AWAAZ IN FOCUS: KASHMIRI YOUTH, AZAADI MOVEMENTS, AND RESISTANCE

In Conversation with Dr. Asifa Amin Koul

Image Source: View Kashmir

1.  The term ‘azaadi’ vibrates with uniquely strong energy in the valleys of Kashmir. It is well-documented that the term “militancy” in Kashmir has taken on dimensions significantly altered from the violent insurgency of the 1990s.

Kashmiri youth, including those involved in both violent and non-violent anti-India protests, contend today with uneven globalization, Indian mass media, online connectivity, modern education, and at the same time, continuing militarization and surveillance, social insulation, and alienation. Could you shed some light on this new form of resistance with regard to its power to articulate rebellion?

Well, as you rightly pointed out that Kashmir has been grappling with political violence since the late 1980s, after the onset of militancy with over 700,000 military and paramilitary forces deployed in Kashmir for carrying out counter-insurgency operations in, Kashmir. It’s classified as the world’s most militarized zone in the world. And as a result of that, deeply entrenched patterns of militarization of the Kashmiri society, along with economic deprivation, denial of democratic processes, and indiscriminate violence have resulted in a constant feeling of siege, horrific social, economic, and psychological suffering for the local population, particularly young people.

Now, what we see is that in recent years, repression, notwithstanding young Kashmiris, is identified as a threat to national security, who have been trying hard to retain a sense of their history, collective trauma, and ethnic collectivity by employing various innovative tactics for countering the state’s narratives, and giving vent to their plight as well as creating multiple free spaces to bypass state power.

So, I wouldn’t go much into detail before 2008 which is known as a watershed of Kashmiri politics. Before that, the Indian state and its media would present Kashmiri youth as apolitical or disconnected. However, this generation was not completely insulated from their external environment as they had grown up in the ongoing conflict with the memories of violence, killings, torture, barricades, heavy presence of army and police.

The summer of 2008 saw the assertion of these sentiments to non-violent means through mass agitations, which were triggered by the Amarnath land transfer controversy that deflated the illusion of peace and normalcy in Kashmir. We can say that the summers of 2008 to 2010 were a watershed in the recent history of Kashmir which witnessed a tactical shift from armed resistance to a new phase of non-violent mass upsurge.

That was mainly led by youth demanding the right to self-determination. After 2008, Kashmiri youth-driven nonviolent activism started creating their own discourse and taking their own ownership of the narrative that draws on the moral language of human rights. Now post 2008, nonviolent mass uprising, the concept of freedom, and self-determination passed on to a whole new generation that was not connected and familiar to the Kashmiri struggle at deeper levels. Like the armed struggle of the 1990s, the new generation constituted the backbone of nonviolent protest movements witnessed from the 2008 uprising as youth were both agents seeking social and political change, as well as were, targets of state violence.

Now, another feature of the youth-led nonviolent moment was that it heavily depends on the informal social networks of traditional formal hierarchical organizations outside the realm of conventional political structures. Kashmiri youth employed various nonviolent actions ranging from demonstration strikes and marches that were actually primarily inherited from previous generations of struggle, but they also employed new tactics like stone-throwing that emerged as a new and widely used act and attained symbolic importance since 2008. They also came up with novel tactics to express their collective claims by using social media,  graffiti, drama, music, film theater, and literary productions.

However, videos and images of nonviolent protests and graphic videos, images depicting state force’s response to the protests that were uploaded by tech-savvy, Kashmiri youth were used by individual human rights groups and academics who are based outside India to highlight state atrocities and encourage debate on the Kashmiri conflict at international forums.

And with the help of social media, young people were not only able to alter the nature of information access, but also the balance of power dominated by state control jingoistic, Indian media. Similarly, social media has proven to be the most effective weapon of new militancy in Kashmir, and galvanizing public support for this, it was used not only to glorify gun culture and create a narrative around it amongst the local population but also exposed the weakness of the state security. From 16 in 2012, direct management of local militants increased to 53 in 2013, as the idea of militancy started gaining popularity through social media.

