Our government from time to time is given to “blasting”, “slamming” and reacting “strongly” to international criticism of our handling of the Kashmir situation, particularly its human rights issues. Our media gives the impression that India’s critics are periodically subject to devastating punishment — to leave them shattered and speechless.
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Far from levelling our foes or silencing criticism, our self-righteous indignation and pompous rhetoric only reinforces the perceived international notions about the image of India as a ruthless, arrogant power that has no qualms about brutally suppressing its own citizenry in Kashmir.
A recent article in the British newspaper, the Guardian, written by an Indian journalist reflects the prevalent international perceptions on Kashmir: “Kashmiri separatist leaders and the young people who come out on the streets at their behest are considered Muslim traitors, rather than the manifestation of a political problem that has to be discussed and resolved, not militarily crushed.”
The more our outrage, the more impassioned our critics grow, producing reams of damaging reports on our purported human rights abuses, state repression and military oversight.
Most recently, the UN published a report containing widespread occurrences of serious human rights violations in the Kashmir Valley, including the excessive use of force by the Indian military and paramilitary forces, frequent civilian casualties, arbitrary detentions and impunity for human rights abuses.
This is only one of many recent reports issued by organisations such as the UN, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and so on. New Delhi continues to dismiss these reports as “false” and “motivated”, while holding Pakistan to be the guilty party responsible for exporting terrorism to a peace-loving India.
Yet, we continue to be clubbed together with other despotic and barbaric Asiatic nations such as China — which has sent over a million Muslim Uighurs to concentration camps, Myanmar — which has slaughtered or forced out thousands of Rohingyas and Pakistan — which does not think twice about bombing entire villages in its own country.
This is unfortunate because India is neither barbaric nor a despotic totalitarian state. Compassion is inherent in its national psyche and even the unceasing counter-insurgency campaign in the Kashmir Valley is not indiscriminate or barbaric. Yes, human rights violations do occur from time to time; yes, the civilian population is traumatised by years of conflict and yes, thousands have died in the 30 years of armed insurrection.
All the same, Indian security forces have never used inordinate firepower, aircraft, tanks or artillery to suppress the insurgency. There are no concentration camps or a clampdown on religious activities. If anything, it is the Indian soldier who is routinely exposed to assault, stone pelting and armed attack. Hundreds are killed every year in the line of duty.
Most of all, human rights abuses have never been and can never be part of Indian State policy. Moreover, the Indian State does not kill political opponents — only armed insurgents. This is a crucial distinction because this is usually not the case in other conflict zones where the lines between insurgents and their political supporters are often blurred.
Therefore, there could be nothing more tragic than being branded a bloodthirsty, remorseless nation. The question is why is this so? Why does the world not believe us when it comes to Kashmir?
The answer is simple: We have no Kashmir narrative. The opposition, on the other hand, has a cogent and successful one.
Kashmiri Muslim authors write heartrending stories about repression, loss and despair in the Valley — books that are read all over the world — hundreds of websites depict horrendous human rights abuses, extra-judicial executions and torture by Indian forces in Kashmir.
Kashmiris and their supporters routinely demonstrate against India in the streets of Western capitals and foreign dignitaries are briefed from time to time about India’s continued repression in the Valley.
The idea that liberty and freedom have become casualties under a remorseless Indian State that crushes dissent under the jackboot continues to turn off millions across the globe. Internally too, the Valley’s inhabitants as well as millions of liberal Indians believe the separatist narrative that speaks of broken promises and brutal suppression by New Delhi.
A vast well-oiled propaganda machinery fuelled by India’s enemies systematically disburse Kashmiri separatist viewpoints, influence people and eventually motivate the powerful in world capitals and international bodies to speak and act against India.
Not surprisingly, the Western media is generally hostile towards the Indian government. This was one reason why New Delhi had such a hard time convincing the world about the success of the Balakot strike and the downing of a Pakistani F-16. The Pakistani version prevailed and the Indian Air Force was compelled to come up with a series of explanations.
Officially, India does not seem to care. Kashmir is under control, and so presumably is world opinion. This disconnect with the reality stems from extreme self-satisfaction within the ranks of our top bureaucracy.
Smug mandarins praise each other for the strength of their prose, their bombastic statements and “strongly” worded notes, unconcerned about whether these have any impact whatsoever on the global audience.
And so, the charade continues, year after year. The tougher the language — the more vehement the rhetoric — the better. Foreign service and other bureaucrats have made entire careers supposedly defending Kashmir. The problem, however, has not gone away — it has in fact persisted for three decades.
Propaganda, as the Americans realised during the Vietnam War, is part of military strategy. Indians are yet to learn this basic lesson. And whether we accept it or not, India today does not hold the moral high ground when it comes to Kashmir.
Developing a genuine, pro-India narrative on Kashmir assumes more urgency now that the Government of India is attempting to initiate new moves on Kashmir, including the strengthening of grassroots democracy, economic development, a crackdown on corruption and so on.
These initiatives could well come to naught if there is no concomitant effort to challenge the narrative of hate and despair successfully articulated by the separatist camp.
Mao erred when he said power flows from the barrel of the gun — today, it increasingly flows from the people and what they perceive to be right or wrong.