By Abhishek Jha:
Despite curfew-like restrictions in place, the death toll has risen every few hours in clashes between the security personnel and protesters in Kashmir after the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Operation theatres are running non-stop. The number of dead civilians now stands at 29 and the number of injured is over 1000.
As the unrest grew in the valley post Burhan’s funeral, Nayeem Akthar, the state government spokesperson, appealed to all political parties to restore normalcy. Ram Madhav- RSS veteran, BJP’s National General Secretary and the man who is said to have engineered the PDP-BJP coalition- also asked for the same, although only a day before, he was tweeting that the government will stand firm, “eruption or no eruption”. In Delhi, the PM, back from beating drums in Africa, is chairing a meeting today, 3 days after unrest broke out, for a swift return to normalcy. The Chief Minister of the State, who only recently won a by-election, has barely spoken or acted.
But what is the ‘normalcy’ that they want a return to? As some senior anonymous PDP leader confessed to a newspaper, “What can we do? We can’t give people what they want. So such a situation will keep on happening.” The reference is obviously to the absence of a political solution to the hope that was irrevocably instilled in the people of Kashmir when they were promised a plebiscite, not to mention the centuries of atrocities faced by the peasant population that have made the desire undeniable. In this void, such eruptions will continue to happen.
It’s clear then that when the government appeals for support to bring normalcy back, what they are essentially asking is that people be lied to. That they should be told that the impunity with which rape, torture, and killings have gone on in the valley for over six decades will finally be tried, that the barricades and concertina wire, the bunkers at every nook and corner, the constant frisking and beatings will all end if people stop protesting just this once. But this lie has already been repeated over and over again. And as the adage from Birbal stories go, you can’t cook twice in a wooden pot.
The tacit understanding however- which one can see in the reports of attacks on even ambulances and hospitals by security personnel – is that such massive protests cannot be allowed to happen on the death of a militant. But the people of Kashmir view these militants very much as part of their struggle for a dignified existence, for ‘normalcy’ as they see it. When reports on human rights violations become routine and do not inspire any action, it is only natural that a galvanising force such as Burhan, who had become a household name in Kashmir, will bring huge numbers to the streets.
Moreover, right from Maqbool Bhat, who was hanged in ’84, to Burhan Wani, Kashmiri militant commanders have maintained a nuance in their messages and speeches – which the Indian media and textbooks can try to paint over with the image of a gun-wielding, hate mongering, naïve jihadi- but which most Kashmiris are aware of.
Bhat maintained a conception of an independent state based on socialist principles. Wani, in his video messages, had assured that neither Hindu pilgrims going to Amarnath, nor J&K police will be targeted in any violent attacks. It is difficult then for the Indian establishment to discredit them as people working to the detriment of the interests of Kashmiris.
So although there is a discussion in Kashmiri households as well as in academia as to whether armed struggle is the right way forward, once any Kashmiri is killed at the hands of Indian security personnel, a funeral procession or a shutdown does not always require exhortation by separatist leaders. It happens on its own because the resentment is simmering just below the surface, and finding an opening, gushes forth.
It is also, therefore, irrelevant to ask separatist leaders to intervene now and aid the Center in bringing back ‘normalcy’. For one, these leaders have a reason to grouse. They are seldom invited to talks on Kashmir that Indian and Pakistani leaders participate in. Moreover, they are put under preventive detention every time they call for a protest. The central government in Delhi has hardly ever heard them enough for them to find any incentive in playing along right now. Two, the people of Kashmir respond to leaders that understand them and articulate what they have to say. It is not for no reason that the elected leaders are not popular and elections are boycotted. The people will articulate what they have to, either by taking to the streets or by sending an appropriate response to the leader. The NC was abandoned and the PDP- with which people seemed to have some hope- has lost charm even faster.
If a genuine effort at even ending the ongoing protests is to be attempted, the current method of crowd control- which for some unknown reason has involved attacking ambulances and hospitals- needs to stop immediately. Every single death and injury is going to further add fuel to the fire. But even the protests stopping for now are no guarantee that everything will be alright thereafter. Each death will be commemorated along with Burhan’s, Guru’s, and Bhat’s.
Unless the Indian government creates a space for this mourning, unless the impunity provided to the army under AFSPA is withheld, the cycle of calm and unrest will continue. But the government cannot do this unless it allows Kashmiris to express what they want: Hum Kya Chahte?
As long as the answer to that question remains a taboo in India, it will need silencing. And that gag-order, as it comes with the whole paraphernalia of a war-zone, has never been the idea of ‘normalcy’ for Kashmiris.
Featured image credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail
Banner image credit: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images