In the minds of all those in Kashmir who worry about the future is the same question: ‘What must we, as Kashmiris, do to produce visible advances toward an emancipated collective life?’
On the grand scale, the scale at which maps are reshaped and brought into harmony with people’s aspirations, the answer is probably a despondent, even if only a contingent ‘nothing’. On a different scale, one which corresponds to everyday situations and micro-political contexts, the answer is ‘a lot’.
Let me lay all my cards on the table right away: there is no solution. Or, at least, there is no solution within the present arrangement of power and discourse. But this is also because everyone seeks a ‘solution’ without first asking ‘to what?’ or ‘what really is the Kashmir question?’
Beyond statist frames
As Kashmiris, who are witness to the last twenty-five years of the Tehreek, we have rightly gone beyond the Indian state’s self-righteous framing of the question in terms of the “Muslim separatism” versus “Indian secularism” binary. We have also seen, from time to time, the shortcomings of the Pakistani establishment’s description of the issue as an “unfinished business of Partition.” Almost in a soap-operatic enactment of a fratricidal strife over patrimony, both these positions stage farcical claims of an exclusive right to the Kashmiri territory—which naturally appears bizarre to most Kashmiris.
Both of these compulsively rehearsed positions are a traumatic residue of the Partition. They have no ethical or political justification. If they remain politically relevant in the present context it is only because they are backed by the military power and the frenzied nationalisms of these two states.
Beyond dialogue and violence
Sadly, a by-product of this South Asian neurosis has been a vapid pseudo-debate in Kashmir over notions of ‘dialogue’ and ‘violence’. Dialogue, or kathbaath, is imagined as some sort of a magical process that can turn the time back. Yet, even the most elementary questions regarding ‘dialogue’ remain unasked. Who will dialogue for whom? Can there be persons or parties who embody the consensus of the people or states they claim to represent? Even if space is ceded for a trialogue—a dialogue where Kashmiri representatives also find a corner on the table—will there ever be shared parameters within which it can be held? Since in this case the interests of the two strong states involved coalesce (both minimally want to retain the territory they presently occupy) and are directly opposed to the demands of Kashmiris (unification and freedom of the region), a dialogue on Kashmir is at best a false hope and at worst a delaying tactic. It is more of the latter because the labyrinthine machinery of ‘talks’ allows the dominant parties time to forcibly change facts on the ground. This has happened since 1947. Look where the history of talks and accords has led us.
The issue really is the following: how can there be dialogue across the gulf of inequality that marks its presumed participants? Between the usurper and the resistor, the only just way forward—that the usurper withdraws—is the only one the usurper does not want to concede.
Then there is the question of violence in Kashmir which has also become trivialized. If the mechanism of dialogue is already in favor of the usurper, the mechanism of ‘violence’ is even more so. And for the same reason: the usurper finds it easier to recode the conflict in terms that give it a carte blanche and, under the garb of an emergency, change facts to its advantage.
Taking advantage of the contemporary global discourse, India has broadly succeeded in projecting the Kashmiri armed movement as part of global Islamism and itself as its victim. Entrenching its occupation in the meantime, India has built an elaborate repressive as well as extractive apparatus, one which is determined to take with impunity and without remuneration resources from Kashmir for its own industrial growth.
Indeed, the above argument does not by itself dismiss armed resistance as a strategy. It can be argued, after all, that it was the popularity of the armed resistance of the early 1990s that brought the fundamental political contradictions in Kashmir to the surface—first and foremost, the wide recognition in Kashmir itself that the Indian rule in the region was essentially a military occupation with political interests directly opposed to those of Kashmiris.
The argument, however, does not stop there. There is a difference between armed resistance as a strategy and armed resistance as a reaction. A strategy is by definition supposed to make a maximum long-term political impact with least possible costs on the self in the present. As a reaction, armed violence is directionless, mystical, and abrasive, with its levers often in the hands of the state. In Kashmir now, it is the state that deploys violence as a strategy—to maintain an ordered disorder in Kashmir—while also managing the parameters of the armed resistance as a reaction. By itself, the armed resistance has never been able to assemble a strategy to effectively counter the scale of violence the occupier state deploys to maintain itself as a usurper.
If, however, azadi at present is a matter of liberation from the violence of the occupation, then the question is how must Kashmiris limit the state’s ability to inflict violence without giving in to the impulse of themselves becoming violent in the process. To sum up, given the inequality of means between the resistor and the usurper, the resistor will never be able to force (through violence) or convince (through dialogue) the usurper to negotiate or contain the latter’s violence. What will?
Loyalist politics and its delusional ‘realism’
Let’s delineate further the question I began with, that is the question of ‘the question’ itself. Within Kashmir, the articulation of the problem has been two-fold. First, there is the loyalist politics, which is fundamentally unable to take a real position and veers thoughtlessly either toward cynically endorsing the Indian control or obstinately defending the idea of accession to Pakistan. This form of politics is ‘state politics’ that precludes any reference to the people. It ventriloquizes Indian and Pakistani positions, and its respective centers of gravity are located outside of Kashmir. (Given this, it is the loyalist politics that should be called “separatist” because loyalism in Kashmir has truly separated itself from the interests and aspirations of the people it claims to represent).
Loyalist politics—both, an obsequious fealty to the Indian control or a rhetorical subservience to Pakistani nationalism—has, for long, been unable to appear convincing to even its most ardent supporters. I say this knowing well that Pakistan’s relationship with Kashmiris appears qualitatively different than India’s. In either case, however, all variations of loyalist politics turn on Kashmiris, whose ‘mandate’ or ‘sentiments’ the loyalists claim to represent. For the two kinds of loyalisms, Kashmiri people appear as either ‘misdirected (gum-rah) by outside forces’ or ‘incapable of understanding their true interests and thereby failing their leaders’.
