Here’s a great irony: JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar’s 11 February slogans about `azadi’ from hunger, exploitation, `Manuwad,’ etc. appears to have upset some Kashmiri `azadistas’ almost as much as it has upset right-wing conservative `nationalists’ – in some cases, perhaps even more.
Some Kashmiris have spoken quite worriedly since then about the `appropriation’ of their favouite word – `azadi.’ For, Kanhaiya’s speech channeled it into a discourse that represents a Leftist conceptualization of nationalist aspiration – within the framework of India. This `dilution’ of the word – as some of them call this creative usage of the word they commonly use to represent anti-India sentiment – makes many `azadistas’ uneasy.
The fact is that most azadi-walas see the world in two-dimensional black-and-white terms just as much as most right-wing `nationalists’ do. The latter want rigid conformity to the status quo. They see the world as a struggle between good `nationalists’ and evil anti-nationals. Azadistas cling to a victim-Kashmir versus oppressor-India binary even more tenaciously.
Focusing on inequalities and injustices within India undermines the ogre-like monstrous image of India which they have nurtured. Their narratives depend on a tight focus on human rights abuses – which, to be sure, have been horrific.
Tragically, one reason abuses have continued for the past quarter-century is that the two sorts of blinkered extremists feed off each other. Each has gained political mileage, and talking (or rather, yelling and sloganeering) points, by fulminating against the other.
While doing so, neither side focuses on peace. The militaristic right-wing is intent on supporting more armed forces deployment, more special powers for them, the suspension of citizens’ rights, and enhanced budgetary allocations for counter-insurgency wherewithal.
On the other hand, those who want to reserve the word `azadi’ for an anti-India assertion of Kashmiri identity are sometimes even more belligerent. That antagonism is the fount of slogans such as the more extremist ones that resounded in JNU on 9 February. Rights abuses and counter-insurgency excesses, mainly by the state police force during the past decade, give this hatred salience.
In Kashmir, discourses based on an exclusivist Kashmiri identity often extend seamlessly across the political leadership in both the so-called `mainstream’ and `separatist’ camps. Spin-offs from the now gigantic counter-insurgency economy accrue to a vast network of politicians and officials – and others with one sort of power or another. Some of the most vigorous proponents of Kashmiri `azadi’ are sons and other close relatives of ministers, MLAs, officials and even police officers and men.
Those who propagate the `azadi’ discourse most vigorously are often part of the social establishment within Jammu and Kashmir, even if they feel that their aspirations are stifled – a little like the irate `nationalists’ who beat Kanhaiya at the courts and those who fulminate on certain national television news shows also feel that `Leftists’ threaten their aspirations for a strong, proud India.
So, a nuanced view of Kashmiri society suits them even less than pro-Dalit, pro-tribal or pro-minority voices suit right-wing `nationalists.’ Like `azadistas,’ `nationalists’ have two-dimensional perspectives regarding their respective social milieus.
`Azadistas’ are generally most likely to deny the existence of caste differences within Kashmir – and paper over ethnic differences. But many of them blithely treat those whom they consider their social inferiors with terrible contempt. Many use terms like `gojar,’ `gamuk,’ `gruhus,’ `hanz,’ `khoda’ and `watal’ with barely imaginable disdain. And this is all concerning persons or communities among Muslims in the Valley. The antagonism between communities in other geographical portions of the state is another story.
The last census showed a higher concentration of manual scavenging there than anywhere else in the country – and an extremely worrying gender ratio in the youngest age bracket.
Most of these azadistas hate Communists as much as do right-wing `nationalist’ conservatives – if not more. The fact is that most of those in both camps are (sometimes closeted) religious zealots. A Kashmiri student in Delhi remarked about the `azadistas’ among other Delhi-based Kashmiri students that they project themselves as Leftist to cozy up to those who patronize and support them out of reflexive ideological convictions, but actually hate godless Communists with a vengeance.
This helps to explain why support for Kanhaiya Kumar has been at a relatively low pitch in Kashmir, even though the CPI-affiliated Kanhaiya has gone through horrendous trauma owing to slogans that were raised at his campus, reportedly by Kashmiris from outside JNU.
A fortnight after Kanhaiya’s arrest on 12 February, there were protests in parts of Kashmir on Friday (relatively anodyne by Kashmir’s standards) and a shutdown has been called today.
During this fortnight, JNUSU Vice-president Shehla Rashid has been the public face of the strong stand JNU students have taken. But, although she hails from Kashmir, there has been little sign of public support for her from there.
The sporadic public support that has been evident from Kashmir has tended to focus on JNU as an institution, or on the relatively radical Umar Khalid. A few days ago, a bright young JNU student from Kashmir wrote an open letter thanking Umar for giving Kashmiris a platform. The letter made no mention of Kanhaiya, although he was in jail at the time it was written, and Umar had not yet been arrested. Several Kashmiri `azadistas’ shared the letter on social media.
On the plane of political optics, the low key responses from Kashmir – which generally has the tendency to erupt in highly charged and demonstrative outbursts – is all to the good. High-decibel responses would have given right-wing `nationalists’ another handle to berate JNU `Leftists’ as `anti-nationals’ allied with secessionists.
That said, Kashmiri responses to Kanhaiya and Shehla (thundering silence), to Umar (rare, muted support) and to JNU (low-key backing) are instructive regarding attitudes and values in Kashmir. Apart from the right-wing leanings of many azadi activists, one must understand the extraordinary self-obsession of many Kashmiris. Generally, they expect one to accept all in the entire monolithic category of Kashmiri as undifferentiated victims.
One must also acknowledge the hate-filled destructiveness of many of their responses – such as the most objectionable slogans that were raised at JNU on 9 February.