At the centre of it all was Kashmir
With JNU striking a complex chord in the Valley, Kashmir today appears to be at the crossroads once again. There is a deepening disillusionment with the Indian State, its policies and political discourse
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal Srinagar
For years, Politicians in New Delhi have thrived on the patent phrase, “Kashmir is an integral part of India” in a bid to silence and delegitimise the voices for azadi, and, even more, autonomy, and remain in denial of a conflict beyond the militaristic discourse. Today, Kashmir’s conflict has, at least, become an integral and intrinsic part of an issue that has taken the entire country by storm and will have long-term ramifications.
The JNU crisis, at the genesis of which lies the Kashmir conflict, its azadi slogans and the Afzal Guru issue, have brought the nation to a crossroads where the polity is sharply divided between the RSS and the rest. All this, thanks to a government that is pro-active in clamping down on all kinds of dissent; any whimper considered negative by the RSS-backed Narendra Modi regime is immediately branded and tagged as 'anti-national', whether or not dissenting voices are sympathetic to Kashmiri aspirations.
The discourse of ‘either you are with us or with them’, is used as a stick to treat every dissent as pro-azadi for Kashmir or seditious. The popular political discourse of Kashmir, viewed through an ultra-nationalistic prism, has come to be looked upon with suspicion; no distinction is made between ugly and distasteful sloganeering, which can at best invite mild criminal action, and a critique of the verdict on the Afzal Guru case, which is a legitimate right of any citizen guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Dissent and the right to free speech and expression have become the casualty. And so has the very idea of a democratic India, with its spirit of accommodation in tatters, brutally replaced by a culture of intolerance and totalitarianism.
How does the Kashmiri, caught at the centre of the debate, respond to this new phenomenon, as he finds the difference between treating dissent in Kashmir and any other part of the country, obliterated, at least as far as verbal discourse goes. Even within Kashmir, the perspectives are varied. To look at the entire issue at hand, one would need to first look at the slogans, doctored or otherwise, that generated the controversy differently from the discourse on Afzal Guru.
In the lead in the JNU-led struggle is a Kashmiri scholar, Shehla Rashid Shora, JNUSU Vice President, from AISA. Her support base in Kashmir, despite the admiration she has inspired for her bold, courageous and firebrand role, remains minimal
While, for any Indian, the slogans are offensive, ugly, jarring, many Kashmiris take ownership of the azadi slogans; even the most distasteful of words are deemed as metaphors against oppression. Similar slogans are not unknown in the conflict zone, where such slogans have certain acceptability, even appeal, among the youth, angered and embittered by years of suppression and repressive actions. Hence, there was reservation in some quarters, questioning the distance that the JNU students consciously maintained from the slogans.
That Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders, while the slogan war was going on allegedly between Kashmiri students (purportedly from outside JNU) and ABVP activists, chose to strategically channelise the azadi slogans into a discourse of Indian Left-nationalist aspiration of freedom from caste, economic and gender-based oppression, is also looked upon with suspicion by some. They see the Afzal Guru issue not essentially as one of travesty of justice, freedom of expression, or azadi as metaphor against caste, gender or religion-based oppression, but from the dynamic of victim-oppressor discourse that is common in Kashmir. For them, azadi is simply a patented assertion against ‘Indian rule’ in Kashmir. Many others, however, understand the limitations of the JNU students and their different political discourse. They also feel that Kashmiri youngsters, driven by their passion for azadi, should maintain restraint in sloganeering, especially outside the Valley, in keeping with ‘Indian sensibilities’.
As far as Afzal Guru is concerned, there is yet again a difference of perception. After his execution, he is seen as a martyr and hero by many Kashmiris, irrespective of the facts of his case, which make him both guilty as partner in the Parliament attack and a victim of both an ultra-nationalistic mindset inspiring the verdict as well as repressive security forces who disallowed him from pursuing a normal and peaceful life. The JNU programme to commemorate the anniversary of his hanging on February 9 was probably aimed to argue the Afzal Guru case on the basis of its legal merits and in terms of moral and ethical discourse over capital punishment. Also arguable is the logic that the Constitution guarantees the right to every citizen to critique court verdicts within reasonable limits.
