Writing in the 1950s, Mridula Sarabhai described the situation in Kashmir and its relationship to India as a "khayaalon ki ladai" – a clash of ideas. A Gandhian activist who had been deeply involved in Kashmir affairs since the 1940s, becoming especially so on behalf of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah after his arrest in 1953, Sarabhai recognised that these constantly battling ideologies settled along and reinforced multiple lines of division (which can also be described today as ongoing states of partition) – between India and Pakistan, between Pakistani and Indian Kashmir, between Kashmir and India, between Pakistan and Kashmir, between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley, and between the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh.
She repeatedly pointed out that “vested interests” used the media and other avenues to promote their own ideas, which often circulated in the form of rumour, with the ultimate objective of driving a wedge between these multiple players so as to keep the conflict simmering and eventually forcing Kashmiris into the arms of Pakistan.
Several decades have passed since, but the khayaalon ki ladai rages on, and if anything, has become even more vehement. At a very basic level, the events this month at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, and at Handwara, are a result of the as yet unresolved relationship between Kashmir and India, between the State and Centre, and between the two nationalisms. Sarabhai, Balraj Puri, JP Narayan, and many others like them, incessantly implored the Indian government to stem the rot within Kashmir and its institutions in the 1950s, '60s, and into the '70s, and to take concrete steps to bring Kashmir into the national, democratic mainstream so as not to allow a victory for the opportunists.
Their words went unheeded. So strong was the fear that Kashmir would dissociate from India that the Indian government supported a series of dictatorial, corrupt and ineffectual governments in the state – including the first National Conference government – which promised them Kashmiri loyalty. In the process, they drove Kashmiris towards the very enemy they were trying to lure them away from.
When young Kashmiris shout pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans, it is not necessarily because they believe that Pakistan is a better option, or because they have fallen prey to radical Islamic ideologies, but rather because they do not feel, and have never felt, included in India and its rhetoric of democracy, secularism and globalisation. This is especially true of this generation, which grew up during the insurgency and India’s military response to it, an experience which they view as akin to living under an occupation. Those who leave for other parts of India to seek a better life have often been met with hostility and suspicion.
Kashmiris inside and outside Kashmir are labelled anti-national traitors even before they have a chance to decide what they feel. Since they have not been treated as equal citizens, they feel no loyalty towards India. Kashmiri nationalism, now articulated as a demand for aazadi (freedom), has become irreconcilable with mainstream Indian nationalism.
The alienation between Kashmir and India is evident in the events at Handwara, where a rumour that a schoolgirl had been sexually molested by a soldier led to widespread street protests, army firing in response, and the deaths of several innocent Kashmiris. Rumours have always played a powerful role in Kashmiri politics, and an allegation such as this one in particular has the potential to erupt into a high level of violence because it evokes memories of the loss of dignity that Kashmiris have had to suffer at the hands of the military forces for over two decades. The mistrust deepens and violence spirals further out of control as authorities mishandle the investigations into such incidents, creating a feeling amongst Kashmiris that they have no recourse to justice, especially through political institutions.
Lines of division
It is no surprise that the recent disturbances have emerged in the context of the new government that has taken charge in the state. A coalition between the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party reminds Kashmiris of the repeated collusions between the State and the Centre to squelch their political aspirations. Furthermore, after the death of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, the ability of the PDP to represent Kashmiri interests by keeping the BJP from asserting its agenda in the coalition is considered questionable (and is one of the reasons that it took several months for the new coalition to be formed).
Equally significantly, the coalition, and the 2014 legislative assembly election that gave birth to it, has institutionalised the lines of division between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley – while the former has emerged firmly as pro-BJP territory, the latter is considered PDP territory (although the PDP is less popular in Kashmir now than it was during the election). The Jammu/Kashmir divide has been apparent in the wake of the NIT incident, with the Kashmir Valley tilting strongly in favour of Kashmiri students, while Jammu became a hub for those protesting on behalf of non-Kashmiri students.
NIT and Handwara are the symptoms of a much deeper malaise that cannot be treated by the band-aid measures being proposed in the wake of these crises. To restore a sense of confidence among Kashmiris, there is a need to take courageous, long-term action to tackle the problem as a whole when Kashmir is relatively peaceful, rather than stepping in with quick-fix and temporary solutions when a crisis seems to get out of hand. Such solutions merely paper over the khayalon ki ladai, which festers and continues unabated. After all, even though the lines of division and the ideas that create these fissures have shifted somewhat since the 1950s – when Sarabhai lamented and warned of the deteriorating relationship between Kashmir and India – the battlefield remains very much the same.