How will Kashmir be free?

April 8, 2013

Sanjay Kak is a journalist and independent filmmaker based in New Dehli, India. He is the editor of Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir, a collection of some of the best writings to have emerged from and about the disputed region that has lived under Indian occupation since 1967.

The collection was first published in South Asia after the latest rebellion in Kashmir in 2010, in which clashes between security forces and protesters left more than 100 people dead. The new edition was published this year by Haymarket Books. Nawaz Gul Qanungo, a journalist based in Srinagar who contributed an essay to the collection, interviewed Sanjay in May-June 2011. Below are excerpts from that interview.

TELL ME about the making of the book. How different has it been from your usual work of filmmaking?

FIRSTLY, firstly I haven't written the book. It's a book that I have edited. But the business of creating a structure for a book is, in a sense, not unlike what you do in a film. Particularly in a documentary, you work with gathered material, And then the question is how you arrange it, how you sequence it. So I think it was really like an editorial job, how you find the right balance between different things.

HAVE YOU found that balance?

I THINK so. I was trying to suggest a kind of vibrancy of discourse. Kashmir has always been represented as a pathetic plea for help. And I have political problems with that. I was principally looking for writing that showed self-confidence, self assertion. Not a plea to the outside world.

Therefore, much of the writing in the book speaks as much to itself--to Kashmiris--as it speaks to the outside world. And that will be the way Kashmiris will express themselves.

Kashmiris join in mass protest against their occupation in 2010
Kashmiris join in mass protest against their occupation in 2010

THE WRITINGS focus on the events of 2010. Is there anything particular in these events that led to a surge in writing in Kashmir?

SOMETHING LIKE this doesn't crop up suddenly. It's been coming for many years, quietly, in bits and pieces. But there was something about 2010. Something clicked open suddenly. Without trying to make it appear as too magical a moment, it was certainly a very significant moment when everybody was being encouraged by each other's ability to articulate.

HOW DO you see the future of such writing in Kashmir? Where does it lead to?

SEE, THERE is always a danger that areas of conflict become "fashionable," and one is fully aware of that. Somebody said there is a danger that Kashmir "will become a t-shirt." But so far as the people in this volume are concerned, these are people who have been writing for a long time, with an extraordinary commitment to writing about issues in Kashmir.

One of the things that the structure of the book tries to do is to have an outlook of looking ahead. So while the first section is like a recounting of 2010, the last section suggests some fresh ways of looking at the future. Most of this writing is intensely political, with people intervening in the world around them in solid, substantial ways.

THERE HAS always been a continual flow of literature related to Kashmir. There is hardly anything that hasn't been written about in the past. How different is the work that you offer in this book?

I THINK there's a big change. I think that a lot of writing on Kashmir--and I don't think we should call it literature, one can just call it writing--has come from a sort of slightly tired, slightly liberal, but [Indian] nationalistic position. Much of the commentary of Kashmir is sourced from the same people for the last 20 years--the so-called Kashmir specialists.

Frankly, I don't think I've heard any of them say anything new in the last 10 years. Yet they don't ever seem to be embarrassed by the fact that their analysis of what is happening in Kashmir is constantly proven wrong. And no one seems to ask people in these think tanks about why you guys are paid a salary, how come you can't figure out or anticipate what's going on.

The reason is they aren't interested in seeing what is going on. They are interested in articulating what they are told to--that this is what you should see, you should see that elections have happened in Kashmir, and all is well. So I think the time has come to somehow correct that.

The new media is a big help here. Because the new media has allowed a whole lot of people to comment on events, and a whole lot of people are getting information to which they wouldn't have had any access earlier. So I think that whole Brahminical specialist stranglehold on Kashmir is broken.

YOU SPOKE about balance while talking about the writings that you chose for the anthology. And you look at these writings as something that challenges the traditional, conventional narrative on Kashmir, the narrative that has generally emerged from India or the rest of the world in the past decades. But even within Kashmir, is there a counter-narrative, too?

JOURNALISM--AND journalists--in Kashmir functions under tremendous pressure. It is not fair to expect a coherent "counter-narrative." It's not that journalists there don't have a counter-narrative. They do. It's just that their publications don't necessarily have it.

Having said that, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, even the Indian mainstream media could not but help reflect something of the truth. Because, sometimes, the whole thing just boils over, and you are unable to play your own thing. Even the international media, which has been very tame on Kashmir for years, could not help it this time.

So we saw stories in international publications displaying a solid understanding of what was going on. Even in this volume, I have kept two pieces by foreign correspondents. Not just because they talk about very interesting things, but they give you an understanding that here is a mainstream wire service reporting on a particular issue, and you see see the intensity of observation.

Of course, journalists always have those observations but the question is: does your agency or your publication make the required space for it? That's the point. There were also a couple of stories from The New York Times that I wanted, but it was too expensive for us to get the rights to do it.

So nobody wants to look too foolish finally. When the pressure starts building from the bottom, from the Internet, then reporters and editorial people also have to make place for a slightly more realistic story. So it's extremely important to push from the bottom upwards. And I hope this volume, too, would do something like that. Because as long as this material is scattered all over the Internet, it can get ignored.

The battle to make the mass media and the corporate media approximate the truth will not happen by appealing to their morality, but by just embarrassing them--by having writing available out there and by having books out there that just force them to represent the true reality.

YOU WRITE in your essay about your experience and observations in Kashmir. You talk about militarization and the "breakdown of institutions of democratic governance...something with far-reaching consequences for India brewing in those troubles." What consequences exactly are you talking about?

I WOULD be very concerned about the growing militarization of our society. Whatever happened in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram in the 1950s and '60s happened quietly, without much public debate. What is happening in Kashmir in terms of the extent of militarization is serious. Then there's the prospect of militarization in central India, like in Bastar and Chhattisgarh. A serious debate must begin in India.

And it's not just about Kashmir. It is about the kind of vision we have of society. We can go on calling ourselves the largest democracy in the world, but if slowly we were to be governed by the military, that's dangerous.

It's not simply that if you don't sort political issues out, there is this threat of militancy returning. That's fine. But what about the implications for the rest of India? Are we slowly going to see large parts of this country going to military control? Because we don't have the political means to address it?

Whether it's in the Northeast or whether it is in Chhattisgarh or in Kashmir, it will keep growing. And armies are professional institutions. They are not unhappy to have new territories, new forces, new budgets given to them. It is up to the political class to think about it. But they are so bankrupt of ideas that all they can think of is to increase the number of paramilitary forces and move soldiers from here to there.

COMING BACK to the original question of militarization and its consequences, when you look at Jammu and Kashmir, does this apply only in the valley? Why do we see reactions to militarization per se generally only in the valley?

IT'S NOT quite correct to say that there is no reaction to militarization in Jammu or Ladakh. In Ladakh, a tiny population has literally been overwhelmed by the army for 30 to 40 years now. It's a very serious issue there as well, because the army is this single biggest engine of everything in Ladakh because of its presence. It's just that in the Kashmir valley, there has been a political movement around which the outrage against militarization has snowballed.

Talk about Jammu--not the Jammu city, but areas like Rajouri, Poonch and Doda--the level of militarization there is probably higher than in the valley. The fact that you don't hear people yelling and screaming is because that political mobilization is not of the same level.

Talk to people in the Northeast, and you think they are not yelling and screaming about militarization? They are. Are they not talking about AFSPA [a law that effectively allows the army to kill on mere suspicion]? They are. It's just that no one's listening. No one wants to talk about it. The fear and oppressive nature of militarized zones is pretty universal. It is just that it has come to being articulated in the Kashmir valley.

AND THEN there are also the differences between the people of different regions within Jammu and Kashmir.

SEE, THE differences too have not happened in a flash. In 1947, the Dogra maharaja, being from Jammu, naturally had a kind of loyalty toward the people of Jammu. In 1947, Jammu became the site of one of the worst communal riots that we know. Not much has been written about it, but now people have started writing.

You know why--and this might come as news to most people: Because the Jammu city was a Muslim majority city in 1947. And something like more than 50 percent of this population fled from the Jammu city and its environs. Hafiz Sayeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, comes from a place 30 kilometers away from Jammu.

The people who populate so-called Azad Kashmir [Pakistan-administered Kashmir] are all Muslims who went from Jammu. Hindus who fled from that side settled in Jammu. Jammu suddenly became a communalized city when it never was before. And it remained dominated by the maharaja for some time even after partition.

After all, that was the ruling power. Now for 50 years after that, in order to keep Kashmir, you had these client governments sitting in Srinagar, and the whole idea was to keep the Kashmiris calm. So the people of Jammu always felt left out--it's not true, but they would be encouraged to feel that way. People have done analyses on the actual sums of money spent [on the various divisions of the state], and there is no such disparity. But they give the impression that it's all being taken by the Kashmiris. Who is going to unearth and look at the data?

So a situation is created in which the people of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir all hate each other, and people are told that it's the Kashmiris who are dominating. Of course, there are some Kashmiris who are dominating, but those are the clients of the Indian state.

Such animosities exist even elsewhere. Look at Andhra Pradesh [a south Indian state], where people of Telangana think that the coastal people are eating the whole thing, and the coastal people believe the opposite. It takes very little to accentuate those differences.

In the case of Kashmir, it's been in India's interest to have those animosities. To have the people of Jammu say let Kashmir go to hell. But actually, Jammu is not just the city. It includes Rajouri, Doda and Poonch, too, and those regions are generally Muslim majority regions, and you don't know what people there want. But people consider Jammu to be a whole separate territory. And Ladakh, too, is not only Leh. Ladakh is also Kargil. Kargil is a Shia Muslim-dominated area. You don't know what people there want either.

So this simplification of a "Buddhist Ladakh," a "Muslim Kashmir" and a "Hindu Jammu"--which is not true--actually is used to play on those animosities that have been historically accentuated in Kashmir. So Jammu feels resentful when, in reality, in the last 20 years, it has benefited enormously. Because of the tension in the valley, whatever industrialization occurred in Jammu and Kashmir all happened in Jammu.

And then people don't talk to each other. There is no genuine political interaction. What has transformed opinion in Delhi, for example? There are kids from Kashmir in universities and colleges, and just talking to them makes a difference. It's important that Kashmiri students come out and study in Delhi, Chennai or wherever, because whenever they do, they make a huge impact just by being themselves. And people realize these are not some mad lunatics out to destroy the world.

WHAT ABOUT the Indian government's claim of troop reduction in Kashmir?

I DON'T think there is any seriousness about troop reduction at all. There hasn't been any. Whenever the chief minister makes a statement about troop reduction, the army commander denies it. Not only are they not serious about it, each time, they raise the issue, you realize it's the army and the defense ministry calling the shots and not the political class. It's becoming more embarrassing for the civilian government more than anything else.

YOU ALSO write in your essay about this "revelation centered on the national media" where "what was reported seemed far removed from the reality unfolding on the ground." But again, if we look at it, whether you talk about the Indian or the international media, most of their people working on the ground are Kashmiris themselves--people who are very much aware of what is happening on the ground. Where is the failure then?

IT'S NOT that journalists don't know the story. They do. For example, there is an incident, and you go and shoot the story [for television]. If you uplink it at 12 noon, a 3-minute story will go through and make some sense of it. By the time its four in the afternoon, those three minutes have become one minute, and all the nuanced explanatory bits have gone out. By the time it's the nine o'clock news at night, the reporter is out of the story, there's a voiceover and it's become "a bomb blast in Srinagar." The larger story is lost.

So as a reporter, why would you write a 700-word nuanced story if it's never going to be carried? You will do it one day, you will do it the second day, you do it the third day...but the fourth day, you just give them what they want.

