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Narratives in conflict

Prasenjit Chowdhury |

In the early 1990s, when insurgency convulsed the Kashmir Valley, “insider” and “outsider” narratives offered an unedifying picture of men and boys being rounded up and forced to sit outdoors, in freezing winter and under the blazing sun in summer. Yet another narrative, the infamous case of Kunan Poshpora, where reports of more than 50 women being gang-raped by soldiers from the 4th Rajputana Rifles in February 1991, went viral.

Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri-American poet, recounted how Srinagar “hunches like a wild cat” with “lonely sentries, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill . . . while the Jhelum flows under them, sometimes with a dismembered body” and how “son after son ~ never to return from the night of torture ~ was taken away”.

Just in case we disown Ali’s The Country without a Post Office: Poems, published in 1997 by W.W. Norton, as libertarian licence and pass it off as an instance of poetry, we must come to accept that in the Kashmir Valley there are many narratives at work, true or false depending upon which side of the fence one sits on. By combining narratives, one might possibly aim at a clearer picture.

That India rejected a United Nations report alleging human rights violations in Kashmir as ‘fallacious, tendentious and motivated’ and the Ministry of External Affairs rubbished the report as ‘overtly prejudiced’ that sought to build a ‘false narrative’ has to be understood in the context of many narratives circulating in the Valley, one coalescing or overlapping into another or sometimes undercutting one another.

But that does not take away the international attention on the incidents in the Valley, the spurt of militarism, the barrage of stone pelters fighting pitched battles with the Indian security forces, many blinded by the pellet guns, the loss of lives of the Indian paramilitary forces and the civilians alike, not to forget the larger tragedy.

When it comes to narratives, they can be either hopelessly ostrich-eyed, or outright partisan. The binary of “our freedom fighter is your terrorist” is trite. Whether one is siding with the Kashmiris or with the security forces being killed determines one’s patriotism, nuances be damned.

It is often a matter of perspective. For instance, what India wants from the people of Kashmir is clear. Perhaps Kashmir also seeks an end to the military presence. If, in the worstcase scenario, they want to merge with Pakistan, India cannot concede much.

Why can’t many Kashmiris settle for greater autonomy as a final solution: far too many soldiers have already laid down their lives defending that part of the nation. Exactly in the same fashion far too many Kashmiris have died craving for azadi. For either side to ‘win’, the sacrifices of the other side would be nullified, and the subsequent political backlash would be too huge to countenance. It is once again a clash of narratives, or perspectives, if you insist.

A commonplace secular-nationalist discourse in India is that Kashmiri Muslims, if accorded the slightest concession by India, would become radically Islamist or embrace Pakistan, and this will embolden separatists in the north-east.

Though radical Islam is lately showing signs of emergence in the Valley, the Kashmiri feeling for Pakistan is a mere teaser fuelled by hatred of the Indian military occupation. The displaced Kashmiri Pandits, who are resolutely loyal to India and hostile to the dominant pro-independence sentiment, uniformly narrate horror stories of intimidation and violence that had forced their departure, and portrayed the Valley’s Muslim majority as fanatics.

Such multiplicity of narratives can militate against such solutions as plebiscite or partition. The quest for a solution is nuanced. In the Indian perspective, a restive population seeking to break away from India must be considered anti-national and therefore must be made to bend and be incarcerated. But India is not China.

Despite all the pitfalls, it cannot be seen to muzzle democracy so brazenly as to overrun the Kashmir Valley in the manner of China overrunning Tibet with Han Chinese. To that can be added China’s treatment of some eleven million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. But for all its love for democracy, it has paid lip service to the constitutional provisions enshrined in Article 370 by diluting the safeguards.

If important strands of a few narratives that suit our purpose are recalled, the development of the Prasad protest movement ~ led by Syama Prasad Mookerjee ~ in 1952, calling for the complete accession and integration of Kashmir into India, prompted Sheikh Abdullah to make proposals for independence.

And what is worse, India has constantly frittered away the goodwill of the people by manipulating election after election, and pledging doles and packages. This conveyed the false impression that financial giveaways alone would keep them quiet.

For instance, the insurgency of 1989 was provoked by rigged elections and violence. India has never sought any political solution to a problem that has compounded over time, with one act of hubris heaping upon another in an internecine cycle of reprisal, killings and ambushes, which largely remain outside the pale of the Indian liberal conscience.

To mention examples, China’s efforts to subvert the UN human rights system are said to have been adopted by other countries… with China often acting as a model for others to impede the functioning of UN human rights entities.

When UN member states criticised Israel for failing to abide by human rights laws and UN resolutions during a heated Human Rights Council (HRC) session in Geneva early this year with some labelling it an “apartheid state”, Aviva Raz Shechter, Israeli ambassador to the UN in Geneva fumed: “The continuous discrimination against Israel in the HRC and the unparalleled number of onesided biased and political resolutions adopted regularly by the automatic majority of its members testify not only to the unfair treatment of Israel but also to the deficiencies of the council itself and its agenda.”

The recent Amnesty International Report on the state of human rights in 159 countries and territories during 2017 claimed that Israel is “killing” and “torturing” Palestinian children with impunity. According to a booklet titled Denied”: Failures in accountability in Jammu and Kashmir, published by Amnesty International, from 1990 to 2011, the Jammu and Kashmir government recorded a total of over 43,000 people killed.

Of those killed, 21,323 were said to be “militants”, 13,226 “civilians” (those not directly involved in the hostilities) killed by armed groups, 5,369 security force personnel killed by armed groups, and 3,642 “civilians” killed by security forces. The book referred to Amnesty International reports that documented a large number of instances of torture and deaths in custody of security forces.

With the continued existence and enforcement of legal provisions such as the Public Safety Act and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), access to effective legal remedies for victims of human rights violations and their relatives in J&K remains as elusive today as it was in the 1990s.

Israel’s instance shows that fifty years of occupation and decades of a fruitless peace process and downplaying of human rights have not helped it to find a path to a negotiated solution to the conflict.

To gain back its moral spine, India must keep trying to win the hearts of the Kashmiris, already too battle-hardened and alienated. And the battle for it is surely harder than winning a military battle. For one liable to get bogged down by the quagmire of narratives, the path is arduous.

The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues.