Sedition, a charge that is obsolete in most democratic societies, is often employed to squelch dissenting voices in totalitarian cultures. So it’s disquieting when there are boisterous calls to use it to curb politically unpalatable opinions in a liberal democracy like India. This is exactly what happened last week after Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy told a convention of political activists and Kashmiri separatists in New Delhi that “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India.” It was, she said, a “historical fact.”
Roy’s comments sparked national outrage. Almost immediately, flag-waving patriots began baying for her blood. India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party demanded that she be arrested for inciting “disaffection” against the government. It was a “perfect case of sedition,” the Hindu nationalist party contended.
The Indian government agreed, and found her statement “bordering sedition.” Roy, undeterred, doubled down, responding in a written statement that “I spoke about justice for the people of Kashmir who live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world.” Kashmiris, she wrote, “live in the terror of what is becoming a police state.” In the end, the government flinched, announcing that it would not press charges against her — perhaps realizing that prosecuting Roy would put the authorities in the untenable proposition of having to slap the same charge on millions of Kashmiris who have long asserted that their citizenship is a matter of dispute.
In fact, Roy and her civil-society critics alike have little bearing on the Kashmir dispute, the unresolved colonial legacy of a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. But the reaction to her remarks is symptomatic of how the majority in India, divorced from realities on the ground in Kashmir, refuses to acknowledge the growing anti-India sentiment in the contested territory, a sentiment that is stoking the embers of separatism to a degree unseen in years.
Azaadi — “freedom” in Urdu and the cri de coeur of Kashmiris — is bewildering to most Indians, and more often than not provokes an aggressively nationalistic response. “What is the meaning of azaadi?” people here ask. Kashmiris have the right to democratically elect their own government; the Indian constitution accords the Himalayan state a “special status”; the territory receives more monetary assistance from New Delhi than any other Indian state. And yet this “spoiled” and “pampered” lot — in the words of one right-wing Hindu organization — wants to break away from us?
Such attitudes only hardened this summer, as the region was convulsed by violent anti-India protests that by many accounts were far worse than the onset of the armed Islamist insurgency in 1989. The Kashmiri “Intifada” was triggered in early June by the killing of a 17-year-old Kashmiri student by Indian security personnel. The ensuing violence claimed 110 lives.
The apathy and indifference of Indians towards Kashmiris’ grievances has deepened despair throughout the Kashmir valley. Material inducements and a modicum of political representation cannot heal Kashmir’s existential scars, much less expunge the spirit of azaadi. Kashmir has its own government, but it is just as directly controlled by New Delhi as the army, paramilitary forces, and intelligence agencies that have descended upon the state. Democratic spaces have shrunk over the last two decades. India guarantees free speech to its citizens, but curbs all varieties of political dissent in Kashmir. Protesters in many corners of India throw stones, but only in Kashmir do the authorities respond with live ammunition.
Azaadi, for many in Kashmir, does not really mean a call to break away from India. For some, it represents a collective demand for a slew of smaller freedoms: freedom to express their dissatisfaction, freedom from the daily interdictions of security forces, and freedom from fear. What really arouses anti-India sentiments is the gargantuan security presence in the valley; over the last two decades, Kashmir has become a garrison state. There are nearly 700,000 Indian security personnel stationed in the region — one for every 20 Kashmiris, one of the highest soldier-to-civilian ratios in the world. Armed with automatic rifles, they occupy schools, hospitals, shopping centers, temples, mosques, cafes, and playgrounds. Looking out from behind their gun turrets and sandbags, they constantly remind Kashmir of its status as a suspect territory. It’s precisely for this reason that most Kashmiris call their homeland maqbooza –– or occupied Kashmir.
India’s security concerns, of course, are legitimate. Infiltration of militants from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is still a major worry. But the armed insurgency has waned steadily since it began two decades ago: According to official estimates, there are less than 500 militants currently active in Kashmir, a far cry from the 10,000-plus in the first years of the insurgency. “How many troops are needed to combat 500 militants?” one Kashmiri observer asked me on a recent trip to the valley. “10,000? 100,000? Certainly not 700,000. The army is here not to control militants, but the entire population. In that sense, every Kashmiri is a militant.”
The immense imbalance between soldiers and civilians has encouraged the army’s pernicious practice of extra-judicial killings, known locally as “fake encounters.” Innocent civilians are gunned down and posthumously determined to be militants by officers in pursuit of medals and promotions — the sort of activity that Roy was referring to when she said that Kashmir has turned into a “brutal military occupation.” Such incidents have hardened Kashmir’s antipathy to Indian rule — so much so that on my recent visit to the state, one Kashmiri father told me, “When my three year old son sees an army soldier his immediate reflex is to pick up a stone.”
The most recent wave of anti-India rage was led not by Pakistan-sponsored militants, but by Kashmir’s homegrown youth — most of them teenagers — who hurled stones at Indian security personnel while zealously shouting independence slogans. They took to the streets in defiance of stern curfews and even shoot-on-sight orders. I vividly remember seeing one young stone-thrower standing perilously close to a military bunker, thumping his chest. “Come shoot me,” he dared the soldiers.
To defuse the crisis, New Delhi recently announced an eight-point Kashmir “peace package” consisting of financial grants to schools and payments to the families of those killed in the recent violence, among other things. The government also appointed a three-member panel of mediators to reach out to various alienated sections of the Kashmiri population. The package is well-intentioned, and the interlocutors are eminent members of civil society, but both gestures are essentially toothless. Their mandate does not include assessing militarization and military governance, without which the suffering and outrage of Kashmiris will not go away.
Still, if Roy was right in insisting that India needs to stop stifling Kashmir, her criticism of the government gives too little credit to the complicated geopolitical forces at play in the neighborhood. Kashmir shares its borders with Pakistan and China, both nuclear armed countries, and an unstable Afghanistan; Indian concerns about the balkanization of the Indian state were it to lose Kashmir are not paranoid delusions. But India cannot muzzle her voice — and that of Kashmiris — if it is to call itself a real democracy.