By Isaac Chotiner 16 August 2019
Last week, India’s government stripped Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of its special status, and instituted a communications blackout and de-facto martial law in what was already one of the most militarized areas on earth. The problems in Kashmir extend back to Partition, in 1947, which left India in control of most of Kashmir (officially known as Jammu and Kashmir), and Pakistan and China in charge of other parts of the territory. Although the state was granted special status, under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the Indian government has long behaved as it has pleased in Kashmir, especially during the past thirty years, as an insurgency, nurtured and partially funded by Pakistan, has sought to bring about independence or have Kashmir become part of Pakistan. Under the Indian government’s brutal military occupation, there have been thousands of unpunished rapes, children blinded with pellet guns, forced disappearances, media crackdowns, and immunity for Indian military personnel. Now Narendra Modi, of the Hindu-majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), has, for the moment, fully silenced Kashmir.
The communications blackout has made it impossible to reach almost anyone in the region. Some journalists have been let in, but the Kashmiri diaspora in India, the United Kingdom, and North America has been waiting anxiously for word from loved ones. Among those who wait is Mirza Waheed, one of Kashmir’s best-known writers, whose first two novels are set in the Indian-controlled territory, and address the conflict there. Waheed, who has also been an outspoken voice on Kashmiri politics, now lives in London, and we recently spoke about the blackout by phone. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the pain of not being able to reach one’s family, the toll the latest decision will take on Kashmiri civil society, and India’s long history of repression in Kashmir.
Have you been able to get in touch with family and friends?
No. I haven’t heard from my parents since August 5th. But a few days ago I heard something about them in the most medieval fashion. A neighbor’s friend saw my father outside our house, and this person then went to Delhi, where he met my neighbor and told him he had seen my father. Then this neighbor in Delhi sent me a message that my father was O.K.
What is your biggest concern about what this will mean for the Kashmiri future?
I see this latest siege, and the decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy, which was symbolic anyway, as part of a long series of betrayals that go back to 1947. Kashmir at that time was an independent state ruled by a king called Maharaja Hari Singh, who was not a popular king, but he wanted to remain independent. India and Pakistan agreed to decide Kashmir’s fate by a referendum because they had just fought a war over Kashmir. The war came about because when the maharaja was asked if he wanted to join India or Pakistan, he didn’t want to join either country.
The maharaja ultimately agreed, reluctantly, to join India, but on the very, very clear condition that Kashmir remain autonomous. Which meant that “you guys look after defense and foreign affairs” and the rest stays with Kashmir. And then the king was deposed. The Indian government persuaded Sheikh Abdullah, who was a very popular Kashmiri leader, that he must stay with India, and one of the things they negotiated was that “we will keep your status as autonomous, and we will allow you to retain the region’s autonomy and this unique identity and culture.” But subsequently, starting with Jawaharlal Nehru’s rule, they started to erode this autonomy. In fact, Sheikh Abdullah was put in jail for a long, long time by Nehru himself, who was a friend.
So the autonomy has been eroded over the years. But Kashmiris held onto it because it was a constitutional guarantee and a link with the larger Indian union. The struggle for rights goes back to the promise of a referendum, or plebiscite, which has never taken place. Kashmiris thought there would be a time when we will be given a chance to have a say in our future. During that time, India managed Kashmir through puppet governments that would do India’s bidding. India always knew Kashmiris didn’t want to remain in India. Even to this day a large majority don’t want to be in India. And they don’t want to be in Pakistan. A majority of Kashmiris wanted independence. And they waited and waited and waited. For decades, India managed Kashmir via these clients. You get one group into power for some time, and then you give another group a chance.
Would “divide and rule” be a good phrase for that?
It’s a little more complex than that. They nurtured these élites in Kashmir, who had power but not really any real power. In 1987, there was another election. Things had changed. Kashmiris had grown tired and resentful of these local politicians and political parties doing India’s job. At the same time, a conglomerate of small Kashmiri parties got together and formed something called the Muslim United Front (MUF), which decided to contest elections for the first time in the state. Previously they did not want to contest elections, because they thought that was subscribing to the idea that they agreed to the Indian Constitution. But they decided to fight this election to wrest power from these traditional political parties in Kashmir. The idea was that they could pass a resolution in the state assembly, which would mean they had independent rule or autonomy. But it didn’t come to that, because the 1987 election was massively rigged by Delhi [then ruled by the Congress Party]. It was so bad that while Kashmiris expected the new party to sweep the elections, they were given—that is the word—about three or four seats.
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the insurgency started because of the elections primarily. No: behind all that are the historical grievances against Indian rule. But 1987 provided the trigger. The very people who had campaigned for this party were the first people to cross into Pakistani Kashmir, where the Pakistani establishment, Pakistani agencies, were more than happy to provide them with training and weapons.
How do you view Modi’s vision for Kashmir as being distinct from what came before, as bad as that was? Do you think this marks a change, or is it more of the same?
This is not more of the same. This is more vicious. For a long period, India held onto Kashmir because it buttressed India’s claim of being a secular democracy. “Look, we also have a Muslim-majority state.” These guys won’t even pay lip service to the idea. The previous regime at least paid lip service to the idea that we will retain Kashmiri special identity and unique culture.
