If you want an insight into the nature of a state, look at how it treats its own most vulnerable people — its women, children, and seniors; its poor; its disabled; its sexual and religious minorities; and its marginalised.
The Indian state is often too busy chasing money, power, and status, to muster much empathy for its dreary domestic problems. As much as it can be the mature voice of reason, it can also behave like the puffed-up wannabe who swans around all day talking big and sucking up, and at night gets drunk and beats his wife and yells at the kids. It can vent its own frustrations and inadequacies on those more vulnerable than itself. It can ignore, oppress, and sweep under the carpet any embarrassments to its self-image. It can alienates its own.
That might explain why hot-blooded nationalists don’t talk about 300 million malnourished children; why Parliament refuses to admit that marital rape is a thing; why an airport immigration officer can tell an Indian passport holder that she doesn’t look “Indian enough”.
How does such a state treat its angriest, most alienated people?
From the evidence, India seems to regard Kashmir as a necessary nuisance, a territory to be defended. Ignoring human grievances, it limits its attention to sporadic crises of nationalism, insurgency, and cross-border puppetry that must be managed with the jackboot. It seems not to recognise that it is dealing with its own people. All the newsprint and talk time represents governments, separatists, army personnel, politicians, diplomats, militants, and security experts — “us” versus the hostile “other”. The ordinary Kashmiri, assumed to be a pawn in the hands of these forces, goes unheard.
You dismiss people’s deep-seated feelings at your own peril.
When lakhs of Kashmiris turn up to mourn a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, they are saying: “There is a reason that hundreds of thousands of us are saying, that there is a reason that people like Burhan Wani are heroes.” They hold up this unpleasant truth: India will not engage with us until we seem like the people you will engage with.
And astonishingly, our response is always more of the same. One television debate badgered Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to explain why India should not assume that “anti-social elements” were behind the protests. The Mirwaiz repeatedly made one point: you turn to us when there is a crisis, but you ignore the sentiments of the Kashmiri people.
But forget TV. The meeting held by the Prime Minister — after his trademark long silence while a state burned and his countrymen died —did not include a Kashmiri. Does that not speak volumes? As for the J&K Chief Minister, she did not speak for three days.
Kashmir nurses betrayal, and a perfectly understandable resentment of India’s military presence. India has, for a few good reasons, no intention of holding the long-promised referendum. Having decided this, however, it has failed to make it up to Kashmiris, failed to work out how best to accommodate them short of a referendum. A policy of permanent suspicion is not the same thing as providing people security. Holding elections is not the same thing as making people feel free. India has utterly failed to give Kashmiris a stake in the idea of India.
We help maintain a hideous cycle of death, destruction, rape, disappearance, militarisation, terrorism, separatism, grief, anger, cynicism, and irreconcilable differences. The Indian government treats each breakout as a standalone crisis. In between, what we call “peacetime” is what Kashmiris experience as “routine oppression”. The much-needed “healing touch” is not band-aids after a beating; it is ongoing preventive care, the promotion of well-being, in the form of expanding trust and freedom. Why should a Kashmiri buy into Indian citizenship unless India treats them like equal citizens, with equal rights?
It is difficult, when you live with unquestioned daily freedom, to imagine the costs of living with chronic violence, humiliation, and constraint. To get online, or make a phone call, to come and go as you please, to not face a gun at every corner, is a freedom invisible to those of us who have it. In Kashmir, a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl minding her own business at home, can permanently lose her eyes to pellets from Indian forces' guns. Those same “non-lethal” pellets have blinded close to 100 people, and killed 40 others. And that’s just this one protest. Kashmir has endured decades of lives lost and shattered, with no sign of change. Getting into a vengeful passion about the Indian Army’s sacrifices not only fails to address Kashmiri grief and rage, but fuels it further.
We desperately need new ideas for how to deal with Kashmir. We could start by treating Kashmiris, and their tragedies, as our own.