by Ananya Vajpeyi
[This review/reflection has been available for several weeks on the online Outlook.
We're posting it here for ease of access: ]
Sanjay Kak’s new documentary “Jashn-e-Azadi” (“How we celebrate freedom”) is aimed primarily at an Indian audience. This two-part film, 138 min long, explores what Kak calls the “sentiment”, namely “azadi” (literally “freedom”) driving the conflict in the India-controlled part of Kashmir for the past 18 years. This sentiment is inchoate: it does not have a unified movement, a symbol, a flag, a map, a slogan, a leader or any one party associated with it. Sometimes it means full territorial independence, and sometimes it means other things. Yet it is real, with a reality that neither outright repression nor fitful persuasion from India has managed to dissipate for almost two decades. Howsoever unclear its political shape, Kashmiris know the emotional charge of azadi, its ability to keep alive in every Kashmiri heart a sense of struggle, of dissent, of hope. It is for Indians who do not know about this sentiment, or do not know how to react to it, that Kak has made his difficult, powerful film. And it is with Indian audiences that Kak has already had, and is likely to continue having, the most heated debate.
Between 1989 and 2007, nearly 100,000 people – soldiers and civilians, armed militants and unarmed citizens, Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris – lost their lives to the violence in Kashmir. 700,000 Indian military and paramilitary troops are stationed there, the largest such armed presence in what is supposedly peace time, anywhere in the world. Both residents of and visitors to Kashmir in recent years already know what Kak’s film brings home to the viewer: how thoroughly militarized the Valley is, criss-crossed by barbed wire, littered with bunkers and sand-bags, dotted with men in uniform carrying guns, its roads bearing an unending stream of armoured vehicles up and down a landscape that used to be called, echoing the words of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, Paradise on earth. Other places so mangled by a security apparatus as to make it impossible for life to proceed normally immediately come to mind: occupied Palestine, occupied Iraq.
Locals, especially young men, must produce identification at all the check-posts that punctuate the land, or during sudden and frequent operations described by the dreaded words “crackdown” and “cordon and search”. Kak’s camera shows us that even the most ordinary attempt to cross the city of Srinagar, or travel from one village to another is fraught with these security checks, as though the entire Valley were a gigantic airport terminal and every man were a threat to every other. As soldiers insultingly frisk folks for walking about in their own places, the expressions in their eyes – anger, fear, resignation, frustration, irritation, or just plain embarrassment – say it all. In one scene men are lined up, and some of them get their clothes pulled and their faces slapped while they are being searched. Somewhere beneath all these daily humiliations burns the unnamed sentiment: azadi.
One reason that there is no Indian tolerance for this word in the context of Kashmir is that the desire for “freedom” immediately implies that its opposite is the case: Kashmir is not free. By the logic of the Indian state, India is free and Kashmir is a part of India, ergo, Kashmir too, must be free. But Kak’s images provide visual attestation for something diametrically opposed to this logic: the reality of occupation. Kashmir is occupied by Indian troops, somewhat like Palestine is by Israeli troops, and Iraq is by American and coalition troops. But wait, objects the Indian viewer. Palestinians are Muslims and Israelis are Jews; Iraqis are Iraqis and Americans are Americans – how are their dynamics comparable to the situation in Kashmir? Indians and Kashmiris are all Indian; Muslims and non-Muslims in Kashmir (or anywhere in India) are all Indian. Neither the criterion of nationality nor the criterion of religion is applicable to explain what it is that puts Indian troops and Kashmiri citizens on either side of a line of hostility. How can we speak of an “occupation” when there are no enemies, no foreigners and no outsiders in the picture at all? And if occupation makes no sense, then how can azadi make any sense?
Kak explained to an audience at a recent screening of his film in Boston (23/09) that he could only begin to approach the subject of his film, azadi, after he had made it past three barriers to understanding that stand in the way of an Indian mind trying to grasp what is going on in Kashmir. The first of these is secularism. Since India is a secular country, most Indians do not even begin to see how unrest in any part of the country could be explained using religion – that too what is, in the larger picture, a minority religion – as a valid ground for the political self-definition and self-determination of a community. The Valley of Kashmir is 95% Muslim. Does this mean that Kashmiris get to have their own nation? For most Indians, the answer is simply: No. Kashmiri Muslims are no more entitled to a separate nation than were the Sikhs who supported the idea of Khalistan in the 1980s. Such claims replay, for Indians, the worst memories of Partition in 1947, and bring back the ghost of Jinnah’s two-nation theory to haunt India’s secular polity and to threaten it from within.
