A conversation in Sopore and other stories
Which Indian has not heard of General Dyer? General Dyer opened fire on unarmed protesters. Hundreds died, the figures are disputed between Indian and British version to this day. A commission of enquiry was set up by the English. General Dyer told the Hunter Commission, “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.”
The same argument was made by many to defend Dyer. One of them was the then Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who as a result was assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940, 21 years later.
The action by Singh was generally condemned, but many Indians as well as people of several other countries felt he had carried out an act of great bravery and some press, like nationalist newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika, also held positive views. The common people and revolutionary circles glorified the action of Udham Singh. Most of the press worldwide recalled the story of Jallianwala Bagh and held Sir Michael O’Dwyer responsible for the massacre. Singh was called a “fighter for freedom” and his action was referred to in the Times newspaper as “an expression of the pent-up fury of the down-trodden Indian People”. [Wikipedia]
Udham Singh was not a terrorist. He was a freedom fighter.
In her 2003 book Reporting the Raj: The British Press and India, c. 1880-1922, Chandrika Kaul writes:
In the last 18 days, 11 innocent people have been killed in Kashmir by CRPF troops. There is no Hunter Commission. Instead, the Indian Home Minister is blaming Pakistan-based terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, for inciting the mobs.
And how does the press respond? The killing of a nine year old boy by the CRPF was frontpage in all the Delhi papers. Have a look at two copies of the same day’s Hindustan Times, Delhi edition, and spot the difference:
The early city edition’s headline read, “J&K burns, protests kill two more.” I couldn’t take my eyes off that headline for a while. It was, I thought, like saying ‘Protests Kill Hundreds in Jallianwala Bagh.’ Protest does not kill. Bullets do.
They must have realised how darn wicked that is, and changed it on the late city edition to, “J&K burns, 2 more killed”. While making the change, they didn’t say CRPF killed them. They just got killed.
That is not all. The day’s lead story was also about death – it’s all about death in India these days – death by accident. Death by accident on the Moolchand underpass, not far from where I live. The headline had a question: “5 dead in 5 days. Who’s to blame?” The stroy strongly attacked the Public Works Department of the Delhi state government for faulty road construction and for not putting a warning sign. In the late city edition they even got photographic evidence. In the Kashmir story, however, there were no questions, no blaming, no tone of outrage. Reporting the Sopre firing from Srinagar, the copy went:
The vicious cycle of death-protest-death continued unabated in Kashmir on Monday.
A day after the Jammu and Kashmir government called the CRPF “an uncontrolled force”, Tajamul Bashir (17) and Ashif Hasan Rather (9) died in firing by the force in Sopore and Baramulla, both 55 km north of Srinagar.
This brings the number of civilian deaths at the hands of troops to eight in 15 days, three of them in the past 24 hours.
Rather was part of a march to Sopore called by the separatist Hurriyat Conference to protest the deaths.
Now see the changed late city version:
The vicious cycle of death-protest-death continued unabated in Kashmir on Monday, with two more youths — one of them a nine year old — being killed in protest demonstrations, taking the total number of civilians killed this month to eight.
Tajamul Bashir (17) and Ashif Hassan Rather (9) died in firing by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Sopore and Baramulla, respectively, both towns north of Srinagar.
Bashir was part of a procession in Sopore that had gathered to mourn the death of Bilal Ahmed Wani (22), shot dead by the CRPF on Sunday.
The CRPF, however, claimed it had to fire because the procession turned violent.
It said the fracas began after a group of unarmed state policemen rushed into the CRPF camp to protect themselves from the protesters. “The mob attacked the CRPF post and forcibly tried to enter,“ said CRPF spokesman Ajay Chaturvedi in Delhi.
“The sentry had no option but to fire,“ he said.Similarly, nine-year-old Rather had joined a march called by the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference, from Srinagar to Sopore, to protest Wani’s killing. Though all top Hurriyat leaders were arrested following the call, a large crowd assembled and the march began.
Their numbers swelled fur- ther at Baramulla, breaking down barricades placed by the police and attacking police vehicles, following which they were fired upon.
The current round of escalating violence began after a Sopore youth Tufail Ahmed Matoo (17), during a routine protest on June 11, was hit by a tear gas shell on the head and succumbed to his injuries. Violent protests and fierce repression have been a regular feature since then.
With inputs from New Delhi
The early city report gave the impression that 9-year-old Rather’s participation in the protest march called by separatists – yes, separatists! – justified his killing. That is toned down in the second version. The tone of outrage used in the Delhi accident story is completely missing. The CRPF spokesperson is quoted by the dead boys’ parents, or eyewitnesses, are not to be bothered with.
What is most interesting is the phrase “vicious cycle” – it’s a phrase that explains away the spate of “violence”. Protest, stone-pelting, fake encounters, militant clashes, strikes and the quelling of protests by killing unarmed or stone-pelting protestors – this is reported in the Delhi media not just with a lot of obfuscation and dishonesty, but also with a deliberate sense of confusion. A lay reader gets a general, vague image of “violence” – it’s just a lot of random violence taking place in Kashmir. Then, in op-eds and special reports, TV debates and Arnab Goswami’s yelling all get together to assure the Indian middle class that it’s all about Pakistan-Geelani-militancy-Islamism. And so, kill we must.
It takes an Associated Press report in a foreign publication to understand what started this “vicious cycle” this summer:
The latest street violence erupted after a police probe in June found Indian army soldiers had killed three Kashmiri civilians in a staged gunbattle and then claimed their victims were militants in order to claim a reward. The army responded by suspending two officers.
In an anti-India protest following the incident, a teenager who was reportedly just passing by was killed when he was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade fired by police.
That killing sparked more violent demonstrations and a police crackdown that killed 10 more people, according to police and witness reports.
