Azadi: for Kashmir and the rest of India

Ushak Rahaman

“We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the villa of peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear….”

– Agha Shahid Ali

As I write this, the aspiration expressed by the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali seems even more distant as the valley burns yet again after the extra judicial killing of 22 year-old Burhan Wani, a handsome young man from a well-to-do family of Tral region of Pulwama District, and a commander of the pro-Pakistan militant organisation Hizbul Mujahideen. Burhan was active on the social media website, Facebook and posted various propaganda videos at regular intervals. Among his last videos, was one in which he warned of attacks against Indian security forces. Yet, he also welcomed Kashmiri Pandits (while refusing to accept any ‘Israel-like settlement’) and offered assurance to the Amarnath pilgrims.

After his death, thousands of Kashmiris came out on the streets in protest and held memorial meetings in different places. In response, the Indian security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing 33 people in a brief span of four days. The use of pellet guns by the armed forces has left many blinded. Hospitals and ambulances have also been attacked by security forces.

Much has already been written by reporters, scholars, political activists and political analysts in the last few days. Then why am I writing this again? Can I say anything new on the dispute or the current situation that has not already been said before ? The answer is No. I am writing this because I am angry and sad. Those thirty three people have been killed in my name, in our name. Our hands are marked with the blood of those thirty three and thousands others who have been murdered and mutilated and subjected to enforced disappearance in the last 20 years in the name of ‘national security’. I need to express my anger and grief and there is no other way to do so than to write. So, here is what I need to say.

For the past few years, whenever the valley goes through crises such as the present one, the popular discourse in media and elsewhere circle around a single word, ‘Azadi.’ Though ‘azadi’ seems like a very simple, innocent word, its implications in the real world are not as simple. In the last few months we have seen heated public debates on the meaning of azadi after three Jawaharlal Nehru University students were arrested on the charge of sedition following an event on Kashmir and raising the slogan of azadi in the university campus on 9th February 2016. One of them, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU Student’s Union, gave a speech after his release on bail, which was shared and viewed by millions on social media. In his speech he claimed that by azadi, he did not mean azadi ‘from’ India, but azadi ‘in’ India – from poverty, casteism, capitalism, feudalism and patriarchy. Following this speech, many scholars and activists raised objections stating that in Kashmir, azadi ‘in’ India cannot be differentiated from azadi ‘from’ India. If the word azadi in the capital of India can send three young students to jail, its implications are much more complicated in Kashmir. Every time, Kashmiris come out on the streets with the slogans of azadi ‘from’ India, the national media and right-wing political groups cry foul and portray the situation as one where radical Islamist organisations in the valley with the help of Pakistan are trying to destroy India’s national integrity. The right-wing section of the media and political groups celebrate the armed forces and claim that it is the ‘separatist groups’ that are responsible for the lives of the people. Many a time, even the murders of people in the valley have been celebrated by right wingers as one witnessed during this recent crisis, with the grotesque celebration of the killings of unarmed people, protesting the death of Burhan Wani.

and claim that . While those belonging to the Parliamentary left do not celebrate the deaths of common people in Kashmir, yet, unlike their explicit condemnation of US imperialism and occupation of Palestine by Israel, they do not support Kashmir’s call for ‘azadi’ and claim instead that it is an integral part of India.
The non-parliamentary lefts, of course, describe this as a ‘revisionist’ tendency of those on the Parliamentary left and support the Kashmir’s ‘right to self determination’. Umar Khalid, one of the three students arrested after the 9th February incident in JNU, posted a passionate message on Facebook following Burhan’s death, comparing the late commander of the Islamist organization with Che Guevara.

In the common perception of the not-so-political Indian middle class, Kashmir is a great place for holidaying. Most of them see Kashmiris, demanding azadi as traitors (Muslims are always potential traitors in India, right?) funded and helped by an evil Pakistan. Most of them have great regard for the security forces and believe that they cannot do any wrong. Whenever reports of atrocities by security forces surface, they dismiss these as mischievous acts by a ‘few bad men’ and go on to say that the army as a whole should not be blamed for such acts.