That's what happens to photojournalists. They know there is a certain kind of photograph that will make it to the front page. So if there is a massive protest in Srinagar, and you take nine pictures of policemen beating up young boys, they aren't likely to make it. If you take one picture of a bunch of boys beating up a policeman, that's going to be on the front page of every newspaper. If you take dramatic pictures of boys with masks throwing stones at you, they will definitely make it to the magazine cover. But if you take a picture of policemen with catapults firing marbles at boys, that's not going to make it.

It's not that people don't have those pictures. I have seen the photographs of catapults being issued to the CRPF men, but you never see those pictures.

When I showed my film in Srinagar for the first time, one senior pro-independence leader, who was in the audience, got up and started chastising the local press. I stopped him and I said, "Look, I think you are making a mistake. You forget that my name is Sanjay Kak. And I live in New Delhi. And I have come here to make a film, and I will go back to the security of New Delhi. These people don't have that advantage. They have families that live in the village. They have relatives, they have brothers who run small businesses. They are vulnerable."

I'm not saying that all of them are angels. A lot of journalists, like a lot of everybody else, are highly compromised, amoral, crooked. That's accepted. But I also know a lot of good people, and I know what kind of pressure they have to deal with in order to be honest with what they are doing. There's tremendous editorial pressure. Particularly when it comes to Kashmir, the filters get sharper and sharper as the stories go up the ladder. It's not easy.

YOU TALKED about the young boys coming out on the streets to protest. How do you gauge the response of the state against them?

THE STATE is going after them tooth and nail. But it cannot work. You can't terrorize every individual. You can terrorize some, but more people will appear. They are, once again, radicalizing a whole generation. You see in 2008, 2009 and even 2010, the young people who came out on the streets came out of euphoria. Like, "Oh, is this too possible? Can we actually chase the police away?"

But when you arrest them in turn, and you torture them, and you slap the Public Safety Act against young kids, you are back to 1990--you are back to radicalizing them. And this is what they don't understand.

CAN YOU talk about India as a democracy?

I AM not likely to say that India is a great shining democracy. Elections are not democracy. We all know how elections are conducted. It doesn't matter that people turn out to vote. It doesn't matter that there's an 80 percent turnout. It doesn't matter if people vote governments in and out every five years. That can't be called democracy.

India is a democracy, but it is a democracy in an advanced state of crisis. But then, democracies are always like that. I wouldn't get too depressed about it.

In advanced capitalist nations, there is a kind of silence--and even the people who protest know that it means nothing. Because the other side has won. In the U.S., in Europe, capitalism has won. So there is no debate. If there's any, it's just theoretical. Even "radical" people speak like in a seminar room at a university. But there's nothing "out there." Here in India, at least that part of democracy--that argument--is still intact.

ON WHAT could possibly "resolve" the issue of Kashmir?

EXTRAORDINARY IMAGINATION. Kashmir could be a place between India, Pakistan, China, Central Asia--which was its traditional role, a kind of crossroads. But it can't be that if we have narrow and timid imaginations, of a flag, an army, a navy, an air force. Not that way.

People ask whether Kashmir is sustainable. I was going through a piece in the book where the writer--Nitasha Kaul--says, "If Bhutan can be an independent country, Kashmir can be, too." So it's not about viability, it's really about whether we have the imagination. Does even the Kashmiri leadership have the imagination for a solution, where it doesn't need to have its own army, tanks and fighter jets?

Look at Europe. They clobbered for hundreds of years just like we are doing to each other. Look at them now.

I went to this place called South Tyrol. And the parallels with Kashmir are incredible. The Germans and Italians fought over it for a hundred years, worse than India and Pakistan. Ultimately, a solution was carved out, and South Tyrol is an autonomous region. It has excellent relations with Germany, excellent relations with Italy, and both support it. It's a fantastic trade zone because a lot of European trade goes through it.

We are only limited by our own imaginations.

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