Book Review: David Devadas' The Generation of Rage in Kashmir (Oxford University Press, 2018) — by Sohini Chatterjee

Apr 12, 2019

Sohini Chatterjee provides a thorough ‘reading as review’ of David Devadas’ recent book “The Generation of Rage in Kashmir” (Oxford University Press, 2018). The many ideas that emanate from Devadas’ work on Kashmir are presented by Chatterjee in an elaborate manner to articulate the redundant question of “why are Kashmiris so angry?”, addressing an unfamiliar yet curious Indian and possibly international readership. However, in doing so, the basic and ritualistic understanding of Kashmiri “rage against the machine” is reduced to a lack of faith in the Indian system, again parting from that “unquestionable” premise that “Kashmir is an integral part of India.” Chatterjee’s review offers an excellent summary and understanding of the text, revealing a greater effort from Devadas in critiquing India’s policies and operations in Kashmir, which according to this review could as well be deemed as malpractice, misgovernance and blunt use of violence as opposed to tactics of crowd management in situations of repeated protest. The questions of islamicization, Islamophobia, political Islam and the seeming allure of Sharia law and a caliphate for common Kashmiris are also explored in the book. War profiteering and benefiting from a “conflict economy” by various figures and parties is also observed in the text. Chatterjee, in familiarizing readers, effectively and cohesively allows us to navigate through the important aspects of Devadas’ writing, while also providing a thorough preview of the many ideas that the author elaborates and that require actual and direct engagement with his text to get to a deeper view of his understanding, analysis, synthesis, commentary and historiographic engagement with the Kashmir of the last decade, starting from the symbolic year of 2007. As a proclaimed insider-outsider, and a translator of the situation in Kashmir to an ambivalent Indian audience, a purposefully apathetic and dormant central government, a willfully oblivious bureaucracy, in this book, Devadas also fulfills a scholarly role to present his differed and nuanced views on Kashmir as an alternative to the in-depth research and academic writing produced by a variety of Kashmir scholars. Chatterjee’s reading as review works effectively to generate greater curiosity in a wide array of readers, so much so that the book can be perceived as essential reading for those who wish to understand the conditions from over the last decade that have led to the unchanging and escalating atmosphere of violence in the Valley, of course from within that unquestionable framework of Kashmir being an integral part of India.

D emocratic shortfall, hyper-nationalistic fantasies, the culture of impunity, institutional atrophy, heightened insecurity, suspension of rights, lingering fear, among other things, have propelled Kashmir into a perpetual zone of conflict that has been reeling under violence, grief, loss, dehumanization and injustice for decades on end. The recent militant attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama—and the saber-rattling that followed—has brought to the fore yet again the failures of India’s national security discourse, policies and politics in addressing Kashmir’s alienation. Within this context, David Devadas’ recently released book, The Generation of Rage in Kashmir, lays bare critical oversights, political misgovernance, military overreach, festering corruption and vicious cycles of violence and injustice to explain the path traversed by the Valley from “peaceable calm to enraged rejection from 2007 to 2017” .Kashmir is a political-military quicksand and the breeding ground of righteous indignation against India akin to India’s other subjugated borderlands. In his book, Devadas tries to understand, interrogate and explore the roots of rage that have taken hold among young Kashmiris and how it has played out in the Valley in critical political movements and moments, nearly a decade into the 21st century.

Devadas describes the year of 2007 as the “year of endings and beginnings in Kashmir”, including in its ambit also those endings and beginnings that went unnoticed by the state but where large parts of Kashmir’s contemporary political history is rooted. In 2007, even though the militancy that started in 1988 had all but faded out, officials ruling the roost in “mainland” India were unwilling to accept it. Their dangerous denial was nurtured by keeping the counterinsurgency apparatus in place without attempting gradual demilitarization of the region—an exercise that could demonstrate the state’s investment in peace. The peace process between India and Pakistan that was initiated in the Vajpayee era had also not borne fruit. The continued presence of security forces in the Valley in the absence of militancy started to raise deep-seated resentment among Kashmiris who around this time were also beginning to actively define themselves as a Muslim, occupied nation having lived through violence, humiliation, surveillance, hindered mobility, maltreatment and overall highhandedness of stationed forces in for decades on end.

