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Another Autumn in Kashmir

What is the politics and literature of resistance in a contested space like Kashmir? A critical look at why the planned Harud Autumn Literature Festival in Kashmir met with such resistance and the outcome of a sometimes fractious debate.

FROM THE STATES

conflict have of late started representing Another Autumn in Kashmir themselves directly through diverse forms of art and writing – all this at a rate that is remarkable in comparison to their own Gowhar Fazili past, as well as in contrast to young people

What is the politics and literature of resistance in a contested space like Kashmir? A critical look at why the planned Harud Autumn Literature Festival in Kashmir met with such resistance and the outcome of a sometimes fractious debate.

Gowhar Fazili (gowharfazili@gmail.com) is a researcher at the department of sociology, University of Delhi.

T
he proposed (and now postponed) Harud Literature Festival in Kashmir generated a flurry of writing for and against.1 Paradoxically, the undoing of the festival may have become its very success. The festival which was planned by a group of individuals from the literary world is now unlikely to happen due to an indefinite postponement announced by the organisers. The literature festival, which was to be Jammu and Kashmir’s first national literature festival, was to be held in Srinagar towards the end of this month.

What has ensued in the meanwhile is a veritable carnival, of critical thinking about the politics of literary and art events amidst ongoing conflicts.2 This critical engagement is a significant – and welcome – change from just a short while ago, when Kashmir and Kashmiris got written about without the courtesy of consulting the native.

Apart from some avoidable personal attacks that have sadly emerged from both the camps, the debate has raised many pertinent questions. Do such events – or for that matter arts and literature – have a role in conflict? If yes, what could this role be from the perspective of the politically conservative, as well as the radicals? What bearing does it have on those whose lives are a struggle in the midst of it? To what extent does it matter who conceives, who organises, and who funds them? And to what effect? Who speaks? Who can speak? Who ought to speak? On whose behalf? And how legitimate is that representation? Above all, is there some inherent and timeless good in art and literature regardless of the politics attached to it, or is it only the politics of it that makes it either virtuous or banal? Can there be a writing that is neutral, transcendental, all embracing, or is all writing partisan?

These and so many other questions that have been raised become critical especially since young Kashmiris living through the

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in comparable situations. At this juncture there is an evident promise of emergent resistance through artistic and literary means inspired by the extraordinary circumstances that the people are confronted with. This new resistance is likely to shake off many untenable and redundant discourses that have thrived around Kashmir, funded by the establishment to legitimise the status quo.

The seriousness with which the festival was taken is an indicator that something has changed in Kashmir irreversibly. It may be possible to keep people off the streets or to gloss over the continuing state repression through staged roadshows and inane sarkari events. But at least in the arena of literature, it is no longer possible to construct a people without their active involvement.

Given the context, was the Harud venture an innocent commercial enterprise seeking to capitalise on a lucrative prospect, or a carelessly planned foray of enthusiastic lovers of literature into an unseemly space? Was it a politically motivated project with a conspiratorial aim of obscuring, overwhelming or co-opting a nascent intellectual movement through a corporate/governmental coup? Or was it simply just another roadshow to stage normalcy in Kashmir?

Staging Normalcy

Whatever may have been its intended objective, the festival would have, in my opinion, been a far less problematic event than a number of other politically objectionable activities that happen in Kashmir on a daily basis. The attention it has received is certainly overblown and disproportionate to its potential to bring either harm or good. Let me cite a couple of examples.

Recently the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) organised a conclave on India’s foreign policy which sought the perspective of Kashmiris, an unlikely choice of

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FROM THE STATES

people to consult on the subject. Throughout the event the conclave assumed a “we” that does not exist in Kashmir. (I attended the conclave for a brief while to oblige a friend until I could take it no more!) I am sure most individuals who attended it must have found themselves at odds with the assumption that Kashmiris would see their interest where the assumed “we” in India does. Yet the event did not run into any serious controversy. Academicians, press people, students, political and social activists of various hues attended the event. A few raised exciting questions; most had a sumptuous meal and parted on a good note.

