Militant martyrs and violent outrage: Is Kashmir antithesis to what Mahatma Gandhi stood for?

Kashmir’s annual observance of 13 July as Martyrs' Day had special significance this year, but both the violent events of 1931, which it commemorates, and the protests of the past six days, bring to mind the suspension of the Indian independence struggle in 1922.

Mahatma Gandhi called a complete halt in 1922, after a police station was burnt by an agitating mob at Chauri Chaura. Leaders from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to Jawaharlal Nehru, and people across the land, were aghast. But such was Gandhi’s moral authority that his call was followed — and he continued as the undisputed leader of the freedom struggle.

In Kashmir, the anger, which was directed at police stations and security camps last Saturday, appears to have been tempered even without the leadership of a leader as colossal as Gandhi. Instead, there appears to have been a reaction from the ground up.

This could mean that anger has been vented, and has therefore subsided for the moment. However, it could also mean that strategies are being thought through, and more trouble could lie ahead. One thing is certain, no putative leader of Kashmir’s separatism has the sort of rallying and controlling moral authority that Gandhi had.

Mahatma Gandhi. Getty Images

No putative leader of Kashmir’s separatism has the sort of rallying and controlling moral authority that Gandhi had. Getty Images

Gandhi had laid stress on non-violence as a founding principle of the Indian nationalist struggle. That has not been the case in Kashmir. Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik have at times spoken of non-violent methods, but have lost credibility with people at large. Perhaps, the convincing personal abnegation that accompanied Gandhi’s political choices were a key to his success.

In 1931, the year of Kashmir’s uprising against the Dogra regime, Gandhi recharged the freedom struggle with the overtly non-violent salt satyagraha. That unlikely movement inspired people right across the land far more than any other struggle hitherto had done. It also sharply focussed the deep links between economic exploitation and political repression.

Gandhi had already established the pan-religion nature of the struggle through the Khilafat Movement in 1919. He never allowed that commitment to falter, even until he was killed for it in 1948.

By contrast, the agitation in Kashmir in 1931 had overtly communal overtones. Trouble erupted on 13 July that year when the gate of the jail complex in Srinagar collapsed as people jostled outside the trial that was going on within. Abdul Qadir was being tried for sedition, having rallied publicly against Muslims being ruled by non-Muslims. After police firing killed 21 persons at the jail, the agitating crowd attacked Pandit shops in Maharaj Ganj and later that day in Vichar Nag.

Many Pandits still recall 13 July, 1931 as a 'black day' or 'the first communal riot', although the state observes it as Martyrs’ Day. Under the lead of Sheikh Abdullah and Chaudhry Abbas, that term was adopted in the state legislature which Maharaja Hari Singh had established even before independence. Of course, it is resented by many Dogras, including BJP ministers in the current coalition government.

Islamic mobilisation continues to be an aspect of Kashmir’s struggle. Militants are called mujahid and the slogans and symbols of separatism are based on Islam. In recent years, Syed Ali Shah Geelani has focussed the demand as 'azadi barai Islam' (freedom shaped by Islam). Since 1990, one of the leading slogans has been: 'azadi ka matlab kya? (What does freedom mean?) La Illah, Il Allah’ — or alternatively: 'nizam-e-Mustafa' (the Prophet’s regime).

At a time when the attacks on security force camps since Saturday have brought the Chauri Chaura arson back into focus, it would be worthwhile for all sides to ponder the significance today of the sort of personal and political morality that Gandhi so powerfully represented.

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2016 16:35 PM

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