Kashmir and the Intifada

References to Kashmir’s “intifada” link it to the moral stature and global notoriety that the Palestinian uprising evokes in many parts of the world. Misleading comparisons are standard political fare, but this effort to internationalize the Kashmir issue possesses a deeper meaning. Faisal Devji explains.


Image: Grzegorz Komar DOMINATED AS IT IS by media images of stone-pelting youths and even unarmed civilians being gunned down by Indian forces, the Kashmir valley’s latest and most serious uprising in well over a decade is now routinely compared to the first Palestinian intifada. Apart from its visual similarity to the Middle East’s David-and-Goliath stereotype, what can this comparison, invoked by Kashmir’s protestors and observers, really tell us? The only credible link between these events has to do with the fact that both can be described as protests occurring outside the control of any political party or resistance movement. Indeed it seems as if the scramble to claim and so control this unforeseen uprising has brought together the Indian government and various separatist parties in an unlikely alliance, by engaging in discussions that many of the latter had initially refused to attend. Those who refer to Kashmir’s “intifada”, however, do not appear to have such a comparison in mind, referring instead to the moral stature and global notoriety that the Palestinian uprising evokes in many parts of the world. 

Yet more than illustrating the role that misleading comparisons play in political life, this effort to internationalize the Kashmir issue possesses a deeper meaning. What can we make, for instance, of the sudden turn that protests took in late September, mixing anti-India slogans with denunciations of the sporadic Quran burnings reported from the US? Resulting in the razing of an Anglican school for Muslim students together with the many Qurans in its library, this departure from the uprising’s standard theme was provoked by reports on Press TV, Iran’s international news service. The resulting protests over Quran burning in Kashmir’s Shia areas were linked by religious affiliation to Iran, but not otherwise involved in the anti-Indian demonstrations of the valley’s Sunni majority. Yet they This apparently triggered the change in the latter’s protests. In other words, the uprising’s internationalization is a fragmented thing: Kashmir’s pro-Indian Shia minority agitating to break out of its isolation by taking a turn on the global stage, while the valley’s Sunni demonstrators used the same cause to assume an international voice for rather different reasons.

Now when Iran or indeed Pakistan attempt to internationalize issues like Quran burning in the US or Kashmir’s “oppression” by India, their strategic goals (in claiming world wide Muslim leadership, or marshalling anti-Indian diplomacy) are clear. Such goals, however, cannot be attributed popular protests in the valley, not least because such global claims and comparisons are being made by way of highly individualized media like social networking sites and mobile phones. These may be monitored and even blocked, but cannot for the moment be controlled by any country or political party. As the shift from anti-Indian to anti-US protests illustrates, this form of internationalization is still ambiguous and has yet to be defined in either religious or nationalist terms. So an internationally recognized act like hurling shoes at the chief minister can be celebrated in the struggle while having little to do with its moment of origin -- a similar attack on President Bush in Baghdad. Such acts represent an inchoate struggle to attain meaning in the global arena, sometimes even exhibiting a touching faith in the claims of publicity to deliver humanitarian sympathy from the world outside. 

One thing the uprising’s internationalization does not demonstrate is an effort to consolidate support in some politically effective way, even if it is only among other Muslims. For leaving aside their Shia neighbors, the efforts by Kashmir’s Sunni protestors to associate themselves with struggles like those of the Palestinians indicate an almost total dissociation with the huge population of their fellow Muslims outside the valley. And in fact the problems of India’s Muslims have held little interest for Kashmir’s rebels, a lack of concern that is by and large reciprocated by the former. This makes for a curious situation where a novel by Salman Rushdie, some cartoons in a Danish newspaper, comments by the pope or the desecration of Qurans are capable of rousing Muslims in ways that the sufferings of their fellow believers next door cannot. The same thing, of course, can be said of worldwide mobilizations against poverty, hunger or war more generally, which often attend to distant suffering more closely than to afflictions nearby. For in either case we are dealing with the efforts of people to occupy and make themselves at home in a global arena.

If the international dimension taken by Kashmir’s uprising dissociates the valley from its Muslim as much as Indian neighborhood, Pakistani attempts to internationalize the valley’s conflict have always entailed linking it to India’s Muslims and the region more generally. Indeed once it became clear that the militancy it sponsored in Kashmir had little effect on Indians of any persuasion living outside the valley, Pakistan began supporting terrorism in other parts of the country in the attempt to foment a religious civil war there. Today’s Kashmiri protests, therefore, have a different trajectory from any politics directed by Pakistan. But instead of seeing it them as belonging in the same world as the Palestinian intifada, it might be more productive to compare the valley’s protests to Gandhi’s practices of non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Indeed two of the most important Kashmiri “separatists”, Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference have explicitly and for many years now modeled their struggles on the Mahatma’s Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns.

More than the official policies of Kashmir’s dissident leadership, protests in the valley have for the last few years also taken on a Gandhian character. In keeping with his dictum that non-violent campaigns must be dedicated to distinct goals, all of the great protests galvanizing Kashmiris since 2008 have taken the form of unarmed demonstrations and civil disobedience. They have been in the service of clear objectives like reversing unauthorized transfers of land by the government, or calling for the investigation of rapes and killings of civilians, allegedly perpetrated by members of the seven to eight-hundred thousand strong army, police and paramilitary force in the state. Even the stone-pelting of recent days that is resorted to by women and the elderly as well as by young men can be seen at least partially in a Gandhian light, entailing as it does the voluntary exposure of civilians to gunfire and having thus far resulted in no deaths among security personnel. In this sense Indian forces in Kashmir are engaged in fighting the idea of India itself.

In this context it is worthwhile recalling Gandhi’s own advice at the very beginning of India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir in 1947. In the midst of the carnage caused by the Subcontinent’s independence and partition, when support for his policies was at its lowest ebb, he decided that in the circumstances a war with Pakistan was most likely to open a space for non-violence. For the valley’s Muslims at that time protected and stood alongside their Hindu and Sikh neighbors in fending off an invasion from Pakistan, and by killing their own brothers in faith from across the border served as an example of secular nationalism for the whole country. Not only did the battle over Kashmir have the capacity to bring peace to the rest of India, it also allowed the two countries to deal with each other in a direct and unmediated way, without relying upon the sponsorship of terrorism and large-scale violence in civilian settings. In fact Gandhi strenuously opposed recourse to the UN or any outside mediation, because he thought that such moves would only delay a resolution of the conflict and, by internationalizing it, make the region a focus of proxy wars and the power-struggles of third parties.

Given the history of Kashmir and Indo-Pakistani relations in the wake of UN intervention in 1948, who is to say if Gandhi was not correct in his assessment? Not only has this unresolved conflict given the region over to a couple of immensely destructive proxy wars, made possible by Pakistan’s military alliances with the US and China, it has also laid the groundwork for new forms of terrorism both in the Subcontinent and beyond. By contrast the wars between India and Pakistan have all been models of civilized conduct, textbook exercises conducted outside civilian areas for the most part and involving numerous instances of chivalry among enemy soldiers. And so it may well be the case that the brutality of Kashmir’s conflict is due to the fact that its internationalization, now guaranteed by the nuclear arsenals of the disputing countries, seems to have made war between India and Pakistan impossible. International attention, in other words, is always an ambivalent thing, preventing some conflicts only in order to widen others in places, as the cases of Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate.   

Even the routine excesses of Indian forces in the valley, protected by law from being punished for the casual harassment, rapes and unprovoked murder of civilians, can be seen as deriving from the absence or impossibility of a full-scale war with Pakistan. After all much of this violence is careerist, with promotions, transfers and increases in salary dependent upon soldiers seeing action or killing “militants” by the popular method of “fake encounters”. The government’s failure to take advantage of the massive decline in militancy between 2002 and 2007 by reducing troop numbers and impunity in the valley, therefore, only represents part of the uprising’s causes. Of perhaps equal concern is the fact that military culture in India may increasingly be defined by the suppression of domestic insurgencies both real and imagined. And given the huge numbers of troops in Kashmir, to say nothing of other border states like Manipur, there is a real danger of such carelessness and careerism at the expense of fellow citizens coming to determine the character of the armed forces in their entirety. 

Horrible though it is, the situation in Kashmir is not without hope. Not only is Pakistan unable for the first time to interfere in any sustained way in the conflict, but the protests themselves do not appear to have gelled into distinct religious or nationalist attitudes. If the struggle follows a Gandhian line of non-violent sacrifice rather than internationalizing itself by the adoption of random themes from places like Israel, its massive coverage by the Indian media, however distorted, is capable of having an affect on government as well as public opinion. Indeed, the recently announced easing of security in Kashmir suggests that this is already happening. Moreover if the state can seize the initiative and hew to a more democratic politics in Kashmir, this is likely to set a precedent for all other border conflicts and indeed for the deployment of armed force in the country as a whole. Will Kashmir then finally be able to play the role that Gandhi hoped it might, by making a non-violent politics possible in the rest of India?