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Why Kashmiris love protests and detest India

Last updated on: August 9, 2010 08:05 IST

Why Kashmiris love protests and detest India

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Till a few years ago, on April 29 every year, a handful of men, some old and stooping, some young and angry, used to gather at the Srinagar home of veteran journalist, communist supporter and Kashmiri Pandit P N Jalali.

They would drink tea and toast the first recorded organised demands day in Kashmir's history, the rebellion of the shawl bafs (shawl weavers) that led to the killing of 28 weavers in 1865, well before the Russian Revolution. Shawl bafs were -- and are -- the creators of the wonderfully fine silk or wool lengths that have such fine embroidery; there is not a shawl baf  above 35 who does not have something wrong with his eyes.

Justly prized, these shawls entailed a lot of labour but shawl bafs earned very little. The regimes of successive Dogra kings used the shawl industry, then exporting to Europe, as a means of augmenting state revenues. The weavers were forced to weave (punished for abandoning their looms unless a substitute was in place) -- and what they earned, the state took away by imposing prohibitive taxes.

Hit by famine, angered by exploitative taxes, in April 1865, as many as 4,000 shawl bafs abandoned their looms and began marching with their families towards Lahore and Amritsar. Families of hungry farmers joined them en route. They were stopped near the old-city neighbourhood of Zaldagar. Dogra troops asked them to disperse. When they refused, they were fired upon. As they fled, they were gored to death with spears.

Shawl bafs rose again in 1924. This rebellion was also put down in a similar manner.

Text: Aditi Phadnis

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Image: A Kashmiri dealer displays a shawl
Photographs: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters
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It is the stories of rebellions of this kind -- and the Valley saw many in the 430 or so years of its history during which it was ruled by Afghan, Mughal, Sikh and, later, Dogra dynasties -- that Kashmiri children have been reared on. So, if you want to understand the phenomenon of protests through throwing stones on symbols of authority, well, it is firmly rooted in the political tradition of the state.

Against this background, look at what is happening today. We already know that the Kashmiri people love protests: 10,000 of them can come out on the roads at an hour's notice to join the funeral procession of someone they don't know. They also detest authority, especially Indian/Hindu authority.

But, we were told, there was hope. During 2009 (ministry of home affairs data till November), terrorism-related incidents dropped by 27 per cent, those of killing of civilians by 17 per cent and of security force personnel by 19 per cent, compared to the corresponding period in 2008, merely following a secular trend of declining violence since 2001.

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Image: Kashmiri protesters throw stones at policemen
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So what changed?

Assembly elections were held in J&K in the winter of 2008 and polling for eight constituencies was held in and around Srinagar on December 24, 2008.  Results came out on December 28. On Christmas Day, the Abdullah family called on Sonia Gandhi -- who had previously consulted with the two factions of the Congress party, one led by Ghulam Nabi Azad (who is anti-National Conference); and the other led by Saifuddin Soz (who, while not being pro-NC, wants to stymie Azad at every possible opportunity).

The Abdullah family meeting with Gandhi sent the desired message to the 17 Congress party MLAs who were elected. But it sent a quite different message to the voters of Kashmir.

The whole state saw how the election in Srinagar was managed. On the foggy morning of December 24, NC volunteers went from door to door to get sympathisers to vote. The Opposition, People's Democratic Party was less vigilant. The moment the sun came out, a rumour went round the city that militant groups had called for a boycott of the election. After 11 am, people stayed at home, fearing violence. The turnout should have been 40 per cent. It was 21 per cent.

The people of Kashmir noted that not only had Omar Abdullah got a fractured (many said, manufactured) mandate, the Congress leadership was firmly behind him. The reaction to the 2009 Shopian incident (the alleged rape and murder of two girls who the Central Bureau of Investigation found had actually drowned accidentally) represented the first rumblings of discontent in the Valley.

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Image: Kashmiri voters stand in line to cast their votes during the general election
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The denouement followed. The Centre promised the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The ministry of defence prevented a proposal to this effect from reaching the Cabinet. The thinning out of the army and paramilitary forces from orchards and schools was invisible and slow. Corruption in government recruitment and in the police reached new heights.

A legislator described his efforts to get a local boy released from the police's manufactured FIRs, torture and no recourse to lawyers. The trail of broken promises by an elected government is enough to break your heart.

Does it surprise anyone that Kashmiris detest India and their own government? In throwing stones and setting fire to police stations, they are only doing what comes naturally to them -- since 1865.

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Image: Policemen guard grave stones at the martyrs' graveyard in Srinagar
Photographs: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters
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