(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)
“I come from a place where funerals of the young are political events, mourning is permanent politics, and the people are in a constant battle between memory and forgetfulness,” writes Gowhar Geelani whose book Kashmir: Rage and Reason is a reality check for Indians who think peace can come to the valley via curfews and communication clampdowns, and the promise of economic growth can magically erase the evidence of bloodshed. Self-determination is too precious a dream to give up, so those who make it their vocation are celebrated as heroes. Kashmir is a place where tombstones of slain militants are like shrines, and people venerate them so much that a visit to the martyrs’ graves is considered no less than a pilgrimage.
The book takes off from the encounter killing of Burhan Wani, a young man who is a martyr to most Kashmiris but a terrorist in the eyes of the Indian state. Why did the son of a school principal join the Hizbul Mujahideen, and become a militant? Why did people from all over Kashmir put their lives in jeopardy, and walk several miles for his funeral? This is the story Geelani wants to tell. It is the story of not just one individual but of Kashmir itself — a flashpoint of conflict between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, that seem to care more about the land than the people.
Geelani does not valourise or discredit armed resistance. He keeps his ear to the ground, writes about his impressions of the situation, and interprets it for readers who are outsiders looking in. As a journalist and political commentator, he has documented the history of political resistance in Kashmir, and its changing contours over several years. “The reason why people continue to support local militants is because most Kashmiris feel oppressed, dispossessed and disempowered on multiple fronts, as spaces for democractic dissent stand choked in the restive region. There is a ban on peaceful assembly, and student politics in universities is not allowed either,” he says.
Geelani is currently based in Srinagar, a city where he grew up in the early 1990s and personally experienced what it felt like to be seething with rage when armed personnel frisked school children, forced them to prove their identity in their own land, threw their school bags away, and hurled abusive words at them. Recalling that time, he writes, “Young men in their thousands had crossed the LoC to receive arms training in camps run by the Pakistani Army and its spy wing, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). I was too young to take such a life-turning decision then, of fighting the State with a gun in my hand. All my hands could handle well were a cricket ball and bat, as an off-spinning all-rounder, and a pen, which I hoped to put to good use in the years to come.”
Geelani writes about the political aspirations of his own people. This is a position of great responsibility. He does not collapse various shades and extremes of opinion but engages with them carefully, unveiling layers that non-Kashmiris may find difficult to relate to in the absence of local knowledge about the social ecosystem in which resistance plays itself out. He notes the prevalence of pro-Pakistan sentiment in the valley but also points out how Pakistan has appropriated the Kashmiri independence struggle by sending in Islamist militants, thus inviting speculations about possible links with Daesh. He laments the hardships faced by Kashmiri Pandits who had to seek refuge in camps in Jammu and elsewhere.
“The problem is that very few Pandits or Muslims acknowledge the pain and suffering the other has endured…Voices that have dared to rise above ideological and religious differences to acknowledge pain as pain, without making any attempt to quantify or reduce it to a mere number game, are rare,” says Geelani. He has little faith in the leadership of the Abdullahs and Muftis but that does not diminish his hopes for Kashmir. “Can Srinagar become a bridge of friendship between Islamabad and Delhi, and not a bone of contention? Can someone make it happen, instead of waiting for things to happen? Who will extend the hand of friendship? Who will reciprocate? Will Srinagar produce such a statesman?”
This book was published before the abrogation of Article 370. As restrictions on movement are relaxed, and phone lines are restored, more Kashmiri voices will be heard. What forms of resistance might emerge to meet the demands of the present moment? What kinds of solidarities might shape up across movements? What role will the Kashmiri diaspora play? The answers could take a while to come, and perhaps the next edition of Geelani’s book will give readers more to chew on.