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Far from choking the space in India to talk about Kashmir, Sanjay Kak tells Ajachi Chakrabarti, the JNU incident may have increased it. What matters now is that we give the Kashmiris a fair hearing.

The public meeting at JNU on 9 February that launched a thousand doctored videos was held to commemorate the executions of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt. Could you begin by talking about why these two cases are still open wounds for the Kashmiri people? Is it seditious to mourn their death?

The intensity with which any Kashmiri responds to the names of Maqbool Butt and Afzal Guru would really depend on where they stand vis-à-vis the injustice of what happened to the two men. Since their names are increasingly twinned together in the public mind, now even outside Kashmir, it might be important to step back and take a moment to ask what it is that connects them.

Maqbool Butt and Afzal Guru were both Kashmiris, who were both executed inside Tihar Jail in New Delhi, where their graves still lie. (Or so we are given to believe.) It’s possible that their remains were thought to be too dangerous—too seditious, if you like—to be sent back home. But it’s useful also to remember what sets them apart, for they were executed at very different moments—Butt in 1984, Guru in 2013.

Maqbool Butt was the charismatic founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, an early and outspoken votary of the idea of independence for Jammu and Kashmir, and one of those who created the grounds for an armed resistance in Kashmir. In 1984, Butt was in Tihar Jail in connection with an older case of murder, from the sixties. But the rejection of his mercy petition, and the execution of his death sentence were triggered by a very different incident, the February 1984 kidnapping and murder in Birmingham of Ravinder Mhatre, an Indian diplomat. Butt had no culpable connection with this assassination, but a kneejerk, retaliatory response to it meant that he was hung to death just days after this faraway killing.

The fact remains that both men were executed as a punishment for something else, a retributive punishment, which Kashmiris now see as a punishment for Kashmir. That is what makes them martyrs, and powerful symbols of continuing injustice.

Afzal Guru, on the other hand, was not a well-known figure, but another young man in the turbulent Kashmir of the early 1990s, a medical student who had tried to become a foot soldier in the armed struggle—like many of his generation—and didn’t quite make it. He then had to spend the rest of his short life paying the price for that brief adventure. As is quite well known now, the death sentence he received for his part in the conspiracy around the Parliament attack of 2002 acknowledged the absence of any direct evidence of his culpability. Instead, he was sent to the gallows to assuage what the judgment called the “collective conscience” of this country.

The fact remains that both men were executed as a punishment for something else, a retributive punishment, which Kashmiris now see as a punishment for Kashmir. That is what makes them martyrs, and powerful symbols of continuing injustice. That’s what keeps the wounds open in Kashmir, and you could certainly say that the feeling of outrage seems only to grow with time.

 

The state response to the sloganeering that took place during the JNU event seems designed to deflect public attention from the issues pertaining to the military occupation of Kashmir raised by the protest to a manufactured debate over nationalism. Also, you were a signatory to a statement that, while condemning the police action, also called the contentious slogans “shameful, regardless of who does it, and deserving of the sharpest criticism” as they “erode the gravity of any serious discussion on any political question”. What impact has the entire chain of events had on public discourse about Kashmir?

I don’t think the events on the JNU campus were about something as everyday as the raising of slogans, however provocative or distasteful some of them may have been. And it was not only about Kashmir either. It was a full-scale attack on that institution that came wrapped in the Kashmir word. Those who engineered it probably assumed that waving that particular red-rag would rouse every Indian into a blind rage, from which they could then quietly be led into a dark corner of dumb acceptance. All this is very much part of a longer plan of the BJP, the Sangh Parivar, and in particular the stormtroopers of the ABVP, to drive a wedge into the JNU campus—and eventually all campuses—and into the wider public discourse.

The intention is to stem the conversation around what they find awkward, which they are unable to deal with. The growing awareness about the situation in Kashmir appears to top the list, but in the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the protests at Hyderabad Central University, what has really unsettled them is the conversation around caste discrimination.

The intention is to stem the conversation around what they find awkward, which they are unable to deal with. The growing awareness about the situation in Kashmir appears to top the list, but in the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the protests at Hyderabad Central University, what has really unsettled them is the conversation around caste discrimination. And of course, the continuing and near-invisible loot of the natural resources of this country, of which Chhattisgarh is a very visible example.

