(Originally Published in Kindle Magazine)
Kashmir remains a blind spot for the Indian Left. Class, inequality, and Hindutva are topics the Left are happy to discuss, but when it comes to Kashmir, a curious mix of Islamophobia, amnesia and pure neglect has come to define the liberal Left’s engagement with one of the most puzzling topics in post-independent India.
The White Man’s Burden
In the nineteenth century, at the height of British colonial rule in India, British thinkers began to conceptualise utilitarian theories of liberty and equality. A new discourse of representative government, women’s suffrage, state-supported education and freedom of speech and expression emerged in Britain, as rights of citizenship and the role of the state in promoting liberal values became more defined. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the Indian subcontinent remained subjugated under colonial rule. British liberals, many of whom were involved with colonial administration, persistently held a conviction that India needed enlightenment and progress, and it was only through British intervention that this could occur. These thinkers were unable to extend the rights they demanded for those in the metropolis to the colonies. In their eyes, India was not ready for self-governance, as its people were backwards, irrational, and inherently violent. Indians needed to be governed from the outside—it was for their own benefit.
The Student Unrest of 2016
In the first few months of 2016, an incident at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, an esteemed Indian university known for its activism, galvanises leftists, liberals, progressives, and anyone else who has faced the ideological wrath of the ruling right-wing regime. In the aftermath, these leftists, progressives et al, discuss, debate, and deconstruct rights—their rights, as citizens of a constitutional republic. Casting allegiance to the Indian constitution, they demand azadi, or freedom, within the contours of the same constitution. They demand freedom of expression, freedom from hunger and poverty, and freedom from oppression and exploitation. They are well aware of a demand for a different sort of azadi that began in another space and time—an azadi from their republic—a demand that has been tugging at their conscience for some decades. But out of fear, or ignorance, or at worst, sheer hypocrisy, they label the Kashmiri demand for self-determination as illegitimate, irrational, violent, anti-national, bad-national, separatist.
British liberals, many of whom were involved with colonial administration, persistently held a conviction that India needed enlightenment and progress, and it was only through British intervention that this could occur. These thinkers were unable to extend the rights they demanded for those in the metropolis to the colonies.
Few Brave Voices
The intellectual subjugation on Kashmir today takes many forms.
These forms shape how the Kashmiri movement for azadi is viewed, interpreted, and depicted within the liberal establishment in India. They reveal the ways in which the question of self-determination for Kashmir is fundamentally detached from the question of democracy in India.
To be clear, not all progressive voices in India fall into this categorisation. In recent weeks, there have been a few brave voices who have spoken out against the broader trends in left-leaning Indian circles to circumvent or equivocate on the question of Kashmir—and they have certainly paid for it. Nonetheless, in today’s Indian political landscape as it pertains to Kashmir, there is a broad-based liberal consensus that discursively and practically erases the Kashmiri freedom movement. Much of this Indian liberal discourse not only mirrors colonial logic, but also is replete with Islamophobia.
In today’s Indian political landscape as it pertains to Kashmir, there is a broad-based liberal consensus that discursively and practically erases the Kashmiri freedom movement. Much of this Indian liberal discourse not only mirrors colonial logic, but also is replete with Islamophobia.
The pathological fear of the Kashmiri Muslim, in particular, is circulated not just by right-wing Sanghis in India, but has also been adopted by a number of Indian liberals, although in more discreet ways. While these liberal intellectuals debate the need for reform and define rights within the metropolis (London/Delhi), they justify subjugation through elaborate sophistry in their respective colonies (India/Kashmir). The point here is not to equate the British rule of India to Indian rule of Kashmir in terms of the nature of coloniality, but to analogise how both types of ‘external’ rule were and are legitimised, especially amongst the intelligentsia.
There are three types of liberals. The “good”, “the forgetful”, and the “liberal Islamophobe”.
