Mohd Tahir Ganie (Dublin City University, Ireland) argues that while the Indian state has adopted a multi-pronged strategy to quell the anti-India political mobilisations in Kashmir, the policy has been only marginally successful. This is primarily because the narrative of Kashmiri self-determination is stronger than ever among the new generation of Kashmiris that has emerged as the most significant actor to challenge the status quo in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In the last decade, the youth generation in Indian-administered Kashmir has emerged as a significant political actor in the movement for Kashmiri self-determination—or what is locally known as Tehreek. Comprising over 30 per cent of the total population, Kashmiri youth (15-30 years old) are the main driving force behind the recent anti-India mobilisations (2008, 2010, 2016) in Kashmir, and as such are viewed by the Indian state as a major security challenge. The state frequently reports that these youths readily mobilise in anti-India protests and often clash with Indian security forces by throwing stones at them, especially during the gunfights between government forces and the local rebels.
Since 2008, India has responded to these youth-led anti-India mobilisations by killing over 250 young men and women, while also injuring and blinding hundreds of others. In the process, between 2016-2017 alone, the Indian government arrested more than 10,000 young men for taking part in such political protests.
The Indian state has also resorted to a non-militaristic approach as an alternate strategy to tackle what is virtually a civilian revolt against the status quo, by facilitating job placements of Kashmiri youth, encouraging their participation in recreational activities, and providing them with scholarships. This particular strategy is called the policy of “engagement” in the official discourses. An example of this policy put into effect can be observed from 2011 when the Indian government launched the Prime Minister Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS), which covered course and maintenance fees up to INR 1,30,000 per year for Kashmiri students who enrolled in educational institutions in different Indian cities. Later, the government constituted the Udaan scheme (costing INR 175 crore) to enhance the employability of 40,000 Kashmiri youth over a period of five years. For organising recreational activities (such as cricket and football tournaments), the Indian government used its vast reserve of armed forces in Kashmir to carry out such programs.
These policies encouraged/facilitated migration of many Kashmiri youth out of Kashmir, especially to rich Middle Eastern countries and metropolitan cities of India. Ultimately, the underlying motive of all these measures was to wean Kashmiri youth away from political protests and bring them into what Indian officials call the “mainstream”. Once any of the young men engaged with such offers landed jobs in multinational corporations, the economic incentives increased significantly for such subjects, eventually discouraging them from taking risks in being part of political protests.
Nonetheless, how far these policies have actually worked for India is hard to tell. Some Indian army generals, such as Lt Gen (retired) Syed Ata Hasnain, who served at a top position in Kashmir in the post-2008 period, think that army-sponsored activities targeting Kashmiri youth can contribute to the “counter-narrative” within the framework of counter-insurgency doctrine of ‘winning hearts and minds’. Indian journalist David Devadas, on the other hand, believes that these huge counter-insurgency funds have led to corruption within the Indian armed forces and contributed to what he terms as a “conflict economy”. In an article published in Force, a defence magazine, Ghazala Wahab has termed the army-sponsored recreational activities as “an investment of limited returns”. As a result, there are varied opinions regarding the efficacy of the so-called engagement policy.
The battle of narratives in Kashmir
Whatever be the outcome of Indian state’s (militaristic and non-militaristic) policies, one thing has become quite evident: over the past decade a tremendous generational shift that severely undermines India’s control (and claim) over the region has taken place—this generational shift is perhaps the reason that the right-wing publication Breitbart also expressed keen interest in recent Kashmir protests, as the situation on the ground fits well within Breitbart’s thesis of “generational dynamics”.
Similarly, the Western media has also taken note of the new political developments in Kashmir, with regular publication of stories that are largely sourced from Kashmiri journalists working on the ground. This has challenged the dominant narrative of Indian media that toes the official line, i.e. blaming Pakistan for the anti-India movement in Kashmir.
The substantial pool of educated, English-speaking Kashmiri youth have greatly contributed in countering the state’s narratives on Kashmir by writing about their own experiences of pervasive militarisation of civilian spaces, daily state oppression, lack of freedoms, and human rights abuses. The translocal communicative spaces have shaped an informatised and technological Kashmiri subject. The Internet and its social media networks have produced a huge influence on the youth generation, which disseminates their views and ideas online despite vast surveillance and censorship. There is a cross-cultural exchange happening in Kashmiri society, where ideas from other places are assimilated and adapted to the local context. The human rights language, especially the reiteration of the right to self-determination, permeates the political discourses of Kashmiri youth, a vast number of whom have begun expressing themselves through varied forms of writings on social media (poems, personal stories, testimonials, articles, opinion columns, anecdotes, one-liners, jokes, humour, allegory, metaphors, and so on). While many of them share their stories through emergent online portals (With Kashmir, Lost Kashmir History, Wande Magazine, Kashmir Walla, Free Press Kashmir, Kashmir Dispatch, Zaanvun Lokchar, etc.), a few of them also publish in local newspapers and magazines, such as Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Life, Kashmir Narrator, etc.
