Through the smokescreen

At a time when the dominant narrative is of normalcy, Sanjay Kak breaks myths.


Do you see an increasing tendency in the media to paint a picture of normalcy in Kashmir? If yes why?

I think those who fashion India’s policies on Kashmir–wherever they are, in Delhi or Srinagar–have figured out that there is no easy triumph around the corner: in fact it seems to be receding further and further away. So despite what they say in public, they must know that the Kashmir issue is not about Pakistan’s intransigence, or the spill-over of radical Islam, or the lack of development in Kashmir. It’s always been a political issue, and Kashmiris have consistently demonstrated that over the last 20 years.

What India’s Kashmir managers are trying to do therefore is to prevent a recurrence of crisis, of the kind they faced in the years between 2008 and 2010, and to manage perceptions. For this they must create a sort of magic cloak, something called ‘normalcy’, which when draped over Kashmir’s everyday despair makes it all look very much like the paradise so beloved by Indians – shikaras on the lake, hospitable houseboatwallahs, in other words: jannat. This mantle of normalcy is currently constructed out of two sets of numbers: an increase in the numbers of Tourist Arrivals, including close to half a million pilgrims who are escorted into the valley every year for the Amarnath Yatra. And a reduction in the numbers of unarmed protesters on the streets. Stitching it all together is the mainstream media in India, as always eager to be in the service of the nation, even if it means becoming blind to the reality before them.


The last 2 summers have seen a lull in the valley. What do you make of the situation there?

What we are seeing is a lull in the street protests, yes. What we cannot see, and the media will not help us see, is the incredible machinery that has been pressed into service to keep the young protesters off the streets. The arrests and intimidation began early in 2011, when young people were picked up in their thousands. Some got away with no more than a few slaps and a lecture from the police station, but many were locked up under the draconian Public Safety Act. Once released, the young men–and their families–are drawn into the intimidating net of monthly, sometimes weekly reporting at the local police station. The local media has been tied up in knots. The hounding of social media groups continues brazenly. The political leadership is mostly under detention. What we are seeing is a society and a people that have been choked tight with something called normalcy: so this is not a lull, but a gagging.
Open’s cover story “Sorry, Kashmir is happy” has generated a lot of debate. What is your take on the piece? What do you make of statements like “Trauma is like a heritage building here”?

For me, the most interesting thing about the recent kerfuffle over the Open magazine cover story was the reaction to it, especially amongst young Kashmiris, who I suppose, it was mainly meant to vilify. Coming from a senior journalist, the writing itself was an astonishing example of shallow journalism, so let’s leave it aside for the moment. More than anger, or outrage, the tone of the Kashmiri reaction was one of cheeky impudence, reacting to the shallowness of the analysis with the tactics of the ad-busters, where you turn the very size and visibility of your opponents’ bill-board against them. In this case ‘Kashmir is happy’ became a catch-phrase that bounced around the web, and allowed for all sorts of irreverence, in a highly political way. At the end of the day, it also spawned a whole lot of well argued commentary, including by non-Kashmiris, about how Kashmiris may be happy, but they’ve not given up the fight!

That comment about trauma? What can one say, except that it’s clearly written by someone who would never dare to say that of the Sikhs in Tilak Nagar, Delhi, or of the Muslims of Naroda Patiya, Ahmedabad. Kashmir is a place where people still wince at the mention of begar, the forced labour that was extracted from them centuries ago. Will they now easily forget what has happened in the 1990s, or in 2010? The ghairat, the honour, of Kashmiris is intricately tied in with their sense of overcoming their shame at being dishonoured. A Dalit in India would understand that. Perhaps a Manu Joseph may not.
Manu Joseph heavily comes down on Kashmiri elites living outside India as stoking dissent even though Kashmir wants to be part of India’s growth story. Your observations on the so called elite class.

I didn’t hear anyone accuse Kashmiris living outside of the valley of playing a part in the massive street protests of 2008; nor in 2009; or indeed in the pitched battles of 2010. Most of this commentary from outside accompanied the street protests, it didn’t lead it. But having managed to gag the street, and put curbs on those who live in Kashmir, the security apparatus is now faced with the difficulty of gagging those who live outside its fiefdom. This is probably the source for the animus against the “elite living outside India”.I think this somewhat un-nuanced understanding of the role of elites can only come from a relative newbie on the Kashmir beat. Otherwise he would know that from the time of the anti-feudal struggle against the Dogra Maharaja, the Kashmiri living outside has always played a part in the politics of the valley, right from Saifuddin Kitchlu to Alama Iqbal! He would also know that after 1952, the elite in Kashmir have always been absorbed by the Indian state, and traditionally been pro-India, and very distant from the movement on the street. The growing politicisation of the middle and upper-middle class Kashmiri, the ones that are seen as the new elite, is a relatively new phenomenon, and this must throw real fear into the mandarins in New Delhi. Mr Joseph’s comment probably only reflects that.
You made ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ in 2007 but this year it has been in the news for the stalled screenings, protests. As you took the film around in campuses, festivals what kind of reactions did you get?

The interesting thing is that for every stalled screening of Jashn-e-Azadi, there have been at least 50 that went off smoothly. I have always maintained that the disruptions are caused by specific groups of people who want to grandstand for their own agenda. So if in 2007, it was Roots in Kashmir in New Delhi, or in 2012 it was the ABVP in Pune, or the so-tragically named Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena at Delhi University, these are right-wing groups that crave a certain amount of media celebrity, even if it verges on notoriety. They’re in it for themselves, my film is incidental! What was amazing was that five years after the film was first shown, this year’s incident in Pune, where the ABVP managed to stall it, resulted in dozens of screenings that I know of, and many others I never even heard of. Whenever I have been able to be present, the conversations have been serious and substantial – I can’t claim that everyone who saw the film loved it or agreed with what it says about Kashmir, but I know that most people are deeply affected and troubled by it. What more can one ask for?

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