What makes the two forms of loyalist politics even more similar—despite the differences in their goals and their present relationship to power—is their appeal to the so-called ‘realism’. Both admonish Kashmiris to be realistic. ‘Accept autonomy or self-governance within India,’ one group tells us. The other says, ‘Accession to Pakistan is the only way’. Not that these choices are handily on offer—a fact that makes the loyalist rhetoric more delusional than anything else. But they reveal the ideological grip ‘realism’ can have within groups. Realism sees the present order as timeless, transforming the belief in the immutability of the present into a manic obsession. Obscenely trapped in the ideology of the dominant order and disconnected from any sense of history, realism cripples the ability to think and act. In short, for the loyalist politics in Kashmir, realism consists of an inability to think beyond India or Pakistan.
The more substantive Kashmiri articulation presents the ‘Kashmir question’ as a contest of aspirations and desires. This position seeks recognition for two claims: first, the equality of Kashmiri people, which demands a recognition of Kashmiri nationhood; and, second, the primacy of their own political aspirations in Kashmir over those of India and Pakistan. The two claims can be condensed into the singular demand that Kashmiris be allowed to govern themselves under a popular Kashmiri sovereignty. This position would involve a full withdrawal of Indian and Pakistani control over regions whose residents so decide through a popular referendum. There is hardly anything unrealistic or irrational in these two claims, which is why they form a reasonable point of departure for rethinking the question of Kashmir. I suggest, however, even this position is not thought through well enough. Why
Beyond nationalism and sovereignty
The twin ideas of nationhood and sovereignty as forms of constituting the self and the society are intrinsically problematic and must be excised from our thinking. Both fall short of being justifiable claims, as both appeal to an exceptionalism which remains potentially exclusionary.
What makes Kashmiris a nation? Who is included? Who is not? Who has the right to decide? Do all the peoples who reside in Kashmir have a say in deciding over questions that matter to their lives? Will Kashmiris demand a state form that replicates the ones controlling their lives in the present? Will it be majoritarian in the same way as India and Pakistan are? Will religious codes of one community become sacrosanct and gain primacy over all of public life? If so, what ethical legitimacy does this idea have?
If not—if future Kashmir is to be different—then what is required most urgently is thinking. Yes, at a time when we most urgently demand an answer to how we must act, the answer really is: we must start by thinking.
By thinking, I don’t mean lonely, solipsistic acts of contemplation (which is sometimes anti-political), but the act of putting ones considered ideas into public sphere (thinking as political). It involves the courage to practice truth and, even more, the courage to accept the others’ truth. If the urgent question right now is how to end the violence of the state, the elementary answer is through a consistent refusal to be subsumed into the categories of the state—its norms of citizenship, its frames of nationalism, and its categories of the other.
Thinking means resisting nationalist or religious ideologies of domination. Kashmiris inherit certain inbuilt cultural/religious frames and traditions that resist supremacist ideas. Our contradictions, our flaws provoke an ironic laughter in us, instead of assertions to ‘perfect’ ourselves. That laughter and the sense of irony needs to be nurtured further. We are no better than others, and it is a condition we share with the rest of the world. And it is because we are flawed like everyone else, we demand equality.
Affirmation and sublimation
Of course, thinking also means critiquing the structures of power and consistently exposing them. Yet critique must be accompanied by a positive affirmation of something else. In critique, sometimes, we risk losing the sense of self too or becoming blind to our own deleterious mutation into the mirror image of power.
Positive affirmation’ is what I would call creating something outside the machine of occupation. At one level, this creation can happen through a commitment to justice within everyday situations, that is by creating new social relations that are just. As examples, one could think of the following: a radical dissolution and desegregation of gendered logics and spaces; affirming the full rights of all those excluded by standard notions of ‘normal’ or by humanist frames; imbibing into local practices a global ethic of planetary conservation; or, upholding the dignity of labor while respecting people’s decision to not work or seek material gratification beyond basic needs.
Positive affirmation would also mean experiments in new forms of political self-organizing—non-hierarchical movements (leaderlessness), directly democratic and localized general assemblies (outside of the infamous election dramas), or even forming information dissemination networks that remain immune to the agenda of the big media.
But positive affirmation must also happen through sublimating our desires, aspirations, and, indeed, our outrage in aesthetic forms: music, art, writing.
Let me clarify the last point: I have heard people sneer at calls to turn our power or potentia into aesthetic practices. Rightly sometimes—art is neither political action nor a substitute for it; however, they complement each other. Not all aesthetic forms are practices of truth, of course. Especially not the kind performed in Kashmir’s Mughal Gardens to abet bourgeois self-puffery and narcissism or to gloss over the occupation’s violence.
Art, music, writing, however, open spaces within the dark, spaces to which the occupation remains blind. Art can also open those spaces that might otherwise remain invisible to the resistance. This space is azadi. It expands. It sutures the wounds of trauma. Yet, it never forgets. It preserves memory as a source of strength, rather than as a corrosive pain. It is a secret language that remains incomprehensible to the occupier.
When Kashmiris produce something—music, poem, a song—it augurs something new. It becomes a positive reaffirmation of our being. It builds its resources silently, and like political strategy lies in wait for historical contingencies, so it can create something totally different: a free country to which all residents of Kashmir—and those who come to it—can feel a sense of free belonging, without a need to express any sense of tribal loyalty.
In the end, the question of ‘the question’ really is this: what do we, Kashmiris, want to become? Or, hum kya chahtey? The answer is not a pre-given model of society (a nation-state) or a replica of a hoary, imagined past. Azadi is a process of seeking and thinking-through. It is not a state, but a struggle against the idea of state. It is resistance against domination, without a desire to dominate in turn.
Originally published in Kashmir Ink, February 10, 2016.