Last month, 19-year-old Adil Ahmed Dar drove a Scorpio SUV packed with explosives into a convoy of more than 70 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) vehicles in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. When he detonated the car bomb, eyewitnesses said, it triggered an ‘earthquake-like’ shock wave, leaving smouldering, twisted metal ruins and scattered body parts strewn along the highway. The attack killed more than 40 CRPF officers, making it Kashmir’s deadliest in three decades.
Car bombs and suicide attacks have been surprisingly rare in Kashmir; it’s the most militarised region in the world, so violence is a feature of everyday life. But the nature of this attack — a commercially available car pitted against a convoy of armoured trucks — attests to the kind of violence that most commonly afflicts the valley. ‘A complex weapon makes the strong stronger,’ wrote George Orwell, ‘while a simple weapon — so as long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak.’
Kashmiris are subject to the daily injustices of occupation; the omnipresent Indian forces act with virtual impunity. Last July, in Pulwama, not far from where Adil Ahmed Dar grew up, I met a family whose home had been razed by Indian forces during a security crackdown. The family’s son and his friend were taken by Indian security forces and used as human shields in the remainder of the nighttime raids.
The boys and their family escaped uninjured. A few days later, gathered in the front room of their neighbours’ home, they explained to me that Pulwama was becoming increasingly dangerous. In recent years, the centre of the militancy has shifted to south Kashmir and, as a result, India’s security presence there has grown, terrorising and humiliating the local population. The cycle of violence has charted different courses in Kashmir since partition, but it has never ceased.
As I was leaving, Romana Bashir, the adult daughter of the family whose house had been destroyed, gave me a handwritten letter:
‘Here people of Kashmir are in trouble. Here no one is safe whether old one, younger one or even a kid. Indian army oppresses us too much. They are oppressing our younger generation. There is no place everyday … where there is no encounter. They are using bullets, pellets, shells upon us due to which so many people lost their lives, eyesights and so many become handicapped.
‘We girls are also not safe in our paradise. Our main goal is to separate from these devils [India]. No one is listening our voice. We Kashmiris are in depression. We just want to live a happy life. Here hospitals remain full with depression persons. Our 1 year baby also suffer from this depression. If you are listening [to] us, just do something for we people. Help for us.’
The Valentine’s Day attack is part of this same cycle of violence — and it’s continued since. Subsequent military operations have been carried out in the valley, Hindu mobs attacked Muslims in Jammu and Kashmiri traders and students have been threatened and attacked in other parts of the country and India and Pakistan both launched air strikes.
The same world leaders who rushed to condemn the attack on the CRPF convoy have, of course, long remained silent on the state-sanctioned oppression in Kashmir. That’s no longer a surprise; nor is the fact that the attack has (rightly) been covered by every major western media organisation, while the daily injustices perpetrated against ordinary Kashmiris go unreported.
In the west, violence that’s committed by a clearly identifiable agent, like a terrorist, is recognisable and — superficially, at least — understood. It reflects the dominant liberal worldview, in which all actions — good and bad — can be traced to individual actors, rather than any sort of underlying system.
Meanwhile, systemic violence — in the case of Kashmir, over 70 years of Indian occupation — is often accepted or ignored. In India, this conception of violence is further fuelled by an increasingly prominent Hindutva movement, which, in holding Hinduism to be the defining feature of Indian identity, implicitly regards non-Hindus as inferior and, in the case of Kashmiris, something akin to fifth columnist. When such a worldview pervades, any attempt to make sense of such a tragedy — and any response to it — is inevitably grounded in the externalisation of the Other.
There has been an outpouring of nationalism across India in the wake of the attack: ordinary people have gathered to mourn those killed; Bollywood stars have demanded stern responses; photos of Pakistani cricketers have been removed from stadiums and, of course, the government bellicosely promised reprisals and launched bombing raids on its nuclear-armed neighbour.
This kind of nationalism is both a nod to the perceived and sometimes real threat from without, while also — more importantly — a rejection of any culpability on the part of the Indian state for its long commitment to a regime of violence in Kashmir.
Self-determination remains the only viable and moral way to end the cycle of violence in Kashmir. In a broadcast to All India Radio on 2 November 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, pledged:
‘We have declared that the fate of Kashmir ultimately has to be decided by the people. That pledge we have given, and the Maharaja [Hari Singh] has supported it, not only to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not, and cannot, back out of it.’
It’s time India upheld that commitment.
This was originally published in Eureka Street on 15th March, 2019.