The emergence of this alternative media ecology is specifically linked to what I call “the new political generation in Kashmir”. This Kashmiri contemporary youth generation is ‘new’ because it is different from the older generations in terms of its embeddedness in the translocal communicative space and receptiveness to globalising processes. It is ‘political’ because its formative experiences are shaped in a traumatic (and protracted) war/militarised occupation, giving it intense exposure to a hotly competitive environment of political claims and counter-claims. As Karl Mannheim argues, a generation’s socio-historical location determines its unique political consciousness, attitude and behaviour.
In my research I have examined the dynamic interaction between discourses and contentious politics in the context of Kashmir, showing how in the post-2008 period Kashmiri youth, cumulatively, have produced what I call “the language of contention”, which challenges the assimilationist project of Indian state within their society. It is these narratives of the new political generation in Kashmir which the Indian state attempts to counter, through the policy of “engagement”.
In official discourses, youth protesters are characterised in negative terms (labelled as misguided, paid agents, drug addicts, psychologically/emotionally disturbed etc.). The state attributes youths’ engagement in anti-India political activism to the immature stage of their age. As such, in purview of this perspective, Kashmiri youth protesters must be ‘counselled’ through what former Home Minister of India, P. Chidambaram, calls “smart policing”. Such framing obviously dismisses the autonomous political agency of Kashmiri protesters, and by extension, the political movement of which they are a core and significant part.
Limitations to the counter-narrative
The Indian state’s engagement policy has limitations because political resistances are typically multi-pronged and their counter-hegemonic narratives assume different forms. The state can crush political protests or contain them through violence and use of police force, but narratives operate in a totally different realm that are not easily amenable to the policies of “countering”, especially when the conditions that instigate the political grievances of the people along with an unaddressed human rights crisis remain unchanged. Kashmiri youth engage in contention politics not only through street protests but also through the use of contentious language, which strategically responds to state’s alterations of information. There are overt ways to such counter-hegemonic articulations, but there are also subtler forms, which James Scott describes as ‘hidden transcripts’.
Moreover, the narratives of Kashmiri self-determination are underpinned by a history, and their substance derives from the collective memories of prolonged military occupation and attendant daily oppression. As a result, the counter-narrative that some Indian officials are proposing has definite limitations because it cannot mould the political subjectivity of an entire young generation. However, with material benefits to offer, the state can co-opt a few indigenous individuals and use them to influence other youths. However, there are permanent and longstanding methods and avenues to counter such “counter-narrative” state tactics, even if the state manages to control the communication channels with a solid infrastructure of surveillance and censorship in place. As Hank Johnston as elucidated in the case of former communist countries in Eastern Europe, the state cannot penetrate all the spheres of social life where oppositional speech acts are practiced and reaffrimed, and in one way or another multiplied and amplified through unregulated channels. In Kashmir, such multiplication and amplification of oppositional speech occurs directly as a result of state violence and its excesses within the framework of law that it has established to allow for severe abuses to be perpetrated on dissenting civilians.
Finally, the Indian government’s counter-narrative policy will also confront its own contradictions. The BJP government plans to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution that provide provisional autonomy on paper, ensuring that only state subjects can buy land in Kashmir and the central government laws extend to the state only with the concurrence of the local assembly. By scrapping these articles, the right-wing BJP government apparently wants to settle Indian Hindus from multiple regions of the Indian territory in Kashmir and change the local demography, effectively creating conditions that would lead to further conflict and identity polarisation, with even those Kashmiris, who prefer autonomy within Indian union, swinging to the stance of complete independence.
In the backdrop of this grand plan of completely merging Kashmir into India and annihilating Kashmiri nationalism and its distinct cultural heritage and identity, the state’s counter-narrative will prove highly ineffective. Ultimately, the Indian state must acknowledge the political nature of the Kashmir issue and let the people of the region exercise their right to self-determination. This would be a peaceful and democratic way to resolve the conflict in a path towards establishing a buffer state between three nuclearised nation states (India, Pakistan and China) with a particular focus on Kashmir as a transnational hub of trade and as a significant point of multicultural and poly-ethnic convergence (a stature that Kashmir has historically maintained throughout the centuries in spite of its many foreign rulers).
This piece is based on “Metaphors in the Political Narratives of Kashmiri Youth” was published by South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.
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Dr Mohd Tahir Ganie obtained his PhD in Politics and International Relations from Dublin City University, where he researched Kashmiri youth political activism in the post-2008 period. His essays and articles have appeared in The Japan Times, Caravan, The Express Tribune, Kindle Magazine, Daily Sabah, The Wire, Asia Dialogue, Café Dissensus, and different newspapers and magazines in India-administered Kashmir.