Saturday, August 16, 2008

Kashmir repression rewards Hindu far right

Nagesh Rao reports from India on the latest wave of repression in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir.

Kashmir activists clash with Indian security forces. (Abid Bhat | flickr)Kashmir activists clash with Indian security forces. (Abid Bhat | flickr)

AT LEAST 18 people were killed August 12 and13 by police and military bullets in the Indian-controlled section of Kashmir. Among them was a senior political leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a coalition of various pro-independence and separatist, but also pro-Pakistani, organizations based in Kashmir.

The brutal attacks by security forces on Kashmiri activists have been extensively reported on, even by the mainstream media. On August 11, police and paramilitary forces opened fire on a nonviolent march by Kashmiris protesting the economic blockade of Kashmir by rioting Hindu mobs in Jammu. Five people, including Abdul Aziz, were killed, and according to The Hindu newspaper, some 230 more were injured, mostly by bullet wounds. The march to Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir was stopped by the Indian forces at the Line of Control (LoC) that serves as the de facto border between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled regions.

In an effort to snuff out any protests against the killing of Sheikh Aziz, a military curfew has been imposed on all of Indian-occupied Kashmir. In protests against these repressive measures, at least 13--and perhaps as many as 24--were killed August 12.
Kashmir is on fire--and the far-right Hindutva forces are cheering on.

At the tip of the current crisis sits a controversial land transfer deal involving a Hindu pilgrimage site in the middle of Muslim-majority Kashmir. According to an article by Gautam Navlakha in the Economic and Political Weekly, the pilgrimage known as Amarnath yatra was, until recently, a little-known journey undertaken by small numbers of Shaivite (worshippers of Shiva) Hindus. As recently as 1989, only 12,000 pilgrims--in a country of nearly a billion Hindus--undertook the pilgrimage.

Earlier this year, in a move that could only be considered provocative and insensitive towards the Kashmiris, the state government decided to legitimize the demand for Hindu control of the Amarnath yatra by granting nearly 40 hectares (100 acres) of land around the Amarnath Cave to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB).

As Navlakha writes: "The origins of the conflagration in June in Kashmir on forest land allocation for construction of facilities for the Amarnath yatra lie in open state promotion of the pilgrimage. The yatra has caused considerable damage to the economy and ecology of the area. The high-handed actions of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board only aggravated the situation.”

The land transfer agreement was merely the latest in a series of land grabs by Hindu organizations led by the SASB. As Navlakha pointed out, "The SASB runs a virtually parallel administration and acts as a 'sovereign body' promoting Hindu interests, increasing the number of pilgrims from 12,000 in 1989 to over 400,000 in 2007 and extending the period of the pilgrimage from 15 days to two and half months."

Kashmiris rightly protested against this blatant act of state promotion of a specific religion in their state, as well as the damage to the ecology of the area. Soon after, the state's government, a coalition involving the Congress Party and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), collapsed. The PDP, a business-dominated Kashmiri party, joined the protests and withdrew from the government.

On July 1, the governor, under pressure, revoked the order transferring land to the SASB. As if on cue, Hindu activists in Jammu, which is part of Kashmir state, began protesting. On July 7, the streets of Jammu exploded, ignited by the cadres of the Hindu right. As mobs rioted in the streets demanding the "restoration" of the land to the Hindus, some of the ideologues of the Hindu right took to the airwaves in the name of the "oppressed" and "neglected" Hindus of Jammu. Others proclaimed, in Orwellian fashion, that this was a "Hindu intifada."

Behind it all, however, was the organizational power of the forces of the Hindu extreme right, including the RSS, the Shiv Sena, the VHP and others. The Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), has launched a three-day "nationwide agitation" to support the demands of the Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti (SASS), which is a front for the Hindu right.

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DURING THE weeks of riots that followed in Jammu, the police had showed remarkable restraint, which stands in sharp contrast to their current murderous and trigger-happy approach to Kashmiri Muslims. Cops stood by while Hindu mobs wielding crude weapons laid siege to Kashmir, blockading the Jammu-Srinagar national highway and choking off the movement of goods into and out of the valley.

A letter of protest addressed to the United Nations by prominent progressive scholars and academics from across the world rightly points out that about

95-97 percent of the population of the [Kashmir] Valley is Muslim, while Muslims are a minority in India. This has made Kashmir the target of increasingly aggressive campaigns by Hindu nationalist groups since 1947, despite guarantees of autonomy written into the Indian Constitution...To a population suffering the effects of 19 years of armed conflict, the economic crisis caused by the blockade comes as the last straw.

Kashmiri activists responded to this economic blockade with various forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. Activists like Yasin Malik, chairman of the independence-seeking, secular-democratic Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), began an indefinite hunger strike. Others, led by Kashmiri businesses, the APHC, and the PDP called for a mass march across the Line of Control and to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The march took place on August 11, and it was then that security forces killed Sheikh Abdul Aziz and four others.

While Indian newspaper editorials on August 12 vilified the marchers as "extremists" and "separatists," TV news outlets were showing live video of police firing indiscriminately into groups of unarmed protestors at Aziz's funeral procession. Tens of thousands of men and women also protested across the Kashmir Valley against the imposition of a military curfew--the first Kashmir-wide curfew in 13 years. They too were fired upon.

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THE CRISIS is unfolding too rapidly for anyone to be able to predict its future direction. The Hindu right has begun to term this as a Jammu vs. Kashmir issue. The two regions, they claim, have disparate interests, and ought to be separated. At the same time, by demanding a Hindu takeover of the Amarnath yatra, the right wants to assert the (Hindu) Indian nation's sovereignty over Kashmir. The demand for bifurcation of the state is a calculated effort to stir up communalism, while the agitation over Amarnath is a carefully planned nationalist and chauvinist tactic.

The Hindu right, in other words, has lit a new communalist fire that it hopes to fan into a nationalist conflagration ahead of next year's general elections. The sheer numbers of protesters on the streets, both in Jammu and in Kashmir, indicate that the crisis will not be resolved any time soon. But the crisis does come at an opportune time for a newly resurgent Hindu fundamentalist right wing in India, as well as for the beleaguered Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who's clinging to power amid an effort to impeach him. Musharraf may well try to use the political crisis to try to escape his predicament.

Meanwhile, the main left-wing parties in India offer little by way of an alternative. An editorial in the Communist Party of India-Marxist newspaper, People's Democracy, draws a simplistic equation between the Hindutva forces in Jammu and "extremist elements" in Kashmir. The editorial goes on to warn that "such a conflagration…undermines the unity and integrity of India" and puts its "national security" at risk.

The editorial makes no mention, of course, of the Kashmiris' right to determine their own future without any interference from the Indian state and military. The editorial calls for a "process of dialogue" with the SASS, the Hindu organization spearheading the Jammu protests, while the only mention of Kashmiri activists is the passing reference to "extremists." Small wonder that the left finds little traction in the Kashmir Valley, while the right succeeds in agitating on the streets of Jammu.

While the electoral left hedges its bets, it's critical that progressive activists in India extend and display their solidarity with the people of Kashmir--and stand up to the communalist ideologues who currently dominate the debate.

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