When I thought of “India” as a child, I thought of a distant, stiflingly hot place beyond the hills of my village, from where came cheerful hawkers with cloth-wrapped backpacks, barefoot fortune-tellers with curly hair and unfriendly, uniformed men who stole apples from our orchard.
Rather than being right here, India was somewhere out there. Even in school, when lessons on identity were given, they went well when they were about my village, district, state; the moment it came to my country, the teacher either got tongue-tied or the school bell would chime, class was over and we’d be left guessing. As the conflict intensified, we grew up as confused citizens of a country in the making.
The politics of hope is a dangerous thing because it can trap people into a flawed reading of history. That is exactly what happened to us. There was a cultural backdrop. We spoke with a cadence of Pashto; our faith was Arab; our mornings began with recitals from Sa’adi Shirazi; we ate in Turkish utensils; our bedtime stories had scenes from Shahnameh. It was easy to make us believe that one more nudge and history would witness a dramatic reversal; a transformative cataclysm — azadi — was just round the corner.
Expectedly, there came a time in Kashmir when bus conductors were asked to prepare route plans to markets across the border. Peshawari prayer rugs started appearing in homes, wrist watches were turned half an hour behind Delhi time, bridges were burnt, so the enemy couldn’t walk over to our side. Most importantly, all men and women whose loyalties were suspect were hung from elm trees. In a complete withdrawal from reality, people gathered around radio sets to listen to official announcements of freedom, reassuring one another that something was about to happen.
Years passed. Thousands of lives were lost. Millions got displaced. In take two, the destruction which the politics of hope brought to Kashmir generated an even deadlier politics of grief. Kashmiris now memorialised the sorrow that was a consequence of the confrontation with a mighty state. Dying became an end in itself. Alienation from the state extended into alienation from one another. An entire generation of Kashmiris sought refuge in the glorification of pain. Rational fear made space for romantic fearlessness. Dissent became more technology-driven and virtual. Growing religious consciousness became a way of life.
Every new agitation in Kashmir has had this familiar tetrad of eruption, hope, bereavement, despair. By the time the first stone was pelted in the July uprising of 2016, the outcome was already known to everyone. It is this predictability which has begun to worry Kashmiris now. Revolution cannot be an annual summer carnival. If today, Kashmir is the most unlikely new nation to enter the world map in the future, the blame is not on India. It is a flaw in the fundamental design of the Kashmir project.
Firstly, all these years, Kashmiris have given conflicting signals to the world. For those who compared Kashmir to Palestine, East Timor, Kosovo, the problem is that it is hard to frame the Kashmiri question properly. Is it separation from India, annexation with Pakistan, the search for an Islamic caliphate or a secular democracy? Has it factored in sub-regional and diverse ethnic aspirations? If it is self-determination, then who are these people queued up outside polling stations? If the slogan is “azadi”, why is the Pakistani flag raised? Is it class-neutral or only a proletariat dream? Is it territory or ideology, economics or politics? Today, in Kashmir, it is hard to ask these questions because there are no answers. And because there are no answers, every such question is seen as a provocation or obfuscation of the truth about Kashmir.
The second problem is using violence as an instrument of grievance redressal. For 30 years, Kashmiris have been trying to explain to the world the difference between militancy and terrorism. The sooner it is understood that in a post-9/11 world, no theory of organised violence can be accepted as good enough for justifying it, the better.
Thirdly, the indiscipline we saw on the streets during 2016’s unrest has the potential to criminalise society forever. It was not the state as much as people to people violence, the humiliation of bystanders, vandalism against schools, damage to public property by misguided teenagers that exhausted Kashmiris, reducing a mass movement to a movement of mass from one corner of the street to the other corner.
With fresh wounds in the 70th year of J&K’s accession to India, Kashmiris have no choice but to go back to the drawing board and see what went wrong. India is an emerging superpower — it is there to stay. Looking at the crisis in the Muslim world, it will serve us well if we help ourselves out of the time warp we are stuck in, abandon false hope and macabre heroism and work towards a dignified exit from the conflict. One possibility is to accept that in spite of all its infirmities, India is the only country in the world with which a culturally diverse and politically disparate entity like Jammu and Kashmir can find anchor.