Hafsa Kanjwal is an assistant professor in South Asian history at Lafayette College. Her PhD, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was on the social history of modern Kashmir.
In her Post commentary, “Why a terrorist attack on Hindu pilgrims could change everything for Kashmir,” Indian journalist Barkha Dutt patronizingly let the people of Kashmir — who have been struggling for their right to self-determination for nearly 70 years — know that their “cause” has lost its “moral compass.” She referred to an attack on Hindu pilgrims, or yatris, during Kashmir’s annual Amarnath pilgrimage on Monday, which tragically killed seven pilgrims and injured 19. She claimed that “armed, jihadist terrorists” targeted innocent civilians. Pointing to how extremists are winning the battle in Kashmir, Dutt argued that because these actions are being committed in their name, Kashmiris need to prove that they are not “complicit in another example of the withering away of humanity.”
Dutt undermined Kashmir’s legitimate struggle by brushing it with the stroke of jihadist extremist terrorism. Here is some context she missed in doing so.
First, according to reports, the attack was not targeting innocent civilians. The inspector general of the Jammu and Kashmir police — a group that would hardly be the first to stand up for militants in Kashmir — has stated that the bus carrying the pilgrims was caught in the crossfire when militants targeted an Indian police post. In other words, the Pilgrims were not the targets of the attack; Indian forces were. Indeed, the major militant outfits operating in Kashmir — along with all of the pro-freedom groups operating under the nomenclature of “Joint Resistance Leadership” — have condemned the attack.
Second, Kashmiris do not need any lessons in humanity. During the devastating floods of 2014, Kashmiris were seen rescuing soldiers of the Indian army who were posted in the region, though the Indian army is an institution they consider an occupying and oppressive force. In July 2016, less than a week after the killing of popular Kashmiri rebel Burhan Wani, local Kashmiri Muslims rescued more than a dozen Hindu pilgrims injured in an accident on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Locals risked their lives, defying a government-imposed curfew to rescue the pilgrims and take them to a hospital in the capital city, Srinagar. Last week, local Kashmiris helped pilgrims when a gas cylinder exploded inside their bus, even collecting money for their lost baggage. In the aftermath of Monday’s attack, Kashmiris have been donating blood for the victims. They continue to provide food, water and other essentials for the pilgrims.
Kashmiris from all walks of life, including prominent civil society members, have condemned the attack and called for an impartial and immediate probe to find out why and how the attack occurred.
Even the home minister of India, Rajnath Singh, tweeted that “the people of Kashmir have strongly condemned the terror attack on Amarnath yatris.” On Tuesday, the day after the attack, prominent civil society members organized a sit-in to protest the killings. One of the organizers of the sit-in, Khurram Parvez, stated, “We are all united against the killings of Amarnath yatris. Are Indians united against the killings, disappearances, torture, sexualized violence, maiming, and demonization of Kashmiris by the Indian state?”
Dutt asked, “In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, why is there not one nonviolent icon in the Kashmir Valley?” Perhaps Dutt would have to look no further than Parveena Ahangar, who is known as the Iron Lady of Kashmir in the manner of Irom Sharmila from Manipur. The Indian army abducted Ahangar’s son in the early 1990s. As head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, Ahangar tirelessly works with family members of other victims of enforced disappearances, travelling from jail to jail to seek information on their loved ones. In 2005, Ahangar was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dutt, who has reported extensively from Kashmir, surely knows what has happened when Kashmiris have attempted to “nonviolently” register their grievance against Indian rule in the past, whether through protests, writing or organized resistance: They have met the draconian face of the Indian state. This has included repeated cuts to the Internet and blocking of social media. Violence, even religious extremism, was never the first option for Kashmiris; it came to the fore only when nonviolent and secular forms of protest were brutally quashed.
Instead of commenting on the supposed rise of extremism in Kashmir or even suggesting that Kashmiris have been silent in expressing their opposition to violence, Dutt should put more focus on the role of the media and civil society in India. Prominent Indian politicians, artists, athletes and journalists have expressed their bloodlust — even calls for the genocide of Kashmiris — after the attack. In one of countless examples, Indian journalist Abhijit Majumder of the India Today Group tweeted: “Enough is enough. Throw the pellets away, bring out the bullets,” in reference to the Indian state’s reliance on pellets — which have blinded more than 1,000 youths in the past year alone — during protests.
This attack occurred a year after the Indian state decided to execute the “Doval doctrine,” an aggressive hard-line strategy that uses all that is in the Indian state’s power to stop any discussion of Kashmir’s political status. It includes a spike in counterinsurgency operations, keeping a tab on writers and journalists, and responding brutally to any form of protest. The rise in “extremism” is happening in the context of a complete assault of Kashmiri lives, movement and speech.
India — coming under the scrutiny of the international community for the rise of its own extremist Hindutva forces — is surely not interested in increasing international attention to its crimes in Kashmir. And so, perhaps Dutt can answer one question: Whom does it benefit to posit the Kashmiri struggle as becoming increasingly jihadist and extremist, a sure way to erase any international sympathies with the movement? And why?
If there is anyone who has lost their moral compass, it is the Indian government and broader society, not Kashmiris, who are simply demanding what is rightfully theirs: a life of dignity and freedom from occupation.
By Hafsa Kanjwal