Predictably, Kashmir is once more in turmoil. There is some dispute on whether the killing of Burhan Wani was happenstance or by design. Either way, it does not matter much. Or rather, it matters only to the extent that if, as seems likely, it was a planned elimination of a dangerous militant, it shows that the security establishment was either shockingly shortsighted or shockingly cynical. A week after the killing, the State is still represented in Kashmir only by its security forces. There is a curfew, the internet is down, mobile phone services are interrupted, cable television was blocked and in most places there is no electricity. Yet people have come out on the streets in their thousands and pelted the heavily armed police with stones. Several police stations have been attacked. Most of those killed (36 at the time I am writing this) and injured (300 plus) were young, many of them still in school. Ordered to exercise restraint after the first two days, the police switched to shooting pellets which did not kill but left dozens of young persons permanently disfigured or blind: restraint became mindless excess.
Strangely though, the political wing of the State went into hiding. No elected politician had the courage to face his or her own constituents. The chief minister, after three days of silence, appeared in a video message which, when displayed in her home district from where she had been overwhelmingly elected to the state assembly only a few days ago, was apparently publicly jeered at.
Faced with the mass fury and a mounting death toll, the authorities - once again, predictably - blamed it all on Pakistani machination. Over the years, an image has been cultivated in the corridors of power in New Delhi that is profoundly colonial in its denial of any kind of mature rationality to the people of Kashmir: the latter is thought to be either so childlike in its simple-mindedness or crazy as the mentally unhinged that Pakistan is apparently able to turn the tap of mass unrest on and off at will. Burhan's death was expected to cause some outrage in the valley but the massive scale of the protests, according to official spokespersons, could only have been enabled by Pakistan's activation of its militant machinery. Now a full-scale slanging match has begun between the two countries in diplomatic forums, including the United Nations. Alongside, the effort is on to tar Burhan's iconic image as a radical hero, not only by highlighting his alleged role in acts of terrorist violence but also by spreading slanderous stories about his relations with women. Senior ministers castigated the national media for publicizing Burhan as the idol of the Kashmiri youth and thus romanticizing terrorism. Most Kashmiris, however, seem to think that the martyred Burhan will become a far more powerful mobilizer than he ever was in life.
As a historian who has long studied India's struggle for national freedom, I find much of this eerily similar to what I discovered in the archives about events from a hundred years ago. Let me give you an incident that took place in Calcutta in 1908. I choose this episode from the history of revolutionary nationalism in Bengal because the act of violence that led to the event is hardly susceptible to a romantic narration.
The Alipore conspiracy case was the first major trial in which a revolutionary group - the Jugantar - including in its ranks Aurobindo Ghose and his brother Barin, was accused of waging war on the State. British officials would come to describe such nationalist revolutionaries as 'terrorists'. It is worth remembering this in order to rid ourselves of the idea, unthinkingly held by many, that terrorism began with 9/11. One of the accused, Naren Gosain, had turned approver and was expected to testify against his leaders and comrades. Kanailal Datta, another accused, managed to smuggle a revolver into Alipore jail and killed Naren. There was no possibility of escape, of course. Kanai was tried and hanged on November 10, 1908; his body was then handed over to his family. To describe what happened next, let me turn to the official report. "An extraordinary scene was witnessed at Kalighat at the time of the cremation of Kanai... Crowds thronged the road, people pushing past one another to touch the bier... Many women, to all appearances of a highly respectable class, followed the funeral procession wailing, while men and boys thronged around shouting ' Jai Kanai'!"
Kanai's funeral procession was said to be the largest Calcutta had seen until then. The report made one more extraordinary observation. "After the cremation his ashes were being sold in Calcutta, as much as Rs. 5 an ounce being paid by some enthusiasts. It is believed that the supply was made to suit the demand, and that the vast amount of ashes sold in Calcutta as the ashes of Kanai Lal Dutt was fifty times the genuine amount that ever existed." A few months later, a young man named Lalit Ganguly, known to belong to a revolutionary group, admitted to having killed a police inspector. When his confession was found to be false, he pleaded that he had made it because he wished to have a funeral like Kanai's. From then on, the British rulers made it a rule not to hand over the bodies of executed terrorists to their families.
Why were the men and women who jostled to follow Kanai's body to the cremation ground so moved by his death? Kanai's target was not some hated British imperialist. The elimination of a traitor who had betrayed his comrades could have been a tactical necessity for a revolutionary group, but the tearful and angry crowds that came to Kanai's funeral did not belong to any party. British officials were perplexed by this. They could not see that the specific nature, reason or effectiveness of the violent acts of Kanai or the other revolutionaries mattered little to their admirers. What made the revolutionaries figures of love and reverence was the pure selflessness of their acts, their refusal to calculate costs and benefits, gains and losses. It is this that turned their violent acts into acts of self-sacrifice because what came at the end was their inevitable death for the cause. This was in total contrast with the everyday politics of routine politicians, sapped of idealism by their daily compromises and soiled by the grease of money and power. British officials were even more puzzled when, in the following decades, the call of armed action against the British would draw hundreds of middle-class Bengali young men and women with college education into the secret revolutionary organizations.
Kashmiri nationalism stands at the same crossroads where Indian nationalism stood a hundred years ago. The democratic movement led by Sheikh Abdullah in the 1940s and 1950s which campaigned against the Dogra monarchy, carried out the most thoroughgoing land reforms anywhere in India, allied itself with the Indian National Congress and remained steadfast in its non-sectarianism, is now not even a distant memory. Both of its successor lineages led by the Abdullah and Mufti families, abetted by successive regimes in New Delhi, have squandered that legacy. The fact that elections are held and many people vote only means that they cannot do without the services that government provides; it says nothing about the people's political allegiance. The truth is that the entire state order in Kashmir has lost moral legitimacy.
That is how a new generation of Kashmiri youth makes sense of its condition. These young people are not militants; they do not shoot at the police. In fact, so-called terrorist violence and recruitment to militant organizations in Kashmir in the last three or four years have been lower than they have ever been since the 1990s. Young Kashmiris are now better educated than their elders and far more aware of what is going on in the rest of the world. They do not see the continuation of the present order as an acceptable option.
Azaadi is not the name for a blueprint of Kashmir's future political state. Rather it is a rejection of India's armed occupation and the declaration of the right of the Kashmiri people to decide its own future. Given the bankruptcy of the politics that has tried so far to accommodate Kashmir's national aspirations within the Indian federal system, there is a tendency now for the young to adopt an Islamist idiom to vent their demands. If this trend gets stronger, the best result might be a new popular movement, Islamist in temper but with deep roots in local communities. That is what happened in Palestine when Hamas rose to displace the discredited Palestine Liberation Organization. The worst outcome would be the burgeoning of jihadi groups that no one will be able to control.
To stop that slide, democratic nationalism in Kashmir must be given a genuine chance. That in turn will require a willingness to explore Constitutional options that are as yet taboo in India. Perhaps we should remember that Canada entirely rewrote its federal Constitution in order to resolve the Quebec question; even more radical was the political agreement that ended the Irish violence. No such breakthrough will be possible, however, as long as the current attitude prevails in both India and Pakistan of treating Kashmir as a site where the two countries are fighting a war, where every move is judged by whether it would go to India's advantage or Pakistan's, and where the lives of Kashmiri people are mere collateral damage. That is a recipe for treating Kashmir as a colonial possession.
The writer is professor at Columbia University