The politics of exclusion in Kashmir’s independence movement
By Lital Khaikin
Published in Volume 1, Issue 3 of The Sparkplug
“Festering wounds we Kashmiris bear, fleeing tyranny from all sides
We have witnessed nothing but pillaging of our abodes
Our own joined strangers in marauding our own …
When we greet spring and autumn with the same tune
This is our humility or cowardice, otherwise, our faith is firm.”
— Madhosh Balhami (Inverse Journal)
A nation for whom?
Just over one year ago, India’s far-right Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which granted the territory a significant degree of autonomy within India. The region has sought independence from India, and continues to be at the heart of a colonial contest between India, Pakistan and China since the partition following British colonial rule. Kashmir has long been besieged by occupying military and paramilitary forces that have enacted crackdowns and assassinations of dissidents, and imposed brutal curfews.
In addition to cutting electricity, the Indian government has routinely shut off internet access in J&K. Access was brazenly cut off for a year following the revocation of J&K’s special status, severely impacting peoples’ ability to organize protests and resistance, communicate with families, and connect with the media and communities outside of Kashmir. Since India’s “blanket order” restricting Internet access, Kashmiris have fought for access to be returned1 as a fundamental right under India’s so-called democracy.
The theft of Kashmir’s autonomy has still not received much coverage in western media. If it has trickled into the mainstream press, little is said about the complexities within the Kashmiri independence movement itself, much less about the apartheid conditions that have been imposed by Modi on the predominantly Muslim regions of Jammu and Kashmir.
Indian armed forces have continued to perpetrate forced disappearances. Journalist Hibah Bhat recently wrote about the continuity of present-day forced disappearances with those perpetrated in the 90s as part of Indian counter-insurgency operations. As Bhat reported2 for The Wire, the Association of Parents of Disappeared People (APDP) has estimated that 8,000-10,000 civilians have been forcibly disappeared in Kashmir.
For Jammu and Kashmir, this has deprived the region of the ability to determine key aspects of political organization and social services from the state capital Srinagar—including property rights and government jobs—in a manner that could faithfully represent the Muslim majority.
Article 370, as the law on the region’s special status had been know, was essential to empowering Jammu and Kashmir with a sense of unity and semi-autonomous governance. With its revocation, the autonomously governed state of J&K was broken up into the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh—all of which are now directly governed by Modi’s Hindi nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from New Delhi.
The division has generated anxiety in the predominantly Buddhist eastern region of Ladakh, which — also as a Union Territory — does not have social and environmental protections for traditional forms of governance, or for the region’s unique ecology and biodiversity. In December 2019, a Ladakhi advocacy organization called the Vikalp Sangam Core Group released a statement3 regarding this lack of safeguards:
“Corporate giants have already begun exploring the area for business opportunities (including in tourism) and prospecting for minerals and other natural resources. If they are given open access, Ladakh will be damaged beyond repair, and India will lose a unique land and culture.”
Now as a Union Territory, Jammu and Kashmir itself carries the brunt of the apartheid shaped by Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party. J&K previously had autonomy to determine permanent residency status within the state through another law known as Article 35-A, but its abrogation at the same time as 370 put this power into the hands of Modi’s government in New Delhi.
Driven by far-right Hindu nationalist ideology, India has encouraged the migration of Hindus from neighbouring Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. Relocations and land expropriations have stoked the fears of Muslim Kashmiris being displaced in their own homelands. Author, activist and human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar has written extensively about the plight of migrant workers in Northeast India, emphasizing the existential threat this poses for self-determination in the Northeast.
“The migrant worker is looked upon as an “outsider” and made an escape goat for all social and economic problems facing people, mostly unemployment,” Haksar writes for the Goan Observer4, recalling assaults on migrant workers in Kashmir.
As socio-economic rifts are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kashmir’s nationalist movement confronts the internal divisions that complicate experiences of oppression. In the pursuit of political autonomy, Kashmiri nationalism presents the questions: at whose expense is this vision of a nation, and who is being excluded?
Writing for Briarpatch5, journalist Umer Beigh described the BJP’s 2015 announcement of the resettlement of tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits (Brahmin scholars of Hinduism who fled during 90s insurgency): “The BJP is borrowing from Israel’s tactic of creating self-contained, heavily guarded settlements in occupied territory. Many Kashmiri Pandits opposed the government’s plan, worried they would become targets in Kashmir.”
Considering his alliance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Modi’s Hindu state mirrors the Zionist vision of Israel as a nation-state that encourages and sponsors the immigration of foreign Jews while annexing, expropriating and razing Palestinian homes. Similarly to the revocation of Kashmir’s 35A, Israel affords preferential citizenship to Jews over Arabs living within Israel.
As author and journalist Khushwant Singh once described6 India’s Hindutva nationalism:
“Whatever one is seeing around are all signs of fascism — appointments to important offices are not done on merit, key posts are given to their men, even Governor-level appointments. There could be some two or three showpieces from other communities, otherwise its ‘‘their’’ men in all key positions — Hitler functioned in exactly the same manner. And while Hitler’s main target was the Jews, for this brigade it’s the Muslim population in the country.”
What Beigh identifies as the reticence of Pandits being used as pawns in the Indian government’s colonial expansionism reveals further lines of marginalization within Kashmir along ethnic and religious lines.