Is Kashmir really an integral part of India? What does an integral part mean? Do we mean that the land, water, mountains, lakes are integral to the geographical map of India? Or do we also regard the people living in Kashmir as an ‘integral part’ of our nation? These are questions to which I desperately seek answers. If we believe that the people of Kashmir are an integral part of the nation, then who are those who have been killed and wounded and blinded over the last few days, including the five year-old girl who was hit by a pellet gun in her eyes? Do we sincerely believe that the little girl will grow up to love our beloved nation? Hospitals and ambulances have also been attacked by the armed forces. If Kashmiris are indeed an integral part of our nation, are we then fighting a battle against our own people?

What about Parveena Ahangar? Parveena is the founder and Chairperson of the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons, an organization that struggles to put up pressure on the Indian Government to investigate 8000-10000 cases of involuntary and enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Parveena’s son was also forcefully disappeared by Indian armed forces. Is she a terrorist? What about the other parents or ‘half widows’, whose children or husbands have simply ‘disappeared’? Are they an integral part of this nation? If they are, why doesn’t our nation investigate properly and deliver justice to them? What about the women of Kunan Poshpora who were allegedly mass raped by security personnel – an allegation strongly refuted by the Indian Government as baseless, but over which serious doubts have been expressed by international human rights organisations, particularly the manner in which the investigation was carried out?

In 2014, as a student of one of the premier institutes of the country, I, along with a few other friends, tried to organize a seminar on Kashmir by Prof. Dibyesh Anand of Westminster University, London. Dibyesh is quite (in)famous for his pro-independence stand on Kashmir and Tibet. Although his stand does not match the official stand of the Indian state, in a democracy, one would imagine that this would not stand in the way of organising an academic seminar. Moreover, a middle-aged professor holds no threat to the state, whatever his opinion may be. But the permission for the seminar was cancelled at the last moment by the authorities. Though the official statement from the authorities stated that the seminar was denied permission because it had not been organized by a recognized student body, a senior member of the administration told us verbally, “We are answerable to the Government of the nation. What if the Government asks us the motive to organize a seminar on Kashmir?” I was stunned. How can we claim to be a democracy and Kashmir an integral part of the nation when the authorities of a premier institute are scared of organising a seminar on Kashmir? (After much outcry from the students and faculty members, the seminar was organised with the help of a few faculty members in a small departmental seminar hall.)

I grew up in West Bengal listening to the stories of the freedom movement of Bangladesh andreading stories and watching movies on the Bangladeshi freedom struggle . After partition, there was no state called Bangladesh; present-day Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan and called East Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan felt that their linguistic identity had been suppressed under the Pakistani regime and they demanded freedom. From the point of view of Pakistan State, the freedom struggle of erstwhile East Pakistan was a separatist movement and it tried to suppress the aspiration of its people for freedom by organising genocide, mass rape and several other atrocities by the Pakistan Army.

India, under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, supported and helped the people of East Pakistan by sending its Army and forming international opinion in favour of the struggle. If we could support the right to self determination of the people of East Pakistan in 1971, then why can we not support the right to self determination of the Kashmiri people in 2016? Granted that the situations are not the same; bothhave their own nuances. Yet, there are undeniable similarities. Wasn’t it interference on the part of India in Pakistan’s ‘internal affairs’? Here I must make it clear that I completely support and take pride in how India helped Bangladesh gain freedom. But the question is, why can’t India acknowledge the right to self determination of the people of Kashmir? What makes the demand of azadi of the people of the former East Pakistan holier than that of the people of Kashmir? If we are truly a democracy and a progressive nation, we should support the demand of azadi of people everywhere.

Of course the situation in Kashmir is much more complex than it was in East Pakistan in 1971. We cannot deny that Kashmir shares its border with the failed state of Pakistan. It is also true that radical Islamist organisations like the Hizbul Mujahideen are dangerous. But these situations need to be addressed with dialogue, not with bullets, rapes and torture. If we are honest in our claim that Kashmir is an integral part of India, we should engage in dialogue not only with the leaders of the valley, but also with the people of Kashmir. People can never be won by guns, but by love and compassion.

While news anchors of Indian media shouted hysterically, celebrating the death of Burhan Wani, did we, as a nation, make any attempt to talk with thousands of Burhans? We have tried to answer the grievances of the people in the valley with force and have created the likes of Burhan in the process. I have no reservation in saying that Burhan Wani and the politics of his organisation cannot be romanticised. No, dear Comrade Umar, Burhan is not Che at any cost. But at the same time, we need to understand what created the circumstances that led young Burhan to pick up the gun at the age of 15. We, as a nation, cannot deny our responsibility in making him a terrorist.

Moreover, when some of my committed left friends who while supporting the right to self determination of the people of Kashmir, also express their concern over growing Islamisation in the valley, should keep in mind that the responsibility for the same rests not merely with non-state actors, but also the state. During the recent crisis, the Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh met with Imams from different parts of the country, most of whom have no relation with Kashmir, to discuss the issue. This is nothing, but reducing the Kashmiri people to their immediate religious identity, thus, hastening the Islamisation of the people in the valley. Labelling everyone who demands azadi in Kashmir as Islamist, is nothing but overlooking history.

In Kashmir, there is a long tradition of tolerant, secular Islam preached by sufi saints. The demand for azadi of Kashmir dates back to the Mughal era. According to Prof. Dibyesh Anand, “Kashmir has evolved and there has been a long struggle between those inviting outsiders to support them, outsiders ruling, and those resisting. There are plays and folk tales about 500 years of occupation and resistance.” In 1944, Sheikh Abdullah prepared a draft named “Naya Kashmir- Future Constitution of the State of Jammu and Kashmir describing Citizenship of the State and Rights and Duties of Citizens and detailing a National Economic Plan for the State”. In the said draft, freedom of speech, work, worship, belief and thought were ensured. Maqbool Bhatt, the co-founder of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front who was hanged by the Indian state on February 11, 1984, also wrote “For us, Azadi (independence) means not just getting rid of foreign occupation of our beloved motherland but also to remove hunger, poverty, ignorance and disease and to overcome economic and social deprivation. One day, we shall achieve that Azadi .” Looking at Kashmir’s self determination movement through the lens of radical Islam is nothing but an attempt to make people forget this history. We also need to keep in mind that it is easy to decide which is an Islamist organisation and which is not, from our privileged positions. However, these views may not find resonance with the people who live under the constant threat of bullets, murder, and disappearance.

When I look at pictures and videos of people hurt by pellet guns, and shiver with an unknown fear, I ask myself what I would have done had I been one of them. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps I would have picked up the gun. It is quite difficult to imagine ourselves with our privileges stripped off.

“This world is in deep trouble, from top to bottom.

But it can be swiftly healed by the balm of love”, wrote Aamir Nazir, son of an artisan of Kashmir on his Facebook page. Aamir was an M.Com. student at Delhi University. He went back home during his summer vacation only to get killed in the recent crisis. Aamir will never return to Delhi to complete his course. But Aamir dreamt of a better world filled with love just as Agha Shahid Ali did. Whether their dreams will come true will depend on the rest of us, who are still alive. We need to decide how we, as a nation, will address the grievances of the people of Kashmir. How will we respond to their demand for azadi – with bullets and pellet guns or with love and compassion? After all, “to accuse those who support freedom of self-determination,” wrote Lenin in ‘The Right of Nation to Self Determination’, “ i.e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separatism, is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties. Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods.”

As I finish penning my thoughts, the news of anti-Pakistan, pro-azadi movement in Pakistan occupied Kashmir surface on my Facebook newsfeed. I hope that in my lifetime, I will be able to see a united, peaceful Kashmir, free from the hostility of both, India and Pakistan.


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