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Amidst occupation and pandemic, Kashmir gasps for breath

For the Kashmiris in India the word azadi (liberation) has a highly specific meaning. It is associated with the historic repression of the country by the Indian administration since the takeover of Kashmir in 1947, a repression that, alongside the corona pandemic, is expressed as physical, social, and digital violence. But Azadi is also linked to the solidarity that has grown strong in the face of this oppression. The journalist Umar Lateef Misgar writes about how the corona crisis has been exploited by the Indian Government in order to further control Kashmir, for example by a mass settlement of Indians, a blacklisting of Kashmiri journalists, and the training of agents with the purpose of surveilling and informing on people from within the country.

Credits Author: Umar Lateef Misgar Foto: Saqib Mir June 10 2020

As I begin writing this, if they were ever let loose, the screws of military occupation in India-controlled Kashmir have been fastened again. After the Indian military killed a rebel commander in a blitz of incinerated homes, in addition to intensifying the military checkpoint network, they shut down all mobile phones and the internet to arrest a visible outpouring of collective grief. Although, the irony, whose realization has always maintained a safe distance from India’s military structures in Kashmir, is that while the commander is being projected as a dreaded terrorist, his body was hastily interred in a secret location to deny him the grand farewell that every fallen rebel receives in the land. This petty denial of visible public mourning emerges from the broader affliction that India has embraced for long- unavailing suppression of the deep-rooted unpopularity of its rule in Kashmir.

This wilful affliction manifests itself as a totalitarian system that combines the worst strategies of imperial subjection, Stasi surveillance, medieval torture and Goebbelsian propaganda to concoct a scorched-earth reign of omnipotent control. This reign serves the dual purpose of keeping India wedded to its democratic delusion and, more essentially, subduing the insurgent population in Kashmir. While the former purpose remains substantially successful, the latter has always been a stillborn campaign. As the Indian state continues to punish Kashmiris for demanding their inherent right to self-determination, Indians, with a handful of exceptions, seem to derive a sadomasochistic gratification from this imperial fable every night. Night, I say, because India’s television news closes shop only after shouting down the merits and demerits of a particular technique of domination in Kashmir. Take, again, the killing of this commander Riyaz Naikoo, a former schoolteacher, who headed Kashmir’s largest rebel group and was widely revered within the local population for his calm demeanour. While showering praise on their military, every media outlet unquestioningly toed the official line by calling him a ‘Pakistan-sponsored terrorist who looted farmers to fund his group’. Let alone the contradictory nature of this claim, nobody asked why entire Kashmir, in the midst of a pandemic, had to be held incommunicado in the aftermath of his killing.

For Kashmiris, however, this is only a continuation of the centuries of tyranny by foreign rulers. The previous despots, who bargained Kashmiris from the British empire in the mid 19th century in exchange for money and an annual tribute of goats, deliberately drowned boatloads of emaciated population during famines while enriching their coffers through an elaborate system of unpaid labour. It is on the disputed approval of this same ruthless dynasty that India bases its legal claim over Kashmir. To buttress this claim with a mythical purpose, a manifest destiny, the place has been cast as a cradle of Hinduism that, inevitably, makes it an ‘integral part’ of Hindu India. In this scheme of things, a Kashmiri can either be a native nuisance singing the paeans of Indian largesse or inhabitant of an unmarked grave. Every form of dissent- embodied or performed- is criminalized and pathologized.

From all experience, this criminalization of protest and resistance in Kashmir has had entirely unintended consequences. Kashmir’s subaltern memory of suffering and dissent has found intergenerational continuity and each generation that attains consciousness under the Indian jackboot has taken it upon themselves to preserve the politics of Azaedi, the Kashmiri slogan for emancipation. For its existence, the politics of Azaedi in Kashmir has long ceased to require rigid organizational structures or bureaucratic regulation. Azaedi in Kashmir is an untamed, dispersed force that exists more in unperformed rather than the visible realm. Azaedi fills Kashmiris and overflows within the spaces that severs them, like a force of unperishable hope. It exists in vain exchange of speech between schoolchildren, quotidian memory of the grandmothers and granddaughters, purposeless strolls of young men and the melancholic geography of searing contradictions. To expunge Azaedi from Kashmir, even throwing the place into oblivion of a nuclear holocaust- that India is capable of doing- would not be enough. It is probably the realization of this inextricable nature of Azaedi and Kashmir that Indians have resolved to make the lives of Kashmiris miserable for as long as possible.

This misery is allocated through a multi-layered structure of kinetic and banal counterinsurgency, that has been strategically crafted, since the forced inception of India’s rule over Kashmir in 1947, to dilute the pervasive social solidarity prevalent within Kashmir. One of the key elements of this structure is mass-surveillance, both physical as well as digital. Being directed towards a rebellious, native population this intrusive mesh of surveillance, naturally, is devoid of all legal oversight. As a Kashmiri, one can be a target of India’s surveillance state at any given point of time and space. This has led to an anxious state of self-censorship within the society, a Benthamite anxiety, maintained through all sophisticated surveillance technologies. When a Kashmiri tends to escape this digital gaze, the Indian state directs its legions to physically barge into houses and prod underneath the people’s clothes in search of, what else, but Azaedi. Amidst this deliberately heightened collective suspicion, Kashmiris, however, seem to have strengthened social solidarity and this becomes most evident during the times of hardship. Whether it be escaping military raids or the economic distress due to ongoing pandemic, people always fall back only on each other to get them through. In an attempt to subvert this solidarity, India has unleashed a project of grooming ‘native informants’ within Kashmir. Other than being bestowed with repressive authority which remains abatable, the more corrosive function that these informers perform is that of self-flagellation, which is then projected by the Indian state as some profound internal insight. This insight, in turn, aids in normalizing the repression.

It has now been well-established how diseases such as smallpox were central to the success of settler colonialism, particularly across the Americas. Devoid of immunity, germs that were carried across the ocean by European settlers, devoured indigenous people, claiming as high as 90 per cent of the population within some communities. Perhaps taking a cue from this, Indians have already started using the Coronavirus pandemic as a distraction for initiating foreign settlement in Kashmir. The laws for acquiring land and permanent residency were altered amidst the pandemic, making it easier for Indians to settle within the region. Soon after the announcement of these changes, Kashmiris were warned against any criticism of the new laws by the local police. They are expected to be grateful for the incoming invasion of potential Indian settlers, who outnumber each one of them by more than a hundred. These changes also incentivize the systematic abuses carried out by Indian military, handing the members a promise of ‘holy Hindu land’ in exchange for keeping the indigenous protest in check by any means necessary.

An amusingly belligerent chorus has also emerged inside India’s media establishment and political circles claiming that their army is now ready to annex the Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir and to that effect, the channels have started broadcasting weather updates from these areas. Apart from missing the overlapping applications of imperialism and meteorology, these expansionary proclamations willingly erase the history of resistance that these areas put up to escape foreign, particularly Indian, control during the mid-twentieth century. The residents of these areas include people who barely escaped death when adherents of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu-supremacist paramilitary organization whose political arm now rules India, joined a campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by Kashmir’s previous despot against Muslims in 1947. These areas also house communities that have been ravaged by India’s artillery barrages in continued military hostility between New Delhi and Islamabad. While the relationship of these communities to the Pakistani state is that of a constant grievance, expecting them to welcome an Indian invasion with open arms is akin to envisaging Iranians embracing an American occupation. Both delusions are outrageously ridiculous.

For all the right reasons, we often talk about the disquiet that the synthetic realm of internet has brought into our daily lives. The behavioural depredation induced by the digital loop has thrown the human condition into an unprecedented state of anxiety. However, Kashmiris are made to feel this anxiety outside the loop rather than the inside. The endless communication blackouts, a frequent punitive measure of the Indian state that continues amidst this pandemic, makes it impossible for the population to even access an emergency service such as the ambulance. Remaining under a constant threat of being cut off from their families and friends has burrowed a permanent sense of foreboding into peoples’ minds, more intense than any digital feed could afford. Kashmiris are also penalized for challenging the metanarratives cast by India’s imperial agents. Journalism, writing and every other intellectual activity faces amplified accusations of supporting terrorism even though, within a military occupation, it is not hard to spot the barrel that conceals terror in its chamber. These frivolous accusations demonstrate an existential fear that the metropole experiences in its bones when the empire starts to write back.

While the world holds onto the sage advice of doctors and scientists in battling the pandemic of our generation, in Kashmir, the official response is planned and led by career bureaucrats whose only qualification is an unwavering loyalty to India’s iron fist. Doctors, meanwhile, are warned against sharing their thoughts with the media. Bureaucratic supremacy, a vital attribute of Stalinist terror, has always had a singular purpose- unquestionable control. On top of the persistent military cordons, countless stories of military brutality inflicted upon those who dared to venture out of their homes makes one wonder whether Indian state’s anti-coronavirus strategy in Kashmir hinges on concern for people’s lives or exhibition of fascist efficiency. This becomes starker with the fact that every 14 Kashmiris have one Indian trooper to control them whereas one doctor is available to heal every 1400 Kashmiris.

In this ongoing arduous battle between the living and hesitantly living, entire world, including Kashmir, holds on to the hope of a cure and consequent recovery. The pandemic of virulent disease will eventually disappear but, for Kashmiris, the countless pandemics engineered by the Indian state will not abate and neither will the unquenchable desire for Azaedi. When the world rejoices like Camus’ Oran, the pandemic of extrajudicial executions, systematic torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, looted villages, blown homes, humiliating checkpoints, perforated corneas, contused skins and arbitrary detentions will only gather pace in Kashmir, and continue claiming the flesh of Kashmiris along with, as Fanon would have said, the souls of their occupiers.

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