Is it really so difficult to hear what Kashmiris are saying?

Among a series of articles that have been written on the Kashmir uprising of 2016, Chitralekha Zutshi’s piece, “The new wave of anger in Kashmir is not just about poor governance but about preserving an identity“, published recently in Scroll.in, took me by surprise.

The author makes two broad assertions: first, that the “new militancy” in Kashmir lacks elements that can be called “politics,” and, second, the “new anger against India” is about “preservation of an identity” newly tinged by a “particular religious colour”. Put together, the author’s argument can be summed up as suggesting that the militancy in Kashmir in its new form has no concrete demands that can be politically met but rouses protest based on perceived threats to signs of religious identity.

Having just finished more than a year of fieldwork in Kashmir, not to mention growing up among the youth who are out on the streets protesting, I could not shake off my disbelief upon reading such assertions.

The article in question is riddled with broad and deeply flawed generalisations. But since there is a paucity of space, I will only lay out a few points that relate to the author’s main arguments, and try to address them. I don’t want to simply dismiss these arguments by presenting facts that I believe don’t fit the author’s perspective (even though representing facts in their proper context is important), but ask the readers to open their minds to alternative ways of understanding the Kashmir uprising.

Global war on terror terminology

Here are the author’s words: “…(T)he new militancy seems strangely devoid of politics; it is driven by a national and religious fervour that brooks no compromise. Resistance, suffering, and sacrifice are ultimate goals in themselves.”

This framing of certain forms of contemporary Muslim activism as “militancy minus politics” is not new. It arrived with the ideological paradigm of the Global War on Terror, which was designed to flout known principles of international law of war and peace. When people just want to die, there is not much that states can do. It is almost like people, driven by some hidden power of a “culture of death,” force states to kill them. So goes the Global War on Terror logic. As a result of this paradigm, we have witnessed on a global scale the emergence of radical and unaccountable new forms of warfare marked by drones, ghost armies, executions through executive orders, and led by theorists of “a war without an end”.

Is this what is going on in Kashmir? Do Kashmiri protestors or armed activists have no concrete goals? One could ask the author, what evidence is marshalled to suggest people protesting in Kashmir or those who demand azaadi want to die and sacrifice for the sake of dying and sacrificing? By what protocol does the author interpret the demand for plebiscite and azadi as a “mere slogan” and martyrdom as the “ultimate goal”? If politics is to be defined only by the element of compromise – as the author does in the article – what sort of compromise by Kashmiris would constitute politics? With what must they compromise? Does seeking an end to Indian sovereignty over Kashmir fall outside the realm of politics? Is Indian sovereignty over Kashmir alone the condition of the possibility of politics?

Pro-azadi politics

Most young activists in Kashmir, from armed guerrillas to those protesting out on the streets – to those who are writing, reporting, making protest music, drawing protest cartoons, or organising food and blood donation camps – want an end to Indian rule in Kashmir. It is not “new;” we have at least lived through 27 years of this movement, and many more, generation before generation. Youth pro-azadi politics in Kashmir encapsulates an entire range of political considerations, from personal interests (their ability to live and move without fear of getting shot or tortured) and national liberation (from the structural violence of the colonial-style occupation) to universal ethical ideals (human freedom, dignity, and an end to humiliation). These are not hidden transcripts of Kashmiri resistance, but overtly expressed ones.

Given this, how should we interpret concepts derived from religion but deployed in political struggles, concepts like suffering and sacrifice? Is there a singular mode of expressing political agency, or can we imagine people simultaneously using a plurality of liberal, customary, or religious modes of thought and practice to become politically active?

Indeed, I have heard Kashmiris say the struggle for azadi will involve “mushkilat” (suffering) and “korbaeni” (sacrifice), which is often just an acknowledgement of the reality of their circumstances rather than an expression of a desire for that reality.

Even a charged idea like martyrdom is not something a person can just religiously will upon herself, nor is it based on that individual’s intent alone, or even at all. However variedly people may understand its meaning, martyrdom is most often a death made politically alive, especially in a social context marked by a collectively recognised struggle. The author’s argument makes it sound as if Kashmiri youths protesting in the streets are out yearning for a mass suicide.

Legitimising military occupation

Indeed, many who comment on the language of resistance drawn from religion express angst at the blurring of the line between a rational politics presented in a universally communicable language of interests and politics couched in religious terminology. Fair, but in Kashmir that line is hardly under threat. People use religious terms in everyday life, but the overwhelming political discourse supportive of azadi is based in the language of interests. That is unless you choose not to listen, or believe the right to self-determination as an idea makes no rational sense.

