To whom does Kashmir and Tibet belong? India (or Pakistan) and China or to Kashmiris and Tibetans? In early June, a conference in London brought together writers, activists and intellectuals to discuss the issue of Tibet and Kashmir with a particular focus on the meanings of dissent and the conceptualisation of democracy in China and India.

“Dechen Pemba, a blogger who has translated works of Tibetan writings from within China, including that of well-known dissident poet Woeser, along with an Oxford based scholar Lama Jabb and the Chinese-American writer Jianglin Li highlighted the Tibetan struggle to survive as a people.”

While we can compare the contours of these two issues, we cannot compare the miseries that the people have to bear. Tragedies cannot, and should not, be compared. There is no metric for sorrow.

Tibet and Kashmir are synonymous with national security problems for the two most populous countries in the world; the emerging powers of China and India. However, for many Kashmiris and Tibetans, the stories of ‘rising’ China and India are linked to the more important context of broken promises and military occupation. States have used coercion and various political, economic and propaganda tools to colonise not only the territories inhabited by Tibetans and Kashmiris but also their lives and histories.

Ethnonationalist movements in both Kashmir and Tibet have big differences but they also share some commonalities: the people of both these regions have to deal with large and powerful postcolonial entities centered in Delhi and Beijing respectively, the cultural heritage in both these places faces the onslaught of a developmental rhetoric seeped in an imperial-type civilisational mission that is devoid of historical understanding, both suffer from (what economists term as) ‘resource curse’, the geographical location of both these places is constructed in ‘strategic’ geopolitical terms, and, possessing them is a crucial part of the nationalist myths of India and China.

Yet, the overwhelming military might of the states have failed to browbeat Kashmiris or Tibetans into subjection. Militarisation of the Kashmiri and Tibetan spaces have led to a brutalisation of the people but at the same time exposed the problematic character of state’s rule. What Delhi/Beijing present as legitimate coercion to defeat insurgency/separatism, many Kashmiris/Tibetans see as a betrayal of earlier assurances of genuine autonomy and as suppression of their azaadi/rangzen (‘freedom’).

Dechen Pemba, a blogger who has translated works of Tibetan writings from within China, including that of well-known dissident poet Woeser, along with an Oxford based scholar Lama Jabb and the Chinese-American writer Jianglin Li highlighted the Tibetan struggle to survive as a people. Li argued that Tibet’s problem is China’s problem for it raises questions about the entire modern communist project in the country. The panel echoed some of the issues raised during an earlier speech by Beijing-based dissident intellectual Wang Lixiong. Lixiong held that while democracy offers a better ideal, it is no panacea for ethnically divided societies. Moreover, the recent moves to secularise and democratise Tibetan diaspora with the resignation of the Dalai Lama as a political leader and the election of Lobsang Sangay as the Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) may complicate matters and lead to an impasse in the negotiations between Chinese government and the Tibetans in exile.

However, this line of argument assumes that China-Dalai Lama negotiations are going somewhere. Nothing from the last decade of talks gives any confidence that negotiations in their current form are working. Lobsang Sangay, whom I have heard speak before, in fact offers a new hope to Tibetan diaspora for he breaks away the stranglehold of traditional religious and aristocratic elite.

In my view, both Li and Lixiong point to an interesting phenomenon amongst Han Chinese — a refusal, increasingly, to accept the dominant statist-nationalist version of Sino-Tibetan relations and a willingness to question it, often at a high personal cost. Tibetan Buddhism is becoming more popular amongst the Chinese and this is an occurrence that may, over time, challenge simplistic identity based categories that pit Tibetanness against Chineseness. What will the place be for Chinese adherents of Tibetan Buddhism in the ethnic landscape of China? Will the new Chinese-Tibetan Buddhists be an ally for the cause of Tibetans or will they actually depoliticise the Tibet movement?

The importance of moving beyond manichean categories of allies and enemies also came up during my own panel on Kashmir with film-maker Sanjay Kak and author Mirza Waheed. We discussed various aspects of Indian rule in Kashmir including the impact of militarisation on everyday life of people in the valley, killings and disappearances, the exodus of Kashmiri pandits, and the new phase of post-militancy resistance since 2008. For me, it was important to assert the structuring role played by imperial cartography in making Kashmir ‘strategically located’ and highlighting what I call the ‘Mandarin-Machiavelli interaction’  in shaping postcolonial Indian attitude toward Jammu & Kashmir incorporated as a ‘jewel in the Indian crown’. As the ‘bullets for stone-pelters’ summer of 2010 demonstrated, the Kashmiri struggle for ‘azaadi’ has its youth at the forefront; it is dynamic, if occasionally disorganised. I also raise some of these issues in a recent collection (titled Until my freedom comes,Penguin, 2011) on Kashmir edited by Kak.

Against the primarily identitarian dissent in Kashmir and Tibet, there is the ongoing survivalist dissent of the indigenous peoples in India. Arundhati Roy discussed this in a final plenary lecture. While her assessment of ‘democracy’ was far more pessimistic than that of Lixiong, this is not surprising for she was engaging with an actually-existing democracy as opposed to Lixiong for whom it was an an ideal. However, Lixiong’s rejection of Chinese Communist Party’s doctrine of Inner-Party democracy as a ‘democracy of bureaucratic rule’ resonated with Roy’s argument about the role of security state machinery in working for powerful corporate interests against adivasis and other marginalised communities. Democracy thus is a promise that has been comprehensively betrayed in the case of the adivasis and the tribals in India.

When we move beyond the standard definitions of democracy as a system of government most representative of the people, we are faced with the truly difficult questions lurking at the very heart of an invocation like “we, the people”. Namely, who are the people in this ‘we’ and what of those who do not want to be a part of the purported collective? How do we reconcile a plurality of values while accepting dissent?

Like people, nations undergo phases and change; this sometimes includes a transformation of their existential myths. India and China, in their own different ways, face a crucial moral and political question — can they give up their cherished nationalist narratives that incorporate lands without concern for the peoples?

Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, poet, academic, artist and economist who lives in London. Her debut novel Residue (Rupa/Rainlight, 2014) was earlier shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Aside from fiction and poetry, she comments in the media and has written in edited collections, journals and newspapers on the themes of identity, culture, economy, gender, social theory, technology, democracy, Bhutan and Kashmir. She has a joint doctorate in Economics and Philosophy, is the author of the book 'Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference' (Routledge, 2007), and has previously taught Economics, Politics, and Creative Writing in the UK and in Bhutan. She has travelled to over 55 countries across 4 continents documenting the strangeness of the everyday and the otherness of the present. More at

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