It actually started with Burhan Wani, the one who joined the militants in 2010, but he developed a kind of a cult following after his photographs went viral on social media. So we can say that after 2008, the Kashmiri movement increasingly became a mass civil resistance movement equally involving every locality village, town, and city. So, in that way, the new generation is not apolitical or disconnected rather they are hyper-engaged.

2. What is your take on the collective consciousness that has kind of sprouted from this intergenerational memory you mention? The current generation that is resisting this state mobilization has been a result of the brutal counter-insurgency operation. So, what do you think that this has to do with the political mobilization of the Kashmiri identity, especially amongst the youth- what impact has this collective memory had on the Kashmiri resistance movement?

Identity politics has always been part of the Kashmiri resistance moment even before the Dogra movement. It’s not something very contemporary and you’re right, the memories of, as you said, the intergenerational memories and exposure to the statewide counter-insurgency reconsolidated their sense of self and sense of identity. And like elsewhere, as I said, the Kashmiri people’s response to the conflict is driven by identity politics. And if we go prior to the 1947 partition, especially during the Dogra rule, the secessionist, or separatist identity politics, was always there- both religion and region. They constituted two important markers of national identity.

However, in the whole process of politicization of the Muslim identity, the regional sense of belonging was not rendered irrelevant and vice versa and both have been mobilized by definitely the state’s response to people’s aspirations or people’s movement if that makes sense. So, the secessionist aspirations for separate nationhood or azaadi constituted the core value of the Kashmiri nationalist identity over a period of time.

And after 1947, the increasing disillusionment amongst ordinary Kashmiris was also fostered by a combination of divergent political and economic factors, such as India’s unjust interventionists and centralizing policies, gradual erosion of Article 370, it’s backtracking on promises of holding a plebiscite and unfulfilling economic expectations of the newly emerging middle-class youth, and systemic human rights violations by the Indian forces that ultimately led to the development of national consciousness and consolidation of secessionist identity amongst the Kashmiris, which eventually culminated in the popular uprising in the valley in 1980.

And as far as the recent catalytic events from 2008 are concerned, it can also be seen or understood in the context of growing majoritarian symbolism and the Hindu identity in India gaining prominence, which rekindled azaadi demands in the valley with the goal to protect the Muslim identity.

So yes, I mean, there are multiple factors that are responsible for the assertion of a particular identity with a Muslim identity or a Muslim Kashmiri identity, if that makes sense.

3. In furtherance of this question of identity resistance, it’s true that conversations on Kashmir often focus on the immediacy of the violence, the encounters, the arbitrary arrests, and the human rights abuses in the valley. Yet, comparatively little attention is paid to the lingering effects that prolonged detention, incarceration, and interrogation have on the thousands of young men who are put through the state’s notorious prison system. As someone who has been closely researching youth politics in Kashmir, what do you think this effect has translated into, in terms of resistance and resilience?

Yeah, right. Post the 2008 uprising, repressive state response remained the most stable component of the state control and over 300 youth were killed by the Indian forces. In 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2016, which is an illustration of all of this.

The protest movement in 2010 was treated as a law and order problem to deter protests by employing other high ended tactics, such as restrictive curfews for five months, imposing shoot at site orders to enforce round the clock curfews, conducting nocturnal raids, and blocking SMS services, and local news channels broadcasting the ground situation, clamping down on social media users, mass arrests, detentions without trial, torture, involving a range of physical sexual and psychological abuses in jails and depriving victims of legal redress. 

Additionally, both the state government and the Center and also the media blamed anti-national elements for fermenting troubling in the valley. For example, they described protests as Pakistan’s conspiracy against India, or alternatively portrayed the stone-throwing youth as drug addicts and paid agents of Pakistan, and according to an anthropologist, Saiba Verma, this state and insurgent enactment of expressing violence leads to mass psychological suffering.

This psychosocial distress is reflected in various non-governmental surveys, carried out in Kashmir. These surveys reflect the context, why personal vulnerability leads to high levels of psychological distress due to the high frequency of confrontations with violence, both in the past, as well as in the present. And the researchers state that life in Kashmir reflects a pervasive climate of violence in which the population is living as not simply an environmental effect of living in a conflict-affected area, as demonstrated by the high frequency of deliberate means, events or as detention, hostage, and torture.

