Friday, June 10, 2011

Prior to the Arab Spring

The attention brought by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Yemen has captivated a global audience mainly due to the generally non-violent nature in which the protestors are demanding their democratic rights. Of course, there are exceptions such as Libya and Yemen. In reality, western fascination derives primarily from the stance of non-violence by the majority of the protesters, and their refusal to be co-opted by violent and/or Islamist groups. After years of media attention regarding conflict in the Middle East, and the framing of any movement in a Muslim based society as violent or Islamist, we as a society were routinely led to believe this was just “their” way of trying to resolve a dispute. Just as our society assumes that dictatorships are what “they” are used to, because well, that’s Islam isn’t it? Well, the answer is no, and as we know most of the dictators in the Middle East have enjoyed a cozy relationship with the United States Government (Syria and Iran being the exception). I have to admit, as someone who has followed democratic movements for the better part of a decade, I was pleasantly surprised as well. However, I have witnessed a non-violent Muslim based movement up close and personal since 2005, but not in the Middle East, and it’s about to resume once the snows have melted.

In Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, non-violent protests have occurred every summer since 2006. The first major protest organized by a former militant turned peace activist Muhammad Yasin Malik. Mr. Malik organized what he called his “Safri-e-Azadi” campaign, which at times included torch lit processions through the Valley of Kashmir in defiance of an enforced curfew. The turn out was incredible. What Mr. Malik did not realize was that rather than garnering popularity for his own personal movement, he was inspiring a younger generation to defy their conditions and in many ways the dysfunctional leadership of the separatist movements and political parties. This younger generation had found their voice and the ability to speak out for their beliefs, wants and desires with one major condition to their cause, non-violence. Additionally, their utilization of social media since 2008, to the world inspired and served as a manual for those in Tehran, and later the Arab Spring.

The tipping point that solidified for the protestors that they could sustain their non-violence movement occurred on August 11, 2006. 55-year-old Sheikh Abdul Aziz, another leader of a different separatist organization was killed by Indian paramilitary troops while participating in a peaceful public demonstration against the ‘economic blockade’ of the Kashmiri Muslims being enforced by militant Indian Hindu groups allegedly with the tacit support of the Indian government. Due primarily to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, an investigation was not conducted as to why the Sheikh was shot during a non-violent protest that was immediately posted on youtube just days following. I was interviewed just days after on Al-Jazeera as a regional expert, and was asked if I thought the Kashmiri protesters will respond with violence since one of their leaders were killed? They were surprised with my quick and assertive response of “No.” You see, I have seen leaders detained, beaten, shot, exiled and the like over the past few years, and no matter how much press the separatists seek, they are not the ones behind the protests, it’s a handful of brave young Kashmiri’s who have been coordinating and openly conducting their activities via facebook. Go to facebook and type Kashmir in groups, and you will see what I mean.

One very misunderstood aspect about the Kashmiri population is that first and foremost it is young, educated and very tech savvy. They know how far they can reach thanks to their ability to connect with people on facebook, and young western tourists posting online about the realities that they witnessed while visiting what was once considered “Shangri-La.” The young people leading these efforts are not aligned with any of the separatist movements or militant outfits. They are a youth population who grew up under the AFSPA and PSA, and are tired of the daily fear. In actuality, young Kashmiri’s probably would even choose to stay with India if given a choice, and a promise that the more than 500,000 military and paramilitary forces (a modest estimate) who have occupied the Valley of Kashmir, one of three parts on the Indian side of the Line of Control, for the better part of 60 years would finally leave the cities and villages.

If you listen to hardliners in the Indian Government, they talk of militants and terrorists when describing the protesters. From time to time, there are terrorists and militants in IAJK, but they are from Pakistan. Unfortunately, when these militants do attack an outpost, the response typically falls on the Kashmiri people, hence the reason for the protests. Additionally, there are also slogans and chants against the militants, and more importantly Pakistan, calling for non-violence, and to stop coming across the border. Though the overwhelming majority are Muslims who organize the protests, it must be noted that young Hindu’s tired of the violence of the military against the general population also are highly visible participants.

Last summer in Srinagar, thousands of people from all the corners of the Indian-administered Kashmir valley marched by various roads towards Lal Chowk, the city center. The year of mass protests in Kashmir passed away to the wintry Himalayan snow with more than 115 young boys and a few women, killed by Indian forces with the full cooperation of the local police. An unfortunate reality that I am sure will inspire the protesters this summer if their facebook pages are any indication.

Agree or not with the premise of the protests, or the demands there can be no argument about the nature of the protests. I too believe a lot of the assumptions of what the protests will achieve are na├»ve. India and Pakistan in the end will make the final decision of what will happen with this disputed region and the quality of life the people who live there will reside. However, the need for the same scrutiny that our media continues to grant the people in the Middle East needs to happen. One of the leaders and organizers describes himself on his facebook page as,” Moderate, Almost liberal. Conservatives make good terrorists.”

With the death of terrorist leader, and some feel the mastermind behind the Mumbai Attacks, Ilyas Kashmiri, Kashmiri’s have peace of mind that one less terrorist that has terrorized their lives is gone. I am sure his death in many ways was a sigh of relief for many throughout the Valley. His terror outfit has terrorized the people of Kashmir both directly, and indirectly via the Indian Militaries typical response. If so, it will be very difficult for media outlets to continue to leave out insinuations that violence that takes place during these protests are perpetrated by the protesters themselves. If that happens, then hopefully the rest of the western world will finally take notice of what has occurred in Kashmir prior to the Arab Spring.

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