The second barrier to understanding, related to the struggle over secularism, is the flight of the Pandits, Kashmir’s erstwhile 4% Hindu minority community, following violent incidents in 1990. 160,000 Pandits fled the Valley in that year’s exodus, leaving behind homes, lands and jobs they have yet to recover. Today the Pandits live, if not in Indian and foreign cities, then in refugee settlements that have become semi-permanent, most notably in Jammu and Delhi. For Indians, even if they do little or nothing to rehabilitate Pandits into the Indian mainstream, the persecution of the Pandits at the hands of their fellow-Kashmiris, following the fault-lines of religious difference and the minority-majority divide, is a deeply alienating feature of Kashmir’s conflict. Kashmir’s Muslim leadership has consistently expressed regret for what happened to the Pandits in the first phase of the struggle for azadi, but it has not, on the other hand, made any serious effort to bring back the exiled Hindus either. In failing to ensure the safety of the Pandits, Kashmir has lost a vital connection with the Indian state – and, potentially, a source of legitimacy for its claim to an exceptional status as a sovereign entity.
The third major obstruction to India taking a sympathetic view of Kashmir is the problem of trans-national jihad. Throughout the 1990s, Kashmir’s indigenous movements for azadi have received varying degrees of support, in the form of funds, arms, fighting men, and ideological solidarity, not only from the government of Pakistan, but also from Islamist forces all across Central Asia and the Middle East. The reality of Pakistani support, and the presence of foreign fighters, from an Indian perspective, damages the claim for azadi beyond repair.
Kashmiri exceptionalism in fact has an old history. Yet even if we do not want to go as far back as pre-modern and colonial times, then at the very least right from 1947, Kashmir has never really broken away completely like the parts of British India that became Pakistan, nor has it assimilated properly, like the other elements that formed the Indian republic. The status of Kashmir has always been uncertain, in free India. But with the involvement of pan-Asian or global Islamist players, starting with Pakistan but by no means limited to it, the past gives way to the present. India no longer deals with Kashmir as though it were still the place that was ruled by a Hindu king until 1947 and never fully came on board the Indian nation in the subsequent 50 years. It now looks upon Kashmir as the Indian end of the burning swath of Islamist insurgency that engulfs most of the region. In quelling azadi the Indian state sees itself as engaged in putting out the much larger fires of jihad that have breached the walls of the nation and entered into its most inflammable – because Muslim-majority – section.
Secularism, the Pandits and jihad are all very real impediments to India actually being able to see what is equally real, namely, the Kashmiri longing for azadi. Kak explained to his viewers that to be able to portray azadi from the inside, he had to get through and past these barriers, to the place where Kashmiris inhabit their peculiar and tragic combination of resistance and vulnerability, their dream of a separate identity and their confrontation with an overwhelmingly powerful adversary. Their misery is palpable but they have yet to find a politics adequate to transform dissatisfaction into independence. Kashmiris do not agree on a singular meaning of the word “azadi”. Meanwhile, in the face of brute oppression, they do not fully fight back, but they do not submit either.
Kak subtly captures their strangeness as a people: they recount how they lost sons and husbands to a random, ubiquitous and unforgiving violence, and, in the midst of gruesome narrations, offer the questioner tea. They walk among the dead, through lots covered with marked and unmarked graves, speaking of the departed in a weird idiom that mixes the language of martyrdom with the everydayness of life that must continue. Their poets, whether Muslim or Pandit, compose verses that in Kashmiri, Urdu or English carry the same unmistakable note of pain, even as they mirror a landscape of mountain lakes, blooming flowers and delicately-hued skies. (A few years ago Amar Kanwar’s documentary “Night of Prophecy” also brought to Indian audiences the same poignancy of poetry written by Kashmiris that confronts torture, disappearance and death in a place of unearthly natural beauty). Their traditional entertainers, village bards and clowns, called “Pather Bhand”, remember their patron, the medieval pir (Sufi saint) Zain ul Abidin, or Zain Shah, and tell tales of war and destitution with a mischievous light-heartedness that makes you cry instead of making you laugh. Women cover their heads but look at the camera with unnerving directness, insouciant, beleaguered but never submissive. These are a wry people, part defeated, part unconquerable.
Their breathtakingly beautiful land stands at the crossroads of East Asian, Central Asian and South Asian cultures. For centuries, different races, religions and ethnicities have trampled through Kashmir, subduing its people on their way. But the Kashmiri language bears little relationship to any other languages of Persia, India, Afghanistan, Tibet or China, its nearest neighbours. Kashmir has always kept its head down as the winds of history have blown over and across the mountains, turned inward in an isolation that feeds the desire for azadi but does not provide the political wherewithal, the canniness, to carve out a separate nation in a world where might makes right.
Here the Indian Army arrives, 1 Indian soldier to every 10 Kashmiris. Here the Indian tourists arrive, as Kak shows us, sledding in snowy Gulmarg, dressing up in “native” costume to have photographs taken in the Mughal Gardens of Srinagar, calling blood-spattered Kashmir a veritable Paradise. Here the sadhus in saffron robes arrive, on their way to the holy shrine at Amarnath, on their annual pilgrimage, invoking, in the same breath, the Hindu god Shiva and the Indian flag, the “tiranga” (“tri-colour”). You cannot take away what is ours, say these people. Ah, but you cannot keep what was never yours, either. India for Indians; Kashmir for Kashmiris: this is the fugitive logic that the filmmaker is seeking to make explicit.
