Thursday, July 8, 2010

Age of the stone wars in Kashmir

by Najib Mubarki

Insanity , Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Apply that to Kashmir, and one doesn’t need to be an Einstein to figure out that he had got the equation right, again.

Leave, for argument’s sake, the baggage of history — of events from 1947: the accession , New Delhi’s political machinations , dismissed governments and rigged elections to the eruption of insurgency in 1989 — alone for a moment.

Let us assume , for that moment, that there is utter veracity in the official narrative that but for afew elements, who are being discredited, peace and harmony would be restored in the Valley.

Add the fact that armed militancy has been curbed significantly and a regime, elected via a surprisingly well-attended electoral exercise, is in charge.

Add also the statements emanating from the top echelons of both the central and state governments that there will be zero tolerance for human rights abuses. Given all that, if not perfect, things surely should have been better.

So why did the patent insanity of the last few days occur? Why does it happen repeatedly? Why did, day after day, the police and the CRPF shoot dead youngsters who were out protesting, rioting , against the deaths of the day before?

Most Kashmiris would answer that it is because they are under occupation, that the security forces behave as they do, use brute force, as they are the most acute and clear manifestation of the state people are alienated from and resisting. Or, at least, that Kashmiris live in a police state, where, literally, the law allows and supports torture , imprisonment and killings.

Official narrative, of course, invokes the Paksponsored terrorism theme. That, somehow , everything that doesn’t go according to plan in Kashmir has its roots across the border. The other way of looking at things would be to comprehend that essentially there are two competing nationalisms at work, at variance.

The Kashmiri version that seeks separation, exclusion, and the Indian version that insists on inclusion. And the violence that occurs is, therefore, squarely in the realm of the political. So, the broadest answer as to why those killings took place is that there is a denial of that political reality.

That, leaving Pakistan out entirely, New Delhi refuses to recognise and engage with the fact that it faces a political crisis in Kashmir.

Of course, elections were held, a democratic process seemingly restarted. But the mistake is to ignore both the deep roots of separatism and the complexity of political consciousness in Kashmir that separates issues of immediate governance, after years of debilitating strife, and that of the larger tehreek or ‘movement’ .

And the latter , clearly, has transformed. From a belief in armed insurgency, with the gradual realisation that it did not achieve its desired goals, to an incipient rights-and-protest based phase. And hartals , strikes and stone pelting are part of that.

Indeed, Kashmir has reverted to an older form of political expression. Stone-throwing or kani jung (stone war), has historically been a feature of Kashmir’s political battles.

That, if once, pelting stones and bricks were used in fights between different political factions within Kashmir, it now is emerging as the most violent way of showing resistance and dissent.

So, just who are these stonethrowers ? Just why are youngsters again and again coming out to pelt stones, even when they know they might be thrashed, detained or plain killed (as someone said, employing some Kashmiri black humour, the ages of those killed in the last few days, 17, 16, 14...9, read like the scores of a batsman in really bad form)?

The first thing to understand is that this is a generation that has seen and knows nothing else but violence. In a place steeped in political violence and brutal force, they are also a generation perhaps more politicised than those before.

And that is why they also represent, though it may come as a surprise, both an awareness of the failure of the separatist leadership as well as the apparent lack of need to have any leaders in order to protest.
Remember, it isn’t just the government that thinks them dangerous, many among the separatist leaders do too. And some have called them everything from miscreants to drug addicts to being Indian agents. But as part of wider Kashmiri society, they are one manifestation of the rage of having suffered incredible violence, of living lives of daily humiliation.

As part of Kashmiri society , they are aware of the doublespeak, the dissembling that is part of the official version of each killing, each act of violence. And they are part, most immediately visible right now, of the dissent against, the political response to, that violence.

And the governments’ response basically is to use force to contain that political crisis. But the crisis remains. Even in its instrumentalities . Talk of standard operating procedures, for example, has no meaning for Kashmiris when live fire, tear gas shells, even rubber bullets are aimed at the head or chest, as the injuries of the dead reveal.

There can, again to speak of an instrumentality , be no meeting point between a CM who lauds a paramilitary force which, even as it supposedly is exercising restraint , kills daily, barges into homes, shatters windows and thrashes people.

There can be no greater absurdity that while that elected state government endorses using force, the army chief speaks of the need to now use politics to deal with the situation.

It is evident that a bout of conflict subsides after a peak, only to erupt again over the next incident, the next event. And Kashmir is now in a dangerous zone where more suppression, mere reliance on using state force, could fuel the rage into unpredictable territory.

Using absurd phrases like agitational terrorism or nonviolent terrorism or perpetually seeking to link protests over killings to Pakistan or Islamist groups only widens the rupture between what should be done and what is.

Allowing a political process, after all, would also mean allowing those sections or leaders the state is averse to some space, allowing that dissent, those protests or marches, not trying to choke everything all the time. The only thing that can emerge in such a situation is other, more violent forms of that dissent.

The stone throwers are a reminder that there is no way out except engaging with that dissent in Kashmir. That without such an engagement, by only using force again and again, Kashmir will, to borrow the words of the Russian poet Arseny Tarkovsky , stay a place where destiny seems to shadow events like a madman with a razor in his hand.