Why Colonies are a Dangerous Idea

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  • Publish Date: Dec 19 2016 12:56PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 19 2016 12:56PM
Why Colonies are a Dangerous Idea

The building of exclusive enclaves for Kashmiri Pandits and Indian soldiers, on the pattern of the Israel-style settlements in the historic Palestine, raises stakes higher in the dispute between Kashmir and New Delhi. Rafiq Bhat looks at how it would shape Kashmir’s politics in the years to come.

 Last month, a hazy picture of what looked to be a row of tall, gray, concrete buildings began circulating in Kashmir on social media. A caption accompanying the picture said the construction was going on somewhere near the old airport area of the Srinagar city, and that it was a housing development for the Indian soldiers, a part of the government plan to construct what it called as “sainik colonies” in the Kashmir valley. Whether the picture was really of the intended housing for the Indian soldiers was beside the point. It soon went viral, reinforcing the feeling that the talk of building separate enclaves for Kashmiri Pandits and soldiers in Kashmir was not just mere political rhetoric designed to placate the Hindu rightwing sentiment in India, but a carefully crafted strategy to bring about changes to the demographic character of Kashmir.

A few weeks before the picture popped up on social media, the Kashmir valley had protested a government plan to allot land across the length and breadth of Kashmir to build what it called as “transit accommodations” for Kashmiri Pandits. Although the government denied it at first, calling the reports in a section of the media that had blown the lid off the plan as mischievous, it became clear nonetheless that the BJP-PDP coalition government was hardly deterred by the opposition, of a coalition of factions as varied as separatists, pro-India political parties, traders, and civil society, to its program to bring back Pandits and settle them at places where in the words of the government they would not be threatened by militant factions. For some time now political discourse in the Kashmir valley has taken on a sharp tone to counter what people of Kashmir see as the Israel-style settlements that India has insidiously decided to build in their homeland, to turn them into a minority and thus somehow undermine their political resistance to Indian rule.

For the last nearly seventy years, India has deployed a raft of measures to strengthen its military control of Kashmir, and mobilizing religious passions in India to weaken Kashmiri struggle for political freedoms was always at the heart of its Kashmir policy. The then political elite of India was reluctant though, perhaps out of its desire to burnish India’s credentials as a country with a strong tradition of thriving multiculturalism, to openly deploy Hindu nationalist passion in its struggle against Kashmiri nationalists. But over time its commitment to self-professed secular ethos grew shaky as it allowed the rightwing elements to operate the Kashmir policy in the shadows. In contrast, in the last two years of the Hindu rightwing rule, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has shed all such pretenses and revealed a diabolical policy that shamelessly drums up the inflamed passions of its Hindu nationalist supporters across India. Its frenzied cry calls for Kashmir to be retrieved from a people that have stopped them from taking over a sacred land that was always supposed to be the pride of the so-called Hindu civilization. It doesn’t matter to them how the nearly ten million of Kashmir’s inhabitants would see such naked cultural aggression buttressed by India’s rising economic and military clout in the region.

Is Kashmir, faced with such a sinister campaign of the Hindu rightwing zealots, on course to become a second Palestine, a small territory overrun by Hindu fanatics that trace ancient links to Kashmir, a mythological abode of gods, and see the natives of Kashmir as a stumbling block to revive that mythological past? Does it then make it inevitable that, in the face of India’s mobilization of Hindu nationalist fervor to serve its political ambitions, Kashmir would turn more and more to Islamism and its political variants to fight off this “cultural aggression?”

To an eye not trained to evaluate what restlessness in Kashmir was all about and the way it was confounding to watch, it might be tempting to fall for the propaganda that India was fighting Islamist radicalism in the Kashmir valley and how it needed to use a slew of harsh measures, from maintaining nearly 700,000 troops and repressive laws, rape and torture, disappearance and custodial killings, to defeat the threat to its sovereignty. Ever since the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence branch of the Pakistan army, began mobilizing guerilla fighters of foreign origin to run its war against India in the heartland of Kashmir, the Indian security establishment has succeeded in portraying itself in the western world as an aggrieved victim of the “state-sponsored Islamic terrorism.” Today, the Indian army might boast of a complete military domination of Kashmir, on and off harassed by a new generation of sullen, abused, humiliated and tortured young men who have taken to arms to stand up to India’s hegemony, it is no way anywhere near to completely vanquishing the will of Kashmiris to resist its oppressive military control.

