Voices of the Valley

As the world weighs in on the government’s move on Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution, Lounge listens in to what Kashmiris have to say

Moments before midnight, on 4 August, there was a distressing message from a Kashmiri friend in the valley: “Zinda rahein toh we will reconnect (I will speak to you if I survive)," he said. Over 35,000 troops of the Central Reserve Police Force had been deployed in Kashmir and curfew imposed. Former state chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti had been placed under house arrest. Telephone and internet services were snapped--WhatsApp messages still sit beside a single tick.

The reasons became clear the next morning and then over the next few days. Early on August 5, the government moved a resolution seeking to introduce The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill, 2019, which has the effect of withdrawing Jammu and Kashmir’s special status granted under Article 370. It also sought to cleave the state into two Union territories–Jammu and Kashmir forming one, and Ladakh another. As on August 6, the bill stood passed in both houses of Parliament.

But as the world weighed in--and continues to--on the government’s move, Kashmiri voices remain unheard.

We took a cue from the late poet Agha Shahid Ali. ‘Come before I’m killed, my voice cancelled,’ he wrote in ‘The Country Without A Post Office’, his 1997 anthology with the Kashmir conflict as a backdrop. How do we ensure that Kashmiri voices are not cancelled out in the boom of international relations, and the secrecy of internal security?

We spoke to Kashmiris who have in their work, or lives, exemplified a deep interest in the region. Be it Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation whose research focuses on the Kashmir conflict or poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, who has translated the works of Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded. From doctoral students and professors, to lawyers, chefs and advertising professionals, every Kashmiri has their own lived experience, and that lived experience informs their thoughts today. It is our attempt to make room for those thoughts to be heard, and those experiences counted.

— 'The federal structure has been pulverized'

The government has not taken the will of the people into consideration. A Parliamentarian who has been a Union minister and two-time chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is today nowhere to be found. There is a discussion on the fate of J&K but you don’t have any of the former chief ministers. Second, the government has taken the aspirations of the people of Ladakh into consideration and turned it into a Union territory, but what about the aspirations of the people of Kashmir valley? Can you railroad and decide about them unilaterally? Is this how things work in a democracy? Third, I think what the government has done, in a sense, is that they have put the people who are pro-India, who have stood by India in the Kashmir valley, at risk. Because tomorrow when the curfew is lifted, the first target will be Bharatiya Janata Party workers, or those who stood by India.

The government may be able to control the law and order situation in the short run, but we have seen in the past that the expression of rage of Kashmiris over a decision of the government takes a long time to manifest itself. And it comes out in unpredictable ways; I don’t think they can predict how it’s going to erupt.

The government needs to realize that if people are feeling alienated, if there is a gulf between the people of Kashmir and New Delhi, it is because of the misadventures of various Central governments. And most of them were Congress governments. If you recall the speech of (Union home minister) Amit Shah in Parliament, he mentioned that there were wrongs done to the people of J&K by Congress governments. But today the BJP government has done a wrong that is much more significant than the wrongs done by the Congress.

In my opinion, it is going to be very difficult to build bridges. If you saw the election of 1987, which was rigged, it led to a 30-year conflict, to an insurgency which is still continuing. And how does this government say that tomorrow there will be peace in Kashmir, there will be development? This is likely to lay the foundation for many years of conflict. In fact, through the security clampdown, the government has admitted that the people of Kashmir will be angry with the decision.

On a personal note, all the people I have spoken to in Delhi or outside have said, “I was in office and I suddenly burst into tears. I was so helpless in that moment when that decision was made."

Fundamentally, there is also another issue which doesn’t concern only the people of Kashmir but everyone—the way the federal structure can be pulverized by an elected government. Today, it is J&K. But what if this same thing is done to West Bengal or Bihar or any other state?

—Khalid Shah, associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. His research focuses on the Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism


— ‘Hopefully, no more will suffer cruel deaths’

Between the Indian Army’s high-handedness and bungling, and the merciless Islamist militants, it has been hell for three decades. Those who could afford to keep their children away from the hate and radicalization did it at the cost of leaving their homes and parents. Those who couldn’t, had to suffer. The constant menace of stone pelting, drugs, mental illness, suicides, rising juvenile delinquency or Islamist radicalization, the siege of hartal calendars by separatists, and jackboots trying to erase the decades-long resentment by beatings, mass arrests and pellet guns.