The state also launched psychology warfare against Kashmiri youth by using robber’s surveillance apparatus for intelligence-led policing with the help of CCTV footage, photographic, as well as surveillance evidence collected, during protest demonstrations and stone pelting- snooping on emails, social media accounts, and tapping phone conversations to crackdown on hundreds of youth. Now people are really afraid of hopefully talking about their political aspirations. Passports were and are still being denied to people whether or not they had participated in protests or stone-throwing from 2010 onwards.

Thousands of people were arrested who were mostly school and college students for participating in protests and stone-throwing these young boys who included many miners were subjected to a high degree of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, including electric shocks and police custody. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Kashmiri youth were detained under the notorious PSA, and in its 2011 report, Amnesty International has termed it as a lawless law, which facilitates incarceration of people without charge or trial. It targeted the youth who participated in protests and stone-pelting and also constantly harassed their family members by barging into their homes.

Additionally,  the state revitalized its intelligence grid comprising mostly local Kashmiri recruits for intensifying surveillance. They did this by tactics of harassment, they took to threatening family members or falsely promising them off their acquittal from all charges.

So this has really created trust deficit and fear among Kashmiri people and continuous exposure to state surveillance, harassment, and violence and it took a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of the Kashmiri youth. High levels of stress lead to a marked increase in heart ailments and depression among youth, and also use of drugs among youth is on a rise, according to various reports.

But after the 2010 uprising, the state also adopted a three-pronged approach strategy of coercion, dialogue, and selected concessions to youth. Regarding coercion, I just discussed it in detail. As far as other factors and strategies are concerned, New Delhi took some conciliatory steps to diffuse the crisis in Kashmir, which included sending a delegation of parliamentarians and a group of interlocutors to Kashmir to initiate a sustained dialogue for a lasting solution to the dispute.

But these initiatives were mostly with cynicism towards Kashmiri as a redundant economic prescription for the treatment of political grievances, as well as yet another dilatory tactic. Apart from that, some soft strategies towards youth were also introduced, which included introducing various educational scholarships, like Udaan and Himmat. But again, along with the Army’s goodwill programs, such as Operation Sadbhavana– these strategies were mostly seen as co-optation strategies or means to justify militarization in Kashmir.

And then we saw that in response to repressive state response, many educated youths, in the age of 18 to 24 or 25- they were drawn to armed militancy, and these were, these are new recruits for mostly homegrown self-trained and tech-savvy militants who uploaded their pictures and videos on social media.

However, it was not a widespread trend as it was in the early 90s, and the number of militants in 2010 was not more than 200. What was common among the new recruits was that they were either repeatedly harassed or arrested for taking part in the 2008 to 2010 protests or demonstrations.  So we can say that the systemic denial of political space for nonviolent means also influenced their opinion on the use of violence. However, the employment of violent tactics still does not lie at the core of Kashmir’s resistance movement.

4. With the Central Government increasingly focusing on the deradicalization of youth as a step to contain ‘terrorism’, there is a need to understand the radicalization theory before dealing with it. How would you define the radicalization of youth in Kashmir? Is this delegitimizing the political struggle of the people of Kashmir?

There’s no denying the fact that religion has ruined centrality in post-1989 Kashmir with the entry of foreign militants who viewed the Kashmiri conflict in terms of Muslim solidarity with the Muslim community or based in Islamic ummah as well as with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India now in the contemporary security discourse of the Indian state which is driven by divisive majoritarian movement. It has become commonplace to invoke the notion of Kashmiriyat or Kashmiriness, by pushing the narrative of the growing influence of radical Islam, by which they mean Wahhabism or Sufism or weakening of Sufi Islam and erosion of Kashmiriyat in the valley, which is radicalizing the Kashmiri youth to participate in anti-India protests, stone pelting, and picking up arms.

