Witnessing the Summer Uprising in Kashmir

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This summer I visited Kashmir to collect important data for my research thesis, and also to see my family. While it took a while clearing needless bureaucratic hassles to get access to hardbound newspaper archives, I was optimistic in getting my work done gradually. But soon my optimistic self was to be overwhelmed by the most significant political event in the recent Kashmiri history: on 8th July a local rebel leader Burhan Wani was killed and immediately spontaneous street protests erupted in entire Kashmir valley.

Burhan Wani, who had joined an indigenous rebel group as a teenager, was quite popular – in large part due to his good-looks and social media persona built over the years. He attracted lot of Kashmiris, particularly youth, and also drew some of them to militant ranks; and that is why when he was killed, at the young age of 22, in a “military encounter” in south Kashmir, his funeral procession was largely thronged by young men and women. By some estimates his funeral procession, which was held in his hometown Tral, around 50 km from the capital city Srinagar, was attended by over 200,000 mourners – one of the largest for any Kashmiri ever. As a mark of solidarity, and political convention among pro-independence Kashmiri dissidents, all business establishments, government offices, transport, educational institutions were closed in the wake of his death, which brought most economic and other day to day activities to a virtual halt, including my data collection work.

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But explosive situations aren’t new to Kashmir, for Kashmiris have been living under constant pressures of the raging conflict and concomitant militarization and political upheavals since early 1990’s; and also 2008 and 2010 mass protests occurred not so long ago. However, what was certainly different this time around was the emotional intensity and spread of these Intifada like protests. While in 2008 and 2010, people of urban centres were more active protest participants, this time the protest wave had swept not only the entire Kashmir valley – traditionally the centre of perpetual political agitations – but also reached relatively peaceful Chenab area in the Jammu region. And yet, what was also different during this time was the sheer scale and appalling brutality of state violence. As many commentators in media have already described, the current state violence against protestors in Kashmir has been unprecedented. In its report, a fact-finding team of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which spent a week in Kashmir (October 14-22), made following observations: “The government responded by heavy and forceful military clampdown which resulted in a continuing spate of killings, injuries and arrests of people which continues unabated almost every day till the present.”

And, giving details about the human cost of such “heavy and forceful military clampdown” against Kashmiri civilians, the PUCL reported that from 9th July to 15th October, “the total number of civilians killed by the police and the security forces was 101…[and] It was reported that 12 people died due to pellets fired by the forces. It was also learnt that 1 policeman too was killed in mob violence.”

The report further revealed that, “a total of 15,000 persons were injured in this period with 12, 344 being admitted in various hospitals. About a thousand persons were injured in the eye due to pellets resulting in 300 cases of blinding, which included a large proportion of school going children.”

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Witnessing the Horrors of Brutal State Action

The morning of 9th July was eerily silent in Pampore, my hometown, because curfew was promptly imposed there. However, mass protests had engulfed most towns and villages. I rushed to the local hospital to see an acquaintance of mine who had been injured in police action when he tried to reach Tral to join funeral, and it was there in the Emergency ward that I saw pellet-ridden bodies for the first time. By noon, ambulance after ambulance arrived with over dozen grievously injured protestors. One of them died after a party of feared Special Task Force (STF) violently barged into the hospital and roughed up his attendants inside the ambulance. Everyone was left in utter shock. Soon, reports began to come that ambulances were being deliberately targeted by paramilitary men and at some places government forces had barged into hospital premises and thrashed medical staff and injured patients. As protests continued unabated, many houses were ransacked, private vehicles smashed and agricultural produce destroyed. It looked like a planned state tactic to crush the uprising.

 “Scars of Pellet Gun”

While listening to conversations I realized “pellet” was the most frequently used term on streets and homes and, also, in media.  There was a reason. Pellet gun was never used at a scale as it was during the summer 2016; and the damage to human bodies it caused was unprecedented as PUCL reported. As such, its use against Kashmiri protestors has been opposed by many rights groups, including Amnesty, which described this so-called non-lethal weapon as “inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate” and hence not appropriate for policing protests. Even some Indian legislators on the floor of the Indian parliament voiced their opposition against pellet guns. “Shoot the people but do not use pellet guns. Pellet Guns are worse than live bullets. It is worse than killing people,” a senior India politician said in the Parliament on Aug 10. But despite much opposition the government did not stop using them, and still insist on its necessity. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Indian paramilitary force, which remains deployed in huge numbers on Kashmiri streets – along with army and police – to crush the ongoing protests, has justified use of pellet guns, as according to the CRPF affidavit, only other alternative for it is “to open fire with rifles, which may cause more fatalities.” In response to a public litigation, CRPF revealed that it has fired 1.2 million pellets in the first 32 days of street protests. Each cartridge of pump-action shot gun contains lead pellet, which disperse into hundreds of tiny pieces, and when aimed from close range these pellets can penetrate soft tissues of the targeted body. The extent of damage caused by pellets shots, especially to eyes, has been widely documented in press reports. One of the detailed and descriptive reportages on this terrible phenomenon was Ellen Barry’s story in The New York Times “An Epidemic of Dead Eyes in Kashmir as India Uses Pellet Guns on Protestors” (28 August).

dsc_0079And The Deadlock Continues…

Indian media frames the current uprising in Kashmir as a law and order issue or Pakistan orchestrated problem and indiscriminately uses the term “mob violence” to describe the street protests and deliberately focuses on stone-pelting incidents. As a result, Indian media is despised in Kashmir. Its framing not only obscures the fact that the government forces used excessive force to thwart even peaceful congregations, but provides a cover for punitive state actions. In what The Indian Express (Oct 21) describes as “the biggest crackdown in two decades” the state authorities in Kashmir have arrested at least 7000 people, with around 500 of them under Public Safety Act (PSA), which Amnesty International calls as a “lawless law” (because a person arrested under PSA remains in custody without trail for at least 6 months). Among the arrested are 85 minors, some of them on sedition charges.

The Indian government blamed Pakistan for the protests, refusing to engage it on Kashmir, while as Pakistan publicly assured strong diplomatic and political support to what its calls as the “Kashmiri freedom struggle.” In the hope to bring much needed international attention to their cause and make some headway politically, Kashmiris continue to adhere to protest calendars issued week after week by Hurriyat, an amalgam of pro-independence parties. The deadlock seems to not go away.

But as evident in the mass participation of people in the current anti-India uprising, the political aspiration of Kashmiris for Azadi (independence) does not seem to wane despite long spells of military crackdown that was unleashed to crush the Kashmiri armed movement in the early 1990’s and then again to suppress the 2008 and 2010 pro-independence protests. And still, rather than responding politically – a measure also advocated by many senior Indian parliamentarians, diplomats, and journalists – to the political demands of Kashmiris the government of India has chosen a hard approach with the sole objective to bring the writ of the state back on the streets of Kashmir. Although, a delegation of Indian Parliamentarians went to Kashmir, but it didn’t help in breaking the ice as Kashmiri pro-independence leaders refused to meet the delegates, arguing that, first, the delegation did not have the mandate, and second, the Indian state has discredited the institution of dialogue because, in the past, similar delegations visited Kashmir during the times of political crisis but nothing concrete followed after that. And the deadlock continues…

References:

[http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/3/8414/Forces-Raid-Hospitals-in-Kashmir].

[http://thewire.in/52403/kashmir-ambulance-police-crpf/]

[http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/world/asia/pellet-guns-used-in-kashmir-protests-cause-dead-eyes-epidemic.html]

[http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/media-practice/the-sly-media-lies-about-kashmir-9548]

[http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/front-page/in-3-months-85-minors-arrested-for-rioting-endangering-life-of-others/230677.html]

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First published on Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR) website: http://iicrr.ie/witnessing-the-summer-uprising-in-kashmir/

Review: Long Ago I Died (2011)

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Director: Shah Ifat Gazia

Script: Maryam Shamas

Poetry: H.Kirmani

 

I am not wounded, yet in pain…I am the witness

When the case of Sameer Rah’s brutal murder seemed to being systematically obfuscated Ifat Gazia, a young bio-chemistry student from Kashmir, decided to follow her personal calling and, borrowing a small DV camera from her teacher, to search out the truth; she put together a team by searching Facebook for “the right kind of people”, who shared her conviction to speak Truth to the power; their daring endeavour took the shape of a moving 20 minute long documentary Long Ago I died.

in our home, no questions have ever been answered

Long Ago I died is the film that seeks answers; it is an attempt at tearing up the thick screen of mystery which has been deftly weaved around the death of 9 year old Sameer Rah by the state. It tells the tale of “the youngest victim of the [2010] uprising” by taking us to the site where it all happened, bringing out on camera for the first time those who witnessed the ruthless murder of a 9 year old Kashmiri kid.

The film opens with the iconic scenes of 2008 and 2010 Kashmir uprisings — with masses of people converging on thoroughfares and every big and small street, waving flags and chanting pro-independence slogans — thus contextualising the incident and the situation in which it had taken place.

In one of the scenes, Sameer’s friend in brownish stripped pheran leads us to Sameer’s house through a winding narrow street. He holds a Kanger inside. When Ifat asks him whether he used to play with Sameer, he replies in brief, “Cricket. Ifat and the young lad walks briskly between the brick and mortar walls of the empty street in inner Batamaloo area of Srinagar; sound of their marching feet echoes around and one wonders how intensely horrifying it would have been when young Sameer, in a yellow T-shirt, had walked the same path on that fateful curfew day 2nd August 2010.

What Sameer’s murder brought to his family is poignantly captured; his inconsolable father tries to feel his presence in his books. It is hard for him to recount how his beloved son was brutally murdered. It is even harder to conjure up the horrible image of his frail young body being trampled under the large jackboots, and his kidneys crushed.

Somewhere our history is at war with our Truth. 

Around the middle, the film may seem to drift away, as the director has padded the narrative with brief appearances of some young Kashmiris. But that in no way hinders the progress of the film, but rather compliments the theme.

This film does not only reveal the strong belief among the people that justice has not been done in the case of Sameer Rah’s murder, but it also subtly exhibit, at the larger plane, the archetypical mindset of the Kashmiri youth; showing us in the nature and the tone of the film how daily exposure to violence and deaths and perennial clouds of uncertainly that loom large over Kashmiri life, has shaped their outlook of life and how they respond to their extraordinary situation.

If studied comprehensively, the film has elements of post-modern ingenuity; it does not follow conventional linear pattern of narrative. What it does, instead, is that it touches upon the different aspects of the experience of Kashmiri youth and links these disparate strands through powerful poetic narration that gives it a smooth flow. There are minor flaws here and there, but all those technicalities and nuances can be overlooked for the humanistic content and the powerful eloquence of the film. The expressive verses of H. Kirmani just flow through the film and heighten the impact of the visuals presented: “Our journey is yet unaccomplished. But we know one thing. The travelers have changed. They have changed. The hermit is now the warrior. We are still walking. Let the caravan grow.”

Maryam Shamas’s script is rather well-crafted. Juxtaposition of eloquent words with equally suggestive visuals has lent the film required ambiance of poignancy and pathos.

Disappeared into the darkness that has engulfed the thousands

Ifat Gazia and her team deserve all praise for their brave effort to highlight the murder of Sameer Rah that was largely ignored by the Indian media. By visually documenting the case and the accounts of the witnesses of the murder they have tried to counter the denial of the murder by the state and, more importantly, not let it slip away from the memory of the people.