The impact? My guess is that far from choking the space in India for speaking about Kashmir, it may have actually ended up increasing it. More people now want to know what the hanging of Afzal Guru represented. More campuses have seen people coming out in solidarity with Kashmiris, and of course the chant of azadi, azadi has travelled way beyond Kashmir.

 

Your film Jashn-e-Azadi popularised the call-and-response azadi chant among college students. At Jadavpur University, the “seditious” sloganeering that drew the ire of Arnab Goswami and the BJP/ABVP was this chant, which has been used in other contexts during campus protests ever since the film was screened there a few years ago. What do you make of the charge of appropriation that has been raised by some Kashmiri activists in the wake of Kanhaiya Kumar’s “azadi in India, not from India” speech? Has the Indian Left been guilty of not doing enough to end the occupation?

I’m not sure that a slogan that Kashmiris have marched to for more than two decades can be appropriated overnight. In an environment where the azadi, azadi call is echoing all around, if JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar needs to clarify that he is calling for “azadi in India, not from India,” it does leave a huge question mark begging in the air, does it not? Who wants azadi from India? And why?

With the JNU incident, Kashmir has definitely spilled beyond the confines of university campuses in India, and become something that more and more Indians are having to deal with, a difficult pill that they will have to swallow, sooner or later.

If Kanhaiya Kumar, the CPI, the CPI(M), and others in India think that they must still tiptoe around the idea of azadi for Kashmiris, that does not reduce the intensity of that desire for Kashmiris, does it? It simply means that these political formations will be seen as coming up short on an urgent issue that an increasing number of people are concerned about. With the JNU incident, Kashmir has definitely spilled beyond the confines of university campuses in India, and become something that more and more Indians are having to deal with, a difficult pill that they will have to swallow, sooner or later. And this includes the television-watching Indian, whether it’s those at the receiving end of the finger-wagging demagoguery of Arnab Goswami or the more sophisticated manipulations of Barkha Dutt on Kashmir.

 

In another interview, you mentioned that when you were screening Jashn-e-Azadi in 2007, a frequent response was, “But you seem to suggest that it’s not all over and that something is going to happen.” Conventional wisdom about the Kashmir issue since the turn of the century has held that the militant struggle for azadi has been neutralised and that the Kashmiri people have embraced democracy and, by extension, India. Indians have embraced Kashmir too; tourism is thriving again. Even the mobilisations and unrest of the last few years, what you call a new intifada, are seen as a relatively minor law-and-order issue. How is such an analysis flawed? What drives thousands of youths to regularly throw stones at security forces, and what does such action achieve?

The “conventional wisdom” that you refer to invokes the same old tired parameters—elections, tourism, the normalisation of everyday life—but still cannot explain the need for half a million soldiers in the valley. It cannot explain the fact that just these past 12 months have seen deadly encounters at near metronomic intervals between the Indian armed forces and the otherwise invisible militancy. The recent elections, and the manner in which the BJP succeeded in worming their way into the coalition with the PDP, certainly leave that Kashmir unchanged. If all this sounds like a “minor law-and-order issue” to anyone, then surely what it exemplifies is the normalisation of armed conflict in the life of the Indian republic, and a new definition of what the embrace of democracy means. Which could as easily be applied to Chhattisgarh as to Kashmir.

It’s true that when Jashn-e-Azadi was being screened in 2007, the idea of the political struggle centered on azadi in Kashmir appeared—at least on the surface—to be exhausted. But my own sense was that something that was experienced with such intensity, and by such vast numbers, could not easily disappear. It had probably just gone into hibernation, into a phase of recovery, even of contemplation.

If all this sounds like a “minor law-and-order issue” to anyone, then surely what it exemplifies is the normalisation of armed conflict in the life of the Indian republic, and a new definition of what the embrace of democracy means. Which could as easily be applied to Chhattisgarh as to Kashmir.

And we all know what happened in the years that followed, in the massive and unprecedented unarmed protests of 2008, 2009, and finally 2010. That last year will be remembered not just for the 110 young lives that were lost on the streets of Kashmir, but also for new and renewed forms of protest. This was not just about stone-pelting, or the armed resistance, but what we had provocatively called “the new intifada”, an unshackling of the mind, which is the true meaning of the word intifada.

