Celebrating Independence Day never felt more uncomfortable

August 15 is a black day in Kashmir. Since the day I started to understand things around me, all I’ve seen is a total communication blockade. Our phones stop working from midnight all the way into the evening. Personally, I’ve never ever embraced the idea of the “independence” of India in my life. But if India wants us to share the idea of ‘their’ independence or if they consider us an inclusive part of the country, why are we not allowed to voice out our opinions on this day of celebration? If the Indian state is so confident about its celebration being ours, why is Section 144 imposed on us every Independence Day? It is just their independence, not ours.

Saima, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir

August 15 means crackdowns, protests, lockdown. Growing up, it was (and still is) terrifying because we have police and army personnel everywhere with the most menacing weapons. Stepping out means playing a game of life and death—there’s no guarantee that one would return. People have been killed in the past on this day of freedom.

*Fatima, Leh, Ladakh

We have never participated in India’s Independence Day celebrations and I don’t think we will participate in the future. We see this day as a black day. In a country where a section of people is deprived of basic rights and live a life of conflict, how can you celebrate freedom? So, it’s just another day under the occupation.

Shariq Shah, Anantnag (Islamabad), Jammu and Kashmir

The day is all about India showcasing its military power—the parades, army, CRPF. Those in authority make young and impressionable minds dance to the tunes that invoke nationalism—oblivious to the fact that it’s all propaganda. I was one among them too. But today, it’s just another humiliating celebration to remind us that Kashmir has been robbed from us and that we’re but prisoners in our own homes.

*Zainab, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir

The stories of Saima, Fatima, Shariq, and Zainab, are but a few voices of the millions of Kashmiris, living in doubt and fear, who have been incarcerated by the Indian state. These stories are of a people who have been stripped of their basic human rights, their azadi, as they helplessly watch the celebration of a nation’s freedom, a nation that has invaded and imprisoned them in their own homes. As a citizen of Mainland India, living far from the people of these peripheral lands, I may never entirely understand the pain and the suffering of the Kashmiris that the world ignored for decades. But this year on August 15, as Narendra Modi, the muscular nationalist with his 56-inch chest addressing the nation, proclaimed, “Today, we are breathing in a free India,” celebrating Independence Day never felt more uncomfortable. 

My tryst with Kashmir began on one August 15. A 90s kid, Kashmir for me was synonymous with the images evoked in Mani Ratnam’s seminal film Roja (1992)—beautiful valleys and open skies nestled within the imposing Himalayan peaks—where couples went for a honeymoon. Kashmir was a mystical white canvas that could hypnotize even the most cynical—a land of beauty and infinite possibilities. A decade later, as a young teen, I watched the movie again—this time including the scenes of bloodshed and violence—portions I was seemingly protected from viewing by my parents. 

The scene that had beguiled me the most was where the Indian cryptologist (the protagonist) held captive by a deadly separatist group in Kashmir watches in horror as the Indian flag is set on fire. The hero, breaking through a glass door, rushes outside and falls on the burning flag to put out the fire as a strategically placed background score leaves one with a lump in the throat, tears in the eyes, and goosebumps on the skin. The film had made me an unsuspecting nationalist. After this, Kashmir to me, unfortunately, was also a land where Indian tourists get kidnapped by terrorists at the drop of a hat. 

In reality, the true story of Kashmir was missing from Roja and almost every romanticized portrayal on the big screen that for many was a window into the region. To add to that paradox, there was a conspicuous absence of the history of Kashmir in our school textbooks. Even in places where it found a mention, like the Indo-Pak wars, it was through the eyes of the Indian state. There was something wrong with the picture of Kashmir I was exposed to—something seemed to hover over these images but remained missing from the frame. The Kashmiris. Where were the Kashmiris? Where were the humans we see in our most picturesque songs—as mere blips in the distance consumed by the monumentality of the landscape? The guise of jannat (heaven) that is Kashmir overshadows its lived everyday meanings, and this is precisely the problem in the way Kashmir has been portrayed to us—a mystical land to be desired or feared but not to be understood—never through the voices and faces that actually make Kashmir. 

*Jalal’s was the first voice I heard from Kashmir. It was yet another August 15. The tricolor was everywhere and nationalistic fervor in the air. “How do you celebrate Independence Day?” someone asked Jalal, perched comfortably on their couch of elite ignorance at an MNC in Chennai. Back then, I had given in to the persuasion of the state that structured national imagination as one in which Kashmir is seen as an integral part of the Indian mainland. Therefore, Kashmir was a fundamental part of my national identity and pride, and the map of India was complete with Kashmir as its crowning glory. But Jalal’s response was the beginning of my understanding of Kashmir. “The day we get azadi we’ll show you how,” he answered. He didn’t have to explain who the “we” and “you” he was referring to. 

Jalal’s answer didn’t find acceptance. It was deemed ungrateful, just like the cries of azadi that ring across the Kashmir Valley. This is how the imagination of Kashmir “belonging” to India often excludes Kashmiris themselves, whose voices are heard but seldom listened to. Most Indians fail to accept the reflexive disposition of Kashmiris to resist the nation, a disposition embodied from adolescence. 

“For instance, at flag-hoisting ceremonies in Kashmir’s schools, even in those run by the Indian Army, many Kashmiri students intentionally disrespect the tricolor. There are rules to hoist the flag, and students usually ignore these rules as the urge for insubordination runs deep in their minds,” noted Onaiza Drabu, a Kashmiri anthropologist. Kashmiris have also historically used cricket as a symbolic resistance against Indian occupation. “It is rare to find a Kashmiri who supports the Indian cricket team, and even rarer for open celebrations of an Indian triumph. It is more about India’s loss than the opponent’s victory,” said Srinagar-based *Mohammed. 

