The day after our village survived the earthquake of autumn 2005, four boys I grew up playing with vanished without a trace. Most likely, they ended up in an unmarked grave, slain for money and medals. The father of one of them, after years fruitlessly wandering the mountains that the Line of Control has recast as prison walls around Kashmir, died of heartache. The son will probably register in the book of Kashmir’s tragedies someday, if only as a statistic in a report on enforced disappearances or mass graves. The father will only ever count as a wretched of the earth, although he was consumed by the same injustice as his boy. This is the essence of oppression: layers upon layers of injustice so permeating as to not even register as such in public memory. It’s a siege of the spirit, of memory, of a people’s story. And it’s what has defined Kashmir this past decade.
The siege clearly didn’t begin with the dismantling of the last ruins of Kashmir’s political and demographic identity in August 2019. For the abrogation of Article 370 wasn’t a self-contained event; it was another step in the process of erasing memory, of trying to break the will of a people. If, as is feared, the move is aimed at violently effacing Kashmir’s demographic reality, might each of us have to become a carrier, and prisoner, of our memory as a people? It would be a siege within and without.
It was inevitable, the Indian state abandoning its pretend fealty to democratic and constitutional norms to resolve “the Kashmir problem” with brute majoritarian force. The current regime, in service to their Hindu supremacist project, probably only quickened the timeline. The last decade in Kashmir testifies to this. It began with mass protests against the staged killing of three innocent villagers by the military, for money and medals. Instead of heeding the people’s demand for justice, the state responded by slaying over 120 people. It was the first time the Indian forces used pellet guns to maim and blind Kashmiris. It’s tragically metaphoric that the pellet gun, which has since become a symbol of the tools of repression in Kashmir, is elsewhere used to hunt animals.
The wanton bloodshed of 2010 seeded a new wave of indigenous militancy, populated and led by a generation that had grown up in the shadow of the gun. My parents’ generation had waged the armed struggle in the 1990s, but grown disaffected and enabled a largely peaceful 2000s for Delhi to resolve the dispute. India squandered the opportunity, despite the Agra summit, the Assembly election of 2002, promises of “insaniyat ke dayre main” and “sky is the limit”. By the time the Amarnath agitation disrupted the desolate peace established at the cost of around a hundred thousand lives, destroyed homes, enforced disappearances, mass rapes, custodial killings, fake encounters, torture, and daily humiliation, the older generation had all but surrendered hope.
In the sociopolitical churning caused by the agitation — triggered by the surreptitious transfer of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board and animated by the same anxiety that terrifies Kashmir now: demographic change — the vanguard of the Azadi movement was taken over by their children. Kashmiris weren’t yet a spent nation.
Initially, it seemed the new generation had yanked the movement away from the path of armed rebellion to peaceful mass protests. They took over the street and, over the next few years as the reach of social media grew, the discourse on Azadi. There was hope this new form of peaceful resistance would achieve what the gun hadn’t. For a time, it was even thought of as morally superior and, in the post-9/11 world, strategically prudent.
The violent crackdown on the 2010 protests — and the Indian public’s acceptance of or apathy towards it — pushed many young men towards militancy. Poorly armed and ill-trained, they were no match for India’s military might. But even as their corpses piled up, the public legitimacy they had regained for militancy drew more young men to its ranks. Then Burhan Wani happened.
The outpouring of resentment sparked by Burhan’s death scripted a psychological transformation: a generation suddenly became fearless. Men and women who would cower at the sight of a soldier were now staring them down, even disrupting military operations against militants, without a care for their lives.
This generation, unlike their parents', wasn’t wedded to a nostalgic past of peace, of cinemas and all-night weddings. They had clocked their lives to massacres, rapes, extrajudicial killings. Seeped in fear, they overcame it. “Young Kashmiri minds have gone out of control,” the former Indian spymaster AS Dulat noted sometime ago. “There is a sense of hopelessness. They are not afraid to die.”
They are indeed unafraid to die, but not because they are hopeless. They are, in Arundhati Roy’s words, “fervent with irrational hope”. Hope, when seeded by a yearning for justice, is perhaps the most liberating of human impulses, a revolution of the spirit. In Kashmir then, it rides on every stone hurled, every slogan shouted. That’s the wisdom of suffering.
The Indian state and its soundboard, the pundit class, have responded to this expression of hope by confusing it with material aspiration. We will replace the stones in their hands with laptops, they declare, we will give them development. Such rhetoric has crescendoed since the state of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh was dismembered into territories ruled directly from New Delhi. Aside from the menacing echoes of Civilising Mission that drip from such pronouncements, they are fundamentally ignorant of the human condition: hope, they seem to forget, cannot be bought. And so long as the people of Kashmir have hope, however irrational, they will rage against the siege of the spirit, against forgetfulness. They will have their story.