It did not snow much in the valley of Kashmir this December, but the cold and the fog were severe. No one seemed to suffer from them more intensely than the soldiers from South India as they huddled behind improvised bunkers of sandbags and tarpaulins at street corners in the capital city, Srinagar. Hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers have been fighting the anti-India insurgency, which was begun by Kashmiri Muslims in 1989– 1990 and which is now supported by several radical Islamist groups based in Pakistan. Things haven’t changed much for these soldiers, although in October the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi began withdrawing the troops it had mobilized in battle-ready positions along India’s border with Pakistan after blaming Pakistan for a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.
Indian military threats to Pakistan over the past year forced General Pervez Musharraf to promise to crack down on the radical Islamists who participate in, or support, terrorist attacks in Kashmir and India. But they failed to reduce significantly the violence in Kashmir, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives so far. Indian officials accused Pakistan of deception, and of continuing to provide training and arms to Muslim terrorists. The Kashmiri journalists I spoke to claimed that there were at least three thousand militants, most of them Kashmiris, in the valley, despite the slight fall in the traffic from Pakistan.
When I traveled through the countryside one late December morning, soldiers were patrolling the roads and bare fields in small wary groups. Passing the well-swept courtyard of a large roadside house, I saw four or five soldiers standing in a circle, pointing their guns at a Kashmiri man squatting on the floor. So I was surprised to find, when I reached Gulmarg, an old ski resort west of Srinagar, the newly elected chief minister of Kashmir, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and his influential daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, introducing a group of travel agents from New Delhi to the possibilities of tourism in the war-ravaged state.
“We are trying to be optimistic,” Mehbooba, a lively, articulate woman in her early forties, told me. Later that day, she and her father were traveling to a village to console the survivors of a family attacked by “unidentified gunmen.”1 Such random killings were unlikely to end soon in Kashmir. But for Mehbooba there was much more ground for optimism than in 2000, when I first met her.
She was on her own then, a divorcée from Delhi, traveling across the state to often very remote and isolated parts, and meeting and reporting on Muslim victims of atrocities committed by Indian security forces. Her party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which she set up in 1999, was now a major political force in the state, and in her father, Mufti, a shrewd politician experienced in both local and national affairs, Kashmiri Muslims appeared to have their first real representative in many years.
Things had begun to look up soon after the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi announced elections to Kashmir’s legislature in September and October 2002. The elections were partly meant to publicize India’s democratic and secular credentials before the world and strengthen its moral right over the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, which Islamic Pakistan has claimed for itself since the partition of India along religious lines in 1947. The Hindu nationalists hoped to appear to be offering democracy to Kashmiris; they also expected to expose Pakistan, which is currently a close ally of the United States, as a sponsor of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in the region.
The elections turned out to be a much more ambiguous exercise. They were mostly fair—a first for Kashmiris after several absurdly rigged occasions in recent decades. But the political choices they offered to Kashmiri Muslims were limited—democracy without civil liberties. Two of the best-known secessionist leaders in Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yaseen Malik, who were arbitrarily arrested early last year, remained in Indian prisons. Other opposition leaders continued to face restrictions on travel both within and outside the valley. Not unexpectedly, the Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organization of parties that advocate independence or integration with Pakistan for Kashmir, refused to participate in an election sponsored by India, despite strong pressure from the Indian government and from diplomatic intermediaries from the US and EU. This left mostly pro-India parties and candidates to compete: the ruling NC (National Conference), which is an ally of the Hindu nationalist BJP, the Congress, and Mehbooba’s party, the PDP, a party of mostly Kashmiri Muslims that advocates talks with anti-India militants and promises to stop human rights abuses by Indian security forces.
Close to eight hundred people were killed in the weeks leading up to the elections, most of them by Kashmiri or Pakistani militants opposed to all India-backed initiatives in Kashmir. Few Kashmiri Muslims turned out to vote in Srinagar, or in the North Kashmir towns of Sopore and Baramulla. In other Muslim-majority towns, the polling rarely went above 30 percent. There were stray cases of Indian soldiers forcing Muslims to vote. But in the villages the turnout was often spontaneous, with women leading the lines of voters, and high—close to 55 percent, 10 percent higher than the overall turnout.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee claimed that the “people of Kashmir have made their wishes known in these elections that they will be with us at any cost.” But even the relatively small number of Kashmiri Muslims who voted did not seem to be expressing their preference for either India or Pakistan. They rejected the pro-BJP National Conference, whose leader, Farooq Abdullah, stridently advocated a hard line against anti-India insurgents and Pakistan but was as often to be found in Delhi’s cocktail parties as in Kashmir. He recently memorialized his government’s reputation for corruption, callousness, and extravagance by spending millions of dollars on the construction of a golf course in Srinagar. The Muslims voted largely for candidates who promised in their election manifestoes to rein in Indian security forces, begin unconditional dialogue with the militants, and release the allegedly hundreds of people illegally held in prisons. Abdullah’s ally in the federal government, the BJP, which has traditionally done well in the Hindu-dominated region of Jammu, managed to win only one seat.
However, several parties shared the anti-incumbent vote; no single party emerged to replace the National Conference, which managed to retain only twenty-eight out of the fifty-seven seats it held previously in the eighty-seven-seat legislature. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed now heads an uneasy coalition, composed almost equally of his own party, the PDP, which has fifteen seats, and the Congress, which has twenty. Mufti’s own position is shaky. He is seen by Hindu nationalist hard-liners as being “soft” on anti-India militants. In 1989, he was the home minister in a coalition federal government in New Delhi when militants kidnapped his younger daughter, Rubaiya, and demanded as ransom the release of their colleagues from prison. The Indian government complied. Huge crowds in Srinagar celebrated the release of the militants, who promptly disappeared into Pakistan. These celebrations were among the first big public displays of Kashmiri disaffection with India.
Mufti (as he is called in Kashmir) will be anxious not to be seen as surrendering again to militants. At the same time, he is doubtful that brute force can alone defeat the insurgency, which he thinks feeds off the rage and frustration Kashmiri Muslims feel toward their Indian or India-backed rulers. “Militancy in Kashmir,” he said, “is sustained by the people.” He wishes to offer what he calls a “healing touch” to Kashmiris tormented by a decade of harsh Indian counterinsurgency operations. He hopes, he told me, to open talks with the militants, especially the Hizbul Mujahideen group, which, though based in Pakistan, is composed mostly of Kashmiris. Mufti told me he also wants to withdraw harsh new antiterrorist laws imposed in 2001 by the federal government; make security forces more accountable; initiate an economic recovery through investment by American and European companies; and create new jobs for young Kashmiris.
All this may prove to be a tall order. But Mufti at least appears to want to improve the human rights situation in Kashmir, where extrajudicial killings, torture, and kidnappings by Indian security forces are commonplace. In doing so, he probably seeks to woo Muslims away from their sympathies for militants, and to render irrelevant the secessionist parties and other pro-Pakistan groups that have so far thrived on the widespread Muslim distrust for India and Kashmir’s India-backed rulers. If he succeeds, he is expected to call for fresh elections, and strengthen his party’s position in the legislature. But the support of Kashmiri Muslims alone is unlikely to take him far. He will need a great deal of cooperation from the federal government; he will also have to appease the anti-India militants into some kind of cease-fire.
His and his party’s swift emergence in Kashmiri politics has already provoked much speculation. A well-known lawyer in Srinagar tried to assure me that Mufti and his daughter were the creation of Indian intelligence agencies that wanted to put a moderate face on repressive Indian rule in Kashmir. A report in the Indian newsmagazine Frontline hinted that pro-Pakistan militants had supported Mufti’s election campaign. There is no convincing evidence for either view. Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, the philosophically minded chairman of the secessionist Hurriyat Conference, explained to me that it was the fate of chief ministers of Kashmir to be despised by their subjects in Kashmir and distrusted by their masters in New Delhi.
The prospect of new jobs for Kashmiris did not appear to arouse much enthusiasm on the part of Professor Bhat. When I met him in Srinagar this December, he was leaning against the wall in a corner of a large, bare room in his house and worrying, in the abstract way of academics, about “identity.” Kashmiris had suffered, he claimed, because of their separate identity. No amount of economic progress could compensate for the damage to the Kashmiri identity, or fulfill the “spiritual aspirations” of Kashmiris.
The only hope, Professor Bhat unexpectedly said, lay with the United States, which was profoundly concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and so likely to force the two countries to solve the Kashmir dispute soon. He appeared wounded when I said that it was unlikely that the Bush administration, preoccupied as it is with al-Qaeda, Iraq, and now North Korea, would pay much attention to Kashmir anytime soon. He then began to denounce, in highly literary English, the “grocers and shopkeepers” from American and European embassies who had tried to persuade him to participate in the recent elections. He said Kashmiris wanted not another election but a referendum, of the kind the United Nations had held in East Timor. He referred to the various UN resolutions on Kashmir that India had ignored. He claimed that Muslims were being discriminated against everywhere for no other reason than that they were Muslims. He then proposed that India and Pakistan ignore the grocers and shopkeepers from America and Europe and solve the Kashmir problem on their own.
