Kashmir Affairs / April-June 2007 / Interviews Page 68
Film Director, Jashn-e-Azadi
What do you feel when you hear the word Kashmiriyat?
I don’t respond well at all! I see it as a politically motivated word. It carries echoes of the use of Punjabiyat that we in India heard mostly during the troubles in Punjab in the 80s, implying, I suppose, an identity beyond Sikh and Hindu. Kashmiriyat does exist, but when the State and the mainstream media start waving about phrases like this, it puts me on my guard, since they usually have some other agenda, other than a love for the essence of Kashmir or Punjab or wherever.
Of course Kashmiriyat does have a real meaning for Kashmiris; after all, for a hundred years before 1947, there was a Muslim majority in Kashmir, with a tiny Hindu minority, under the protection of a Hindu ruler. Of course they co-existed, but it was not nearly Paradise. 95% of its people lived in near serfdom. Without being too cynical, isn’t subordination a powerful social cement, especially from the point of view of the dominant? For me Kashmiriyat is not some portmanteau word for Hindu and Muslim co-existence, as much as a term for the distinctiveness of the Kashmiri Muslim. You could even say that the Hinduism in Kashmir was never as distinct from the Hindu mainstream (of India) as Kashmiri Islam was from Islam in, say, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or Iran or Saudi Arabia. Of course Kashmiri Hindus went to Sufi shrines, but that’s not unique to Kashmir is it? Hindus did that all over India, didn’t they?
Islam in Kashmir was a distinct practice, it was often mystical and difficult to define, but I think its people know what that tradition means. In our times Kashmiriyat has been used to tell Kashmiri Muslims that they are not really part of the wider Islamic world, used to reclaim Kashmir from that world. So it’s not a word I see the Indian State−or the Indian media−use innocently. It’s never been used for the purpose of integrating Kashmiri Hindus into the wider Kashmiri society, for example, only for integrating Kashmir into India!
What has been the consequence in India of the almost two decades of the present phase of violence in Kashmir?
For me the most frightening thing in Indian public life today is its nationalism; and I’m not just talking about the Right-wing Hindutva brand. The Left, the progressive-liberals, even amongst the academic community – on Kashmir, no one is particularly racked by guilt. People might disapprove of the oppression of its people, in the best liberal tradition, but in the general response to Kashmir, there is no major fracture as such. In the last 4 or 5 years, because I’m looking for other voices, I hear some, but I hear many more, even on the liberal left, who are quite comfortable with the official rhetoric on Kashmir, and its role in the consolidation of Indian nationalism. There is a kind of wilful unknowing. Sometimes I think Secular Nationalism is a force even stronger than Hindutva, although to be thought of in the same breath as Hindutva would of course embarrass the sophisticated Indian intellectual!
Kashmir in 1947, in the way it was placed in the politics of the Congress party and in the way it was projected by India and mirrored by Sheikh Abdullah in the National Conference, was considered as part of India principally because of the secular mandate. After all, the Indian Constitution spoke of Secularism, Socialism and Democracy. Today much of that promise lies in tatters, and the years when the BJP held the levers of power exemplified that. The Indian state has instead become increasingly territorial; it has begun to believe it’s an empire. It cannot deal with conflict in its extremities, be it in Manipur or Nagaland, the demand for Khalistan, Kashmir, or any other expression of independence or separation.
The Indian state has today arrived at an arrogance and certitude, a brutal mindset that thinks it can sit out any conflict, wait for any claims to independence, or justice, to exhaust itself and subside. In the so-called Indian liberal media, institutions like the Hindu, Indian Express and NDTV; on communalism they’re all very up-front, very progressive, willing to take a position. But that’s where it evaporates. On every other issue of the moment; Kashmir, the Northeast, the Maoist insurrection, they tend to cop out and think like the State! This is what allows a paper like the Indian Express to see itself as a crusading paper: it can take on communalism in Gujarat, declare war against corruption in infrastructure development in Bihar, and then they can dine off that for years! But Kashmir has them worried; maybe India’s position is less powerful than they believe, maybe the Emperor has no clothes, and this creates real angst among this liberal elite. I think the incipient power of India in the world community bodes ill for Kashmiris, since India tends to mimic the powerful. The ‘don’t negotiate on Kashmir’ line is, I think, reinforced for India by the experiences of the US and Israel, so they can now suggest there is no one to dialogue with.
What is your background?
I grew up in the world of the military, since my father was an officer in the Indian Army. So in many ways this makes my journey to Kashmir doubly loaded; by birth a Kashmiri Pandit, and then socialised in the Indian Army! I came to university in Delhi, read economics and sociology. I thought I would enter print journalism, but in the early 80s, print was somnolent, a moribund medium. At that time I had no ambitions to be a filmmaker, I just happened to become a researcher on a documentary film, and after that, drifted into filmmaking. But the early ‘80s were also an exciting time because of the dismantling of the Doordarshan’s (the State broadcaster) monopoly on television. It seemed there would be an opening out, not just to private interests, but also of the public sphere. These were the Rajiv Gandhi years, remember! I was part of the start-up of one of the early private TV production companies, we did the first Election Specials, which were broadcast by the Doordarshan and seen by millions. But it also soon became clear to me that TV was not a vocation, it was an industry, which was going only one way, the way of profit, and it was scarcely more accountable than Doordarshan, which in fact was being destroyed for the sake of commercial interests. I slowly made my way out of TV, and I think I did right for myself; since then, there’s such an explosion of broadcasting, such a serious overload of information, most of it reductive, a babble of voices. It’s not easy for people to make choices anymore.
