Of Mystification and Mimicry

In her recent work ‘Along the Archival Grain’ Ann Stoler writes about the ways in which the colonial administrative apparatus gathered, connected, and disconnected events to turn them, as needed, into legible, insignificant, or unintelligible information. The government appointed bureaus and commissions to write down what the state deemed as expedient truth. They shed light on certain aspects of events only to create shadows elsewhere. But the archives that were created in the process were neither stable nor indicative of the state’s absolute power to inscribe the final truth. Instead, the archives turned out to be sites of the state’s immense anxiety and self-doubt. Given my deep belief that the work of state institutions in India is driven only to uphold the interests of its governing classes, even if the work goes counter to the principles of justice and objectivity, I was least surprised by the CBI report in the Shopian case. CBI only acted out a denial script that the J&K chief minister had instinctively mouthed during his controversial first press conference after the incident came to light.

My contention is that the Indian state’s response to the incidents in Shopian (or for that matter to any atrocity committed in Kashmir) is essentially moored in the colonial practice of mystification. This practice that usually takes place at “high-levels of investigation” is often theatrical, and is meant to produce spectacle instead of evidence. This is the case not simply because the Indian state inherited much of the remnants of the colonial administrative system, but also because of the attitude India’s ruling formations have toward Kashmir. Kashmir is where the Indian ruling classes act out their desire to mimic their own erstwhile colonizers. This is where they can come as forces of reason and progress against a people who are seen as irrational, passionate, and easily excitable.

In the changed global circumstances, however, where colonial behavior is not appreciated in the same way as it used to be, the Indian elite produce a set of illusory remedies. Kashmir becomes a theatre where the arrogance of the colonial form of power must be tempered by an emerging “super” power’s responsibilities. In a country where the vast population in villages and forests is pauperized with no immediate hope of relief, it is not surprising that these dreams are only hinged to the empty digits of the stock exchange, a small measure of Western self-interested promotion, and references to “democracy,” which in practice has become an empty signifier.

And there is a problem now. Pre-1989 Kashmiris were gentle and “docile”. Then they suddenly became mindless people “instigated from across the border”. From the mid-1990s onward, they were labeled “Islamic terrorists” representing a global threat, a claim that after 2001 became a staple in Indian digests for the West. What produces anxiety in the Indian rulers now is that their pantomime is interrupted. In recent times, with protesting Kashmiris on the roads, finding their own findings, writing their own reports, and obviously without any guns to boot, easy labels can’t be affixed. “Agitational terrorism” doesn’t stick. Kashmiris, as skeptical subjects, are creating their own archive. And this is not just the archive of memory, but of real documents that forcefully argue that rape and murder has taken place, of photos that show “ankle-deep water”, of maps that show the proximity of Indian forces’ camps to places where bodies are recovered.

When the CBI came to Kashmir with doctors from AIIMS to carry out an investigation into Shopian, a number of people, at least some old souls from the Coordination Committee, felt it would authenticate what most people already knew, what independent enquiries had found out, what even a government appointed commission had acknowledged, and, most importantly of all, what facts on the ground clearly pointed toward. But the CBI, with its characteristic hubris, produced a report that instead of disclosing truth only revealed how the politics of denial can become so ludicrous as to attract only derisive pity for the state. The CBI produced an elaborate conspiracy case against those who were in one respect or the other involved with seeking justice, or with initial examinations of whatever evidence they could salvage. In other contexts such conspiratorial stories like the one the CBI propounded would invite public ridicule and anger, but since it is Kashmir, the black hole of the Indian nationalistic consciousness, it was immediately gulped down in India with great relief and a redoubled sense of self-righteousness.

It is clear as the Independent Women’s Initiative for Justice suggests in their report “Shopian: Manufacturing a Suitable Report” that the witnesses were systematically compromised, that many under sustained pressure changed their statements, and a number of them (especially the doctors who conducted initial tests) were suspended from their services. This made the CBI enquiry an inquisition for those who were seeking justice, and those who by sheer coincidence happened to get involved in forensic examination, instead of a search for the culprits who were responsible for the unnatural deaths of Asiya and Neelofer. The systematic manner in which the CBI leaked its report had already pointed to the direction in which the enquiries were going. What the CBI sought was to discredit everyone involved in the initial examinations. The medical practitioners and institutions of the state government were shown to be incompetent using the symbolic power, if not the impartial expertise, of a central medical institution, AIIMS.

The CBI report led to a proliferation of self-congratulatory writings in the Indian press. For instance, The Hindu’s resident terrorism expert Praveen Swami began his article like this: “Last summer, the bodies of two women were washed ashore on the banks of the Rambiara river in Shopian” (28 Dec 2009). That was clearly not part of the CBI report. It was his own bit enthusiastic contribution to it. Instead of asking, for example, how just by saying that a deep gash in the forehead was not sufficient to cause death “in the ordinary course” was by itself proof enough to establish that no murder had taken place, the Hindu article spent half of its length establishing the scientific credentials of the CBI by listing various Indian institutions that became part of the investigation at various moments.

Mixed with this sense of self-vindication many people, even some self-proclaimed liberals within the Indian civil society, have wrapped themselves up in a narrative bubble of self-righteousness, and can’t bring themselves to accept that their soldiers are absolutely capable of committing rape and murder. It is tough to argue for justice in a system where the state, the nation, and religion have become muddled, where a Hindu state is visible (at least to its Other subjects) in practice, if not yet in official pronouncements, and, especially in a system with fantasies of mastery and control when, in truth, it is rather unsure, paranoid, and weak.

(Published originally in Honour newsmagazine, 12 May 2010.)

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