A theatre teacher of mine once described the nuances of film and theatre as “deception from the outside” versus “deception from the inside”. Both forms are ultimately a space for performance, she explained, but film generates performance on a screen — it is produced and presented in a space external to its viewers. Theatre, on the other hand, works from the inside. It lodges its performance on the ground it shares with its audience. As J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti surfaces on stage amid photo ops and press statements these days, the rather cynical analysis of the performing arts finds a fitting parallel in political life.
It comes as no surprise that Indian prime time news has distorted the ground reality in Kashmir to project a narrative that goes with its ultranationalistic agenda. When the networks seized the opportunity of a calamity during the 2014 floods to reinvent the image of the armed forces as relentless saviors, not oppressive forces, it was expected that an uprising that mourns the killing of Burhan Wani would be fodder for various media outlets. Between the sensationalised broadcasts and senseless debates of caricature channels, and the more “sophisticated” moderation of truth by their counterparts, the Indian media’s coverage has been nothing short of film; a performance, organised from the outside by the outside. Mehbooba Mufti’s response to the violence unleashed under her watch and rule joins that show.
Almost two weeks ago, as she met with families of victims from Anantnag and Kulgam, wearing her favourite green and an expression of shared distress, Mehbooba presented herself as insider and sympathiser; a partaker in the grief of those she embraces. The makings of those meetings remain unknown, and the voices of those she speaks with unheard. A brief video released with the images is edited to be presented without sound — and in spirit of the state’s censorship spree — allows no access to their conversation. And then there is the press release, which sets in motion the sympathetic tone upon which she will build her empty rhetoric in the weeks to come: “It is painful to note that these children who have become the victims of this senseless violence belong to the poorest of the poor families.” Ironically enough, nothing exploits these families’ vulnerabilities — both economic and emotional — more than a visit from her does, which summons them from their homes and grief, into a space set up for the cameras.
But the image is an old one, recycled from a bag of tactics that may have held some legitimacy before she sold her party to a coalition with the BJP at the end of an election cycle that she contested, and arguably won, on the very promise of “keeping the communal party out of the state.” The CM’s public responses and the national media’s selective reporting may be driven by separate agendas and compulsions, but they have their shamelessness in common.
And so, when Mehbooba declares that the “sacrifices of these innocent children will not go waste”, she cloaks her claims in the kind of doublespeak that reeks of a politician’s deception and desperation. The very implications upon which that guise of condemnation is built — that these children are innocent because they have been “misled” onto a path of “senseless” violence by “certain internal forces” or otherwise — dismisses every conscious sacrifice of those left dead and wounded while fighting an oppressor whose name she can no longer spell today. If there is anyone acting under the influence of others, it is the CM alone; a puppet communicating through the gestures designed and approved by New Delhi.
And yet, tied though her hands might be, Mehbooba’s actions — or lack thereof — speak to more than just her cowardly compliance to the chain of command. They tell us that even in her darkest hour of powerlessness, she is not bereft of her individual politics. When Mehbooba cites innocence, sacrifice and senseless violence to Kashmiris, she attempts to appease us with the language of our struggle, but the meanings hidden underneath those words militate against that very struggle. The violence she describes as “senseless” is truly senseless, but not because the children are taking to the streets instead of schools. It is senseless because a five-year-old Nasir Ahmed Khan is found on that street with a needle and sand pierced into his eye. With her brazen ambiguity Mehbooba has found a space as a pawn — leaving us with a show that no one is watching anymore.
A fine line separates independence from freedom, often making the former attainable without the latter; a state of mind from which a resistance is first born and later survived. In that sense, Kashmir has been independent and existed outside of the Indian nation-state for a long time now. Today, if there is a silver lining amid its time of bleeding and mourning, it is that it inches closer to standing independent of those forces that act, oppress and deceive from within.
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