Kashmir: A Paradise in chains

Everywhere you look, right-wing fascism is on the march. Demagogues rule some of the most powerful nations in the world. At home, we have Trump, supported by an extremist right-wing party. In Brazil, we see Bolsonaro, who won election through a subterfuge, a corrupt alliance with a judge who imprisoned his opponent, Lula. In China, Xi Jinping appears to have cleared the stage to remain President for life and reverse whatever small measure of political freedom ordinary Chinese people had gained. In the UK, the racist toff Boris Johnson ambles about 10 Downing Street.

And in India where I spent my childhood, the HIndu supremacist Sangh Parivar rules the center unchallenged, with its political wing, the BJP in full control of Parliament.  Like all right-wing governments, the BJP and Modi have opted to make a minority the target for their discriminatory politics. In India, the most convenient minority is the Muslim population, and the highest pay-off for a politician bent on sowing divisions is to focus on Kashmir.

“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.”

If there is a Paradise on this earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.

— attributed to Jahangir 

It’s the kind of treacle you’d find in a travel brochure. In fact, every travel brochure on Kashmir will have this line. Here’s the thing though, Jehangir was right.

Kashmir is a vast paradise of sublimely beautiful valleys, imposing mountains and breathtaking gorges. Its pastures are bejeweled with the sparkle of wildflowers and the radiance of rushing streams. Its high peaks and glaciers pierce a sky that is the clearest blue. At night, in the high valleys, it feels as if the stars are close enough to touch.

I am fortunate enough to have traveled our planet and have set foot on many of its most beautiful mountain ranges. The trip to Pehalgam, Srinagar, Jammu and Gulmarg I was fortunate to take more than three decades ago as a ten year old remains a vivid highlight of my travels. Since that somewhat peaceful interlude in the 80s, Kashmir has seen waves of protests and insurgency, and an unrelenting military response by the Indian government.

When the British left India in 1947, exhausted by World War II, Kashmir was a “princely state”, led by a monarch who had allied with the British empire. In the land grab and ethnic cleansing that accompanied the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan, Kashmir was unexpectedly partitioned as well, with one segment annexed by Pakistan. The green valley of Jammu and Kashmir, and the startling moonscape that is Ladakh were annexed by India. Ordinary Kashmiris never had a say in the matter, just as so many millions across India and Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh weren’t asked whether they wished for their homes to become part of this or that country.

In the ensuing decades, most of the border regions have accepted their fate as part of either an India or Pakistan. There are exceptions. The exploitative actions of the ruling classes in India and Pakistan or ethnic fault-lines have occasionally sparked separatist movements. Punjab saw a long-running insurgency for independence in the 80s and 90s, in the mountains of north-eastern India the Indian state’s repressive policies have fueled a decade long insurgency, in Baluchistan a similar dynamic has been playing out in reaction to the high-handed rule of the ruling Pakistani elite.

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The real-politik at play in all these regional conflicts is the same. The population centers and powers that lie along the major rivers/plains seek to to control their drainage area and sources and create protective buffer zones by annexing the abutting, vast, empty areas. This is true of the powers that arise along the Indus in Pakistan, the Ganges in India, and the Yangtze and Huang in China. The people who live in places like Kashmir or Tibet or Xinjiang don’t have the numbers to resist.

Of all the post-1947 border questions, Kashmir has remained pre-eminent. Several wars have been fought over and in the region. China controls two small section high in the north, Shaksgam and Aksai Chin which in 1947 were part of the princely state called Kashmir. Pakistan controls Gilgit, Baltistan and a narrow strip along the Western edge of the former princely state.

12 million people live in Indian administered Kashmir, the majority of them are Muslim. All of them are Indian citizens, but for decades they have enjoyed a degree of autonomy as a recognition that the accession of Kashmir into India did not follow the clearer route of most of the other citizens. Kashmir has had largely its own legal code, and only Kashmiris were allowed to purchase land.

Then, two weeks ago, the Indian government led by the right-wing Hindu-nationalist Modi, suddenly evacuated Kashmir of all tourists, claiming there was a threat of terrorism. A day later the central government in Delhi announced it was dividing the state of Kashmir into two “Union Territories” that would be directly administered from Delhi. The central government also revoked the special autonomy granted to Kashmir and Kashmiris.

