Every year, or at the least every other year, there arrive seasons of killing and mourning in the valley of Kashmir. On Sunday, April 9, elections were held for a parliamentary seat left vacant in the main city of Srinagar after a lawmaker resigned in protest against last summer’s killings. A majority stayed away, with only 7 percent turning up to vote.
Young Kashmiris — fed up, brutalized, growing up in the most densely militarized zone in the world — surrounded polling stations to protest Indian rule. Some protesters threw stones at the polling booths and the troops stationed there. The troops responded as they do, with shooting, beating and blinding protesters and bystanders alike. Eight people were shot dead. Among those killed was 12-year-old schoolboy, Faizan Fayaz Dar, who was shot in the back of his head, the BBC reported from his village.
Dirges rang from Kashmiri homes and graveyards. We have seen this before, like a tragic war film on a loop: young corpses floating on the shoulders of families and friends for that ultimate journey. Last year, during a four-month siege, nearly 100 people were killed and hundreds blinded, as Indian paramilitaries rained bullets and millions of buckshot pellets on protesting crowds.
Now the response of the Indian state has turned even more ferocious. By the end of the week, three more youths had been killed, including a 17-year-old street vendor whose forehead was cracked open with a bullet. A college campus was raided by paramilitaries in full military gear, accompanied by an armored vehicle, injuring around 50 students.
Earlier in the week, as the Indian Army was patrolling central Kashmir, soldiers chanced upon Farooq Ahmad Dar, a 26-year-old shawl weaver, who was returning home from a funeral prayer. As an artisan, Mr. Ahmad works with his hands, making filigree-like embroidery on “cashmere” shawls. The soldiers assaulted him, wounding his hands and arms.
After the assault, the soldiers tied him up to the front of a jeep, strapped on a handwritten placard and paraded him through several villages for hours as a live trophy — a “human shield” at the front of an armed posse.
Many in India expressed shock and revulsion. Yet large sections of India’s booming news media — some editors, some columnists — openly celebrated what could well be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. India’s attorney general defended the use of human shields, praising the officer who made the decision. The army should be applauded, he said. A judge on India’s Armed Forces Tribunal, which hears court-martial appeals, tweeted that it was “an innovate idea.” Mr. Ahmad was turned into a war cry on prime-time television and on social media.
In an even grislier turn, graphic videos of torture of Kashmiris by the armed forces surfaced, one after another — a visual guide of Indian rule over Kashmir. In one video, soldiers can be seen landing blows on boys inside an army vehicle as they’re exhorted to shout anti-Pakistan slogans. As I watched these moving images, I locked my room lest my small children hear the cries.
In the 1990s, a decade bookmarked by massacres, torture, assassinations, extrajudicial murders, exodus of Kashmiri Hindus and the making of mass graves in the mountains, it was almost routine for Indian troops to force civilians into encounter sites. I remember young and old men who sometimes spoke casually about having spent a day at the front of cordon-and-search military operations. In an instance in May 2001, the Indian Army forced the two sons of a woman from Anantnag district of Kashmir to walk into a school complex, where they were engaged in battle with insurgents, with land mines in their hands. One son, 17-year-old Shafi, was killed, a human shield discarded after use.
As with the use of endemic and systematic torture, the practice of using human shields is a yet mostly underreported aspect of India’s actions in Kashmir. When generations are busy counting and mourning the dead during the day, history writing at night takes a back seat.
But it’s perhaps also to do with a hitherto unseen tonal shift in the public imagination in India. When eight protesters were shot dead on Sunday, and around 20 shot in the eyes with pellets, much of India’s broadcast media chose to invest airtime in a disturbing video that showed an Indian trooper harassed and slapped by some protesters.
Many news channels decided to whip up hostility toward Kashmiris. The theater turned sinister. Soon, celebrities, cricketers, actors, journalists and politicians joined in a digital witch-hunt. Taking to Twitter, a former captain of India’s formidable cricket team effectively called for mass murder. A senior editor likened Kashmiris to “mosquitoes.”
Only a few years ago, India, with all its aberrations and dizzying complexity, with all its beauties and cruelties, could still lay claim to being a liberal democracy. All this — the mainstreaming of murderous hate — comes at a time of near-incendiary mutation of the foundational principles of India, and to the idea of India herself. The spectacular consolidation of power by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the B.J.P., has been synchronous with the spread of hate speech and violence against India’s minorities — Muslims, Dalits and Christians.
To keep aggressive majoritarianism in constant currency, India’s far right needs a constant other. While that “other” has almost always been the hapless Indian Muslim, the perfect other now is the Kashmiri Muslim, who has never submitted to India’s sovereignty. The grammar and the ammunition of words to keep the nationalist frenzy on steam are now sadly supplied by sections of the Indian media. The pursuit of facts has been replaced by the broadcasts of mendacity. I don’t remember seeing any country’s media as hostile to an entire people as a lot of Indian media is to the people of Kashmir.
Some of the torture videos in circulation appear to have been filmed by the troopers themselves, gladiatorial spectacles for cheerleaders in studios, in front of TV screens or in what the writer Pankaj Mishra calls “the Twitter burlesque.”
Thousands of students in school uniforms (blazers, ties, scarves) from campuses across Kashmir have come out spontaneously to register dissent. I desperately hope they, too, aren’t shot at to bring forth a bloody harvest to satiate the rising bloodlust in Delhi. With the world falling apart, India could perhaps show a light. Not crush Kashmir but solve one of the world’s longest-running conflicts along with Pakistan — even if the relationship between the forever estranged nuclear siblings is at its lowest.
Mirza Waheed is the author of the novels The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves.