Dispatch: the politics of policing Kashmir
3 August 2010 | Foreign Policy
Last summer, I sat by a pool at an old hotel in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. Mock stucco and wood paneling vaguely recalled the architecture of the Tudor era; this building looked like one of the characteristic Kashmiri houseboats had sprouted roots and grown widthwise as well, except that the houseboats float on Kashmir’s glass-still Dal Lake; the Broadway Hotel is moored to the earth, while Kashmir moves on around it.
This is the kind of place where British bluebloods and the privileged Indian castes came on holiday to socialize amidst the Himalayas, but the life of the freelance journalist is a more solitary enterprise, an exercise in incidental contacts and friends of sort-of-friends, depended on for life and livelihood. And so I sat in a relic of the Raj years, kept company by 22 ounces of lager and a pad of neatly scripted names, belonging mostly to separatist leaders.
Distance and liquor make for easy acquaintance and I soon found myself talking with the two afternoon patrons with whom I shared an otherwise empty poolside bar; these two, travelers as well, sort of—Indian soldiers in plainclothes, both speaking of Kashmir as if it were a foreign detachment, though it’s a place India calls India. They were both officers, but came off as accomplices in their own satire, the colonel wearing a beard and a khaki baseball cap, offering that he was Sikh by faith, but observant only enough for an exemption to the military’s shaving rule. Still smiling, he explained that they had the day off because they were supposed to be appraising market prices, though by the end of the afternoon, they hadn’t appraised much more than the going rate for oversized bottles of Kingfisher beer.
And so there they were, and there was I, granting the opening argument in my own little adjudication of the Kashmir conflict to the Indian government. The two advocates: an, immensely likeable colonel with a casual air, attentively refreshing our rounds, and his sidekick, a squirrelly little major, quiet but choleric, dark-browed and brooding.
“We did learn one thing from Uncle Sam,” the small one says, defensive almost instantly. “Indians learned not to break down doors. From you in Vietnam. And what about Iraq?” (A year later, when I reached an Indian army public relations officer on the phone, he said before we even exchanged introductions, “What is there to ask? We don’t use helicopter gunships like you guys do.” Such is the pressure on the Indian soldier in Kashmir that he often defaults to defensive, as if a question about the Indian military is necessarily an indictment of it.)
The colonel elaborated: “If we know a militant is hiding out in a house, maybe now we will let him go. What do we get from killing two people with AK-47s? It’s better to lose one or two militants than to go into a house and maybe make four or five more.” This soldier saw a cycle of violence in which an army helps its enemy grow—militants bait them, civilians suffer when the state shoots back, and resentment is felt more profoundly for those who open fire than it is for those who draw it. It is historical motif that body counts tend to favor the resistance, which means violence does too, and it’s why, perhaps, there are so many Indian troops in Kashmir: violence doesn’t need to be suppressed if it’s effectively discouraged.
But the Indian military is an animal calibrated for fighting Pakistan; policing Kashmir is a contortion of sorts. You dispatch a soldier to his own country, give him a gun but tell him not to fire it, send him out to control a crowd as though he were a municipal cop assigned to parade detail. The United States has put its soldiers in a similar position—trained them how to shoot and then tried to train them how not to, because a country’s military doctrine evolves faster than its soldier does. But American soldiers at least have whatever absolution is afforded by being someplace else. In Kashmir, when a frightened soldier reacts, he is firing on his own countrymen.
For this reason and others, “The army is leaving the law and order work to the [Jammu & Kashmir] police,” my colonel friend said, because it’s hard to make a soldier and a man he chaperones feel they’re sharing a mother country. Still, Indian soldiers are ubiquitous in Kashmir, and as this summer’s seasonal violence ebbs into its second month, there remains the inescapable fact that it was, in typical fashion, catalyzed by Indian security forces’ lethal use of non-lethal force. Already, 30 people have been killed this summer. So as people take to the streets to make spectacle of their resentment for India, they ask more ardently: why is the military here? Why are they in the capital? Are there terrorists here?
Few would dispute that India has suffered dearly from terrorists who have some association with the region of Kashmir, whether raised or having trained there, most notably the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the siege on the city of Mumbai in 2008. In the latter incident, the attackers trained in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the scenario that distresses India the most: militants trained in Pakistan and pushed across the Line of Control into India. It’s the recurring nightmare, and variants of it are cited as justification for the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops keeping an eye on Kashmir. As we talked that afternoon, the colonel shared his own adaptation. Speaking like a profiler might, he described ‘the enemy’ as “someone who leaves his home where he’s nothing and comes here, gets paid more, he’s a living martyr.” The colonel’s demeanor changed: “You know, it’s very hard for us. We have a hard time protecting our sources. The militants, they will maybe kill or torture someone they know is talking to us.” He draws from his mug, ashes a cigarette. “How do we make them feel safe? It’s harder and harder to get information.”
