Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian
At a dark moment in postcolonial history, when many US-backed despots seemed indestructible, the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose centenary falls this year, wrote: “We shall witness [the day] when the enormous mountains of tyranny blow away like cotton”. That miraculous day promised by the poet finally came in Egypt and Tunisia this spring. We have since witnessed many of the world’s acknowledged legislators scrambling to get on the right side of history.
Addressing – yet again – the “Muslim world” last month, Barack Obama hailed “the moral force of non-violence”, through which “the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades”. But Obama failed to acknowledge to his highly politicised audience the fact that the United States enabled, and often required, the “relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity”. And he gave no sign that he would respect the moral authority of non-violent mass movements ranged against America’s closest allies, India and Israel.
Let’s not forget: before the Arab spring of 2011, there was the Kashmiri summer of 2010. Provoked by the killing of a teenage boy in June last year, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris took to the streets to protest against India’s brutal military occupation of the Muslim-majority valley. Summer is the usual “season for a face-off in Kashmir”, as the Indian filmmaker Sanjay Kak writes in Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir, a lively anthology of young Kashmiri writers, activists, rappers and graphic artists. There is little doubt that Kashmiris, emboldened by the Arab spring, will again stage massive demonstrations in their towns and villages.
The chances of a third intifada in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel are just as high, as Binyamin Netanyahu devises ever greater hurdles to self-determination for his Arab subjects. In the next few months we will see more clearly than before how India and Israel – billed respectively as the world’s largest, and the Middle East’s only, democracy – respond to unarmed mass movements.
Certainly, they have shown no sign of fresh thinking, even as the victims of their occupations grow more inventive. India’s security establishment fell back last summer on reflexes conditioned by two decades of fighting a militant insurgency during which more than 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have died; 8,000 have “disappeared”, often into mass graves; and innumerable others have been subjected to “systematic torture”, according to a rare public outburst by the Red Cross.
Last summer soldiers fired at demonstrators, killing 112 civilians, mostly teenagers (Kashmir has many of its own Hamza al-Khatibs). The government imposed round-the-clock curfews (one village was locked in for six weeks) and banned text messaging on mobile phones, while police spies infiltrated Facebook groups in an attempt to hunt down demo organisers.
Faced with non-violent Palestinian protesters, who correctly deduce that their methods have a better chance of influencing world opinion than Hamas’s suicide bombers, Israel hasn’t varied its repertoire of repression much. For years now the West Bank village of Bil’in has campaigned against the Israeli government’s appropriation of its lands. Israel responded by jailing its leader, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, often called the Palestinian Gandhi, for 15 months – “solely”, according to Amnesty International “for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and assembly”.
Encouraged by Egyptians and Tunisians, masses of unarmed Palestinians marched last month to the borders of Israel to mark the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians in Mandate Palestine. Israeli soldiers met them with live gunfire, killing more than a dozen and wounding scores of others.
Of course, occupations damage the occupier no less than the occupied. Revanchist nationalism has corroded democratic and secular institutions in both India and Israel, which, not surprisingly, have developed a strong military relationship in the recent decade. Hindu nationalists feel an elective affinity with Israel for its apparently uncompromising attitude to Muslim minorities. In 1993 the then Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, reportedly advised the Hindu nationalist leader LK Advani to alter the demographic composition of the mutinous Kashmir valley by settling Hindus there. Advani, later India’s deputy prime minister, fondly quoted from Netanyahu’s book on terrorism, given to him by the author. Israeli counter-insurgency experts now regularly visit Kashmir.
India and Israel, both products of botched imperial partitions, were the Bush government’s two most avid international boosters of the catastrophic “war on terror”, fluently deploying the ideological templates of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – democracy versus terrorism, liberalism versus fundamentalism – to justify their own occupations.
Aggressively jingoistic media helped hardliners in both countries to demonise their political adversaries as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers. Meanwhile, liberal opinion grew almost inaudible. Writing recently in the New York Review of Books, the Israeli scholar and activist David Shulman lamented: “Israeli academic intellectuals as a group have failed to mount a sustained and politically effective protest against the occupation.” This is also true of the Indian intelligentsia.
So the burden of non-violent protest in India and Israel has fallen almost entirely on the victims of the occupation. Indeed, many liberal commentators try to condone their passivity by deploring the absence of non-violent protests in Kashmir and Palestine (never mind the fact that the first intifadas in both places in the late 1980s turned violent only after being savagely suppressed).
The moment of truth is fast approaching for those powerful men who preach the high morality of non-violence to the powerless. Only an American veto seems likely to prevent the member states of the UN from declaring a new Palestinian state in September. But Palestinians may rise up against their colonial overlords well before this expected rejection. And, as the political philosopher Michael Walzer points out, Israel would then confront “something radically new. How can it resist masses of men and women, children too, just walking across the ceasefire lines?”
The tactics of young tech-savvy Kashmiris have already confused and bewildered the Indian government, whose recent actions – censoring the Economist, forcing spying rights out of BlackBerry and Google – evoke the last-minute desperation of the Arab world’s mukhabarat (secret police) states. The mass movement in Kashmir, which has emerged after two decades of a futile militant insurgency and has no compromising links to Pakistan, poses, as the Kashmiri journalist Parvaiz Bukhari writes in Until My Freedom Has Come, an unprecedented “moral challenge to New Delhi’s military domination over the region”.
The stage is set, then, for a summer of protests, of unarmed masses rising up to express, in Obama’s words, “a longing for freedom that has built up for years”. They may well meet with live bullets rather than offers of negotiation and compromise. It will be fascinating to see if Obama makes good his claim last month that the United States “opposes violence and repression” and “welcomes change that advances self-determination”. Certainly, as the corpses of the Palestinian and Kashmiri Hamza al-Khatibs pile up, there will be the usual flurry of intellectual rationalisations – the bogey of Islamic terror will again be invoked. And we will witness how the “enormous mountains of tyranny” in the world’s greatest democracies do not blow away like cotton.