The Many Ways Burhan Wani Changed Kashmir
Burhan Wani is to Kashmir what Gandhi was to India: the catalyst that led to eventual freedom for an entire nation. Wani and Gandhi gave direction and certainty to freedom movements that long existed before them but never seemed definitive until these two men emerged. Gandhi lived to see freedom, but it was Wani, killed by Indian occupation army execution-style in an extrajudicial murder, who sealed Kashmir’s fate in death.
Make no mistake: Wani is one of those men who probably changed the course of history for his people. The protests that rocked Kashmir after his death on July 8, 2016, forced the United Nations to end its silence on Kashmir conflict, led to unprecedented international media coverage, and considerably loosened India’s grip on the strategic region.
There is so much that has changed in Kashmir- thanks to Wani. The latest example came just four days prior to New Year 2018 when New Delhi forced the half-million employees of its puppet-government in Kashmir to post pro-India content on social media to shore up Indian image in the valley. The order, issued in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, also warned government employees against posting anything ‘anti-national’; code for India-bashing. The social media gag was “an obnoxious, tyrannical and unacceptable insult to employees”, Junaid Azim Mattu, spokesman for National Conference, a Kashmiri political party, said in a statement.
The strategic community is watching Kashmir slip out of India’s hands. The Diplomat has bluntly said that ‘Kashmir is Slipping Away from India’. The Foreign Policy magazine has published an article titled, ‘India is Losing Kashmir’, and the BBC asked: ‘Is India losing Kashmir?’ The reason the international media is discussing this is simple. It’s because India has lost Kashmir in most ways except the physical control, and that now is a matter of time.
Contact between Kashmiris living under Indian occupation with those in Pakistan and worldwide are increasing. India cannot stop these interactions, and you can be sure that Kashmiris talk about freedom when they meet. Last month, a group of Kashmiri journalists departed from New Delhi airport to a neutral country, Thailand, to meet Kashmiri journalists from Pakistan. Together, they have launched a Jammu & Kashmir Joint Media Forum, or JKJMF. This surge in communication between Kashmiris is part of Kashmir’s baby-steps toward freedom.
This is another of Wani’s miracles: he galvanized Kashmiris separated by borders and politics to unite again seventy years later for their joint cause. Many people forget that Kashmir is a resilient cause. Apart from the Palestinian national movement, Kashmir is the only other cause of national identity and self-determination that has survived for this long. After Kashmiris themselves, a lot of the credit for this goes to Pakistan, which has taken the voice of Kashmir internationally, and in the process of doing so has taken great risks, including Indian retaliation in the form of Indian state-sponsored terrorism inside Pakistan across the country’s western fronts, focused on KP and Balochistan. This was India’s tit-for-tat on Kashmir.
The political ferment inside Kashmir is impressive but you might miss it because of the filters India applies to all news coming out of the region. Take for example how Burhan Wani pushed middle class Kashmiri college girls to take up stone-pelting against Indian soldiers.
One particular picture of a Kashmiri girl with a basketball in one hand, carrying a backpack and throwing a stone at Indian soldiers, caught global attention. Even the Indian media could not ignore it, despite its reputation as a media prone to stick to New Delhi’s red lines on Kashmir. The picture was taken near Lal Chowk, in the heart of Srinagar, on April 24, 2017 during a massive pro-freedom rally demanding an end to the Indian rule.
The picture shocked India. Told for years that it was only a bunch of bearded religious extremists from Pakistan who were leading Kashmir’s anti-India movement, Indians woke up to see educated, middle class city girls who probably watch Indian and American films, play basketball and cricket, and are confident and assertive, totally rejecting India and Indian identity.
Indian magazine, Outlook, called this picture ‘a New Stone Age.’ It ran a special report on this picture titled ‘A Girl, A Basketball, A Stone.’ The magazine’s verdict: “Girl students pelting stones at [Indian] police in the heart of Srinagar marks a shift in the Kashmir unrest’s visual profile.”
Another Indian news website published a report explaining to Indian readers ‘why this picture of a schoolgirl pelting stones while holding basketball is going viral in Jammu & Kashmir.’
This change in the ‘visual profile’ of Kashmir conflict was not possible without Burhan Wani.
Kashmir Goes International
Another big story of post-Burhan Kashmir is the dramatic change in the way the international media covered Kashmir conflict. Gone are the days when only Pakistan-based news organizations talked about Kashmir. In fact, every week since Burhan Wani died nineteen months ago, the international media has been publishing videos, newspaper stories and pictures from Indian-occupied Kashmir, much to the angst of New Delhi. This coverage has included strongly-worded editorials in The New York Times, and news reports from the ground blasting the Indian army (example: Indian army reaches a new low in Kashmir). It was the NYT that first coined the phrase ‘an epidemic of dead eyes in Kashmir’ in its report that documented actions that could one day be designated as war crimes by India’s occupation in the valley.