The JNU controversy has thus been met with cautious support for Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and others facing charges of sedition and for freedom of expression. The Valley woke up with belated condemnation, protests and a support that is still a bit lukewarm but for the interest the crisis has generated in social media and in intellectual circles. The JNU campaign is being seen as one generated by the Left, which, despite its appeal for its stand on Kashmir, is seen as an Indian political component, aligning with which Kashmiris shy away from. For some, this would be seen as a dilution of their stand.
While the Indian supporters of the JNU students are seen to be working well within the parameters of the Indian Constitution, for the Kashmiri students, the political discourse is not simply about sedition and freedom of expression but about challenging the very discourse of ‘Kashmir as an integral part of India’ – about the right of self-determination and fulfilling the political aspirations of Kashmiris. That is why Umar Khalid, of all the accused JNU student leaders, who openly talked on a television channel about oppression in Kashmir, draws a much wider appeal in the Valley.
The Kashmiri youth, by and large, wishes to align itself completely with the Left-led assertion against fascist politics of the Hindu Right-Wing, or its struggle against oppressive tendencies of all kinds. Nor does it fully endorse the politics of the campaign in India on the Afzal Guru issue. Opinions, however, may vary.
How does the Kashmiri, caught at the centre of the debate, respond to this new phenomenon, as he finds the difference between treating dissent in Kashmir and any other part of the country, obliterated, at least as far as verbal discourse goes
In the lead in the JNU-led struggle is a Kashmiri scholar, Shehla Rashid Shora, JNUSU Vice President, from AISA. Her support base in Kashmir, despite the admiration she has inspired for her bold, courageous and firebrand role, remains minimal. She is seen not as a proponent of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination but as part of an Indian Left student organisation, and, as a conformist to Indian politics.
The story of Prof SAR Geelani, also accused of sedition for organising a similar programme in the Press Club of India, Delhi, where, again, pro-azadi slogans were raised by some Kashmiris, adds yet another dimension to the controversy. Many Kashmiris question as to why there is no campaign for Geelani, even though there is massive support for Kanhaiya and others within India, even though the former is accused of the same crime. “Not a single protest has taken place in Delhi for my father. No one wants to talk about him. Why?” asks Nusrat, Geelani’s daughter. She said that they feared for his safety after reports that Kanhaiya was thrashed by goons in custody. Is this difference driven purely by complacency or is it a conscious decision? Whatever the case, it does create some scepticism in the Kashmiri mind.
The caution of the ordinary Kashmiri apart, mainstream political parties have responded to the crisis in muted tones, revealing not just their reservations as Kashmiris but also their limitations of being dependent on the Centre for their political sustenance. The PDP, still unable to go ahead with government formation with the BJP, has continued to keep its alliance intact, while simply restricting its response to seeking assurances about the safety of Kashmiri students. On the rest of the controversy, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti averred that the “law should take its course and political parties should not decide about who is guilty”. The National Conference’s Omar Abdullah had earlier condemned the police crackdown on JNU. However, his father, Farooq Abdullah, maintained that the Afzal Guru case should not be discussed publically. Kashmiri journalist-writer Fahad Shah, writing in Scroll.in, questions the hypocrisy of the Kashmiri mainstream leaders who have spoken cautiously about the freedom of expression on the JNU campus, but have always clamped down on student politics at home while reducing universities in the state to zones where free speech is not just discouraged, but ruthlessly stifled.
Kashmiris have been far bigger victims of repression and denial of democratic space to exercise their right to free speech and other civil liberties. It was this history of repression, besides the unresolved Kashmir dispute, that pushed the youth to pick up arms in 1989. For years, during the peak militancy period, the common Kashmiri was sandwiched between the gun of the militants and the security forces; the people suffered due to a vicious cycle of killings, tortures, rapes, enforced disappearances, crackdowns and raids.
By the end of the 1990s, people were fed up with the gun culture and reposed their faith in resolution of the Kashmir dispute through dialogue. When the peace process began between India and Pakistan, barring some border-related confidence-building measures and cosmetic meetings with some separatist leaders, Kashmiris virtually remained out of the loop. The peace process was finally abandoned by the two countries, but the patience of Kashmiris was running out with a continuum of human rights abuse.
