State of the Tehreek: Thoughts on the Present

As a student of Kashmir’s modern politics, I see the Tehreek movement as a historic struggle for Kashmiri self-determination that began with the emergence of mass politics in 1931 and has continued into the present. Tehreek has always been ideologically diverse and has included, at various points, socialists, Islamists, secularists, liberals, and others who wouldn’t fit any of these descriptions. Yet, one or the other of its constituents has often claimed to exclusively represent the movement—from the Muslim and the National Conference in the 1940s to the JKLF and the Hurriyats in the 1990s. Tehreek’s predominant worldview has been shaped by the perceptions and realities of the geopolitical context in which Kashmiris live. Before 1947, it was the British-protected Dogra rule, marked by economic exploitation and marginalization of Kashmiri peasantry and artisanry. After 1947, it was primarily the Indian state (and to some extent Pakistan) and its hostility toward the idea of Kashmiri self-determination.

Despite ups and downs—from mass consciousness leading to the end of the Dogra regime to the catastrophic installation of Indian occupation immediately afterward—‘Kashmiris as a People with the Right to Political Freedom’ has remained the central premise of the Tehreek. This premise can, for sure, be critically examined but no more than claims of peoplehood made by the Indians, the Bangladeshis, the French, or the Fijians. There have been moments of upsurge and periods of fragmentation in the Tehreek, and each produces responses that can range from a presentist cynicism (the calls for ‘give up’ or ‘accept the fate’ but also ‘freedom is just around the corner’) to historically-minded analyses. I tend to respect the historically-minded analyses.

The events of 2016, for instance, present us with yet another opportunity to reflect on the Tehreek and its future. To be sure, Tehreek itself has never been internally stronger than it is in the present, even though the geopolitical circumstances have become far tougher as well.
It might sound contrived to a hard-headed ‘realist,’ but it is not the military prowess that matters so much for a movement like the Tehreek. Instead, it is the centrality of its themes in the public sphere, its ability to absorb critique, and the diversity of subjects it produces—from activists and direct actioners to artists, poets, and thinkers—that symbolize a movement’s strength. No one in their right mind in Kashmir now believes India has the moral strength or the political acumen to accommodate, far less concede, Kashmiri self-determination. At best, the argument for ‘India as destiny’ is the result of a weary inertia, especially among those whose livelihoods (and significance) depends on the continuation of the occupation. India, in short, is not an appealing idea.

At the same time, the organized ‘Kashmiri’ opposition to the Tehreek remains broadly discredited. While NC’s experiment of ‘autonomy’ as an adjustment with India has failed (since 1953), the new upper-caste Muslim and rightwing Hindu alliance, a resentful residue from the Land Reforms, has taken administrative power in the form of the PDP-BJP combine. This combine represents everything Kashmiris have detested since 1931: control of politics and economy in the hands of the historically privileged upper-castes and classes. In return, this combine has no love lost for Kashmiris either—as the bloodbath of summer 2016 amply demonstrates.

The events of 2016 also allow us to look at key transformations in India. One, Modi regime’s petulant reluctance to even accept Kashmir as a ‘political question’ and use of brazen violence against unarmed Kashmiris shows India’s historical anxieties have come fully to the surface. India may appear externally tough but remains internally weak. This weakness is implicit in the growing popular disbelief in democracy and constitutional rights, hostility toward minorities, disrespect for historical facts, as well as granting of an extraordinary leeway to a brash fascist faction within the rightwing that has taken control of the Indian narrative. Second, positively, a growing section in India now sees the explicit connection between Hindutva fascism and Indian fixation on controlling Kashmir, as well as the liberal nationalist connivance in facilitating this connection. From its self-belief as a secular tent for diverse South Asian communities (even Muslims), India has become a nervous state with a thin skin and no generosity. Indian state violence in Kashmir emerges from this nervousness and anxiety, which continues to frame Kashmiri right to self-determination as some Muslim plot to dismember the sacred Hindu territory.

