Towards the end of his presidency, Lyndon B Johnson, the 36th President of the United States of America, had been reduced to a figure of universal scorn and derision. His escalation of the Vietnam War to a point from which it became impossible to extricate the US ended up in becoming one of the defining human tragedies of twentieth century. This was war fought on the basis of pretexts that did not actually exist. The slur “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” which became an anthem of sorts for protestors eventually compelled him to forgo running for a second term in office in 1968. Those protesting against the war, those who eventually forced Lyndon Johnson to leave the political arena were Americans who were overcome with images of atrocities and the rising count of civilian deaths in a mindless war.
The Vietnam War was far from an exception. Even after its end, we might still be able to catalog scenes of wanton brutality and killings from around the world into several heavy volumes, each prefaced by notes indexing the vileness of the human species, which remains the only one to conjure schemes of the annihilation of its own kind for reasons that have no justification or sanction in the natural world. No life form kills for the sake of the shape of a map in an atlas. Nationalism routinely makes humans go to war for such reasons.
Some of these same false premises that have been used to rationalize killing elsewhere in the world have also been in use for far too long to perpetuate brutality and subjugation in Kashmir. For years Indians have been indoctrinated with an image of their country on a map that has no bearing on reality. The shape of the state of Jammu & Kashmir on Indian maps lies at the heart of this fiction. Be it an average fruit seller or an industrialist or a mentally and morally bankrupt bureaucrat or a duplicitous politician – this image has made Indians of all manner and description treat Kashmir as their backyard. This is what lies at the core of the intransigence of the Indian establishment when it comes to Kashmir, and it is this very intransigence that is hurtling the populace of Kashmir towards a precipice, accompanied by an increased wave of repression. The Indian state is straddling a moral abyss. Incidentally, this situation exposes the hollowness of even that section of Indian society that takes prides in calling itself ‘progressive’.
In recent days, in the face of rising discontent, we have witnessed the voicing of Indian demands for even more stern actions by the armed forces in Kashmir than have been already employed. One wonders what could be sterner than the blinding of people, including under-aged children through indiscriminate and unprecedented use of pellet guns. It is as if Kashmir becomes an exception to the perception of how any form of state power should be used to deal with a recalcitrant population. Stone pelters elsewhere in the territories policed by the Indian state are not met with bullets and pellets, but in Kashmir, they inevitably are. What is it that makes many ‘progressive’ Indians (who refurbish their credentials by being so vocal against the actions of the rabidly right wing government of Narendra Modi) fall silent when it comes to Kashmir, atrocities in Kashmir, or even the outstanding issue of the legal status of the territory. Is that ingrained, unquestioned map of India, with Kashmir as its crown that forces even ‘progressives’ to become alter egos of the activists of hardcore rightwing parties?
The situation in Kashmir remains what it has been for more than two decades and a half, littered with instances of Indian mendacity and deliberate sabotage of any move towards real peace that reflects the aspirations of the population. The majority of Kashmiris themselves, despite having gone through the upheavals of a violent insurgency and state terror in the 1980s and 1990s remain unchanged in their demands and aspirations. Their aspirations for freedom and peace have remained constant through the transition from an armed insurrection to a virtually unarmed mass struggle.
What has also remained unchanged is the violent vehemence of the Indian establishment’s response to these aspirations. Until the current Modi regime decided to publicly take a hard line on Kashmir, many Indian politicians (in and out of power) professed a desire to ‘engage’ with the people of Kashmir. These public pronouncements never altered the realities on the ground, which instead of moving forward, only worsened with time. An over-reliance on an electoral process already discredited by force and fraud led to a wilful neglect of the basic nature of the disputed status of the relationship between Kashmir and the Indian Union. This only led to further deterioration of an already dire situation. Amidst all the noise and kerfuffle that emanated from India vis-a-vis Kashmir, what fell through the cracks of the sparse and frugal mental apparatuses of the Indian establishment (and of even its ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ factions) was the fact of the dehumanizing siege that the entire population of the Kashmir valley had been subjected to since the beginning of the uprising in the late 80s, or even before. Now, with the Modi regime all but declaring war on the people of Kashmir, the crisis has reached unimaginable proportions. How did things get so bad? Those who call themselves ‘progressive’ in India and yet retain a fondness for the Indian master narrative on Kashmir cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the situation having become what it is today.
Leaving aside for a moment the well documented cases of extra-judicial assassinations, rapes, enforced disappearances and torture for more than two decades, one needs only take into consideration the minute by minute humiliations that people in Kashmir have had to endure at the hand of security personnel at checkpoints, while being frisked, at ‘identity’ parades, in the course of random ‘spot’ checks, house-to-house searches, curfews and a heap of senseless harassment that constitute the daily grind. If you face this reality squarely, then the fact that an entire people are rising ought to come as no surprise.
Take, for instance, the recent parading by the Indian Army of a young man, a voter, called Farooq Ahmad Dar, as a ‘human shield’ with a paper warning tied to his chest and bound to the front bumper of a jeep while he was driven through nine villages was hardly the isolated incident it is being made out to be. The image of this incident, which hit the world media, has become emblematic of the India-Kashmir relationship. While this image did evoke genuine outrage in some sections in India, it is also true that it was celebrated and justified, and became the catalyst of demands for ‘even more stringent actions’. These demands did not come from the Hindutva fringe alone. They were also voiced by some ‘liberals’ who had otherwise been outraged at the lynching of Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan by Hindutva vigilantes. Its as if things change the moment one invokes Kashmir.
What is that evokes such reactions against the population in Kashmir even amongst some liberals? Is that imaginary map of greater India so chiseled into their brains that the thought of any tinkering leads to complete irrationality? Perhaps that is where some introspective reading of history, not only of Kashmir but of the entire world, can help sometimes to dispel in-built prejudices.
The exact circumstances of the accession of Kashmir to India remain shadowy. The accession, for what it was worth, was contingent on a plebiscite that India has never allowed to be held. One leader after another of the Kashmiri people were bought, or thrown into prison, or were thrown into prison and then bought. Every kind of leadership, both Indian and Kashmiri, played its part in suppressing the aspirations of the the population of Kashmir. There grew to be an unbridgeable chasm between what was professed and what was practiced in Kashmir. The mantra of Kashmir being an ‘integral part’ of the Indian Union revealed a fixation that cared for the occupation of land, never for a concern with the people who happened to be on that land. The people of Kashmir never became anything other than colonial subjects for India, just as Indians had been for the British. And like Britain, India also always found local collaborators, especially to help it indulge in meaningless electoral exercises.These ‘polls’ which India touted in place of the absent plebiscite, got so discredited over time with force and fraud that the last exercise of elections attracted only seven percent of the electorate and ended in a toll of eight deaths.
Lyndon B. Johnson ended his presidency completely discredited by the fiasco of Vietnam, but he is still considered among the greatest presidents the United States has ever had. After assuming the presidency in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson went on to achieve something that had eluded every American presidents after Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery. The Johnson presidency saw the successful passage of the civil rights bill that undid racial segregation and allowed backs to vote throughout the country. Despite everything, these facts remain unmatched and stellar accomplishments. Ironically, immediately after the passage of voting rights acts there were widespread riots by African-Americans in different cities. Johnson, who could understand the irony, famously said, “What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re so surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”
Can the problem of Kashmir ever be solved? It can, only if India evolves a leadership with a Only if Johnsonian grit and the altruistic determination to acknowledge that the problem exists in the first place. No solution will ever come from someone like Modi, given his avid hatred of Muslims in general. One just has to play those recordings from the time of Gujarat riots of 2002 when Modi taunted the hapless Gujarati victims of the macabre killings that took place under his watch to understand why Modi simply cannot be expected to take the initiative towards peace in Kashmir. Rather than working towards a solution, the doomed coalition between Modi’s party, the BJP and the local family business of the Mufti clan under the garb of the Peoples Democratic Party has made things even worse. It has made the ever existing chasm between Kashmir and India wider than ever and it has sullied India’s image more than ever, at home and abroad. Things are so bad, that it is difficult to imagine them getting worse.
Paradoxically, this recognition may also hasten the complete rupture between Kashmir and India. Perhaps the moment is ripe for an Indian LBJ, who takes heed of the need to be sensitive to the question of civil rights, and, instead of perpetuation a needless war, ends it. Can the Indian Liberals find such an LBJ, or will history snatch Kashmir away from them without the grace of a dignified departure?
Rajiv Kumar is a Professor at the University of Heidelberg, Germany