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The Kashmir stories

The Centre used propaganda to handle the recent uprising in the Valley. This could lead to a fresh and more lethal insurgency, writes David Devadas

india Updated: Mar 07, 2011 10:37 IST
David Devadas
David Devadas
Hindustan Times

As if they were characters in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the people of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah's government, and people across much of India view what's occurred in Kashmir from perspectives that make each the victim-hero of their respective versions — the armed forces standing in as India's victim-hero. This is a recipe for disaster. For it accentuates anger, resentment, even hatred, against whichever party is assigned the role of wrongdoer in each narrative. From New Delhi's perspective, stone-pelting teenagers

are the bad eggs; the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and local police only fire as a last resort to control these wanton lawbreakers. In this narrative, jawans have shown great restraint. Pictures published and telecast across India last month showed jawans cowering as Kashmiri boys assault them.

In the Kashmiri media, on the other hand, pictures of teenagers' bodies, and of their grieving relatives, too get wide display. It's imperative to understand the discourse within Kashmir in order to respond sensibly. In late-June and early-July, the discourse there was full of CRPF jawans and policemen arbitrarily assaulting boys, women, even the aged, tearing up media persons' curfew passes, thrashing boys returning from neighbourhood mosques, breaking windows of homes with lights on during a night curfew and firing indiscriminately to kill. Kashmiris focus on the fact that many of the boys who have fallen to the forces' bullets since June 11 weren't throwing stones. One was going for tuition classes; a 9-year-old had gone out to bring home his mentally unstable brother. While their deaths cause anger, riotous indignation is generated by reports, for example, that three boys killed were dragged from their houses on June 29 to a nearby garden in Anantnag and shot in cold blood.

Kashmiris generally don't see stone-pelters as law-breakers but as expressing the community's indignation against such incidents — and others, such as the killing of three boys at Machil a few months ago. They were lured to an army camp with promises of lucrative work, killed and declared to have been militants. Officers of the army unit got cash bonuses worth lakhs of rupees — and a better shot at promotions and medals. The incident is being investigated, but there was enough preliminary evidence for two officers to be removed from their posts.

One reason for the tragic divergence in discourse, within Kashmir and across the country, is 'media management' since the late 90s — by both the BJP and the Congress. Since the space for insightful, critical reporting has shrunk, most Indians react with fear-filled amazement to explosions of public anger. They are unaware of Kashmiris' experience or of shifts in public mood there — alienation caused by the armed forces and their mercenaries from 1994 to 1999, openness between 2000 and 2005 to an autonomous status agreed between India and Pakistan, and increasing anger since 2006 at both the stalling of talks and continued presence of the armed forces in overwhelming numbers. Their presence is experienced as humiliation: being abusively ordered to hold one's ears as a murga in front of one's children or facing barricaded roads and arbitrary searches — apart from much harsher torture of being tagged as suspects.

The result: youngsters who were, at times, even beginning to support India during an India-Pakistan cricket match have picked up stones. In contrast with previous generations, they're articulate — and unafraid. Subliminally at least, many factors form their angst, which is only fuzzily related to what happened in 1947, 1987, or 1990. Many of them have been influenced by the puritanical Islam propagated by televangelists; and they connect, through the Net and mobile phones, to global perceptions about oppression of Muslims. Perceiving armed forces abuse through these lenses, their minds easily leap to the belief that the central forces deliberately kill Kashmiri Muslims — or that the government transferred land to the Shrine Board to re-engineer Kashmir's demography.

A new discourse has developed: India has colonised Kashmir; it robs its water resources and favours Hindus of Jammu (the reverse is believed in Jammu) in recruitment and development activities. This discourse has most impacted the boys of (mainly downtown) Srinagar and some other towns. It also has salience among some rural youth, though the discourse in other rural areas is strikingly different. It's spreading, though — and the Centre's responses only fuel the fire in more young hearts.

Owing in part to compromised institutions, the Centre had no idea of the smouldering ire and misread its dimensions when it burst into flames. Over the past couple of weeks, the Centre has tried to 'handle' this year's uprising through Goebbelsian propaganda; facts were fabricated or exaggerated. Srinagar newspaper offices were starved of electricity and prevented from functioning, local correspondents of some national TV channels couldn't leave their offices even at night, criminal charges were slapped on a couple of them, local reporters were beaten on the streets, and their curfew passes torn up.

Given the already existing divergence of discourse, these tactics are disingenuous at the very least. First, unlike the 1975 Emergency, the internet and mobile phones disseminate information, opinions and rumours far more effectively today than even the media channels that the government suppresses. Second, like the Emergency, the suppression (including suspension of SMS services) causes fresh Kashmiri anger. So does the constructed narratives put out nationally. The most dangerous divergence in narratives is that while Kashmiris believe that stones-for-bullets constitutes a non-violent response, the rest of India sees pictures of security men cowering before violent mobs. If these perspectives finally converge in these boys picking up guns, the fresh insurgency would be far more lethal than that of the 90s.

David Devadas is the author of In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir. The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 21, 2010 00:00 IST