Fire Thieves of Kashmir

Arif Ayaz Parrey on mysterious fires stalking Kashmir. Featured image by Mir Suhail from Kashmir Observer

In recent weeks, as another cycle of protests dies down in J&K, there has been a surge in reports of incidents of looting, stone-pelting on civilian vehicles and, particularly, mysterious fires destroying schools and private property. No one knows who the perpetrators are, yet the government has been quick to blame pro-azadi organizations like Hurriyat Conference. Others, primarily workers and known sympathizers of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (a person who has a photograph with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the late Chief Minister of J&K and PDP’s patron, as his Facebook cover is a known sympathizer for the sake of this discussion) are insinuating that even if workers of the Hurriyat and the larger body of protestors are not carrying out these attacks, they must still be held responsible for not being able to prevent them. So—classic Kashmir—the government is blaming the resistance for failing to govern properly.

The spectre of naartsoor—literally fire thief, but tellingly both arson and the arsonist in Koshur—is not a new one in Kashmir. It has been used for centuries by ruling formations to subdue resistance and instil fear and discipline in subjects. In fact, if one is allowed to use naartsoor as a synecdoche for a wider range of cloak-and-dagger attacks against property and person, one can say that it has acquired the substance of being a government institution. Unpopular regimes employ agents to launch clandestine attacks against property and person, or withdraw from basic duties like policing, creating chaos and mayhem and forcing people to stop opposing the Leviathan godfather and beg it to save them. The current protest endgame is an excellent illustration of this.

The institution manifests itself through two distinct sets of practices, spectral and communal, both of which can be examined on the basis of two important criteria: knowledge and justification.

The first set constitutes spectres like naartsoor or, in recent decades, namaloom afraad (unidentified persons). Incidents of arson, loot, assault etc. will be inflicted by people whose identity people do not know and government agencies express an inability in uncovering. Such attacks are almost always companions of the night, but that would not be enough to shroud them in secrecy. For the people and the government have been at war in Kashmir for such a long, long time that it is next to impossible for any entity to function completely independent of both. In the present era, the insurgents fighting against India’s rule in Kashmir are the blossoms on the tree of the society, they sit on branches of over-ground workers (OGWs) who, in turn, are connected to the main trunk on the society and, through that, other branches and the roots. People involved in other modes of resistance, political mobilization, protests in the streets and stone-pelting are the society. They are a very high percentage of the population—for example, Burhan Wani’s funeral was attended by 10% of the Kashmiri population, while others offered prayers in absentia—and they live with the rest of the society. So it will be impossible for the society to not know of naartsoor if it was emanating from any of the aforementioned quarters.

Also, these groups derive sustenance from the society and are, therefore, dependent on the legitimacy people bestow on them. They do most of their work clandestinely, it is true, and have been known to hit targets officially designated as ‘civilian’ in the past, but there is always a justification in the society for such attacks. (On a slightly unrelated note, this is also why the Pandit migration needs to be re-examined as being more than “Jagmohan did it” by sections of Kashmiri intelligentsia and society in denial. If there were threats against ordinary Pandits not working for the Indian state from unknown quarters, was there also a justification for such threats in the society?) It is always in the interest of these groups to plan their attacks carefully and avoid arbitrariness. Their modus operandi is to attack and then claim responsibility, as if to tell people, “you wanted this to happen, so we made it happen for you”. There is hardly any merit for them in unjustified attacks on civilian targets for which they can’t even claim responsibility.

In the early 1990s, when insurgents burned schools and other public buildings, including bridges, it was to prevent India’s armed forces from setting up camps in these structures. They could only burn a small percentage, and within months Indian soldiers had established an iron-grid in the remaining structures all over Kashmir. Schools, block development offices, cinemas and ration depots were turned into torture centres and base camps from where the soldiers carried out a campaign of terrorizing the surrounding inhabitations by killing and humiliating people and—sweet irony!—burning property, produce and livestock. Even the small number of people who had initially been reluctant in their support for the destruction of these structures quickly came to see the merit in doing so. However, such attacks were always characterized by the insurgents claiming responsibility.

The burning of schools, in particular, is a very complex spectre in Kashmir. The protracted conflict between the people and government ensures that State education becomes a double sword, a necessary evil, in the eyes of the public. While it exposes Kashmiris to vital information about the world outside Kashmir and, even more crucially, allows them to pick up degrees which can fetch them jobs, it is silent about everything within Kashmir, or bends and twists it so much to suit the Indic-nation myth-building that it can no longer be recognized as the truth. Children learn of phenomenon like monsoons, personalities like Subhash Chandra Bose, and events like the Chola invasion of Srivijiya, all utterly irrelevant to the lived experience in Kashmir. This would not be so problematic in itself, nothing wrong with learning about other cultures and histories, but it comes at the cost of learning about Kashmir, say, Western Disturbances, Maqbool Bhat and Rinchinshah’s ascension. Therefore, schools are seen more as centres of colonial propaganda and less of education. Their closing for long periods and burning does not invite the same universal condemnation as it would in a more representative education system.

In direct contrast to this is how the government functions in Kashmir. It took the Indian state only about a decade to destroy any judicial or bureaucratic autonomy Kashmir might have had because of Article 370. The legislature was brought to its knees too. For years, there was rigging of elections to ensure Delhi’s men populated successive legislative assemblies of J&K. As a result, the legislature lost its legitimacy among people as a political institution and was reduced to issues of bare governance, a glorified ‘elected’ bureaucracy; and everybody knows that the key to a successful bureaucracy is ample funds, not people’s goodwill. Build that road, people will walk, is India’s mantar in Kashmir. India does man-management through money-management.

This unique and complete extraction of all the organs of the government from the body politic of the society has created a peculiar situation in J&K. On the one hand, the government is synonymous with secrecy, even in its most public displays of power. For example, enabled by laws like PSA, the details of why they were arrested are kept secret from many people and their legal counsel. The charges mentioned in a PSA dossier are of acts which hardly ever constitute a crime under Indian laws. Besides, a large number of detainees are not even slapped with PSA, they are just held without informing them of the reasons. Everything, people’s life, dignity, happiness, and basic freedoms of movement, association and property have been put in the Schrödinger’s box of ‘national security’ and marked classified. On the other hand, the government is obsessed with knowing the most private details of the lives of civilians. It can never let the people be self-sufficient because then the only connection between the state and people, the flow of money, would be redundant.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the behaviour of Kashmiris working for the Indian government. Ask any Kashmiri, when they are involved in activities of resistance against the state, they feel they are their own agents, and they share the details of such activities with other Kashmiris as a free agent would, accompanied by the euphoric feeling of being part of a larger group. But when they are working as functionaries of the Indian state, there is a very strong sense of formality, fear and secrecy, and a persistent feeling of compromise, if not betrayal. Many will not even share the nature or details of their official work with other Kashmiris.

So, concerning spectral practices like naartsoor, both in terms of knowledge of the event and its consequences, the primary beneficiary is the Indian state. It has cast one of the world’s widest intelligence nets in Kashmir, combining human as well as digital intelligence; it has unleashed a never-ending crackdown against Kashmiri insurgents and activists; and its forces eventually find and kill or arrest anyone they consider a threat. How does one then explain their consistent proclamation of impotence when it comes to finding naartsoor and namaloom afraad?

Also, does not destruction of property, particularly private, leaving people desperate and seeking financial help to rebuild, not benefit an unpopular regime flush with money? Mufti Sayeed’s “healing touch policy” consisted of a neat technique. PDP members would identify potential victims in their area and ask the police or armed forces to pick them up. Then they would get them released by agitating or negotiating with the detainers, thus gaining political capital. Is the policy of healing touch being extended to fire burns?

The second set of practices manifesting this institution are communal (community-related, not in the sense the word is used in India). Ostensibly, the hugger-muggery of large crowds gathered for loose objectives and unclear strategy, these practices constitute of wanton acts of violence against hapless civilians—acts like breaking car glasses, injuring people by pelting stones at them or even setting fire to property in broad daylight. On a lazy glance, they might be indistinguishable from pro-freedom gatherings. Yet, these practices have several features which differentiate them from mass mobilization for azadi in Kashmir. One, these crowds are always short-lived, they gather, attack, and then disperse quickly and spontaneously. Pro-azadi demonstrations can go on for hours and days together if not interrupted by India’s armed forces. Two, all members of such crowds alway wear a mask and hide their identity through various other means. Pro-azadi demonstrations are characterized by mixed-groups with a majority baring their faces and identity. Three, such attacks only become common when protests are weakening and government forces are wresting control of the streets and other public spaces back from the people. As long as—and wherever—the pro-azadi protests are going strong, this kind of mob violence is unheard of. Instead you get stories like this and this.

Several explanations are offered in Kashmir for this phenomenon. Some say overzealous protestors who set their own agendas and local calendars to match and better Hurriyat’s calendar while trying to ensure that the protests do not weaken, are responsible. But the fact that they carry short raids, hide their faces and disperse without provocation is proof of the illegitimacy of their activities in their own eyes. Others say that such attacks are used to settle personal scores between individuals and groups. Sadly, Kashmir has a long history of score-settling by riding the pro- and anti-azadi political waves. Still others say that these crowds are made up of youngsters whose idea of fun is to harass people. Finally, there is the theory that government agencies are responsible for carrying out these attacks to bring disrepute to the movement.

Besides these two sets of practices, the other important characteristic of this institution is the government’s intelligent propaganda around them. For spectral violence, the government will quickly allude—sometimes even expressly state—that insurgents are responsible. In a minority of cases, the government lets its official channels (including India’s private media, which is part of the state in the context of Kashmir) as well as unofficial agencies (its vast intelligence and rumour network in Kashmir) propagate that the spectral violence is perpetrated by the state itself. The phenomenon of “bhoots” (ghosts) in the 1990s is an example of this second approach. In the summer of 1995 (and then again in the summer of 2000), in many parts of urban and rural Kashmir, bhoots started to appear at night. These mysterious entities were agile and could run fast and jump high. They would break into houses and molest and injure women and children. Soon they became such a nuisance that villages and mohallas started constituting committees of all able-bodied men who would take turns keeping vigil at night. This achieved a number of things for the Indian state. Until then insurgents could rest inside people’s homes at night; and gender awkwardness was avoided because of the presence of male members of the family in the house. But when the male members of the house were out on a vigil, the insurgents avoided staying at their home. Besides, local government informers might be active during the day, but at night the insurgents could easily conduct meetings with individual OGWs inside their homes and be none the wiser. But when larger groups of men roamed together at night, it was easier for the government informer among them to keep tabs on the rest. Finally, the utility of the operation as a psychological operation (psy ops) was also a big plus. It was for this last reason that, eventually, the state let it be known that bhoots were government agents, may be even commandoes.

But such events constitute a tiny fraction of the total number of cases involving spectral violence. In most cases, as stated already, the government expresses an inability in carrying a proper investigation and pin-pointing the perpetrators. When a certain event threatens to snowball into a major issue, they are quick to book and pick a few scapegoats, but these later turn out to be ordinary citizens with perfect alibis, for whom it would be impossible to commit the crime they are accused of.

A similar pattern is followed in instances of communal violence. This set of practices is particularly characteristic of protest endgames. It is hard to believe that a state is unable to arrest a few naartsoor and looters at a time when it has regained control over public spaces from the political protestors, a much larger section of the society. Consider this, in the last month or so, the police have arrested more than 15,000 activists in Kashmir, hundreds of them in nocturnal raids. Yet, it has never paid any attention to the naartsoor and looters.

This can only lead one to conclude that the naartsoor are either working for the government, as a psy ops against the people or, at the very least, that the government condones anarchical violence and prefers it over organized peaceful protests.

But one hardly needs anything more than experience to arrive at such conclusions. Hurriyat Conference is a conglomeration of political parties advocating for a peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem. Over the years, even in so-called “peace times”—long periods of enforced silence when people have been forced to give up the right to do politics in the public sphere—the Indian state has done everything in its power to prevent Hurriyat and its constituents from reaching the public. It jails its leadership and activists, prevents it from organizing rallies and meetings, and continuously disrupts its day-to-day functioning. During such “peace times”, the Indian state justifies this by saying that the Hurriyat is irrelevant and pro-India parties are the real representatives of the people. Of course, this is not true. Hurriyat is relevant in Kashmir because Kashmiris want freedom from India and they think Hurriyat can be a political forum to take this struggle forward. The struggle for azadi is the most basic fact of the political life in Kashmir. The Indian state understands this well, and knows that any organizing in Kashmir is always already against it. So it has to prevent unification and organization of any kind in Kashmir which it cannot directly participate in or oversee. This is bound to produce the occasional power vacuums. The people have tried several organizations before Hurriyat and they will replace Hurriyat with new organization if it does not do its job well. At present, we are staring at another power vacuum where the struggle for freedom has been broken into manageable local chunks. However, lack of a strong central leadership means that when people wrest back control of the street from the state, nobody can take responsibility and ensure discipline is maintained across time and space.

So it is particularly sinister when the pro-government constituency, currently the PDP, blame Hurriyat for the spectral and communal violence. It is fascinating to watch pro-India ministers and bureaucrats make these charges—doublespeak might be a skill of statecraft, but when the state accuses organizations it has spent a lifetime atomizing of a lack of organization and discipline, it is quite special.

The pro-azadi movement in Kashmir takes heart from the fact that Hurriyat and other political and militant organizations of Kashmir have always condemned such unjustified spectral and communal violence unequivocally. But is that enough? Granted that these organizations are not powerful enough to prevent these events on their own, yet that is precisely what they should aim to do. It is true that the primary duty of maintaining law and order lies with the Indian state as long as it keeps occupying Kashmir. It is also true that the Indian government is the only one at present with the wherewithal to maintain law and order, yet the pro-freedom groups can use a crackdown against naartsoor as a pilot project to establish an alternate model of governance. Granted even this kind of anarchy is a symptom of the larger disease of atomization unleashed by the state on the people of Kashmir, but by starting to fight the symptoms, the people in Kashmir can also begin to address the disease.

As a response to the present wave of burning of schools, the pro-azadi leadership in Kashmir should not content itself with condemning the acts unambiguously and blaming the government for using such tactics to “defame the freedom movement”. Rather, it can use this as an opportunity to start a more comprehensive conversation on the meaning and place of education in a society in search of freedom.

As far as the Indian administration in Kashmir is concerned, the state dangles between Locke and Hobbes. It declares itself unable to provide basic security to the people, but claims the right to govern them. On other occasions, it claims that the state of (and people’s) nature in Kashmir is “solitary, poor, nasty and brutish”, yet it wants to be seen as a representative of these barbarians. If Hobbes is indeed its last refuge, let them know that Kashmiris have long made the Hobson’s choice and rejected the Leviathan.


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Arif Ayaz Parrey Written by:

Arif Ayaz Parrey was born and brought up between Islamabad and Anantnag, Kashmir. He studied law at Aligarh Muslim University.

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