This resentment goes back to the time of Kashmir’s accession to India, which many Kashmiris consider not legitimate. As India and Pakistan gained independence from the British, Kashmir initially decided to remain independent, choosing not to become a part of either Pakistan or India. However, after militants from Pakistan invaded, the Maharaja of Kashmir, signed a letter acceding to India (which would later become Article 370). 

Soon after, Pakistan sparked the first of many wars (First Kashmir war-1947) fought between the two nations that would subject Kashmir to violence, displacement, unimaginable trauma, and the loss of thousands of lives, for decades that followed. Indo-Pak Wars apart, the Indian Army, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Personnel (BSF), and various separatist militant groups have committed severe human rights abuses against Kashmiri civilians. Human rights groups say more than 100,000 people have died since 1989. But the crimes by militants are incomparable to the larger scale abuse by Indian state forces who also use rape as a cultural weapon of war. Rights groups confirm that sexual violence against Kashmiri women by Indian forces is common and routinely goes unpunished. Indian forces gang-raped 882 Kashmiri women in 1992 alone. 

The common thread that binds all these decades of suffering is that the narrative of Kashmir has always been controlled by India, and not by Kashmir or Kashmiris. But the most brutal manifestation of this assertion was on August 5, 2019, with the abrogation of Article 370. 

On August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood, dividing it into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The article in conjunction with Article 35A allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy—its own constitution, a separate flag, and the freedom to make laws. But not anymore. Kashmir was now infiltrated and colonized by the Indian state, and Kashmiris, stripped of their identities, were made prisoners in their own home. 

The demolition man, in a majoritarian act of aggression, had laid the foundation to erode the character of India’s only Muslim-majority state, to further his agenda of a Hindu Rashtra. In the last year, Modi’s India has brazenly humiliated Kashmir and its people, robbing them of their basic human rights and making a mockery of the farce that is the Indian democracy today. Their democratically elected Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is still under house arrest a year after the revocation of the state’s special status. 

A year after Kashmiris woke up to no Internet or cellular network that completely cut them off from the outside world, mobile services are only partially restored while internet speed largely remains restricted to 2G. There has been widespread beating and killing of innocent civilians (including children), and the destruction of people’s homes by the state with absolute impunity. Many of the 6,605 political activists (including 144 minors), whose cries for azadi couldn’t be heard due to the communication blockade, were taken into custody in August last year and are still illegally detained. Kashmir’s economy has also taken a hit with more than 100,000 people becoming unemployed since the abrogation. Regular citizens apart, the media continues to be steeply curtailed, with journalists routinely harassed and intimidated by government forces. 

Basically, Kashmiris have all major fundamental rights effectively suspended. But under Indian occupation, the Kashmiri doesn’t even have the right to be offended. To stay alive, the Kashmiri has to be complicit in their own humiliation. Protest, and the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), will be invoked discriminately to stifle dissent as it has been used in the last 12 months. The courts have also turned their backs. The Supreme Court is yet to hear numerous Public Interest Litigations (PILs) challenging the denial of different human rights. 

With Kashmir in the dark, the Kashmiri Pandit issue has been further bastardized by Hindutva ideologues to demonize Kashmiri Muslims. The government has actively propagated the popular narrative in the country that holds Kashmiri Muslims accountable for the exodus. However, the facts and circumstances in which Kashmiri Pandits left/or were driven out of the Valley remain uninvestigated even 30 years after the Exodus. 

Writer Neerja Mattoo, editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Miraas: Reflecting the Culture and Heritage of Kashmir, said, “I think the majority of Muslims were as ignorant of what was happening as the Pandits and besides I don’t think they could’ve done anything because they were also under threat. You have all kinds of elements. You can’t blame the whole Muslim community; there are all kinds of people who take advantage of the situation, including looters, plunderers, people who are brainwashed into hating this minority thinking that they are representatives of India.” Multiple reports confirmed that as mass killings and heinous violence against women that shook Pandits to the core, many Kashmiri Muslims risked their own lives to save them.

Today, Kashmir is far from a state of normalcy that the center wants you to believe. Rana Ayyub, one of India’s best-known investigative reporters, said, “Even from a moving car, it was clear that the reality in Kashmir veered starkly from the picture in the mainstream Indian press. Soldiers stood on every street corner. Machine-gun nests guarded intersections, and shops were shuttered on each block. Apart from the military presence, the streets were lifeless.” But it is this oppression that Mainland India celebrated on August 5 this year, the first anniversary of Kashmir being turned into the world’s largest prison, as India, the once-colonized, became a colonizer. 

People of Mainland India need to understand that Kashmir is a kaleidoscope of histories and memories, signs and signification, actions and emotions. We need to turn the kaleidoscope beyond the dominant images to see the other side of the Kashmir story. The side that shows the people who live the reality that is Kashmir. Because at the end of the day, Kashmir belongs to the Kashmiris, and it is the voices of the Saimas, Fatimas, Shariqs, and Zainabs that every Kashmir story needs to amplify. They need to be heard and listened to and their *names should not have to be changed on request under fear for speaking the truth. India needs to listen to Kashmir and its cries of azadi. Until then, taking pride in my azadi will never feel comfortable.

Featured image: Shariq Shah

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