India cracks down as Kashmir demands freedom

Kashmiris protesting Indian rule in July.

Since the extra-judicial killing of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri independence fighter, by Indian security forces in a village in south Kashmir on July 8, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris have once again taken to the streets in protest.

Kashmir is occupied by India and the territory is also claimed by Pakistan. Many Kashmiris, however, are struggling for independence.

The Indian government has responded to the latest round of protests with a brutal crackdown in which dozens have been killed and thousands injured. Nagesh Rao spoke with Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri activist, about the current crisis and its context. It is abridged from US Socialist Worker.

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It has been eight years since the eruption of what we've been calling the new intifada in Kashmir in 2008. What's changed since then, and what is the scale and character of protests this year?

This goes back at least to the late 1980s mass movement for independence, in which thousands of Kashmiris took up arms against the Indian state. India responded by deploying hundreds of thousands of soldiers and imposing a draconian state of emergency in the region.

By the early 2000s, the armed movement was subdued, yet the scale of militarisation of public spaces and punitive laws remained unaltered.

Then, in 2008, large-scale nonviolent protests took place. It was sparked by the government granting land near an ecologically sensitive region to a Hindu religious trust that wanted to erect permanent facilities for tens of thousands of pilgrims who visit for two months each year. The protests morphed into huge rallies in support of independence.

In 2010, extrajudicial killings in Machil near the Line of Control [the de facto border between India and Pakistan] led to a long summer of protests and military crackdowns that left 116 Kashmiris dead and thousands injured.

Ever since, there have been regular protests, small and large, with Kashmiris demanding that the Indian army be withdrawn from civilian areas; calling for justice for victims of sexual assault by state forces; or demanding the return of the bodies of Kashmiri pro-independence leaders, such as that of Maqbool Bhat, who was hanged in an Indian jail in 1984.

The important thing this time is that the main message is: “We need to get it done, now or never; India needs to withdraw from Kashmir. We are fed up with you. You need to acknowledge Kashmir as a political question, and give us our right to [freedom].”

It is not just young people in the streets of Srinagar or other towns, as was largely the case in 2010. This time, the protests started in the countryside and spread to the cities. Young and old, men and women, are coming out on the streets in large numbers, defying state curfews and putting their lives at risk. They are facing bullets and pellet guns; they have been grievously wounded and blinded during these protests.

This level of intensity in protests is new and is a sign of desperation with the unremitting repression imposed on the people. At the same time, while the Indian state has always responded to protests in Kashmir, even the smallest ones, with deadly force, the brazenness of the current crackdown on protests is new.

There is a huge wave of anger against the local government, led by the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has allied itself with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power in India. The BJP is a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, which not only wants to keep Kashmir under the Indian jackboot, but advocates change in the region's demography as a permanent solution to Kashmir.

BJP functionaries have for long been publicly talking about “population transfer”, pushing Kashmir's majority Muslims out to Pakistan, establishing separate cities for Kashmiri Hindus, and abrogating legal hurdles that prevent Indians and Indian industrialists from purchasing land in Kashmir.

All this has built up a pervasive anxiety among Kashmiris, which forms the background to the current uprising.

When the news arrived of Burhan Wani's death, thousands thronged the village of Bumdoor [where Wani was killed] in south Kashmir. The next day, about 300,000 people assembled for his funeral in his hometown Tral. There were many other gatherings across Kashmir.

This level of attendance for the funeral of a young rebel commander is historic.

Can you say something about Burhan Wani and why Kashmiris took to the street when he was killed?

Burhan Wani's name is among the long list of Kashmiris who have taken up arms against the Indian state's control over Kashmir. In many cases, they have suffered personal injustice or witnessed atrocities against fellow Kashmiris by Indian forces.

During the 2010 protests, Burhan Wani and his brother were beaten and humiliated by local police. Burhan joined armed guerrillas. In response to Burhan's growing popularity, the Indian military tortured his brother to death in 2013, although he was not a guerrilla.

Burhan had also developed a large following among young Kashmiris who identified with his message of liberation from Indian military occupation. Despite the Indian agencies and media spreading rumours about his character and motives, Kashmiris showered him and his comrades with affection.

For young Kashmiris, who have seen nothing but state violence and military repression throughout their lives and who long for freedom from India, Burhan was an obvious choice.

The scale of mourning at Burhan's killing among Kashmiris can only be understood if we recognise that his persona became emblematic of the present moment in Kashmir. This present moment has a long history of injustice behind it, and in the minds of Kashmiris will only end with the rollback of the Indian occupation.

How has the Indian government responded?

The Indian government got unnerved by the scale of the protests and the outpouring of support for Burhan. They could not prevent hundreds of thousands of people attending his funeral in Tral, but they responded to similar funeral meetings elsewhere in South Kashmir with shootings.

Almost a dozen people were shot to death and hundreds injured in the first few hours of protests.

This violence provoked a lot of people. During the days, the protesters fight street battles with government forces, and in the nights, Indian police and soldiers enter neighbourhoods, arrest and beat people. They damage people's property, vehicles and harass the residents. Then, the next day, the cycle of protests begins again.

In the first few days after Burhan Wani's killing, about 35 people were shot dead and 1000 were injured. Many of the dead and injured have been shot with high-velocity lead pellets.
There are daily reports about troops barging into hospitals to beat up medical staff and the injured protesters, of soldiers attacking ambulances and shooting ambulance drivers, and even of teargas shelling of emergency rooms where the pellet gun victims are nursing injuries to their eyes.

In the initial days, the intensity of protest was so high that in many places, the curfews were broken. At night, people began moving around and arranged community kitchens at the hospitals. They organised food for impoverished families. And each time, the government forces tried to prevent that from happening.

They basically wanted people to suffer, to defeat the people by attrition. Recently when the Hurriyat, a coalition of all the pro-freedom groups, requested people clean up their neighbourhoods and organise common funds for the poor, the government tried to prevent people from doing even that — just to show who has the authority!

The internet was basically shut down around the same time as Burhan's killing. Mobile phones were down first across South Kashmir then all over Kashmir. Newspapers were confiscated and not allowed to be disseminated.

For several days, all the printing presses were locked down, and several journalists were threatened. People who were posting on Facebook about Kashmir had their accounts suspended, most likely after Indian government's requests.

So I think this time around, not only have the protests been intense, but there has been a marked escalation on the part of the Indian state to suppress the protests. The silencing of news and the radio silence globally on the violence against Kashmiris allows Indian leaders carte blanche to deal with protests the way they please.

The dominant narrative in the media is that Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. What do you say to that narrative, and the idea that the solution is going to come through some sort of negotiation between India and Pakistan and some international body?

The struggle in Kashmir is precisely about saying that this is not a territorial dispute — that it's a long historic struggle of Kashmiris for self-determination, for their dignity as a people, and for an end to the humiliating conditions of the Indian occupation.

While Indian nationalists have internalized the myth of a geopolitical continuity of India since ancient times, and see Kashmir as integral to that territorial vision, Kashmiris see both India and Pakistan as rather new entities that only emerged from the ruins of the British empire.

Kashmiris see themselves as a people, who have longer political aspirations and cultural memories than the arrangement that was forced on them in 1947.

Kashmiris want a referendum in the region to determine a final settlement for Kashmir. They don't see any just solution emerging from talks between India and Pakistan, or under an arrangement where Kashmiris are not acknowledged as the primary party to the Kashmir question.