Two generations in Kashmir were born and bred in times of gratuitous violence—one during the height of insurgency and counterinsurgency in the 1990s and another at the turn of the century. Taken together, by 2017, they constituted almost 70% of Kashmir’s population and were below the age of 30—half of whom were well below 20.Even though the former generation—described by Devadas as “the generation of 2007” since they came of age that year—had no immediate memory of militancy and had not experienced the excesses of the counterinsurgency apparatus first hand, they nonetheless grew up in fractious times of disorder and violence. The continued presence of security forces was unjust and unfair to their minds as it disrupted their freedom and altered their lived realities in the everyday, as militarism and militarized spaces tend to do. However, this generation could not be intimidated or silenced easily—they dared to talk back and question the machinations of authority. What was remarkable about this generation was that they nurtured their fearlessness in the face of a“bump them off” culture of the police force in the Valley that could kill with impunity, even in the absence of any palpable existential threat. The oppositional pulls of assertive national consciousness and repressive policing culture came to confront each other in 2008 and 2010. Devadas writes, “The new generation of youth pelted stones, barricaded roads, and the police and paramilitary forces responded with tear gas shells and bullets. In 2010, they kept responding with firing, day after terrible day, despite orders, pleading, cajoling.” It seemed as if the police had “forgotten the basics of policing as crowd control” (page 6).Their actions “enraged a new generation of Kashmiri youth and reignited the conflict” (page 6) when it had died down. 

However, the conduct of the forces was not a cause of concern for the political elite. They were gauging the forces’ behaviour in comparative terms and were content with the fact that security personnel behaved worse in the 1990s. However, for  people living in Kashmir, especially the new generation of youth, the presence of security forces and their undisputed authority was not only deeply violent in the leeway personnel enjoyed but also an affront and assault on their collective dignity and assertive selfhood. Devadas notes, “…the Indian forces continued to mistreat, humiliate, and (although this was relatively rare) arbitrarily kill Kashmiris” (page7). Hence, the image of India came to be associated with that of its counterinsurgency apparatus, operations and the impunity that the security forces were presented with to bolster and keep this apparatus running. To worsen matters further, the Indian state seemed to be oblivious to the needs of the generation of 2007, who were primarily seeking peace and economic opportunities during this time. Not only were these not forthcoming, it was violence and injustice that they had to grapple with as an impediment to survival.

The generation of 2017, however, was different from this generation of 2007 who were, unlike the teenagers of 2007, unwilling to settle for peace and increased modes of sustenance. However, when the generation of 2007 took to the streets in 2008 and 2010 and resorted to stone-pelting as resistance against mindless killings by security forces, those in “mainland” India deemed it to be another insurgency erupting under the aegis of Pakistan. This was a grave misrepresentation of popular dissent and dissidence—a misrepresentation that justified state brutality paving the path for further alienation of Kashmir, exacerbating its disenchantment with India. These uprisings, in reality,were resistance demonstrations against arbitrary killings and impunity and had not coincided with insurgency until then. Pakistan did not take too long to enter the conflict but it was primarily prompted and sustained by the mounting anger within Kashmir in general and among Kashmiri youth in particular, especially the generation that succeeded the protesting youth of 2007. Devadas notes, “When anger erupted again in 2010, Pakistan was evidently back in play, fanning the flames, but the killing of innocents was the tinder that lit the fire” (page11).

The criminalization of resistance against impunity, continued repression and violent counteractions by the state killed more than a hundred people in 2010 and yet the state was unwilling to consider the brutality of its military actions as one of the potent probable causes of Kashmir remaining mired in conflict since 2010, instead pointing fingers at Pakistan for causing and orchestrating unrest in the Valley since 2008--which would by 2016 become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As India failed to look inwards, the rising fury among Kashmiri youth was evident through demonstrations and it only intensified with time owing to the cruelty of the state coupled with the absolute lack of recourse to justice in the Valley. By 2016, Pakistan seemed to have taken over Kashmir’s freedom movement like it had in the 1990s.

Devadas observes that it would have been impossible for Pakistan—even with the material and political support it was providing—to sustain the insurgency had the people of Kashmir not been seething in anger against the Indian state for years. The counterinsurgency apparatus was ignominious and it supported a regime of oppression and subjugation against the Kashmiri population which helped the construction of a narrative that saw the Indian state as the enemy. Devadas writes, “According to narratives common among many ordinary Kashmiris, the most corrupt, venal, and cynical elements of that apparatus resorted to killing, maiming, blackmail, and extortion. The visible presence of that apparatus made those narratives very clear in the minds of even those who had not experienced those things, including those who had grown up after the most intense period of militancy and counterinsurgency. They saw a clear mismatch between the level of militancy and the size of the counterinsurgency apparatus. After 2007, these narratives they heard built anger and vengefulness in a generation that was often too young to remember” (page13). Another momentous change occurred in 2007 as mobile phones emerged in the market followed by internet and proliferating digital and social media spaces owing to it. It led young Kashmiris to communicate, organize, strategize and actively participate in mobilizing efforts since 2007. While increased connectivity helped the emergence of a global Islamic consciousness, it also led to the proliferation of fundamentalist ideologies intensifying the Hindu-Muslim schism.

Moreover, the two generations of youth in Kashmir did not have a violence and conflict free childhood. They grew up amid death and destruction, fear and vulnerability, familial discord, and rapidly declining educational standards in the Valley. They lacked spaces to socialize and were traumatized. Curfew, protests, killings, custodial or otherwise, constituted part of their almost caged quotidian lived realities. Hence, intergenerational memory, experiential knowledge, scarred childhood, soaring national and global Islamic consciousness and the failure of the state to offer peaceful resolution to the conflict helped the perpetuation of a narrative that could not only trust the state, its organs and its institutions, but also came to resent it.

Movements occurred anew in 2008, 2010 and 2016 when Kashmiri youth demonstrated resistance by pelting stones against security forces. When agitations began in 2008, it was not inspired by militancy. However, as Devadas notes, “Continued harassment, torture, injustice by the police during the couple of years following that and the unresponsive callousness of the state government ensured new militancy and the public support for it” (page 20-21). However, when Burhan Wani was killed by security forces in 2016, the public outrage that erupted in its aftermath endorsed militancy through the public mourning of a militant by agitating against a state that killed without offering fair trials. The agitations in 2010 had reposed faith in the rule of law and demanded state action against repression and elimination of innocent citizens but by 2016 the youth seemed to have lost faith entirely in the state’s willingness to deliver justice as was evidenced through their public demonstrations in favour of a well-known militant. After July 2016, more youth from Kashmir started disappearing to join militant ranks since the turn of the millennium. This was primarily because in the year 2010 when stone pelting and high-pitched demonstrations occurred in the streets of the Valley, police and paramilitary forces took to shooting one or two boys daily. The roots of rage in Kashmir were not explored by the Indian state—it was thought to be instigated by militancy even before it had a modicum of truth in it. By 2013, militant attacks had become frequent ushering in a new era of militancy wreaking havoc against the establishment in Kashmir yet again. Devadas argues that the resurgence of militancy can be attributed to the worst of torture in 2011 suffered by protesting youth in captivity.The author states that by 2015, militancy made a definite comeback to the Valley and a new generation who had come of age during this time was now “belligerently anti-state”(page 23). The ruthless suppression of protests by those traumatized by decades of violence and fear proved to be dangerously counterproductive to peace in the Valley as mass protests which did not overtly support militancy started complementing it by 2015. In 2016, those who had participated in the uprisings were coordinated from Pakistan to a great extent. The uprising was concentrated in south Kashmir, the PDP’s stronghold, evidencing that the sense of betrayal among the protesting population against its agenda, and the alliances it had formed with the right wing, was discernible and undisputed.

Devadas writes that those who had taken to the streets in 2008 and 2010, and were born in the 1990s, did not participate majorly in the uprising of 2016. The four months of agitation in 2016 following Burhan Wani’s killing was run by teenagers born at the turn of the century who had no faith in liberal democracy and the nation-state which they felt had failed them. These protestors, and those who took up arms against the Indian state, were instead inspired by ideas of a caliphate and the promises of an Islamist regime of Shariah law. They rejected Sufi tradition and other syncretic practices and came to hold religious beliefs that could be considered orthodox. Devadas writes, “To many Kashmiri students, Shariah law seemed to signify an end to the pervasive corruption, self-centered ethics, and maladministration that they found around them” (page 86).Moreover, this was a time when the narrative about Kashmir being a Muslim, occupied nation being oppressed by a Hindu India was deeply entrenched in the hearts of young Kashmiris who, having witnessed and being agonized by human rights abuses and humiliation by state forces, could relate it to the political, economic, social struggles, discrimination and violence suffered by Muslims as a result of rising Islamophobia in the world. Furthermore, the narrative of Muslim victimhood got bolstered particularly after 2014 when Muslims in various corners of India were brutally killed by beef vigilantes. Devadas rightly observes, “These incidents seemed to confirm to young minds that Muslims could not live together or trust non-Muslims. The caliphate seemed to suggest to teenage minds to denote a divinely sanctioned, sacred and therefore safe refuge in a world that seemed to hold hatred and danger for Muslims. Administrative callousness and an overwhelming miasma of corruption contributed to the rejection of the existing system”(page 89).Young people started imagining a just and equitable alternative in the religio-political system which purportedly secular, but inherently communal, socio-political forces and corruption embroiled structural malpractices would not let India offer. Moreover, young Kashmiris could not repose faith in political leaders in 2008 and 2009. In 2016, Devadas notes, the youth of Kashmir did not approach famous leaders, both “mainstream” and “separatist”, to spearhead their demonstrations. That the young were taken with political and religious radicalism was primarily because they could not trust leaders across the ideological spectrum—who had lost all credibility in their eyes—to create viable alternatives in the decade after 2007.

Moreover, “The societal chaos resulting from a war-like situation generated its own economy. Vast amounts changed hands, from extortion, siphoned funds, smuggling, even outright loot. It became a self-perpetuating situation: a jungle rule brought not only pelf but also a lot of wealth to those who dominated its dark depths, and the lure of that lucre was too strong for those jackals to let the rule of the jungle end” (page 137). Conflict economy benefited leaders of Hurriyat groups, the police, military and paramilitary forces for keeping the counterinsurgency operations going, as well as politicians, “leaders” and even some NGOs. Devadas notes, “For the only way the conflict economy, and its benefits for all sides, could continue was if insurgency continued—or at least the illusion of continued militancy was maintained even after militancy barely existed. The generations that came of age around this time were more often than not victims of this jungle economy” (page 143).There was, hence, a huge incentive to keep the conflict going and there were various stakeholders with different interests who were making money in sinister ways at the cost of innocent lives, peace and stability in the Valley.

Devadas ends the book with a few words of caution against binaries. He argues that the us versus them narrative—with us being the people of mainland India and them being the Kashmiri population—is a dangerous trope that is being vigorously pushed into the 21st century. Simplistic, homogenizing articulations of interests, ideologies, causes, temper and tenor of movements do not do justice to what is extraordinarily complex and which deserve a greater degree of nuance. He claims that even the term “Azadi” means different things to different people and experiences of both militancy and counterinsurgency operations also differ owing to spatio-temporal specificities, even from one person to the next. Similarly, “Kashmiri youth were seen as an amorphous, unchanging mass” (page 180) which did not explain their differentiated lived realities, varying interests and aspirations across different times and places that needed to be viewed with the help ofa diversity in imagination, which jingoistic nationalism and even the Indian state officials clearly lacked. Varied realities on the ground could not be taken into account by policymakers. Devadas writes, “The 2008 agitations were in response to a perceived threat to Kashmiri identity, while 2010 was essentially a protest against the murder of persons not involved with militancy, and the misrepresentation of those murders as counterinsurgency operations. The agitations of 2016 were actually a little less intense than those of 2010, but they marked a huge progression. Stone-pelting had become intertwined with a new militancy” (page 212). The gradual shifts were lost on observers, doers, experts and analysts invested in Kashmir and it brought about failures of initiatives from Sadhbhavana to Udaan in the decade from 2007 to 2017. Motley of motivations are required to be studied in Kashmir to understand not only the reaction of its youth to the state and state forces but also to bring about enduring peace, justice and development in the Valley which unnuanced accounts of the conflict have failed to do thus far. 

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About the Contributor

Sohini Chatterjee holds an MA in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi and is currently an independent researcher working on issues of gender, security, conflict.