Brown Sahib in Kashmir

A few decades ago, an academic process began, which put much of the 19th and early 20th century Western writings on the orient under close scrutiny. Critics like Edward Said found in these writings a highly prejudiced program of describing alien cultures in a bid to eventually control them. Describing and defining the Other embodied a discourse through which European culture also defined itself by attributing radically opposite tendencies to the Other. The Other, obviously, exhibited irrational as well as morally inferior characteristics. Control of such knowledge production was to supplement total military and economic control by the colonial powers of many parts of Asia and Africa.

The process of decolonization left awkward territorial constructions in its trail. Boundaries were drawn through traditional bonds of community, societies were ripped apart, and many communities were thrown into new systems of hierarchy in this melee. India and Pakistan were imposed on a subcontinent full of diverse aspirations for freedom and self-rule. As Nehru cleverly called his invention “The Discovery of India”, Jinnah, without thinking much about the geographic and cultural diversity of the Muslims in the subcontinent, grafted the two parts of his ‘Land of the Pure’ farthest from its most vehement votaries, and also from each other. India chose to write its history in a teleological form of progress and interruptions; one which naturally had to culminate in the formation of the present-day India; a point where the history itself would stop. Pakistan remained torn in its identity, as in its geography: while it saw its roots in the subcontinent, it kept looking westward to forge a larger Islamic identity. Either way, its history only started in 1947. India popularized an organic story of how it was a body, and Kashmir was its head (Many in India readily agreed, unfortunately because of the general cartographic bias of thinking north as up—glancing at the map upside down will put Kashmir in its proper place: Crushed under India’s foot.) Pakistan, on the other hand, first put premium on Kashmir’s rivers and then its people; it saw Kashmir as its jugular vein.

Kashmir, a place with more plausible claims to unique historical experiences and more or less a geographical continuity over ages, than both India and Pakistan, did not have to do much to imagine itself as a nation. True, it insisted that people of Jammu and Ladakh be part of that nation. But unlike India, which used aggressive power to force a union on the diverse peoples of the subcontinent, Kashmir only wished to achieve it. Its dream of independence, however, was not necessarily hinged to the continuity of that union.

Sixty years have passed since India and Pakistan snuffed out the best chances for the realization of an independent democratic Kashmir. Without any feeling of remorse, or putting the blame on their own houses, India and Pakistan are putting the entire burden of the sub-continental peace on the bruised Kashmiri shoulders. Kashmiris can formalize peace between the two giant colonial remnants by giving up their own ‘ambivalent’ aspirations to independence. They must learn the language of their conquerors. Or at least this is what David Devadas is suggesting in his book “In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir”.

Even as we celebrate the thirtieth year of Said’s canonical work, Devadas, reminiscent of laid-back colonial travelers of yore, has passed his casual judgment on all Kashmiris: They are sly, ambivalent, dissembling, cruel, irresponsible, and full of histrionics (and, yet, they are manipulated by their own leaders). They have a false ‘sense of superiority that emerges from a feeling of insecurity’, and possess ‘a hateful contempt-ridden past’. Only Kashmiris themselves, and no one but Kashmiris, are to be blamed for their miseries. He even goes on to say that Kashmiris are hugely caste-conscious. The last one sounds especially funny for he comes from a country where still entire villages of Dalits are burnt down, and their women are gang-raped by the upper castes; and where the upper castes believe violently that they alone have all claims to merit. Since he is positing Kashmir’s ‘separatism’ against India’s ‘inclusiveness’, Said would have instantly understood from Devadas’ maneuvers that he is assigning these negative values to Kashmiris to fashion a positive image of India as honest, clear, responsible, inclusive and non-melodramatic. Devadas, without pausing to tell us about India’s attitude in Kashmir, calls Kashmiri attitude ‘imperial and dominating’!

In Search of a Future is a (though the book’s subtitle suggests that it is “the”) story of Kashmir’s political history from 1931 up to 2006. It is well-paced, and manages to hold together. That all his respondents seem to tell him the same seamless story, for he cross checks no ones account with other historical material, raises early fears of the run-away journalist taking over a more restrained historian in him. The fears are proved right. The book claims to be written in a novelistic style, but Devadas seems to have missed the most essential point about the art of the novel: A novel doesn’t ossify the meaning of an action or an event but opens possibilities for their multiple interpretations. The book is based on a thin ethnography, building on interviews of former militants, and leading politicians both in India and in Kashmir. Since his canvas is spatio-temporally very large, it ignores the fine-grained interpretative explorations of the rich content of everyday Kashmiri life. Instead of thinking of culture as a context in which social events, behavior, institutions and processes can be intelligibly described, he is adamant on seeing the ‘common-behavior patterns’ of Kashmiris as their culture. Ergo, he finds, from his interviews with these former militants and leading politicians, that the common-behavior pattern of all Kashmiris is characterized by venality and narrow self-interests.

Using his blinkered stencil, or template (as Devadas prefers), Kashmiris don’t pass his test of morality or potential for selfless collective action. Speaking to former militants can sometimes give you that impression. For him, Kashmiris, while seeking independence, are only playing histrionics to squeeze more resources out of both India and Pakistan. The demand for the right to self-determination is ‘ambivalent’. Kashmiris are not clear in what they want. In any case, it would not matter to him even if they did know, for the right to self-determination is morally untenable for him in a postmodern age. He attributes the start of uprising in 1989 to trans-border Islamic winds, individual suffering of polling agents during 1987 assembly elections, and a week-long screening of the film ‘Lion of the Desert’ at a Srinagar talkie. For him, Kashmiri militants felt like Bombay cinema heroes, and that is how they wanted to feel. Since the book’s characterization of militancy is based on the interview of a few former militants, Karl Popper would have jumped up, and objected to this inductivist farce. Vast generalizations about ‘Kashmiri character’ are not only phony, but are frequently sneaked into the text to gloss over his lack of proper explanation. He accepts fables of how Kashmiris used guile to escape physical pain in the past to paint their character, but his own descriptions of Kashmiris’ undergoing inhuman torture in India’s interrogation cells are allowed to say nothing about the same character.

Devadas, despite his stated desire not to write a quickie, overlooks major historical inaccuracies in his account. Only a few examples: The elephant story that Kalhana attributed to Mihiragula (6th century), Devadas attributes to the Mughal Empress Nurjahan (16th century). He insists that the last Kashmiri king was Sahadeva who decamped in 1320 in the face of a Mongol invasion. In this, he trusts only the Kashmiri Hindu narrative. That most Kashmiris believe the last Kashmiri king was Yusuf Shah Chak, whose poet-queen Habba Khatun’s songs still ring in Kashmiri homes, is conveniently ignored. His eagerness to indict Muslims of Kashmir, to fit the stereotype he has forged for them, pushes him to make misplaced accusations, like: Muslims heaved insults on Hindus by calling them ‘Bhattas’ behind their back. T N Madan, in his ethnographic work on Kashmiri Hindus, points out that ‘Pandits refer to themselves, and are referred to by other Kashmiri-speaking people, as the Bhatta. The word is of Sanskrit origin and means a learned person.’ Or, for that matter, Dar’s a common Muslim and Hindu surname, and the word ‘Dar’ is not pejoratively used against Hindus, as Devadas suggests. What historian Jerome Bruner once said looks apt here: How much are we to bend the paradigmatic truth to fit the believability of the narrative mode? Especially when Devadas claims that ‘every bit of the book is fact’.

Devadas loves characterizations. In his account, Abdullah’s ‘bile never takes long to rise’; while a ‘solicitous Nehru’ gets concerned if Abdullah has toilet paper in the prison to which he has sent him. His book is peopled by a wily Masoodi, a loutish Zargar, a radiant Guga, an effeminate Yasin, a scheming Geelani, and many Pakistani spooks. But Indira is invincible. Bakshi becomes Budshah sani—Great King II, (first being Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin). His two purported main characters, Aftab and Ali Sheikh, keep leaping out of the text, and soon become an appendage to the main story. Whenever they come in, their extraordinary lives are turned into a vignette for entire Kashmir’s ‘frustration’ and ‘depravity’.

Falling into a familiar narrative trope, Devadas uses terms like ‘smoldering Id rage’, ‘smelting Islamic fervor’, etc. to describe the mood of Muslim peasants agitating against their oppressive Hindu overlords. But when Hindus attack Muslims it passes of innocently in his text, without any polemic. In a similar vein, when a militant kills an innocent civilian, the entire Kashmiri character, along with its history, is put to trial; but when Indian troops kill people it is quietly swept away as individual aberration. The politics of partial and farcical assigning of culpability is, thus, revealed quite openly in the pages of his book.

Speaking of tropes, Devadas’ book does not move away from the apocryphal rhetoric of foreign powers using Kashmir against India. This narrative strategy is used to evoke sympathy for India’s state-building project, even if it romps oppressively over the demands of independence of other politically-conscious communities, like the Kashmiris or the Nagas. This brings us to an ironic realization of how post-colonial academic and political world unwittingly creates the illusion that decolonization is complete. It makes easy for India, a former colony, to label Kashmiris, still occupied, agents of the ex-colonial powers. Their human rights get a short-shrift for no international guarantors dare speak for them. As while India bares its teeth to the colonized nationalities in its own backyard, it cries foul in front of the erstwhile colonial powers.

