by Pankaj Mishra
Once known for its extraordinary beauty, the valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest, bloodiest and also the most obscure military occupation in the world. With more than 80,000 people dead in an anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan, the killings fields of Kashmir dwarf those of Palestine and Tibet. In addition to the everyday regime of arbitrary arrests, curfews, raids, and checkpoints enforced by nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers, the valley’s 4 million Muslims are exposed to extra-judicial execution, rape and torture, with such barbaric variations as live electric wires inserted into penises.
Why then does the immense human suffering of Kashmir occupy such an imperceptible place in our moral imagination? After all, the Kashmiris demanding release from the degradations of military rule couldn’t be louder and clearer. India has contained the insurgency provoked in 1989 by its rigged elections and massacres of protestors. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that fill the streets of Kashmir’s cities today are overwhelmingly young, many in their teens, and armed with nothing more lethal than stones. Yet the Indian state seems determined to strangle their voices as it did of the old one. Already this summer, soldiers have shot dead more than 50 protestors, most of them teenagers.
The New York Times this week described the protests as a comprehensive”intifada-like popular revolt”. They indeed have a broader mass base than the Green Movement does in Iran. But no colour-coded revolution is heralded in Kashmir by western commentators. The BBC and CNN don’t endlessly loop clips of little children being shot in the head by Indian soldiers. Bloggers and tweeters in the west fail to keep a virtual vigil by the side of the dead and the wounded. No sooner than his office issued it last week, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, hastened to retract a feeble statement expressing concern over the situation in Kashmir.
Kashmiri Muslims are understandably bitter. As Parvaiz Bukhari, a journalist, said early this week the stones flung randomly by protestors have become “the voice of a neglected people” convinced that the world deliberately ignores their plight. The veteran Kashmiri journalist Masood Hussain confessed to the near-total futility of his painstaking auditing of atrocity over two decades. For Kashmir has turned out to be a “great suppression story”.
The cautiousness – or timidity – of western politicians is easy to understand. Apart from appearing as a lifeline to flailing western economies, India is a counterweight, at least in the fantasies of western strategists, to China. A month before his election, Barack Obama declared that resolving the “Kashmir crisis” was among his “critical tasks”. Since then, the US president hasn’t uttered a word about this ur-crisis that has seeded all major conflicts in south Asia. David Cameron was advised a similar strategic public silence on his visit to India last fortnight.
Those western pundits who are always ready to assault illiberal regimes worldwide on behalf of democracy ought not to be so tongue-tied. Here is a well-educated Muslim population, heterodox and pluralist by tradition and temperament, and desperate for genuine democracy. However, intellectuals preoccupied by transcendent, nearly mystical, battles between civilization and barbarism tend to assume that “democratic” India, a natural ally of the “liberal” west, must be doing the right thing in Kashmir, ie fighting “Islamofascism”. Thus Christopher Hitchens could call upon the Bush administration to establish a military alliance with “the other great multi-ethnic democracy under attack from Muslim fascism” even as an elected Hindu nationalist government stood accused of organising a pogrom that killed more than 2,000 Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Electoral democracy in multi-ethnic, multi-religious India is one of the modern era’s most utopian political experiments, increasingly vulnerable to malfunction and failure, and, consequently, to militant disaffection and state terror. But then the west’s new masters of humanitarian war, busy painting grand ideological struggles on broad, rolling canvases, are prone to miss the human position of suffering and injustice.
Indian writers and intellectuals, who witnessed the corrosion of India’s secular democracy by Hindu supremacists, seem better acquainted with the messy realities concealed by stirring abstractions. But on Kashmir they often appear as evasive as their Chinese peers are on Tibet. They may have justifiably recoiled from the fundamentalist and brutish aspect of the revolt in the valley. But the massive non-violent protests in Kashmir since 2008 haven’t released a flood of pent-up sympathy from them.
Few people are as well positioned as the much-revered Amartya Sen to provoke national introspection on Kashmir. Indeed, no one can fault Sen’s commitment to justice for the poor and defenceless in India. Yet Sen relegates Kashmir to footnotes in both of his recent books: The Argumentative Indian and Identity and Violence.
Certainly, as Arundhati Roy’s recent writings prove, anyone initiating a frank discussion on Kashmir risks a storm of vituperation from the Indian understudies of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. The choleric TV anchors, partisan journalists and opinion-mongers of India’s corporate media routinely amplify the falsehoods and deceptions of Indian intelligence agencies in Kashmir. Blaming Pakistan or Islamic fundamentalists, as the Economist pointed out last week, has “got much harder” for the Indian government, which, has “long denied the great extent to which Kashmiris want rid of India”. Nevertheless, it tries; and, as the political philosopher Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of the few fair-minded commentators on this subject, points out, the Indian media now acts in concert with the government “to deny any legitimacy to protests in Kashmir”.
This effective censorship reassures those Indians anxious not to let mutinous Kashmiris sully the currently garish notions of India as an “economic powerhouse” and “vibrant democracy” – the calling cards with which Indian elites apply for membership to the exclusive clubs of the west. In Kashmir, however, the net effect is deeper anger and alienation. As Bukhari puts it, Kashmiris hold India’s journalists as responsible as its politicians for “muzzling and misinterpreting” them.
“The promise,” Mehta writes, “of a liberal India is slowly dying”. For Kashmiris this promise has proved as hollow as that of the fundamentalist Islam exported by Pakistan. Liberated from political deceptions, the young men on the streets of Kashmir today seem simply to want to express their hatred of the state’s impersonal brutality, and to commemorate lives freshly ruined by it. As the Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer wrote this week in a moving Letter to an Unknown Indian, Indian journalists might edit out the “faces of the murdered boys”, and “their grieving fathers”; they may not show “the video of a woman in Anantnag, washing the blood of the boys who were killed outside her house”. But “Kashmir sees the unedited Kashmir.”
And it remembers. “Like many other Kashmiris,” Peer writes, “I have been in silence, committing to memory the deed, the date.” Apart from the youth on the streets, there are also those with their noses in books, or pressed against window bars. Soon this generation will make its way into the world with its private traumas. Life under political oppression has begun to yield, in the slow bitter way it does, a rich intellectual and artistic harvest: Peer’s memoir Curfewed Night will be followed early next year by a novel by Waheed Mirza. There are more works to come; Kashmiris will increasingly speak for themselves. One can only hope that their voices will finally penetrate our indifference and even occasionally prick our conscience.
– Pankaj Mishra is an Indian author and writer of literary and political essays. This article first appeared in the Guardian.