A four-year old boy dressed in green among a huge tsunami of protestors at the historic Eidgah on Friday August 22, waving a green flag, vociferously chants: “We want freedom.” I wonder whether he knows the meaning of the word or not, but one thing is for sure, he wants to become a part of the history that is in the making in Kashmir. He wants to breathe free, not under the shadow of the gun and the lurking fear, but under the umbrella of lasting peace and tranquility that have eluded the strife-torn valley for centuries.
The sentiments of the boy clearly indicate that all is not well in the so-called paradise on earth, Kashmir. Wherever you go in the valley today — from north to south — you will feel the anger emanating from a range of slogans reverberating through the valley.
However, amid the cacophony of slogans and screaming, there is one slogan that stands out: “We want freedom.” “Azadi” is literally in the air in the valley. “Azadi” is the most frequently uttered word in Kashmir today. People from all walks of life — traders, employees, doctors, lawyers, students — thronging the streets are demanding “Azadi from India”.
“People can live under unbelief, but they can not live in oppression,” declared Imam Ali (AS). It seems Kashmiris have finally woken up from the deep slumber of the decades-old oppression, started paying heed to the call of conscience, and realized that ‘enough is enough’. The deprived children of a wounded, widowed, and harassed mother called Kashmir have decided to break free her shackles.
What we are witnessing in Kashmir today is a classic example of a people’s movement. It is the denizens of the strife-torn vale of Kashmir who are calling the shots, and not the leaders. Separatist leaders may boast of having organized five massive rallies since August 11, but the fact of the matter is that it is the people who are driving the leaders this time. The valley is in no mood to be taken for a ride.
The valleyites can not be misled this time. The common man of Kashmir has suddenly become uncommon. The uncommon majority is fighting for the only thing they want: the right to self-determination.
“The separatist leaders who do appear and speak at the rallies are not leaders so much as followers, being guided by the phenomenal spontaneous energy of a caged, enraged people that has exploded on Kashmir’s streets,” activist, renowned author, and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy wrote in an article entitled “Land and Freedom”, which was published in the August 22 edition of The Guardian.
As long as the leaders fall in line with the people’s aspirations, they are the kings, but if they give up, they too would be in the line of fire. No leader is bigger than the movement. Perhaps Kashmiris have finally learned this basic principle of a resistance movement. By all means, what we are witnessing in Kashmir is a people’s movement. On top of it, this time there is no apparent support or backing from Pakistan or ISI, as has been religiously claimed by India in the past. The people on the streets are common Kashmiris — old, young, women, children –who are demanding the right to self-determination, promised by India’s first prime minister — a Kashmiri pandit — Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. They are not “terrorists” brandishing weapons or an uncontrollable mob on a killing spree.
The Hurriyat Conference and its leaders have the opportunity of a lifetime to turn woes into wows. In Sheikh Aziz’s death, the Hurriyat got a new lease on life. People have rested faith on Hurriyat leaders who have regained their lost political space. Geelani is perhaps at the end of his life and he would like to see the resolution of the Kashmir dispute before he closes his eyes. The support separatist leaders enjoy today is arguably unprecedented in Kashmir’s history. They must not let the sacrifice of Sheikh Aziz and others go to waste. They must ensure that the movement does not die down this time as it did in the early 1990s. New Delhi will try its best to sabotage the movement. So, you better keep your eyes wide open.
“Of course there are many ways for the Indian state to continue to hold on to Kashmir. It could do what it does best. Wait. And hope the people’s energy will dissipate in the absence of a concrete plan. It could try to fracture the fragile coalition that is emerging. It could extinguish this non-violent uprising and re-invite armed militancy. It could increase the number of troops from half a million to a whole million. A few strategic massacres, a couple of targeted assassinations, some disappearances and a massive round of arrests should do the trick for a few more years,” Roy wrote in “Land and Freedom”.
The Kashmiri youths spearheading the protests today are the generation of youth who have grown up during the militancy. They have seen it all. They have been brought up under the shadow of the gun. They have grown up, as Prem Shankar Jha said, “hating India and engorged with fear of the Indian army.” They have dashed all the psychological boundaries and the fear psychosis that Indian troops so vigorously tried to infuse into them over the past two decades.
“For them (Kashmiri youth) it is nothing short of an epiphany. Not even the fear of death seems to hold them back. And once that fear has gone, of what use is the largest or second largest army in the world?” Roy observed in the article in The Guardian.
Kashmiris, irrespective of political divide, are out on streets demanding the right to self-determination. Up to now, the demand for a plebiscite had primarily been put forth by Kashmiri separatists, but the current crisis in the state has compelled India’s leading strategic analysts to call for a referendum in Kashmir, a demand they considered a taboo only a couple of weeks ago.
India’s most read columnist, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, in his August 17 column in The Times of India, urged India to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir to allow the people of Kashmir to decide their destiny. “We promised Kashmiris a plebiscite six decades ago. Let us hold one now, and give them three choices: independence, union with Pakistan, or union with India. Almost certainly the Valley will opt for independence. Jammu will opt to stay with India, and probably Ladakh too. Let Kashmiris decide the outcome, not the politicians and armies of India and Pakistan,” he wrote.
Swaminathan also castigated India for drawing parallels with the colonial British. “The British insisted for a long time that India was an integral part of their Empire, the jewel in its crown, and would never be given up. Imperialist blimps remained in denial for decades. I fear we are in similar denial on Kashmir,” he said.
Vir Sanghvi, in his column in the Hindustan Times, called upon India to hold a referendum in the valley. “I reckon we should hold a referendum in the Valley. Let the Kashmiris determine their own destiny. If they want to stay in India, they are welcome. But if they don’t, then we have no moral right to force them to remain… If you believe in democracy, then giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination is the correct thing to do. And even if you don’t, surely we will be better off being rid of this constant, painful strain on our resources, our lives, and our honor as a Nation,” he wrote.
Sanghvi questioned India for hanging on to the people “who have no desire to be part of India.” “Why are we still hanging on to Kashmir if the Kashmiris don’t want to have anything to do with us?” he wrote.
The call for Azadi in Kashmir today is much louder than it has ever been. Slogans may be many but the real demand is Azadi.
Arundhati Roy has called for Kashmir’s Azadi from India, much to the dismay of New Delhi. “India needs azadi from Kashmir as much as Kashmir needs azadi from India,” said the celebrated author. Arundhati Roy attended two massive rallies in Srinagar, at the Tourist Reception Centre ground and the Eidgah, to show solidarity with Kashmiris.
“Every banner, full-throated cry or slogan today is an expression of anger with India. Be it in favor of Pakistan, Nizam-e-Mustafa (Islamic state), or simply freedom. There may be many contradictions in the movement, but the desire for independence has erupted suddenly again, with a zeal that can almost be romanticized as revolutionary,” writes Saba Naqvi (Outlook, September 1, 2008).
However, not many Kashmiris endorse Kashmir’s integration with Pakistan.
“When someone on the street here (Kashmir) says Pakistan or Nizam-e-Mustafa, what are they trying to convey? What he (the Kashmiri) is saying is that he rejects the present system. This does not necessarily mean he would choose Pakistan. People here know what has been happening within Pakistan. They are disappointed in what has become of the political system there. There is also a feeling that Pakistan has lost interest in Kashmir,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq (Outlook, September 1, 2008).
The writing is on the wall. Kashmiris want the right to self-determination, which India has denied them for six decades. The ball is in New Delhi’s court. Being a democratic country, it cannot turn a deaf ear to the incessant demands of Kashmiris, else everlasting peace will never be achieved in Kashmir.