The last visual of the film comes with a message that can hardly be ignored: A fallen chinar leaf is resting on rusty parched land and on the foreground is a quotation speaking out the restrained anger of young Kashmiri hearts:

Where a bullet is unasked, death becomes a dignity…And…where oppression is called peace, violence becomes a virtue…  

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Written in September 2011.

Why state is afraid of protest marches

kashmir-protestsKashmir witnessed three large scale civil uprisings within a decade: 2008, 2010 and 2016. In 2008, Kashmiris made massive peaceful marches (Eidgah Chalo, TRC Chalo, Lal Chowk Chalo, and Pampore Chalo) successful by adhering to the basic principles of volunteerism and leadership, but, like in 2010, the state didn’t allow any space for democratic dissentbut ruthlessly imposed stringent curfews and restrictions to scuttle any mass gatherings in 2016 — which were scheduled back to back: Islambad Chalo (25 July), Kulgam Chalo (27 July), Jamia Masjid Chalo (29 July), and Dargah Hazratbal Chalo (5 August).

I believe the state is averse to Chalo(March on…) calls partly because they engender a strong visual spectacle of Azadi-demanding-Kashmiri swhich defeats and deflates the well-nurtured official propaganda image of waiting-in-ques-for-voting-Kashmiris. At different forums, including the UN and Indian parliament, Indian political leadership, diplomats, and statist intellectuals often quote voting percentages in Kashmir elections as acceptance of the Indian rule by Kashmiris — we just witnessed it in the recent Kashmir Debate in the Indian parliament (on 18th July and 10th August, 2016). This has become a standard line of argument to counter demands of plebiscite; and the image of waiting-in-qukashmir-women-protestses-for-voting-Kashmiris best serve this propaganda.
However, when the massive pro-freedom march TRC Chalo happened in 2008, Arundhati Roy, who witnessed and wrote about it in the Outlook Magazine (September 2008), called TRC Chalo a referendum for Independence. Eid Gah Chalo was even much bigger — by some estimates it was a million march, ergo a strong and formidable reaffirmation of Azadi sentiment among Kashmiris. Since then, the state never allowed any Chalo call to succeed; Section 144, which bars assembly of people, remained in force ad infinitum;full force has been used to foil Chalo calls, to the extent of killing and injuring unarmed, peaceful protestors.
But there are inherent limitations to what state can achieve through its coercive and violent machinery and how much the politics of the subjugated can be controlled. As political scientist James Scott demonstrates in his book Weapons of the Weak (1985) resistance of the oppressed never ceases; it manifests itself through different means, like gossiping, euphemism, grumbling, and other cultural and linguistic distortions. This is called “Hidden Script” which is a veiled resistance of the subjugated group; it is veiled so as not to invite violence of the oppressor. A good example is the special Islamic prayer which I heard recently during Friday prayers: Ya Hafizu Kul Mehfoozin and Ya Ghalibu Kul Maghloobin. These prayers, though metaphysical and spiritual in nature, still carry implicit political meanings in the context of oppression.
On the other hand, open defiance of authority or hegemony is called as “Public Script”, as it is done openly with an explicit gesture of non-compliance through apublic speech, an article or through any other verbal or non-verbal mode. Scott elaborates: As long as public defiance is not impacting the relation of power in a public way the state tolerates it. But if the defiance is such as to “tear the public fabric of hegemony” it causes crisis of legitimacy for the state (p. 204). Here, I would like to quote the much quoted paragraph from the book to get the gist of Scott’s argument:
“Most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites” (p. 137).
In other words, we can say the subjugated populace always devise new ways and weapons of resistance and that is why the tight state control over public mobilisations and political marches start to weaken, or became ineffective, when a more spontaneous and unpredictable political gatherings emerge. Indian state has come face to face to it now in Kashmir. For a more recent example, when Abu Qasim, a well-known militant commander, was killed in October 2015, his funeral was thronged by thousands of people in Kulgam. Again, on January 20, 2016, funeral of slain Hizbul Mujahideen rebel, Shariq Ahmad Bhat, in Pulwama was attended by around 25,000 people. In another incident, the Pampore town erupted with protests, when a fierce encounter started at Entrepreneur Development Institute(EDI) Pampore on February 21, 2016. For three days, big crowds of agitating men and women, perched on either side of river Jhelum, were seen trying to approach the encounter site, eulogising and praying for the militants positioned inside the large EDI building. Thus, with each armed encounter between Indian troops and Kashmiri (and non-Kashmiri) rebels ending in large spontaneous funeral processions for the latter, the formidable state control over Chalo calls have been undermined or rendered irrelevant. And, with the new phenomenon of spontaneous mass funerals, the contest between visual spectacles have entered a decisive mode. Burhan’s historic 40 funerals attended by over 200,000 people at Tral town (and prayers-in-absentia attended worldwide by thousands of admirers), has augmented the rebellious, Azadi-demanding-Kashmiris image.
To borrow from Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri anthropologist, what self-created images and videos achieved for Burhan and his associates was that they “reclaimed the humanity of the ‘Kashmiri militant,’ and reconnected the idea of the rebel with his people at the visceral level.” Burhan’s “visual counterculture” in the virtual domain now itself operates as an unprecedented tool of resistance.
What also deeply undermined and defeated the Indian stock narrative on Kashmir were the heart-wrenching graphic images of pellet-hit faces of young Kashmiri boys and girls. Mehbooba Mufti and her education minister Naeem Akhtar’s canards that bullets and pellets were fired in self-defence failed to convince even her Indian well-wishers,who on the floor of the Indian parliament, criticised gross state violence against civilians. One of the parliamentarians described pellet gun as a symbol of state oppression.  So ultimately, the lies and half-truths of PDP leadership fell flat in the face of credible evidences gathered from the ground zero by some courageous journalists. These evidences showed disturbing and cruel reality of excessive and disproportionate use of force by the government forces on both stone hurling youth and unarmed and peaceful protestors (and even on bystanders).
A powerful visual presentation of what an Indian team of ophthalmologists called as “war-like situation” was created on social media by a Pakistani rights group which showed how pellet-hit disfigured faces of famous celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, Amitabh Bachan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and others would look like. These images were created to evoke sympathy for pellet-victims and underscore its inhuman and brutal nature. The real images of actual pellet-hit youth — waiting-in-ques-for-operation — blew away the facade of waiting-in-ques-for-voting.
After young Kashmiri, Shah Faesal, became an IAS topper in 2009, his image was being used in the service of statist narrative on Kashmir. On NDTV website, Faesal’s photo was juxtaposed with Burhan’s to show “Two Faces of Kashmir: Educated Militants and IAS Toppers.” During the current civil uprising, some Indian news outlets employed the same visual device to create parallels: Good Kashmiri and Bad Kashmiri. But sensing negative fallout of such construct in the current surcharged situation, Faesal came down hard on what he called as “sadistic propaganda machine”, and thus decried: “By juxtaposing my photos with the images of a slain militant commander, a section of national media has once again fallen back upon its conventional savagery that cashes on falsehoods, divides people and create more hatred,” he wrote on his Facebook post. So, one of the prominent young Kashmiri faces used for the statist narrative was now, lately, dragging his feet and openly calling it a propaganda.This public criticism and disapproval, thus, rendered the whole exercise (the visual presentation of a state bureaucrat in opposition to a young Kashmiri rebel) in its different avatars both ineffective and unethical.
But the contest of images is far from over, and given the intransigence of the Indian state on the Kashmir conflict and the acute bias of its compliant media, negative and distorted visual portrayals and presentations of Kashmir protests and protestors will continue unabated because one of the tools and tactics for state to ‘rule’ is controlling and regulating narratives, or better still, obfuscating them.

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First published in Kashmir Reader on 14 August 2016: http://kashmirreader.com/2016/08/14/why-state-is-afraid-of-protest-marches/