This was further encouraged by geopolitical shifts in the post 9/11 war on terror launched by the United States in which anti-state movements became labeled as terrorism. It encouraged the spread of Islamophobia giving India an opportunity to bracket the Kashmiri separatists, or the Azaadi movement, whatever we call it- with the war against Islamic terrorism in its official academic and media discourses and mobilizing support for counterinsurgency measures against the local population. When the 2008 Amarnath land controversy erupted, the issue evoked an emotional response as Kashmiris saw such developments as a threat to the religious demography of the valley.

The identity frames employed at the time of mobilization of people called for the protection of religious identity for mobilizing individuals. Now, we know how the Amarnath land controversy in 2008 was a watershed in Kashmir’s history, which could be understood in the context of, as I said earlier, the ascendancy of majoritarian symbolism of India, informing political mobilization in Kashmir situated within the goal of protecting a distinct Kashmiri identity and rekindling azaadi sentiments in the valley.

Now concurrently, Kashmir witnessed the transition to a peaceful struggle that the youth were, they were the backbone behind a nonviolent movement who played a critical role in initiating, coordinating, and sustaining nonviolent struggle during the mass uprising. Kashmir certainly has a youth bulge with 70% of its population under the age of 35, of which 48% of the youth are between the ages of 18 and 30.

The young generation is often stigmatized, not only in India but elsewhere, as disruptive agents prone to radicalism and deviance, and the existence of a youth bulge in a society is also commonly considered as a precursor of political violence and instability. But how did the Indian state respond to widespread youth mobilization from 2008 onwards? First, the Indian state media attributed Kashmiri youth mobilization as the or blame Pakistan for instigating jobless youth as a sole force driving Kashmiri political discontent that led to mass upsurge.

The Indian government approached the political problem by limiting its initiatives to offering economic packages and the development of policies while constantly failing to acknowledge political dissent as a response to the culture of political repression and lack of democratic space. Secondly, the state employed unbridled response, sorry, repressive forces resulting in the killings of hundreds of Kashmiri youths.

In 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2016, mass arrests of Kashmiri youth, as a result, many youths were forced to join militancy after witnessing deaths of their family members or friends or facing harassment at the hands of the security forces for the crime of participating in peaceful protests. However, the tendency of the Indian state and its media to link it with Islamic terrorism and portray it as a historic conflict between Hindus and Muslims undermines the former’s repressive role.

So religion certainly plays an important role in Kashmir’s resistance movement and in shaping how Kashmiris view their struggle but relegating religion as the sole driving force is over-simplistic. In order to de-legitimize the separatist movement, the Indian state, and its media frequently link it with global Islamist jihad or groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Taliban. How are these a section of youth who strongly insist that such groups have no role in the Kashmiri movement? And we know based on many studies and research,  and this is not just an exaggerated thing.

There were incidents when, for example, Zakir Musa a Kashmiri militant and the founder of Al-Qaeda inspired militant groups in his statement declared in 2017. He declared that Kashmiri’s freedom struggles should not be for an independent state, or merger with Pakistan, but for an Islamic state government. A state governed by Sharia law, but many people, especially youth were quick to oppose it.

Similarly, there were a few incidents of ISIS flags raised during protests, but there is no evidence that would suggest that these youth were being recruited into ISIS. On the contrary, there were many experts who contended that the youth resorted to such acts in order to mock the Indian security forces. So the state’s response here- and again I’m saying that you have to keep into consideration everyday violence and continuing political stalemate- there are 50 failed bilateral dialogues on Kashmir and this has created an atmosphere of fear and frustration in the valley. Locals do support militants and until recently it was very common to see people disrupting ongoing military operations in the encounter sites to help militants break ordinance.

And another form of public support has been in the form of thousands of people attending the funerals of militants whose deaths are seen as shahad or martyrdom. The political status quo- high-handed repression and military apparatus that has been extensively used to quell the political, non-violent movement since 2008 has led to growing frustration among youth. Many youths I spoke to personally for my research were not completely averse to armed struggle, but they felt that it should not be a major part of the Kashmiri struggle. Additionally, although some youth were disillusioned with non-violent means as the non-violent struggle faced the same response as the armed struggle, but they strongly felt that it should be part of the strategy at the moment.