Tell me about the ideas behind your earlier films.
In 1997 I worked on a film in Arunchal Pradesh, in India’s northeast, a documentary about a community that comes together to build a 1000-foot long bridge of cane and bamboo. In the forest hangs a bridge was a celebration of a community, in an era when everything around us was working to destroy community. When I showed it in Delhi, people said to me: Aren’t you romanticising that world? Maybe I was, but there was a rhetorical purpose in that romanticism; it offered another way of looking at the world. I was increasingly disturbed at what was going on around me, was feeling much more angry. But where would I go next? I was 37; it was not enough to make another lyrical film that understood how things once were. It was more important to understand what it was that was destroying the cohesion of a people.
What followed was a film I made in the Narmada valley, that was between 1999 and 2001. I wanted to see what destroys communities, what undermines traditional self-sustaining ways of life, what are the structures that manufacture poverty. It was during the course of making Words on Water that the real nature of the Indian state began to unravel for me, the way its institutions function – it was a slow and painful education for me. Through the lessons of the Narmada Bachao Andolan I learnt a way of looking at the processes of development in our time.
What took you to back to Kashmir?
I went back in 2003, which was after a gap of 14 years! There were a set of circumstances: I was just emerging from the Narmada experience, when I got drawn in, quite tangentially, into the legal defence of SAR Geelani, the Delhi University teacher who was framed in that unbelievable set-up that’s come to be called the Parliament Attack case in India. Geelani’s lawyers asked me if I could translate a conversation in Kashmiri between him and his brother for the Trial Court − the Prosecution was insisting that there was a full-blooded conspiracy in the fact that when his brother asked, “What have you done?” he laughed, and said, “This has to be done sometimes”. There was a perfectly innocent domestic explanation, but the Special Branch of the Delhi Police had pinned its entire case against Geelani on this conversation, they had no other evidence connecting him with the conspiracy! Eventually, after several years, Geelani was freed, but just following that case at some proximity was a real shock to me; like a bucket of cold-water thrown in the face of one’s comfort with Indian institutions, with the dysfunctional levers of Indian democracy.
I guess it was the right time for me to go to Kashmir, both personally and politically. I went back to Srinagar on a vacation, my daughter was 13, she’d never been to Kashmir. I was shocked by what I saw. The degree of militarization, Srinagar as an occupied territory. It was July, the annual Amarnath Yatra was passing through the valley, and the aggression of the pilgrims was also very disturbing. Their nationalism was so ugly; their slogans and their flaunting of their saffron flags. Worse, the State seemed totally complicit in all this, to the pointed exclusion of the local people. There were welcome banners all along the roads, put up not by local people, but by paramilitary forces, by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF). The only Kashmiris were porters and pony men, and I suppose the J&K Police and a few junior bureaucrats. That combination of militarisation and communalisation was appalling.
I came back a month later; it just happened to be on 15th August, Indian Independence Day. That day, I walked out of my aunt’s home and walked around Srinagar, and it was the most chilling image of my life. At 10.30 in the morning, there was absolutely no one on the streets, not even security personnel. I walked for several hours. There was not a person on the street, only a sullen silence. I think the silence that day was integral to my thinking about a film in Kashmir.
At that stage I didn’t know what the film could be about; all I knew is what I did not want to do in a film on Kashmir: I did not want a historical narrative, or a description of what is going on, because all that is so hugely contested, so noisy. I wanted to evoke what life is like in Kashmir, and what it means politically; a tone for the film if you like. The toughest thing was to understand the feeling, not necessarily what people were saying. Their feelings are complex, but that doesn’t mean they are not clear. How would the film deal with the past and present, how would it deal with the occupation in a cinematic way? I couldn’t just take a camera and do interviews, because people will not talk in Kashmir, not truthfully or meaningfully in any case. And I knew that my film is not aimed at Kashmiris, but at ordinary Indians; not “aimed” in an aggressive way, but in a sharing of an awful understanding. After all, what most people know and understand in Kashmir is terrible.
What place do the Kashmiri Pandits have in all this?
