Anyone who was paying attention on the ground in Kashmir, and listening to Kashmiris, 25 years ago – as I was, as an independent reporter based in Bangkok – would find the current situation there depressingly unsurprising. Nothing has changed, except for the worse.
Most importantly, the moral truth of the situation has not changed. Local people insisting on the self-determination they were promised via a UN-supervised plebiscite are not equivalent to terrorists. And the fact that Kashmiris are Muslim is not relevant, except in the important sense that Muslims are a vulnerable and unfairly stigmatized group in India. Most Kashmiris are exactly what they claim to be: innocent civilians who just want to be free and safe to manage their own affairs in their own remote and rustic society.
Twenty-five years ago I spent quite a bit of time on the ground in Kashmir, with Kashmiris, listening to their stories and views. Maybe because of my own provincial background, I’ve never appreciated the presumption that the naïve and wishful perspectives of people from small, neglected places should be considered less valid than those of people who hold power – unless it’s true that might makes right.
Former chief justice of the state High Court Mufti Baha-ud-din Farooqi told me – way back in 1994 – that India had “converted [Kashmir] virtually into a colony. Restrictions and limitations imposed by the constitution did not matter with them. And things have come to a pass where even the constitutional safeguards that are available to other states in India are not available to Kashmir.”
Professor Abdul Ghani, a leader of the umbrella political grouping called the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, asserted: “When you are big, you do not need any excuse. You simply display your wanton strength and annex.”
Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, prime minister of Azad (“free”) Kashmir, the smaller portion of the state controlled or protected by Pakistan, told me in April 1995 that elections under Indian rule were not feasible. “I don’t think [Kashmiris] will participate,” he said. “How can they, after all that has been done to them? … You see, the Indians can never hold an election that is credible. The resistance movement in Kashmir will perhaps step up, but gunrunning is not the cause. It is the consequence.”
Perhaps the pessimism of these men is understandable if we juxtapose what Ram Mohan Rao, representative in New Delhi of the centrally-controlled Jammu & Kashmir state government, told me. Kashmiris needed only a facsimile of freedom, he assured me, a semblance of autonomy, and they would behave themselves. “It’s a question of a child wanting a toy,” he said with a patronizing smile. “Once you get a toy, you throw it aside.”
All of those conversations took place long before Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister. Just as the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States seems – and is – uniquely dreadful and damaging, so is Modi’s regime in India. But both have antecedents that stretch back decades, and both follow deep, atavistic promptings from within their societies’ dark underbellies. The difference in both cases is the current regimes’ eagerness to jettison all constraints on their own freedom of action, along with customary forms of democratic politesse. We can only hope that the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra is correct when he claims that “History may record their actions now as another lesson in how nationalists so often overplay their hand – and self-destruct.”
Journalism is not a morally neutral vocation. Indeed, no vocation has greater moral implications. Journalism is, essentially, the discipline and practice of listening and bearing witness – first and foremost literally, but also morally. And Kashmir is one of the first places I began practicing it, and learning that any story has not two but at least three sides. To say that India is in the wrong is not to say that Pakistan is in the right. By now it’s a hoary cliché for bien pensant outsiders to say that (per The Economist circa 2017, to pluck one googled instance at random) “it is the Kashmiris who suffer most.” If that is true – and it is – should not Kashmiris’ perspectives and preferences be considered with especial deference?
I began paying attention to Kashmir during the protracted siege of the Hazratbal mosque in its capital, Srinagar, in 1993-94 by what were invariably described in the media as “Muslim separatist guerrillas.” Such a reductionist phrase covers a lot of ground – too much. Such phrases, propagated by reporters on deadlines, approved by editors with limited space to spare, and – perhaps most importantly – desired by readers wanting understanding without effort, are the opposite of poetic, leeching the complexity and subtlety out of a story or situation. The men inside the Hazratbal mosque certainly were Muslims, and separatists, and guerrillas. But there was more to say about them than that.
The awkward truth is that the real issue is not the status of Kashmir, but the existence of Pakistan. Put bluntly and only slightly simplistically, Pakistanis believe that Pakistan has a moral and political right to exist, and Indians don’t. There are very good arguments to be made that the Partition of 1947 should never have happened. But it did happen, and the peoples of the subcontinent have been living in its aftermath for 72 years. And if Pakistan didn’t exist, there would be no status of Kashmir to dispute. There surely would be other disputes and grievances within a truly vast and various undivided India, but such an India exists only in an imaginary parallel universe. And the Partition did happen precisely because Muslims rightly feared what has in fact come to pass in India: an aggressively bigoted Hindu-nationalist regime.
What’s happening now in Kashmir forces us to confront a hard and chronic universal question: Is state power – deriving ultimately, as many have noted, from brute physical coercion – the decisive reality to which we all must render fealty, or do human individuals and communities have rights and prerogatives that we should respect? Underlying Kashmir’s plight is the question of whether might makes right.