Is India losing Kashmir?

As India’s most restive region stares down the abyss of what a commentator calls another “hot summer of violence”, the doom-laden headline has returned with a vengeance: Is India losing Kashmir?

Last summer was one of the bloodiest in the Muslim-dominated valley in recent years. Following the killing of influential militant Burhan Wani by Indian forces last July, more than 100 civilians lost their lives in clashes during a four-month-long security lockdown in the valley.

It’s not looking very promising this summer.

This month’s parliamentary election in Srinagar was scarred by violence and a record-low turnout of voters. To add fuel to the fire, graphic social videos surfaced claiming to show abuses by security forces and young people who oppose Indian rule. A full-blown protest by students has now erupted on the streets; and, in a rare sight, even schoolgirls are throwing stones and hitting police vehicles.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who leads an awkward ruling coalition with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), rushed to Delhi on Monday to urge the federal government to “announce a dialogue and show reconciliatory gestures”.

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    Reports say Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh told her that they could not “offer a dialogue with separatists and other restive groups in the valley” while fierce violence and militant attacks continued.

    Former chief minister and leader of the regional National Conference party Farooq Abdullah warned India that it was “losing Kashmir”. What Mr Abdullah suggested was unexceptionable: the government should begin talking with the stakeholders – Pakistan, the separatists, mainstream parties, the minority Kashmiri Hindus – and start “thinking of not a military solution, but a political way”.

    With more than 500,000 security forces in the region, India is unlikely to lose territory in Kashmir. But Shekhar Gupta, a leading columnist, says that while Kashmir is “territorially secure, we are fast losing it emotionally and psychologically”. The abysmal 7% turnout in the Srinagar poll proved that “while your grip on the land is firm, you are losing its people”.

    So what is new about Kashmir that is worrying India and even provoking senior army officials to admit that the situation is fragile?

    For one, a more reckless and alienated younger generation of local youth is now leading the anti-India protests. More than 60% of the men in the valley are under 30. Many of them are angry and confused.

    Five things to know about Kashmir

    • India and Pakistan have disputed the territory for nearly 70 years – since independence from Britain
    • Both countries claim the whole territory but control only parts of it
    • Two out of three wars fought between India and Pakistan centred on Kashmir
    • Since 1989 there has been an armed revolt in the Muslim-majority region against rule by India
    • High unemployment and complaints of heavy-handed tactics by security forces battling street protesters and fighting insurgents have aggravated the problem

      Ajaz, a 19-year-old student in Budgam, told me that hope had evaporated for his generation “in face of Indian oppression” and he and his friends did not “fear death”. When I took him aside after a while to ask about his ambitions in life, he said he wanted to become a bureaucrat and serve Kashmir.

      “It is wrong to say that the Kashmiri youth has become fearless. He just feels alienated, sidelined and humiliated. When he feels like that, fear takes a backseat, and he becomes reckless. This is irrational behaviour,” National Conference leader Junaid Azim Mattoo told me.

      Secondly, the new younger militants are educated and come from relatively well-off families.

      Wani, the militant who was killed last July, headed a prominent rebel group and came from a highly-educated upper-class Kashmiri family: his father is a government school teacher. Wani’s younger brother, Khalid, who was killed by security forces in 2013, was a student of political science. The new commander of the rebel group, Zakir Rashid Bhat, studied engineering in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.

      Thirdly, the two-year-old ruling alliance, many say, has been unable to deliver on its promises. An alliance between a regional party which advocates soft separatism (PDP) and a federal Hindu nationalist party (BJP), they believe, makes for the strangest bedfellows, hobbled by two conflicting ideologies trying to work their way together in a contested, conflicted land.

      Fourthly, the government’s message on Kashmir appears to be backfiring.

      When Mr Modi recently said the youth in Kashmir had to choose between terrorism and tourism, many Kashmiris accused him of trivialising their “protracted struggle”. When BJP general secretary Ram Madhav told a newspaper that his government “would have choked” the valley people if it was against them, many locals said it was proof of the government’s arrogance.

      Fifth, the shrill anti-Muslim rhetoric by radical Hindu groups and incidents of cow protection vigilantes attacking Muslim cattle traders in other parts of India could end up further polarising people in the valley. “The danger,” a prominent leader told me, “is that the moderate Kashmiri Muslim is becoming sidelined, and he is being politically radicalised.”

      The security forces differ and say they are actually worried about rising “religious radicalisation” among the youth in the valley. A top army official in Kashmir, Lt-Gen JS Sadhu, told a newspaper that the “public support to terrorists, their glorification and increased radicalisation are issues of concern”.

      One army official told me that religious radicalisation was a “bigger challenge than stone pelting protesters”. He said some 3,000 Saudi-inspired Wahhabi sect mosques had sprung up in Kashmir in the past decade.