5. Student activism in Kashmir is largely different from student activism everywhere else in the country. When you trace the history of student activism in Kashmir, it is evident that they have been an active and substantial part of Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination and counter-colonial settlements. What do you think this has had to do with the emergence of a political consciousness that is essentially in conflict with the occupying state?

Like earlier, as I told you when we briefly touched about identity politics in Kashmir, I told you that identity politics is not something new in Kashmir and it traces its origin prior to the 1947 partition. The events that started from 2018, if we take that into context, they emerged in the context of growing majoritarian symbolism as I told you earlier and gaining majoritarian identity which gained prominence during that period of time, which rekindled azaadi demands in the valley with a goal to protect Muslim identity.

Now the articulation of ethnic consciousness that informs the current azaadi movement in Kashmir, is defined by various things of Kashmir’s master narrative accessible to contemporary Kashmiri youth through both discourse and practice. For example, there is a primordial perspective, Kashmiri popular rhetoric of Kashmiri identity often invokes the notion of primordial sentiments to justify the contemporary articulation of Kashmiriness as a distinct ethnic identity by virtue of history, linguistic religious, and ethnic attributes; a past differentiated that of ‘other’. Then the second is the commitment to resistance as a response of zulm.

The word zulm or oppression, this is the common idiom that you will find in the narrative of Kashmiris because of their first-hand experience of state expression that had a personal effect resulting in the internalization of the narrative of resistance in the contemporary national identity, Kashmiri national identity of the new generation. Another thing I would like to touch upon is the suppression of rights including the suppression of freedom of political expression.  Now it is in this context that student politics in Kashmir has historically shared an uneasy relationship with the state.

While universities are still aside for student politics across India, and in fact provide an opportunity for young Indian people to enter formal politics by providing resources for protest, rallies, election campaigns, and party campaigning. Conversely, if you look at Kashmir, Kashmiri student unions are denied space for any political activity in educational systems, institutions in Kashmir unless they support the politics of mainstream Indian parties. This is because it is feared that student activism would eventually become a catalyst for bringing popular sentiment inside the campuses.

To give you an idea, how far they are agents of assertion of Muslim identity you need to understand the relationship of student activism with the state. To prevent any separatist politics in Kashmiri universities during the 1990s, the state control tactics included restriction of academic freedom, deployment of military forces in university guesthouses for 15 years, spying on students and faculty members, and barring journalists from entering the campus without permission.

Then after two decades, in 2007, a students’ body known as Kashmiri University Students Union (KUSU) was officially recognized and within a few months of its formation Kashmiri university authorities put curbs on the students’ body on the grounds that no political programs or protest will be allowed on the campus

Despite various restrictions and tremendous pressure, KUSU organized various political activities during the turbulent years of 2008, 2009 such as boycotting of classes, sit-ins, demonstrations including peaceful night protests inside the campus. In response authorities employed more repressive tactics that involved the demolition of KUSU’S office, harassment of its members and other students involved in protests inside the campus, threats of being arrested under the PSA, thrashing of students, conducting raids in the campus hostel, psychological harassment of their parents, floating alternative or opposing students body in each department to keep a check upon the students’ activities, unwarranted surveillance by mobilizing intelligence agencies such as CID, criminal intelligence Kashmir, military intelligence to spy on students and faculty members

As a result, the student’s body has been working underground in recent years. In such a repressive environment wherein student activism is perceived as a threat to national security, it is bound to reinforce popular sentiments among students. But it hasn’t been necessarily the sole driver of consolidating Muslim identity politics in Kashmir at a macro level due to the lack of resources and unlimited restrictions.

Dr. Asifa Amin Koul has done her Ph.D. in International Relations at American University, Washington DC. She holds a Master’s degree in Mass Communication & Journalism from Kashmir University and BSc from Women’s College MA Road Srinagar. Prior to starting her doctorate, she worked as a journalist for four years at Kashmir Times in Srinagar and interned at Indian and international news organizations. In addition to her accomplishment as a journalist, Asifa has worked as Director of Belaus, an 8-minute fiction film on communal harmony. That won a Special Jury award at the Indian Jehangirabad film festival in 2006. She is also a recipient of the 2010 Caux Scholars Program Alumni Scholarship.