See, if I’m introduced as a Pandit in Kashmir, often the first question asked, quite provocatively, is: “When did you run away?”! I think the exodus of Pandits is complicated for the Kashmiri Muslim society. They feel the Pandits are the betrayers and they are the betrayed; “why did they leave, when we had to stay?” that sort of thing! In the early 1990s, when the Pandits left, forced out by the militancy, by fear, by the neglect of the Indian government, it was one of the great tragedies of the past 20 years. And like all of Kashmir’s tragedies, it’s complicated. They were an urban middle class, college teachers and government servants, but they were also a rural lower middle-class; shopkeepers, schoolteachers, and small landowners. Their numbers were never immense, but they were everywhere. They were part of the place. Today I think their departure is felt; Kashmiri society has begun to realise the absence of difference, that the monoculture that remains, is not necessarily good for it. At the same time, there is often an exaggerated nostalgia for Pandit scholarship and education; the feeling that the school system collapsed, that education was damaged with their departure. Of course, in reality, the damage was caused not just by their departure, but also by the government policy of not recruiting people on a permanent basis to replace them. I have no doubt that Pandits have suffered psychologically and materially, but the real sufferers amongst them often have the most compassion, the most complex understanding. If you travel in Kashmir, whether in the interior of Srinagar, or in the villages, there are still a few thousand Pandits. When I speak with them, they are often the ones with the most nuanced understanding of what is going on; the Pandits who are most vocally against the movement in Kashmir are by an large an elite amongst the migrants, who have done very well outside of Kashmir; and whether they are in Delhi or America, their’s is the most virulent hatred of everything associated with the present in Kashmir. They can only dream of a Pandit homeland in Kashmir, with government jobs I suppose!
What are the consequences for Kashmir of the last two decades?
For me the most important question today would be, what does the ordinary Kashmiri do to contribute to his or her society? Apart from a handful who are active, most people have withdrawn from the social sphere. It is complicated territory. There is not just one way in which a struggle can be fought, there are other, inclusive ways; perhaps the armed struggle was not able to make place for other skills. The way I understand it, in the 1990s a hierarchy was created in Kashmir in which either you were an armed militant or you were nothing. All other forms of social and political activity came to be seen as compromised. In the early years the Kashmiri movement had the support of intellectuals, and writers; people with ideas. But by the mid-90s, a more fundamentalist culture had marginalised them. Then there followed the Ikhwani (pro-India militants) culture of the mid-90s, the violence and disorder that these uncontrolled militias unleashed on Kashmiri society. People learned to shut up and hide their opinions. Also I suppose once the control over the militancy slipped across the borders to Pakistan, there was little place for an indigenous intellectual response. The Indian state has also effectively subsumed such activity, using a carrot and stick to silence any real debate. Kashmir University is such a timid, broken sort of place, where to hold an opinion publicly could lead a student, or a Professor into serious trouble. Kashmir is awash with money, to buy people out, to mute any kind of real debate. There are over 14,000 NGOs registered in Kashmir. Between the State and the militancy can there be no third voice, which is not that of a funded NGO? That’s a real tragedy; that a culture in which civil society had participated in the resistance, took a severe beating, and never really got going again. This was an immeasurable impoverishment of Kashmiri society. Reviving those debates, those initiatives involving civil society will take time. People are beginning to realize they need good writers, poets, thinkers. Even filmmakers! Over the past four or five years, I think there has been a shift in perception. Getting people involved in civil society has begun; it means the struggle is still not over. As a Kashmiri I see myself as part of these new conversations; I’m not here just to research for a film. In these past two years I have met some of the brightest young men in Kashmir, burned in the furnace of the past 15 years, with good minds, sharp, clear ideas; all they need is to start articulating these, however they can.
The idea of a Kashmiri nation is new. For 60 years after 1947, have Kashmiris discovered what they want to do and be? What will be the role of religion in Kashmir? These are old questions, yet they remain unresolved. We were speaking of the Pandit migration earlier; of the many hundreds of thousands who have left Kashmir in the last 20 years, the Pandits are the most visible, but there’s also been another exodus. Throughout the 90s, any Kashmiri Muslim family that could, packed their children off abroad, all over the world. Now theyare doing fantastic things. This Diasporic Kashmiri community, which left at a time of tumult, continues to maintain a painful relationship with their homeland. These exiles all talk all the time of Kashmir – in London, in Houston, in Aligarh, in Delhi – they constitute a phenomenal resource potentially. How to use that resource, that’s a big question.
Things change; I hear the old slogans at funerals, but not every day. Young people express themselves in other ways, there are blogs and e-groups, people are discussing what they understand by “Kashmir”. Four years ago, when I asked friends what kind of Kashmir they wanted, their answer was ‘We’ll think about it when we get it’. Now they are talking of the shape of Kashmir. I’m excited by the possibilities I see in Kashmir. But people find that their desire for freedom is not reflected in India. People outside of Kashmir do not even know what these people are fighting for. Indians need to recognise that there is a dignity and a morality involved here; you have to engage with it, not misrepresent it or dismiss it. My own engagement with Kashmir is a way of opening spaces for dialogue. In 2007 I think ordinary people may be ready for it in India. It’s not that our conversations will lead to major policy changes, but at least the obnoxious silence must be broken. Films can open up such spaces.
from Kashmir Affairs / Vol.2 No. 2 / April-June 2007 http://www.kashmiraffairs.org/