Kashmir: A seditious alphabet

Where a mere illustration in a textbook makes the State paranoid, is it possible for academics to remain aloof from politics?

Wasim Khalid Srinagar

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah voiced his support for freedom of expression twice in the past few months. In the first instance, it was in support of Union Communication Minister Kapil Sibal's assertions over objectionable content on social networking sites. That time he had claimed he is a "staunch supporter" of freedom of expression. And recently, in the context of the controversial author Salman Rushdie's visit to India, he indirectly supported the author by questioning if Rushdie would be a poll issue for India's Muslims. At least, that's what his opponents say. Right or wrong, Omar Abdullah surely has a point. In conflict-ridden Kashmir itself, however, a lot of questions are being asked over censorship, dissent and freedom of expression for many years now.

That the academia is fast becoming the latest casualty in Kashmir may seem bizarre to outsiders, but to Kashmiris it is quite normal. Earlier, the State had restricted its role to choking pro-Azaadi political dissent by all means. However, the state government has during past few months openly opened a front against the academia as well. The government filed sedition charges against an academician for drafting a question paper that the State feels is 'controversial', and then in another instance, against its own academic institution (read JK State Board of School Education) for allowing a certain illustration in an Urdu textbook.

At the heart of all this lies the civil unrest of 2010 in which more than 120 were killed and approximately 2,500 injured.

Facing severe criticism over how the unrest was handled, the government followed a two-pronged policy to avoid its repeat in 2011. The chief minister attempted to extend his government's presence on the ground by increasing the development efforts in the valley. He was quick to condemn custodial killings and alleged rape incidents in the hinterland 
during these months. His take on Armed forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) too was welcomed in many quarters. To undermine the base separatists had gained in 2010, many separatists, their loyalists, stone-hurling youth and Azaadi-seeking youth were detained.

However, here the government took this fight to academic institutions, including universities. Police brazenly intervened in the academic sphere by blocking criticism or debate over the ongoing conflict, particularly on the idea of stone-pelting. Police arrested an academic, an action it deemed as necessary to stop others from following the trend. The
professors in turn described it as "academic terrorism".

And recently an Urdu alphabet 'Zoi' gained unusual eminence. This time police had filed a case of sedition against another State institution, the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education (JKBOSE). An Urdu textbook for primary class students carried an illustration of a person wearing a green cap and a shirt with a bamboo stick in his hand. The letter Zoi in the book signified the picture with a word 'Zalim' (oppressor). The illustration had many interpretations for different people. Some thought it depicted a peon or gatekeeper guarding an apple orchard from fruit-stealing children. Even the Board authorities maintained that the depiction in the illustration was of a 'hooligan'. However, police insisted that the illustration resembled a cop and it was offending to qualify a cop with the word zalim. Soon cases of sedition, criminal conspiracy, defamation and provocation with intent to breach peace were slapped against all those involved in the publication, including the Board's chairman.

In the public domain, the Urdu letter Zoi became an instant subject of debate, especially on social networking sites. On the editorial pages of local newspapers and on blogs, the Urdu letter and its perceived implications were discussed threadbare. "The letter Zoi has become a symbol of State oppression," wrote a Facebook user, while some felt that police made a mockery of themselves by hyping it more than needed.

"And why would a student only remember 'Zoi, say Zalim' and not the other three alphabets and the illustrations associated with them?" asks Javaid Iqbal Bhat, a teaching associate at the University of Ohio.

He says, "This suggests that entire population is an assortment of wayward children prone to influence. How often do we hear of 'misguided' populations being incited and abetted? This shows the manner in which a self-conceited State and its smug institutions, removed from the lived experience of ordinary people, think and respond to a rebellion based, above other things, on a long-pending, legitimate but repressed sentiment. We are children susceptible to dangerous memories until we learn to read letter-word associations they deem suitable. For example, they would have loved it if it was 'B, say Bahadur' (B for Brave) instead. Only then are children permeable to State-showered wisdom."

Police brazenly intervened in the academic sphere by blocking criticism or debate over the ongoing conflict, particularly over the idea of stone -pelting.

The Zoi incident did not happen in isolation. Earlier Noor Mohammed Bhat, a Kashmir University (KU) professor, was detained by the police for setting 'anti-establishment' questions in an English test for Bachelor of Science students. Students had been asked to write their opinions regarding stone-pelting and turmoil in the Kashmir valley.

In the backdrop of the unrest in summer 2010, Bhat had asked students, "Are stone-pelters heroes?" The students were also asked to translate from Urdu to English a passage whose most exact translation reads: "Kashmiri blood is being spilled like water, Kashmiri children are being killed by police, and Kashmiri women are being showered with bullets."

That was enough reason for the police to declare the questions "inflammatory", leading to Bhat's arrest. Before he was shifted to Central Jail, Srinagar, he told me that he had posed questions that were "open-ended". "I never advocated that stone-pelters are heroes. I wanted students to come up with their own views about it," he said.

Bhat's case was yet to be settled when a senior professor of KU, Shad Ramzan, was charged with setting a question paper that police claimed contained "obscene content". Professor Ramzan, a 2009 Sahitya Academy Award winner, had asked first year arts students to translate an English paragraph into Kashmiri. Later the professor termed the police action against him as "academic terrorism".

In Kashmir, where SMS services remain banned, private TV channels cannot telecast news or current affairs programmes, print media are subjected to censorship, and journalists are often beaten up or even fired upon, the state government has extended its whip to academicians as well.

'The letter Zoi has become the symbol of State oppression.' wrote a Facebook user, while some felt police made a mockery of themselves by hyping it more than needed

"All this doesn't augur well for society and the State," says Dr Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law in KU. "It is academic freedom that
enables academicians to articulate their ideas."

While 'freedom of expression' is being debated intensely these days in mainstream media and public domains across India, many believe that in Kashmir, this freedom has always been a casualty. Where a mere illustration makes the State paranoid, its response appears to be demanding that academics must remain aloof from political realities.

However, where every form of dissent, opposition and resistance is part of the people's life and literature, where every general strike is a political statement, the State cannot just ask people to close their eyes and act according to its definition of what makes a human being 'normal'.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012