THE SITUATION IN KASHMIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. SAIBA VARMA

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By Omkar Mahajan
Editor in Chief

On February 28, PROSPECT sat down with Dr. Saiba Varma to discuss the situation in Kashmir. Professor Varma is a medical and cultural anthropologist at UCSD researching on topics of psychiatry, violence, and politics as they pertain to Kashmir.

PROSPECT: Can you tell us how you became interested in Kashmir and what you think of what’s currently happening there?

Dr. Varma: Sure. So when I started graduate school when I went for my PhD in anthropology, I knew that I was really interested in studying some kind of conflict or something related to violence and the social, political, and psychological effects of violence and I started reading up about different conflicts in South Asia because that’s where my language proficiency and background was at. I began reading about Kashmir and I discovered that there was a lot written about Kashmir. There are libraries full of things that are written about Kashmir but most of it was written from a securities studies perspective or from the perspective of how do we resolve this conflict, so it is written either from the Indian nationalist perspective or a Pakistani nationalist perspective. There is very little information about what had actually happened during the conflict, how people in Kashmir were experiencing the conflict, and what does it mean to be at the crossroads of these different powers. Kashmir is the only region in the world that’s surrounded by three nuclear powers which are Pakistan, India, and China so it’s a very significant geopolitical region and yet I felt that we were getting such little information about how actually this conflict was playing out and how it was being experienced.

In 2007, I went to Kashmir to see if I could actually do my research there, if I could do a project there and live there, and if people would be welcoming and open to me. As an anthropologist, you search for anyone to speak to. Basically you have to rely on people to talk to you and so I tried to make as many appointments with people as I could. I ended up meeting these psychiatrists, who told me that what you really need to focus on is that there’s this epidemic of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder happening in Kashmir, this is a public health crisis, we’re completely under resourced, we do not have the capacity to deal with it, we have this deluge of people coming in with traumatic stress symptoms, and so I found that very interesting that not a lot of people were thinking about the social and psychological effects of violence and what does it mean, for example, to have an entire society that’s traumatized. So, I asked them if they would be willing to have me shadow them in the hospital and other sites of mental health care and so I spent 18 months doing field work at different sites of mental health care in Kashmir just to try to understand what the conflict was about, how people were experiencing it, how they were coping with it, how they were understanding it, what kinds of interventions were being put in place for them and were those interventions successful so that’s kind of how I became interested in it.

Your second question was about what’s happening right now in Kashmir. I was in Kashmir this past summer just during this whole Burhan Wani crisis. Basically what happened was that in early July, Indian security forces assassinated Burhan Wani who was a young charismatic militant leader who actually did not have a lot of experience fighting, or maybe no experience fighting. But, he had all of these social media posts and YouTube videos of himself dressed up in camouflage and posing with a gun and he had these very strong pro-independence postings and that made him very popular. When he was killed, there was a huge uproar in Kashmir about his death not because he was an experienced leader or that he had done anything great, but because he sort of represented this idea of independence, or azadi, which you know the majority of people in the Kashmir Valley feel very strongly that Kashmir should be independent. They do not want to be part of either India or Pakistan and so his killing sort of represented what they see as this perpetuation of this illegal military occupation on their land and it spurred many months of protests and killings. Basically, the idea is that they wanted both India and Pakistan to demilitarize the region and they want reunification.

Kashmir has been divided since 1949. That was the general sentiment and there have been many cycles of violence in Kashmir and so in 1989, you had the big killing of an arms struggle for independence that was also partly sponsored by Pakistan. The militant groups were fractured into what were pro-Pakistan militias and pro-independence militias. The pro-Independence militias lost out in the end. The Pro-Pakistan militias gained traction but that ended in 2002. Since then, you have these cycles of non-violence and non-violent protests erupting in Kashmir in 2008, 2009, 2010, and then again 2016 and its very difficult for the Indian government to deal with these nonviolent mass protests. What do you do when there are thousands of people on the street, thousands of people on strike? It’s not a riot. It’s not an armed operations. You can’t do counterinsurgency, although that’s what the military is there supposedly to do. So it creates this fundamental  problem and I think that’s what you’re seeing in these mass uprisings in Kashmir. You are seeing these sentiments for independence.

PROSPECT: You mentioned earlier that there’s a significant issue of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I believe that mental health is not something that’s particularly talked about in South Asia. Could you briefly elaborate on the issue of mental health in Kashmir?

Dr. Varma: Sure. For the first decade of the conflict which was really during the 1990s, there was so much actual violence taking place that the real concern was about death. It was really about the incidents of physical violence happening. It was a very unsafe place at the time, but after the 90s, the levels of physical violence actually decreased significantly. The numbers of terrorist related violence steadily came down and what you then began seeing were the scars of that violence. You began seeing the marks of that decade of physical violence, living in a state of constant unrest, constant unease. You know, there’s a knock on your door at night and you don’t know who it is. Is it a militant? Is it the army? Is it someone else who’s going to come and raid your house? Are they going to pick up someone from the family and then you never see them again? These were things that were every day occurrences for Kashmiris, and what that does over a prolonged period of time is that it leaves deep scars in people suffering not just from trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder, but just all kinds of anxiety and depression.

There’s a rise in mental illness because you are living in a state of constant worry and that’s related to the political situation to the lack of any kind of resolution to the Kashmir conflict. “I don’t know about tomorrow. I don’t have any hope that tomorrow is going to be better than today.” That’s the reality that Kashmiris have been living in for 20 years, so if you don’t have any hope for the future, how can you possibly feel good today? All of these kinds of things play into mental illness. I think what’s interesting about mental illness is that one way to sort of understand it is through neurobiological phenomena and a western way of understanding it but in fact, we know that there are all these social, political, economic things that can play into someone’s mental health. Kashmir’s not even unique. There are many other places of long term conflict where there are these epidemics of mental illness that there is a direct correlation between the instability of the situation and the instability that people have within themselves 

PROSPECT: You mentioned Burhan Muzaffar Wani and how he was assassinated recently by Indian state police. How do think politicians such as Mehbooba Mufti are going to handle this crisis. 200,000 people showed up to Wani’s funeral.

Dr. Varma: We saw how Mehbooba Mufti handled the situation and she was really criticized by people in Kashmir for her handling of the situation which is that she issued a statement after the killing saying that she had not been notified that this was going to happen and that they were going to do this. This raises the question of why are you the Chief Minister of this state then if you don’t know what the security forces are doing. Either you’re on that side of the conversation which doesn’t care or you’re on the other side. One of things that’s become really clear in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death is that there is no more space in Kashmir for these mainstream pro-India political parties and that they have lost a lot of legitimacy because they came in, for example the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), which is Mehbooba Mufti’s party, with a very progressive platform that we care about the aspirations of the Kashmiri people, that we want to address human rights violations, that we want to correct all of these historical wrongs that have taken place. They took a very critical position against the Indian state but what we saw was once they came into power, they sort of lost any critical relationship and allies with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). That was seen by many Kashmiris to be a sort of betrayal of what the PDP represented  because the PDP’s relationship with Kashmir is very driven by nationalism and a particular kind of Hindu ideology. From the perspective of India, that is a tragedy that happens which is because people have been so corrupted in their political ideals, no one trusts these politicians anymore, and that space has been completely lost now. People have taken a really hard line position. The Burhan Wani protest was the first protest that wasn’t about any sort of issue like the Amarnath land grab which was in 2009, or wasn’t about the fake encounter killings which was 2010. This time it was just about independence. It was just about Azadi. That’s why people were striking so that tells you that there is no room for negotiation. There is no space. Kashmiris do not trust anyone who is going to pretend that they can sort of achieve some kind of compromise.

PROSPECT: Ok, to clarify to our readers who may not know, Azadi means freedom, correct?

Dr. Varma: Correct and it’s a very expansive term.  For Kashmiris, it can mean political self-determination. For many people, it can mean full independence, different economic azadi, spiritual azadi. It has many multiple meanings, but I think the important thing for us is this idea of self-determination. That’s what a lot of people want.

PROSPECT: So you mentioned that there are independence movements occurring in Kashmir? Do you think that Kashmir should be an independent state, or should it be part of India, or should it be part of Pakistan?

Dr. Varma: It’s an interesting question. I’m Indian and for me this came as a major shock to me because as an Indian, I had grown up with a certain kind of narrative that maybe you also have grown up with. There are certain kinds of stories about Kashmir and Kashmir hamarahai, or Kashmir is ours and it’s an integral part of India and it always has been about we can’t let it go to Pakistan. It was only by studying the conflict and looking at it closely, and living there, and really understanding what was happening there from a Kashmiri perspective that it really challenged me. As an Indian, it really challenged my ideas about what I think the Indian nation is and ultimately it sort of came down to this question for me which is that how can a country claiming to be the world’s largest democracy perpetrate military occupation for decades not just in Kashmir but in Manipur and other parts of the North East as well. How do we deal with that sort of inherent fundamental paradox? What does that say about Indian liberal secular democracy if you have to put your border region under military occupation and your entire population accepts that? So, for me the question was not about what should we do with Kashmir. For me, the question was what do Kashmiris want for themselves and my responsibility is to tell that story, to be as truthful as I can and in terms of what people’s aspirations for themselves are. That’s my job as an anthropologist. It’s not my job to say that’s right or wrong for you but instead to tell the truth of how people feel and what they want. 

