“There Is a Necessity for Remembering the Horror. . .”

Photo: The Economic Times

By Ishrat Bashir

“We enter histories through the rubble of war” – Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire 

On 11th August 2019, the news of Toni Morrison’s death reached us when we had been changing news channels for hours to get some news about what actually is happening in Kashmir that has been put under curfew for a week without basic amenities like mobile, landline and internet services. Toni Morrison is one of those few writers who teach us that language is something that “we do[1] and this fact makes it “the measure of our lives”. This learning is particularly significant for a people who are often incarcerated not only in their homes and prisons but also in the discourses perpetuated by those in power. Morrison teaches us that incarceration in the discourses can be escaped by telling our own stories even if we have to tell them to the walls of our prisons. The basic amenities of communication have been suspended precisely for hushing up the stories. But the colonial state attempts to justify the communication blackout as a security measure in the interest of the people of Kashmir, a measure to ensure “peace”. A decade back, Morrison writes in Burn This Book, “Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often but not always, fools” (1).[2] She quickly adds that no one is foolish enough to give free range to dissident writers and media because they disturb “the peace” (Morrison calls it “the coma that despots call peace”) that oppression imposes on people. However, the freedom of media is not simply curbed in conflict states but it is employed mostly as the handmaid of the state to produce “lethal discourses of exclusion blocking access to cognition for both the excluder and the excluded.”[3]

On the first day of the communication blackout in Kashmir, the cable network remained suspended. On the second day, two Indian news channels are aired. These are actually English and Hindi versions of the same channel. So Kashmiris watched the spectacle of abrogation of Article 370 on an Indian news channel that also offered a few visuals from curfewed streets from Kashmir.

What is Article 370? It is the legal agreement of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. Does its abrogation free Jammu and Kashmir from India? No! Why? Legal agreements in colonial occupations are political maneuvers that entwine colonized public intellectuals into the labyrinth of ‘il/legal’ debate, and make physical resistance of masses a prey to the repressive laws of the colonial state. Article 370 has been a nefarious tool of colonialism to legitimize colonial rule in Jammu and Kashmir. When the Indian sub-continent got independence from the British Empire in 1947, it was divided into two nation-states (later into three) of Pakistan (predominantly Muslim) and India (predominantly Hindu) which come into being over the blood of hundreds of thousands of people in communal riots. According to the Independence Act of India, more than 500 sovereign princely states were given a chance to choose their fate. The rulers of Hyderabad and Junagarh, where the majority population is Hindu, decided to accede to Pakistan but the leaders of Independent India in their avatar of champions of democracy argue that the wishes of people should be respected. The people of the two states chose India.

When it comes to Kashmir which was a Muslim majority state under a Hindu ruler, the democratic logic is subverted and the then-leaders of India try to coax the Maharaja to accede to India in clear disrespect of the wishes of people. Meanwhile, when the people of what is now known as Azad Kashmir with the help of tribals from Pakistan ‘invade/enter’ Kashmir to wrangle it free, the Maharaja seeks India’s help and, in return, conditionally accedes to India (The circumstances under which accession happened are historically debatable). Whatever be the conditions, it is particularly significant to mention that this is the same ruler against whom the people of Kashmir had been in revolt since the 1930s owing to their political and social oppression. It is the same Maharaja whose family rule over Kashmiris for a hundred years has reduced them to extreme poverty, incarceration, restriction on their religious freedom, and bonded labour. This historical fact makes the accession a bogus move. The issue is taken to the United Nations Security Council and resolutions are passed that decide on a plebiscite of people of Jammu and Kashmir to be conducted which turns out to be a ‘waiting for Godot’ for Kashmiris.

Now the world is watching and the bogus is not enough. The condescending State has many aces up its sleeve. The Constituent Assembly of Kashmir was formed which ratified the conditional accession to India through Article 370 on the promise that a referendum of people should be conducted soon under so-called ‘favourable’ circumstances to decide the final accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan or the people may choose to remain independent. The possibility of an impartial referendum was guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that temporarily legitimized an oppressive ruler’s conditional Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir with India. Since the intelligent people around the world were watching the drama of formation of the Constituent Assembly, the promise of the referendum was reiterated by the then Head of the State of India in his public speeches and letters written to the UNO and Pakistan from time to time. However, the promise of referendum continued slipping down the slope of history as the geopolitical scenarios kept changing.

In the meanwhile, the discourse of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India began to emerge in a style that Edward Said in a different context calls “corporate institution”[4] of Orientalism, of dealing with Kashmir by making movies about it, by ruling over it, by giving public speeches, by hailing Kashmir as the crown of integral India, by invoking the so-called radicalization of youth, poverty of people, unemployment and underdevelopment of Kashmir. With apologies to Said, it has been an Indian style “for dominating, restructuring and having authority over [Kashmiris].” The discourse is forged in the mediasphere more than elsewhere and the narrative of Kashmir being the integral part of India is etched in the public mind of India.

In the backdrop of this discourse, the referendum that was promised finally took place in the Parliament of India in an archetypal colonial style where the majority of representatives of people of India voted for the abrogation of Article 370 to decide the fate of 12 million Kashmiris incarcerated in their homes. The spectacle of the abrogation of Article 370, the last link to the dream of freedom and the resolution of the conflict, in the Parliament of India is televised. The ruling party, suddenly one fine morning, introduces the bill for abrogation in the Parliament for debate. It is a classical comment on the affairs of the world’s largest democracy where the Opposition parties of India are clueless. They enter a debate for which they are least prepared even as that debate meant nothing for the oppressed. Obviously, the major opposition parties are not able to produce a single cogent argument when the ruling party hurls a question at them “How has Article 370 benefitted Kashmir? (The subtext of this question is how has Article 370 benefitted India?)”

The inability to produce any cogent argument lies in the fact that they have endorsed falsehood in answer to a question asked before: “Do you agree that Jammu and Kashmir is the integral part of India?” They cannot say “No” because there is peril in speaking the truth. Their answer is “yes”. This is not an emphatic Yes because they know it is a trap whose nets they have ruthlessly prepared themselves for seventy years in the name of a fallacious democracy in Kashmir. They cannot speak the truth for it would mean, as Morrison says, “all necks are on the line.” Their only answer is that it has not been done in the constitutional manner, that it is the violation of Constitution of India which will have consequences for Indian democracy. Nevertheless, the Article was abrogated and the spectacle moved to the media. “Unmonitored writing” (unmonitored media), Morrison teaches us, is feared by the despots because it speaks the truth and “truth is trouble [. . .] for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public” (2).[5] In a colonial situation, unmonitored writing/reporting is not only prevented but it is countered, wherever it exists, through overwhelming doctored discourses.

No independent news channels are allowed in Kashmir. The so-called independent Indian news channels are the only means of communication. Two such news channels particularly organize debate after debate on the abrogation of the Article 370 with carefully chosen panels having invariably one or two army Generals or Colonels on them. Meanwhile the other news channels are also opened in a calibrated manner. Under the façade of impartial debate, the operation is set to normalize the so-called historic decision in the ‘mediasphere’ which might subtly naturalize it in the public sphere. This is done through “vocabulary shifts”[6] coupled with imbalanced panels where generally four people are debating in favor and the two speak against, while the vocabulary is mostly controlled by the TV anchors and moderators. The moderators force black and white questions on those who speak against the abrogation. Almost all the moderators ask “Do you have objection on the abrogation of the Article 370 or the manner in which it has been done?” Thus, legitimizing a decision imposed on 12 million people without their participation in the debate. These televised debates are shrewdly engineered in a way that does not undercut the colonial desire of total subjugation of Kashmir, and yet keep the façade of democratic debate alive. It is particularly interesting, though not surprising, that in none of these debates does the most obvious question of the possibility of ethnographic/demographic engineering of Kashmir arise. Not a single seasoned critical panelist could even remotely see the possibility of changing the Muslim majority character of the State of Jammu and Kashmir in an effort to delegitimize Pakistan’s claim over it, and the manipulation of political space of Kashmir in favor of India.

The discourse of curbing ‘the militancy in Kashmir’ is reiterated forcefully without a single reference to draconian laws like PSA and AFSPA and Operation All Out in Kashmir which are in place in the state despite Article 370. The metaphor of “progress and development” in a clear crusade for privatization of essential services like health sector falls totally on the deaf ears of so-called leftist public intellectuals participating in the debates. Even the most admirable of the anchors, whose critical acumen and integrity is otherwise laudable, endorse and reiterate the historical silencing of the people of Kashmir in their pathetic utterances like “now that the decision has been taken, what is the way forward of living in peace.” None of the debates focuses on the possibility of challenging this historical decision or criminalizing dissent in Kashmir that is evident even to a lay person. This whole spectacle is created to induce a state of helplessness in those who wish to resist but are completely shocked at the moment. The semblance of keeping up the image of a non-partisan media is attempted through visuals of curfewed streets of Kashmir mediated by a Kashmiri journalist. The news correspondent from Kashmir informs the channel about the curfew and communication blackout, who is reporting from within an area of the radius of 4 Km. only, but every time he insists on the fact that people are ‘peaceful’. It is absurd for a news correspondent to insist on reporting that people are peaceful when he knows that every road and each alley in Kashmir has a police deployment patrolling it. It is important to remind the reader that they carry both bullet and pellet guns, pellets that have blinded thousands of Kashmiri children. It is understood that the journalist is a Kashmiri and the one with the only channel that has been allowed to telecast in Kashmir. Subsequently, he is even forced to reiterate that this kind of situation has not risen for the first time, pacifying and exonerating the current government from any blame. Further, the same media picks up a few individuals on the desolated streets to implicate them in the state narratives to legitimize them.

Today, Kashmir is a classic example wherein the repressive state apparatus (Penal system, the police, the army, the legislature and government administration) is employed to provide an ecology for Ideological state apparatus to take root and grow in certain ‘pockets’ to use the state vocabulary. The discourse of new Kashmir as a heaven of economic progress and development for hitherto excluded social groups, in the absence of civic and political freedom of all, is reiterated from ramparts of historical buildings, stadiums and media studios. This heaven seems to require an inferno of a protracted desolation to simmer at the least 8 million people as a condition to come into being. This desolation that the colonial state calls “peace and normalcy” would have to stifle each word of dissent. To ensure that the desolation does not echo and resound the dissent, which is its natural characteristic, a scenario of potential law and order crisis is assumed and circulated. This legitimizes the state’s mapping of a people into categories that are essentially criminalizing basic human rights like right to freedom of expression. A blueprint for tackling the law and order in the state emerges which is in essence a grammar of mapping the whole population as varieties of ‘terrorists’: the blueprint of four Ms (as the state calls it) — Movers, Mobsters, Militants and Moulvis. It is immaterial to attempt a description of these terms because these are essentially various labels employed in colonial paraphernalia to curb dissent and make any meaningful civil protest impossible. To indulge in describing and differentiating these terms from one another is to fall in the trap.

The Indian media, that in other circumstances conduct debates even on a slight rhetorical figure that a State official might use, plays its role in disseminating the blueprint quietly among the masses to strengthen the politics of fear and desired subjugation. But at the same time, they have to reinvent their role in order to stay relevant and keep their business alive. Now they focus on the survival of people in subjugation. Many Indian news channels, glossing over the structural oppression of 8 million people in Kashmir valley for more than seven decades, now focus the eye of its camera on the steady return of “normalcy” by generating the corresponding images. Having reduced the abrogation of Article 370 irrelevant to people’s will, the magnanimous media will now investigate the state narrative of providing facilities in subjugation by their reality checks. They will go to the extent of knocking at the doors of schools to check if they are open. They will dial the landline numbers of their offices from Kashmir to check if telephone lines have been restored. They will pretend to ask the government questions on Kashmiri’s behalf and are ready to make the absurd answers palatable in their own vocabulary. They will call it fair and impartial journalism. Meanwhile, people will sit in front of their TV sets to watch the virtual summaries of their collective routine and discuss it in their free prison time. This is a chaos that is responded by “stillness” as Morrison describes it, a stillness, “that can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art” (4).[7] Not that all of us can be good artists and writers but all of us can tell stories as human beings understand their world fundamentally through stories. While to live in the face of annihilation is in itself a statement of resistance, telling stories is living with a song that could not be buried in the rubble of imposed wars.

The title of the piece is derived from Danille Taylor-Guthrie’s edited book, Conversations with Toni Morrison, University of Mississippi Press, 1994.

[1] Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993. London: Chatto&Windus, 1994, p. 22 (original italics).

[2] Toni Morrison, “Peril.” Burn This Book, edited by Morrison, HarperCollins e-books, 2009.

[3] Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993. London: Chatto&Windus, 1994, p. 19.

[4] Edward Said. Orientalism. Penguin, 1978, p.5.

[5] Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993. London: Chatto&Windus, 1994, p. 19.

[6] Nancy Fraser. “Solidarity or Singularity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technocracy.” Consequences of Theory by Jonathan Arac and Barbara Johnson (Eds.) London: John Hopkins University Press, 1991

[7] Toni Morrison, “Peril.” Burn This Book, edited by Morrison, HarperCollins e-books, 2009.

Dr. Ishrat Bashir is an Assistant Professor in English at the Central University of Kashmir. She teaches Contemporary Literary Theory and British fiction. She obtained an M.A. in English from University of Kashmir in 2008, and received her doctorate in Arabic Literature in Translation in 2018. Her poems, articles and translations have appeared in Transnational Literature, Indian Literature, Muse India, Open Road Review and Kashmir Dispatch. She lives in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.


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