 

The word “intifada” obviously draws parallels to Palestine, which is a similar example of how a military occupation and apartheid-like conditions can be perpetuated by a democracy with the consent of its citizens. What are the ways in which the state maintains what you call a “culture of silence” with respect to Kashmir?

That is a question that actually needs more than a book to answer it; it needs several. You could begin by asking how that silence is enforced in Indian universities, and in the intellectual production of its academics, who have never been tempted to take on board what is now—along with Palestine, by the way—one of the longest running conflicts in the world. You might even want to look at the crude use of visa regimes, by which foreign academics and media practitioners are controlled should they want to work or report on Kashmir. You could of course also look at the role of the Indian media, whose positions are rarely out of sync with those of the state, however immoral or unjust those might be. We have only to remind ourselves of Maqbool Butt and Afzal Guru here, or speak of the mass rape in Kunan Poshpora, or a hundred other moments in Kashmir’s recent history.

It’s also important to remember that the walls which impose this silence are for the most part not built out of coercion and fear, but of that complicated thing that we are all currently being drowned under: rashtravad, nationalism. And this is not something that the BJP or the Sangh Parivar invented. The Congress was as eager to protect the indefensible, and as early as the 1950s, Mridula Sarabhai, a close associate of that arch-democrat, Jawaharlal Nehru, spent months in jail for the crime of sympathy for the imprisoned Sheikh Abdullah and the cause of Kashmir.

 

There is a justifiable anger among Kashmiris towards the political class of the state. The first families of both the PDP and the NC are seen as careerists collaborating with the central government, interested only in feathering their own nests. What are your thoughts about the BJP-PDP coalition? Is there any prospect of an electoral force that can challenge the two major state parties?

I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to get distracted by what you’re calling the “political class” if the aim is to understand Kashmir, and a possible way out of the present quagmire. Whatever part the National Conference has played in shaping a Kashmiri identity in the past, today they are seen as interchangeable with the much more recently devised People’s Democratic Party. Both are seen as “pro-India” parties, their very existence dependent on the benevolence (and whims) of the central government.

The differences between them, or the pitching of one young dynast in the shape of Omar Abdullah against another dynast in the shape of Mehbooba Mufti has to be recognised as little more than the rattling of the cage. Nothing illustrates this better than the suicidal compunctions that drove the PDP into a coalition with the BJP, a party and an ideology that it went to the polls to defeat, in an arrangement that is likely to eventually fracture and unravel the party. I’ve written at some length about this elsewhere, but the only thing that can be said about elections in J&K with any certainty is that they are held and people vote. Does that mean that elections are an indicator of the return of democracy? I’m afraid not.

 

The armed forces are a holy cow in India. Any honest reckoning of the Kashmir question requires an acknowledgement of the many atrocities committed by men in uniform, and various human rights reports have demonstrated how it’s not stray officers bending the rules but an entire apparatus waging a battle of attrition. But the moment you attempt something of that sort, you are branded anti-national. Do you hold out any hope for our society to even attempt some measure of truth and reconciliation? What would such an effort involve?

Truth and Reconciliation, as a way of peacemaking, of healing, must follow a political settlement, must it not, rather than precede it? It cannot happen in the middle of what is really an ongoing war, however quiet and beguiling the surface might appear. In any case, such Truth and Reconciliation is invariably a Trojan horse, which works to the advantage of the perpetrator. Reconciliation would involve the setting at rest of the traumatic memory of all Kashmiris, and that, of course, includes the Pandits who became migrants in the 1990s and after.

What must Indians do to match up to such challenging work? For one, they could begin to hear a question that Kashmiris have been asking loudly for a long time: hum kya chahtey?

For me what is most remarkable is that Kashmiris have begun to patiently prepare themselves for a day when their ledger of loss will be reconciled. I’m not talking of some form of violent revenge here, but the dogged documentation of what has been inflicted on the body of Kashmir. You just have to look at this remarkable new book by five young Kashmiri women, for example—Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?—on the infamous mass rape that dates back to 1991. Or the meticulous report on the 2014 floods in Kashmir produced by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which patiently sketches in the lethal impact of militarisation on the ecology of Kashmir. What must Indians do to match up to such challenging work? For one, they could begin to hear a question that Kashmiris have been asking loudly for a long time: hum kya chahtey?

Listening to Kashmir

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