“We’re born in crackdowns, we die in curfews”
From Preface to new edition of The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism.
The Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, while announcing the nullification of Article 370, said this step would bring everlasting peace to Jammu and Kashmir and ‘completely eradicate’ Pakistan- sponsored terrorism from the Kashmir Valley. Before the announcement of the bifurcation of the state, there was a clampdown in Kashmir. Seven million people living in the Valley were imprisoned in their own land, within their own homes. Telephone and internet services were cut off. Kashmiri students living outside the Valley could not contact their families; schools were closed down; public assembly was banned; political leaders, including those who had risked their lives supporting India for decades, were detained; even children were arrested. The average loss of business per day in Kashmir during the clampdown has been to the tune of at least Rs 175 crore, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI). Bakeries and animal herders have been hit particularly badly, as have fruit growers.
Greater than the discomfort of the curfews, the arbitrary arrests and detentions and the loss of trade, has been the impact of the feeling of helplessness, humiliation, injustice and repression among the Kashmiri people. The unprecedented triumphalism in the rest of the country has only added to the alienation and anger in Kashmir.
Kashmiris are not new to military repression. As the young Kashmiri rapper Ahmer Javed has sung: Crackdownas manz zaamit, curfew manz maraan … Bunker yeti gharan manz, bha qabrah khanaan (We’re born in crackdowns, we die in curfews…They turned our homes into bunkers, and I’m digging graves). Even in the midst of this latest clampdown, the Kashmiris found a unique way of protesting. They sent boxes of their famous apples with slogans written across the fruits. When traders in Kathua District opened the wooden boxes, they found apples with slogans like ‘Azadi’, ‘Burhan Wani’, ‘Zakir Musa Zindabad’ and ‘Go India Go Back’ on them. People in Kargil too have protested and demanded that they should be part of the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley rather than Buddhist majority Ladakh.
Militant elements have found violent ways of making their displeasure known; their target: migrant workers, the most vulnerable section of our society. Militants have killed workers from Bengal and Rajasthan, truck drivers, and a trader from Punjab. Now it will not be ‘guest militants’ from outside who will use guns, but Kashmiri youth too might take to the gun to avenge their humiliation.
It is not only human rights activists and opposition leaders who are warning of the consequences of this alienation. Police, officers of the Indian security forces and defence experts too fear that the repercussions of revoking Article 370 and keeping an entire people under lockdown will lead to greater militancy. Ashok Bhan, the former Director General of Police in Jammu and Kashmir has warned: ‘The abrogation of the special status accorded to J&K and re-organization of the state will add to alienation, mistrust and the questioning of the government’s democratic credentials in the Valley.
While it will be hailed in large parts of Jammu province and in Leh district, both condemnation and appreciation will be along religious lines.’ Alok Joshi, Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and former Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), has warned that the nullification of Article 370 could lead to greater involvement of Pakistan. He has said: ‘With the talks with the Taliban reaching a critical point and the Pakistani establishment leveraging these talks, would Pakistan be encouraged towards adventurism on the Kashmir front? Prudence demands that we prepare for a more active involvement of the Pakistani deep state in Kashmir and beyond.’
The BJP-led central government has argued that the nullification of Article 370 ensures that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is fully integrated with the Indian Union. In order to achieve this integration, the Constitution of India and the law have been used in a way that undermines the integrity of legal processes. The government has cleverly—perhaps too cleverly—added a sub clause to Article 367—the interpretation clause of the Constitution—in order to give itself Constitutional and legal validity in revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
It was the Dogras who united the entire Province of Jammu and Kashmir. One of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s most able generals, Gulab Singh (1792–1858), joined the Lahore court in 1809 and in 1821 Maharaja Ranjit Singh gave him the estate of Jammu. Gulab Singh sent his loyal general, Zorawar Singh, to conquer Baltistan and Western Tibet. In September 1842, a Treaty of Friendship was signed between the ruler of Jammu, the emperor of China and the lama guru of Lhasa by which the boundary between Ladakh and Tibet was established. This treaty assured Gulab Singh that the trade in wool, shawls and tea would not be interfered with.
The Sikhs, and later the Dogras, controlled the lucrative overland Indo-Central Asian trade through Ladakh. Between 1919 to 1931, goods worth about Rs 285 million were exported through Ladakh to Xinjiang in present-day China, while merchandise valued at about Rs 330 million was imported from Xinjiang into Ladakh during the same period. However, the Indo-Central Asian trade through Ladakh, which scaled an unprecedented height of over Rs 68 million during the financial year 1920–21, finally ceased to flow after 1949 following the Communist takeover of Xinjiang.
Even though the trade link was broken when the British imposed restrictions on exports of essential commodities from India to Central Asia during the height of Anglo-Soviet tensions, the influence of Central Asia on the culture is visible everywhere in the Kashmir Valley.
The Yarkandi Serai on the left bank of the Jhelum River near the Safa Kadal Bridge in Srinagar is a standing reminder of the ancient connections between Kashmir and Central Asia. This was where travellers from Central Asia rested, and their yaks and ponies laden with delicate porcelain grazed in the grounds surrounding the Eidgah.
Now the possibilities of reviving these old links through trade are opening up with the global shift from Europe to Asia. The ancient Silk Routes are being revived and railway lines, bridges and roads are being constructed to link Asia with Europe again. Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) shares borders with several countries: Pakistan, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and Tajikistan to the west, and the Xinjiang province of the People’s Republic of China to the north. Ever since the Karakoram highway (KKH) was built to connect Pakistan with China via PoK, the geopolitical significance of PoK has increased manifold. PoK is a gateway to the Central Asian republics and to their expanding markets.
What would the impact of this opening up of trade routes to Central Asia through Gilgit-Iskardu-Kargil be on the Kashmir Valley? The people of Kashmir could once again be linked to international trade routes, but for the India-Pakistan and India-China tensions.
For the time being, the only reminder of the past connections with Central Asia can be seen in the culture of the Kashmiris—from the pheran that they wear to the kangri (earthen pot containing burning coals) that they carry, and the samovars filled with tea throughout the year.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, campaigner and writer. Her engagement with the people of Northeast India began while studying in Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 1970s. She has represented the victims of army atrocities in the Supreme Court and the High Court and campaigned nationally and internationally against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In her capacity as a human rights lawyer, Haksar has helped to organize migrant workers to fight for their rights and voice their grievances. In 1983, she became the first person to challenge the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the Supreme Court. She successfully led the campaign for the acquittal of one of the people framed in the Indian Parliament attack case.
She has written innumerable articles in national dailies and journals and is the author of several books, including Nagaland File: A Question of Human Rights (co-edited with Luingam Luithui) (1984); Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism in the Time of Terror (2009); Who Are the Nagas (2011); ABC of Naga Culture and Civilization: A Resource Book (2011); The Judgement That Never Came: Army Rule in Northeast India (co-authored with Sebastian Hongray) (2011); Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India (2013); The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day (2015); and Kuknalim: Naga Armed Resistance (with Sebastian Hongray, 2019). Haksar lives in Goa, Delhi and sometimes Ukhrul, with her husband, Sebastian Hongray.