Sampat Prakash is a highly regarded Kashmiri Pandit and trade unionist, involved in organizing general strikes since the 1960s, and a long-time advocate for Kashmiri self-determination. Absent from virtually all coverage in western media is the class analysis around Kashmiri nationalism, which Prakash dutifully imbues in his critique of the contradictory tendencies in Kashmiri nationalism.
Prakash has described the inefficacy7 of the popular response to the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s status, chastising the “intelligentsia” against their inaction, equally alongside the infighting among Kashmiri politicians. He also commented on the perceived complacency and disorganization: “Kashmir will not forgive you. History will not forgive you. When such an ‘atom bomb’ was dropped on you on August 5, 2019, you stayed put! Why haven’t you come out in rage?”
Pulling the strings
Much like militant separatist Mohammed Afzal, Prakash has emphasized the importance of defending minorities within popular movements. Prakash has pointed to a moment of unity displayed in 1947, when, prior to segregation, some Kashmiri Muslims protected Pandits from persecution, demonstrating solidarity despite the historical role of Pandits in government administration and police. The significance of this reflected the values of secularism, emphasizing inclusivity while standing firm on self-determination and representation for Muslims.
Speaking from decades of experience in labour activism, Prakash described how the masses intellectualize the struggle but are unwilling to defend the oppressed within their own communities when they don’t meet particular criteria—whether it is the murder of Kashmiri Pandits or harassment of migrant workers.
The option of an independent Kashmir that is separate from both India and Pakistan has not been seriously considered—with Ladakh continuing to experience tensions between India and China. As Beigh has described, “[e]ven when the occupation of Kashmir is discussed in Western media, it’s typically framed as a bilateral territorial conflict between India and Pakistan.”
The centrality of Muslim identities, and cultural multiplicity, to Kashmir Valley has been so clearly threatened by the discriminatory rulings of Modi’s apartheid state. Even here, Kashmir faces a colonial importation of Saudi Wahhabism into the region, where Sufism has rooted for almost a millennium. And while western media cannot seem to find empathy for the decolonial struggle of Kashmiri Muslims under Modi’s government, Indian state media has in turn capitalized on depictions of the Kashmiri insurgency as violent Islamism.
Even within militant cadres of Kashmiri resistance, Prakash has decried “lumpen-militants”, who first took on the cloak of militancy, later becoming counter-insurgents killing Kashmiris on behalf of the Indian army. Prakash also identifies the collective khamoshi (silence) of the majority of Kashmiri Muslims regarding the murder and exodus of minority Kashmiri Pandits in the 90s, referring to this as a “contravention of the ethics of Islam”. Likewise, Haksar has described8 how Afzal Guru turned to religion upon becoming disillusioned with nationalism. Always emphasizing the unity of humanity, the Islam in the name of which Kashmiri nationalism has not been “a true Islam”.
Yet, even at the root of violent extremism where it is present is a real experience of alienation and disaffection. People have not failed their state or their communities—rather, their state and their communities have failed them. But confronting this complex humanity, and representing the nuanced context that shapes their despair and actions, has been called apologism for terrorists.
The struggle for any independence movement is to ultimately sustain itself on its own terms. At any moment, it risks becoming dependent on the private interests that belie international aid and foreign capital, and being shaped by a new set of colonial forces if only for the illusion of persisting. Nations seeking foreign assistance must navigate an international aid infrastructure that is rooted in liberal capitalist politics. Too often, the call for “political autonomy” has blown the door open for co-optation by western neoliberal front groups for foreign governments and business lobbies that force “democratization” through sweeping privatization in their own interests.
To even be recognized internationally, a “nation” must conform to standards that are ultimately defined by western institutions. In his book Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, political theorist and author Partha Chatterjee notably wrote about nationalism expressed as an “imitation” of Western nations as opposed to being a regeneration of national culture. On top of having to navigate international recognition for any declaration of independence, Chatterjee has described9 Kashmir as a “test bed” for internal colonialism where “[o]nly the Hindu upper-caste male who speaks Hindi will have the sovereign privilege of not having to prove his Indianness.”
India is intensifying measures to “develop” Jammu and Kashmir by injecting its own capital and inviting foreign investment—regardless of what Kashmiris actually want. Mining licenses and infrastructure projects do not go to Kashmiri contractors, all but pushing out Kashmiri ownership by awarding bids to companies outside of the state. Many mines are also located downstream from the Jhelum River, which crosses the Kashmiri region and recalls the concerns from Ladakh around local and environmental protections that are absent under the newly subordinate status to New Delhi. The northeastern region is deprived of control over its natural resources and the means of its own development, putting the power into the hands of neocolonial forces.
As Haksar identifies, much of this development has been driven by the perception of Kashmir as an economically “backward” area, without recognizing the value of Kashmir as a cultural “resource”—intangible resources that are often not inherently lucrative for capitalist development.
Yet, there is hope in a legacy of socialist organizing that has shaped Kashmir. The continued re-election of communist candidate Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami in Kashmir’s Kulgam constituency represents hope for the working class struggle in Kashmir, despite what has been described as a climate of “choking political spaces10”. Beyond Kashmir, this gives hope for the resilience of syndicalism and independence movements that are driven by labour and class solidarity, as opposed to the “lumpen-militants” and academic posturing that sees self-determination as a profitable exercise more than an urgent call for dignity and humanity.