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A vacuum in the Valley

If Kashmiriyat wanes, what could take its place? Amarnath yatra attack raises a grim spectre.

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
Updated: July 12, 2017 12:01:02 am
amarnath yatra, amarnath yatra terrorist attack, kashmir terrorist attack, J&K terrorist attack, kashmir unrest, indian express news, india news, indian express opinion Security personnel stand guard after the terror attack on pilgrims on Monday. Express photo

Condemnation of the attack on the Amarnath yatra has come from across the political spectrum. It is, however, doubtful whether the fragile political consensus on the issue of condemnation will transform into mature comprehension of what is at stake. Of course, media reports have pointed to the very special nature of the yatra and its reception by Kashmiris. Here is a more than century-old extraordinary tradition of a place of worship cared for by two different communities — even in the midst of violence and contestations over as critical a question as the political status of the Kashmir Valley. From that point of view, the attack is not only exceptional, but uncharacteristic.

The Amarnath shrine and the interfaith cooperation built around it represent not just the syncretic traditions of Kashmir, they also represent mutual respect and the lived practice of separating the religious from the political. The attack has challenged those fundamental tenets — of human decency and respect. It is indeed ironic but, often, those who raise a fight in the name of freedom or religion or identity end up denying freedom, refuting religion and disallowing identity — first to others and subsequently to their own members. In this sense, the attack on the Amarnath yatra, though despicable, need not surprise us.

Ever since the Pandits were hounded out of the Valley, this dimension of Kashmir’s separatist movement operating on the precipice of a religious divide has been on display. The targeting of the Pandits signified a departure from the discourse of Kashmiriyat. The 1990s ushered in the element of religion as a key factor in the Kashmir issue. An attack like the latest one underscores the deep schisms that the Kashmir struggle experiences. It is another instance that indicates the failure of the Kashmiriyat platform. Of course, even “separatist” and militant organisations have expressed dismay over the attack and one would wish to believe that this dismay is genuine. However, the attack has made it clear that just like the “discredited” politician from the Valley, the pro-Kashmiriyat outfits are losing the script. They have no control over the situation. Recent events in the Valley would endorse this surmise.

During the stone-pelting that attracted national attention, one witnessed an absence of politics in Kashmir. In fact, the developments in J&K over the past three years have produced a vacuum in the Valley. There is no authentic voice either on the side of the official or government forces or on the side of the separatists. Just as the state forces are mired in ultra-nationalism, separatists are content with only disruption. Dialogue is the first casualty. Thus, from the keenly contested assembly elections in 2014, we have suddenly managed to push the Kashmir Valley into a land of non-politics. It is this production of vacuum that the attack really brings to the forefront.

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Beyond the agony over the deaths of devotees and the anguish over the inability to avoid such attacks; beyond the political correctness of condemnations, this attack needs to be seen as part of the narrative that has been taking shape in J&K and in the country. The narrative may be characterised as one of empty and shrill nationalism. In the Valley, it has resulted in the isolation of the forces of Kashmiriyat. Instead of Kashmiriyat, a mindless violence against state authorities seems to have enveloped the Valley. The Amarnath attack represents the contempt sections of the militants have for Kashmiriyat and also the confusion that marks the Valley over the question of its identity.

The weakening of the Kashmiriyat platform bodes ill for everyone, except perhaps the pro-Pakistan militants. India’s military may well be equipped to fight a bloody war against the enemy across the border and its generals may be itching for a flash point. But killing an enemy is different from killing those whom one claims to be their own. From this perspective, the decimation of pro-Kashmiriyat groups is perhaps the most serious setback witnessed over the past three years. No amount of hawkish postures and surgical strikes can compensate for that. The Amarnath attack is a grim reminder of this reality. But beyond this statist understanding, the significance of the attack on the yatra extends to India’s resilience as a national community.

If we isolate the issue of this attack as one that is specific to Kashmir, we might be able to understand the nuances of the attack and also think of “security” solutions. However, the attack needs to be understood in conjunction with and in the broader context of India’s nationalism. That challenge is multifold.

Despite the syncretic context of Amarnath, the attack is bound to be seen as an attack on the pilgrims who belong to one religious community. The fact of longstanding support by Kashmir’s Muslims to the yatra would quickly fade from memory and the attack on the yatra would constitute the folklore of Muslim aggression. The pilgrims who go back to their towns and villages would carry the scars of the attack as also the disruption of the narrative of syncretism. That disruption would not just malign Kashmir, it would put into question all claims to syncretism and plurality. In this sense, the attack would not merely disrupt the yatra. In fact, the yatra may still go on — both this year and in the future too. But the memory of the attack would have already jeopardised the possibility of a narrative of peace, plurality and co-existence.

We are presently in the midst of constructing a militaristic narrative of force, coupled with machismo, hatred and suspicion. In that sense, the disruption of the narrative of the authentic Indian self and nationalism is already underway. An attack like this one will only feed into that moment of disruption. The tales of fear and apprehension that the pilgrims would carry back with them would be swiftly converted into raw material for unsettling local social relations, replacing them with the new narrative of the non-tenability of the mingling of diverse communities. It is a moot question if our parties have the will or courage to argue that this attack is not only an exceptional incident but also a challenge that needs to be met beyond the security discourse. Will our parties have the commitment and the confidence to tell countrymen to take pride in the co-existence of different traditions and faiths? Because the attack challenges the idea of inclusion and the principle of co-existence as much as — perhaps more than — our nation-state.

When people die without provocation, there is also a death of ideas and principles. Moments such as this one are not only moments of being scandalised by death; they are equally, even more fundamentally, moments cautioning us about the receding boundaries of the politics of possibilities.

The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University and is currently chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’

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