Mufti’s more influential critics are likely to be in the intelligence and security agencies of the federal government. They have known immense power during the last decade, when India treated Kashmir mainly as a military, rather than as a political, problem; now they would be unlikely to respect the authority of an assertive politician. A senior Indian police officer I met in Srinagar was skeptical of Mufti’s “healing touch.” As he saw it, Pakistan-trained terrorists were only provoked further by talk of peace and reconciliation. General Musharraf had lied to the world in promising to stop terrorism against India. India, he said, had to deal with terrorists in Pakistan in the way the US dealt with terrorists in Afghanistan, and was now dealing with Iraq.
In the last two years, he had attended conferences on counterterrorism in Israel and the United States; he spoke admiringly of “preemptive strikes” and “proactive policies.” He was disappointed that India had not gone to war with Pakistan, or bombed the terrorist training camps in the part of Kashmir held by Pakistan. According to his assessment, India could defeat and overrun Pakistan in a short conventional war, divide up the country (he made some reference to Pakistan’s ethnic minorities; perhaps it was among them that he wanted to divide Pakistan), and achieve a “final solution” to a longstanding problem.
It was easy to dismiss the police officer as a fantasist. But his views—and the views of other senior officials in Kashmir—reached, and were given support by, ministers in the federal government, such as the hawkish home minister, L.K. Advani, who recently threatened Pakistan with “dismemberment.” The police officer sought to dramatize them with selective quotations from comments made after September 11, 2001, by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, about “regime change,” and “ending” rogue states; and they were phrased in the technical, morally neutered jargon of national security that has shaped much of the political discussion in India in the last year or so.
Soon after the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, politicians, journalists, and strategic experts appeared on Indian television, discussing earnestly the costs of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan (“We take seven cities, they take only two”). Pakistan has long supported violent insurgencies in India’s border states of Punjab and Kashmir. India has often responded with threats of war and military exercises close to its border with Pakistan. But the nuclear saber-rattling on both sides is disturbingly new. Last month, General Musharraf suggested that he had considered a nuclear response to last year’s threat of an Indian invasion of Pakistan. The Indian defense minister retorted that India would suffer a little in a nuclear attack but would retaliate by wiping out all of Pakistan.
In India, the loose talk about a potentially catastrophic war became respectably patriotic during the last five years of uninterrupted rule by Hindu nationalists. In this time, the nationalist government conducted nuclear tests, threatened to go to a third war with Pakistan over Kashmir, rewrote textbooks of Indian history in order to present Muslims as an essentially destructive and intolerant force in India, and succeeded, in the process, in making a heavily militarized Indian state appear desirable and inevitable even to many liberal Indian intellectuals.
The growing power of Hindu nationalism is likely to profoundly shape Indian attitudes toward Kashmir. A week before I visited Kashmir, the BJP won state elections in the western Indian state of Gujarat. This victory in what has been the stronghold of Hindu nationalism for the past two decades wasn’t unexpected. But the elections were held a few months after reports by journalists and human rights activists implicated senior Hindu nationalists in the brutal killings of over two thousand Muslims in March 2002.2 For many Indians, the elections in Gujarat became a referendum on whether India was to remain faithful to the secular ideals of Gandhi and Nehru, or move toward a modern form of religious nationalism. When seen that way, the results were dismaying. They showed that large numbers of both upper-caste and low-caste Hindus—especially those living in districts where a majority of the Muslims were murdered—had been persuaded by the BJP’s propaganda, which hinted, not very subtly, at a vast Muslim conspiracy against India, in which India’s 130 million Muslims were little more than fifth columnists working for an eternally hostile Pakistan.
Hard-liners within the BJP, such as the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and the leaders of the VHP (World Hindu Council) saw the election results in Gujarat as vindicating their policy of uniting a deeply diverse and divided Hindu community on an anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan platform. They now hope to take their plan of Hindu unity to the Indian states that are due for elections this year. They are also looking ahead to the national elections next year, in which the BJP, which has been damaged recently by allegations of corruption and incompetence, is likely to project itself as the fiercest protector of an India under siege both within and without from Muslim terrorists. This means that the BJP government in Delhi would be even less inclined to resume normal diplomatic relations with Pakistan, or to be seen as making concessions to Muslims in Kashmir.
Mehbooba grimaced when I asked her about the victory of the BJP in Gujarat. The previous day Venkaiah Naidu, the president of the BJP, had blamed Mufti’s “healing touch” for recent terrorist attacks on two families in Kashmir. Mehbooba, who was planning to meet later that day with the survivors of one of these families attacked by unidentified gunmen, thought that the BJP used events in Kashmir to accuse its political rivals of “softness” toward Muslims and Pakistan. But the “stick” the BJP used to beat up its rivals, she warned, could very quickly turn into a snake. Mufti, however, was more circumspect. He hoped, he said, for cooperation from the all-powerful federal government in Delhi, which will determine foreign investment in Kashmir as much as the attitude of the Indian security forces.