Kak has set himself a nearly impossible task. He must take Indians with him, on his difficult journey, past their prejudices, past their suspicions, past their very real fears, into the nightmarish world of Kashmiri citizens, torn apart between the militants and the military, stuck with the after-effects of bombings, mine-blasts, crackdowns, arrests, encounter killings and disappearances that have gone on for nearly two decades without pause. I became interested in Kashmir at the same time, for the same reason, that Kak began his investigations: the trial of S.A.R. Geelani, accused and later acquitted in the December 13, 2001 Parliament Attack case. In 2005 I wrote a couple of articles about Geelani, a Kashmiri professor of Arabic and Persian Literature at Delhi University, for this and other Indian publications. These earned me denouncements as anti-national, self-hating, anti-Hindu, pro-Pakistani, crypto-Muslim, etc. One letter to the editor even called me a terrorist!
Kak has already had a taste of this reaction since the release of “Jashn-e-Azadi” in March, and must expect more of it to be coming his way in the next few months, as his film is shown widely in India and abroad. In fact, he is sure to get more flak that I ever got, given he is a Kashmiri Pandit. Aggressively Hindu nationalist, right-wing Pandit groups find Kak’s empathy for Kashmiri Muslim positions infuriating, a “betrayal” that enrages them much more than that of a merely (apparently) Hindu – non-Pandit – sympathizer like myself.
But like Israeli refuseniks, there is reason to believe that now India too has its own nay-sayers, who cannot condone the presence of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir or the continued refusal of the Indian state to engage with Kashmiris on the question of azadi. Kak himself makes the comparison to Palestine by calling the azadi movement of the early 90s “Kashmir’s Intifada”. What allows someone like me – born, raised and educated in India, secular, committed to the longevity and flourishing of the Indian nation in every sense – to get, as it were, the meaning, the reality, and the validity, of Kashmir’s agonized search for azadi? Why do I not want my army to take or keep Kashmir by force, or my fellow-citizens to enjoy their annual vacations as unthinking, insensitive tourists, winter or summer? Why do abandoned Pandit homesteads affect me as much as charred Muslim houses, and why do I think that neither will be rebuilt and re-inhabited, nor will they be full of life as they once were, unless first and foremost, the military bunkers are taken down?
The answer comes from my own history, the history of India. If ever there was a people who ought to know what azadi is, and to value it, it is Indians. 60 years ago India attained its own azadi, long sought, hard fought, and bought at the price of a terrible, irreparable Partition. My parents were born in pre-Independence India, and to them and those of their generation, it is possible to recall a time before azadi. Kak’s film incorporates video footage from the early 1990s, taken from sources he either cannot or will not reveal. In those images of Kashmiris protesting en masse on the streets of Srinagar, funeral processions of popular leaders, women lamenting the dead as martyrs in the path of azadi, terrorist training camps, the statements of torture victims about to breathe their last and BSF operations ending in the surrender of militants, the seething passions of nationalism come right at you from the screen, leaping from their context in Kashmir and connecting back to the mass movements of India’s long struggle against British colonialism, from 1857 to 1947.
No Indian viewer, in those moments of collective and euphoric protest against oppression, could fail to be moved, or to be reminded of how it was that we came to have something close to every Indian heart: our political freedom, our status as an independent nation, in charge of our own destiny. The irony is that azadi is not something we do not and cannot ever understand, but that it is something we know all about, intimately, from our own history. What frightens us is not the alien nature of the sentiment in every Kashmiri breast: what frightens is its familiarity, its echo of our own desire for nationhood that found its voice, albeit after great bloodshed, six decades ago.
The British and French invented modern democracy at home, but colonized the rest of the world. The Jews suffered the Holocaust, but Israel brutalizes Palestine. India blazed the way for the decolonization of dozens of Asian and African countries, and established itself as the world’s largest democracy, yet it turns away from Kashmir and its quest for freedom, and worse, goes all out to crush the will of the Kashmiri people. Indians with a conscience – and perhaps Kak’s film will help sensitize and educate many more, especially the young – ought not stand for this desecration of the very ground upon which our nationality rests. After all, we learnt two words together – “azadi” and “swaraj”, freedom and self-rule – and on these foundations was our nation built.
We are a people who barely two generations ago not only fought for our own freedom – our leaders, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and so many others, taught the whole of the colonized world how to speak the language of self-respect and sovereignty. We of all people should strive for a time when it will become possible for a Kashmiri to offer a visitor a cup of tea without rancour or irony, as a simple uncomplicated expression of the hospitality that comes naturally to those who belong to this culture. We should join the Kashmiris in their search for a city animated by commerce and conversation, not haunted by the ghosts of the dead and the fled. We should support them, whether they be Muslims or Hindus, in turning their grief, so visible in Kak’s courageous work of witnessing, into a genuine “jashn”, a celebration, of a freedom that has been too long in the coming.
Anything less would make us lesser Indians.
Ananya Vajpeyi is a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi (2005-2008)