Kashmir and the Masque of India
by Feroz Rather. Photographs by Shahid Tantray
In J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Life and Times of Michael K, a meek gardener finds no recognition or relief in a society founded and organized on the principles of violence and exclusion. After his mother’s death, in the deepening silence Coetzee plunges him in, Michael K recedes to the wilderness of a veld. As Cynthia Ozick rightly suggests, this thin crack in the ubiquity of the state is the most hopeful and thrilling time in the life of our hero with a harelip.
And here begins the parable of Michael K’s freedom and resourcefulness; here begins Michael K’s brief bliss. He is the lord of his life. It is his mother’s own earth; it is his motherland… a newfound sovereignty over his own hands.
In a symbolic act, he plants the hope that he might feed himself on the melons he grows, thus willing the reversal of time: an individual violates his contract with society and, opting out of civilization, bursts out of the bounds of the state. It is a subtle slap in the face of the nationalists and apple-cheeked liberals who consolidate the illusions of justice as they watch the savagery on the street unfold from their safe houses. As they indulge themselves with the masochistic pleasures of soft talk, feebler voices are crushed and destroyed, lives looted, and bodies vandalized.
In 1989, Kashmir rose in arms against India, which deepened its occupation of the agrarian, predominantly Muslim people by stationing more than half-a-million soldiers in the Himalayan valley twenty-two miles wide and eighty miles long, tucked away from the world’s gaze. Ever since then, Kashmir remains the most densely militarized place in the world where the carnage of civilians—continual from its inception—has never stopped. After consuming more than seventy thousand lives in the last twenty-seven years, it began again on July 8, when the Indian army and police jointly killed a 22-year-old Kashmiri rebel, Burhan Wani. The news spread like an invisible ball of fire rolling through a dry jungle long awaiting rain. People broke out into streets to mourn their martyr. The funeral snowballed into a demonstration against the death and the loss, against what Kashmiris do not ever seem to let die inside them—the idea of aazadi, freedom. People sang “We Want Freedom” and “Go India Go back”. They threw stones at the police interrupting the processions of mourning. The defenceless have nothing, save the songs, save the stones.
Infuriated and frustrated, Indian policemen shot them down with bullets. And to quell the thirst and fury, they fired at eyes and faces with pellet guns. They blinded and defaced the protestors on the streets and inside the houses, executing with heartless accuracy the instructions in the state’s punitive procedures. According to the last reports, over a duration of 40 days of complete curfew and clampdown, in one thousand different incidents of firing, the forces had killed 63 people and blinded hundreds and wounded thousands.
Burhan was a bright son of a school headmaster. Six years ago, during the summer of uprising in 2010 when 120 Kashmiri protestors were killed, he and his brother Khalid were beaten and humiliated by the Indian police outside his town, Tral, in the southern Kashmir. While Khalid fell unconscious on the road, Burhan escaped the scene and became a rebel soon afterwards, attracting a band of local boys. Last year when Khalid went to meet him, the army troops followed. They captured Khalid and, according to Burhan’s father, tortured him to death.
Burhan refused to die a slow death. He openly challenged the legitimacy of India’s rule in Kashmir. He had taken to the jungles of Tral, from where he frequently posted his pictures and videos on Facebook and YouTube. Without masquerading, posing happily in military fatigues, he invited Kashmiri youth to join him to liberate Kashmir from India. He preserved his freedom until his last breath, firing the imagination of the entire Kashmiri society that we might be our own sovereign. That is why people are protesting ceaselessly; they are turning Burhan’s funeral into a continuity.
In the mounting heap of blood-soaked images, I have a recurrent dream about Kashmir: a night filled with desolation and toxic smoke. I hear women wailing in the distance. The ground is abysmal and shaky. The street is a litter of limbs and stones and broken glass.
On July 23, the Srinagar daily Kashmir Reader reported on the five-year-old boy into whose eyes a CRPF trooper flung sand and injected needles in my home district, Anantnag. The boy was later operated on his left eye at the Shri Maharaja Sing Hospital in the capital city of Srinagar, and the doctors said the first operation was not enough to bring back his power to see. What is being done to him—this little child, is reflected in the eye that is not bandaged and blinded but half-shut in horror and bewilderment. And that might have been blinded as well if the boy had been present in the emergency hall on August 1, when some troops of CRPF barged inside and burst smoke shells amidst the patients suffering from lung and respiratory diseases. The same troops who are attacking the ambulances, smashing the windshields, beating the drivers, and pulling the needles straight out of the flesh of the wounded.
What barbaric times we live in. The mobile service is snapped. The Internet is blocked. The newspapers are banned. The journalists are beaten and harassed. Facebook is disappearing the profiles of those who are posting about Kashmir. Horrors are penetrated whence no evidence could ever be recovered, no mutilations reported.
India has waged a war against Kashmir’s humanity. With each Kashmiri its armed forces kill in their dark nationalist fervor, they certainly sink further into the fetid quagmire of hatred that’ll engulf them, too. They are blinded to the extent that even with children they do not stop before shattering their eyes with pellets. The rationale must be nothing if not a virulent, fascist strand of nationalism.
I would have to find a uniquely extravagant yardstick to measure the comprehensiveness of India’s assault on the people of Kashmir. For every killing done in the streets of Kashmir in broad daylight, it is re-enacted at night in the newsrooms of New Delhi. The generation of news anchors who, under the influence of Narender Modi’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric, participate in the idea of their country as a soaring superpower, spewing venom out of their loud mouths, perform a daily verbal butchery of journalism. It is shocking, as a Kashmiri professor of English Literature remarked in one of these debates, how these days army generals are entertained in these public discussions.
What makes the current scenario even more despondent is that India’s politicians, instead of building institutions for their poor, are busy piling up arms. Far from fostering a culture of democracy, they are erecting the skyscrapers of rhetoric and hysteria.
India’s argument is that Kashmiris, all the seven million Muslims living in the valley, are being lured and instigated by the Islamist terrorism of some groups based in Pakistan. And thus the carnage must continue.
Every society inherits a language. Inherent within the language, in the Foucauldian sense, is a structure, and inherent within that structure is a structure of meaning. When someone who is (perceived to be) an outsider comes home and begins the systematic process of controlling and exploiting us, we resist. With resistance develops an iconography, a set of symbols and songs drawn from our historical memory. Resistance evolves a language that comes from the text central to the culture of the oppressed. That text and the body of its diverse interpretations—including the philosophical, or so to say heretical ones developed by the mystics in the case of Kashmir, is the Qur’an.
We are under a fierce physical and psychological siege. And while the outsider collides with us, in the torturous, endangered process of meaning-making, it is to this text that we resort ever so forcefully, it is from here we derive our songs and slogans and ideals of justice. And it is this unique intensity that distills our idea of who we are and who, under occupation, we must be and distinguishes us not only from India but also from Pakistan. Our language is Koshur and not Urdu nor Hindustani nor Mandarin.
One remarkable character of Kashmir’s struggle for freedom is that, despite an overarching religious episteme—and sociologically speaking that is cultural in nature—it is tolerant in character. In one of his videos, even Burhan quite clearly said that he wouldn’t harm the Hindu pilgrims who come to visit Amarnath from different parts of India to Kashmir during the summer. He never opposed the return of Kashmiri Pandits, only their ghettoization in the separate colonies which the state is in the process of constructing, positing us against our own society.
Kashmir resists its participation in India’s facile secularism. It rejects belonging to a country where goons come home to beat you to death no matter what, without bothering whether the meat in the fridge is lamb or beef. Kashmiris resist being at the mercy of hands that employ the procedural mechanisms of majoritarian democracy, not to inculcate the values informing the constitution, not to implement the rule of law, but to unleash institutional violence on minorities. Kashmir detests the country that is willing to commit war crimes in the name of national security. Kashmir abrogates the country which has constantly betrayed democracy and failed to come up with, and sincerely apply, the just mechanism called referendum to ask us what we want, because we do know what we want.
In 2002, when most of the rebels active since 1989 had been killed, I found a book in an old, dusty shop in Srinagar. The Feyman Lectures on Physics had a bright, yellow cover and was a rage among my bookish friends many of whom would go on to become the doctors and who are right now stitching the wounds of Kashmir.
One of the things I remember the great physicist saying is:
If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed onto the next generations of the creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?
If the quote were to be altered in the context of Kashmir, it would become:
If, in some cataclysm, most of the Kashmiris were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed onto the next generations of survivors, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?
The answer in Srinagar is not that matter is made up of atoms but: What do we want? Freedom.
Photographs by Shahid Tantray
About the Authors:
Feroz Rather is a doctoral student of Creative Writing at Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review and Caravan. The Night of Broken Glass–his novel-in-stories about the war in Kashmir is forthcoming from HarperCollins.
Shahid Tantray is a photojournalist from Kashmir.