The B.J.P. doesn’t have such qualms, they don’t care whether India is secular or not. They don’t have to have a Muslim-majority state. They have always thought that this state should not exist in this form; they have always believed that it should be split into Hindu-majority Jammu and the Kashmir valley, which is Muslim-majority; and Ladakh, which is Buddhist and Muslim. And they have always said that “We don’t want to appease these Muslims with their special status.” Kashmiri Muslims, in the eyes of the B.J.P., have sinned doubly. They are Muslim. And they have rebelled against India while being Muslim.
It is an annexation. Everyone has to consider that this is not just a constitutional sleight-of-hand. India has a massive, massive military complex across Kashmir, so this is annexation, effectively.
What does annexation mean in practice?
Another part of the Indian Constitution that stems from [Article] 370 is [Presidential Order] 35A, and is part of the condition of accession [and part of 370]. It says the government of Kashmir will have the power to determine who is a permanent resident of the state, which pertains to the exclusive rights of Kashmiris, by which I mean that there will be restrictions on who can buy property and land. They have held onto that very sacredly because they did not want to join India. But this was the last protection to their sense of being, to their sense of identity, to not just property rights but job rights. They held onto this guarantee that at least we will not be run over by India. And now that is gone.
The other important point is the idea of humiliation, of insult of Kashmiris. India has now said to Kashmiris that “not only are we not going to honor our stated promises in international forums and the Indian parliament, but we are also going to snatch whatever token and nominal autonomy we had given you. Forget your freedom struggle: we are also going to take away your special status.”
There is a whole other argument about what special status has meant for Kashmir. It has meant widespread torture. Not many people in the West know that one-sixth of Kashmiris have faced some kind of torture in the last thirty years. That is a staggering statistic. Forty-five per cent of the population, according to Doctors Without Borders, suffer from some form of P.T.S.D. It has meant ten thousand people categorized as disappeared. We don’t know where they are. There are more than three thousand unmarked graves in the mountains of Kashmir. There is widespread use of rape as a tool of war. Women in Kashmir have suffered at the hands of the Indian Armed Forces in unspeakable terms. Mass rapes. Gang rapes.
Have you heard about journalists being imprisoned this week?
I have heard nothing about them. But at least five hundred have been arrested. Many of them have already been taken out of the state and thrown into prison in northern India. These are not political activists—not that political activists should be arrested. But the people who have been arrested since last Monday include businessmen, lawyers, the head of the High Court Bar Association in Kashmir. They have just been taken away. We don’t even know what the charges are. It is that bad and that draconian. The right wing enjoys such enormous power right now in India.
What role, if any, should Pakistan be playing right now?
I wish I could tell Pakistan what to do right now. They don’t seem to be in great shape themselves. They have been caught napping.
What would you like to tell them to do?
Honestly, I don’t know. What I can tell you is that Pakistan is party to the historic Kashmir conflict. A part of Kashmir is under Pakistan. The border between the two parts is as absurd as you can find anywhere in the world. It is just a line drawn across villages and rivers. It is a de-facto border. I don’t know what to tell the Pakistanis to do. But, look, you and I both know they don’t have a lot of friends around the world these days, do they?
Can you talk about what it’s like in 2019, with everyone talking about the world being wired and communication being instant, to not be able to reach your friends and parents?
It’s a constant siege. I have lived through a couple of such sieges, when I was a teen-ager in Kashmir. You can’t imagine that happening in the so-called First World or anywhere else. Everything is contraband; everything is banned. This time it is more vicious and vengeful than ever. You can’t even call people on land lines. Today I learned that they have suspended postal service. [Mail service has resumed in some areas.] This is the world’s largest democracy, and it cuts off Kashmir from the rest of the world and makes it nearly impossible for Kashmiris to work.
They have given access to a select few journalists from Delhi, while prominent Kashmiri journalists, people who have reported on the conflict since 1989, are nowhere to be seen, and we don’t even know where they are. I am talking about people who work for A.P. or A.F.P. This current siege is punitive, is designed to remove all agency from Kashmir, is designed to say, “You are bent to our will,” to show you don’t have control over your body, let alone your mind. It is designed to tell Kashmiris that “We will do as we please while we snatch your voices. We will make a decision on your future, your destiny, while we lock you inside your house. We will not let you celebrate Eid [al-Adha, a major Islamic holiday, which fell, this year, on August 10th and 11th].” The Great Mosque [the Jama Masjid] in central Srinagar has been locked. If they still expect Kashmiris to somehow adjust to this change in their lives, they are sadly, sadly mistaken, because history tells us Kashmiris have always resisted.
I think I am beginning to become slightly more coherent now. The language I see in parts of the Indian press that are extensions of the B.J.P. is the language of conquest. There are at least two B.J.P. lawmakers who have joked about getting girls from Kashmir. There are popular songs about how to get a bride from Kashmir. It is of course linked to the rise of Hindu majoritarianism. We all know what the B.J.P. project is. They want to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra.
For Indians, last Monday should be the most ominous moment. It was an exercise of brute power, and they could do that because they exercise brute power over a people that is essentially colonized. I like to think that Kashmir has always been treated like a colony by the Indian state. And last Monday was probably the most telling demonstration of that relationship.
- Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of timely interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.