The net result of the author’s argument about militancy being “devoid of politics” is the creation of an ideological space that just legitimates the military occupation. For even as the article calls for the state to “engage with respect and human dignity” (Engage whom? We don’t know), framed in Global War on Terror terms (clearly invoked in the article by reference to signs of “radical Islam” and the uncontrollable demon of “social media”), Kashmiri resistance is presented as something that truly cannot be engaged with.

The argument leads the author to conceive a vertical split in Kashmiri politics. There are only two kinds of Kashmiris left: those for whom “martyrdom has become an end in itself” and those who “quietly support India.” How the author is comfortable with such a dramatic description is hard to fathom, but what is again implied is that politics in Kashmir is necessarily tied with support for India, while those opposed to Indian rule are involved in some cultish nihilism. It is an analysis that brooks no compromise.

Religion and identity

The second part of the author’s argument is based on the misrepresentation of an event that took place in a privately-run school in Kashmir. First, here is the argument in the author’s words: “…(T)he new wave of anger against India is not just about poor governance, but quite as much, if not more, about the preservation of an identity, and an identity that has taken on a particular religious colour.”

The author draws a hazy conceptual line between identity and religion. It is hard to establish this line in reality. Religions – as ritual and everyday practices, systems of dogma, notions and symbols of sacred and profane – have shaped people’s perceptions of themselves and their communities (identities) for a very long time. Only in the last hundred or so years – foremost in the Western liberal conception – have social scientists tried to make models that allow them to separate religious, political or ethnic identities. In more rigorous critical traditions of thought, models are not to be confused for reality. So when it is said that identity has taken on a “religious colour,” it is both ahistorical and lacks any critical empirical ground.

Perhaps a short piece, like the author’s, is not a suitable space for one to go into these details. Yet, it has to be pointed out that the critical amnesia surrounding the Indian identity, when Kashmiri identity is counter-posed to it, is remarkable.

Is Indian identity a universalist form of being and belonging? Is there no trace or colour of the religious to it? Is India, as it is popularly imagined, an expression of a pure liberal idea? Is it too hard to see that a cultural imagination – based in majoritarian religious notions – defines the geo-political form that India names?

Misrepresentation of events

This critical amnesia afflicts one too many experts on Kashmir, but in the case of the article under discussion, the unremitting logic that Kashmiri struggle is non-political and the incessant need to scream “religion!” finds its natural culmination in the misrepresentation of a minor school-administrative event.

Here is how the author narrates it: “A case in point is an incident in June in which a teacher of the Delhi Public School, Srinagar, was dismissed by the principal for wearing a full abaya that included a face veil. This provoked not just a protest by the students of the school against this action as an insult to Islam, with calls for the reinstatement of the teacher, but also a slew of angry articles that accused the school of attacking Islam, which is an integral part of Kashmiri identity.”

I remember this case well mostly because I know parents of a few kids who go to that school. There were multiple kinds of responses the issue generated. Most common was the one expressed by the students at the school. They were upset with the principal’s action because they felt the teacher had been treated unfairly. The students at the school asked, what made an abaya objectionable (which, by the way, involved a head scarf and not a face veil), but a sari okay? Even the state government’s education minister (and, ironically, even a BJP spokesperson) disagreed with the school management, and asked the management not to impose such bans. Some saw the move as “anti-Muslim” others as “unIslamic” – which are not necessarily one and the same. Here is a news report on the controversy.

There are ongoing, mostly frivolous, debates on the meaning of sartorial practices among Muslim women, and the jury is still out. But the students did not treat the act of forcing the teacher to resign as an “insult to Islam” as much as an insult to their biology teacher. They invoked saris, which the principal apparently wore to the school, as a counterpoint to ask if saris were not a cultural expression of Hinduism, and why the management, by its own logic, had not applied a judgment on it similar to the abayas. The teacher who was forced to resign never presented herself as a Muslim victim of an anti-Islamic bias. She maintained that there was no prescribed dress code as part of the contract, and wanted to know how her dress had suddenly come in the way of her primary duties as a teacher.

This is no insider scoop. All of this is something you would know by simply reading news reports available online about the incident. You don’t need to know the parents of kids who go to that school either.

The point in terms of the larger question involved is how to read the social worlds of people without imposing pre-given models on them. What constitutes political, what can be read as devoid of politics, and who can be considered apolitical? Writing people’s resistance to violent state control as devoid of politics is to write them out of history. I hope that is not the author’s intent.

Originally published in Scroll.in, September 02, 2016.

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