Photo of Jama Masjid, Nowhatta, Srinagar, by Sandhya Gokhale
Start a conversation about Kashmir in India and a hundred familiar questions are hurled at you. What about the Pandits? What if Pakistan invades Kashmir? What about Islamic fundamentalism? What if other states also demand the right to secede?
One question that I have been frequently asked in the most condescending tone is, “So, what is the solution? If you want to talk about Kashmir, you must have an answer.” This question, in fact, comes as a justification for the status quo. “Is anything else possible? What is it that you suggest?”
In response, I want to ask,“Is it possible for any solution to be evolved until we open our eyes, ears and minds to the realities of Kashmir?”
The utterance of the word azadi makes even the most liberal and progressive intellectual class in India jittery and uncomfortable. The Indian discourse on Kashmir is diverse and considerate till we reach the boundary called ‘the framework of the constitution’. It is, by and large, blind to the fact that ‘the framework of constitution’ is exactly what the Kashmiris have rejected most resolutely.
On April 15, the Indian Express published an op-ed titled “Sinking Valley” by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the President of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi and a contributing editor to the paper. In this piece, Mehta argues that New Delhi’s strategy of containment by force has failed. “The roots of the Kashmir problem are deep, and the point should not be to gloat at one government’s failure. The deep gulf between what the Indian state wants and what Kashmiris in the Valley want has always been unbridgeable.”
Mehta recognizes that there is an unbridgeable gap between the aspirations of the Indian state and the aspirations of Kashmiris.
However, he goes on to say, “It’s a fool’s errand to think that coercion alone will win India Kashmir….for the moment, Kashmir has been lost on Modi’s watch….more than militant propaganda, the way we talk about Kashmir does more harm to India’s cause in Kashmir which desperately requires breaking the cycle of othering and humiliation that has marked this conflict.”
Win India Kashmir? Kashmir lost on Modi’s watch? India’s cause in Kashmir?
If there is an unbridgeable gap between the aspirations of the Indian state and the aspirations of Kashmiris, it means that the Kashmiri cause is not the same as India’s cause in Kashmir. Then whose cause should prevail?
Our democratic ethos must remind us that it is imperialistic and colonial to coerce Kashmiris to accept India’s cause in Kashmir, by hook or by crook. Equally imperialistic, materialistic and patriarchal is the obsession with ‘winning over’ a population that has been incessantly demanding independence and integrity for decades now.
On April 15, Rajdeep Sardesai, a senior journalist, published a piece titled “Kashmir: Putting Indians first” on his website, which was later republished by Scroll.in. In this, he proclaims that he believes in ‘India first’ but goes on to say, “But my concept of India First doesn’t involve treating a nation as a piece of land defined by geographical boundaries alone, or by looking at every problem as a law and order issue. My India First involves putting Indians first, be they Kashmiris or jawans, or any law-abiding citizen.”
Over the last couple of years, a large number of young Kashmiris have been writing vigorously to articulate their grievances and demands. Just a little bit of curiosity and a couple of months of engagement with the Kashmir conflict and Kashmiris are enough to understand that Kashmiris do not want to be recognized as ‘Indians’. They prefer a distinct acknowledgement of their identity as ‘Kashmiri’.
In my interactions with people in the valley, I realized that even an acknowledgement of a distinction between India and Kashmir fills them with delight and reassurance. But the Indian discourse continues to be blind or dismissive of this reality.
In a Baramulla family, women narrated how they have been living with the fear of night raids and crackdowns for all these years. They sometimes move to their friends’ houses for weeks in order to escape harassment by the forces in the middle of the night.The same is true for their friends. Two of them were half-widows; their husbands had been disappeared several years ago. They have not been able to find out anything about them.
One of their daughters was taking treatment for depression when I visited. “Bohot zulm ho raha hai yahan pe,” they said. “Aap Modi ko bol dijiye,humein akela chod de. Humein azadi chahiye.” (A lot of oppression is taking place here. Tell Modi to leave us alone. We need freedom).
Lal Chowk Market, Srinagar. Photo credit Shinzani Jain
One of them mentioned that she participated in a number of protests and rallies last year along with her sons. I was reminded of something written by a Kashmiri friend, Zahid Rafiq, just a couple of days ago, “I am a pacifist. But here’s why I want to be a stone-pelter,” in which Rafiq writes about his aunt, who took her five-year old son to join an azadi procession after the little boy, in a state of shock, told her how he was chased by soldiers threatening to kill him.
He further writes, “My aunt now writes, ‘Go India, Go Back’ on all the rupee notes that she handles and my cousin (the five-year old boy) scribbles it on walls – the only English sentence he can spell.”
The demand for azadi is omnipresent. The walls, shutters and even stones are adorned with slogans such as “We will fight till independence”, “Indian dogs go back”, “We want freedom”, “Kashmir is not a part of India” – all demonstrating the sentiments and aspirations of the people in Kashmir.
Uzma Falak, a writer and filmmaker from Srinagar, in her article “Aleph se Azadi” writes about how the aspiration for azadi is born in a Kashmiri child even before she is born. She writes about how this sentiment is actually something they inherit from their ancestors. In Kashmir, the songs of protest are not only sung in protests and processions. These songs accompany them in weddings, in fields, at home, at funerals and at almost every public gathering.
Falak writes: “Sing fearlessly. Do not exorcise us out of our songs. Our songs are not just our protest songs. These are our birth songs. Our death songs. Our wedding songs. Our funeral songs. Our lullabies. Our mourning. Our celebration. Our screams. Our silence. Our malady. Our panacea. Our unwritten history. Our militant memory.”
Conveniently ignoring these overt realities, the intellectual class in India chooses to lament how India has lost Kashmir indefinitely. The ultra-nationalist and jingoist posture that the Indian media take while reporting the protests rocking the valley limits the chances of Kashmiri narratives emerging and reaching the public in India.
These media prejudices become evident when elite and erudite media groups such as The Hindu and Indian Express use terms like “rampaging mobs” and “miscreants” while referring to the protestors boycotting the by-elections held on April 9 in Srinagar. The use of these terms is problematic as it amounts to assigning a character to the protesters, while the same treatment is never extended to the Armed Forces. In fact, the space used up by the Hindu in reporting the aggression of the protestors almost makes the retaliation of the forces by opening fire on them invisible.
While the Indian media fervently reported the violence of the protestors, none of these established media portals reported the fact that on the same day an ambulance driver at Beerwah was allegedly beaten up by government forces while ferrying the injured to the hospital. Nor did the news that the Indian government had imposed curfew like curbs on movement in several parts of Kashmir a day after clashes, feature in the Indian media. The absence of reportage on the every day life and turmoil of the people makes it hard for people in India to gauge the nature of the conflict, scale of resistance and the demands of people in Kashmir.
The prejudices, biases and misrepresentations in our discourse push Kashmiris into a quagmire of anger and frustration. This has been voiced by Shahnaz Bashir in his recent piece for The Hoot titled “The competing narratives on Kashmir”. He writes: “The language of news and debates that have no space for balance or accommodating different opinions only make the audience hypertensive. I have personally witnessed many well-disposed audiences abuse the misinformation and disinformation, with some even breaking their TV sets.”
The boundaries of our discourse on Kashmir have prevented us from opening our minds to these realities thereby creating an unbridgeable gap between the aspirations of Kashmiris and aspirations of Indians. No resolution to this conflict is possible unless we shatter and transcend these boundaries.