On repression, neoliberal reforms, and disenfranchisement in Kashmir

A conversation with Nandita Haksar

Published in Volume 1, Issue 3 of The Sparkplug
October 2020

LK: Let’s start with the galvanizing moment when Jammu and Kashmir was stripped by India of its special status, protections, and statehood in August 2019. Through your book, The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism, you consider the historic resilience of Kashmiri nationalism under the pressures of more militarily and economically powerful states. You also write about the confrontation with the Indian government’s oppression of Kashmiri resistance, told through the story of prominent Kashmiri nationalist Afzal Guru, who was executed in 2013.

This revocation of statehood and protections for Kashmiris is still fresh: what is the biggest challenge for Kashmiris, in terms of regaining self-determination at this moment?

NH: This is a very large question.  And I cannot possibly speak on behalf of the Kashmiri people but this I do know: that the Kashmiri people will not give up their struggle for self-determination and preservation of the Kashmiri identity.  There are those who will continue the struggle by trying to engage with the Indian State, and there are those who will challenge the Indian state with armed resistance.

Those who are still willing to engage with the Indian state are challenging the revocation of the special status by political and legal means; and by mobilizing public opinion.  It is not merely the revocation of the special status but also the new set of rules called Jammu and Kashmir Grant of Domicile Certificate (Procedure ) Rules 2020 which have replaced Article 35 A of the Indian Constitution which granted special rights to “permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir.” Now anyone who has lived in the state for 15 years can get a domicile certificate. 

The Kashmir-based political parties such as the National Conference have said that the new rules are aimed at changing the demography of Kashmir by disempowering the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.

LK: You mention that militants, many of them youth, in Kashmir will take out bitterness on migrant workers from Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab, for example. You address the challenges faced more broadly by migrants in Northeast India in a separate book, The Exodus is Not Over. But, in The Many Faces… you write, “Now it will not be ‘guest militants’ from outside who will use guns, but Kashmiri youth too might take to the gun to avenge their humiliation.”

Based on your experience and conversations through both of these books, could you comment on this motivation for young Kashmiris who have experienced so much oppression to take out their anger on fellow, underprivileged people—who are also economically and socially ostracized by the Indian government?

NH:   In the new Introduction to my book The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism I did mention, almost in passing, on the attacks on migrant workers in Kashmir Valley.  It was in the context of describing the anger against the revocation of the special status and the subsequent clampdown when large gatherings were not possible and migrants became easy targets. 

But now I do see those attacks on migrants in a larger context of how migrants are the most vulnerable section of our society and how easily they can be targeted; and killed, especially in a situation of armed conflict.

We have been witness to a mass exodus of inter-state migrants and the callous indifference to their plight.  In a way, the root of this indifference is the politics of what was called sons of the soil politics, when reservation for locals in jobs, medical and educational institution became a way of mobilizing voters.  Attacks on migrants became an integral part of the calls for autonomy or self-determination. I have supported movements for self-determination both in Kashmir and in the Northeast Region of India.  I believed that each community must have political space for articulating their special demands; for the development of their culture and society.  But does the collective right of a community eclipse the rights of those who are looked upon as outsiders? 

The outsider has inevitably meant the inter-state migrant worker who has been excluded and victimized, even physically attacked just for being an outsider.

And who is an outsider? When does he become accepted as a “local”?

I have written critically on the role of Kashmiri Pandits, but can we justify a politics that have turned them into migrants, outsiders to their own society?

In the context of liberal democracy we could say the protection of minorities is a basic challenge for all democratic societies;   not only for the liberal state but also for movements for self-determination based on ethnicity, race and religion.

LK: You also indicate that the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood may contribute to further radicalization. Can you expand a bit on this?

NH: It was not merely a revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (the special status had already been watered down) but the way it was done. The entire Valley with seven million people were made prisoners in their own homes during a clampdown which lasted months.   There was no internet connection, families could not communicate to each other, youth were arbitrarily arrested and detained, and even those political leaders who had risked their lives supporting the Indian State were put under house arrest. 

And this clampdown was accompanied by unprecedented triumphalism in the rest of the country celebrating the “integration” of Jammu and Kashmir. It is the humiliation of not being able to speak out against injustice that radicalized the youth. The radicalization is a response to the injustice and humiliation; it was a way of asserting self-respect and dignity.