I lost my husband, a diabetic suffering from depression, in the “post Burhan Wani" days. The confinement was similar to the blackout now, taking a toll on many, many like him dreaming of the pluralistic, secular, liberal Kashmir that was before our neighbours of centuries were forced into an exodus. Hopefully, no more will suffer cruel deaths or the grief of sons lost to a regressive aspiration, or daughters treated unequally under “special status" just because they married “outsiders".

The Kashmir imbroglio had become a stalemate, with no end to the violence. So this development seems a welcome step just to see the politicians or separatists shown their place. Kashmir has always been misgoverned, a Union territory status with a legislature could change that. Plus, Jammu’s long overshadowed voices and Ladakh’s future will now find their own place in the destiny of South Asia.

—Arshia Malik, an English teacher and social commentator based in Delhi


— ‘I can only wonder what is happening to my family’

For four years, I have been outside Jammu and Kashmir, working on my PhD. I remember my parents would always tell me not to go outside, not to leave the state. Do your higher studies at the University of Kashmir, they would say. I would always wonder, if hundreds of students from other states of India can come to Kashmir to pursue courses at the National Institute of Technology and in B.Ed colleges and go back without harm and with their degrees, why couldn’t I study outside the state?

But then Pulwama happened, and I think people realized we should stay in the state, stay home with our families, because there were instances of Kashmiris being attacked all over the country.

But what happened this week was unbelievable.It is an attack on the culture and identity of Kashmiris, and it will have ramifications, both politically and culturally.

Since 5 August, I have been unable to talk to my parents. I couldn’t even tell them I was awarded my PhD (I had my viva on 5 August, the day the communication blackout happened). I have been trying my best to contact some civil administration officers on their satellite phones, but that too has been unsuccessful.

Being away from home, I am sheltered; I can only wonder what is happening to my family. And there are thousands of students like me who are outside the state or outside the country. For them, it feels like doomsday. Here people say Kashmir is an “integral part of India", but today that “integral part" is under siege.

Whatever happened in Parliament this week is a huge shock to all, especially those mainstream politicians such as Mehbooba Mufti and Farooq Abdullah, who stood with the ideology of India for seven decades. They have been proved wrong.

As a research scholar working on Kashmir, I think whatever the Central government did over the last one and a half years was pre-planned. Elections—panchayat, municipal and Lok Sabha—were conducted. If conditions were conducive for conducting these, why not assembly elections? It is clear they wanted to amend Article 370 without having to consult any stakeholders or elected representatives in the valley.

I believe this will result in violence by non-state actors, whether backed by Pakistan or not. Militancy will be on the rise, and more oppression by the state will result in even more human rights violations. And there will also likely be a public uprising.

This act is the biggest act of disempowerment since the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar (between the British and Raja Gulab Singh), when Kashmiris were sold, along with their land. In fact, Kashmir is a Palestine in the making.

—Javid Ahmad Ahangar, doctoral student from the department of political science, Aligarh Muslim University, focusing on “Political Opposition in Jammu and Kashmir: From Dominant Party to Multi-party System"


— ‘How did we squander such rich potential?'

When news of the dismemberment of Jammu and Kashmir came in—anticipated yet unimaginable—Dinanath Kaul Nadim’s 1950 poem, Bu Gyav Na Az (I Will Not Sing Today) rang in my ears. Nadim had warned us against the jangbaaz and the jaalsaaz, the warlord and the conspirator. Decades of ceaseless turbulence unleashed by such forces, whether Kashmiri, Indian or Pakistani, have brought us to this pass. And the loss for Jammu and Kashmir, in terms of political agency and cultural regeneration, will be immense.

I travelled back in time to an autumn evening over a decade ago, and a conversation with my friend, the artist Veer Munshi, in Srinagar. Different missions had brought us back to the homeland to which both of us were connected, through diasporas at different historical moments. What united us, also, was our anguish at how the state’s cultural energy was being wasted, how its heritage remained unknown to most Indians. We shared our enthusiasm for Srinagar’s historic quarter, with its traditional wooden architecture, possibly South Asia’s most beautiful mediaeval city. We lamented that Saleem Baig’s report on Srinagar for INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), which would have supported a bid to inscribe the city as a Unesco World Heritage site, lay neglected.