His description portraits an enemy that the Indian soldier carries with him like part of his equipment, to help him feel he’s on the right side of things; that he is not stationed in Kashmir to control Kashmiris, but to insulate them from violent-minded intruders here to poison the population. It’s a description however, that is wrong. Or at best, it’s unproductive. Because right now, the troublemakers in Kashmir are not trained militants with guns and bombs torturing people to keep them quiet. They’re kids throwing stones.
When New Delhi sent 3,000 more troops to Kashmir on July 7 to quell the violence, journalists reported that even within the military there was resentment of the decision. Writing as a guest columnist for a Kashmiri publication, Seema Mustafa, who served as editor of Asian Age newspaper and Covert Magazine, said that “reluctant generals had no choice but to obey the political directive, although they privately fumed against the decision, describing it as dangerous and short sighted.” Though her sources weren’t revealed, her article suggested the generals seem to understand something politicians seemed not to: that the more Indian troops there are in Kashmir, the easier it is for kids to believe the least sympathetic appraisals of India—that India doesn’t care about Kashmiris, doesn’t trust them, doesn’t believe they’re deserving of the rights the rest of Indians enjoy. It almost doesn’t matter whether these things are true: for those inclined to believe that they are, every Indian soldier serves as proof. “The troops rolled into the state capital,” Mustafa wrote, “sealing the anger and the hostility in the Valley.” And here is one of the punch lines in the tragicomedy of Kashmir: by deploying hundreds of thousands of troops to prevent the radicalization of Kashmir, India may be expediting it.
The same day the troops marched into Srinagar, the government made another self-defeating move, canceling “curfew passes” for Kashmiri journalists. It restored them two days later, but during the blackout, while journalists complained that they were being gagged and the presses fell silent, the people did not. Without newspapers rumors rule, sometimes inspired by political and religious leaders but rarely restrained by them, and the protests grew more violent. When legitimate reporting stops, an illegitimate kind begins, which for India is far worse. Omar Abdullah, Kashmir’s chief minister, caught on to the phenomenon quickly but his solution was to try and prevent this kind of reporting too, by blocking text messages. Even more than before people talked, stories flourished and formed the disparate fictions observers compile when trying to decide who’s right.
Whenever Kashmiris become especially agitated, Delhi looks west, assigning responsibility for the violence to Pakistan or militants hosted there, because it’s easier to blame a foreign and specific interest than it is to implicate an entire population. Accordingly, when violence swelled this summer, India released audio recordings of a conversation it said proved Pakistani militants had a hand in the violence. Few found the tapes convincing, and right now, Pakistan’s role should be almost a secondary concern. Pakistani influence or not, pretty much everyone in Kashmir seems angry, most feel humiliated by the troops, and every day, it gets harder to control the young men. India’s Kashmir crisis is revealing itself to be less a political problem than a demographic one: if there are indeed militants in Kashmir, the ones coming from outside should be of far less concern to India than the ones coming of age.
While Indian soldiers do their best to discharge their duties, the rest of India has other things to worry about most of the time. A friend in Delhi pointed to “intellectual fatigue” as a factor (Here in the U.S., the public is weary of the Afghan conflict, long, by Americans standards, at not-quite nine years. India has had trouble in Kashmir since partition in 1947-in other words, India has been struggling with Kashmir for as long as India has been). Separatists, conversely, are energetic and eager to speak; they respond quickly to interview requests, they send information to journalists before journalists even know to ask for it, they form committees with impressive-sounding members and list-serves populated by anyone who will listen. They recognize the press as a weapon, so it follows that the military sometimes treats questions as hostile fire. And anyway, the military has protocols and restrictions, wherein certain people are authorized to speak and others aren’t, and information needs to be verified, at least approved, before it’s released. It’s not a phenomenon unique to India, nor one for which India bares special responsibility. A state will always appear to have less time for you than the people resisting it.
That afternoon at the Broadway, both soldiers understood this phenomenon even before I did. As a foreign journalist, they were certain, I would soon go out and hear horrible things about their comrades in the army. Likely, that’s why I was there; to report on gang rapes and mass graves, all the illustrative trespasses Kashmiri separatists cite on their long list of grievances with the Indian military. The young major resented me for it before I even began reporting, instilled, as he was, with all the vigor of a young man told he’s fighting for a righteous cause on behalf of an ungracious people. He was an Indian military man, after all, and I a journalist. Regardless of what I felt or feel, to him, my presence in Kashmir was my disapproval of his.