgotten; with real grievances. And they have a real anger against the Indian state, represented in the state not by its civilian arms but by the ubiquitous presence of the uniformed security forces.
The problem of Indian state, on the other hand, is not violence per say. After all, it deals with lots of violent incidents every year. Most of the protests even in mainstream, peaceful parts of Indian territories are violent. The protests for the creation of a separate Telngana state out of Andhra Pradesh were violent leading to many deaths. The protest of Bhartiya Janta Party which was the party leading the central government against the killing of 56 people in a train burning incident was very violent, leading to a pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat. The most conservative estimates of death toll put the number of casualities at around 2000. The protests of Gurjars, a community in Rajsthan for getting included in the Scheduled Tribes list was very violent. The protests against the killing of a Hindu saint belonging to right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Odisha was very violent, resulting in killings of hundreds of Christians.
The security forces maintained the restraint of highest order in all these incident. They restrained even when the mobs went on killing fellow Indian citizens. They showed maximum restraint even when their own colleagues were killed by these furious mobs. They did not open fire upon crowds in these areas even when they destroyed public as well as individual properties.
They exercised this restraint even in Jammu, the other half of the state, during the violent protests over transfer of lands to the Amarnath Temple Shrine Board. The police and paramilitary personnel did not fire on the crowds even when two members of police were killed. Contrast this with the situation in Kashmir valley. The claimed deadliness of these mass assaults is exposed by the fact that the stone pelting protests have not resulted in the single death of security personnel. And yet, security forces have not shown any of the exemplary restraint they show elsewhere.
The real problem of the people in Kashmir is that. They know that these forces treat them differently than Indians. They see these forces brutalising Kashmiris in every conceivable ways and contrast this with their behaviour in other Indian provinces.
They see that the government of India inscribing its writ on the area through security forces, which in turn, turn to the body of the ordinary Kashmiri as a site to demonstrate their patriotism in carrying out their orders. And then they realise that they do not get to deal with the civilian administration for anything. Leave aside any talks of engaged participation and informed consent in how their lives would be governed, all they get is security checks, cordons, and even occasional beatings by the personnel belonging to these forces.
The anger that is mobilising these protests, therefore, is rooted not in some failure of the Kashmiri people but in the violence perpetrated by the security personnel with impunity under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) that gives every officer the right to kill anyone, merely on suspicion.
This Act is what distinguishes Kashmir from rest of India. This act is what labels them as ‘enemy’ in their own country. This act is the hideous spider that has cast a web of fear that runs through the whole of Kashmir. And it’s the strangest kind of fear, which has occupied both extremes of human existence. One it makes the very basic existence uncertain, even a non-commissioned officer can shoot one for no reason and there would not be an enquiry, leave aside getting justice. This same fear seeps into everyday life and becomes a lived reality. So being a Kashmiri you fear going out of your home for the presence of security forces, you fear standing on a street for the fear of cross firings, and you fear being in home for the raids conducted by the security personnel.
The problem plaguing the Kashmiri psyche is this fear. Everyone has feared everything so much that there is nothing more to fear about. And when people stop fearing because of the violent deaths haunting their existence, they go to the other extreme of not fearing it at all. This is what has caused these people, mostly youth who have lost all faith in life, make it a mad game of risking it every day and no amount of force can control a population who have exchanged their fear for insanity.
A meeting, which does not address this fear, which does not address the issue of AFSPA, forget the timeline for repealing it from the state is a sham. A Prime Minister who talks of peace without making any attempt to bring it must know that it would not come. So why does he talk about that. Because that is all he can talk about! Because that is what governments are expected to talk about. Even while knowing that mere talks do never work.
Meanwhile, the meeting did not observe the customary silence for the departed. Not even for the 15 who perished on the date of Eid ul-Fitr.
*Mr. Avinash Pandey, alias Samar, is a research scholar based in New Delhi, India. Currently Samar is in Hong Kong on a work assignment with the AHRC. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org