LK: Indian mainstream media, like the Hindustan Times, often depicts Jammu and Kashmir in the context of the Indian Army conducting sweeping operations to deal with Jaish terrorists. Now, certainly terrorism is a reality and is present, but for North American publics who rarely see coverage of Kashmir by Kashmiris, this easily misrepresents the situation in Kashmir : only as a volatile terrorist state that needs to be quelled by the Indian government. (This very clearly reflects Israeli media and the Israeli lobby’s depiction of Gaza and the West Bank.)

Such labels of “terrorism” are rarely questioned. How is this image of “terrorism”, as a tactic, used by the Indian government to invoke fear and manipulate public opinion on the reality in Jammu and Kashmir?

Yes the threat of terrorist attacks is very real. But the question which is sought to be suppressed is : what is the cause of this terrorism.  I remember a time when there were no metal detectors at airports and no body searches at the entrance of government buildings.

Before the insurgency of the 1990s, the media, including Bollywood (as Hindi mainstream cinema is called), Kashmir was used as a location of romance and escapism—the perfect setting for the Bollywood hero to romance his love.

In an all-time hit Jab Jab Phool Khile (Whenever the Flowers Bloomed, 1965)  a rich Hindu woman has a romance with a simple Kashmiri boatman and later brings him to Bombay; the boatman does not like the life in the big city and he decides to return back to Kashmir. He catches a train but the woman chases him to the station and he pulls her up into the carriage. 

The director was asked, to what religion did Raju the Kashmiri boatman belong, and he said he had no idea. But there are no Hindu boatmen (shikarawala)—but in India of the 1960s and 1970s who cared? Today it would become a subject of attacks by the Hindutva organizations who would dub it as “love jihad”.   In the 1990s the same Bollywood made a series of films demonizing the Kashmiri Muslim and portraying him as a terrorist. So the image of the Kashmiri Muslim as a terrorist has been carefully and deliberately constructed to invoke fear and manipulate public opinion so it becomes difficult to voice any opposition to the Government’s policy of repression in Jammu and Kashmir. Anyone protesting against human rights violations in Kashmir has been vulnerable to be dubbed as an anti-nationalist.

Yes, the policies of the present Government mirror the American and Israeli policies. There is an increasing co-operation between the three countries.  And the war on terror is being used to justify corruption, authoritarianism and legitimize religious right ideology.

In the Howdy Modi event in September 2019, just after the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Prime Minister told an audience of more than 50,000 diaspora in the presence of US President Trump at Houston’s NRG stadium that the revocation of the Kashmiri status would put an end to the Pakistan inspired terrorism and bring peace.

This is how the war against terror can be used to manipulate public opinion not only at home but internationally.

LK: Are terms of “terrorism” legally manipulated to permit military and/or police invasion, occupation, or operations?

The terms terrorism can of course be legally manipulated despite the fact the term cannot really be defined legally. The human rights community has been critical of the laws passed to deal with terrorism because these laws have substantially lowered human rights standards and have been proved to be ineffective in dealing with militancy in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir or Northeast. 

The first law passed to specifically deal with terrorism was the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, commonly known as TADA.  It was in force between 1985 and 1995 in the context of the insurgency in the Punjab. But it was allowed to lapse due to increasing unpopularity after widespread allegations of abuse.

Then in 2002 the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was passed in response to the attack on the Parliament.  But despite its provisions, the prosecution could not prove that Afzal Guru belonged to any terrorist group.  This Act too was repealed in 2004.

Then there is the infamous the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA)  which has been amended on multiple occasions;  the most recent amendment that came was the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019. Under the Act, activists have been arrested for posting criticism of the government on Facebook, to voicing their dissent in entirely peaceful way. Terrorists do not operate within a democratic framework; activists do.

The problem of terrorism, however defined, is ultimately a political problem and cannot be resolved by the law.

LK: You mention how the Indian government wants to bring “development” to the Kashmir Valley. The term of “development” often obscures the social damage that often follows neoliberal and “free market” reforms, and the sweeping privatization of social services like healthcare, education, land and property rights. How do you respond to the role of capital in the context of Kashmir: in what ways has Kashmir experienced such forms of economic pressures in the process of pushing for self-determination, and against India’s irredentism? 

The successive  Governments in Delhi have claimed the root cause of the Insurgency and alienation in Kashmir is unemployment and lack of development. However, the economic indicators clearly show in many studies that Jammu and Kashmir was way ahead of many other parts of India.  In part, the reason for this was the radical land reform programme carried out  in the early years after India gained independence from colonial rule.

