By Simin Akhter Naqvi
A lot of words in this article, including in the title, are in single quotes. I’ve done that with the intent to highlight how the use of certain pre-specific meaning(s) to a number of words commonly used in Kashmir’s context shapes and biases our understanding of the subject. I have also raised questions about how ‘we’ talk about ‘Kashmir’ and what are we talking about when we are talking about Kashmir. In fact, I’ve just raised a lot of questions, deliberately refraining from offering a prognosis or possible solutions to what is usually referred to as the ‘Kashmir Question’; not because I think a ‘panacea’ does or does not exist to that effect, rather because I strongly believe we need to set the terms of reference right before we attempt the former.
‘We’, civil society, media, progressive academics and the Indian left, also need to identify the issues that make national headlines and the issues ‘we’ have taken as for granted, ‘routine’ matters in our imagination, when we think about Kashmir. For instance, why the news of the Handwara minor’s alleged molestation and the subsequent protests and police action made it to the national news while significant working class struggles, including those by workers in the transport industry or the teachers’ protests, seldom make news, even in left circles. In my understanding, the risk of this is huge; if we see the ongoing Azadi undercurrent as essentially and exclusively being ‘local bourgeoisie-led’ we risk neglecting the rationale and potential of the many working class struggles and civil society campaigns about human rights, education and employment that have chosen to ally themselves with the Kashmiri Nationality struggle.
Different sections within the left may have different positions on the question of plebiscite or autonomy, but simply discrediting and writing these struggles off as non-working-class will only lead to our articulation of the problem getting debased from the ground reality and from some of the most desperate aspirations of the working classes in Kashmir.
As for the mainstream media, the question of imagined identities – both ‘Indian’ and ‘Kashmiri’, is the most pressing concern. Imagining the Indian state as purely benevolent or malevolent in the context of Kashmir, especially vis a vis Pakistan, risks unnecessary and misleading reduction, of the role of ‘imperialist’ forces on both sides of the border to a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary, no matter whether ‘for’ or ‘against’. This obviously leads to misjudging the problem and rejection of possibly viable approaches of understanding both the wider issues and the current imbroglio. Needless to say, the use of a certain kind of language with a binary-reduction of everything to a ‘democratic-undemocratic’ or ‘Pakistan sponsored/India led’ binary prevents expansion of the limits of our imagination about Kashmir.
Further, we need to explore why the habit of offering over-sure and simplistic prescriptions is appealing as an attitude in understanding situations of conflict, and what’s wrong about being too sure? For instance, the Indian left has mostly been making over-simplistic statements like, “It is imperative that the Central government take immediate initiatives to restore ‘peace’ and ‘normalcy’ in the state through a process of ‘dialogue’ ” (http://cpim.org/content/
situation-jammu-kashmir), while the exact ‘actors’ between whom the talks (I’d rather not use the word dialogue when the participants are not ‘equals’) should be held, and under what circumstances, is not elaborated upon, neither is the need to revisit statements like the one above to specify who these actors should be, given the changing contours of political contestation in the state.
How dissent is crucial and fundamental to any notion of democracy also needs to be talked about, and what kind of engagement is needed with dissenting voices, both inside and outside left circles, after such ‘actors’ have been identified, also needs to be established through continuous and sustained debate. The radical left also falters on that count in the sense that it believes in unconditional support for ‘Azadi’ without taking into consideration the circumstances of the origin of a particular struggle and the economic interests of those behind it, as vested in an external imperial on either side of the border. Identifying an ‘inclusive’ language and a fair grammar besides careful and continuous evaluation and re-evaluation of the nuances in public-policy and political discourse, going beyond traditional party lines, thus becomes crucial if the question of ‘inclusion’ versus alienation’ has to be engaged with. The method and approach of the government-appointed three-member team of interlocutors led by Dileep Padgaonkar, and their insistence on engaging in talks with all possible actors, civil society and citizen groups could be taken as a starting point.
How successfully we are able to engage with the many ‘Kashmir Questions’ that constitute what we commonly hear of as ‘The Kashmir Question’ also depends a lot on whether and how successfully we are able to rearticulate our understanding of the changing equation that’s Kashmir. For instance, whether we understand the demand for ‘Azadi’ in Kashmir as a static monolith or even as a number of different struggles carelessly labelled together for our convenience is crucial.
The implications of whatever eventually happens to these struggles can be discussed later but for now, the terms of reference need to be rearticulated. To use a metaphor, what we need is to ‘vary the metaphor’. We also need to ask ourselves another culturally relevant, though ‘softer’, question of why and how we have been cultured to admire the ‘beauty’ of ‘Kashmir’ exclusively and overwhelmingly in terms of the no-doubt splendid mountains and the marvellous rivers and lakes, or at best in terms of the ‘wazwan’ ‘firan’ and folk songs of the valley. We need to wonder what’s wrong with such a factory-made attitude towards cultural appreciation, what are the books we read when we read about Kashmir (or do we?) and why we need to talk to the people of Kashmir and learn to admire Kashmir in terms of songs of resistance and the struggles of the people of Kashmir.
—The writer teaches at Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi