The recently concluded by-polls in Kashmir and its aftermath underline the Modi Government’s dangerous shift in Kashmir policy.
The Srinagar by-poll on April 9 recorded an abysmally low vote percentage of 7%, with eight civilian protesters being killed in firing by forces. The turnout in the April 13 repoll in 38 booths was an even more pitiful 2%. The message from the vote percentage was clear: for Kashmiri people, the resistance that began in July is continuing even now.
As video footage of brutalities inflicted by Indian army and paramilitary forces on Kashmiri civilians emerged, the protests intensified. One video showed a young Kashmiri boy being shot dead in cold blood, without any warning by armed forces – a blatant violation of the Standard Operating Procedure for the troops. Another showed a Kashmiri youth – reportedly, one of the 2% who voted in the repoll – being tied to an armed forces jeep and paraded through villages. Several videos show armed forces torturing, thrashing, threatening, abusing and humiliating Kashmiri youth and children, some of whom are stripped of clothes.
The Government of India’s response has been to defend these atrocities. While the J&K police has filed an FIR in the case of the man tied to the jeep and paraded, the Attorney General representing the Government has declared that far from being a violation of the Indian Constitution and all international norms of armed conflict, this act was a ‘smart thing’ done by the officers. Meanwhile influential sections of the Indian electronic media have gone on an overdrive to peddle the Government of India’s position on Kashmir. The videos of atrocities by armed forces against civilians are being ‘balanced’ and justified by a video of Kashmiri civilians abusing and beating a CRPF man. Such justifications seek to suppress the fact that Kashmiri anger against Indian armed forces in the Valley is fuelled by repeated humiliations, indignities and brutalities to which they have been subjected for decades. If armed forces instead of political leaders bear the brunt of the people’s anger there, it is because Indian rulers are using the armed forces to tackle what is essentially a political issue rather than a military conflict.
The media is actively creating a narrative in which Kashmiri civilians are portrayed as terrorists deserving the worst of indignities, violence and summary execution.
It is notable that several of the atrocity videos appear to have been shot and released by the armed forces themselves – leading to suspicions that the perpetrators may have taken the videos as ‘mementos’ of the atrocities, as the US soldiers did in Abu Gharib prison in Iraq.
The atrocities meted out with brazen impunity to Kashmiris, compounded by the celebration of these atrocities by vast sections of the Indian media, are confirming the Kashmiris’ own sense of being treated as a subjugated and defeated people. As a result, the Valley is witnessing fresh waves of resistance.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this resistance is the uprising of thousands of Kashmiri students in street demonstrations and pen-down protests. This uprising was sparked off by a brutal crackdown on student protests in Pulwama against the entry of armoured vehicles into a Degree College campus and an attempt to move a police post to the gate of the college campus. More than 50 Pulwama students, bleeding from severe injuries, were admitted to hospital. In protest against this incident, thousands of students including a very large number of women students responded to a protest call by the Kashmir University Students’ Union, holding peaceful protest demonstrations and sit-ins. Police and CRPF waged a virtual war on these demonstrations, with video evidence showing them lobbing stones and tear gas shells over the walls of colleges, even those of women’s college campuses.
In the decades past, Central Governments in India pursued a two-faced policy. On one hand, they would unleash brutal crackdowns on mass protests and provide impunity for vast human rights violations. On the other, they would appease international opinion by showcasing Kashmiri participation in elections as evidence of Kashmiri faith in India’s democracy, and maintain a posture of engaging in attempts at dialogue with stakeholders in Kashmir. At the same time, Kashmir played little part in the mainstream national political discourse in India.
With the Modi Government aggressively pursuing the doctrine laid out by the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, there is a palpable shift in New Delhi’s handling of Kashmir. Now, the Modi Government is no longer interested in showcasing ‘dialogue’ and ‘democracy’ in Kashmir in the international arena. Instead, Kashmir is fodder for their politics of Hindu consolidation, anti-Muslim polarization and crackdown on dissenting voices. By showcasing and celebrating its brutal crackdown in Kashmir, ‘Hindu Rashtra’ politics, helped along by a pliant media, packages itself as an aggressive ‘nationalism.’
In reality, the Modi Government’s handling of Kashmir is neither in India’s national interest nor is it in keeping with the principles of justice and democracy. A political solution in Kashmir that respects the dignity and democratic aspirations of Kashmiri people for self-determination is in the interests of all. For all Indian citizens who are concerned about the health of India’s democracy, it is imperative to resist the dangerous political discourse that equates Indian nationalism with the dehumanization and brutalization of Kashmiri people. Any self-respecting democratic country must find political solutions to its political disputes.