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Part II: Kashmiri Journalist Basharat Peer, Author of “Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir”

Web ExclusiveJuly 21, 2010
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Indian troops and police have killed fifteen people in Kashmir since June, sparking widespread protests. The Indian government has imposed a strict military curfew in the area as well as a media gag order on local journalists. The international community has remained silent on the human rights abuses in Kashmir.

Watch Part I of this conversation here

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Anjali Kamat, and we’re bringing you today part two of our discussion about the conflict in Kashmir. Anjali?

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, yesterday there was a protest outside the United Nations organized by a group of Kashmirian solidarity activists here in New York.

    MOHAMMAD JUNAID: My name is Mohammad Junaid, and we are organizing this protest here today against the continued oppression of Kashmiri people by the Indian state and the military governance that has been imposed on that region. And we are here to petition the United Nations, which has so far been silent on the issue, and although they have said that they are aware of what is happening there, but they have kept silent. So far, twenty people have been killed in Kashmir — young boys, teenagers. Even one of them was nine years old. And for no reason but for expressing this end.

    SHUBH MATHUR: My name is Shubh Mathur, and there are terrible things happening. One thing that I think the world needs to understand is this is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. What we’re seeing here is a popular uprising under Indian rule, and it’s — against Indian rule, and it’s being crushed by the military. That’s what those pictures are. There are teenage boys being killed. There are people under lockdown, tanks in the city streets. And this is not about — it’s not even remotely about two equal powers facing off. It’s an unarmed population facing a very well-armed state.

    MADHUR RAI: My name is Madhur Rai. This is an opportunity for President Obama perhaps to change tack and not to work on the South Asian region only through the Indian state. Something has to be done in terms of rescuing the way the United States thinks about that region, rescuing Kashmir from sort of, you know, the Indian perspective of Kashmir. The Indian government’s stance has been that this is an internal matter, that the problem in Kashmir is an internal matter, and it will not sort of consider sort of any kind of interference from the outside world. It cannot be an internal matter.

ANJALI KAMAT: Some voices from a protest on Kashmir outside the United Nations Tuesday.

Well, for more, we’re joined here — we continue our conversation with Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist’s Frontline Account of Life, Love and War in Kashmir.

Basharat, say a little bit more about what you think the international community should be doing. They’ve been largely silent on the abuses in Kashmir, both the spike in abuses that’s taken place in the past month, but also over many decades.

BASHARAT PEER: That’s — I agree with you completely, but I think there’s two things that the international community can and definitely must do, is to raise the question of human rights abuses in Kashmir, to talk about the presence of these laws, which essentially, you know, equip soldiers to kill civilians and get away with it, to have an idea of justice there so that, you know, people get a sense of justice and that this excessive militarization is put an end to. And another factor the international community should definitely raise, and it does raise that, is the question of Pakistani support to Islamist groups which operate in Kashmir. I mean, that violence has lessened, but — and the United States and UK have been putting pressure on Pakistan to withdraw their support to these groups. I think that should definitely be done more, but — and so shall be the question of human rights abuses in Kashmir be taken up seriously, because it’s not just only affecting things in Kashmir, but it’s also these images of rights abuses in Kashmir become the images that various jihadist groups use for recruiting younger people to militancy, which poses a danger not only to Kashmir but to anyone around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Islamabad rejecting Pakistan’s request to mediate in the Kashmir conflict?

BASHARAT PEER: I think that’s a story that’s been going on for the last twenty years. Pakistan — India keeps on insisting that it’s an internal matter and will not involved outside powers, and Pakistan pushes for internationalizing the question of Kashmir.

AMY GOODMAN: How was Kashmir, India, Pakistan — how did they first become countries, India and Pakistan, and where did Kashmir fit into that?

BASHARAT PEER: There was only India, and the British were ruling it. And within, there was a part of the British —- you know, India that British ruled that was directly ruled, that’s called British India, and then there were these various princely states ruled by maharajas, but that finally paid obeisance to the British. And when India was partitioned and the state of Pakistan was created and the British left in 1947, most of these princely states had a choice: to either go with India or Pakistan. It was largely done on a religious basis. If you were a Muslim-majority princely state or a place you would go to -— Muslim majority would go to Pakistan, Hindu majority would go to India. But Kashmir was a peculiar situation. It was a Muslim-majority princely state ruled by a Hindu king. And he was — he bought time from both sides before he could make the decision. And Indians were working on him, Pakistanis were working on him, both trying to get Kashmir, while there was a — the leadership in Kashmir was more, you know, inclined towards independence, but the main leader was friendly with India. At this time, in October 1947, two months after, you know, Indian and — formation of Pakistan and Indian independence, there was tribal raiders from Pakistan who came in and tried to wrest control of — to get Kashmir with Pakistan through force. And at that point, the maharaja of Kashmir signed a treaty with India, and Indian forces came in, and like, that was how Kashmir got divided into two parts, you know, who took over how much became the two parts of Kashmir. Like, the area that Indian forces could control at that time has become the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir; the rest of it is with Pakistan, and it’s the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. And between these two runs this like mountainous border, which is also now one of the most militarized borders, called Line of Control. And this — on the Indian side, this treaty of accession that the maharaja signed, it basically gave Kashmir very, very wide autonomy, and India just controlled like difference in foreign affairs and telecommunications. But sadly, that autonomy was eroded over the years, and, you know, popular leader were arrested and jailed, and sort of rubberstamp puppet governments installed.

AMY GOODMAN: And is there conflict on the Kashmir — on the Pakistani side of Kashmir?

BASHARAT PEER: There’s not much conflict on the Pakistani side, but there’s not much freedom either. It’s really run under the writ of Pakistani military and the federal government. They don’t really have an autonomous government, or like they don’t really have much freedom to choose their own path.

ANJALI KAMAT: And what do the people of Kashmir want? They’re always forced to choose between loyalties to India or Pakistan. But as a Kashmiri, as someone who grew up there, what’s your sense of the popular sentiment?

BASHARAT PEER: I think the people of Kashmir, more than anything, want to be left alone by India — both by India and Pakistan. I mean, if there’s one line that’s true about Kashmir, that’s it. They just want to be left alone by both countries and, you know, be able to take charge of their destinies for once. It’s always bracketed between these two countries and a territorial dispute. But there are people who have urgency, who have desires, who have political dreams, and they just want to, like, you know, be able to take political control of their own place.

AMY GOODMAN: Be independent? Be an independent nation?

BASHARAT PEER: That’s always the slogan, an independent nation. But freedom can take many forms. A lot of people in Kashmir are not even thinking about broad, genuine autonomy, but the desire is that of independence.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the conflict in Kashmir compare to the conflict in Punjab?

BASHARAT PEER: Punjab was a, I mean, different story. It’s just different political histories. Also, Punjab didn’t really have this international dimension of like one part of Punjab being under Pakistan and the two countries being legally involved. I mean, that was an internal politics story led by various failures of the state. But in Kashmir there are international ramifications, and the area is like — you know, on the books, it’s a disputed territory.

ANJALI KAMAT: To come back to the current situation in Kashmir, if you can talk a little bit about the gag order that’s been imposed on local media. There’s also reports that India is trying to control Facebook users in Kashmir. Can you talk a little bit about what’s happening in this sense?

BASHARAT PEER: Well, what happened was that the publication of all newspapers in Kashmir — and there are many — it’s a very vigorous, if low-budget, press and a lot of independent papers — they were stopped. They were not allowed to publish or to go to press. And most journalists weren’t, even Kashmiri journalists weren’t, allowed to go and report on what was happening around them, because it was a way to manage the — what comes out of the protests or what was happening around you.

Two very senior journalists were attacked and beaten by the Indian security forces. One was Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times

, who’s their South Asia correspondent, and another was Riaz Masroor of the BBC. And at another moment, a point when there was a funeral that was attacked by the forces in Srinagar, the main city, there was a group of photojournalists who were capturing these images of this body lying and this father, you know, trying to save his son from — son’s body from being kicked by the soldiers. And they captured those moments, but most of those photojournalists were attacked, and I think around twelve were badly beaten.

So there was very intense pressure on the local media, but they continued to get some of the stuff out online, like this particular incident of this attack on a funeral. A local Kashmiri magazine called Kashmire Live actually ran a very powerful photo essay on their website, which is [], with the firsthand account of the photographer of what he witnessed and how the event unfolded. So they have been finding ways around it, but the pressure is high to sort of tone down the criticism of the government or not to publish things.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a piece in the New York Times today called “Water Dispute Increases India-Pakistan Tension.” And it says, “In this high Himalayan valley on the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir, the latest battle line between India and Pakistan has been drawn.” And it says, “This time it is not the ground underfoot […] but the water hurtling from mountain glaciers to parched farmers’ fields in Pakistan’s agricultural heartland. Indian workers here are racing to build an expensive hydroelectric dam in a remote valley near here, one of several India plans to build over the next decade to feed its rapidly growing but power-starved economy.” And this piece comes out of Bandipore.

BASHARAT PEER: Yeah, this is — this is not so much on the minds of the general populace, but it is one of the questions that has been getting increasing attention as the resources are drying up. And the rivers that go to Pakistan, you know, do run from the Himalayas, and one of the main rivers, the Jhelum, it goes from Kashmir into Pakistan. And there is a lot of this construction, which also has very strong adverse ecological effects on Kashmir, but this building of these dams and this construction goes on. But this is a fight that has continued for a while. At the moment, it’s really the series of clampdowns in Kashmir and the abuse of civil liberties that has been — and the resultant sort of breakdown in India-Pakistan peace process, which has not really gone anywhere since it stopped in 2008 after the bomb attacks on Bombay. So I think those are things which are foremost on the minds in South Asia at the moment. The water crisis is aside like — which is very important, but it’s not the top priority at the moment.

ANJALI KAMAT: India likes to call itself the world’s largest democracy. It prides itself on its free press. How is Kashmir talked about in the rest of India? How does the Indian media cover Kashmir? You mentioned there’s more than half-a-million Indian troops in Kashmir; it’s 700,000 troops in Kashmir. Tell us what the ratio is of how many soldiers to each civilian. And is there an anti-occupation movement in India?

BASHARAT PEER: You don’t really have that kind of a movement in India. I mean, there are individuals, like intellectuals, some writers or just honest journalists, and it’s a number you can count on your fingers — it’s a very small number — but who do advocate, you know, that India should deal with Kashmir not just through force, but as a proper democracy, and listen to people, consider their political and democratic rights. But unfortunately, Kashmir has become this — it has become like the litmus test of jingoism when it comes to India. And most people take the sort of — the argument of the state and that it has to be held onto, these are just Muslims creating trouble, and Kashmir is the jewel in the crown. It’s also looked at through this strange lens of this is the paradise. It’s a beautiful place. It’s almost like depopulating that place and just thinking of the beautiful mountains and the lake that you need to control.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Kashmir fit into the overall so-called war on terror?

BASHARAT PEER: I think one of the ways that Kashmir has been talked a lot, and especially in the United States in the last few years, is that United States needs more cooperation from Pakistan in the so-called war on terror in Afghanistan. And the argument Pakistan is making is that there’s a theory of insecurity, they feel, on the Indian border and also with the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. India is involved in a lot of developmental projects, road building, in Afghanistan. And Pakistanis have been making the argument that we are being sandwiched between this Indian presence in Afghanistan and the massive armies they have on the borders, and that to be able to devote more attention to our Afghan border and in the fight against the Taliban, we need to be, you know, secure with the Indian border. It’s a claim that has been disputed by many, but that’s an argument that to be able to help Pakistan fight the Afghanistan fight, Kashmir should be resolved so that they can move troops away from the Indian border and devote more energies to the Afghan sector.

ANJALI KAMAT: And what are the militant groups that are still operating in Kashmir? Everyone talks about Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. What are the threats posed by these groups? Who are they funded by? You talked about how the continuing occupation provides fodder for jihadi recruitment. Explain this.

BASHARAT PEER: So, in a sense, there’s like only one major group. That is, Lashkar-e-Taiba. It’s the Lahore-based group which was supposedly behind the attacks on Bombay. Most of its —-

ANJALI KAMAT: Lahore, Pakistan.

BASHARAT PEER: Lahore, Pakistan. Most of its recruits come from the like poorest of the districts of the Punjab province in Pakistan. And the rallying cry -— Lashkar came into being talking about Kashmir, talking about Kashmir as its main fight. But it doesn’t — its members, very, very few of its members, would be from Kashmir. And there is a Kashmiri group, which is called Hizbul Mujahideen, which is led by a man from Kashmir and who is now based in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, but that’s — there’s not much left of that group. It has a very small presence now and maybe just works with Lashkar in terms of logistics in operations. But really the main group that has the ability to destabilize anything in South Asia is Lashkar, and some of the sort of people in the strategic studies circles are describing it as the neo-al-Qaeda. And for them, they are slightly getting a little involved in Afghanistan now, there have been reports, but the main thrust has been Kashmir, and it remains a Kashmir-focused group. So the threat remains. And even its head, the chief of the Lashkar, has repeatedly — you know, he would give talks and talk about Kashmir and say, “As long as there is Indian military in Kashmir and as long as civilians are killed in Kashmir, we will continue to fight.”

ANJALI KAMAT: Do they have a lot of support inside Kashmir?

BASHARAT PEER: They don’t — it’s not that they don’t have — they do have popular support, but there are times when you see people on the streets raising a slogan in favor of Lashkar, because they’re so angry with something that the Indian military has done, not because, you know, they espouse that worldview. More like a reaction to something that’s very adverse.

ANJALI KAMAT: Basharat, explain why this issue has gotten so little attention in the United States. What power does the Indian lobby have in all of this?

BASHARAT PEER: There are many things that play. The factors — one of the factors is, in the sort of post-9/11 world, there was a very strong degree of Islamophobia, and India was very successful at conveying the sense, because of the involvement of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, that, you know, whatever is happening in Kashmir is because of Islamist terrorism, in which the entire population of Kashmir, which is largely, you know, a group of unorthodox Muslims and has like just very secular demands about political rights, was lumped with jihadist groups who sort of usurped their cause, in some ways. So that was one of the factors.

Then the second is the soft power of India, the idea of rather vibrant democracy, even though vigorous half-democracy, but at least a place that has regular elections. And the fact that, you know, the other examples in the neighborhood weren’t very good helped the Indian lobby.

But then the third and more important and pragmatic point, I guess, is that it’s also — India is also a huge market for American firms, from all kinds of — from technology to, you know, household goods to, now increasingly, the defense industry. I mean, the Indian army is in a phase where it’s talking a lot about organization, and there are purchases that Indian companies — Indian government will be making in billions of dollars for defense equipment. And that has — that has an effect because the people who will be selling them those arms will be major American companies, who are already camped in — been camped in five-star hotels in India and lobbying hard that they should be the ones getting the deals.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

BASHARAT PEER: I have heard about Lockheed Martin and Halliburton, but there would be many more. And a very renowned political scientist from India called Sunil Khilnani recently wrote in a major paper in India, saying what we are seeing in India is sort of this emergence of a new — the danger of an emergence of a new military-industrial complex, and whether just — and raised the question that whether just arming and getting more weapons will make India a safe country, instead of like moving forward in terms of giving people political and democratic rights.

ANJALI KAMAT: How much money does India spend on its defense budget, spent in Kashmir?

BASHARAT PEER: I don’t have the exact figures, but the numbers are huge. I mean, it’s much more that’s — than that is spent — if the same money would have been — it runs in billions of dollars, of what Kashmir has cost India so far. I mean, just the money spent on running a counterinsurgency campaign and controlling, maintaining all the forces there, the money is in amounts that you could easily use to alleviate like the most — the absolute poverty that we see in wide, you know, spaces in India. Like, recently there was a report from the UN which said, in the eight Indian states, there are more poor than in twenty-six of the poorest of the African countries. So the money that’s being funneled into getting more high-tech equipment and running and maintaining half-a-million soldiers to control another population could easily be funneled into developmental projects, but that doesn’t seem to be the thinking.

ANJALI KAMAT: But we’re looking at a situation where American arms might be used by Indian soldiers against Kashmiri civilians.

BASHARAT PEER: Not just against Kashmiri civilians. There is a — in various other places in India and throughout central India, there’s a Maoist rebellion going on. The poorest of the poor, whose land and resources have been exploited by various companies for years, have now basically, under the banner of Maoist insurgency, started challenging the Indian state and the companies. So that’s another major, major war going on in the heart of India. And then there’s the northeastern states where troubles have been going on for a long time. It does, unfortunately, look like — that the biggest democracy is at war with its own people.

AMY GOODMAN: Basharat Peer, can you explain why you decided to write this memoir, Curfewed Night?

BASHARAT PEER: I think it’s essentially the urge to tell a story. I was working as a reporter for a newspaper and writing about Kashmir, among other things, traveling across India. But every time I would go to a bookshop, really, I would read books from all parts of the world about conflicts, about people fighting political battles. And there was hardly — there were many books on Kashmir which were written by Indians, by Pakistanis, by British journalists. And there was so much that, you know, my generation remembered, even before we became journalists. We had seen a lot. And those stories seemed to be nowhere. And what Kashmir had gone through was never told through our eyes. So there was this intense longing. When somebody asked me a question, “What’s Kashmir like?” there’s hundreds of images and stories that came to the mind. You couldn’t really explain it. And then one day I just gave up my job and returned to Kashmir and thought, “I’ll do this.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we thank you for doing it.


AMY GOODMAN: And thank you for sharing your life with us and your homeland. Curfewed Night is the name of the book, One Kashmiri Journalist’s Frontline Account of Life, Love and War in His Homeland. Thank you so much.

BASHARAT PEER: Thank you for having me.

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