Dateline: Kashmir


NOTE: In the early hours of September 23, 2011, I landed at Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi. Upon submitting my passport I was taken away by immigration officials and put in a room. Despite having a valid, multiple entry visa, I was told I would not be allowed into India. When I asked why, a piece of paper was waved in my face. I could see my name, flight number and the word “banned” on it. I was put back on the same flight.


As I still have no official explanation as to why I was denied entry I can only speculate that it has to do with my coverage of the revolt in Kashmir, the rebellions in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, and interviews such as the one below as well as with human rights activists such as Himanshu Kumar, Khurram Parvez, and Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends and allies in India have submitted a petition to the government to allow me back in the country (for more information see                                            – DB


BARSAMIAN: Parvaiz Bukhari is an independent Kashmir-based journalist whose articles have appeared in major South Asian newspapers, journals, and magazines. Give a sense of what life is like in Kashmir, which has one of the largest military forces in the world.


BUKHARI: For the first few years, it’s been alternating between some sort of triumphalism—people getting together to express themselves in some political way—and a sort of widespread depression because of what they have to go through, given the number of armed forces watching people all the time. On an average day, for example, it’s possible for a Kashmiri citizen to come across an armed soldier, whether from the Jammu and Kashmir State Police, which is as militarized as a military can be, or from any of the central federal forces deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. The bases are in every nook and corner of Kashmir.


If you don’t encounter a camp or if you don’t come across a checkpoint, what generally happens is you hear conversations from people who describe what the forces have done at this or that place. Over a period of time, it has an effect. Even if you personally don’t experience something, you hear the stories. So people live in fear all the time.


Have there been any studies on the effects on children?


There are very few formal studies by professionals, academics or institutions about what is happening to children or women. There is this hospital in Kashmir where the doctors have reported consistently—before the armed conflict began in Kashmir—that the hospital would receive maybe 10,000 to 12,000 patients a year. By 2000, that number had gone up to 100,000-plus. This is despite the fact that most mental illnesses and mental trauma that Kashmiris suffer is not reported. Only extreme cases reach the doctors.


In terms of what is happening to children, we’ve seen it in our families, we’ve seen it all around us. When we were kids, we used to go everywhere and play and interact with people of all kinds. But after this situation started in 1989, small kids have been restricted to their immediate families. There is much less interaction with the larger society, even in the neighborhoods. There are kids in Kashmir who don’t know their cousins, for example. 


That’s also now being, in some sense, responded to by the youth. That’s also visible in the anger. People who grew up as kids in the 1990s are now in their early twenties or late teens and they’ve started figuring out what happened to them in their childhoods. Part of the anger is responding to that condition and an impulse to see that change for the better.


What has the stress done to gender relations inside families?


Again, there are not many studies, but in terms of reports put out by professional doctors and mental health practitioners, there is heightened tension within families. More marital discord has been noticed in the past decade or so. Many professionals have ascribed it to the fact that men and women suffer different kinds of trauma, which they do not deal with when they’re together in the family.


If you look outside the family, what’s happening is that people are getting more and more disconnected. There are very few opportunities to connect. When people try and look for opportunities to connect, they begin to encounter problems. They see how connecting at a social or political level imposes costs in terms of security and intelligence agencies reports. People are beginning to say, “Look here, we are being reported on even from within our kitchens.” That heightened surveillance produces psychological consequences.


As with the French in Algeria and the Israelis in Palestine, there is an extensive network of paid informers. This, too, must have a huge societal impact because if you’re just having a conversation with someone, you don’t know who that person is and what you might say that could get back to security forces.


It’s very difficult to find people trusting each other. If you’ve not had a long association, you really are not sure who you’re talking with. I’ve been reporting on Kashmir for several years. I talk to people in the intelligence community and in the bureaucracy. Several times I’ve met top, powerful officials who mention there are from 150,000 to 170,000 people who work as informers at various levels. Some of them do it voluntarily and some are compelled to do it. Imagine in a society of 7 million, you may have 150,000 informants who could be sending text messages or calling or walking into a police station and providing information.


To enforce its rule, New Delhi has, according to scholar Angana Chatterjee, “a collaborator class in Srinagar that undermines the will of the Kashmiri people.” What about the political structure with Omar Abdullah as the chief minister? Is he seen as a tool of New Delhi’s?


Very much so. The last elections took place after a massive peaceful and unarmed mobilization of people against Indian rule in Kashmir. At that time, people in Kashmir thought it unimaginable that another election could be held within the same parameters. But the mainstream pro-India political parties went to people campaigning and said these elections are for managing our day-to-day administrative affairs and this will have absolutely no impact or effect on the future of the Kashmir issue.  So people came out to vote in large numbers.


When Omar Abdullah became the chief minister, the vote was interpreted by politicians and the media as a vote for India. That further eroded his credibility. Then events such as the two sisters-in-law found mysteriously dead on the banks of a shallow stream and people suspected men in uniform had abducted, raped, and killed them. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah going along with what the intelligence establishment’s assessment of that incident further damaged his credibility. By now I think the majority of people in Kashmir are pretty clear what Omar Abdullah represents. He’s called “Delhi’s representative in Kashmir.”


The spark that ignited the initial rebellion in 1989 was rigged elections. What was going on under the surface in Kashmir in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of organizing.


An impulse of breaking away from India has existed ever since 1947, when India and Pakistan came into existence. There has been very strong opinion in Kashmir that this region should have been part of Pakistan. The Partition of 1947 occurred, the first war between India and Pakistan ensued, and the ceasefire line was put into place. But in Kashmir, a political grievance has existed that it was by force that India brought it under its control. Since Sheikh Abdullah’s party the National Conference was seen as a representative of Kashmir’s interests because it had fought against the Dogra autocracy before 1947, it was seen as leaning towards India. And people who resisted the National Conference and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah began seeing themselves persecuted in many ways because they were the opposition. They were not necessarily only for Pakistan. There were also elements that wanted Jammu and Kashmir to be an independent country around that time.


So slowly, when things did not go the opposition’s way, it started organizing. In the early 1970s we had the beginning of an armed rebellion. A group of young people came together and formed a group known as the al-Fatah movement. It was an armed group and the idea was to overthrow Indian control in Kashmir and liberate it. But since it was not a large group, they were co-opted. Today you will find many members of al-Fatah in the police force at high levels and as bureaucrats. Many of them got into the system and that movement was neutralized.


Around the time of the 1987 elections, there was an understanding within the opposition that we needed to get into electoral politics and the legislative assembly to express our opposition instead of creating a movement that can be deemed illegal. The opposition decided to come under the banner of the Muslim United Front, a spectrum of political bodies and groups to contest elections. The consequence was that, in the estimation of the opposition, the space for Indian electoral politics as practiced in Jammu and Kashmir was finished off, completely neutralized. And I think it was only natural that people thought of an armed rebellion after that.


What place has Kashmir historically occupied in the Indian imagination?


In ancient India, people refer to the Shankarachaya temple, which is atop a hill in the middle of Srinagar. In the Indian imagination, it’s been seen as one of the seats of Hindu learning before Islam arrived in Kashmir in the 14th century. But after 1947, it became a representation of India’s secular ideal because it was the only Muslim-majority area that was part of India, not of Muslim majority Pakistan. That has been played up to generate fears that if Kashmir goes, that means India’s secular character is invalidated. But if the idea of India is dependent on keeping a people hostage, then we don’t want to be a part of that idea  in order to survive as a nation.


How has Delhi projected Kashmir to the rest of the world?


There are several things. Post-1989, when the armed rebellion began, it was projected as a terrorist movement. Nothing was ascribed to Kashmiris as their wish.


They were being manipulated by Pakistan?


It’s a fact that armed militancy was supported by Pakistan. That was also used against Kashmiris, that it’s not the people of Kashmir who are seeking the end of Indian rule, but Pakistan. After 2008, when that movement was militarily crushed, hundreds of thousands demonstrated peacefully, saying the same things that militants supposedly stood for.


Then there was an attempt to discredit the people and new words were coined. For example, the Indian army started calling peaceful mass protests demanding political rights as “agitational terrorism.” So that in the Indian imagination the demand for political rights can be described in a terminology that “justifies” reprisals by the Indian state. In the summer of 2010, when hundreds of thousands of youth came out in the streets and fought Indian forces with stones, the police began saying that most of the youth who protested were drug addicts.


In the post-September 11 atmosphere, particularly in terms of Washington’s view of Kashmir, and the rest of the world, for that matter, an urgent link was made between Islam and Muslims and violence and terrorism.


Terrorism and being Muslim have become almost synonymous and after 9/11 India portrayed Kashmir in that paradigm, saying that Kashmiri Muslims were amenable to terrorism and manipulated by the “terrorist” state of Pakistan, which is an ally of the United States in their war against terror. By 2008-2010, young Kashmiris were aware of how they were being represented and they began thinking about what to do about it. What we’ve seen happening over the last three summers in Kashmir is, in part, a response to that misrepresentation of Kashmiris. The young want to speak for themselves, they want to tell the world who we are.


The summer of 2010 saw a major shift in terms of tactics and strategies. What happened?


I think it was a response to accumulated anger and humiliation of the Kashmiri people at the hands of the military and the Indian state. At another level, Kashmiris have been wanting to make it clear ever since the ceasefire line—the line of control, as it’s being called now—came into existence that that needs to change. Kashmiris want an end to political uncertainty.


What happened post-1990 was that everything was being dealt with militarily and so much so that now in Kashmir it is militarism that rules. Nothing is guided by either law or policy. Everything is dealt with by intimidation. And these young people who we saw explode on the streets in the summer of 2010 have grown up in an environment of extreme fear. I think this generation is beginning to overcome their fear. People want to live dignified lives and they want to break free from the militarized conditions that they are living in.


You’ve written, “The new generation of separatist leaders seem to have made a conscious decision not to take up arms, a move to retain moral supremacy over Indian occupation. This represents a major shift in tactics.”


I think it’s been a long process of internalizing what armed rebellion achieved and what it did for Kashmir. If there was a belief in 1990 that it was possible to overthrow Indian control of Kashmir through an armed rebellion, people have now realized that it was not an achievable military objective.


Since Kashmiris also have lived the experience of a military response to their armed uprising, in the process they’ve also discovered the power of peaceful protests: that it is peaceful mobilization around ideas that will get them their political objectives, without denouncing what the armed rebels stood for. I think they represent a change in terms of tactics rather than objectives. The objectives remain the same.


A whole generation has grown up in Kashmir since the rebellion started in 1989. What can you say about their class background, level of education, and political awareness?


They come from all classes. They’re definitely better educated than the youth of 1990 who picked up a gun. They’re definitely more aware of what is happening, not just in Kashmir, but around the world. They’re more clear about what they’re looking for than the previous generations. I think they’re also aware of the fact that whatever they have done so far in terms of representing themselves and protesting, it has still not produced any new politics, both in India about Kashmir and within Kashmir about Kashmir. The people we saw in the streets fighting Indian forces in the summer of 2010 are still struggling to believe in one single way that can help them achieve the objective of political rights.


The level and scope of the 2010 rebellion caught the attention of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. She made the comment, “We must ask ourselves why people in Kashmir are so angry and hurt.”


If after 20 years the president of the Congress Party still needs to ask what makes people of Kashmir angry, it reflects a very pathetic understanding of what is happening in Kashmir. It’s not difficult to understand how people inside a huge jail can feel. For me, both as a journalist and as a Kashmiri, Kashmir is nothing more than a huge jail where no rules apply, where every rule applies, where the only objectives of the state are to control the people.


Is there a unified conception of azadi?


On the surface, there is a view that Jammu and Kashmir should be an independent country between India and Pakistan. There’s another view, predominant in the Kashmir valley, that Kashmir should have been a part of Pakistan. But things have been changing. If there is clarity and unanimity among those who protest Indian rule in Kashmir, it’s that people should be able to decide their future. And when people demand a definition of what Kashmiris mean by azadi, I think that’s asking for too much. These questions can be asked during transitions, not during a military aggression.


New Delhi, in response to the uprisings, has announced new initiatives. Are these cosmetic or actually substantive?


From what the three interlocutors that New Delhi has appointed are saying, it now looks to me like it’s a cosmetic effort. They’ve spoken to a few thousand people in Kashmir. How can three people come and say that most people in Kashmir do not want azadi, whatever azadi means for them also? How can they say that most people in Kashmir want strengthening of Indian institutions rather than anything else.


As we’ve seen, the opposite is being articulated on the street and in cyberspace. Facebook has become one of the measures of how young Kashmiris are thinking. And when people who are expected to be neutral are supposed to be suggesting ways of approaching a political solution of the Kashmir issue, how can they say things that are patently statist?


I understand that there was a very significant WikiLeaks document dealing with Kashmir.


Yes, it talked about what every Kashmiri has known for 20 years. That torture is widespread and a majority of the young, and including sometimes very old, 80-year-old people, have been put through the worst forms of torture. It was the first time that some kind of a confirmation from outside Kashmir that the Indian state was fully aware of the widespread torture that federal forces and the state police had been doing in the hundreds of camps that people get detained in. And it must have been very embarrassing for those people who have been maintaining that India has an impeccable record of human rights in Kashmir. But in Kashmir for the young, literate generation it was a moment of catharsis, perhaps the first time that somebody from outside this region has acknowledged and has told the world.


Have the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, with the subsequent overthrow of deeply entrenched regimes, inspired or animated the struggle in Kashmir?


It has definitely informed the discussions in Kashmir, both in cyberspace and in drawing rooms and restaurants. But these developments happened at a time when the militarized governing in Kashmir had taken back control of the streets after the events of 2010. These developments have definitely energized debate and people are talking about the differences between what people in Tunisia wanted and what they did for it, what people in Egypt wanted and what they did for it, and what people in Kashmir want and what they ought to be doing for it. They’re drawing inspiration, but at the same time they’re also trying to understand the differences in the situation. For example, a major thread of discussion post-Tahrir Square in Kashmir has been to look at how Egyptians just wanted change. We are looking for liberation and freedom in the first place. They exercised their right of asking for change. We don’t even have that right in the first place.


The New York Times at the end of 2010 ran something called “The Year in Pictures.” I was very interested because it reveals something of a transformation that I hadn’t noticed before in the U.S. media and particularly in the Times. The caption under the photo said that a young girl mourned the death of a cousin in Srinagar who was shot by Indian security forces in “Indian-administered Kashmir.” That’s what I was interested to see, that the New York Times is now using that particular term.


I think it was made possible not only by the events of the summer of 2010, but also by the fact that people for the first time found an opportunity to report themselves using social media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. It really did travel far and wide. And for the first time some people outside of Kashmir realized, Oh, well, Kashmir is not only about what the Indian mainstream media, the Indian state, or the Pakistani state have been telling us, but something else is happening. I think that made a huge difference. And the events of the 2010 summer perhaps represent the end of Kashmiris being always represented by somebody else.


David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is the author of numerous books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, and Edward Said. His latest books are What We Say Goes and Targeting Iran.