Given this context, what Tehreek needs in the present is a historical perspective and consolidation. Tehreek’s history shows the movement is much bigger and deeper than its constituents, its leaders, and their discourses. As an overarching ideal of emancipation and an affective undercurrent of Kashmiri desires and aspirations, it has to be seen as the horizon of Kashmiri politics. All the forces and formations that lead Kashmiris toward self-determination, toward the recognition of their political sovereignty, must be cultivated. There is no single way to do that. But crucially it means turning away from the politics of reaction to a politics of affirmation. Instead of just waiting for the occupier state’s grand projects to become points of contention, Kashmiris will need to create a multitude of their own projects to overwhelm the state planners. Instead of just reacting through hartal—which often reinforces the state’s own mechanisms of control and creates unequal experiences of personal sacrifice (leading, naturally, to resentment)—it is crucial to create and commemorate progressive aspects of Kashmiri life, to revitalize the language of politics and protest, to intensify questions of social, economic, and environmental justice, and to open itself to a continuous inclusion of minorities and the marginalized.

At the tactical level, it is hard to offer suggestions. Tactics of a movement like the Tehreek need always to be context specific. Based on the experiences of 2010 and 2016, ideally, hartal should be used sparingly and more effectively, not as a general strike or a default mode of protest. Occupation already causes too much suffering; continuous hartal just adds to it. Hartal was an effective means of gaining rights when miners and machine-breakers used it in the industrializing Britain. In national movements, general strikes become effective only when external conditions are suitable for a final push or to negotiate independence, like during the World War II.

And, it is not enough to suffer for azadi, the point is to gradually move toward it. Suffering subjects may receive sympathy, but it is political subjects who create the infrastructure for freedom. What does that mean practically? In a limited sense, instead of allowing itself to be falsely portrayed as preventing social advancement (as the pro-India propaganda machinery would like the world to believe), Tehreek must explicitly reorient more of its energies to creating spaces for Kashmir’s creative, intellectual, scientific, and ethical potential to unfold.

To build on what has been achieved since 1931, consolidation of the movement is important. Consolidation will mean several things. First, the prominent discourse of the Tehreek cannot be in the hands of those who believe in narrowing its scope as an identity politics. Identity is often a subtracting and reductive discourse. There is no gain in circumscribing ‘Kashmiri’ as a cultural or a religious identity. Instead, Tehreek must keep expanding the sphere of inclusion. This will involve the evolution of symbols that represent an ever-widening body of peoples and communities. To me, Pakistani flags in Kashmir appear narrow-minded and self-defeating. Discourses of ‘merger with Pakistan’ are morally indefensible, just as ‘accession to India’ is: both are exclusionary to one Kashmiri or the other, and offer no real freedom to create a just and equitable socio-political order. Tehreek symbols must represent a pluralist politics and ethos, as well as Kashmiri independence.

Looking at the joyless puppet regime in administrative power in Kashmir, one can’t help but see how they are desperately trying to paper over their tattered politics (and emasculation at the hands of the Hindutva brigade) with hackneyed tropes of ‘law and order,’ bizarre promises of ‘development’, and the personal achievements of individuals who have nothing to do with the regime. The distance between Kashmiris and those who govern their lives couldn’t be greater than it is in the present. Driven by a mean occupation into desperation, it is tempting to take a self-destructive path. But Tehreek politics has always been about self-preservation and progress, despite the reckless mistakes made along the way. New generations of Kashmiris will need to directly enter and expand Tehreek’s politics and vision, energize its political culture by learning and connecting with planet-wide progressive movements, and fearlessly open themselves to voices that come from the margins of our society.

Azadi, we will see, is not an end point, or a destination, but a process of an unfolding of our collective potential and of turning the occupation and its scaffolding regime into a shell, a husk. Tehreek, if we accept these standards, has done well, but a lot more remains to be done.

Originally published in Kashmir Ink, JAN 10, 2017.  

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