The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Three years before the world was captivated by the Arab awakening young people in Indian-held Kashmir were attempting something similar. In 2008 the first flicker of a Kashmiri ‘spring’ was seen. The year witnessed the largest demonstrations against Indian rule since the uprising of 1989-90.
The following two years showed the Kashmiri resistance movement entering a new phase. Mass protests were used to press the people’s case for freedom. The spirited protests of 2009 and 2010 foreshadowed many aspects of the ‘Arab spring’. They were youth-driven and by passed traditional leaders. Tech-savvy students used the web to spread their message. Cyber resistance became an important dimension of how a new Kashmiri generation confronted repression. Students blogged their grievances and posted videos on You Tube.
They sought to turn right into might by peacefully calling for an end to Indian occupation. The non-violent nature of the protests denied the authorities the opportunity to delegitimise them as the handiwork of militants or ‘outsiders’.
Unrest in the Valley for three consecutive summers demonstrated the depth of ferment in the long troubled region and invited unprecedented western media coverage. It even prompted a rare expression of concern from the UN Secretary General. There was however silence from the western capitals, including Washington, where Barack Obama had once declared that resolution of Kashmir was necessary for regional peace. But that was before he became president.
The mass protests in Kashmir were powered by the anger and frustration of a generation that had witnessed the violent decade of the 1990s and grown up in the crushing environment of barricades and curfews, experiencing the militarisation of every day life.
Author and journalist Mirza Waheed talked passionately and eloquently about the beginning of this peaceful movement at one of the sessions in the recent Literature Festival in Karachi. He was heard in rapt silence as he recounted the horror of the 1990s, life under draconian ‘laws’ and brutal crackdowns, lack of efforts to address Kashmir’s core issue, Pakistan and India’s failure for 62 years to “break out of the box”, growing rejection of militancy, and then the advent of a different, more “articulate and peaceful phase of the movement for freedom”.
Waheed’s debut novel ‘The Collaborator’ published last year is a compelling and moving political novel about the agony and predicament of Kashmir. Set in the early 1990s the book is gripping in its unusual rendering of a conflict that has robbed Kashmiris of a future.
Waheed grew up in Srinagar but now lives and works in London. Like other writers he was in Karachi for a festival that offered a rare opportunity to be able to talk to authors about their work and lives.
Speaking to Waheed on the sidelines, I asked him an obvious question: why did he choose to write political fiction? Like the protestors of recent years he belongs to a “hugely politicised and political generation”. The only “honest thing” to do was to write a political novel because the 90s was so central to his experience of growing up. This was not a choice, he said, but an imperative.
Was he surprised at the response the book received? He was particularly encouraged by the rave reviews his book received in India, which he said shows a certain “churning among its newer generation” that is willing to listen to a narrative different from the official one.
Why does he regard 2010 as a “landmark year” – the theme of his remarks at the festival? Because it marked the consolidation of a “completely” peaceful movement against Indian rule, a reaction both to oppression and to militancy. It represented the crystallisation of new dissent not limited to known “separatist groups” but vastly more broad based and rooted as much in an intellectual as a political awakening. Young Kashmiris who saw no possibility of justice defied their elders and their own leaders to demand a life of dignity and an end to the ‘black hole’ that occupation and violence had turned their land into.
Was this similar to the start of the Kashmiri uprising in 1989-90? Yes and no, he responds. It was similar to the 90s mass protests when hundreds were killed in roadside massacres. But different too because the 1990s had been experienced in all its traumatic dimensions including disenchantment with the turf war between cadres of militants and pro-independence groups.
Resistance turned to non-violent means he reasons because in the post 9/11 world Kashmiris saw every legitimate movement being thrown into a ‘war on terror’ construct. And they didn’t want to be associated with terrorism. Young people did not want a struggle going back to 1947 to be lumped into a terror category at a time when states tried to employ that narrative to suppress legitimate struggles.
After three summers of protest, Kashmir was comparatively quiet in 2011 even though the atmosphere of repression has remained unchanged. How did he interpret this? He gives a compelling reply: “Kashmiris don’t have the stamina to die every year”. “They have to work, earn a living, but that doesn’t mean their aspiration for freedom has gone away”. Any minor issue in Kashmir sparks major protest, because the people have been angry for such a long time and find no response to their demand for freedom, he adds.
Do Kashmir-specific confidence building measures between Pakistan and India make a difference to the lives of the Kashmiris? He pauses and says: “They make good news copy, but the central issue is not addressed”. So what can be done I ask. “The central issue cannot be solved until India and Pakistan ask the Kashmiris what they want”.
What could be the most meaningful first step towards a settlement? His answer echoes what Kashmiris have long urged: demilitarisation as a first step. Despite their differences, leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) have consistently called for this.
As for international apathy on the issue, Waheed has no illusions. This is a measure of major powers not wanting to annoy India from which they seek commercial and economic advantage. “It is about trade and arms deals.” He compares the Kashmiri and Arab ‘spring’, and remarks, “ours has no oil” but just as well because once foreign powers intervene, they never leave.
Given the transformation of the Kashmir movement and the fact that the APHC followed rather than led the 2008-10 protests, how relevant are its leaders to the younger generation? He first couches his answer in terms of what Hurriyat leaders need to do to make themselves more significant: “they need to present a unified and coherent vision” of what they want as a solution. That vision must also incorporate a clear position on the Kashmiri pundits.
He believes Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik and the others are all relevant to their respective constituencies. But the young have “special respect” for the oldest among them, Syed Ali Geelani, who is seen as courageously standing his ground even if they may not agree with all his views.
Inevitably our conversation turns to what could happen if the young find that no one is listening to them. Again reinforcing what many Kashmiris have been warning in recent years, Waheed says: “the gun will again be seen as an option”. And this, he says will be altogether different from the violence of the 1990s. If Kashmiri youth see no hope, a “devastating outcome” awaits that no one will be able to control.
Waheed’s sharp insights and thoughtful perspectives only reinforce what many believe – but what is obscured by the present regional and international focus on Afghanistan – the surface calm that prevails in Kashmir is but a thin veil over its combustible nature. This will continue to erupt in one form or another until the aspirations of the Kashmiri people are met.
The irony today is that international indifference to the plight of Kashmir persists even as western powers press for the ‘right to intervene’ to ‘protect’ people against human rights abuses – a so-called principle applied only to states of their choice.
Mirza Waheed, The Collaborator, London, Penguin, 2011.