Kashmir has been under curfew for nearly 50 days. This curfew will, inevitably, risk a new cycle of alienation, brutalisation and deprivation. There is a desperate search for small consolations. It is a failure of our political imagination that it took an army commander to remind us of the banal truth that at least all parties need to be talking to each other. We may console ourselves, as Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti seems to claim, that only five per cent are responsible for this agitation. But we should not deny the fact that this agitation is geographically unprecedented. The state’s assumption that an informational clampdown will reduce the protestors’ ability to organise seems to have been deeply mistaken. The ability to perpetuate a cycle of violent provocation and counter provocation remains unabated. Fatigue may produce a fragile peace. But the suffocating logjam that has produced this crisis is not likely to abate in the absence of political boldness.
Platitudes are all back in play. But these platitudes may mark a strategy of avoidance rather than heralding a new breakthrough. Take the oft cited trinity: Kashmiriyat, jamhooriyat, and insaaniyat. When Vajpayee invoked them, they were a good starting point. But now they sound more like metaphysical abstractions unmoored from actual politics. Invoking them seems more like begging the question. Kashmiriyat has now mutated in ways that its meaning is not clear. Who will it include and exclude, and on what terms? There is no question, as this column has argued, that the Indian state has unconscionably failed in Kashmir. Its legitimacy is tenuous at best, a legal artefact secured by brute force. But normatively speaking, the very thing that makes us suspicious of hyper Indian nationalism should also make us suspicious of sub-nationalisms.
As a resistance to human rights violations, or homogenising cultural impositions, sub-nationalisms are understandable. But the very pathologies that make nationalism suspect are often equally on display in sub-nationalisms. Just like the question, “who is an Indian”, can be a trap to benchmark identity into a logic of conformity, the question of Kashmiriyat does the same. How will a political movement based on Kashmiriyat negotiate differences over the very idea? Can aazadi or a future within the Indian Union both be manifestations of Kashmiriyat? If so, how does invoking the concept solve the problem? If those invoking aazadi look upon any good faith cooperation with the Indian state as an act of betrayal, if the language of collaborators and traitors and the violence and psychological pressures it produces becomes widespread, how is dialogue possible?
The brutalisation produced by the war in Kashmir has also produced new internal logics of violence and conformity. The extent of religious radicalisation of the Kashmir movement is a matter for some debate. But it only exacerbates the question of Kashmiriyat. Second, in diverse populations, territorial secession almost always comes with ethnic cleansing. The alignment of territory and ethnicity is a deep form of closure, and in Kashmir that has already happened with the expulsion of the Pandits. Third, most movements born out of violence, whether perpetrated by the state, militants, or even reckless provocateurs, find it hard to overcome the traces of violence; the forms of protest will also produce their own new brutalisation. In short, Kashmiriyat at this point, is already a deeply shattered mirror that will distort reality as much as it represents it.
In fact, so deeply is the mirror shattered that even the question, who represents Kashmir, is now at an impasse. If you recognise Kashmiriyat you are seen as occluding differences within Kashmir that now run deep. If you don’t invoke Kashmiriyat you are accused of harbouring some assimilationist design of the Indian state. This argument is not meant to settle any of the normative issues or deny the legitimacy of the Kashmir movement, though in our era of suspicion it will be understandably read that way. But because the Indian state is deeply wrong, it does not follow that the current articulation of Kashmiriyat is any less in danger of taking on a pathological form. In South Asia, more generally, identity and territory are less promising normative frames in which to solve our problems than accepting diversity born of individual freedom and human rights. But freedom and human rights are always casualties of competing nationalisms.
The same is true of jamhooriyat. What are the terms of democracy we are looking at? Given the Indian state’s track record, most Kashmiris will rightly read this as an invocation of the status quo. After all, democratic incorporation through free and fair elections has been the Indian state’s gambit. What is the deeper or newer meaning of jamhooriyat that is on offer? A more radically asymmetric federalism? A reversal to the pre-1953 constitution? More radical decentralisation? All of this should be a matter of discussion. But there is not an iota of evidence that Delhi is willing to move on a variety of institutional proposals that have been gathering dust for decades. In fact, in some respects, democracy can impede more radical proposals for democracy. Even in Kashmir, the PDP and NC have more of an investment in embarrassing each other than they have in finding a common solution. All the forces that participate in democratic politics, as Delhi defines it, stand discredited. The innate risk averseness and structure of competitive politics in Delhi is such that all parties can come together to preserve the status quo, rather than risk imagining democracy differently. In short, jamhooriyat is a noble idea. But its competitive version is also, curiously, part of the problem.
On insaniyat, the plot was lost a long time ago. The brutal repression by the state, the ravages of militancy, the psychological effects of occupation, have made insaniyat hard to imagine in its institutional form. Decades of killings, disappearances, torture has now been replaced by the use of kids as fodder for violence. Insaniyat is, and has always been hostage to the demands of abstract passions like identity and territory. Insaniyat is already hemmed in: Territory before insaniyat, aazadi before insaniyat, borders before insaniyat, the lines of us and them before insaniyat.
Overcoming this logjam will take incredible political courage. All parties, including Pakistan, will have to be part of the dialogue, perhaps without preconditions. But it is a measure of our moral cul de sac that the very things that are supposed to be a part of the solution — Kashmiriyat, jamhooriyat and insaniyat — are the very things that reflect our contradictions and divisions. These are platitudes of avoidance.