Kashmir, Arundhati Roy and ground realities

Zeenat Khan | Published: 00:00, Aug 24,2019

 
 

This photo taken on August 16 shows a man sitting next to graffiti that reads ‘We Want Freedom’ on a shuttered store in the Soura locality in Srinagar during a lockdown imposed by Indian authorities. — Agence France-Presse/Jalees Andrabi

UNDOUBTEDLY, the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status laid out in the Indian constitution has been a paradigm shift. It was perhaps a coincidence that Arundhati Roy’s book of essays My Seditious Heart came out at a time when the Narendra Modi government decided to strip Kashmir of its special status. To the die-hard fans of Arundhati, the arbitrary decision in the parliament to wipe out Kashmir’s status might seem like a fitting response to her biting sarcasm aimed at the establishment in answering the thorny question about Kashmir. Is it not ironic that within less than two months of the paperback release of Roy’s book, Modi’s government has unleashed its hatred of Roy through stripping Kashmir’s special status? It is no secret that Roy had written some of the essays of the collection some 20 years ago and a good number of the essays are on the separation of Kashmir where she supported people’s demand for secession.

However, in the light of the current crisis in Kashmir, one cannot help but notice the eerie parallel between some of the essays and the government’s decision. It seems New Delhi has handed out a punishment to Roy for her condemnation of the government. But we must not make an error in trivialising that the government/home jinister Amit Shah was driven by vendetta against Roy in settling an old score. It is much more serious than that. Since August 5, under a total lockdown, the Kashmir situation has reached a new height. The ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir now are a lot graver than what Roy had anticipated. It certainly surpasses the BJP government’s personal dislike of Arundhati Roy.

After Kashmir’s special status was revoked, New Delhi put Kashmir under a total military lockdown. An indefinite curfew was instated, political leaders were either detained or put under house arrest and they are incommunicado with the constituents. With a total communication blockout including telephone, the internet, television, radio and postal services, Kashmir is hidden from the outside world under a security blanket.

About 700,000 troops are guarding the Himalayan region. Additional 50,000 paramilitary personnel were brought in as ‘preventive measures’ in case there is backlash that might cost lives. Another 500,000 army soldiers are already stationed in Kashmir to secure the Pakistan border.

Time magazine on August 21 reported that about 2,300 people were detained during the lockdown. Amidst partial curfew, a gun battle between an armed militant and two police men did occur; two died. After one policeman had lost his life, a report was sent to Al-Jazeera that rebels instigated the gunfire after throwing a grenade at the police. A different report came from Pakistan where it claimed three of its civilians died in the Indian gunfire, a claim India, of course, brushed aside. Pakistan is also threatening that they would challenge India’s decision to move against Kashmir at the International Court of Justice.

I read a story in the Telegraph accompanied by a photo. A few Indian soldiers are pictured guarding a deserted street where they stopped a woman trying to go to hospital. Patients in hospitals cannot be visited by relatives. Pregnant women with complications are walking miles to get to hospital for birth as ambulances are scarce. Cars are not allowed to take anyone anywhere. With tourists not being allowed in the valley, Kashmir’s already fragile economy is suffering immensely. Gift shops are closed and shop owners are looking at an uncertain future. Some sneak out of their houses to pray in the mosques. Women remain virtual prisoners in their houses.

Since then new reports have emerged where women were molested, young boys were abducted from their houses during midnight raids in the name of security.

A feature story in the Atlantic stated that the Kashmiri Muslims fear that the Modi government will change the demography of the region by bringing in more Hindus to settle. BJP politicians such as Vikram Saini are telling its Muslim activists that now they can marry the ‘white-skinned’ Kashmiri women, a much desired ‘object.’ Haryana’s chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar went one step farther in assuring that such marriage will ensure a right balance in society. Social media sites are carrying a similar sentiment. As Indians now will be able to buy land in Kashmir, ‘How to marry Kashmiri women’ is being Googled searched by some lascivious Indian men at an alarming rate.

A huge majority of the Indians support the revocation of the autonomous status of the J&K, some are not happy though about the way the government is dealing with the Kashmir situation. West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee has recently stated that right before the abrogation of Article 370, she had received a phone call from one former J&K chief minister asking her to stand in solidarity. She tried to be whimsical in saying that in spirit she is with them. Mamata, however, acknowledged that the process of scrapping of the constitution was wrong. She was wondering aloud about the whereabouts of the former chief ministers. They were elected members and how is it possible that no one knows where they are? Mamata still believes that the parliament did not have to revoke Article 370 and the Reorganisation Act 2019 could have been avoided through a peaceful discussion between all parties.

Economist Amartya Sen, however, sees the situation differently. In a recent visit to India, he gave an interview to NDTV. He lamented that India has regressed to its colonial past in handling of Jammu and Kashmir. ‘As an Indian, I am not proud of the fact that India, after having done so much to achieve a democratic norm in the world — where India was the first non-western country to go for democracy — that we lose that reputation on the grounds of action that have been taken,’ Sen said. He added that it should have been up to the Kashmiris to decide on the rights of land use in the state as it was their land.

In his address to the nation on the eve of India’s 73rd Independence Day, president Ram Nath Kovind claimed that India had rarely been ‘a judgemental society,’ and has had ‘an easy going’ attitude based on the principles of ‘live and let live’ that enables people of all races to enjoy the same rights and privileges provided by the constitution. To justify the government’s action, in praising ‘India’s freedom movement and its expansive goals’, he even recited a few verses of poet Subramania Bharati in Tamil. He could have been vindicated in delivering such a sermon before the parliament adopted a resolution to repeal Article 370. Despite the government’s reassurance that changes in the J&K will immensely benefit the region and it will listen to feeblest voice, the bleak realities on the ground paint an altogether different picture.

Following the Modi government’s sly action, in the past week some of the primary schools reopened — the classrooms were empty with a ghostly silence. Parents do not want their children to become pawns between the militants and the police. Some of the government offices also have reopened but people do not feel reassured in going to work amidst crackdowns and arrests. Children are unable to go outside to play. Some landlines are slowly getting restored, according to Indian media. The internet is still not accessible.

As paramilitary personnel guard the region, the insurgents have pledged to continue with the fight for their independence and are not deterred by the annulment. Every night, in some areas, a call from the mosque’s mike announce for the young men to take up this fight as they have the right to make their own laws.

Business is as usual in India at the cost of the suffering Kashmiris. Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani has announced several plans that he believes will ultimately revitalise Kashmir. Amit Shah is campaigning full force for the forthcoming assembly polls. Earlier, on August 16, the day after India’s Independence Day, he addressed a rally with gusto as if to celebrate the centre’s scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir as well.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has made a late discovery. On August 21, he told a group of reporters, ‘Kashmir is a very complicated place. You have the Hindus and you have the Muslims and I wouldn’t say they get along so great’, — what a profound statement from the leader of the ‘free’ world. He has shown his willingness again to mediate. He will meet Modi at the 45th G7 summit this weekend, August 24–26, in Biarritz, France.

On the other hand, Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson is trying not to interfere. On August 20, he told Modi over telephone, ‘Kashmir dispute must be resolved between India and Pakistan.’ He seems totally oblivious of the fact that the protesters have been gathering regularly in front of the Indian High Commission in London.

BJP people are very enthusiastic about the abrogation but they do not speak for all people, especially, ordinary citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. They can suspend the internet, telephone, television, radio and postal services but they cannot control people’s way of thinking. They have a right to demand a wholesome future for them and their children. In the name of infrastructure development, constructing more buildings and jobs and to root out militants, the government cannot claim that Kashmiris share the same sentiment to bring it under India’s direct rule. With all the problems under their belt, they have thus far enjoyed their autonomy and do not want to be under total control of the government of India. If the government believes in each person’s identity, why is then it taking away the rights of the people of the J&K? Kashmiris are also not fooled by president Kovind’s flowery language and rhetoric. History has showed time and again that people cannot be happy under occupation.

Putting aside Arundhati Roy’s ‘moral purpose’ and intimate vexations, Amartya Sen’s embarrassment as Indian and Kovind’s poetry recitation, the obvious fact that is gnawing on our conscience is the people of Kashmir and their collective suffering. By cutting them off from the rest of the world, how long is Narendra Modi going to keep them under a lockdown? To display national pride, silencing people at gunpoint and making them feel that they are under siege is the ultimate sign of oppression. It also points to India’s failure to claim it as a true democracy.

 

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA.

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