The unprecedented fight in Kashmir isn't about lawlessness or terrorism; it is about dignity and the faster authorities recognise this reality, the better, says Azad Essa.
Indian-held Kashmir is reeling from a wave of protests following the killing of a rebel commander, Burhan Wani, on July 9. People in the region have once more taken to the streets to demand azadi, or freedom, from India. In response, the Indian state has forcefully suppressed the largest, and most vehement people’s movement for self-determination in the region to date. And make no mistake, the story of this uprising is indeed unprecedented in the region’s history. It is indigenous-born, intersecting class lines, and overwhelmingly rural.
In response to this grassroots uprising, the Indian state has responded with force. In an attempt to prevent people from congregating in large groups, a curfew has been imposed, cellphone services have been disrupted, and internet connectivity has been periodically shut down.
Since July 9, Indian forces have killed at least 85 people, most of whom were young men participating in protests. Some were throwing stones at police kitted out in riot-gear. Others, including children or young women have also lost their lives, after suffering fatal beatings, subjects of a collective punishment.
Take, for example, 11-year-old Nasir Shafi Qazi whose body was peppered with 300-plus lead based pellets last Friday, and then beaten to death. Or Yasmeena Akhter, a 21-year-old student, who was shot in the head while searching for her brother during a breakout of stone pelting in her locality in July. These, and many other, deaths have left people seething. They has also revealed the lengths to which India will go to advance its authority on the people here.
More than 12 000 others have suffered injuries, including beatings and respiratory problems from prolonged exposure to tear gas and pepper gas.
One doctor estimates that nearly 1 000 people have been struck in the eye with lead pellets - the majority of whom will lose vision in at least one eye.
Indian forces have also barged into homes, breaking windows and harassing the inhabitants, including women, in their search for “trouble-makers”. But as a people’s movement for self-determination - every man, woman and child has become legitimate targets for the establishment desperate for a return to the status quo.
The call for freedom is not new.
Since India was partitioned in 1947, Kashmir has been claimed in full by both India and Pakistan.
But Kashmiris want the chance to decide for themselves, and a vast majority would prefer to remain independent.
While the UN has passed resolutions for a plebiscite to be held in the region, neither side has demonstrated a sincere commitment for a referendum to take place.
India has also blatantly ignored and actively suppressed international efforts to observe the outbreak of violence.
Last week, India refused the UN High Commission for Human Rights’ request to send a delegation on a fact-finding commission after it expressed concern over the “excessive use of violence”. Then, Khurram Parvez, co-ordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition Civil Society, was not allowed to travel to a session at UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva.
He was subsequently arrested in Kashmir on charges of “inciting violence”. Parvez’s arrest has prompted outrage from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and has seen writers like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy rally for his release.
On Sunday, 17 Indian soldiers were killed in an early morning attack on a base in north Kashmir. No one has claimed responsibility for an attack that is likely to be blamed on Pakistan-based armed groups. India will, however, use these attacks to distract from the unprecedented uprising in Kashmir.
The fact that India refuses to acknowledge Kashmir as a dispute remains the root of the problem. Instead, Narendra Modi’s government, like his predecessors, has continued to brush off the dissent in Kashmir as being spurred on by Pakistan, or being an issue of poverty, or being perpetrated by a small number of misguided youth. It is a mistaken approach that has left the Indian state searching for military solutions for a political dispute.
And the repression has gone beyond sheer physical violence.
Mobile and internet services have been cut intermittently for two months. Over the Eid celebration last week, Kashmir was plunged into a communication void, as families were unable to call each other. No large congregations were allowed for morning prayers. Instead, millions of Muslims “celebrated” an Eid under choppers and drones surveying for areas where large crowds might have gathered. The main mosque in Srinagar hasn’t offered prayers for 10 weeks.
People are still not deterred.
Journalists who have made the journey to south Kashmir, the heartbeat of the resistance, say: “People carry themselves as if they are free or will achieve independence.”
In Srinagar, pro-freedom slogans can be heard from loudspeakers of the mosques at least five times a day. The reverberations are splintered between blasts of teargas canisters and pellet fire. In the old city, Srinagar is on perpetual lock down. Here, barbed wire is angled across roads, and armed forces in khaki uniform or camouflage, strapped with bulletproof vests and knee guards, stand at road corners with semi-automatics strapped around their shoulder. Throughout the city, shops, schools and offices are completely shut, and lanes and gullies are sprinkled with rocks and stones -as residents refuse to allow normal activity to return to the streets.
This isn’t about lawlessness or terrorism, as the Indian state suggests. This is about self-determination and dignity. And the faster the authorities realise that, the better.
* Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.