Flowing black beard, a headband with “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and a fluttering green flag. This has been the trademark picture of the recent azadi (freedom) processions of Kashmir, where hundreds of thousands marched the streets of this disputed Himalayan region seeking a separation from India.
From a distance, it seems as if the past has returned to Kashmir. But the present contains an irrefutable truth: in place of guns, the people carry slogans. The politics of protest this time is not about the argument of power, but about the power of argument.
Kashmir is the first conflict-ridden Muslim region in the world where people have consciously made a transition from violence to non-violence, and this includes the staunch Islamists too. In fact, the wisdom behind the use of arms to fight a political struggle was being silently debated within Kashmir ever since 9/11 blurred the lines dividing terrorism and genuine political movements. The deteriorating situation inside Pakistan too had tilted the balance towards a peaceful struggle.
Thus when Kashmiris decided to come out to demand azadi recently, there were no militant attacks or suicide bombings. It was through massive unarmed processions where people shouted slogans and waved flags. And when the government tried to halt them, the anger was only manifested through stone pelting. Sensing the overwhelming public mood, the militant groups immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire, admitting the insignificance of the gun for an unarmed people’s movement.
This major shift has not been registered even as it has already formed a new discourse for Kashmir’s separatist struggle. New Delhi’s response was usual – it again used its iron fist, killing 38 unarmed protesters and injuring more than a thousand and enforcing a strict curfew with a hope that the people will be ultimately cowed down. The separatist leadership too was rounded up.
This only shows that New Delhi is misreading the script. This time the authorities are not faced with gun-wielding men but unarmed people. A heavy clampdown keeping the population indoors only puts a temporary lid on the seething anger. Instead of a military intervention, New Delhi should have immediately attempted sincere political and democratic means to engage Kashmir and calm the tempers.
New Delhi’s approach to handling Kashmir for past two decades has been simple and straight: militancy is the only problem and that can be sorted out by stringent military measures. Though there have been several rounds of negotiations with a faction of the separatist leadership too, New Delhi used the process more as a photo-op than a serious effort to address the demands of the people. There have been half a dozen occasions when separatist leadership joined a dialogue with New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir problem amicably – only to find the exercise nothing more than a surrender and thus futile.
The distrust towards New Delhi had reached such proportions that when moderate separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq decided to join talks with New Delhi, his uncle was murdered in Kashmir. Despite a serious threat to his life, he joined the talks directly with the prime minister of India. Again, the non-serious approach of New Delhi derailed the process, further eroding the credibility of talks with New Delhi in the eyes of Kashmiris. The public standing of separatist leaders who had agreed to talk to New Delhi also diminished substantially.
The recent protests by hundreds of thousands of unarmed people too don’t seem to have changed the mindset of New Delhi’s ruling elite. Instead of acknowledging the intensity of the uprising and the depth of the sentiment in Kashmir, New Delhi again refuses to face the reality and delays engaging in a sincere dialogue with the separatist leadership. The Kashmiris have overwhelmingly announced that peaceful processions and not guns are now their favoured means of protest. This needs to be encouraged and allowed to take firm roots because it could help to put an end to the bloodshed in Kashmir and make an amicable resolution of the problem easy. The phenomenon could also have a positive influence over a dozen such violent conflicts in other Muslim regions across the world. But if peaceful protests are crushed like armed movements, another wave of violence will take root, reinforcing the idea that the gun is mightier than a slogan.