Tahir Mohiuddin, the Kashmiri editor of the respected Urdu weekly Chattan, published in Srinagar, was convinced that Mufti would not only fail to get the federal government on his side but would also be brutally attacked by Pakistan-based militants. According to him, Islamists within Pakistan felt more passionately about Kashmir now that General Musharraf had been forced by America to abandon the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were likely to be especially hostile toward Mufti and his daughter, who use some of their emotionally resonant rhetoric to attack Indian atrocities but remain committed to Indian rule over Kashmir.
In early 2000, when I first met Tahir, he had seemed one of the generation of highly intelligent and articulate Kashmiris to whom the decade-long chaos and violence had given, along with much pain, a quicker, sharper sense of the world and their own place in it. Almost three years later, he appeared exhausted and bitterly pessimistic. In recent months, unidentified gunmen—most likely pro-Pakistan militants—had assassinated his friend in the Hurriyat Conference, Abdul Gani Lone, who had appeared to be one of the few secessionist leaders interested in participating in the recent elections. Indian soldiers had barged into his office in Srinagar’s central square while looking for terrorists and assaulted him.
Tahir thought that the antiterrorism campaign that had long ago deprived ordinary people in Kashmir of their basic human rights had also severely damaged India’s fragile democracy. As an example of this, he mentioned a recent case in New Delhi, in which police officers executed two heavily anesthetized young men (their identities are not clear yet) in the underground parking garage of a famous shopping mall; they then went on television to claim they had killed Pakistani terrorists during a shootout (a Hindu man witnessed the murder and reported it to the press). He went on to talk of his colleague, a senior Kashmiri journalist, who had been held in prison in New Delhi for six months on obviously false charges of possessing “sensitive” official documents. (He was released in mid-January after the government abruptly withdrew its case against him.) Tahir also spoke of Geelani, a Kashmiri academic in New Delhi, who was sentenced to death by a lower Indian court last month for his alleged role in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. The only evidence against Geelani was a crude translation, provided by the police, of a brief phone conversation he had with his brother, in which he allegedly expressed his support for the attack.
According to Tahir, a conflict-ravaged Kashmir was a “growth industry,” benefiting both Hindu nationalists in India and radical Islamists in Pakistan. Training unemployed young men for jihad in Kashmir used to bring promotion and special perks to military and intelligence officers in Pakistan; capturing and killing terrorists now brought huge rewards to officers in the Indian police and army; and political leaders in both countries were used to deflecting public attention from their many domestic failures by pointing to what their cruel and devious neighbors were up to in Kashmir. This was why, Tahir said, he could see no respite for Kashmiris, embroiled as they were in the radicalized internal politics of India and Pakistan.
Most Muslims I spoke to in Kashmir said that the insurgency had not only failed to end Indian rule but also had, through its association with fanatical Islamists in Pakistan, discredited the cause of Kashmiri self-determination internationally. If this is true, then what did the Kashmiris now hope for? Why hadn’t they turned out in larger numbers for the elections? Did they still hope for sympathy and assistance from radical Islamists or the military in Pakistan?
It is hard for a visitor, especially an Indian visitor, to cut through the fear and mistrust that divides him from the vast majority of Muslims in Kashmir, and to enter their complex responses to their ever-changing situation. You have to look for signs and hints in unexpected places. Two days before I arrived in Srinagar, another unidentified gunman had assassinated Abdul Aziz Mir, a newly elected member of the Kashmiri legislature. The killings followed several such attacks on people associated with the recent elections in the state. Mir was exceptionally popular in his South Kashmir constituency of Pampore. He was known to be an honest man—a reputation few politicians or bureaucrats in Kashmir enjoy. Thousands of Kashmiri mourners turned out to meet Chief Minister Mufti and his daughter Mehbooba when they visited Mir’s family. It was the largest such civilian gathering in Kashmir for many years. But its real significance lay in its response to the murder.
The assembled men and women demanded that the killer of Mir be arrested. But they did not shout slogans against pro-Pakistan militants, who were suspected initially of having conspired to kill Mir. Instead, they asked Mufti and Mehbooba to help elect Mir’s son to the legislature, for they needed a representative they knew and trusted. It may seem odd: that they did not denounce pro-Pakistan militants, but were ready to participate in India-sponsored elections. Perhaps it is the ambivalence of this large crowd at Pampore that holds a clue to the general mood of Kashmiri Muslims as they await, probably without much hope, more liberal regimes in India and Pakistan. In the meantime, they accept cautiously the few opportunities to take part in whatever democratic politics come their way.
—January 29, 2003
February 27, 2003
The phrase “unidentified gunmen” is used by Kashmiris to hint that the killers could have been either militants or local mercenaries hired by Indian security forces. In contrast, politicians and journalists in India use the much less ambiguous term “terrorists.” ↩