India wants Kashmir for itself. Pakistan wants Kashmir for itself. But the effect of both countries' policies has been to isolate Kashmir.
I spoke to a group of high school students in Srinagar about journalism, giving them a talk I often give to students, about how the “mainstream” media works, what we try to do in the “alternative” media, and, more recently, how the entire landscape has changed, in some ways they know better than those of us who are older. When they had the chance to ask questions, they also asked some familiar questions. About career possibilities, what to read, where to find information. But then they asked some uniquely Kashmiri questions. “All of India hates us. The media tells lies about us. We feel so alone. What can we do? What is the point of telling our stories if no one is listening?”
“Are you really alone, though?” I ask. “I know at least one Indian writer, who many people read, that doesn't hate you.” The students murmur Arundhati Roy's name and smile. I tell them how in situations of censorship, from Latin America to the USSR, people circulated literature, underground newspapers, how they managed to get ideas across.
What a situation, to be telling youngsters to make sure they were very careful to protect themselves if they wanted to write and follow the traditions of underground journalism; to assure young people that not everyone hates them; all in a state that is claimed to be an integral part of the world's largest democracy.
I taught a class in Delhi on international politics at Jamia Millia Islamia. Many of my students were Kashmiris. In class, they were bright, engaged, and very capable. It was outside of class, at an event on civil liberties – an event against the death penalty, just after the political hanging of Afzal Guru – that I realized how much pent-up anger they must feel, and how much of a relief it was for them to be able to talk about it in a public space. “Any one of us could have been Afzal,” one of them said to the panel, to massive applause from the floor.
India freely cuts off mobile communication in the valley, making it difficult for Kashmiris to talk to each other. Its television media coverage of Kashmir is full of contempt and warmongering. On the other side, Pakistan offers its own story about the situation. Kashmiris resist Indian propaganda, which is full of negative information about Pakistan. But one response to relentless propaganda is to believe the opposite of what you are told, which, in the Kashmir context, means basically to believe in Pakistan's propaganda. Several young people I spoke to believed conspiracy theories, including incompatible ones. That the Taliban had won a great victory against America in Afghanistan, and that was why the Americans were leaving in 2014. And also that the Taliban were funded by the Americans to make mischief in Pakistan. That the suicide bombers who attacked targets in the valley were not Pakistanis, not Kashmiris, but Afghans (this was news to me, since in all my research on Afghanistan I have not come across any notice of Afghans going to Kashmir to conduct suicide attacks).
When liberal social views and policies are associated with the violence of occupation, liberalism suffers. I argued with several people about the young girls who were trying to play rock music and were silenced by the mufti. I was told that India was using the issue. India was using the issue, and many of those who stood up for the girls' rights show a lot of indifference to the free speech rights of Kashmiris who want to separate, or for the rights of women and girls to be free from the fear of soldiers and police. But girls should still be able to play rock music if they want to.
A Kashmiri professor who teaches English told me of an exercise he does at the beginning of each semester. He asks students why they want to learn English literature. A few years ago, when he first started teaching, one of his students stood up and said he wanted to learn English because there are many books written against Islam in English, and he wants to learn English to defend Islam against these works. He said that today, there are about a dozen students in each class that say they are studying English for this reason.
The isolation of Kashmir is by design, and its goal is, paradoxically, the suppression of Kashmiri aspirations to independence. Those with power over Kashmir know that letting Kashmiris have their own relationships to the outside, to India, to Pakistan, and beyond, without filtration through the agency of the state and military, is a major part of what independence means. The vacuum they have left is being filled with despair, with poor information, and with ever-narrower interpretations of Islam. Nothing good will come of this, neither for Kashmir nor those who are holding it down.
Justin Podur visited Srinagar in April 2013.