      Most Kashmiris say the government should be more worried about “political radicalisation” of the young, and that fears of religious radicalisation were exaggerated and overblown.

      Also, the low turnout in this month’s elections has rattled the region’s mainstream parties. “If mainstream politics is delegitimised and people refuse to vote for them, the vacuum will be obviously filled up with a disorganised mob-led constituency,” Mr Mattoo of the National Conference said.

      In his memoirs, Amarjit Singh Daulat, the former chief of India’s spy agency RAW wrote that “nothing is constant; least of all Kashmir”. But right now, the anomie and anger of the youth, and a worrying people’s revolt against Indian rule, appear to be the only constants.

Why did India wake up so late to a child rape and murder?

A bright looking eight-year old girl belonging to a Muslim nomadic tribe in Indian-administered Kashmir goes missing in the new year.

On 17 January, her battered body is recovered from a forest in Kathua district. Through February, police arrest eight men, including a retired government official, four policemen and a juvenile, in connection with the gang rape and murder of the girl.

There are protests in the summer capital, Srinagar, demanding a special probe into the incident. The crime exposed the fault lines between the Hindu-majority Jammu and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley in a sharply divided state. The incident is covered promptly and prominently by the local media in the Muslim-dominated valley.

So why does this story from Kathua make it to national news networks only in mid-April? Why does it evoke delayed outrage and anger? Why does this happen only after Hindu right-wing groups protest the arrest of the accused, who also belong to a Hindu community?

Why are the eventual protests in Delhi – including a midnight march by chief opposition leader Rahul Gandhi – milder than the ones after a similarly brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi in 2012?

The responses tell us something about modern India.

The media in Delhi, many believe, exerts a disproportionate and undeserved influence over shaping the “national narrative”. And large sections of this media have been partisan and selective when it comes to reporting on Kashmir, one of the world’s most heavily militarised regions.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars and a limited conflict over Kashmir and there’s been an armed revolt in the region against Indian rule since 1989. “The biggest problem in Kashmir is the way the place has been covered in the mainland Indian media,” wrote senior journalist and editor of The Print, Shekhar Gupta, in 2015. “The problem has always been very closely linked to national security and military security.”

So, often, the truth (about Kashmir), he wrote, “was considered against national security”.

In this instance, one could possibly cite “religious honour” as another reason for why most national media avoided reporting on the crime. The support shown to the accused by Hindu right wing-groups – and two ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has shocked many.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi only broke his silence on Friday evening with a series of tweets, saying “no culprit will be spared… our daughters will definitely get justice”.

‘Not such a big story’

A journalist who has been covering the incident in Kathua since January says that he had been telling his colleagues who work for Delhi-based news networks to report on the crime and its aftermath.

“When some of the reporters approached their offices in Delhi to tell them about the incident, the feeling was that the inauguration of a garden of tulips in the valley was a better story than the rape and murder of a girl,” Sameer Yasir, an independent Srinagar-based journalist, told me.

According to Mr Yasir, most of their bosses prevaricated, saying they didn’t have enough people on the ground in Jammu, and that it was not “such a big story”. Only one English news network has been consistently covering the story.

“I believe that media is almost tired of reporting violence in India. Rapes, lynching, torture is being reported all the time. It’s almost like you have to run a torture report, like the weather report,” says Shiv Visvanathan, a Delhi-based social scientist.

It is possibly all about what Dr Visvanathan calls the “breakdown of moral imagination” in India. Writing in The Indian Express newspaper, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading public intellectual, agreed, saying the Kashmir rape and murder proves “without exaggeration, that India’s moral compass has been completely obliterated, carpet-bombed out of existence by the very custodians of law, morality and virtue who give daily sermons on national pride”.

In a deeply divided society, collective action is always difficult. Outrage happens – as in this case – when graphic details of the torture inflicted on the girl stir the conscience of many. This is what happened in this case.

‘Rip Van Winkle outrage’

Many say the equally horrific 2012 Delhi gang-rape provoked huge protests in the capital because the victim was like “one of us” who was attacked on the way home with her male friend after watching a Hollywood film at a cineplex. On the other hand, the girl in Kathua was a veritable vagabond, a member of a poor nomadic community, languishing bottom-most in India’s unforgiving and cruel caste hierarchy.

“Everyone is complicit – we the people, media, politicians. There’s no concept of human rights anymore. There are Hindu rights and Muslim rights. Our loyalties are now to religion, caste, groups and clubs,” says Dr Visvanathan.

In this environment, say many, instant outrage and “whataboutery” are the two extreme emotions that violence like this provokes. The outrage waxes and wanes quickly – Dr Visvanathan calls it the “Rip Van Winkle nature” of outrage and indignation.

“Our reactions veer from silence to indifference to hysteria. Then we go back to sleep and wake up again to react to the latest incident of outrage”.