How Kashmir conflict is bringing out the worst in us

In gut-wrenching irony, it suits the ruling party of India to keep the issue on the boil, as it fans the nationalist upsurge that is key to its electoral prospects.

 |  5-minute read |   18-04-2017
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At the height of the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2014, images appeared of young Israelis in the border town of Sderot, perched on a hilltop, in a festive mood, witnessing the bombing of Gaza. They were relaxing on folding chairs, eating popcorn, while cheering and clapping every bomb that fell on neighbouring Gaza.

These macabre scenes of Israelis revelling in the grotesque, celebrating the destruction of their neighbours, came to be known as "Sderot cinema", and became a metaphor for how military occupation of Palestine has morally corrupted the Israelis.

Over the recent years, our callous disregard for the rights and lives of Kashmiris is in danger of reaching similar proportions. While many Indians would bristle at the suggestion that Kashmiris are a military occupied people, our attitude towards them certainly betrays that we don’t consider them fellow citizens, deserving of the rights and privileges that go along with citizenship.

A straw poll by the columnist Sadanand Dhume on Twitter asked the opinion of his followers on the recent incident of armymen tying up a Kashmiri civilian to the bumper of a jeep, and parading him around villages, reportedly to dissuade stone-pelters.

The man, a shawl weaver named Farooq Dar, suffered a broken arm and was unsurprisingly traumatised by the ordeal. The poll revealed an astonishing 74 per cent of respondents deemed the Army’s behaviour "totally justified", with just a quarter holding it "morally repugnant".

This ringing endorsement of torture and use of civilians as human shields was but yet another signal of the pervasive moral corruption that is plaguing our discourse, particularly, on Kashmir. Admittedly, a Twitter poll can’t be extrapolated to judge the opinion of wider society, but it does represent at least a section of opinion: that of the English speaking, tech-savvy, privileged, urban Indians, who one would ordinarily expect to display better moral sense, indeed humanity, than to justify brutality.

Meanwhile, while we wallowed in limitless outrage at Snapchat CEO allegedly calling us poor, videos circulating on Twitter that showed armymen abusing, slapping and beating captive Kashmiri men were met by dismissive indifference, not to mention the comment sections which roared an almost unanimous approval.

These instances of our crumbling sense of empathy are disturbing, but not wholly unexpected. Every military crackdown in the Valley, including the one last year which killed 80 people and blinded hundreds, judged by any measure, is backed by popular approval, with most people unquestioningly rallying behind the Army.

Empathy relies on a sense of shared humanity, and once that is destroyed, it becomes possible to tolerate almost limitless suffering. Our dominant national discourse on Kashmir, peddled by a jingoistic media and political establishment, systematically dehumanises Kashmiris by stereotyping them as terrorist sympathisers and pro-Pakistan traitors. Once this process of "othering" is complete, their collective punishment becomes palatable, for some even desirable.

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It’s apparent that many of us vicariously participate in the brutality of military aggression in Kashmir - relishing the torture, egging on the blinding and shooting of our fellow citizens, enthusiastically indulging in their dehumanisation, and calling on all the might of the State to be brought upon them.

An Israeli human rights advocate once described how Israelis normalise the killings of Palestinians - “Israelis don’t deny they have died, but they’ve simply done a mental process that blames the Palestinian deaths on Palestinians themselves”.

This is done by homogenising them as Hamas supporters. Similarly, the deaths of Kashmiris are normalised by homogenising them as terrorist sympathisers, or even stone-pelters in the pay of Pakistan, blaming them for their own deaths, never viewing them as full human beings, let alone our fellow citizens, whose life is equally precious as ours.

The gradual decay of our moral fibre is matched by the degradation of our national discourse, both of them nudged in no small part by the festering Kashmir conflict. The vile attacks on Lt Gen HS Panag, former commander of the Northern Command, calling him a pro-Pakistan traitor, for just criticising the tactic of using civilians as human shields, reflects the debasement of our national discourse, where labels of "anti-national" and "pro-Pakistan" are instantly invoked to shut down further debate, and to immune State propaganda from any criticism.

This aggressive nationalism swirling around our discourse in Kashmir is not just detrimental to the rights and security of Kashmiris, but also that of other Indians. It’s worth remembering that the pretext for the crackdown in JNU last year, an unprecedented assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression, was related to Kashmir, and the alleged threat to the security of India arising from alleged "azadi" slogans.

For the same reason, and in gut-wrenching irony, it politically suits the ruling party of India to keep the Kashmir issue on the boil, as it fans the nationalist upsurge that is so important for its electoral prospects.

This is not to suggest the government is exacerbating the Kashmir conflict on purpose, only to point out the paradoxical fact that the more this government mishandles the Kashmir issue, to the detriment of Army personnel, Kashmiris, and the long term prospects of India, the more it gains politically.

No nation lurches to the right in the absence of a domestic "other", an internal enemy, and Kashmiris will continue to be typecast in that hapless role.

Therefore, the urgent resolution of the Kashmir issue is not just vital for Kashmiris, it’s just as vital for India and its democracy. If left unattended, it will further erode our national discourse and public morality, ratchet up the hysteria of nationalism, shift our political ground right-wards, and jeopardise the rights and freedoms of all Indian citizens.

Also read: India makes Kashmir poorer, not richer

Writer

Asim Ali Asim Ali @asimali6

The author is a Masters Student of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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