More than a month has passed since India unilaterally broke the treaty of accession it had made with the last Dogra Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Amidst a complete communication blockade, only the foggiest and vaguest details of the situation on the ground in the state in general, and the Muslim majority areas in particular, have been able to waft out. This uncertainty has afforded “concerned” Indians an opportunity to once more pack their woollens (only the light ones, since it is still quite balmy in Kashmir, thank you very much) and book their air tickets (cheap, courtesy the blockade, delightful!) and travel to the ground on “fact finding” missions.
That in itself is not the problem. All are welcome to Kashmir—tourists, well-wishers, tourists masquerading as well-wishers and well-wishers pretending to be tourists. We are nothing if not hospitable. In any case, India has hundreds of thousands of troops in Kashmir. It is not as if Kashmiris have the power to stop Indians from visiting their latest Union Territory.
The problem is the way these fact finding missions are designed and conducted. First of all, nearly all such missions refuse to acknowledge the most important fact on the ground: Kashmiris do not want Kashmir to be a part of India. This denial of a basic fact of life in Kashmir can take many forms. It might be an outright rejection of this fact, but then, if you do not care about what Kashmiris have to say about their political future, or refuse to accept their right to decide their political future, why do you care what they have to say about their everyday lives?
Others might acknowledge it, but only as a side- or foot-note. “There is violence in Kashmir,” they will say, “and human rights violations by both sides; and many Kashmiris are alienated from India.” Or perhaps they will say, “More human rights violations are only going to increase the alienation of Kashmiris from India”. There are several presumptions in such an argument and they are so obvious that pointing them out will be deemed cringe-worthy by my Kashmiri brothers and sisters, but I must; the presumption that it would be alright to “violate the human rights”—genteelism for killings, torture, grievous injury, rapes and enforced disappearances—of Kashmiris if it could be done without “further alienating” them from India; the presumption that these visiting Indians can sit in judgment over human rights violations by both sides, since they are oh-so-neutral and enlightened that they have read everyone from Mao to Fanon on violence and revolutionary counter-violence; and the presumption that the rightful place of Kashmiris is somehow India and Indian alone, and they can only be “alienated” from it instead of being independent of it ab initio. The fact of the matter is that Kashmiris want azadi and human rights violations by Indian soldiers are done to curb this desire for freedom, not the other way round. Here is a fact from the ground: Most Kashmiris would happily accept the “violation of their human rights” if it means Kashmir gets freedom from India.
A second set of these missionaries is “pained by the situation in Kashmir” and urges “their fellow countrymen to share the pain of Kashmiris”, who are their “own people”. Again, the presumption is that Indians should care about Kashmiris only because they are their own people; if Kashmiris were, say, Kenyans, or, God-forbid, Pakistanis, then they were easy meat and legitimate targets. Only two sentiments of affinity expressed by Indians vis-à-vis Kashmir are acceptable—guilt and humanism. Indians can either support our right to self-determination, and oppose the violation of our other human rights, because they feel guilty for being citizens of a country that oppresses us, or they can express solidarity on the more general principles of humanity. Guilt is preferable over humanism. As a matter of fact, humanism in such a case is indistinguishable from abnegation of responsibility. No sharing of pain, pretty please.
But by far the most dangerous missionaries are those who return from their trips to Kashmir and extol Kashmiris for their bravery, dignity and spirit, and the way they continue the fight against all odds. By putting us on a pedestal, these people want to deify our flesh-and-blood struggle into an unattainable myth. This attempt to idealize us out of reality is not different from the way the very real geography of Kashmir has been idealized into a “paradise”. Kashmiris are not special. We are like every other community in the world. When we are shot, we bleed, like everyone else; when our fathers are slapped in front of us, we feel humiliated, like any child anywhere will; when our land is taken away from us, we, like everyone in the world in a similar situation, do not let it go quietly; when our very freedom is attacked, we decide to fight to death, like you would. To celebrate our struggle as heroic and exceptional is to suggest that we have a choice in the matter; that it is possible for us not to resist while everything is being taken away from us.
The truth is that this kind of fact finding is a very inadequate exercise in Kashmir; and the more obsessed it becomes with precision, paradoxically, the more inaccurate it becomes. A stonepelter is not shot in the eyes or killed by Indian soldiers in Kashmir for a very particular or personal reason. He or she is shot randomly or for the crime of demanding azadi, respectively making him a replacement for and a representative of every Kashmiri. To report the facts of his circumstances fastidiously and not the general conditions which lead to the crimes against him is to obfuscate the truth. When an insurgent is killed by Indian soldiers, he continues to speak through every Kashmiri who is passionate about azadi. Their testimony is the truth, not necessarily the testimony of an uncle of the martyred insurgent who is also a discreet bureaucrat, or a brother of the insurgent who has been warned by Indian soldiers not to speak freely or else their father would be killed too. Only the most rudimentary of facts can sieve through the intermesh of Indian military apparatus in Kashmir, and to take this skimmed milk of information and use it as a substitute for more comprehensive knowledge is to reduce the severity of India’s war crimes in the State.
In any case, the paradigm in India has witnessed a sea change. From the denial of the nineties and early noughties, when most Indians would refuse to believe that their soldiers were committing war crimes in Kashmir, to the aggressive counter-argumentative posture now, when most Indians declare that if you demand azadi, the soldiers have a right and duty to shoot and kill you. These missionaries and their puny facts are, therefore, no longer relevant. They need to evolve a new paradigm back home before they go fact agathering in Kashmir.
In conclusion, these fact finding missionaries, with their woollen shawls and sweaters, and their respect for the “Kashmiri spirit of resilience” end up creating more problems than they solve. The focus on human rights violation and piquant facts are a straw man taking the place of our legitimate desire for freedom. By refusing to acknowledge the truth of our lives, these missionaries whip up more confusion about Kashmir in the minds of the very people they are supposed to enlighten—their fellow countrymen. So here is a humble request. Please stop adding our grief to your list of must-sees in the “paradise on Earth”. Frankly, it is disgusting. And that is a fact.