Devadas puts the burden of safety of India’s 160 million Muslims on Kashmiri Muslims. This is not the first time, and he is not alone in this. Indian analysts like Kanti Bajpai, Sumit Ganguly, and Ashutosh Varshney, too, speak of an impending apocalypse for Indian Muslims if Kashmir were to separate. Along with its much touted secularism, Kashmir is also the hinge on which India’s federalism rests. Balkanization is invoked in response to a demand for the right to self-determination. One needs to seriously question the legitimacy of this discourse. If the safety of Indian Muslims rests on which way Kashmir goes, then it is bad news for secularism. And Muslims must be told how precariously their lives hang in balance in India.

Devadas’ book is full of bitterness. In his black and white world, he comes to loath Kashmiris, and isn’t very subtle about it. After a ‘detailed research conducted over the past nine years’, what dawns on him, about a people ‘who converted to Mir Ali’s syncretistic Islam’ six centuries ago, is that they can never be happy, because contentment has always eluded them. Devadas is not willing to go to the root itself: question the legitimacy of Indian rule in Kashmir.


5 thoughts on “Brown Sahib in Kashmir

  1. I think India should let Kashmir go its way. The valley should become independent and a socialist/liberal republic or whatever else its ‘people’ want it to become. However, the question that comes rushing to mind is who are these ‘people’ and what do these ‘people’ really want?The author insists its freedom from Indian oppression they seek the most. But honestly such views are only forthcoming from idealist academics sitting far away from the valley. The only voice of separatism heard from the valley is that coming from the guns of armed rebels (many not even of Kashmiri origin) and author would know better than me that this voice is not calling for a sovereign Kashmir.Leaving that aside. A popular sentiment – such as that of ‘liberation’ from India – is usually accompanied by a mass movement or a struggle. And I don’t see any of that with the exception of the armed struggle, the authenticity or intentions of which is viewed suspiciously even by Kashmiris. If there really was such a fervour amongst Kashmiris, the establishment would’ve shook by now. After all, Indians found their voice against their former colonial masters and so did even the most divided sub-saharan tribal communities!Coming back to ‘the people’. Now, ‘the people’ should definitely get what they want. Hence, we should perhaps look at the possibility of several little homelands springing out of the Kashmir valley (and I’m only talking about the part ‘occupied’ by India). One for the author and his likeminded brethren. One for those wanting to merge with Pakistan and one for those who want to remain in the Union of India (and if the author insists that such a group doesn’t exist then throw in a piece for those poor pandits). After all, a morally correct person such as you shall not insist on majoritarianism deciding for everyone!At any rate, the bottom line is that ‘the people’ should decide their destiny. Only in the depths of the pits they’ve chosen will they realise and cherish what they’ve gained.May peace me upon you!

  2. Ironically what you say with misplaced bitterness should be explored more sincerely as a solution. I think, and believe with you, that after all it is the people who should decide if they want to live under Indian rule or fall into the “depths of the pit” independence.I am surprised that you haven’t heard even a murmur of protest or a muffled demand for freedom in Kashmir. Or that more than 80000 Kashmiri lives lost (with half of them militants)suggest nothing to you. Surprises me even more that you never even asked a very simple question to yourself: What is more than half-a-million strong Indian army doing in Kashmir? If they are controlling only armed struggle, then it should look a little odd to you, for there are less than a thousand militants in Kashmir (by Indian government’s own admission) and there are around 700000 Indian troops; which leaves us a ratio of 700 Indian soldiers to every Kashmiri militant. It also means that there is one Indian soldier for every 15 Kashmiri civilians. You must see if it is possible for you to think that Indian army might actually be controlling the general population of Kashmir. Controlling them against their wish. Kashmir is of its Hindus and its Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, and all those who live in it (except the army). It has and will always have its arms open for those who left it, without bias, without bitterness, with no desire for revenge. And no scores to settle. With a reconciliation without condition. And yes I agree with you, majoritarianism is bad. Minorities should always be given more than their proportion. They should always feel secure in a deeper sense, even if it means sacrifices by the majority. But the price of reconciliation cannot be a rule without legitimacy, or slavery.

