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In the Shadow of State Repression

The Harud literary festival was the victim of its own blatant non-transparency, the inability to answer the questions, critical in Kashmir, on the political economy of the event, the links with the state even at the level of various individual interfaces, and what sort of a relationship the festival would possibly have with the political realities in Kashmir.

COMMENTARY

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In the Shadow of State Repression Najeeb Mubarki fundamentally, have an irresistible desire for the political resolution of their “disputed” status, and lay claim to the inalienable right to determine their own destiny. What is put forward in the place of that fact is the preposterous narrative that by seeking those political rights, Kashmiris

The Harud literary festival was the victim of its own blatant non-transparency, the inability to answer the questions, critical in Kashmir, on the political economy of the event, the links with the state even at the level of various individual interfaces, and what sort of a relationship the festival would possibly have with the political realities in Kashmir.

Najeeb Mubarki (najeeb.mubarki@gmail.com) is with the The Economic Times.

O
ne of the more immediately manifest aspects of the fracas over the now put-off Harud literary festival that was scheduled to be held in Srinagar, Kashmir, was how certain tropes, usually deployed to counter, obfuscate and delegitimise opposition and dissent on the wider political issues in Kashmir were played out, albeit on a comparatively smaller scale. Primary among them is the concerted attempt to portray anything that does not fit into statist narratives, most strenuously supported and propagated by vast sections of the Indian media, as being beyond the pale of comprehension, wholly wrapped up in, if not merely considerably tinged with, a certain intolerance. Mostly – indeed, since the very start of the armed, and popular, insurgency in 1989, when, a couple of years after yet another bout of blatantly rigged elections in New Delhi’s long history of imposing a neurotic demo cracy in Kashmir, a bunch of Kashmiri youth decided to try and achieve by guns what they felt the Indian state would never allow them to have via the ballot box – the concerted drive has been to posit the Islamic fundamentalism bogey.

This, rather simply, has consisted of eliding or denying the fact that Kashmiris,

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have somehow vitiated or forgotten their own cultural and historical moorings, and if not being actual fundamentalists, have, much like wayward children, been inveigled by them (at home and from across the border), and now need to be reminded, among other things, of what their culture really is about. And also generally educated about what is good for them.

The Wider Context

Incredible violence and repression attend this attempt at pacification and enforcing silence, this drive to drown voices of Kashmiri resistance and dissent. And that has not solely to do with the military aspects of one of the biggest counter-insurgency campaigns in contemporary times: making Kashmir the most militarised zone on the planet; with scores of thousands either killed, tortured, mutilated, or imprisoned under draconian laws; the thousands missing and the use of rape as an instrument of policy. It is also the deployment of categorisation and language as violence. The “bad guys”, for instance, have always been r ecast in Kashmir. Those who have followed the minutae of events over the last 21 years would remember that if, at one point, it was all the militants who were rank evil,

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COMMENTARY

that gradually changed to differentiations between softer, less fundamentalist, militants and the irremediable ones. If the Hurriyat was at one point subtly categorised as representing a desirable “talks option”, it changed into the unacceptable “separatist/ splittist” body – with, as is current, its own subdivisions of the somewhat palatable lot and the “hardliners”. If, at one point, the state narrative was that a withdrawal from the gun, and its concomitant violence, would lead to a dialogue, what actually happened was an attempt at the criminalisation of those pointing to the need for an unconditional dialogue to resolve an internationally recognised dispute. (The gradual transferring of the “movement” in Kashmir onto a protest-based plane was a conscious one, attending the decline in armed militancy due to other factors like the success of the security forces in eliminating militants, and a perceptible war-weariness amongst the population.)

This protest-based phase started in full measure in 2008, when massive non- violent protests and intifada-style stonethrowing youngsters ripped to shreds the state narrative that peace and normalcy had returned to Kashmir, that a democratic, representative regime was in place and that the sole remaining problem was presented by a tiny, marginalised section of Kashmiris, who were fast losing relevance anyway. Naturally, the violence of categorisation and language continued, in addition to more physical forms of brutality and repression. It was now the turn of ordinary protestors to be slotted into the role of the bad guys.

Even as they were being shot or just bludgeoned to death during last year’s agitation, for example, stone-throwing youths were called everything from Laskhar-e-Taiba characters to drug addicts to social misfits. All to sustain the miasma that Kashmir was not a political problem, but a law-and-order one, that the protestors were motivated by anything other than rage at their lives of experiential humiliation and suppression in a state of virtual siege, by anything other than the memory of the unspeakable brutality inflicted on Kashmiris for the last 21 years, and that they had nothing to do with the continuing, deep-rooted yearning, extant right from 1947, for a solution to Kashmir,

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for a peace based on the full measure of justice and rights.

Obfuscation on Kashmir

One of the key points used to try and negate that core political reality, and as sustenance in statist narratives, is the holding of elections and the much-touted voter turnout. Much has been written by some of the more forthright commentators on Kashmir on that issue. Suffice it to say that political parties in Kashmir are not like parties in, say, Uttar Pradesh or Kerala. In Kashmir, the “democratic process” was imposed at the point of guns, that of the security forces and renegade ex-militants (precursors, in ways, to the Salwa Judum). And it is maintained by deploying adequate measures of patronage, creating vested-interest groups and sections, and by coercion and co-option. The political parties in Kashmir are, simply, part of the intensely militarised milieu, at root depending on it for survival and sustenance. But that sham “political process”, and the Indian media’s gleeful portrayal of voterlines as some sort of a referendum against the desire and spirit of azadi, was certainly used in the propaganda on “normalcy and peace” in Kashmir.

That propaganda, of course, is not something which emerged only in recent years. The Indian media, largely, has been engaged in acts of obfuscation on Kashmir for long, perhaps out of unquestioning servitude to the idea of “national interest”, even if it means glossing over, misrepresenting, the slaughter of Kashmiris and what their aspirations are. The very concept of “peace”, for instance, is ludicrously set against the idea of freedom. This writer, for example, was witness to one such cover story, quite some years ago, while working for a major English language newsmagazine. The whole pedantic exercise of having a survey on that supposedly mysterious, complex, if not wholly unanswerable, question of “what do the Kashmiris really want?” was geared towards emblazoning the centre-spread headline “75% want peace”, while “65% want azadi” went quietly in a significantly lesser font and prominence somewhere lower below. (One does not remember the exact figures, but the higher “peace quotient” certainly trumped the not-so-lower azadi

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component.) This is not to suggest that that particular magazine was an exemplary case of bias, or the sole one. Rather, that the Indian media in general has taken upon itself the task of unquestioningly e ither accepting state narratives on Kashmir, regurgitating them, or has, in some cases, virtually supplanted the state. What has followed, therefore, is a plethora of r eports, based on the firmly established template of denial, disinformation and delegitimisation, which deliberately misinform and misrepresent in their attempt to brush under the carpet the Kashmiri’s political realities and desires while constantly seeking to invoke the involvement in everything that happens in Kashmir of fundamentalism, terrorism and the Pakistan connection.

After last year’s intense agitation, which clearly shook the state, what followed was a concerted attempt to both posit the marginal, “misled youths” nature of the protests, despite all evidence to the contrary, along with a slew of measures aimed at enforcing peace and presenting a façade of “steps” being taken to “alleviate grievances”. The latter, of course, is Orwellian doublespeak, as if it was some governance deficit which led to some sort of unforeseen, unprecedented breakdown in order. The problem, however, is that the state is premised on, indeed its very presence in Kashmir is that of, a military paradigm. And the militarised-police state behaved the only way it could. A massive, crackdown, unprecedented in parts even by Kashmir’s balefully high standards, followed. Large-scale arrests of youths, many barely in their early teens, slapping draconian charges on them, incessant pressure on very many more youngsters through repeated raids on homes of “suspects”, a drive to pressurise families of the latter, and arrests and intimidation of even Facebook users.

All that happened even as the state dug deeper into its modes of control and coercion through heightened surveillance, seeking to coerce and co-opt journalists, and confronting protests, which have continued sporadically in different areas of the Valley, with brute force. None of this was reported by the Indian media. Instead, the harsh suppression was called a “summer of peace”. If the massive clampdown was a

COMMENTARY

major reason in preventing a fourth successive year of large-scale protests, it was sought to be presented as Kashmiris turning away from the movement. The ludicrous idea that the absence of manifest protests and violence (though both continue to simmer, break out every now and then) is peace was presented as fait accompli. For a Kashmiri family, even going on a picnic to, say, the Mughal gardens in Srinagar is not without irony. A photograph in a newspaper may well flash that sight as a mark of that “peace”. To give more notional semblance to the idea that the continuing siege of Kashmiris is normalcy, a flurry of debates, seminars and police outreach programmes was also initiated – even as the odd rape, the death by torture of a civilian, the thrashing of a journalist went on, even as the state, unprecedented even by its low standards, deported activists and senior functionaries made remarks on the undesirability of certain activists and writers “who foment trouble” coming to Kashmir!

In Contentious Climes

This propaganda of peace and normalcy was the context in which reports about the Harud literary festival first appeared. And it is perhaps necessary to attempt and provide that wider context in order to try and explain to the potential well-meaning Indian, even if criminally unaware of just what has happened in Kashmir, and perhaps distressed by the idea of a litfest being cancelled, just what the critique of the proposed festival was about.

These reports were received by some Kashmiris, and those who have followed events with a degree of honesty and integrity, with concerns that the event either would by default, or was deliberately intended to, dovetail with that propaganda of peace in Kashmir. Many reports, indeed, tried to achieve precisely that effect. And when a bunch of people, including this writer and other Kashmiris, and non-Kashmiris too, sought to query and critique the event in the form of an open, democratic letter, which neither called for a boycott nor sought the cancellation of the fest, what followed was a form of demonisation which used quite the same notions and categories as have habitually been used to delegitimise dissenting voices on Kashmir. It was now the turn of the signatories of the letter – journalists, writers, students, artists, activists, academics

– to be cast as the bad guys.

If there was some residual doubt about the intentions of the festival, it disappeared after the scurrilous diatribe launched against the dissenters. Every possible charge, short of being Pakistani agents, was levelled by the organisers of the fest and its defenders against the signatories of the letter: enemies of free speech; radicals; of being some sort of cabal; deniers of opportunities to Kashmiri artists and writers et al. Some sickeningly self-righteous defenders even sunk to the level of not-so-subtly likening the motley crew of dissenters to Islamic fundos and ethnic cleansers of sorts. (That feat of imagination, the familiar “all dissent and resistance in Kashmir is Islamic fundamentalism” line, is, sadly, often attempted by using the Kashmiri Pandit issue. And though that issue needs detailed examination by itself, one of the key problems there is how on earth can the tragedy of exile be used to justify the oppression and slaughter of Kashmiris. How can that be used to deny and delegitimise the rights of masses of Kashmiris?)

Aiding State Narratives

Almost everyone defending the festival chose not to ponder the important questions on the relationship between state/ power and the production, dissemination and discussion of art and literature that the open letter raised. Save one notable example, that of a response in a newsmagazine by a noted publisher and member of the advisory committee of the festival. Had that sort of a response been the norm, it would possibly have led to the discussion and debate which the signatories to the open letter wished to spark. In a wider context, that debate should have been on the political economy of such events. The decision to either participate or boycott such an event held in contentious climes, as other commentators have noted, depends, in the final analysis, on a personal political choice. In this writers personal opinion, given the hideousness of the conduct of the state in Kashmir, participation in any event that even indirectly aids state narratives would mean a willingness to comply with them. Not for

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nothing did a great Kashmiri writer like Akhtar Mohiudeen, whose son was killed by the renegade Ikhwanis (a more precise description would be government gunmen), and son-in-law shot dead in cold blood by an Indian army soldier, not only return his Padma Shri award, but with stunning dignity stayed away from state functions till the end of his life. Indeed, in that spirit, a festival of art and letters, in a context like Kashmir, should ideally be an act of resistance, of dissent, of the affirmation of free speech in the face of a repressive regime.

The fracas over the festival gets murkier if one includes the Salman Rushdie “ issue”. In retrospect (privately some individuals found out that neither was Rushdie attending nor did he actually know about the existence of the Harud festival), the planting of the lie in the media about the famed writer attending the said festival seems to have been a calculated move to inflame certain sections in Kashmir, and the reaction would then be used to buttress the “Islamic fundamentalism” theory. And that is precisely what happened. The democratic open letter was clubbed with the rants of a bunch of people on a Facebook wall, and presented as the inchoate, murderous opposition to the festival, and the spurious prospect of attendant violence cited as the reason for postponing the festival. Mostly, the response of the o rganisers and the defenders of the festival fell into the same old pattern of the criminalisation of dissent in Kashmir.

For the signatories of the letter, and even at a wider level, for very many Kashmiris, the Harud festival fell prey to its own blatant non-transparency, the inability to answer the questions, critical in Kashmir, on the political economy of the event, the links with the state even at the level of various individual interfaces, and what sort of a relationship the festival would possibly have with the political r ealities in Kashmir.

Autumn is, indeed, a lovely season in Kashmir. The chinar leaves do flame, the notion of the beauty of the season of “Fall” does exist. But “harud” isn’t actually a positive word in the Kashmiri lexicon. Rather, it denotes a passing away, a certain sense of the waning of life. The name, perhaps, was another misapplication.

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