The Tale of Two Kashmirs

This past month has seen a flurry of news about Kashmir. From violence during by-elections to the killing of militant Sabzar Bhat, news stories on Kashmir often evoke passionate and differing opinions among Indian citizens and the media. However, the recent news story of a Kashmiri local being used as a human shield by the Army seems to have broken the internet. As always, there is no shortage of angry opinions on this story. However, there is a shortage of context and this news story can truly help us explore the larger crisis in Kashmir. So if you are someone who is eager to voice your opinion on one of India’s most divisive topics, this may be a good place to start. So lets begin

The Background

Its not surprising to hear about the tough conditions that the armed forces face in Kashmir on a daily basis. Apart from the extreme weather conditions, the threat level from external sources is as severe as the threat from internal ones. Its perhaps simpler for our defense forces to respond to a hail of deadly bullets originating from outside the country than to respond to a hail of stones originating from the inside. The Indian Army along with paramilitary organizations such as CRPF and ITBP are under constant scrutiny from the local population, who, armed with mobile phones and cameras, are ready to capture any act to show our soldiers in poor light.

But its not just the armed forces who suffer in Kashmir, the lives of those live in Kashmir are vastly different from those who live anywhere else in the country. Bandhs, curfews and violence are part of their daily lives. Being a 90’s kid in Kashmir doesn’t mean Doordarshan, He-Man and Arcade Games; it means living through one of the darkest periods of insurgency in the region. It means growing up with memories of violence and brutality. Generations of citizens have lived and died in this highly militarized region and this suffering has led to deep polarization among its people. Some believe that Kashmir should be a part of Pakistan and some wish to stay Indian while others believe that Kashmir should be independent . Some believe in achieving independence through political means(like the Hurriyat), some believe in achieving ‘freedom’ through violent means (like the Hizbul Mujahideen) and some just wish to live in peace and abstain from engaging with neither the armed forces nor the separatists.

[Extra: The stolen childhoods of Kashmir in pencil and crayon]

Needless to say, there is a lot of bad blood and friction between the Indian authorities and locals in Kashmir. The level of violence may ebb and flow over time but for the past 70 years, Kashmir has been in a perpetual state of crisis.

The Episode

It was in such toxic circumstances that 6 weeks ago, a video surfaced showing a man being used as a human shield and paraded through several villages in the region. This video proved to be highly controversial with people either strongly supporting or opposing the act. While supporters lauded the unconventional tactic used by the commanding officer, Major Gogoi, as an effective way to keep stone-pelters and violent miscreants at bay, opponents called it a harsh manoeuvre that stripped an innocent civilian, Farooq Ahmad Dar, of his human dignity and violated his human rights . In light of this controversy, the Army ordered an internal fact finding probe (Court of Inquiry) to investigate the incident and then a few days later, surprisingly chose to honor the officer with a commendation card for his efforts on counter-insurgency operations before the internal probe was concluded.

As with any contentious issue,two different narratives emerged —

Major Gogoi recently addressed the media to talk about the circumstances behind the video. According to the officer, his team reached a polling station which was under attack by stone pelters. Maj Gogoi then saw a man about 30 feet from his vehicle who appeared to be the instigator and possible ring leader of the violent mob. This man was caught and identified as Farooq Ahmad Dar.

After rescuing the polling staff, the team came under heavy bombardment of stones and petrol bombs which forced Maj Gogoi to use Farooq Dar as a human shield to create a safe passage.

Farooq Ahmad Dar,however recalls the story much differently. According to Dar, he was riding his bike to attend a condolence meeting at his brother-in-law’s house when he was picked up by the army.

Narrating the incident, Dar, told The Wire that he was stopped by the Army where some women were protesting against the elections. “They damaged my bike, thrashed me severely with gun butts and wooden sticks and in an almost unconscious state tied me to the front of the jeep and paraded me through 10 to 20 villages.”

So who is telling the truth? Surely an officer of the Indian Army should be given the benefit of doubt. But given the controversial nature of the incident, a rational thing to do would be to wait for the internal probe to submit its report and then make up our minds on who is right or wrong. But we all know how this story was eventually discussed.

The Response

This is how the news media reported the story

This is how we reacted to the story

As always, this piece of news kicked up a huge storm. Critics of the Army were branded as Pakistani loving, JNU supporting, NDTV watching anti-national pseudo liberals and their critics were branded as RSS loving, Gau-Rakshak supporting, Kashmir hating pseudo nationalists. Hashtags were trended, profanities were exchanged, memes were generated and amongst all that hatred, the ground situation in Kashmir was forgotten.

The Reality

So before you decide to pick a side or decide to altogether stay out of the argument, here are a few important facts to know about Kashmir

  • Fact #1 — Not all Kashmiris are ISIS loving, India hating, stone pelting mujahideen terrorists on Pakistan’s payroll. Granted that violent groups do exist in Kashmir, but not all locals have violent intentions against the armed forces. Some have also been victims of terrorist attacks in the valley. While several thousands came to mourn the death of militant leader Burhan Wani, the funeral of J&K police constable Abdul Sheikh, who was killed by terrorists, was also attended by thousands. People like Lt. Ummer Fayaz, the 22-year-old Army officer from South Kashmir prove that there are those who not only believe that Kashmir is an integral part of India but also wish to play a part in protecting their homeland. There are also those who just wish to do their jobs and live in peace
  • Fact #2 — Even though the armed forces have consistently shown restraint and discipline in Kashmir, they do not have a spotless record. The armed forces have been an effective check against violence in the region. But there have been some slip ups. In 2014, the army mistakenly opened fire on a car suspected of carrying militants, killing 2 innocent teenagers. In 2010, five army-men staged a shootout in Kupwara district which resulted in the death of three Kashmiri youths. There are also various allegations of sexual violence against members of the armed forces. It is important to note that these allegations of misconduct are taken very seriously. In the first two cases, inquiries were ordered and the guilty soldiers were punished. One does not know, however, whether these cases were isolated incidents or are a part of larger pattern of oppression, as alleged by the local population.
  • Fact #3 — The recent escalation of violence in Kashmir isn’t just PM Modi’s or CM Mehbooba Mufti’s fault. While some politicians have blamed the situation in Kashmir on the current state and central administrations, the fact is that ever since independence, India has lacked a coherent long term strategy to ease the situation in Kashmir. Successive governments of BJP and Congress have only seen the strategic value of Kashmir in its fight against Pakistan and have chosen to ignore major issues plaguing the region. Even the local political parties NC and PDP have lost the trust of the Kashmiri people. A dismal 7% turnout for the recent by-elections in the valley is a grim reminder that democracy has failed to bring stability and growth in the region. Policies towards Kashmir have mostly been reactive to the crisis rather than been proactive in building long term peace. The inability (or unwillingness) to rollback AFSPA, a major source of friction between the armed forces and local population, even after the abatement of insurgency shows a lack of vision and will of our political masters to solve the crisis in Kashmir.
  • Fact #4 — The situation in Kashmir cannot be judged by a few videos, photographs or angry newsroom shouting matches. Current news stories on Kashmir are only the tip of the iceberg and only reveal part of a much larger picture. Issues of national identity, history, geopolitics and religion have long influenced the troubles of the region. That is why simplistic explanations of the current situation as a fight between national and anti national forces or as a fight between army and Kashmiri locals are incomplete narratives that need to be discarded. It is important to understand that blaming Pakistan for every act of violence in Kashmir absolves our government of any responsibility and de-legitimizes the suffering of the Kashmiri people. Its also worth noting that intensifying military operations or increasing economic aid to the region have not brought forth long term stability. These solutions have been effective at treating some symptoms but have failed to remedy the underlying cause behind crisis.

The Future

If you have reached till this point in the article, ‘Congratulations!’ you are now as confused about Kashmir as I am. But in one of those rare instances, this confusion is actually a good thing. It forces us to acknowledge the complexity of the current crisis in Kashmir which deserves our respect and not our quick and uninformed opinion. It is like the IE Irodov** of complicated situations- multiple forces acting on a single region causing instability and conflict. The only solution to Kashmir is that there is no easy solution that would fit 140 characters or a simple blog post. As citizens, sitting in our comfortable chairs and commenting on the atrocities committed in far away lands, the most impactful thing we can do is to learn more about Kashmir, steer the hate-filled debate towards meaningful discussions and demand our elected representatives to come together and create policies that can help achieve peace for both the people living and serving in Kashmir. It is our duty to ensure that Kashmir becomes as peaceful as it is beautiful and help its people move on and embrace values that truly makes us Indian — complaining about traffic and secretly watching Dhinchak Pooja videos.

~ Gar firdaus baruhe zamin ast

Hamin asto, hamin asto , hamin asto ~

(If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)

** Incase you haven’t studied for engineering entrance tests or you are my mom (Hi Mom!), IE Irodov is a physics text book which contains the hardest physics problems known to man or to your FIITJEE tuition teacher .