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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Deconstructing Kashmir's complicated narratives - by Shakir Mir

By Shakir Mir

In a soggy evening during a media session held at the residence of a prominent lawyer in New Delhi a young journalist tossed an unlikely question to the spitfire secessionist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, “I completely understand the right to self-determination and I understand your position” she asked. “However, I’m curious to know, if ever, J&K is granted that right, will you be willing to give the same right to the minorities of the state?”

The ailing Hurriyat demagogue answered, a bit sanctimoniously: “The right to self-determination we are demanding is not only for Muslims but for all Kashmiri inhabitants of every religion,” he stressed solemnly. “Snatching anybody’s right is in no way acceptable to us.”

Realizing her question was misunderstood, the journalist stood up again from her seat and said, “You didn't understand my question. My question is, if J&K gets the right to self-determination after which it would probably go Independent or accede to Pakistan, would you be willing to give any other community, seeking disassociation from J&K, the same right?”

Facing something he was perhaps ill-prepared to answer, the frail old leader couldn't maintain his diplomatic propriety. “Jammu & Kashmir is a single unit,” he blurted out, adding that he wished to clear this unambiguously. “Any division of J&K won’t be accepted.”

Reassured about her stand on the Hurriyat politics, the journalist smirked subtly and sat down.

For more than two decades, Kashmir has been in the crosshairs of a cruel military supervision. Its people, generally Muslims who have been beaten into conformity with absolute ruthlessness, harbor an extreme discontent against the Indian state. Apart from orchestrating widespread massacres and rapes, Indian army stands accused of meting out bestial methods of torture to prisoners that includes poking live electric wires into penises, water-boarding and even sometimes, limb amputations.

Many rights groups who during previous years, unearthed nearly thousands of corpses furtively buried underground allegedly by the army, suggesting the gravity of the war crimes committed in the region, put the death toll from the conflict at 70,000 – three times more the total number of people killed in turmoil that crept Pakistan for the past one decade. In fact the brutality with which India manages Kashmir will alone dwarf the total bloodletting that took place in the entire history of independent India due to Pakistani-sponsored terror strikes.

Having endured a prolonged subjugation for decades, it was very recently, just two or three years back, when Kashmiri’s chose to the shed the cloak of stoicism and become very vocal about their rights. Before, it was an insidious guerrilla warfare and a rather discreet separatist movement that sought dissociation from India.

But beneath this seemingly genuine yearning for a right to self-determination, lies an egregious specter of religious orthodoxy and political bigotry for whom the towering stockpile of abuses had served as a mainstay to assemble a sentiment that gives a fillip to its Machiavellian style politics and circumvent every criticism. It sits inside, crouched; fearing its conspicuousness would upset the applecart its existence rests on.

Taking privilege from everything that's wrong with the government, the votaries of secession like Geelani, have, with a surreal dexterity, positioned themselves as the go-to-guys for all matters. Geelani’s reverence as a cult figure within Valley finds striking parallel with deification of Narendra Modi by Hindutva ideologues. Not unlike Modi, even a feeble criticism against Geelani draws extreme indignation from his young and irascible followers.

Meanwhile in recent times, the ‘specter’ has inadvertently begun to show up. A new source of frustration has set its bells ringing. After maintaining a near total dominance on the discourse, the contemporary narrators of Kashmir conflict are facing up to the story-tellers who have had their lives ravaged by the militant violence. Traditionally attempts to shed light on militant atrocities are considered as taboo. They way local media censors voices against this form of repression is appalling. That’s why perhaps whenever militants strike somewhere in the region, Kashmiri press displays a great sensitivity, euphemistically referring the assailants as ‘unknown gunmen.’ All they could do, at most, for a militant-led fatality is a five-line story relegated to some corner of a newspaper. This stands stark in contrast to how they respond to killings by Indian forces. And, why not? They should. Indian people also need to be reminded what the democracy they so keep jactitating about has wrought in a region perfunctorily called as ‘integral part.’ But somewhere down the line, this is a double-speak.

When Rahul Pandita released his much awaited book on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, it faced an intense rebuke from the society that has long held a belief, magnified by its intellectuals that Pandit minority left out voluntarily on instructions from then State governor Jagmohan. However, it remains yet to be explained how half a million people became willing to embrace homelessness and shift to hostile make-shift camps on edicts of a single person – an assertion that simply stretches plausibility too far.