PROSPECT: So what do the majority of Kashmiris feel? Do the majority of them feel that  they should belong to Pakistan or do the majority of them desire independence?

Dr. Varma: It’s interesting because there is a diaspora population of Kashmiris as well. A lot of Kashmiri Pandits left in the early days of the conflict and a lot of them feel very strongly that Kashmir should remain part of India because of that. But, because the majority of people in the Kashmir Valley are Muslims, there is a very different sense of what should happen in the Kashmir Valley which I would say in the valley there are very strong sentiments of independence. No one wants to be a part of Pakistan anymore. Everyone sees what is happening in Pakistan. It’s interesting because often you see images of Kashmiris holding up Pakistani flags or things like that and which on the face of it, seems like a Pro-Pakistani statement but when you ask them about it, they do that only to irk Indians. “We know that’s what they really don’t want to see so that’s why we hold it up, not that we want to be part of Pakistan.” So, I would say in the valley, people want independence but as you know, the state of  Kashmir itself is composed of three regions. You have Jammu which is probably siding with India. You have Ladakh which is an autonomous region but it’s also very divided with a Buddhist and Muslim population and then you have Kashmir and the Kashmir valley, which is pro-independence. The whole region is fragmented. It would be a contentious thing but at the Kashmir valley I worked at, it was clear the sentiments were of independence.

PROSPECT: There are also a number of militant organizations inside Kashmir and recently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, mentioned of how he wanted to recruit in Kashmir. Do you think that ISIS and other extremist militant organizations might try to do active recruiting in Kashmir with this ongoing conflict occurring?

Dr. Varma: It could happen. Kashmir has always been a region that foreign powers have toyed with in many different ways going back to the 19th century. You had British spies and Russian spies. Kashmir was important in the central Asian trade routes. You’ve always had this geopolitical significant region with foreign powers meddling and using the conflict, the region, and its people in different ways. I do think it would be challenging because the kind of Islam that is practiced in Kashmir is quite different from what ISIS and other organizations do. There has been a lot of effort to radicalize Kashmiris and some of that has happened. But on a large part, I would say Kashmiris practice a very different kind of Islam because religion always intersects with culture. It has been a more syncretic kind of practice so I’m sure they would try because ISIS is a global organization that wants to recruit Muslims everywhere but I think Kashmiris themselves are not that easily duped because I think what Kashmiris are interested in is their own political future and if it could secure that for them, it would be helpful but if not, then I don’t think they would be interested in it.

PROSPECT: There are many scholars who compare the conflict in Kashmir to Israel and Palestine. Do you think these comparisons are accurate and fair?

Dr. Varma: I think that the comparison with Palestine is a good comparison in some ways because Kashmiris themselves draw a lot of inspiration from the struggle in Palestine. They call the Kashmir struggle the intifada which is drawing on this idea of the Palestinian struggle of intifada and they have been really inspired by that struggle just like how Muslims in many parts of the world look at Palestine as this dramatic case against Muslims. It is a productive comparison to Kashmiris because Kashmiris draw inspiration from all sorts of colonial struggles. They’ve watched French Algeria. They’ve read Frantz Fanon. They’ve watched the Battle of Algiers. In fact, there’s a famous story of how in the early days of the conflict there was a screening of a Battle of Algiers in a movie theater in Srinagar. After watching that, people went out on the streets and started protesting because they felt their situation was very similar to what the Algerians were going through under the French. I think in terms of thinking of these two powerful states, Israel and India are very powerful, very militarily robust states holding a population under occupation. I think that’s a productive way to approach the issue. Both Israel and India think of themselves as democracies and they sell themselves to the world as democracies. That’s a big part of their narrative and the fact that they can do that simultaneously while holding populations in basically open air prisons, I think its productive to think through. I think that we know far less about Kashmir than we know about Palestine which raises the question of why.

