As the Indian nation state enters the 65th year of its existence, and many families count two and sometimes even three generations with no memories of the independence movement that the new republic held sacred, a certain distance and detachment has made it possible to see the many faultlines in the narrative of Indian nationhood. It is certainly true that the idea of India as a secular, multicultural republic, a polity representing (and further enabling) unity in diversity, has served in many instances as an enabling fiction – allowing, for instance, the country’s long-oppressed lower castes to acquire, for the first time in history, political power through the ballot box. But equally, it has become clear that in some instances this idea has proved to be deeply debilitating, grossly distorting and homogenising the particulars of the history of the Indian subcontinent with the complacent fog of nationhood.
Nowhere has the ‘sacred’ notion of an eternal and indivisible "Mother India" done more damage than in the Kashmir Valley. Much of the valley has been held by India since 1947 after its ruler, Raja Hari Singh, a Hindu regent of a mostly Muslim citizenry, hastily signed an "instrument of accession" to India after finding his kingdom invaded by tribesmen from Pakistan. When the dust settled, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and himself a Kashmiri, promised a plebiscite that would allow Kashmiris a choice between accession to India or Pakistan. But India has never carried through this promise, and has for over six decades anaesthetised the region’s political aspirations with a combination of military rule, rigged elections, small sops and promises, the cultivation of a small and pliable Kashmiri elite, and in some cases outright repression. In effect, India has proved to be in Kashmir precisely the kind of coloniser that it shook off in fighting for independence.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan (which holds a small section of the valley) have fought three wars over this trophy, the last one as recently as 1999. This has further embedded the Kashmir Valley within the nationalist imagination of both countries, and allowed the Indian state to flood it with armed forces – about 600,000 troops, or one for every 15 inhabitants of the region – under the pretext of securing the country’s borders. The longer that this impasse has lasted, the more comfortable India’s political parties, its media (which has almost no Kashmiris in positions of prominence), and its sizeable newspaper-reading middle class have become with the idea – indeed the battle cry – "Kashmir is an integral part of India!"
But is it really? As the contributors to Sanjay Kak’s anthology of essays Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir comprehensively demonstrate, the idea that Kashmir was, or is, or must always be, a part of India requires much rhetorical sleight of hand and a great deal of egotism or ignorance on the part of those who assert it. The immediate context of Kak’s book is a spark in Kashmir’s recent history – the widespread, centreless movement that in many circles was self-consciously described, with a nod to the Palestine movement, as the intifada of 2010.
The resistance, which erupted after a Kashmiri teenager, Tufail Mattoo, was killed by a tear-gas canister launched by an Indian soldier, lasted more than three months, and involved hundreds of demonstrations across the valley. Although more than 100 Kashmiris were shot dead by police between June and September 2010, what was noteworthy about the movement was that no missiles other than stones were aimed in retaliation. Loudly and clearly, the protesters made clear that what they wanted was nothing less than azadi, or freedom. Although eventually suppressed by the Indian state, the resistance was nonetheless a kind of turning-point – something like a coming of age – in the Kashmiri struggle for the right of self-determination.
Kak’s book is similarly a kind of landmark, because it accomplishes in the domain of Indian literature in 2011 what the voices and stones of Kashmiri protesters did in the Indian public sphere in 2010. Although there is no shortage of books in India on the "Kashmir problem", for the most part Kashmiris, limited not just by lack of access to power but also by language, have never spoken themselves but are always spoken for (with exceptions such as Basharat Peer’s recent Curfewed Night). The particularity of their experience has therefore always been muffled, or subsumed into some larger argument. The Kashmir problem had become quite abstract to the average Indian.
But the testimony of the querulous, animated voices in Kak’s book, most of them Kashmiris from the valley and the diaspora, makes available, to any Indian reader willing to spare the time, the experience of the nightmare world of routine violence and soul-destroying scrutiny that is daily navigated by even the least political Kashmiri. Roving widely among works of pro-azadi literature, the book brings together an impressive variety of voices from high and low narrative spaces: journalists in Indian and Kashmiri magazines, academics, artists, writers of fiction and of blogs, even a rapper from whose song the book derives its title.
"How many gun barrels stare at us? Enough to keep us anxious and edgy, always looking over our shoulders," writes the sociologist Wasim Bhat. "The war … moves in the billion synapses of our brain, releasing chemicals that makes us anxious and wary, tiring us and making us old." To Indian citizens whose only glimpse of men in army fatigues might be during the giant display of India’s cultural and military might at the annual Republic Day parade in Delhi, Angana Chatterji, the co-author of a recent, damning report on mass graves in Kashmir, describes the landscape of military occupation that overwhelms the beautiful slopes and groves of Kashmir celebrated in Bollywood films. This Kashmiri vista is pocked, instead, with "detention and interrogation centres, army cantonments, abandoned buildings, bullet holes, bunkers and watchtowers, detour signs, deserted public squares … and vehicular and electronic espionage". How can Indians take pride, asks Chatterji, in such a democracy?
The journalist Najeeb Mubarki and the academic Natasha Kaul provide accounts of how the might of Indian misprision overwhelms the specific religious and cultural registers of Kashmiri life, erasing civilisational threads that go back hundreds of years. Sufism, the dominant strand of Islam in Kashmir, writes Mubarki, is essentially incompatible with the Talibanisation of the region that has been raised as a bogey by Indian hardliners. "In effect … the thought of the vast majority of Kashmiris ‘changing over’ to extremism is akin to asking someone to actually convert." To put it another way, in keeping with substitutions of local categories with global ones in violent conflicts all around the world, Kashmiri Muslims are being turned in the public imagination into Muslim Kashmiris, thereby activating all the prejudices that this inversion involves. Peculiarly coveted ("integral part") and at the same time peculiarly marginal, Kashmiris have been turned by India not into citizens but ciphers.
It is hard to read this book and not agree with the writer Arif Ayaz Parrey when he says: "Memory, history, democracy and humanity – all lead a Kashmiri to the logic of this demand [for independence]." There is certainly now in India a nascent awareness of the extent of state violence visited upon Kashmiris and the persistent bad faith of the Indian state in its approach to the Kashmir Valley. But it may take many more years to roll back decades of nationalist indoctrination about the place of Kashmir in Indian life. With the mainstream Indian media still overwhelmingly given to presenting a statist view of the conflict, it is books such as Kak’s that may, in coming years, advance to a tipping point the cause of an independent Kashmiri state.
(Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf and editor of the anthology India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion. )