They found alternative methods of resistance by peaceful assemblies, strikes and hartals, which were met with brutal lathicharge and even firing in 2008. By 2010, the pent-up anger began spilling on the roads in the form of stone-pelting. During the five-month-long summer agitation, which began with protests against staged encounter killings, 120 people were killed on the streets. Many others were maimed, blinded or left battling prolonged physical impairments due to tear-gas shells, pellet gun shots and chilli sprays fired directly on their bodies. The 2010 brutality had a deep psychological impact on the society, particularly on the youth, many of whom were detained, arrested, tortured, brutalised and humiliated.
Afzal Guru’s hanging in 2013 was the last straw; by this time, some embittered youth of 2010 had already picked up the gun. Many more joined in. Now, one finds not only a steady increase in the number of local youth picking up the gun, but, after several years of militancy having been reduced almost to naught, there is increasing reverence, awe and support for this new breed of militants.
A recent encounter in Pampore in South Kashmir has become an important reference point to understand the changing trends in the insurgency-related landscape of the Valley. None of the three slain militants in this encounter were locals, though there is an increasing rise in the past two years in the number of local youth being pushed to take up the gun. In recent months, Kashmir has also been witness to a larger participation of people in the funerals of militants, revealing the support for militants.
On February 22, when the encounter was still going on, songs eulogising the youth picking up guns were being played on the public address system at a nearby mosque. Close to the encounter site, women were gathering to sing traditional wanwun in praise of the armed fighters; they sang lullabies to them. After the encounter, there were clashes between the police and the public over the bodies of the militants.
The encounter came close on the heels of the recent incident in Pulwama in which unverified reports said that the army opened fire on civilians, killing two, after the latter tried to shelter and hide the militants. Whether or not that was true, the Pampore encounter has clearly shown that the militants now enjoy sufficient sympathy of the people. The support may not be uniform across the Valley, but is more visible in South Kashmir where recent reports revealed that certain mainstream political party workers had also joined the ranks of the militants; so did a cop or two.
Kashmir today appears to be at a crossroads once again. It is because of a deepening disillusionment with the Indian State, its policies and its political discourse. There is a complete sense of hopelessness.
There is also a dismaying and nagging feeling that there is no place for peaceful means of resistance, thus pushing the youth towards the gun and a radicalised form of Islam. In this scenario, the JNU stir is also seen as a means that will eventually be futile for Kashmir, where educated youth have begun charting their own course with a militant brand of resistance and the glorification of martyrdom. Indeed, the youth enamoured of the gun see the JNU agitation as different from the struggle of Kashmiris, both in terms of method and goal.
These dilemmas and reservations apart, the JNU row has generated concern and interest within the Valley. It has inspired a greater sense of insecurity. Many Kashmiris wonder that if Indians speaking about Kashmir are facing such a brazenly aggressive ultra-Indian nationalistic response by the State, Kashmiris in all likelihood may face a brutish clampdown with greater ruthlessness.
On February 22, when the encounter was still going on, songs eulogising the youth picking up guns were being played on the public address system at a nearby mosque. Close to the encounter site, women were gathering to sing traditional wanwun in praise of the armed fighters; they sang lullabies to them
Srinagar observed a shutdown on February 28 in solidarity with the victimised JNU students. In a statement, a human rights outfit, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, strongly expressed its solidarity with the campaign for release of the students. It stated, “We acknowledge the emerging spaces in Indian civil society to converse on the question of Kashmir, beyond nationalist framings. We hold out hope for future alliances with students, groups and individuals willing to engage in honest conversations, in which they alone do not determine the boundaries of what can or cannot be said, thought or felt.” There are different perceptions about how the Kashmiris are engaging with the issue.
It would, however, be wrong to construe this as a gap. There are as yet no neat binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’; in fact, there is much that is overlapping in terms of political discourse. There would be some who would like to look at this new idiom of anti-oppression politics with scepticism; there are others who may think it worthwhile, even important, to reach out. The JNU controversy provides an opportunity for solidarity between Kashmiris who feel oppressed and assert azadi and those struggling across India against all forms of socio-economic, communal and caste-based oppression, including Kashmir.
Anuradha Bhasin is Executive Editor, Kashmir Times, Jammu.