Several Indian legal scholars believe such changes, made without consulting Kashmir’s elected state government are unconstitutional. But Modi shares with Trump a taste for such legal battles.

Modi’s government is also engaged in a “citizenship review” at another end of the country. During the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, some indeterminate number of refugees entered India, and some have remained. Most prior Indian governments have paid no attention to any such refugees, who are largely integrated into Indian society. In any case, there are few social, cultural or linguistic differences between the people of Bangladesh and the people who live in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. And merely 24 years prior to 1971, all these people lived in the same country.

Now, 48 years after 1971, the BJP led government is using the pretext of 1971 refugees to question the citizenship of vast numbers of Muslims living in the region. Their aim in Assam is quite plainly to strip millions of Muslims of Indian citizenship. As part of this campaign, the government seems to have started creating vast detention camps. Perhaps the idea for the camps comes from Trump, or from the camps China has created to incarcerate millions of ethnic Uighurs. The language being used by Modi’s party to describe Muslims in Assam is frighteningly reminiscent of rhetoric that has accompanied gross human rights violations. 

The head of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party took his invective against illegal Muslim immigrants to a new level this week as the general election kicked off, promising to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah referred to such illegal immigrants as “termites”, a description he also used last September, when he drew condemnation from rights groups. The U.S. State Department also noted the remark in its annual human rights report.

“Infiltrators are like termites in the soil of Bengal,” Shah said on Thursday at a rally in West Bengal, as voting in India’s 39-day general election started. — www.reuters.com/…

Engage in any political conversation on open social media and you will soon notice numerous BJP supporters echoing Mr. Shah’s language, referring to the Muslim population as “termites”.

“Termites” don’t have rights that human beings respect. And so it goes with Kashmir under BJP rule. The central government has placed all politicians under house arrest, and put the entire state under a curfew, closing all schools, universities and businesses. Kashmir isn’t even a state anymore, it has been broken into two pieces, neither of which is a state, they will both be administered as union territories by the central government.

How did it come to this? Well, it’s been a long road. Over the past few decades, the Indian government, under both left and right-wing governments has eroded the rights of Kashmiri citizens. Under the guise of fighting an insurgency, Delhi has tolerated widespread and severe human rights abuses by security forces who have turned Kashmir into what can only be termed a decades-long military occupation. Rape, maiming, torture, this has all been swept under the rug.

Kashmir’s industries have withered under the draconian military presence, and its people have been impoverished. After decades of declining relative income, Delhi has decided to open the floodgates to non-Kashmiri investors. It is likely that most of the most attractive Kashmiri real property will now be snapped up by India’s upper crust. Gentrification in the Himalayas.

We cannot lay all the blame on the right-wing extremists who currently occupy the Indian parliament. Prior Indian governments, including the center-left Congress party, presided over the deterioration of rights in Kashmir. So in a sense this is the culmination of a process that has been underway for a while. But what has just happened feels different.

It’s worth noting that many of the attacks on minorities and fundamental human rights we’re seeing across the world are a direct result of the rise of a trans-national right-wing movement. It’s not accidental that while immigrants and minorities are being persecuted with fresh zeal across the US, indigenous rights are being trampled in Brazil, a campaign to imprison millions of Uighurs is underway in China, immigrants are demonized in Eastern Europe, and religion, caste out-groups are being persecuted in India. This is a global threat to the rights of minorities and the concept of integrated societies with equal rights for all. Many of the governments that would be more circumspect about their human rights abuses are more blatant today because of what they see the Trump administration doing or not.

There are also long-running domestic trends at play in India. The BJP is in the position it is because the Congress party has atrophied by perusing a policy of dynastic succession, reserving the top positions for the Nehru-Gandhi family while kneecapping every other talented politicians, and hewing to old ideas about campaigns, platforms and organization. Many promising politicians flee Congress to form their own regional off-shoots, balkanizing the left in India. It has not helped that the Nehru’s great-grandchildren appear completely removes from the cares of ordinary Indians, married to multi-millionaires and having enjoyed perks that most ordinary Indians cannot aspire to. Modi meanwhile, presents himself as a tea-stall worker who has done well, which is true. Though he’s also been known to accept the occasional gift of a $20,000 suit.

That trajectory contains a lesson for US as well. Not only for the Democratic party, which should avoid becoming as sclerotic as Congress is, but also for the rest of us. Modi is far more dangerous than Trump is, partly because he’s actually somewhat effective. If a Tom Cotton were to follow Trump, he might do far more damage.

— @subirgrewal

1947: When even the fruit on the trees tasted of blood.

70 years ago today, the British government, exhausted by the second World War retreated from its largest colony, India. In doing so, the British Empire finally acquiesced to the right of the sub-continent’s peoples to determine their own political fate.

The first, halting steps towards devolution of power were made in response to enormous Indian military and materiel contributions during World War I. It took decades of violent rebellion, non-violent protest and eventually, the cost of the second World War to loosen the British grip on India. After all that, in mid-August 1947, two new nations, India and Pakistan were created. Suddenly, almost 400 million people were free. Decolonization in India eventually led to the collapse of all European colonies across Asia and Africa.

There were a multitude of reasons that the Indian independence movement had split along religious lines and led to demands for two separate nations. But chief among them was identity. As with most places, the people of the sub-continent find their identities in ethnicity, language, culture, politics and yes religion as well.

It was religion and a fear of subordination that divided United India in two. Pakistan for the Muslim majority regions, and India for the Hindu majority regions. Later, in the 20th century, the two geographically separate halves of Pakistan split along ethnic and linguistic lines. East Pakistan became Bangladesh, with some help from the Indian army and much resistance from West Pakistani forces.

The primary Pakistani and Indian leaders at independence almost without exception failed to understand the ramifications of the ethno-religious-nationalism they had set in motion with partition. The New York Times has published two essays to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence, both worth reading. Pankaj Mishra’s India at 70, and the Passing of Another Illusion discusses how India’s political establishment has failed to live up to the democratic ideals expressed at independence. Abbas Nasir’s How Pakistan Abandoned Jinnah’s Ideals give the Pakistani elite the same treatment.

On August 14th, 1947, when Pakistan became independent of the British Empire, it’s precise borders were unknown. On August 15th, 1947, when India became independent, it’s borders were uncertain. For tens of millions of people in Punjab, Sindh and Bengal, the celebrations were colored by a deep uncertainty. Would their homes end up on the “wrong” side of the border, and would they be forced to flee?

Not till August 16th, 1947 was the Radcliffe line defining the borders between India and Pakistan disclosed to representatives of the two new nations. It was published on the 17th. Cyril Radcliffe, an British lawyer with no previous Indian experience was given five weeks to consult with the Boundary Commission and determine the borders based on Muslim, Sikh and Hindu majorities in different areas. Radcliffe left the country before the results were published and reportedly refused payment for the service.

As soon as the Radcliffe line was made public, a great migration was set in motion. Eventually, 15 million people would migrate under panicked circumstances, from homes within India to Pakistan and vice-versa. Over 11 million of those migrations would be in Punjab and Sindh, the vast province in the north-west. Within a few months, a society and culture that had evolved over centuries shattered along communal lines.

Sporadic violence, which had begun prior to independence, spiraled out of control as the ramifications of partition became clear to individuals and communities. Neither the British colonial authorities nor the newly constituted Indian and Pakistani governments were prepared for what ensued. As people left villages and towns that had been home to their families for centuries, theft and extortion grew rampant. Killings were followed by reprisals, rape and abduction by more abduction and rape.

By 1948, over 2 million people were believed to have gone missing. The number murdered was in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps as high as 2 million. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were abducted and new identities forced upon them.

The magnitude and scale of the panicked migration and the violence that ensued is difficult to comprehend. The ferocity and intimacy of the pogroms has few comparisons in history. In many places, neighbors murdered and preyed on people they had known for generations.

In villages where not much had changed for centuries, the migration and blood-letting erased a third or more of their population within a matter of days. Virtually every part of Punjab and Sindh suddenly lost the human element of half their culture.

Across what once was a United Punjab, in thousands of towns and villages, lie the crumbling ruins of unattended temples, mosques and gurudwaras. The people who worshipped there spirited away to the other side of the border, or killed in their homes or along the way.

Not all these abandoned places of worship are neglected. Some are tended by an aging man or woman who does not pray to this particular god. They tend to these physical spaces in the memory of a childhood friend or neighbor. It is, a higher, more human form of devotion.


During the First and Second World Wars, the civilian population of India was rarely threatened directly. The German light cruiser Emden did bombard Madras in World War I.  In World War II, the Japanese advance (aided by Bose’s INA) was stopped decisively in Kohima, though Andaman and Nicobar were occupied. The butchery of civilians that was a feature of WW-II in both Asia and Europe did not reach United India. Nevertheless, India did not remain unaffected. 2 million civilians starved to death during the Bengal famine, many in the streets of Calcutta, within sight of colonial bureaucrats who could have alleviated their suffering. This indifference reached the very top of the British government.

For most Indians and many Pakistanis, the independence celebrations on August 14th and 15th remain joyful celebrations. As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, British rule was increasingly seen as onerous, capricious and unnatural. At Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar, while hundreds of thousands of Indian sepoys fought across Europe and the Middle-East under the British banner, Indian Army troops were ordered by their British officer to fire on unarmed protesters. A thousand people were killed. That attack on an peaceful gathering led even the most Anglophile of Indians to question continued British presence in India.

The population of United India was just under 400 million on the eve of partition. A small fraction of the population, less than 5%, was forced to migrate. Most Muslim populations across North and South India, far from the borders stayed in place. The migrations were largely restricted to Bengal and the states along the Indus river, Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir.

Bengal remained, for a variety of reasons, relatively free of violence. The sons and daughters of Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir killed each other till the rivers literally turned red. This year again, the anniversary of independence/partition will evoke a mixture of both pride and shame for many in Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir.

The Washington Post has an article on the horrors of Partition with oral histories.

This diary’s title is taken from one of those histories:

Even the fruit on the trees tasted of blood, recalls Sudershana Kumari, who fled from her home town in Pakistan to India. “When you broke a branch, red would come out,” she said, painting an image of how much blood had soaked the soil in India.

The New York Times also asked readers to contribute oral histories. There are millions of such stories.

Several artists have mined the trauma of partition for material, producing books, short stories and movies.

Mohinder Sarna’s short stories on partition are now available in English, a collection titled Savage Harvest. They cannot be recommended highly enough. Intizar Hussein wrote extensively on partition, including in the novel Basti. Jyotirmoyee Devi’s novella Epar Ganga, Opar Ganga was translated into English as The River Churning. Numerous authors approached the vicious violence of partition from a distance, discussing it in the abstract or from a child’s perspective. Bapsi Sidhwa’s novels, especially Ice-Candy Man (later re-titled Cracking India) is a great example. Khuswant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is unflinchingly different in that respect. Saadat Hassan Manto’s short stories are generally superb, and several deal with the partitionToba Tek Singh is the most widely known. Naseem Hijazi’s Khaak aur Khoon is only available in Urdu, but Anis Kidwai’s memoir, In Freedom’s Shade, has been translated into English. Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas is also accesible in English. More recently, Anuradha Roy’s novel An Atlas of Impossible Longing is set across several decades, including the 1940s. Amit Majmudar’s Partitions narrates the story of three children and an old man trying to travel to safety. And of course, there is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

When it comes to movies, Garam Hawa is considered the classic. Shyam Benegal’s Mammo is probably a close second. Khamosh Pani is intense and moving. Kartar Singh was one of the earliest movies on the partition, and featured Amrita Pritam’s poem Aaj Aakhan Waris Shah Nun. The later Bollywood movie Pinjar included the poem too, it is probably the most widely known poe on partition. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan was turned into a movie, as was Sahni’s Tamas. The sprawling TV series Buniyaad aired in the 1980s and continues to find an audience.

Since the violence largely impacted Punjab, Punjabi (on both sides of the current border) authors are over-represented. It is the primary historical topic in Punjabi literature of the 20th century.

When it comes to non-fiction, Collins and Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight is an accessible and dramatic retelling of partition. I read it as a teenager and I still recall my initial shock at the scale and scope of the violence. In most families, the trauma of partition was not openly discussed. Several non-fiction works have focused on the partition including Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India relates interviews with a number of people who lived through 1947. Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition recounts the events with a reporter’s viewpoint.

— @subirgrewal | Cross-posted to NotMeUs.org