As I walked out of the Delhi bound aero plane, almost a week ago, wearing a grey Karakul hat and my stylish pheran, heads turned at the Delhi airport. From the guards manning the airport, the people working at and for the airport, to the assorted set of passengers, I was the subject of stares. Some of these glimpses and stares were plain curiosity, others seemed to me, at least perceptually, malevolent. Nobody, however, said anything. But, I was uncomfortable. Whilst I could not read the thoughts of the people who stared at me, but I felt they wanted to say something. However, something was preventing them from articulating this. The same, in a different combination and permutation, repeated itself, when I went to buy groceries, the next morning. I felt so uncomfortable that I ceased wearing my pheran and switched to western clothing for the entire length of my sojourn in Delhi. I donned my pheran the day I had to leave but yet again, I got the same feeling at the airport.
At one level, my feeling(s) of discomfort could be traced to the subconscious and even imagination. There is so much polarization and political surcharged(ness) in the air these days that one could be forgiven for imagining that one stands out for being different, at a time when there is a premium on conformity. But, at another level, the reasons for my discomfort in my traditional Kashmiri outfit, could be real. And, these reasons, in turn, appear to lie in the domain of the political. Broadly speaking, while culture can perhaps never be viewed in isolation from identity and politics thereof- theoretically and practically- but culture, identity and politics appear to have been supremely politicized in contemporary India. The reasons for this conflation are ideological. From my perspective, a prosaic and rather innocuous cultural and fashion statement was transformed into a political statement in the eyes of those who viewed me along these lines.
The dominant feeling I felt whilst I wore my Kashmiri pheran was that I was the “rebellious” Other in the imaginary of my visual detractors. That is, I was the Kashmiri who has and who was rebelling against India and its Idea through an ostentatious display of my Kashmiriness by wearing a pheran. I was then, if my perceptions are accurate, that rebellious Kashmiri who was India’s Other and who had the cheek and temerity to display this in Delhi. I may take recourse to a repetition here: nobody actually said anything to me. But, it appeared, they wanted to. Something was preventing them. What, I wondered, was that something?
If I may take recourse to amateur psycho- analysis here, my visual detractors’ silence appeared to lie in psychology. While they appeared to dislike (or fear) the ostentatious display of my culture(ness), they had not, subliminally, reached the stage or broken the threshold of articulating this- either verbally or through physical aggression. A thin psychological line separated feelings and thoughts from acting out.
If this theory holds water, what explains it?
The answer may lie in the politics of the far right in India. A re-ideologization of politics has been taking place and is underway here. This reideologization entails a review and revision of the erstwhile Idea and construct of India where India was held to be a plural, multicultural and secular polity. This elitist Idea of India is gradually being supplanted by a muscular idea informed by the tenets and philosophy of political Hinduism, that is, Hindutva, which seeks to expunge India’s past of “accretions” and “foreign influences”. In the nature of an essentializing project, Hindutva also seeks to “reclaim” pride for and of Hindus. But, as in all essentialisms, an “Other” is needed to validate and reinforce this project, both for ideological , electoral and power political reasons. The convenient “Others” for the reideologization of India appear to be Muslims. But, in this schemata, it is the Kashmiri Muslims who assume a special significance. The “Othering” of Kashmiris is not a figment of imagination; its reality can be observed in the quotidian political discourse contemporarily and the continuous iteration of this discourse by the media. The intriguing question here is: why are “ordinary” people lapping it up?
The answer, generally speaking, lies in the nature of ideology(ies) itself. Ideology aims to stultify and even kill critical thinking. In the ideologization process, “normal” judgment and thinking is sought to be suspended; it is actually someone else that thinks for the individual or even the collective of society. Conformity becomes the dominant reflex and mode of though and all this is projected onto the “Other”. Again, if what I have articulated and delineated in this essay is true, then the stares at me and my outfit- the Karakul hat and the pheran- fall into perspective.
Are, the question is, there any implications for Kashmir given its “Othering”?
At this stage, the process of re-ideologization of India, appears to operate at the conceptual and emotional levels. But, the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. Once a critical mass reaches in the political imaginary of the people, the threshold might break and there might be a bottoms up demand in Indian society and polity, for action. If this stage is arrived at and reached, then basically two options would present themselves to powers that be: one would be allow space for permissiveness, which could degenerate into violence. The other would be Kashmir, its politics and status. The genie of ideologies, history suggests, once released, is well nigh impossible to contain and be rolled back. In this schemata then, it would appear that Kashmir and its politics is set for turbulence. Admittedly, the arguments delineated in this essay are somewhat inferential and even anecdotal and I could be wrong. For the sake of Kashmir and Kashmiris, I hope I am!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org