In the last several years, I began noticing a steady trend in the Indian and international media to somehow trace a correlation between an Islam with a wide popularity in the Kashmir valley that encouraged its adherents to become more devout and conservative in outlook and young men resorting to violent street protests and hit-and-run ambushes on Indian soldiers with automatic rifles. The inference was clear: it was their extremist theological ideas that made them susceptible to violence. Jason Burke, the then South Asia correspondent of the London-based newspaper, The Guardian, came to Kashmir a few years back to report how a young man in the southern corner of Kashmir had become the face of a new homegrown rebellion against India. While describing how a teenage boy, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, came to embrace a violent path, Burke, in a devious twist to the story, insinuated that religious preachers, having studied in the Middle East, were somehow responsible for causing men to adopt violent methods.

What Burke and many like him failed to comprehend, or intentionally balked at noting, was that youthful men like Wani were confronting a system that had oppressed them all their lives and that they found no other way to give a vent to their anger at finding themselves in a cage in their own homeland. If reporters like Burke had cared to use their editorial judgment in a more dispassionate manner, they might have wondered how it was that religious preachers from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Central Asian states, South Africa, the US, the UK, Sri Lanka, and India were trooping into Kashmir, and how it was that the activists of Amnesty International always found their route to Kashmir blocked. Had Burke found his way to one of the religious gatherings held in honor of the visiting preachers, he would have heard them inciting hatred against fellow Muslims and not calling for jihad against India. Being a sharp reporter that he is, he would have been able to figure out how India’s security establishment was brazenly encouraging rival religious groups to whip up sectarian hatred against each other. He would have discovered that the religious men who called for struggle against India to liberate Kashmir were either wasting away in prison or ended up dying in torture chambers or in gun battles.

Faith had always been central to life in Kashmir. It was then inevitable that Kashmir’s struggle for justice and liberty would drape itself in the symbols and language of Islam. To say it was Islam that motivated them to rebel against India was to utter a grotesque lie, a lie that buried the harsh political reality of Kashmir in a web of deception that pitted fellow Kashmiris against each other and cast them as bloodthirsty monsters that didn’t deserve a beautiful land they had come to inhabit.

Against this background, it might become a little easier to understand how an old, frail man, Syed Ali Geelani, has found his popularity touching new heights in Kashmir, in the last decade. Yes, Geelani is an Islamist ideologue who calls for the imposition of Sharia, eulogized men like Osama bin Laden, and wants Kashmir to integrate with Pakistan. For some his Islamist politics might be hard to swallow. Yet, he has become the voice of Kashmir whom the people of Kashmir turn to in times of distress. On a recent Ramadan morning, I drove to the Hyderpora area of Srinagar and walked into a gathering of Geelani’s supporters at his residence. Rows of men sat on the carpet in the lawn, listening to speeches made by various leaders. Geelani had organized a seminar to discuss how Kashmir should respond to the building of exclusive enclaves for Kashmiri Pandits and Indian soldiers. Being there, one realized apprehensions and fears the people had about the building of settlements and how a sly strategy had been devised to rob them of the only thing precious they had in this world: their homeland.

In the last two years since it took power, Narendra Modi’s rightwing government has made no secret of its policy how it sees Kashmir and the stiff resistance it was dealing with there. For them turning Kashmir into a destination for Hindu extremists to revive ancient sites of pilgrimage was one way of maintaining a tight hold of a territory they have coveted for the last nearly seventy years. The effect of such project would be dire and calamitous. It would force Kashmir into making a fateful choice whose ramifications would be disastrous for the whole region of South Asia.

By the time Pakistan came to fight a bitter war with India in Kargil, in 1999, its decline in popularity in Kashmir was complete. Horrified at the way Pakistan was imploding, people in Kashmir blanched at the idea of aligning its future with that country. The Pakistan of 2016 is a different kettle of fish. Although it might not trouble many, in Kashmir, how Pakistan was doing an India in Baluchistan and its merciless war against tribes, it is nonetheless again being seen in Kashmir with love and deference, a country that perhaps would act as a bulwark against the perfidious designs of India in the Kashmir valley. The image of a Muslim land being laid to waste by Hindu zealots is so powerful that the Pakistan army can mobilize hundreds of young men who would be willing to lay down their lives to avenge the suffering of their fellow Muslim brothers. The end result of this would be more war, suffering, and bloodshed. If this were to repeat itself, the blame would entirely be India’s again.

(First published in the July print issue of Ink)