Editor’s note: Kapil Komireddi is an Indian journalist. He has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.
Returning home from a visit to Pakistan in 2009, I was invited to have tea with one of the Indian army officials stationed on the international border. Inside his office, I was introduced to another traveler, a middle-aged Kashmiri man who was also on his way back from Pakistan. The three of us spent the next two hours talking about Pakistan. I spoke fondly of Lahore, but the Kashmiri was full of scorn.
“Take my word on this, sir: Pakistan will break apart,” he told the officer. “They are all starving over there.” Later that day, on our way to Delhi, the Kashmiri spoke with great feeling about his friends in Pakistan and the wedding he’d just attended there. He had put on a performance for the officer, demonstrated his commitment to India by eagerly ratifying the most common Indian prejudices about Pakistan. It was a practiced effort. “I am happy in India,” he later told me. “But our loyalty is always questioned.”
People in abusive relationships must adopt such displays of intense loyalty, and Kashmiris have been in an abusive relationship with the Indian state for more than two decades.
What’s striking, particularly in a country that takes so much pride in its democracy, is the refusal of a large number of Indians even to acknowledge this reality. India’s much-revered public intellectuals and its voluble news media maintain a near total silence on the subject. Insulated from any serious debate on New Delhi’s conduct in Kashmir, many Indians fall back on old shibboleths to make sense of what is happening there. In these uncomplicated narratives, Kashmiri Muslims who speak up against New Delhi are naturally Pakistan-sponsored jihadis; Indian armed forces are incapable of wrongdoing; and Kashmir, without exception, is an “integral part” of India.
It’s a belief system that asserts India’s ownership of Kashmir by effectively disenfranchising Kashmiris. Kashmiris are demonized as fifth columnists and denied the treatment extended to “fellow citizens” in other parts of the country. But they are expected, in all circumstances, to pledge constant allegiance to India.
This explains why even the most benign reproof of New Delhi by Kashmiris can prompt so many Indians to erupt with self-righteous indignation. This happened on Monday, when Mustafa Kamal, a senior leader of Jammu & Kashmir’s ruling National Conference Party, upbraided New Delhi for not bringing down troop levels in Kashmir. The Indian Army continues to function under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir.
The AFSPA is one of the cruelest pieces of legislation on India’s statue books. It provides immunity from prosecution to the troops operating in Kashmir and other restive regions of the country.
India advertises itself to the planet as the world’s largest democracy, a nation of laws, but consider the plight of the Kashmiris who are persecuted on the mere presumption of being enemies of Indian democracy – and then denied the legal remedies of democratic India to challenge that premise. The Indian government has invoked the AFSPA in more than 40 instances to prevent soldiers from being prosecuted for crimes ranging from torture and murder to rape.
None of this has produced any public outcry in India – unlike Kamal’s remarks. Speaking to a gathering of his party workers, Kamal bemoaned, somewhat idealistically, India’s refusal to sign a “no-war” treaty with Pakistan, before saying, as part of a much larger conversation about resolving the Kashmir crisis, that “I feel our enemy is our own country, not Pakistan.” This was enough to sound the jingoist tocsins across India. Times Now, the broadcasting arm of the Times of India and India’s answer to Fox News, almost exploded with nationalist rage. “Can Mustafa Kamal get away by calling India the enemy and Pakistan the friend?” asked one of the channel’s anchors. The Times of India published stories accusing Kamal of describing India as an enemy.
It’s clear from Kamal’s statement that he acknowledged India as “our country” and, as a citizen, placed the burden of responsibility for Kashmir on New Delhi rather than Islamabad. But the effort to portray him as a separatist only intensified. Kamal appeared this week on Times Now’s flagship show to clarify his position. But the host, Arnab Goswami, a blowhard whose act combines the buffoonery of Glenn Beck with the belligerence of Mark Levin, cut him off. “Is India not your country?” he shouted. It was an absurd and humiliating inquisition. I don’t know if Kamal ever harbored separatist sentiments. But if he comes out in favor of Kashmir’s secession tomorrow, nobody should be surprised.
Contrast this “controversy” with the arid reaction to the discovery just last year of unmarked graves containing more than 2,000 bodies in Kashmir. There were no angry newscasters demanding answers from the Indian government. Extraordinarily, a discovery of such magnitude, instead of waking us to the brutality of the AFSPA, was cast as evidence of India’s redeeming features, a cause for self-congratulation: it was a governmental body that unearthed the graves, after all. Instead of questioning a policy that so randomly distributed death among Kashmiris, India celebrated its capacity for self-monitoring.
The novelist Amit Chaudhuri once wrote that “Indians don’t know how to fashion eloquence out of a sense of being wronged or having wronged, at least not without the unmistakable timbre of self-congratulation.” This is primarily because we ”have never really known what it means to inhabit a morally uneasy position.”
The hysterical reaction to Kamal is a measure of Indian society’s sense of its own unimpeachable righteousness, and its imperviousness to the appeals of those seeking the restitution of their dignity.
Bloodshed has ebbed in Kashmir and something like peace is returning to the valley, yet closure will not come unless there is repentance on the part of those who claim Kashmiris as their “fellow citizens” but withhold from them the privileges of citizenship.
Kapil Komireddi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org