From this conversation came a three-part collaborative project on which Munshi and I worked: Pandit Houses, a photographic record of the homes left behind by the Pandit minority after their forced migration in the early 1990s; Shrapnel, an installation conveying the horrific normalization of violence, curfew, and militarization; and Leaves Like Hands Of Flame, an elegiac video work in which the house of Kashmir comes down in a fire. On 5 August, the house of Kashmir did indeed come down in a fire.

On Monday, my mind in a whirl, I thought back to a meeting with the poet Rehman Rahi in spring 2005. The militants had called for an independent Kashmir, he told me, but what had they ever done for the Kashmiri language and literature? What had the state done for Kashmiri, he asked, while promoting Urdu?

I thought of Burzahom, a unique archaeological site spanning settlements from the neolithic to the early historic period, and the archaeologist Mumtaz Yatoo’s lament that it will not last very long, with a road being paved through it, teenagers playing cricket in it. I thought back to my favourite Sufi shrine, Dastgir Sahibun, destroyed in a fire and rebuilt. I thought of the grand ruins of the Martand sun temple. Lal Ded’s vaakhs, which have sustained me all my life, offered consolation.

How did we squander such rich potential for the confluence of diverse impulses with our continuing taste for misadventure?

And my God, the cynicism and callousness of the Indians who are, apparently, welcoming Kashmir’s people as “full citizens" of the republic. This morning, on Twitter, I found some very sophisticated people asking the crudest questions, without knowing the toll that the decades-long normalization of emergency conditions has taken: The crisis of mental health and drug dependency in the valley goes under the radar for most Indians. This morning, I overheard a man boisterously telling someone on the phone that he could now buy property in Kashmir.

Is this national integration? Will Burzahom be overrun by infrastructure projects? Will Srinagar’s wooden architecture be overrun by cookie-cutter apartment blocks? Will the saaz and the tumbaknaer still sound over the shrill triumphalist music of land-grabbers inaugurating an era of settler colonialism?

—Ranjit Hoskote, a poet, cultural theorist and curator based in Mumbai


— ‘370 was an anomaly that has now been removed’

The amendment of Article 370 granting special status to Kashmir, far from undoing Kashmiri history, in fact restores it. The alleged “special status" stood precariously on an entrenched misrepresentation of the valley in political and academic circles as culturally insular, unique and hermetically sealed. My recent book (The Making Of Early Kashmir: Landscape And Identity In The Rajatarangini, Oxford University Press, 2018), however, has shown that Kashmir was never isolated or insular, but incredibly open and cosmopolitan; and overwhelmingly Indic in her genesis and composition rather than “unique".

All manner of cultural markers over 2,500 years of Kashmiri history (right from 500 BCE onwards) display unequivocally a Kashmir that was intensively integrated with the rest of India. From Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal in the east to Malwa and Saurashtra in central and west India, and even Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the far south, not to mention Punjab and Himachal closer home—Kashmiris looked to these places for politics, state formation, trade, education, asylum, employment, art, religion, philosophy, and even fashion, while people from the rest of India travelled to and settled in Kashmir in large numbers over the centuries for the same reasons. In the face of this historical reality of Kashmir, Article 370 as an exclusionary means artificially separating Kashmir from the rest of the country was an anomaly that has now been removed.

—Shonaleeka Kaul, associate professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University


— Kashmiris fear ‘demographic terrorism’

I have no idea how my parents and family are doing. They live in downtown Srinagar, and there is a confirmed killing in that part, so all is not well despite the heavy siege.

As a Kashmiri, I view this latest move of India to scrap special provisions of the state as illegal and deceitful. Kashmiris are not attached to Article 370 as their means of loyalty to staying with India. Their fear always has been for their territorial sovereignty being taken away and them facing what a Kashmiri legal expert terms “demographic terrorism". Kashmiris are fearful of settler colonialism, of being dispossessed and made homeless in their own homeland if the designs of the Indian government to alter the demography are carried out.

—Ather Zia, an author, poet and political anthropologist who teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley


— ‘It’s an interesting use of Article 370(1)(d)’

Ultimately, whether this move is constitutionally vulnerable or not, that will be argued in the courts. I can say for sure that it is an interesting use of Article 370(1)(d). This states that other provisions of the Constitution shall apply in relation to Jammu & Kashmir, subject to exceptions and modifications specified in an order by the President. And if these relate to matters specified in the Instrument of Accession, it must be done in consultation with the government of the state. So it is under this that this week’s presidential order has been passed, superseding the constitutional order of 1954 which allowed J&K to have a separate constitution, a state flag and autonomy over its internal administration. You must remember, this is not the first presidential order that has been passed; there have been about 45 that were passed under Article 370(1)(d), making various provisions applicable. The difference here is that this particular order makes the entire Constitution applicable to the state of J&K whereas Article 370, as it stood previously, restricted it to a few things.

What they have sought to do, in addition, is to take the route of Article 367 of the Constitution, which talks about the interpretation of the Constitution, to replace “Sadr-e-Riyasat", whose approval was needed for Parliament to make laws for J&K, with “governor". And they have said that “Constituent Assembly" in Article 370(3), whose approval was required before the President can order that Article 370 ceases to operate, will be replaced by the “state assembly". Which is quite all right because the constituent assembly, by itself, is a transient body and stood dissolved in 1957.

So that’s one part.

The other part is to do away with Article 35A, which empowered the state’s legislature to define “permanent residents" of the state and provide special rights and privileges to those permanent residents. This, too, was introduced in the same manner, except it was also a presidential order, but not an amendment to the Constitution. So, if you see strictly, you will never find Article 35A in the Constitution; it was introduced by insertion through the route of Article 370(1)(d).

Now whether stakeholders in Kashmir should have been consulted and all of that, that’s purely a political question and not a legal one.

You and I are not privy to the dossiers and files, what transpired between the cabinet committee on security, the home minister, the prime minister, the governor. On the urgency of the situation I think it’s too early to comment.

—Neeraj Kishan Kaul, senior advocate, Supreme Court


— ‘Worried about the ramifications of this decision’

It has been days since I last spoke to my family in Kashmir. A brief 5-minute call with my grandmother, close to midnight on 4 August, was my last conversation with them. The fear, the helplessness and the desperation has left me distraught, like every other Kashmiri living outside. All of us are worried about the well being of our families—will they have supplies to last for a few more days? What if there is a medical emergency? On top of this, the reactions on social media are not helping—from snide remarks to taunts to misogynistic comments and memes. I have been lucky, with extremely empathetic colleagues and caring friends, but a friend had ladoos forced down her throat by colleagues while she was helplessly trying to get in touch with her parents in south Kashmir.

At a larger level, we are also worried about the ramifications. How will it lead to a solution of the problem? Is this going to lead to another spiral of violence? With no answers coming from anywhere, all we can do is pray for peace. And hope to reconnect with our families soon.

—Jaibeer Ahmad, an advertising professional based in Gurugram


— 'I hope for peace'

It’s a very emotional thing; I just spoke to my parents. We have been in touch for the last two-three days. I know what we all went through in 1990, when we all had to leave at a moment’s notice. We had to escape in a small truck. The other day, my mum was telling us about the night we left. She was in Srinagar and had gone to Baramulla with me and my sister. I was in her lap and my sister was walking. My mother could see on the road, in the shops, “Indian dogs go back". It was most horrifying. She felt she was going to get killed that evening, because she could see a lot of men with guns and masks. This is when she told my sister that if something happens or if she gets shot at, my sister should take me and run away. There were chilling stories all around and this is just one of them.

There were a lot of problems in Kashmir, even with Article 370 in place—we had our own constitution, we had our own flag, but there were constant curfews. It wasn’t normal life. I just hope the internet block is lifted soon, so we can hear about the realities on the ground. My big problem is that people who are talking about all these things are not even Kashmiris, they have never even visited Kashmir.

What went down in 1990 wasn’t fair. People used to roam openly with arms, killing and targeting a certain section. What’s going down now is worrisome too. I do hope for a peaceful resolution this time around, which can only come from empathy for the people of Kashmir.

—Prateek Sadhu, chef and co-owner, Masque, Mumbai


— 'In solidarity'

In solidarity with the voices that remain unheard, Drabu wished for this space to be left blank.

—Haseeb Drabu, former finance minister of J&K

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