“Our fight is against Indian occupation and as long as this military occupation continues this place will continue to witness human rights violations,” Masarat Alam, a top separatist politician, told reporters recently. According to police, Alam has gone underground to evade arrest. [Aijaz Hussain]
The Indian Express was the only Delhi paper which reported on the frontpage that it was more than just the killing of two boys – the report gave a sense of the scale of the protest in bullet points:
*The busy highway linking Srinagar to north Kashmir has been taken over by protesters, moving in large groups and chanting Azadi slogans.
*Felled poplars, stones and burning tyres are being used to block the road.
*Each time police and CRPF personnel in armoured vehicles run over barricades, people disperse into the paddy fields, only to regroup.
*Security forces had to fire tear smoke shells and resort to firing after protestors hurled stones and bricks at them.
*The barricades are being manned by dozens of angry young men who open the road only to let ambulances pass.
*At several points on the road, protesters have painted “Go India Go” signs. [Muzamil Jaleel]
“Go India Go” and “Quit Kashmir” are the clever new slogans of 2010, playing upon the slogans of the civil disobedience phase of the Indian freedom struggle. “Go India Go” is what they’re shouting from the mosques right now in Anantnag/Islamabad, a Facebook update tells me. It’s in English and it’s secular!
Facebok is full of posters like this one:
Just before this “vicious cycle” erupted, I was in Kashmir for ten days. I went to Kupwara, where the bodies of the fake encounter victims first arrived. The people who take care of the martyr’s graveyard told me that unlike most of the 100 odd bodies they have buried there since 1999, these three did not have their faces mutilated with bullets. Only one of them had a bullet on the nose. They got a photographer to take mugshots, published them in Kashmiri Uzma, and that is how their parents saw their missing sons. They had been taken to the Line of Control with the promise of porters’ jobs at a handsome Rs 500 a day. That is where this “vicious cycle” started but the Hindustan Times will not tell you that. Arnab Goswami will not tell you that. In that place on the LoC, “Machhil sector,” 17 such ‘Pakistanis’ trying to infiltrate have been killed.
On my way back from Kupwara, I stopped by in Sopore, the place which Indian journalists had declared “liberated” in the early Nineties. All of Kashmir today is a Jallianwala Bagh, but if there is a Jallianwala Bagh moment in the Kashmiri struggle, it has be the Sopore massacre of 6 January 1993:
Eyewitnesses in Sopore, a town surrounded by apple orchards in the high mountain valley of Kashmir, said that early on Wednesday Muslim separatists attacked a patrol of Indian security forces, killing at least one member of the Border Security Force. Then, for more than four hours, the security forces, who are mainly Hindus, wreaked revenge in a crowded shopping district. One Muslim woman said: ‘They went berserk. They were shooting women and children at random.’
The Border Security Forces sprayed a public coach with machine-gun fire, killing the driver and more than 15 passengers, said witnesses. Three other cars were also fired on, and then the paramilitary forces set the vehicles ablaze. Next, they began herding the native Kashmiris into shops and houses, said witnesses. Then the security forces shot them, splashed paraffin over the bodies and set the buildings alight. Officially, more than 250 shops and 50 homes were destroyed, but Kashmir sources claim that more than 450 buildings were burnt down. Another 25 bodies may still be trapped in the smoking rubble, claim witnesses.
Initially, the Indian government claimed that the deaths occurred during a shoot-out between Muslim militants and the paramilitary forces, when an explosives cache belonging to the militants blew up and flames spread to nearby dwellings.
But this version failed to explain why so many of the bodies were riddled with bullets. [The Independent, London, 8 January 1993]
In Sopore I met a former militant who now runs a shop. He and his friends were not interested in giving me a sense of those days. They were more keen to talk to me as though I was the Government of India. “Hindustan ko masla-e-Kashmir hal karna hi hoga! India will have to solve the Kashmir problem!”
So what is the solution, I asked. Azadi, they replied.
I said forget azadi, they are not even offering you autonomy or demilitirasation. How will you achieve azadi? You are, I said, like the hunted caught in the tiger’s jaw.
As long as we are alive, they said, we will continue to try and get out of it.
They admitted there were militants even now in rural Sopore. They said whether you demilitarise or get more troops, we will always long for freedom. That is what the Delhi establishment, elite and media are most afraid of acknowledging.
What did I think was the solution, they asked me. I said I don’t know. But as far as I can see, Delhi’s solution are these troops.
People have been out on the streets in Kashmir for three summers now, demanding azadi. India has responded by killing a large number of innocent civilians merely protesting or stone-pelting. The Indian army has termed it “agitational terrorism” and “non-violent terrorism”. For them to use such terms is clearly a moral victory.
But the use of this innovative oxymoron also indicated something else – that India is far more comfortable dealing with insurgency than protest. It is as if India wants them to pick up the gun, so that it can project itself as a victim of “pakistan-sponsored terrorism”. The moment there is “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism”, there will be no opposition to killing with impunity and crushing the people’s desire to secede from India.
And that, all indications are, is where it’s all headed. In Shopian, where a double rape and murder case has been labelled as a case of mere drowning, I met a member of the committee that headed the protest last summer. He told me that they kep politicians and separatists of all hues out in the committee, that people said let’s not connect this to azadi. But when they were denied justice, it brought everyone to the same conclusion. The conclusion was written on the white board in his office, in Urdu and English: “Hum kya chahtey? Azadi! We want freedom.”
There’s a realisation that these protests last three summers are giving thir freedom struggle much more legitimacy than Pakistan-backed guerilla warfare in a post-9/11 world. But there’s also frustration, a growing sense that ‘India only understands the language of the gun’. And there’s also Obama’s impending exit of Afghanistan that may re-open Pakistan’s channels into Kashmir.
See also: Images on BBC Urdu