  3. It is interesting to see an alternative perspective to the Kashmir situation quite at variance from what we receive in mainstream media. And I must commend you on your lucid writing!I have read some of your blog posts and comments from other readers therein and couple of points strike me vividly.You said: “He even goes on to say that Kashmiris are hugely caste-conscious. The last one sounds especially funny for he comes from a country where still entire villages of Dalits are burnt down, and their women are gang-raped by the upper castes; and where the upper castes believe violently that they alone have all claims to merit.” Wouldn’t you say that you are as guilty of broadbased categorization as Devadas is? I am sure your perspective is not as blinkered as it appears. But dont you see that this is a semantic problem that authors like you and Devadas have to be extremely careful about? For when authors quote examples to make a point, they can inadvertently communicate a prejudiced and simplistic notion. You may be borrowing the same large brush to portray India and Indians in simple strokes from Devadas who (according to you) is using it on Kashmiris. It doesnt help your argument.In my opinion (and I emphasise that this is an individual perspective and hence inadequate to capture the largeness and fineness of the issue) situations like Kashmir or for that matter any complex problem should not be reduced to sweeping generalizations. I can intellectualize your anguish but believe that some of your interpretations are dangerous for humanity in the long run and quite frankly, may prove self-defeating. The Kashmir nation as imagined by you may evolve. The last thing you would want is to base its genesis on a philosophy of demonisation of a peer entity (another country, India in this case). I am sure an imagined construct of Kashmir would be that of a beautiful, serene place restored to its past pristine glory where its people would live in peace and much joy. Would you say that a nation fought and created on values other than the highest human ideals can hope to live upto them eventually? This is a difficult choice, but an important one to make. It is far more sensational and simplistic to portray nationalist crusades as a battle between the good and the evil. But once the objective is achieved and when reality hits, nations realize that there was another layer of disparity which had been hitherto, subsumed – and that could lead to some other community feeling disenfranchised. Nations will also realize their own imperfections in governance and democracy. That is why it is important not to romanticise nationalism and to take a more rational view of the situation. You may then realize couple of things: India – and I dont mean the representative government(s) – is a large agglomeration of individuals who have, by-and-large, a rather benevolent approach to life – like the vast majority anywhere else. We are colourfully diverse and have developed our own idiosyncracies over centuries. This is a work-in-progress society but then, which is not?! Therefore there is nothing more evil about India than there is elsewhere. As for the governments or for institutions, that is part of the work-in-progress bit I mentioned. I agree with you that India is an imagined State. Therefore, for its own existence India had to define congruent nationality as well. Our leaders at Independence did nothing more or less than what other nationalists have done on their independence and undoubtedly what leaders would do in Kashmir, if it does become a separate nation state. That is to selectively invoke episodes from history to define a pre-ordained and shared destiny. But can anyone stand up and say that their perspective on history is the comprehensive one? You see, the human mind can only visualize broad trends, not the infinite little ebbs and wakes of events that eventually lead to record-worthy transformations. And that too, only from one dimension! That is why history is a poor witness to bring to any argument on nationalism. Take a lesson from India’s experience and you will see substrata evolving – including your own – with other versions and perspectives. As is the way with the world many of these versions (on either side) may be politically doctored to suit the exigencies of the moment.This is not to say that a nationalist argument does not have a place in today’s world. It does, but it would be for reasons other than the historical. Does it really make more economic sense to secede? Because once the euphoria of nation birth dies down, there is the business of living to tackle. Is it more prudent to work in a larger framework to ensure better economic leverage in the world? In some cases it may not, such as when India was born. Is there any cultural identity that can be shared? Icons? Folklore? What is the political aspiration of the common man and how does secession shape his/ her vision of the future? Is there some congruence of ideas and values across the community? If so, how will they manifest in governance? How soon will the state achieve it goal of (presumably) egalitarianism? Or will it be status quo in a different shade of grey? If so, which one is a more bankable status quo? When people talk of the right to self-determination, what exactly do they want to determine – on a day-to-day basis, at an operational level and not at a lofty intellectual plane? I would imagine they would want safety, security and the right to good livelihood. Admittedly, a lot of people in India do not enjoy these sustainably – just yet. But as any other Indian, I am hopeful that this will become a more equitable place. That is why I pay my taxes and choose to react in whatever legally acceptable way to socio-political situations in the country. And this is the hope that a large number of people in this country live on. My point is, if secessionism is the way to a better life, then there is enough reason for India to break into a thousand pieces. Not on the basis of language that define states today but on historical evidence, into the many communities tracing their roots back to little kingdoms that once ruled this geography. If that is not happening yet in the chaos of India, it is because it makes better sense and gives hope for a better future to be part of a larger entity. This is not an intellectual decision that people make – it is an intuitive one. And to that end, people do invoke shared icons and claim ownership – be it Sachin Tendulkar, the Three Khans, Taj Mahal or the Ganga. So my point is this: You may have a righteous cause on your hands and no one can judge your reality. But the way to handle the cause should not be at the cost of vilification of another people. Nor can you afford to make your argument based on a simplistic interpretation of the past or on emotionally charged prejudices. Peace!

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