With the attack on the CRPF at Pulwama and ongoing India-Pakistan tension, it’s important to understand some of the politics at stake here. While most, understandably, emphasize 1947 and the battles over partition and accession, I want to suggest to readers two memoirs that provide insight into contending narratives about the origins of the insurgency and the evolution of the conflict since. These matter both for Kashmir and for the broader battles over nationalism in contemporary India and Pakistan. The point of this post is not to judge their relative quality or accuracy, either of the books (there are plenty of reviews out there) or of the narratives (which do not seamlessly overlap with either author, to be clear), but instead to provide a little context to the political contest over history.
The first book is Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night. Peer grew up as a Muslim Kashmiri and his book can be seen as one approach to understanding the lived experience of Indian counterinsurgency (Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator is fictional but conveys similar themes). For many in Kashmir, the 1990s were a period of brutal, heavy-handed state repression – the systematic use of torture, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, rape and sexual humiliation, disregard of human rights by the security forces, and a deep, hypocritical gap between the self-regarding Indian narrative about democracy and the actual behavior of the forces. This is a world of BSF interrogation centers, arrogant and unaccountable officers, stacks of dead bodies, an Indian population fundamentally disinterested in how its security forces rule “restive” peripheries, at best, and jingoistically cheering on indiscriminate violence, at worst, and a long history of political manipulation and mis-governance. I have a vivid memory of an auto driver in downtown Srinagar telling me that he was ruled by a “government of the stick.”
This has broader implications. One could imagine how the attack at Pulwama would not be seen as a terrorist attack but instead a clean hit on an armed convoy of security forces in a war zone, and far less of a moral outrage than Gawkadal or Bijbehara. Talk about “winning hearts and minds” or the “healing touch” would seem superficial and meaningless. Development as a pathway to peace would seem to be sidestepping the core political issues at stake. Kashmir is seen as a historically distinctive and particular place, not a stand-in for either Pakistan or Muslims in general; it is a small and marginal population facing the wrath of a massive India.
Many Muslim Kashmiris would accept that militants committed atrocities and excesses (including, to some extent, toward Pandits), but would argue that India’s security forces committed vastly more killings, tortures, and general acts of coercion and violence. In the background lies a long history of Hindu minority rule in Jammu and Kashmir – Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects – and the numerous interventions from Delhi.
The second book is Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, which explores the experience of Kashmiri Pandits as they fled the Valley early in the insurgency. Pandita argues that the Muslim population often was complicit in often-vicious violence against Pandits, that the insurgents were not idealistic nationalists but instead driven by a clear Islamist agenda, and that the Pandit exodus must be a central part of any narrative of the 1990s. The misery of the Pandit refugee population and its erasure in favor of an inaccurate portrayal of a victimized, passive Muslim Kashmiri population are the key injustices to be righted.
Kashmir, and the Pandit question, in the eyes of the Hindu right were on my mind when I wrote this post about threat perception among Hindu and Buddhist nationalists in South Asia:
“Christianity and Islam are seen as offensive, aggressive forces that tend to take and seize land that once belonged to indigenous religions. They then demand an unearned indigeneity, asserting their total claim to the conquered territory. Non-proselytizing religions like Hinduism and Buddhism find themselves ever more squeezed and restricted, unable to take back what was rightfully theirs. This is, for instance, part of the Hindu right’s narrative on Kashmir – rather than a Muslim territory that needs to be in some way accommodated as special and different, they frame it as a formerly Hindu territory seized and colonized by Islam.”
In this narrative, Islam is on the march in Kashmir and beyond (see, for instance, the skepticism of Rohingya claims and opposition to providing them sanctuary among many on the Hindu right). Liberal elites tie themselves up in knots trying to justify double standards and so-called “minority appeasement,” but the truth must be faced by true nationalists: Kashmir is where a line must be drawn, with force when needed and with vigorous support and empathy for the security forces facing down hardened, implacable jihadist foes. There is little sympathy for Kashmiris – they throw stones at security forces, celebrate radical Islamists from groups like Jaish and Lashkar at militants’ funerals, encourage their children to martyrdom, live on land bloodily stolen from indigenous Hindus, extract money from the Indian taxpayer despite holding that taxpayer in contempt, and then have the temerity to complain about human rights abuses.
This has bled in recent years into the claim that even pro-Delhi/mainstream Kashmiri political parties are functionally secessionist and treasonous. Kashmir is particular only in the intensity of its rebellion – more broadly, however, it represents a chauvinistic and expansionistic Islam backed by Pakistani guns and money. The narrative also is instrumentally useful, both within the state (Jammu) and in the broader national electoral showdowns that face a powerful but still embattled Hindu nationalism.
These battle lines are visible in today’s political debates, and even once this particular escalation dies down, they will remain fundamental to the political cleavages defining the politics of India and South Asia.
I also want to recommend this sobering Human Rights Watch report from 1996 for anyone interested in the conflict in the 1990s: India’s Secret Army in Kashmir.