By MUHAMMAD TAHIR
Kashmir witnessed three large scale civil uprisings within a decade: 2008, 2010 and 2016. In 2008, Kashmiris made massive peaceful marches (Eidgah Chalo, TRC Chalo, Lal Chowk Chalo, and Pampore Chalo) successful by adhering to the basic principles of volunteerism and leadership, but, like in 2010, the state didn’t allow any space for democratic dissentbut ruthlessly imposed stringent curfews and restrictions to scuttle any mass gatherings in 2016 — which were scheduled back to back: Islambad Chalo (25 July), Kulgam Chalo (27 July), Jamia Masjid Chalo (29 July), and Dargah Hazratbal Chalo (5 August).
I believe the state is averse to Chalo(March on…) calls partly because they engender a strong visual spectacle of Azadi-demanding-Kashmiri swhich defeats and deflates the well-nurtured official propaganda image of waiting-in-ques-for-voting-Kashmiris. At different forums, including the UN and Indian parliament, Indian political leadership, diplomats, and statist intellectuals often quote voting percentages in Kashmir elections as acceptance of the Indian rule by Kashmiris — we just witnessed it in the recent Kashmir Debate in the Indian parliament (on 18th July and 10th August, 2016). This has become a standard line of argument to counter demands of plebiscite; and the image of waiting-in-ques-for-voting-Kashmiris best serve this propaganda.
However, when the massive pro-freedom march TRC Chalo happened in 2008, Arundhati Roy, who witnessed and wrote about it in the Outlook Magazine (September 2008), called TRC Chalo a referendum for Independence. Eid Gah Chalo was even much bigger — by some estimates it was a million march, ergo a strong and formidable reaffirmation of Azadi sentiment among Kashmiris. Since then, the state never allowed any Chalo call to succeed; Section 144, which bars assembly of people, remained in force ad infinitum;full force has been used to foil Chalo calls, to the extent of killing and injuring unarmed, peaceful protestors.
But there are inherent limitations to what state can achieve through its coercive and violent machinery and how much the politics of the subjugated can be controlled. As political scientist James Scott demonstrates in his book Weapons of the Weak (1985) resistance of the oppressed never ceases; it manifests itself through different means, like gossiping, euphemism, grumbling, and other cultural and linguistic distortions. This is called “Hidden Script” which is a veiled resistance of the subjugated group; it is veiled so as not to invite violence of the oppressor. A good example is the special Islamic prayer which I heard recently during Friday prayers: Ya Hafizu Kul Mehfoozin and Ya Ghalibu Kul Maghloobin. These prayers, though metaphysical and spiritual in nature, still carry implicit political meanings in the context of oppression.
On the other hand, open defiance of authority or hegemony is called as “Public Script”, as it is done openly with an explicit gesture of non-compliance through apublic speech, an article or through any other verbal or non-verbal mode. Scott elaborates: As long as public defiance is not impacting the relation of power in a public way the state tolerates it. But if the defiance is such as to “tear the public fabric of hegemony” it causes crisis of legitimacy for the state (p. 204). Here, I would like to quote the much quoted paragraph from the book to get the gist of Scott’s argument:
“Most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites” (p. 137).
In other words, we can say the subjugated populace always devise new ways and weapons of resistance and that is why the tight state control over public mobilisations and political marches start to weaken, or became ineffective, when a more spontaneous and unpredictable political gatherings emerge. Indian state has come face to face to it now in Kashmir. For a more recent example, when Abu Qasim, a well-known militant commander, was killed in October 2015, his funeral was thronged by thousands of people in Kulgam. Again, on January 20, 2016, funeral of slain Hizbul Mujahideen rebel, Shariq Ahmad Bhat, in Pulwama was attended by around 25,000 people. In another incident, the Pampore town erupted with protests, when a fierce encounter started at Entrepreneur Development Institute(EDI) Pampore on February 21, 2016. For three days, big crowds of agitating men and women, perched on either side of river Jhelum, were seen trying to approach the encounter site, eulogising and praying for the militants positioned inside the large EDI building. Thus, with each armed encounter between Indian troops and Kashmiri (and non-Kashmiri) rebels ending in large spontaneous funeral processions for the latter, the formidable state control over Chalo calls have been undermined or rendered irrelevant. And, with the new phenomenon of spontaneous mass funerals, the contest between visual spectacles have entered a decisive mode. Burhan’s historic 40 funerals attended by over 200,000 people at Tral town (and prayers-in-absentia attended worldwide by thousands of admirers), has augmented the rebellious, Azadi-demanding-Kashmiris image.
To borrow from Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri anthropologist, what self-created images and videos achieved for Burhan and his associates was that they “reclaimed the humanity of the ‘Kashmiri militant,’ and reconnected the idea of the rebel with his people at the visceral level.” Burhan’s “visual counterculture” in the virtual domain now itself operates as an unprecedented tool of resistance.
What also deeply undermined and defeated the Indian stock narrative on Kashmir were the heart-wrenching graphic images of pellet-hit faces of young Kashmiri boys and girls. Mehbooba Mufti and her education minister Naeem Akhtar’s canards that bullets and pellets were fired in self-defence failed to convince even her Indian well-wishers,who on the floor of the Indian parliament, criticised gross state violence against civilians. One of the parliamentarians described pellet gun as a symbol of state oppression. So ultimately, the lies and half-truths of PDP leadership fell flat in the face of credible evidences gathered from the ground zero by some courageous journalists. These evidences showed disturbing and cruel reality of excessive and disproportionate use of force by the government forces on both stone hurling youth and unarmed and peaceful protestors (and even on bystanders).
A powerful visual presentation of what an Indian team of ophthalmologists called as “war-like situation” was created on social media by a Pakistani rights group which showed how pellet-hit disfigured faces of famous celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, Amitabh Bachan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and others would look like. These images were created to evoke sympathy for pellet-victims and underscore its inhuman and brutal nature. The real images of actual pellet-hit youth — waiting-in-ques-for-operation — blew away the facade of waiting-in-ques-for-voting.
After young Kashmiri, Shah Faesal, became an IAS topper in 2009, his image was being used in the service of statist narrative on Kashmir. On NDTV website, Faesal’s photo was juxtaposed with Burhan’s to show “Two Faces of Kashmir: Educated Militants and IAS Toppers.” During the current civil uprising, some Indian news outlets employed the same visual device to create parallels: Good Kashmiri and Bad Kashmiri. But sensing negative fallout of such construct in the current surcharged situation, Faesal came down hard on what he called as “sadistic propaganda machine”, and thus decried: “By juxtaposing my photos with the images of a slain militant commander, a section of national media has once again fallen back upon its conventional savagery that cashes on falsehoods, divides people and create more hatred,” he wrote on his Facebook post. So, one of the prominent young Kashmiri faces used for the statist narrative was now, lately, dragging his feet and openly calling it a propaganda.This public criticism and disapproval, thus, rendered the whole exercise (the visual presentation of a state bureaucrat in opposition to a young Kashmiri rebel) in its different avatars both ineffective and unethical.
But the contest of images is far from over, and given the intransigence of the Indian state on the Kashmir conflict and the acute bias of its compliant media, negative and distorted visual portrayals and presentations of Kashmir protests and protestors will continue unabated because one of the tools and tactics for state to ‘rule’ is controlling and regulating narratives, or better still, obfuscating them.
—Tahir is a doctoral researcher.