The first time I visited Srinagar in India’s volatile Kashmir Valley was in the summer of 2008, a season of angry public protests against plans to transfer state land to a Hindu shrine. I was taken aback by the overwhelming Indian military presence there.
The mountainous Muslim-majority region, long extolled for its scenic beauty, was two decades into a Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency, but the militant violence had declined sharply and tourists were flocking back. Even so, Srinagar’s main thoroughfares seemed to have tanks and armed commandos on every block. Out of town, military convoys, with scores and scores of trucks, wound down rural roads.
“Is this India or Iraq?” I joked with my Indian companion, a first-time visitor who was as surprised as me.
I also saw glimpses of the conflict’s continuing toll. I met a human-rights activist who’d lost his leg to a landmine blast while monitoring the 2004 general elections; two colleagues were killed. A young man with a severe nervous twitch recounted being caught between militants and troops as a boy. Doctors reported heavy loads of patients with post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
Covering Kashmir’s state elections a few months later, I arrived in a village just hours after security forces shot dead a 21-year-old, and wounded two school children following a local protest outside a polling station. The piercing sound of the women keening in grief — and the men’s palpable anger — is seared in my memory.
These experiences, tiny fragments of a brutal conflict that has claimed 45,000 lives, have been on my mind since Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government this month revoked the state’s legal autonomy, and brought it more firmly under New Delhi’s control.
The administration heralded the move as a “dawn of development” for the “common people” of a state that has been left out India’s economic boom. Many Indians are elated at what they seem to consider an overdue measure to bring to heel a bunch of Muslim troublemakers, in whose name Pakistani terrorists have repeatedly attacked India.
Kashmiris themselves are silent: cut off and caged in, their communication links severed. Public movement has been restricted for two weeks, and hundreds of political and civil society leaders, including two former state chief ministers and many other former elected officials, have been kept in “preventive detention”.
New Delhi insists these are much-needed precautions to contain public anger that could spiral out of control, leading to potential deadly violence. Yet the jarring juxtaposition of Indian jubilation and the silencing of Kashmiris suggests a profound lack of empathy for their suffering. It is this lack of recognition of the trauma of the conflict, and its attendant human rights abuses, that makes Mr Modi’s move such a risky gambit.
New Delhi has long wished to quell the separatist militancy, see tourism return to the valley, and then just move on, with no attempt at justice, reconciliation or even acknowledgment of past wounds.
Little wonder that even as violence fell to its lowest ebb a decade ago, Kashmiris were still resentful. For them, the face of the Indian state is the soldiers who treat them with wary suspicion, or worse. In recent years crowds of civilian protesters have been fired on with “non-lethal” pellets, blinding hundreds.
The prime minister, like others before him, wants to win over an alienated population with the promise of goodies — this time jobs and new educational institutions. But Mr Modi has brought a new element to the script: blaming Kashmir’s misery on its local political dynasties, which participated in electoral politics, often allied with national parties, throughout the insurgency.
Depicting these elites as rotten and corrupt, he aims to deflect popular anger, presenting himself as a benefactor who can facilitate the emergence of a new, untainted political class. His government may well believe Kashmiris are so weary of conflict that they will embrace a fresh start, without a genuine effort to win over hearts and minds. But his bet comes at a dangerous time of renewed rage. The government-inflicted lockdown is ensuring neither memories, nor anger, will fade so fast.
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