Unite or Perish

  • Omair Ahmad
  • Publish Date: Feb 19 2016 6:46PM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 19 2016 6:59PM
Unite or Perish


It is important that all victims are remembered, their lives celebrated, their deaths mourned, before the wounds in society begin to heal


It is always difficult to talk sensibly about the Kashmir conflict. One major reason is that nobody wants to honestly describe what it is, when it began, who it involves, and what the end goals are. Does one begin with the start of militancy in 1989, the messy election of 1987, the Indira-Sheikh Accord of 1974, the jailing, release, jailing, release, of Sheikh Abdullah from 1953 onward, the partition of India in 1947? We can go back earlier, to the treaty of Amritsar in 1846, or the exile of Yousuf Shah Chak by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th Century.

Everybody has a favoured date and favoured time, and history unspools endlessly with conflicts and causes, and no political leader – whether mainstream or dissident – cares to explain what they mean precisely. Vague statements, and historical wrongs, are all well and good to keep people perpetually unhappy, but they are no good to talk about as ways to reach a goal. So maybe it is worthwhile examining what those goals are, and how Kashmiris can go about achieving them.




Let us begin with “azadi”. It is the word that is chanted whenever a procession goes down a street, whenever an atrocity is committed, remembered or examined. Azadi from what? From India? This is not going to happen. Even if Kashmir – whether the Valley alone, or J&K, or AJK and J&K, or some combination of these – managed to achieve political independence, geographically it would remain exactly where it is – bordered by India, Pakistan and China, with maybe a short border with Afghanistan (if we count Gilgit). In one form or the other, India will remain a very important factor for Kashmiris – determining their policies, their economics and even their diets.

A better answer may be that Kashmiris want azadi in the sense that they do not want to be ruled by India, certainly not by heavy-handed deployment of either the military or bribery. This is an understandable desire, but the question is whether it can be achieved. In today’s world there is no chance of Kashmiris being able to assert their independence or autonomy vis-à-vis Delhi. Mayawati, famously, refused to attend the coordination meetings of the Chief Ministers of India with the Prime Minister, when she governed Uttar Pradesh. It is impossible to believe that any CM of J&K would dare to do the same.

It would be easy to attribute this to the size of UP versus J&K, and there is some truth to that, but the greater truth is that the CM of UP (or Bihar, or Odisha, or Tamil Nadu) is dependent on their electorate, not the pleasure of Delhi. In J&K the opposite holds true. The senior Kashmiri journalist Mohammed Sayeed Malik once remarked to me that every single J&K CM (or more properly PM until 1974, and CM thereafter) since 1947 until 2002 was removed directly by Delhi, with the exception of Mohammed Sadiq, who died in office. If the point of democracy is the change of government by peaceful means, J&K has been denied this azadi since 1953. Moreover, even when elections may have elected – or defeated – a political party since 2002, the role of the coalition partner, whether the Congress or the BJP, has meant that Delhi still calls the shots when it comes to who becomes the CM in J&K.

If the highest elected office of the state is so subjugated, imagine the case of lesser offices. Does an MLA look to his or her constituency, or do they answer to their political, the Central government, or the Army? Does a police officer preserve law and order for the community, or hunt down militants for the security forces? Does a sarpanch answer to the villagers who elected him, or kowtow to the army commander whose camp borders the village? If in each and every case the chain of accountability is snatched from the citizen, and given to an authority far and away, the simplest acts of governing their own lives are denied to Kashmiris.

Maybe the first step to finding azadi, therefore, lies in being able to elect and remove political appointees who answer to the people who elect them. This will not happen easily. There are many, many instruments of persuasion, bribery and intimidation that have been employed to keep politicians pliant. We read about them from time to time, when somebody like General (retd) VK Singh allows his emotions to get ahead of his common sense. It will take time to dismantle these controls, but only Kashmiris can do this. No outsider can make Kashmiri politicians – whether mainstream, dissident, or pro-Pakistani – answer to the local populace. In fact it is in the interest of all outsiders to keep Kashmiri leaders cowardly and corrupt, but without that leadership there will be no azadi. What use will freedom be if your leaders sell it to the first person who threatens them, or hands them a fat envelope bulging with cash?




A second, related, step has to do with justice, which is also accountability in another guise. As of today we do not know who has died, in what manner, and at whose hands in Kashmir. Across the Valley there are graveyards where murderers, informants and innocents lie side by side, with nobody being able to tell who is the guilty and who the victim. Everybody from the Army to the Hurriyat (all of the various factions) to Panun Kashmir have their favourite set of numbers. Nobody really has any reliable statistic. After the 2010 violence, I commissioned a study to find out who was killed, in what circumstances, and what was the socio-economic background of the families that they came from. Three years later, one of the young Kashmiri journalists that had been part of that study met me in Delhi. He told me that after completing that study, he had realised that most of the families had lied to him. They had told him that they had not accepted compensation, but almost all of them had. They may have had their reasons – and publicly stating that they had accepted compensation for the murder of their loved ones might have caused them some public grief – but the fact of the matter is that such studies are very rare, and even when they happen, the truth is not completely revealed.

When truth is hidden, justice cannot be pursued. Tens of thousands of people have been murdered in J&K. Their murderers have not been identified, and walk freely, a number of them might be walking freely in the neighbourhoods where they committed those murders. A large number of them, those who would have been in positions of authority, will now have been promoted to senior positions. There are many, many people who do not want the truth to come out. And yet, what this means is that every additional death – even if mortality rates due to the conflict have come down drastically in the last ten years – adds one more body to the huge pile of corpses that this conflict has claimed. It is yet another atrocity on a society already buried under atrocities.

Unless some attempt of truth is made, this burden will only continue to grow. Kashmiri society, which is already riven by suspicions, hatred and rage, will continue to be divided. It is in the interest of those who want to keep Kashmir and Kashmiris subjugated that Kashmiris remain divided. There is a saying that people die the first death when their body is buried, but they die a second death when their memory is buried. In Kashmir the many victims have been killed twice over. Before their memories are totally lost, it is important that they be remembered, their lives celebrated, their deaths mourned, before the wounds in society begin to heal.

In this regard the tragedies of the Kashmiri Pandits will also find a place. They must, as other victims of the conflict, be remembered as part of the larger tragedy that the Valley has experienced. It must be recalled, as hard as it is to do so, that the murderers have not just been people from the Indian Army and paramilitaries, or militants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and abroad, but also Kashmiris killing Kashmiris, in all sorts of ways. Only when the truth is recorded, can some justice be done, because here is the other thing, even if azadi is won, how free will a society be if it is infested by murderers and criminals whose crimes have been covered up? What kind of freedom would that be?


"Akh Te Akh Gaye Kah”


Neither freedom nor justice are easy things to achieve, certainly not when there are very strong interests and institutions that are willing to do whatever they can to make sure that truth and accountability are words that are never used in Kashmir. Too often people work towards an event. They believe that freedom is achieved merely by signing a treaty, or winning a war. As we see in the long-running war in Afghanistan, as we see in many post-colonial countries, freedom from an external ruler can often turn very quickly into slavery by local rulers, by the military, or by the militants who were once freedom fighters, but over time have morphed into murderous warlords. A man weakened by disease is hardly free, similarly a society that has experienced the level of trauma that Kashmir has, is not going to naturally be able to shrug that off. It will require time and effort in rebuilding trust, in bringing out the truth. But as the Kashmiri proverb goes, “Akh te akh gaye kah”, one and one are eleven. Part of the weakness of Kashmiri society is that is divided, and each akh is an akh alone. Until they join, until they become eleven, Kashmir will not recover, and the conflict that has caused so much pain and bloodshed already, will continue.


(Omair Ahmad did his MA thesis from Syracuse University, NY, on recovering freedoms while rebuilding Kashmir, he served as a Political Advisor at the British High Commission on India's external affairs, and managed two major EU grants from 2010 to 2015, focusing on peace building in Kashmir and between India-Pakistan.)