The Kashmiri political leadership has always maintained that the cause of the insurgency is political alienation, not economic deprivation.

I believe that the big corporations are looking to make an entry into the Valley; especially the travel and tourist industry but the Kashmiri movement has not focused on this aspect of the threat to their identity.

LK: There is a parallel to Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that were ultimately bought by private, Western interests. Poland, Ukraine and Belarus—just as an example—have all felt pressure to privatize social services, reform their militaries, join the NATO alliance, and install governments that are unilaterally friendly to private Western investment and largely U.S. foreign policy.

While the geopolitical circumstances are obviously different, would you say that Kashmir may be threatened, especially now, by similar pressures to impose economic and political reforms?

Yes, there is some parallel. In the sense that for the movement for self-determination the objective is to achieve autonomy or sovereignty but there is little thought of what kind of State an independent Kashmir would be. 

In the past, under the influence of the communists, a manifesto for a New Kashmir was set forth and it inspired the land reforms which I mentioned earlier. But the Kashmiris have no such programme or agenda for reform, or even a critique of the role of finance capital and the destruction of Kashmiri identity by global capital entering into the Valley. In their anger against the Indian state they may even align themselves with foreign capital.  This has happened in the Northeast region of India.

LK: One of the themes in The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism relates deeply to the manipulation of Kashmir during the Afghan wars. Kashmir was caught up in the turmoil of the occupations of Afghanistan, first by the Soviet Union and then by the United States.

The Saudis of course collaborated with Pakistani intelligence in the 70s and 80s to establish terrorist cells in Afghanistan, and work with rebel leaders in Tajikistan. With ongoing Pakistani negotiations with the Taliban, and fears of Pakistan becoming more active in Kashmir, how has this shaped the presence of Jaish in Kashmir, and the influence on a more radical Islam?

The conflict in Kashmir always had international dimensions, and international politics has a deep impact on the turn of events.   Western support for political Islam  is reflected in their (UK, USA and other Western European countries) support for Pakistan over India. Francis Tucker, the last general officer commanding of the British Indian Eastern Command, writes in his memoirs (1950) that Britain deemed it necessary “to place Islam between Russian Communism and Hindustan.”

International human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch are often instruments of their home state’s foreign policy, as can be seen by their interest in Kashmir.   Taking up the issue of human rights violations in Kashmir has allowed Western intervention in the politics of the Region.  So the people in Kashmir are caught between suppression by the Indian state and manipulations by Western vested interests; and more recently by China’s interests.

So, it’s not just a question of Pakistan being more active in the region, but the role of the Western states; their intelligence agencies have a role, which has remained invisible in public discourse.

LK: Throughout this period, Pashtuns in Afghanistan found their religious architecture and sites, symbols, and traditions destroyed and replaced by Saudi-style Islamic architecture. (Many of Afghanistan’s most ancient Buddhist sites were also destroyed).

Similarly, you mention in your book the architectural sway in Kashmir from the pagoda-style mosques toward Saudi-style mosques. What do you feel about this replacement of Kashmiri expression of Islam with an imported version? And in what other ways has this influence reverberated through Kashmiri culture?

NH: I did mention the fact that Saudi money is flowing into Kashmir and the influence of radical Islamic ideas on the impact on Kashmir.  I do not think it has entirely replaced Kashmiri expression of Islam.   The popularity of the Turkish TV show Ertugrul  is a reflection of  how Saudi style Islam does not have an appeal to the Kashmiri, and perhaps to most of the Islamic world.

May I quote from a Kashmiri paper on Ertugrul:

“It is a Turkish series called Dirilis Ertugrul (Resurrection Ertugrul). So far five seasons have been completed and currently sixth season is being aired. Which pertains Osman Gazi (Kirilis Osman), the son of Ertugrul and founder of Ottoman Empire. The show is being watched around the world almost in 150 countries by both Muslims and non-Muslims. … The series is Muslim centered, full of action, thrill and entertainment with meticulous ethics, beautiful mannerisms, unlike Bollywood and Hollywood. Having different characters like scholars, warriors, healers and leaders, I do tempt to acknowledge that full justice has been done by every character, which makes you feel proud of your Muslim history.

What’s more, the show can be watched by one with its family as it’s rightly said, ‘’Halal for the eyeballs.”” 

LK: In your book, you address what Western mainstream media still largely refuses to speak about: the role of Communists in supporting Kashmiri resistance movements—as you refer to the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The Soviets themselves knew very well the insurgent manipulations of the Pakistani intelligence in the region. But in terms of the contemporary moment, would you say there are viable socialist alternatives in Kashmir to the multinational capitalism that India promises to bring to the Kashmir Valley?

NH:   The fact that a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) continues to win elections in Kashmir shows that there is a possibility of an alternative politics based on socialist  ideology in Kashmir. I believe Islam is a religion which has always emphasized the idea of justice – and in part the popularity of Ertugrul is that he fights for justice.  I believe socialism offers real justice, social, cultural and political. But socialists, especially communists, have problems in dealing with religion and nationalism.  How can they address both these sentiments is a challenge for socialists and communists.  In a way, my book’s underlying theme is just that. 

LK: I also wonder if we can talk about nation-building in the context of Kashmiri independence—though it must clearly struggle through this revocation of statehood, posing complicated questions of replicating models of statehood.

It is a challenging conversation, but how does Kashmir avoid replicating the neo-colonialism and the nationalist politics of India itself?

NH:  I had hoped my book would help start a conversation on an alternative conversation; and perhaps it did. But it is a difficult conversation.

The liberals have talked about Kashmir largely in terms of human rights discourse, the torture, the disappearances and the repression. The Islamists have spoken of a society based on Islamic principles and perhaps Shariat laws.  The educated youth and academics look to the West for inspiration.  Radical Islam seems to offer a critique of US imperialism; but it does not have a critique of capitalism.

The Kashmiri nationalist politics is based on a concept of Kashmiariat, which as an ideal has been used as a tool of state policy – as I have shown in my book.

LK: You’ve written about how you deliberately chose to focus on Afzal Guru’s story, despite both popular controversy in India around his nationalism, and efforts by the Indian government to censor and literally erase his life: as you quote “his life should become extinct”. Especially from your perspective as a writer, could you explain a bit more about your motivation to bring attention to Afzal Guru’s life regardless of the condemnation?

NH: My book is about two persons, Sampat Prakash, a Kashmiri Pandit and a communist trade union leader who was active in politics from the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, and Afzal Guru who became involved in politics with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Sampat Prakash testified as an expert witness in the Parliament attack case and has tirelessly worked for the cause of Kashmiri nationalism; and he campaigned for Guru’s acquittal.  He remained committed to his socialist ideals but has been critical of the communist parties.  Afzal Guru was a Kashmiri nationalist but disillusioned by nationalism – Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri – and took refuge in political Islam. 

Both these Kashmiris felt deeply and passionately about Kashmir, and their stories put together reflect the pain, anguish and dilemmas faced by all Kashmiris.  As a person, Afzal Guru was in real life everything a real Kashmiri is: warm, loving, with humour, thirsty for knowledge and spiritual not a bigot in any sense of the term. He even won the heart of the jailors.

LK: And, could you also comment more broadly on the importance of keeping alive the legacy of contentious political views in the face of enormous censorship and revisionism?

NH:   I felt that the stories of Sampat Prakash and Afzal Guru needed to be told because they represented histories which no one wanted to preserve.  Sampat Prakash had left the communist party and Afzal Guru was a surrendered militant.  But both were not traitors to their cause.  Documenting their lives and keeping alive their legacy of contentious political views was a way of starting a conversation on alternative politics in Kashmir.  This interview is a testimony that perhaps the effort was not wasted.

Nandita Haksar

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, campaigner and writer. Her engagement with the people of Northeast India began while studying in Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 1970s. She has represented the victims of army atrocities in the Supreme Court and the High Court and campaigned nationally and internationally against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In her capacity as a human rights lawyer, Haksar has helped to organize migrant workers to fight for their rights and voice their grievances. In 1983, she became the first person to challenge the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the Supreme Court.

She successfully led the campaign for the acquittal of one of the people framed in the Indian Parliament attack case. She has written innumerable articles in national dailies and journals and is the author of several books, including Nagaland File: A Question of Human Rights (co-edited with Luingam Luithui) (1984); Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism in the Time of Terror (2009); Who Are the Nagas (2011); ABC of Naga Culture and Civilization: A Resource Book (2011); The Judgement That Never Came: Army Rule in Northeast India (co-authored with Sebastian Hongray) (2011); Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India (2013); The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day (2015); and Kuknalim: Naga Armed Resistance (with Sebastian Hongray, 2019). Haksar lives in Goa, Delhi and sometimes Ukhrul, with her husband, Sebastian Hongray.