This month a muted Eid marked the end of a troubled Ramzan in Kashmir. As the protests rolled into their third month, it was obvious that the whispered Eid “package” from New Delhi was conjured up with no more than paper and string. In place of conciliation, what emerged was an endless chain of distractions.
The first red herring presented itself on Eid, when two government offices were set ablaze, as over a hundred thousand people gathered to protest at Lal Chowk, Srinagar. It was followed by an arson attack on a school run by Christian missionaries in Tangmarg the next day; a reaction, we were told, to televised images of the desecration of the Koran in faraway America. The two were swiftly connected: the headline of ‘Kashmir on Fire!’ conjoined with talk of an ‘Islamic’ resurgence.
It was only a few days later that some sceptics began to sniff around in the smoke. One netizen provided a map of Srinagar, flagging off the key elements in the geography of the arson. While the protesting crowds were at Lal Chowk, the offices they were said to have gutted — the crime branch headquarters, and the power development department — happened to be almost a kilometer away, across the river Jhelum. Not only would the arsonists have had to push their way through a high security zone, their target lay right across the road from the heavily-protected Legislative Assembly building. Remember that the entire area is under CCTV surveillance. Yet, we hear of no further curiosity about who set these buildings on fire.
In the attack on the school, on the other hand, the arsonists were identified. They were led by a politician of the National Conference (NC), the very party that runs the state government! What makes it more unusual is that NC cadres had been totally absent in the last few months of protests, afraid that people would lynch them.
These incidents played a critical part in distracting attention from the political content of the street protests, although hints about where the discourse was headed were in the air. Discussions on the protests in Kashmir were effortlessly morphing into a debate on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Indeed, the whispers around the Eid “package” were all about how — or how much — it would tinker with the act. Television debates became focused on it, newspapers were commenting on it: nothing seemed to be able to dislodge it from the agenda.
Interestingly, civil society activists in Kashmir have never been exercised about AFSPA alone. They insist that the lives of people are more affected, for example, by the Public Safety Act (PSA), under which thousands of people have been put away, without hope of judicial redress. But nothing could deter from the obsession with AFSPA. Not even the anonymous appearance of a disturbing three-minute video of five young men stripped naked, then paraded through a village in Kashmir, in an exercise in ritual humiliation performed by the forces. Almost imperceptibly, the armed forces have become the centre of the story.
The debate has turned into a loyalty test for Indians: whoever wants the act to go must obviously have no regard for the soldiers of this country. Or its flag. Or its greatness. One retired general argued that AFSPA was essential to keep the highways secure, to ensure supply lines for Indian troops in Siachen… You could be forgiven for thinking that what the Indian Army most needed in its face-off with Pakistan is not more officers or better-trained soldiers or bulletproof jackets. It is AFSPA.
Why aren’t we being able to admit that the real problem is not the legitimate protection it offers to the armed forces, but the impunity it simultaneously grants. We could begin by talking about the April 2010 killings in Machhil, where three civilians were murdered in cold blood, shot by uniformed soldiers of the Indian Army. We could summon up sympathy for Captain Sumit Kohli, a decorated army officer, whose mother is fighting to establish that her son was murdered. Shot by his colleagues, she argues, for trying to expose the cold blooded murder of four civilian porters in the Lolab valley in 2004. Taking shelter under AFSPA, the army officers were able to argue their way out of a sentence. The army has so far not shown itself open to scrutiny on this.
The distance between the situation in Kashmir and its representation in India was underscored last week when the all-party delegation visited the Valley. Even as their 36-hour excursion was being hailed as ‘historic’ and ‘path-breaking’, what the intrusive glare of publicity made really apparent was the chaos and just how out of touch our parliamentarians were with the discourse in Kashmir.
Faced with the failure of a ‘security’-led approach to the issues of Kashmir, we are now faced with the bankruptcy of political ideas. Is this what the red herrings this Eid are meant to distract us from?
Sanjay Kak is a documentary filmmaker. The views expressed by the author are personal