Indian demonstrators hold placards as they form a human chain during an anti-war demonstration called by pacifist organisations in New Delhi on March 4. Photo: AFP
Harsh Mander
Harsh Mander

How rage and love gripped India after the Kashmir terror attack

  • For days after the February 14 suicide bombing that killed 44 Indian soldiers, political leaders did nothing to calm public furore aimed at Kashmiri people. In fact, they spurred it along, says Harsh Mander
A young suicide bomber carrying 350kg of explosives rammed his car into an armed convoy on February 14 in Kashmir, killing 44 Indian paramilitary soldiers. The attack spurred a surge of collective grief in India, as people across the political and social spectrum came together to mourn the loss of the soldiers killed in the line of duty – mostly sons of farmers and workers in their twenties.

But the grief lasted only too briefly, with the sorrow quickly transmuting into a menacing frenzy of rage, hate and fear, further cleaving an already bitterly divided India.

As televised state funerals were held in the villages of each of the slain soldiers, emotions swelled and rage focused on four specific targets: Kashmiri students and workers; Pakistan – spurred on by calls for war by television studios, newspapers and across social media; people who called for peace or questioned the government’s security record and who were demonised by the ruling establishment and on social media as anti-national traitors; and India’s Muslim citizens, as people questioned their patriotism and loyalties to Pakistan.
A man watches a television news report on the confrontation between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets in New Delhi. Photo: Bloomberg

Newspapers reported large-scale evictions of Kashmiri students, and sometimes faculty, from colleges, hostels and even rental houses in many parts of the country. Colleges announced they would not admit any new Kashmiri students in future. Workers, shawl and dry fruit traders were threatened and attacked.

Little of this was spontaneous. It was the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and non-state Hindu supremacist organisations like the Bajrang Dal and RSS with BJP workers, who led the attacks and threats against Kashmiri students, teachers, traders and workers.

Prime Minister Modi for nine days did nothing to calm the public fury. He spoke no words of reassurance to those being intimidated, nor tried to restrain those who threatening or attacking Kashmiri people.

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Bloomberg

Instead, he led the rage and talk of revenge from the front. Soon after the killings, in an election rally, he declared: “The fire raging in your heart is raging in my heart too.”

Not just Modi, no senior cabinet minister acknowledged the gravity of the attacks or condemned them. There was talk everywhere of revenge. Fevered hate-mongering exploded on television and social media. A professor at India’s leading liberal arts Jawaharlal Nehru University demanded the public execution of 40 Kashmiris to avenge the soldiers’ deaths. The Governor of Meghalaya sought a boycott of Kashmiri crafts, shawls and tourism.

Only after the Supreme Court voiced concern, nine days after the attack, did Modi speak up, pleading for Kashmiri students not to be attacked. But this came with no action against the hatemongers and was too late to carry conviction or to heal the wounds left on the Kashmiri people by the attacks and expulsions.

Indian Bhartiya Janata Party workers wear masks depicting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman during a bike rally. Photo: EPA

During Modi’s five years in office, India has seen a systematic normalisation of hate and prejudice, and it has become commonplace for kin, friends, colleagues and people in high public office to openly express prejudice and bigotry.

But the Kashmir terror attack on Indian soldiers raised the pitch and public display of this chauvinism to a new crescendo.

Talk of revenge climaxed when India sent warplanes across The Line of Control to bomb what it described as non-state terror outfits. The actual impact of the military response remains disputed, with the president of the ruling BJP claiming 300 terrorists were killed, while the air chief said his job was to hit targets, not count bodies.

Any questioning of the casualties of the bombing was painted as unpatriotic by Modi.

Pakistan retaliated, making the two countries the only nuclear powers in the world to have bombed each other.

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India’s Muslims are descendants of those who chose to live in multi-religious and secular India, rather than migrate to a Muslim Pakistan at the time of India’s blood-drenched 1947 partition.

Even so, chauvinist Hindu political formations have mischievously called to question their loyalty to India, especially in warlike moments. Muslims have therefore felt forced to publicly demonstrate their love for India in these fraught times.

Fortunately, revenge and hate was not the only narrative in India in the days following the February 14 Kashmir attack. Many people and organisations invited on social media Kashmiri students who were frightened into their homes and offices.

These supporters faced relentless online abuse and threats, but did not bend.

The Central Reserve Police Force, which had lost soldiers in the terror attacks, put out an exemplary notice asking Kashmiri students from any corner of the country to contact them for protection.

The police control room in Jammu and Kashmir reported receiving 50 distress calls a day. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh declared his commitment to ensure the safety and dignity of Kashmiri children.

Supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an anti-India protest, in Multan. Photo: AFP

Humanitarian organisation Khalsa Aid provided buses to safely evacuate Kashmiri students to their homes, gurdwaras opened their doors and kitchens to them, and Sikh groups guarded hostels where Kashmiri students stayed.

The valley broke out in gratitude for the Sikh community. A doctor offered free treatment to Sikh patients, others offered free hotel accommodation, car repairs, English classes, even blood and kidneys.

With elections just two months away, it is likely India will see more cynical, competitive hatemongering led from the top – even opposition parties outside Kashmir mostly chose to remain silent as Kashmiri students were hounded.

It is left to peace activists on both sides of the border to resist the fevered narrative that spawns hate, the targeting of fellow citizens and warmongering or revenge talk in the name of patriotism.

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These resisters must refuse to be intimidated by relentless and violent online trolling; help to prove that hate and polarisation only fulfil the objectives of the terrorists themselves; and show that it is those who incite prejudice who are the real “anti-nationals”.

One of these was Krishnaswamy. When the body of his older brother, Subramanyam, killed in the Kashmir terror attack, was brought to his Tamil village, he asked: “Hit back at Pakistan for what? So that a thousand more families will grieve like us? This is the time for both governments to show real courage, not by fighting but by resolving issues peacefully.”