Audacity of Hope:  An Indian Reading of Shah Faesal

By Abhijit Dutta
In Shah Faesal’s childhood imaginarium, India was a “distant, stiflingly hot place beyond the hills” of his village, from where came cheerful hawkers, barefoot fortune tellers and unfriendly uniformed men.
The cheerful hawkers (presumably the impoverished migrant labour from Bihar that lands up in Kashmir every year in the summers and are treated with just as much disdain as they are elsewhere in India) came with cloth-wrapped backpacks. The barefoot fortune tellers came with curly hair. And the uniformed men came with – well, we do not know, Faesal doesn’t say. Maybe they came with flowers. Maybe they came with cakes. Maybe they came with guns. All that Faesal will say is that these unfriendly uniformed stole apples from his orchard. Maybe they came with baskets.
From these innocent beginnings, Shah Faesal grew up to believe that “the politics of hope is a dangerous thing because it can trap people into a flawed reading of history.” One is forced to wonder what his own hopes are (or his politics for that matter), and by freeing himself from such hopes and such politics, what corrections he has discerned in the history.
It is not clear because Faesal, who has topped a very difficult exam, finds himself much as he describes his school teachers: “Even in school, when lessons on identity were given, they went well when they were about my village, district, state; the moment it came to my country, the teacher either got tongue-tied or the school bell would chime, class was over and we’d be left guessing.” And because he is as tongue-tied as his teachers, he stammers through strange descriptions, leaving us guessing as to the true import of his words.
Already, Faesal, who was recently moved from looking after matters of education in the state to being Managing Director – JK State Power Development Corporation, has come under attack from his fellow Kashmiris for being a collaborator, a term that divides Kashmiri society into those who collaborate with the Government of India and thereby the occupation of the valley by half a million soldiers, and those who are part of the resistance. These are extremely messy terms because depending on time and hour of the day, you could be a cloistered collaborator or – even and – a rousing rebel. Also, “resistance” can sometimes be hard to pin down as it swishes around in an osmotic space of ideas, ideology and agitation. Even so, being formally employed as part of the Indian Administrative Service, Faisal can seem to qualify as a textbook statist and a straightforward plain vanilla collaborator.
Yet as I read his essay that has riled so many in Kashmir and endeared him to so many others in India, I couldn’t help feeling that Faesal is in fact a radical revolutionary, and an all-weather revolutionary at that, not the summer carnival variety, which he hates.
First of all, he obliquely suggests that Kashmir’s cultural destiny belongs elsewhere (“we spoke with a cadence of Pashto”, “our mornings began with recitals from Sa’adi Shirazi”, “we ate in Turkish utensils” etc.), then rues the days when it was “easy to make us believe” that things would change (“a dramatic reversal”, “a transformative cataclysm – azadi”), then pours out the sadness of his heart when such change remains elusive (“Years passed.” “Thousands of lives were lost.” “Millions got displaced”). He admits to “rational fear” but also to a feeling that he was being crowded out by “romantic fearlessness” (“Dying became an end in itself”). He becomes resigned to a pattern – “the familiar tetrad of eruption, hope, bereavement, despair” – as the inevitability of it all hits him in the face (“consequence of the confrontation with a mighty state.”) He doesn’t actually spell out why Kashmiris wanted a dramatic reversal or a transformative cataclysm in the first place or the ways by which it became possible for thousands of lives to be lost and millions to be displaced, or even whether confrontation with a mighty state was a congenital defect among Kashmiris, along with hope. We are then left to make what we will (left us guessing, as his teachers left him) as to the connection between all this and (a) cheerful hawkers (b) barefoot fortune tellers and (c) unfriendly uniformed men.
Faesal’s essay was published in a mainstream Indian daily, not a Kashmiri one. Faesal is speaking as much to Indians as he is to fellow Kashmiris. If he chooses to skip over the details of bullets and pellets, rapes and massacres, is it because he knows the Indian audiences need bright shiny things and a soothing tone to stay interested in a point. Our well-known lack of interest in a finished sentence or a complete thought must be evident to a fine mind such as Dr. Faesal’s and so he uses more sophisticated techniques to get the point across.
He writes “If today, Kashmir is the most unlikely new nation to enter the world map in the future, the blame is not in India. It is a flaw in the fundamental design of the Kashmir project.”
He doesn’t say that Kashmir is an integral part of India, just that it is an “unlikely new nation” and that someone is obviously should be blamed for this unlikeliness (not India though). And what might be this “Kashmir project” that he speaks of, flawed in design or otherwise. Surely, there can only exist one integrated “India project”? Was there a Bengal project? A Gujarat project?
As of the “flaw in the fundamental design,” Faesal only says the objectives are muddled, that the “Kashmiri question” isn’t framed properly. Which is it, he asks, “is it separation from India”, is it “annexation with Pakistan”, is it a “search for an Islamic caliphate” or “is it a secular democracy.” He adds to these high level questions more specific questions: “if the slogan is azadi, why is the Pakistani flag raised”; what about “diverse ethnic aspirations”, what about “class” divisions. They are all fair questions and Kashmir is indeed resonant with rich debate. The fact that these questions exist, and exist so robustly, underlines a fundamental truth about Kashmir to an Indian audience rather than expose any fundamental flaw of the Kashmir project. To the millions of Indians who think of Kashmir only in terms of terrorism, Faesal is saying no bro, Kashmir is a political question and it is us, “we” the Kashmiri, who are asking all these questions. Faesal himself is sharply political when he says “For 30 years, Kashmiris have been trying to explain to the world the difference between militancy and terrorism. The sooner it is understood that in a post-9/11 world, no theory of organised violence can be accepted as good enough for justifying it, the better.” Here Faesal is criticising method, locating it in geopolitics but he too understands and acknowledges the difference between militancy and terrorism (all the more significant because he has suffered first hand at the hands of militants). Catch the average Indian newspaper reader and quiz him on what that difference and see what he comes up with.
In the next para he talks about the “indiscipline” during the 2016 uprising, blaming it for “reducing a mass movement to a movement of mass from one corner of the street to another,” making me wonder if he is truly hopeless or merely disappointed at the performance. Does he think with better practice, a bit more discipline, a more solid strategy, results would be different? Could it be that he himself is trapped in a tetrad of eruption, hope, bereavement, despair? That with the next uprising, the next carnival, he too will bite his lip and hope?
It is unfair to speculate and impossible to know? What is more certain is that Indian and Kashmiri alike will read in Faesal’s words what they want to read, see in it the reality that they wish for to be true. As an Indian, when I read Faesal’s closing exhortation to “abandon false hope and macabre heroism and work towards a dignified exit from the conflict”, I see the audacity of his hope. He hopes that our rabid Indian television channels will calm down and stop tricking the country into believing Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak is the true test of India; he hopes that our security advisors will stop glorifying war using the bogey of Pakistan’ and he hopes that our soldiers will take off their uniforms and stop being so unfriendly.
True to form (and my suspicion) Faesal ends his essay with these subversive lines: “one possibility is to accept that in spite of all its infirmities”, India is the only anchor for Jammu and Kashmir.
Indeed, Dr. Faesal, that is only one possibility.