Photo by Ole Holbech

TRAGEDY OR TRIUMPH: THE DEATH OF THE “POSTER BOY”


By Omkar Mahajan
Editor-in-Chief

On July 8, 2016, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani, along with two accomplices, was killed by Special Operations Forces of the Indian Police and Military in a standoff that lasted for nearly two hours.
Wani was the 21 year old “poster boy” of the Kashmiri separatist movement and the commander of the Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen. The Hizbul Mujahideen has been designated as a terrorist organization by India, the United States, and the European Union. Shortly after Wani’s death, ensuing mobocracy and mass ataxia erupted. Some saw his death as a triumph and were glad that a top terrorist leader was killed. Others viewed him as a misguided youth who traversed down the wrong path to terrorism. Regardless of whether it was a tragedy or a triumph, Wani’s death will do little to ensure peace in Kashmir and is instead more likely to cause instability, turmoil, and prolonged violence both in the near future and long term. Furthermore, it’s expected that many people in Kashmir will view Wani as a martyr and a freedom fighter.

Who is Burhaan Muzaffar Wani?
Wani was born in the city of Tral, Kashmir where he enjoyed a privileged childhood. His father, Muzaffar Ahmed Wani, was the principal of a local high school and a member of the notorious extremist group, Jamaat-i-Islami. In 2010, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani dropped out of school and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen after being allegedly harassed by police. He quickly rose through the ranks due to his leadership skills and savvy use of social media. He was also popular with the locals. In 2015, Wani became the top commander and leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen due to the deaths of many senior officials above him. During that same year, his older brother Khalid Muzaffar Wani was killed by the Indian Security Forces. The Wani family claims that Khalid Muzaffar Wani was not a terrorist and was killed because he was the brother of the top militant commander. According to the father, the body of Khalid Muzaffar Wani did not have any bullet wounds but rather looked as if it had been heavily tortured. On the other hand, the Indian Security forces report that Khalid Muzaffar Wani was recruiting youth to join Burhaan Muzaffar Wani’s extremist organization. Nonetheless, to many people of Kashmir, Khalid Muzaffar Wani’s death represents one of a multitudinous number of civilians eradicated at the hands of the police force.

Following the death of his older brother, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani utilized social media sites and apps such as Facebook and Whatsapp to disperse his videos urging others to join the separatist organizations. His vast presence on Facebook enabled him to recruit dozens of teenagers from various villages each. The Indian state classified him as a terrorist and placed a 1 million Rupee bounty on his head and even attempted several assassination plots. After all, in several of his videos, he announced plans to decimate Sainik colonies in Kashmir because he felt that they were altering the natural demographics of Kashmir. In another video, he expressed disapproval of Kashmiri Pandit relocation settlements and threatened to bombard the Pandit community and juxtaposed it to the situation of Israel. In several of his videos, he advocated attacks on the police and military. Many scholars state that his videos had a considerable following and heavily appealed to the youth of Kashmir.

In contrast to the labels of being a terrorist and a peril to society, the local populace elucidated quite a different picture of Wani. The fact that he was able to defy all odds and expectations and survive previous assassination attempts turned him into a legend. There were stories that he sometimes visited home dressed as a girl and left money behind for those that needed it. There were rumors that local girls from Kanpur desired to marry him and wrote his name in their blood. He was frequently discussed over cups of chai and the stories, myths and legends surrounding him immortalized him as somewhat of a folk hero and local celebrity with parallels to Robin Hood. Moreover, his young age set him apart from others and thus, he was seen as a champion to the youth of Kashmir. It’s rare to see someone at his age in a high position of power with significant influence over people. Despite many in the local community being sympathetic towards him, it should be noted that he was an extremist and the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, which is a designated terrorist organization responsible for dozens of attacks claiming the lives of thousands over the years. The Hizbul Mujahideen also has more than 10,000 fighters and has massacred non-Muslims and people not supportive of it. In order to fully understand Wani’s role and the political situation in Kashmir, it is important to examine the history of Kashmir.

A Brief History of Kashmir
For numerous centuries, Kashmir was an independent state in South Asia. The present day state of modern Kashmir is landlocked in South Asia and is surrounded by India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Tajikistan. Even when Kashmir was ruled under various kingdoms and empires such as the Mauryan Empire, the Kushan Empire, the Ghandaran Kingdom, the Durrani Kingdom, the Mughals, and later Sikh Rule, Kashmir maintained its autonomy due to isolation in the north and the mountainous terrain that surrounded it. In other words, it recognized the authority of larger empires, but was practically an independent state since it exercised almost complete control over its own affairs and was relatively self-autonomous.

Additionally, rulers of Kashmir were of differing faiths and backgrounds throughout the years. Kashmir has been ruled by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and others. Thus, it is not a surprise that people of various faiths were able to live peacefully together and intermarriage between different faiths was not uncommon. Due to this isolation from the rest of South Asia, Kashmir developed a culture distinct from the rest of South Asia. For instance, while much of South Asia had a relatively intransigent caste system and a patriarchal society, Kashmir did not have a rigid caste system and was relatively egalitarian with equal rights granted to even women. Furthermore, the language in Kashmir, Koshur, differed markedly from those spoken in South Asia and had more in common with Dari and Farsi. The cuisine, customs, and clothing were also dissimilar and antithetical from those of South Asia. The people of Kashmir developed a distinct culture and identity of their own and some saw themselves as their own independent state.

However, the situation of Kashmir drastically changed during the British occupation of South Asia. In 1947, when the British left and granted South Asia its independence, they partitioned it into two states of a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. Kashmir, being located between India and Pakistan, was expected to join the Muslim majority state of Pakistan since Kashmir had a majority Muslim population in many parts. However, the king of Kashmir, Hari Singh, desired to maintain an independent state of Kashmir. Unfortunately for him, Pathans from Pakistan who disagreed with his idea of independence invaded Kashmir. After receiving help to fight off the invaders, Kashmir was forced to make a decision of whether to join Pakistan or India. Prime Minister Mehr Chand Mahajan made the controversial decision to join India in late 1947 viewing it as the safer option. Ever since then, the conflict was never fully resolved.

Kashmir Today
Today, in some parts of Kashmir, over 95% of the people desire an independent state.[1] On the other hand, both Pakistan and India claim that Kashmir belongs to each. Border skirmishes and wars between Pakistan and India over Kashmir have been recurrent throughout the years. In fact, this remains the oldest unresolved United Nations conflict. In 1999, the conflict nearly escalated to nuclear war. Kashmir is the sole natural gas provider to Pakistan and has a huge agriculture industry that India profits from.[2] Both nations are unlikely to yield their holds over Kashmir anytime in the near future. As a result, this has inflamed numerous people living in Kashmir since they are caught between the conflict of India and Pakistan. Individual Kashmiris sometimes find themselves harassed and mistreated by the armies and police of Pakistan and India and they’ve seen their homeland transform into a warzone.

There are currently 153 militant organizations operating throughout Kashmir.[3] Kashmir’s poor and undeveloped infrastructure, along with large areas being warzones, has enabled Kashmir to turn into a hotbed and breeding ground for militant radicalism. Oppression by both sides has fueled negative sentiments towards Pakistan and India with many people resenting the police and military. History has shown us that when people are oppressed, a backlash will occur once oppression reaches a certain point. The lack of opportunities in Kashmir compels many youth to join militant organizations where sadly, many are brainwashed into not only attacking the police and military, but also performing atrocities and targeted acts of violence on innocent civilians. As troubling as this is, there isn’t anything to celebrate about the deaths of brainwashed youth.

Although the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen is dead and his death is seen as a victory for those fighting against terrorism and militant radicals, others see it as the story of a lost child brainwashed into a killing machine. The oppression in Kashmir has led many to sympathize with militant commanders in Kashmir.  In fact, over 20,000 people attended Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s funeral and the number of youth that will now join militant organizations is expected to increase exponentially. Already, there have been mass protests regarding his death and dozens of innocent bystanders have been killed in the ensuing turmoil in the past few days. Wani is now seen as a martyr and it’s likely that the people will never forget about him.

Following these mass protests, the entire state of Kashmir was placed on lockdown and under curfew. Additionally, internet access and telephone communications were suspended. While the Chief Minister of Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, believes that Wani’s death will not have a long lasting impact on Kashmir, legislative assemblyman and former Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah disagrees. On twitter, Abdullah voiced his concerns that the intended effects and goals of the operation to kill Wani will fail in the long run. “Mark my words. Burhan’s ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media,” Abdullah tweeted.

This attempt to control violence and suppress the chaos backfired and instead more protests and attacks occurred resulting in more deaths. Violence has escalated and hopes of peace reaching Kashmir now become a distant unlikely reality as brutality and pandemonium materialize. After all, violence usually does not quell down violence but in a state in which people are oppressed, a lack of resources is present, and violence is constantly occurring, it seems as though violence is indeed inevitable. Many can disagree on the significance of Wani’s death and whether it was a tragedy or triumph but many will agree that his death will lead to more violence. Perhaps Wani should have been captured alive.

[1] Robert Bradnock, “KASHMIR: Counting in Kashmir.” The World Today 66.6 (2010): 27-28. JSTOR.

[2] S.D. Surendra, “Explaining Social Mobilization in Pakistan: A Comparative Case Study of Baluchistan and Azad Kashmir.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29.2 (2009): 246-58.

[3] K. Santhanam, Jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir: A Portrait Gallery. New Delhi: Sage, 2003. Print.

Image by Kashmir Global