In Kashmir, a candid discussion on this issue risks a person of inviting disgust from voluble commentators and choleric newsmen. This behavior, for instance, might well be presumed for having stemmed from what fanatical Pandit groups like Panun Kashmir, notorious for their anti-Muslim stand, say or do, but often acrimonious reactions from the other side, like this drolly scatological one, remains unwittingly indicative of a deeply-rooted intolerance towards Kashmiri Pandit disquisition. Talking about how this minority was impaled and hounded out by the gun wielding men who wore religion on their epaulets, still remains an unsolicited discussion in the Valley. A litany of repudiations to Rahul Pandita’s book was enough to measure the extent to which proponents of Kashmiri secession, Muslims, leftists or otherwise, were unnerved.

One among them propounds that Pandita, in recounting the stories that led to his expatriation, including an event where his brother was dragged out of a bus and shot dead,  was mistaking his “adolescent gaze for a true perspective.” Pandita was ought to know how his antecedents colluded with the repressive Dogra regime in terrorizing Kashmiris. He didn't. If he had, his somewhat “sensational and sentimental recounting” would not had been downright accusatory. Therefore, Pandita was offering a "caricature" of "victimhood" that , in all likelihood, "breeds violence".

How, if one troubles to wonder, does a crime committed by Pandita’s ancestors undermines or belittles the flagrance with which the slayers of his brother and their co-religionists erupted with jubilations, murderously asserting their militant selves? 

The predicament of Muslims in the book is just as loosely mentioned as the exodus of Pandits in Curfewed Night that depicted the Kashmiri Muslim vantage point of the twenty-four year old war. But not once was the adherence to victimhood seen as something "breeding violence."

Of course, there’s this sense of ‘collective guilt’ imposed on Kashmiri Muslims who were just as beleaguered as Pandits, during the time exodus took place. That’s why there remains a propensity among them to discredit the Pandit narrative. But then, in becoming the victim of this ‘collective guilt’ feeling, Kashmiris emulate the very Indians whose silence they berate.

Last month, when the impetuous and patriotic media in New Delhi, got a whiff about the online threats faced by Kashmir only all-girl rock band, it spoon-fed Indians with a disproportionate coverage. The message they apparently sought to give was this: Kashmiris, who demand freedom from India, were patriarchs who don’t even let women sing. Normally, the shouting news-presenters of the Indian channels tend to turn a blind eye towards overwhelming cases of restrictions on Kashmiri civilians which too do not auger well with in a democratic setup. Atrocities by armed forces against Kashmiris have perennially found little resonance in the national media. So expectedly, Kashmiris who watched understood the hypocrisy behind this farce. Press, back in Kashmir, lunged into action and got instantly swamped with the impassioned articles castigating Indian media for its double standards.

But even as position taken by Indian media arguably stood wrong, few of its frantically raised assumptions did carried some weightage. Commentators in valley would even be seen echoing the views of the Grand Mufti, a clergyman disdained by Kashmiris because of his allegiance to the government. Mufti in his interview with national channels had issued a decree asking the group to be disbanded. He even went on further alleging that the trio was ‘promoting obscenity and immorality.’ Among the first to agree was Asiya Andrabi, a procrustean female leader of ‘Daughters of the Nation’, a separatist group that advocates strict adherence towards Islamic principles and promotes doctrine that Kashmir must evolve into a separate theocratic state governed by Shariah law. “Music of any kind is haram in Islam,” she declared on a national television. “It is haram for both boys and girls.”

Pragaash, as the girl band was impulsively named, surrendered. Facing ignominy, one of its members had to slink out of the Valley. In her conversation with a newspaper, she later conceded helplessness, “If one has to pursue music, one has to move out. That’s the lesson I have learnt.”

Privately, everyone in Kashmir reconciled to this brazen display of misogyny. After all music is un-islamic, isn’t?  Call it a strange dichotomy but a prominent male rapper who commands an enviable fan-base after his compositions eulogizing militant resistance against India, continues to churn out his albums.

If this unbridled abhorrence was not enough, India’s apathy towards Kashmiri sensibility added to the woes. Even as it still dithers on the fate of colonial era laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, that insulates army, responsible for perpetrating large scale war crimes in the region, from prosecutions, the govt at the center executed Afzal Guru, the man its courts held was one of the key conspirators behind the Parliament attack of 2001. Guru’s conviction was firmly contested by human rights groups. It’s widely believed that he was not offered adequate legal representation.

Wary that the decision would lead to unrest in the valley, world’s largest democracy chose to contain the resented protesters of Kashmir by placing the region under an intense military siege, snapping the internet services and imposing a near total information blockade.

What favor does India makes to its citizens by tightly holding a territory where it needs invoke a quasi-martial laws to put down the discontent? 

Every time Kashmiri people are mercilessly throttled into surrendering, they pledge to rise up again next time with much more resolve and determination. If India cannot afford to mete out justice to its people, it should rather relinquish the control over them.