You could also turn to the present, where various armed forces and police are jointly running the largest ever sports operation in Kashmir. This operation apparently aims to reform the youth, and bring the security apparatus and the people closer together in a tighter embrace, a measure hurriedly conceived after what had been an extremely hostile and bloody “Summer of 2010”. The sheer size of this morally problematic operation passes off without much criticism or resistance. The police seems to have discovered a passion among the young for sports, some of whom may, in turn, be entertaining a desperate hope of landing themselves a job as a reward for their participation (jobs are hard to come by in anything other than the ever-expanding security apparatus), or, who knows, perhaps the annulment of police cases filed against them over the last couple of years. If the State were interested in dealing with people in a slightly more dignified manner, it could have channelled the same resources at its disposal through the sports department and not through its coercive arm.

Kashmir features a stillborn educational and cultural infrastructure whose chief outcome is mediocre individuals lacking critical insight. Shorn of its ability to survive in any other manner, this crowd serves the establishment by neatly fitting itself into the scam that it constitutes. Sarkari institutions dish out literature and art that is either incapable of responding to the ongoing sociopolitical upheaval, or is so obscure that it requires the aid of forensics to make it visible. Yet we choose to

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september 17, 2011

live with these institutions and do not call for them to be shut down, knowing that in the absence of alternatives, some good still accrues from them against their inherent grain. Possibly, also with the hope that some day these institutions will be taken over by “real” people who will understand the value and power of ideas, and can also deal with its burden. In the meanwhile, our hopes rest on an emerging lot, who have either bypassed this system or have survived in spite of it.

A Double Failure

To return to the context, even if the event were a politically compromised one, in my opinion its outcome would not have been as predictable as the critics suggest. Even as the government would have tried to cash in on it as another indication of “normalcy”, its critics – who are many – would have burst its bubble at the very event. Given the enthusiasm people have shown in criticism, the event would have generated a healthy debate between the conservatives and the radicals based on the approaches they take to understand power and people, and could have strengthened the emergent literary resistance. Good ideas and writers progress in a dialogic relationship with their detractors and stagnate if rehearsed before a sympathetic chorus. A face-to-face interaction with those with whom one disagrees (or admires) helps us appreciate them better. Besides this, what is the point of writing that does not speak to those who disagree?

However bleak one’s assessment of the festival may have been, the cancellation of the event is unfortunate. It has involved a double failure – both on part of its organisers and its critics.

The critics have insisted that they did not want the event cancelled, but claim the right to criticise and seek answers to their objections. Their failure was the inability to maintain a tone of criticism that was engaging and persuasive, one that would have pushed the organisers towards an event closer to their ideal rather than frightening them off altogether. This persuasive tone could have been helped by a conscious distancing from the anonymous campaigns on social networks that called for a blanket boycott and alleged social ostracism of those involved in the festival.

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Alternatively, a simultaneous parallel event organised at a safe distance from the establishment and in open public space would have pitched the two events in a dialogic relationship and pushed the boundaries of critique and freedom of thought and expression in Kashmir.

The failure on the part of the organisers was not to make the event broad-based by taking the critics on board and involving them in the process of conceiving and realising the festival, or in the least making a serious effort to allay their doubts. Had the critics, some of whom have produced the most acclaimed and widely read works in recent times, been taken on board or been engaged with, the festival would have found wider acceptance, greater relevance and legitimacy. This lack of engagement by the organisers demonstrates that they were perhaps not really serious about the particularities and sensitivities involved in holding an event in Kashmir, and were jolted into withdrawing due to their being ill-prepared for the response they received.

Kashmir, as we know it, is not just another place.

Lastly, both the organisers and the critics have failed in their response to rumours about Salman Rushdie’s participation. Why should this have been an issue for anybody interested in democracy of ideas and expression? Why did the organisers have to be apologetic if a fiction writer who may be considered blasphemous by some, were to land up at the event and discuss his work? Simultaneously, why did the critics not distance themselves from those opposed to the festival simply due to the likelihood of Rushdie’s participation? Why did either side fail to take a serious intellectual position in this regard? Is it not resistance writing and freedom of expression that both the camps claim to uphold a kind of blasphemy against the state and other establishments? Is it not reclaiming of that right an essential part of the freedom or azadi we aspire for?

Notes

1 Harud, The Autumn Literature Festival, Srinagar, was originally planned for 24 to 26 September 2011. See http://harudlitfest.org/ for details.

2 Some of this debate is available on the Kafila blog http://kafila.org/, as also in the columns of newspapers and magazines.

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