The renewed turmoil in Indian-controlled Kashmir following the recent killing of five civilians by Indian forces in a remote hamlet of Kupwara has yet again thrown light on the grim realities of the region’s political landscape. The gulf between Delhi and Srinagar is seemingly greater than ever, with more locals willing to pick up guns against the Indian rule. In this continuing political conundrum, never before in Kashmir’s political history has the assertion of Kashmiri Muslim identity acquired more significance and prominence than it has now. At the heart of this enduring conflict is the valley’s sociopolitical labyrinth that has apparently reconfigured significantly, and is galvanizing Kashmiris again towards a violent political movement against Delhi’s rule.
Pertinently, there has been significant discourse about the growing anti-India sentiment, and the rise of new age militants in Kashmir. The valley has been witnessing increasingly greater public participation in the funeral of fallen militants, with many people also flocking to encounter sites to help encircled militants escape.
Observers have citied various reasons for this “radicalization” of the Kashmiri population, with some arguing that the absence of any political dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad, and between Srinagar and Delhi, on resolving the political dispute has fostered deep-rooted resentment. Many emphasize that alienation has further increased in the absence of any economic opportunities, which has left Kashmiri youth feeling frustrated due to high unemployment. Others point out that the absence of political space and status quo environment was making militancy attractive again, while some highlight that excessive militarization of the public space, and repeated human rights violations by the state security apparatus, are fueling anti-India sentiments.
While these assertions do provide some rationale for the valley’s changing sociopolitical order, they don’t answer many crucial questions. Most new entrants into militancy come from socially and economically well-off backgrounds. India has been conducting various de-radicalization exercises like Operation Sadbhavana to integrate Kashmiris into the Indian mainstream, and also recruiting many more for the military and paramilitary services. In addition, these theories offer little clarity in explaining how the current radicalization is different from that in the earlier armed phase.
The fresh metamorphosis of the Kashmir dispute, particularly in its internal dynamics, can only be examined through the analysis of dynamic society. The valley’s sociocultural ethos has been significantly restructured that has now transformed the Kashmiri group identity into a political one. The identity for Kashmiris Muslims has become politically relevant in its recent historical context, and it is this primary factor that is motivating the valley’s younger population for change in the territorial status quo. The bitter experience of Indian military rule has left a profound imprint on the conscience of the Kashmiri Muslims, and has convinced people to call for independence from the Indian state.
Indian nationalism and Kashmiri identity
Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani highlights that political identities need to be understood as specifically a consequence of the history of state formation. The economic liberalization of India in the early 1990s saw the emergence of an assertive middle-class and the growth of right-wing Hindu nationalism. This resurgence shaped both Indian identity and nationalism; together these strands have become vanguards for the identity of the Indian state, which sees it self as a new global power. In this scenario, maintaining territorial sovereignty becomes imperative for India to sustain the projection of a powerful nation, as any potential crisis to territorial integrity would undermine its identity. Holding territory, even through force, becomes critical for maintaining that identity.
Political contestation can generate a counter-identity for a populace that is shaped in reaction to perceived threats to territory, power, or survival. For the Kashmiris Muslims, the rise of this forceful Hindu nationalism has also affected how they view the Indian state. In wake of this perceived adversity to their identity and survival, the rise of Indian nationalism has, consequently, reshaped Kashmiri Muslim identity as well. For instance, the ruling party People Democratic Party (PDP) used an anti-BJP plank during Assembly elections to rise to power in the state, and is now seemingly at its least popular within months after forming a coalition government with the same right-wing party.
Concurrently, while Kashmiri nationalism draws significant inspiration from political Islam, it has predominantly played a subsidiary role in the conflict. Both the political and armed movements against Delhi’s rule in Kashmir began as a result of political contestation and over issues of sovereignty. Religion in contemporary Kashmiri resistance movements, unlike in many other such conflicts, does not lend “legitimacy” for the political cause, or for asserting a common national bond, as generally perceived. Instead, pan-Islamism is used to draw international support from Islamic countries politically, and foreign fighters militarily. Religion also became relevant in the case of Kashmir since India showcased it as a success of its secular credentials; it was the only Muslim majority state in an otherwise Hindu Majority nation.
Collective memory and resistance
It is important to note that collective memories are also at the crux of Kashmiri national identity. That identity has been constructed in part by recalling memories of resistance. However, memory has not essentially strengthened the hatred against India, but has rather inspired a new generation to believe that establishing a sovereign, independent state is the best means of collective self-preservation.
Much of Kashmir’s new generation was born after the armed uprising erupted during late 1980s. The valley’s first tryst with an armed movement, and the subsequent brutal counter-insurgency operation initiated by India, left a significant impact on the collective conscience of the Kashmiri Muslim population. This was further reinvigorated by the continued human rights violations and denial of justice for victims of enforced disappearances, mass rapes, and extra-judicial killings and torture. Despite shifting to a non-violent mode of resistance, the summers of 2008, 2009, and 2010 saw hundreds of protesters killed and many more injured by Indian security forces. The memory of the hanging of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Maqbool Bhat in 1984 gained new life following the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, who was convicted of taking part in a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Most Kashmiri across the ideological lines believed he was wrongly executed for his Kashmiri-Muslim identity.
Kashmiri youth, unlike their previous peers, now have new “heroes” of resistance to look up to. Many now openly voice their affection for these “role models” through popular art and writings. Remembrance of Indian army atrocities and human rights violations is viewed as part of resistance. Oral history and memory is used as a tool to counter the Indian narrative in the valley; Kashmiris now regularly commemorate anniversaries for atrocities like the Gawkadal or Sopore massacres. The alleged mass rapes at Kunan Poshpora, which took place on February 23-24, 1993, are now remembered as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day. Various memorials for fallen militants, locally known as martyr’s graveyards, now dot the entire length and breadth of the valley.
Thus, the collective memory and political mobilization of Kashmiri identity has fundamental left a deep impact on Kashmiri society, creating the narrative for resistance and independence. Contemporary Kashmiri Muslim identity and self-consciousness as a nation and separate group has not only been shaped by the repeated assertion of Indian state’s control over Kashmir’s territory, but by collective resistance and counter-assertions to this perceived aggression. As such, in a sense India itself catalyzed the process that has cultivated contemporary Kashmiri national identity, prompting its population to adopt strategies of resistance.
Haris Zargar is a Kashmir journalist, currently pursuing a course in MSc Violence, Conflict and Development (VCD) at University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies.