By Gautam Navlakha
When Kanhaiy Kumar, JNU Student Union President, spoke of “freedom in” and not “freedom from” India, it evoked mixed feelings among Kashmiris. Some read in this a dilution of the demand for “Azaadi”, and therefore, hollowing out of the meaning of “Azaadi”. Others were more sanguine and some even welcomed it. When one seeks freedom from India, it is as a necessary condition for freedom in Kashmir or in J&K. When seeking freedom “in” India, the goal as of freeing Indians from tyranny and oppression of their own rulers. Yet, the two formulations of “from” and “in” are dialectically linked, because the Rulers are the same in both cases. Amongst India’s democratically minded people not all see the link between our struggle for emancipation with respect and solidarity with those who believe in freedom from India, through a democratic process. But that apart, there is a convergence because freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘in’, a distinction Kanhaiya was drawing attention to, also brings us closer to understanding why, for example, civil liberties becomes most crucial a condition for protecting azaadi for both struggles.
The depth of the feeling for Azaadi from India is well grounded. Even more so because we Indians did win freedom ‘from’ British Raj but we have yet to win freedom ‘in’ India. This freedom “in” India, points towards need for empowerment of 1.3 billion Indians within India. But it also points towards the need to appreciate freedom when it is suppressed and denied to people. So the democratic aspirations that underlie the demand for Azaadi cannot be a matter of secondary importance. Consider the case of the Handwara girl, where five persons were killed by bullets of soldiers in the ensuing protests. But she is being character assassinated in the name of morality and nationhood whereas empathy and compassion ought to have guided us. Forgotten is the fact that in a region ruled by the military which enjoys legal immunity she, a minor, was kept in unlawful captivity of male cops for 48 hrs and kept incommunicado along with her father and aunt subsequently. Scurrilous gossip would have passed for news had it not been for JKCCS intervention. Instead of challenging entrenched patriarchy, a case of attempted sexual assault is made into a morality discourse where the victim becomes the accused!
The point is not to deny that both men and women have been exploited as part of counter insurgency, and that society does face a new challenge where such exploitation also lures or coerces young people. It is how we address the issue. It cannot be done without being clear about the overall context where impunity is the rule for authorities. Everything pales before it. Other things follow. It will neither do to collapse an outrageous act of abduction and unlawful captivity of the girl by police with girl’s alleged “moral conduct”. There can be no comparison between a crime and an allegation. Respecting a minor’s privacy in a situation where she is an accused in eyes of rabble-rousing moralists as well as a complainant, is hardly suppression of truth. It is ensuring that truth emerges.
But let’s move on. Indian society and State too is far from being a monolith. The long drawn out war in J&K despite all propaganda has not been able to prevent Indians from feeling anxious and confused, who cannot understand why is it that one day Indian rulers triumphantly declare that secessionists are on their way out, people have come out in huge numbers to vote proving endorsement of Indian annexation etc. And to discover the very same government claim that threat of radicalization is rising, militants are back in contention. The irony of Counter Insurgency is that they have to propagate lie to send the message that they are winning, while at the same time having to keep fanning fear and insecurity about “radicalization” to enable repression. Since there is relative freedom available today, a space wrested by people through their relentless challenge and defiance, the counter-narrative also spreads. This has made a sizable section of Indians to doubt and be wary of what the Rulers say. Kashmiris students who studied in India have mixed experience and not all of them return embittered. They encounter rage from some sections but also openness and willingness to know and learn from them. This is a reality of India too.
However, neither Indians nor Kashmiris have been able to break the wall that exists between them.
Every movement carries within it multiple views/opinions. But there are issues on which most concur such as land grab. But they may disagree, say on rights of women, rights of minorities, some may subscribe to present path of development, others may imagine an ecologically sensitive egalitarian alternative. This is reflection of reality on the ground. But what troubles me for instance, is the discourse around Kashmiri Pandit issue. Let me explain.
That Pandit issue has caste and class dimension to it, cannot be denied. When overwhelming majority of Kashmiris converted, the Brahmins did not, by and large. However, they may have lost ritual status and denied advantages of jajmani system, a form of ranking service and tribute paying, but they did not lose their power and pelf. But in 1989-90 they did become insecure and feared for their life and fled the Valley, this also cannot be denied. Indian state used the issue to get them moved out but the movement pushed this along too by not coming down strongly against those whipping up passions against them in the early phase. It dawned later when all out repression ensued after 1990. It’s a tragedy that the migrants could not become sensitive to the tragedy that struck Kashmiri Muslims. Just as Pandits carry the grudge that they were driven away, literally and metaphorically, from their home and hearth and cannot return.
Every movement must see their own movements place in the geography, history and culture of the region where they are located, in J&K’s case in the subcontinent. I often remind my Indian friends, those who shake at their knees when they hear “self-determination” that secession does not mean that Kashmir or J&K (an ambiguity the movement has to clear) would move out of the subcontinent, even if they were to separate. But that it may actually bring about south Asian economic cooperation and become a gateway to Central Asia, which unresolved dispute is preventing from happening. But this also means that Kashmiris do not remain oblivious of religious fratricide and bigotry that prevails in the world around us and most definitely in the subcontinent amidst us.
It is true that not all minorities are either persecuted or discriminated. Some are privileged and others persecuted. Historically, while KPs were privileged their migration brought about a qualitative change. They fled their home and hearth. Point is that no matter what the caste-class divide, history of Muslim-Pandit relationship, mutually shared distrust, they are part and parcel of Kashmir and J&K. Therefore, one cannot club the issue of Kashmiri Pandit colonies at par with the sainik colony, industrial policy, etc. Their right to return is unquestionable. In opposing fortified colonies, which is atrocious in every respect, one cannot lose sight of the fact that a minority which fled out of fear on return needs lot more assurance to enable them to return, than be told that there are conditions attached to their return. Whether they espouse Indian cause or will change their mind, which too can happen, the issue ought to have also been thought through from the angle of movement’s enlightened self-interest. It must be always be realized that minorities have a tendency to congregate together and live cheek by jowl with their own, when difference are sharp and sense of insecurity a reality. In India ghettoisation of Muslims has become a sort of “voluntary” behavior not because Indian Muslims wanted this, but they have been forced to, because renting or buying residence is full of problems.
This gets compounded by fear for their physical safety. So is the case with the Pandits in so far as their insecurity is concerned. So it is in the interest of the movement to get this out of the way because it has been used quite effectively in Government of India’s propaganda campaign to present the movement as illiberal and parochial. The nitty gritty of the alternative plan apart here is an excellent opportunity for the movement to set itself apart, and break from the agenda set by the Indian State, and to reach out to asking the KPs to come and set up their neighbourhood amidst them. What is more this will allow the movement to also raise issue about how other displaced persons have been dealt with in Jammu and Kashmir (those displaced from the border areas for eg) or how Muslim refugees have fared in India. It is important to raise this not to score points, polemics may win battles but they do not win war, but to make the “other”, the Indians aware of their hypocrisy. But do so as part of their own political discourse of azaadi. It’s a challenge but also an opportunity.
So while it may be difficult to extricate oneself from this tension between Azaadi “from” and Azaadi “in”. But, to do so is imperative for the movement. There is a churning among Pandits too. Read the Valley newspapers recount what KPs shared with them and it comes out that the opinion is against any kind of fortified camps or walled colonies and gave as their preference to live in neighbourhood and mohallas with everyone else. Panun Kashmr is disowning its own history of demanding a separate homeland by claiming that they never demanded a homeland for themselves, ‘hoisted by its own petard’. At such a moment lack of sensitivity shown towards Pandits becomes self-defeating. It is in movement’s interest to take the initiative and articulate their alternative to change even this narrative. Narrowness of vision can bring about Azaadi ‘from’ India, but not Azaadi ‘in’ Kashmir or J&K, which is umbilically linked to each other. Azaadi will have no meaning if it does not free human beings from oppression and bondage.
—Gautam Navlakha is a journalist, Indian civil liberties, democratic and human rights activist. He has been closely associated with the Economic and Political Weekly, and is also the co-convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir.