By Hafsa Kanjwal (Originally posted on Alternet)
In the past week, a fresh wave of violence in Indian-held Kashmir has left 36 (and counting) people dead and over 1,500 injured, including women and children. Over 100 youth have been hit in the eye by pellet ammunition used by security forces, many of whom will be blind for the rest of their lives. In addition, there have been allegations of Indian security forces entering hospitals and firing tear gas into wards as well as beating up hospital staff and patients and attacking ambulances, actions that constitute international war crimes.
In today’s world of international condemnations, ‘Je Suis Charlies’, social media activism and outpourings of sympathy for those whose lives are deemed more valuable than others, the international silence—be in in the Western world or in Muslim-majority countries—over these deaths in Muslim-majority Kashmir is incredulous. But it is a silence that Kashmiris are used to, and have had to bear in a global order that sidelines people’s legitimate aspirations for freedom in favor of economic interests and expedient politics. In a world where any Muslim political demand is deemed suspect, India has been able to get away with its actions in Kashmir, with no censure from the international community, be it the leadership of most countries or the plethora of non-governmental, human rights, and media organizations that are quick to respond to more politically viable tragedies.
On July 8, Indian security forces killed 22-year- old Burhan Wani, a local rebel commander for the Hizbul Mujahideen, as well as two of his associates. Wani’s funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of people who travelled from throughout the region, defying a government-enforced curfew. Countless others held prayers in absentia for the slain rebel in their local areas. In ensuing protests, Indian security forces unleashed live ammunition and pellets onto unarmed crowds, who pelted stones, raised pro-freedom slogans, and attempted to dislodge police and army outposts.
In 2010, Wani was fifteen when he joined the local insurgency against Indian rule, after a long summer in which over 120 Kashmiri youth were killed. A few weeks before he joined, security forces beat up him and his brother “for no reason,” and his brother was left unconscious. Wani represented a new generation of youth that is too young to relate to the armed rebellion of the 1990’s, but has had its own experience of the continued brutalities of the Indian state. Since 2008, Kashmir has entered a new phase of non-violent resistance against Indian rule; Kashmiris have been driven to the streets as well as online to condemn attempted land grabs (2008), sexual violence and killings of women (2009), and extrajudicial killings of youth (ongoing). The response of the Indian state has been to systematically curtail any form of peaceful dissent through coercion or violence; for example, no students unions are allowed in Kashmir’s universities and young people are routinely harassed and picked up by intelligence agencies.
Living under suppressive conditions, and frustrated with the lack of a political resolution as well as a powerless leadership, a number of local youth, including Wani, have joined the armed rebellion in recent years (however, unlike in the 1990’s when the numbers were in the thousands, today it is no more than 100). In their minds, what other options do they have?
The overwhelming response of the Indian government and media establishment to the recent events has been to dismiss the protestors (and rebels) as “agents of Pakistan” and “radical Islamic jihadist extremists.” Others have expressed shock that so many people attended Wani’s funeral, in complete denial of the realities on the ground. This is no surprise; since 9/11, and especially since 2008, India has sidelined the movement in Kashmir by collapsing it into the discourse of the War on Terror. The schizophrenic discourse at times pegs Kashmir’s entire majority Muslim population as terrorist sympathizers, and at other times, just a fringe element egged on by Pakistan while the rest is happy with India. In either case, the demand for self-determination is conflated with “Islamic radicalism” and “extremism.”
For many around the world, Wani’s narrative will also be collapsed under the rubric of terrorism. To do so is a mistake that displaces the acute responsibility of the Indian state in failing to address the Kashmir issue. Yes, Wani was a commander for the Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest rebel group in the region, with a pro-Pakistan Islamist ideology. While Wani seems to have been deeply inspired by a religious consciousness in which the political and the religious cannot be easily differentiated, it shouldn’t mean that his sense of the political was limited, and informed by a purely exclusivist religious world view. To understand the intersection of religion and politics in Kashmir’s struggle for freedom, one must critically engage with a history in which avenues for a secular, more palatable politics have been marginalized by the state, thus allowing for a political language which is deeply embedded with a religious vocabulary. Even Wani’s father, in an interview, said that his son’s politics were not informed by a religious ideology, but rather, the “everyday torture and humiliation” he faced living under Indian military rule.
Two important factors regarding Wani’s understanding of Kashmir’s struggle have been completely overlooked by a jingoistic government and media fervor in India that are all too quick to denounce him as a religious radical (which, by all means, is ironic given the right-wing Hindu nationalist party that is currently in power in India). One, in a recent video uploaded onto social media, he emphatically stated that his group would not target Hindu pilgrims in Kashmir, who come for the Amarnath pilgrimage, as his fight is not against them, but the Indian security establishment. Second, he encouraged the peaceful return of Kashmir’s minority Hindu community, the Pandits, who were forced to flee the region in the early 1990’s, as long as they were reintegrated into Kashmiri society, and not settled in “Israeli-like settlements” (a plan that the BJP-led government has been touting).
For Kashmiris, Wani was not lauded because he represented some brand of Islamic radicalism; he was first, and foremost, a symbol of Kashmiri aspirations for self-determination, a ray of hope and agency for a population that has become stuck in an endless rubric of India-Pakistan talks that are seemingly designed to go nowhere. These aspirations did not arise recently; they go as far back as the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, long before the dawn of today’s “radical Islamism.”
And yet, the silence continues. Western countries find it difficult to condemn India, given is an important ally in their War on Terror. For the international community, including a number of Muslim-majority countries, India is a crucial business partner, the largest open market in the world. Even Facebook has been complicit in the global silence. The accounts of a number of pro-Kashmir activists have been suspended, while posts that highlight the current state of affairs in Kashmir are repeatedly removed. This blatant censorship should come to no ones surprise, given Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to expand to the Indian market, and his compliance with the Modi government.
What can be done? It is clear that shrill Islamophobia and neoliberalism are at play in the silence surrounding Kashmir. Nonetheless, Kashmir’s freedom struggle will go on. Kashmiris can only hope that their cause will be acknowledged by the international solidarity community, progressive groups ranging from Black Lives Matter to Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), natural allies in the struggle against state brutality and imperialism.