The coverage in the British, Turkish and Qatari media has been much more extensive. Al Jazeera, the Gulf television channel has produced great creative content on Kashmir, from memes to video articles and detailed reports.
When India claimed in October 2016 that it had conducted ‘surgical strikes’ inside Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir, it was the Washington Post that published the best journalistic repudiation of Prime Minister Modi’s claim that his government conducted military operation inside Pakistan.
This dynamic international coverage of Kashmir after Burhan Wani should end the common refrain in Pakistan that ‘the world is silent’ on Kashmir freedom movement. The world is no longer silent. In fact, the world is highlighting Kashmir sometimes better than the Pakistani media does.
The UN Awakens
Wani’s ultimate sacrifice and the courage shown by Kashmir’s ‘basketball girls’, and by the Kashmiri youth in general, has impacted the United Nations at the highest levels.
In September 2016, the United Nations ended its long silence on Kashmir. UN’s top human rights official criticized India at the opening of the 33rd session of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UNHRC included Kashmir in the list of conflicts that required urgent international attention, alongside issues such as Syria and Ukraine. The UN continues to do this, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to speak again on Kashmir at the March 2018 session of UNHRC.
“We continue to receive reports of increasing violence, civilian casualties, curfews and website blackouts in Kashmir,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, who is a member of the Jordanian royal family in his opening statement at the start of the 35th session of UNHRC in June 2017.
The opening statements by the UN human rights chief highlights issues that deserve top international attention. For decades, Kashmir slipped out of the list and was forgotten. But starting in September 2016, Kashmir made a surprise return to the UN human rights agenda. Al-Hussein delivered a comprehensive speech at the start of the session, tackling issues as diverse as ISIS, Syria, Israel, Iran and Cuba. The addition of Kashmir came as a surprise. The Kashmiris succeeded in pushing their case forward, and this small step will go a long way. In fact, this moment will be remembered when the Kashmir conflict is finally resolved.
UN’s top rights chief raised Kashmir in his policy statements in September 2016, March, June, and September 2017, and is now expected to do the same in March 2018.
The End Game
The Kashmir conflict has reached a stage where the end game is visible. The Kashmiris will achieve some form of end to the Indian military occupation, and possibly succeed in getting a UN-supervised referendum to decide their political future. But this will be an arduous road.
The key point is that India can no longer reverse Kashmir’s freedom. This is no longer debatable post-Wani. The freedom movement has cultivated enough critical mass for it to challenge India’s repeated claims that UNSC resolutions have ‘expired’ (UNSC resolutions do not expire; their status can only change through subsequent resolutions).
The strategic community is watching Kashmir slip out of India’s hands. The Diplomat has bluntly said that ‘Kashmir is Slipping Away from India’. The Foreign Policy magazine has published an article titled, ‘India is Losing Kashmir’, and the BBC asked: ‘Is India losing Kashmir?’
The reason the international media is discussing this is simple. It’s because India has lost Kashmir in most ways except the physical control, and that now is a matter of time.
Indian leaders realize they are headed toward the inevitable in Kashmir. Some Indian lawmakers, especially from non-Hindi speaking states, have called for ‘letting Kashmir go’ if that’s what the Kashmiri nation wants. Some Indian politicians have admitted that Kashmir is lost already.
It is a human tragedy that a minority of Indian politicians (most of them religious, Hindi-speaking, and come from the ruling state of U.P. in the north) whip up false religious and nationalistic emotions over Kashmir, where Indian army kills innocent civilians and where the Indian military suffers its worst casualties, including suicides and psychological problems as the Indian soldiers fight a losing battle.
India holds the key not only to peace in Kashmir but the entire region. India created Kashmir conflict by stalling and rejecting UNSC resolutions. There is no real conflict between Pakistan and India if Kashmir issue is resolved. India is a big enough country to afford the necessary concessions to resolve Kashmir, allow Kashmiris to heal their wounds, and allow Pakistan and India to enjoy the dividends of peace.
If India fails to do this, the region will see more instability, and a possible war, which eventually would invite international intervention. That could be humiliating for India. It is better to show leadership, vision and compassion, and resolve the conflict with the Kashmiris and Pakistan.
Expecting Pakistan to forget Kashmir is not an option. The physical, historical, cultural, and religious links between Pakistanis and Kashmiris make it impossible to consider this option. A comparable situation does not exist in India, where the vast majority of Indians share no affinity with Kashmiris and, more importantly, the Kashmiris overwhelmingly reject any manufactured affiliation to India.
Wani was an internet poster boy for the new generation of Kashmiris. He donned military fatigues for show, as a form of rebellion and rejection of military occupation. He was handsome, well-educated, and Kashmiris loved him. India arrested him alive but it miscalculated his murder as it has miscalculated everything else in Kashmir.
Burhan Wani has changed Kashmir forever.
The writer is the Executive Director of YFK-International Kashmir Lobby Group, a senior journalist and host of a current affairs TV show at a private TV channel.
Originally published at https://www.hilal.gov.pk in March 2018, and posted here in Nov. 2019.