The world's biggest democracy? Kashmiris seek justice from India

The world's biggest democracy? Kashmiris seek justice from India
4 min read
12 May, 2017
India claims to be the world's biggest democracy, but its disproportionate use of force against Kashmiri student protests denies the basic right to political dissent, writes Umar Lateef Misgar.
Students in Kashmir's northern town, Sopore, rally against Indian rule in Kashmir [Varmul Post]

The history of student-movements in Indian-controlled Kashmir has been dynamic. From the student mobilisations of late 1980s that - after the Indian state's heavy crackdown - evolved into a fully-fledged armed rebellion, to the present times of widespread street-demonstrations, students have been at the forefront resistance to Indian occupation of Kashmir.

The current ranks of armed militants in Kashmir, which have dwindled from tens of thousands in the 1990s, to a couple of hundred today, are filled with erstwhile school, college and university students. The same can be said of the large-scale public demonstrations that have become a standard expression of Kashmiri dissent since 2008.

In 2008, 2010 and 2016, the years that saw mass-uprisings against Indian rule, an overwhelming number of those demonstrators who were either killed or injured in the Indian forces' violent crackdown were students.

"Youth have been at the forefront of resistance since the onset of street protests in 2008. It is only that, now, they are protesting inside educational institutions," Rouf Dar, who studies Political Science at University of Kashmir told The New Arab. "Student protests are difficult to take on, because the participants are always in unison." 

This year, the dynamics of student participation in protests have been different. Previously, young Kashmiris joined these protests in their own localities without identifying themselves as a collective of "students", and the protests did not originate in colleges or schools. But this year, educational institutions have been the focal points of anti-India protests.

Internet usage was banned for at least a week and social media sites such as Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook still remain gagged

This year, protests began on 15th April, when Indian police set up a barricade outside a college in the southern district of Pulwama, to detain students they accused of throwing stones at Indian forces.

The students of Pulwama Degree College objected, and police barged straight onto the college premises with armoured vehicles, and assaulted both students and faculty staff. Teargas and pellet guns were also used against the students, barely in their late teens and early twenties. Dozens of students were injured, some of them critically.

Female students in Srinagar throw rocks at police during anti-India protests. [EPA]

Video clips of this assault instantly began circulating on social media showing students being brutally beaten with canes and forced to chant anti-Pakistan slogans by police personnel. However, its is worth noting that some of these videos were shot and circulated by the police themselves, which, some argue, demonstrates the level of impunity the Indian forces enjoy in Kashmir.   

This disproportionate use of force by Indian police evoked Kashmir-wide mobilisation of students in the days that followed. Kashmir University Students Union - a banned student body that works underground - called for demonstrations in educational institutions. Soon, students across Kashmir hit the streets, demanding "Azadi" (freedom) from what Kashmiris consider an illegitimate military occupation by India.

"These widespread protests caught the Indian state off-guard. It has desperately tried to maintain the skewed narrative that only a handful of misguided and unemployed youth are opposed to Indian rule over Kashmir," said one student protestor, who wishes to remain anonymous.

The state forces, again responded to the protests with brute force, using teargas, pellet guns and live ammunition. Hundreds of students, including girls and women were injured. Some of the schools and colleges were closed for days. Internet usage was banned for at least a week and social media sites such as Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook still remain gagged.

Political action can sometimes be a deeply educational process

"Kashmir's resistance movement is not global in nature or purpose, neither is it a religious war," one protestor, who studies at Kashmir's Islamic University, told The New Arab.

"On a fundamental level, it is a political problem and requires an immediate political solution that can only be achieved when India initiates long-term negotiations with Kashmir's people and Pakistan."

For now, India seems to be doubling down on the iron-fisted policy that it has always employed - however unsuccessfully - to crush any kind of dissent in Kashmir. Also, the local, Indian-sponsored government in Kashmir is, incredibly, trying to portray these protests as a barrier to education.

In addition to the fact that political action can sometimes be a deeply educational process, the protests often take place in the afternoon when students are done with classwork.

As I write this, the protests continue unabated and students are being dealt with using brute force, arbitrary detentions or plain dismissal of their right to political protest.

The real question, is whether a state that claims to be the world's largest democracy is mature enough to see the volatility of this situation, and begin a substantial political process to resolve it, or whether India has, yet again, decided to sow disarray in Kashmir, and call it peace?  

Umar Lateef Misgar is a graduate student of International Relations at the Islamic University of Kashmir. He regularly writes for The New Arab, openDemocracy, Counterpunch and London School of Economics Human Rights Centre.

Follow him on Twitter: @Kaashur

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.