The Good Liberal
These are fairly well-intentioned individuals, who are nonetheless unable to get rid of their deeply entrenched Indian nationalist sentiments. They might go so far as to demand the revocation of AFSPA, the draconian law that gives soldiers impunity. They may even bring up the human rights violations—including rapes—committed by the Indian army. However, much like their good British liberal counterparts, they will not go so far as to challenge the nature of their country’s rule in Kashmir. They justify the continued occupation on pragmatic grounds—national security and integrity, economic viability, and political complexity. This justification mirrors colonial logic that some subjects are “not-yet-ready” to self-govern.
They justify the continued occupation on pragmatic grounds—national security and integrity, economic viability, and political complexity. This justification mirrors colonial logic that some subjects are “not-yet-ready” to self-govern.
The Forgetful Liberal
Aside from the “good liberals”, there are those who clearly display some sort of historical amnesia. In their mind, Kashmir continues to be linked to a “politics of separatism”, an unfortunate religious ethno-nationalism that emerged because of Pakistani interference and simply wasn’t managed properly by the Indian nation-state. If only the Indian state could demilitarise, promote emotional integration, economic development, and democracy, then, in their eyes, the Kashmir issue will have resolved itself.
The amnesiacs’ sense of history only seems to go as far back as the late 1980s, with the armed resistance against the Indian state and the forced departure of the Pandits. To use the term “separatism” for Kashmir is a historical fallacy: Kashmir was considered disputed from 1947 onwards. There has never been any legitimate, legal means through which the Indian state can stake its claim on Kashmir, neither the conditional accession nor the elections that have taken place in the state.
The local “elected” bodies in the state, which were said to have affirmed accession to India, were anything but representative—they unleashed a reign of suppression and corruption that was to define Kashmir’s political modernity in the immediate post-Partition moment. Furthermore, Kashmiri resistance to Indian rule existed well before the militancy—during a time of limited militarism and when significant funds were spent on emotional integration and economic development.
The Liberal Islamophobe
How do we make sense of Islamophobia in the case of Kashmir? Before any case can be made for the rights of Kashmiris, the liberal Islamophobe interrupts, positing the doomsday scenario: the complete Talibanisation of Kashmir, or worse, an ISIS affiliate. Kashmiri Muslims, while being posited as secular and peace-loving in liberal nationalist histories, have nonetheless become like all other Muslims—prone to violence, intolerance, and hatred towards minorities.
The local “elected” bodies in the state, which were said to have affirmed accession to India, were anything but representative—they unleashed a reign of suppression and corruption that was to define Kashmir’s political modernity in the immediate post-Partition moment.
Here is a sampling of some of this thinking:
“They” are against freedom of expression—surely that must be the reason why “they” protested the girls’ band Pragaash or “won’t allow” literary festivals like Harud. Also, isn’t their azadi a religious one? Surely these Kashmiris are not ready for “it”?
“They” are not ready to govern themselves.
“Besides, Kashmir is not just made up of Kashmiri-speaking Muslims—there are Hindus, Sikhs, Gujjars, Bakerwals, and so on.”
“What will happen to the minorities? They will be persecuted.”
“Look what happened to the Kashmiri Pandits.”
“Who is the ‘self’ in self-determination anyways?”
And so on.
This is, indeed, the most convoluted type of liberal.
Muslim Political Agency
Elements of Islamophobia undercut a broader cross-section of Indian progressives, despite their ostensible attempts to appear secular. While some might question the use of the term “Islamophobia” outside of a Western context, its usage is far from obsolete in the context of India, and not just amongst right-wing groups.
According to the Islamophobia Studies Journal, we understand Islamophobia to be a contrived fear or prejudice towards Muslims, or Islam. It rationalises the necessity of deploying violence and maintaining disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations.
Much of what animates the discussion on Kashmir falls under this category.
While some might question the use of the term “Islamophobia” outside of a Western context, its usage is far from obsolete in the context of India, and not just amongst right-wing groups.
Islamophobia emerges especially when it comes to the political agency of Muslims. In the case of Kashmir, it intersects in complex ways with post-9/11 anti-Muslim racism and the Global War on Terror.
Because it is rooted in centuries of conquest and colonialism, Deepa Kumar argues that Islamophobia “turns a pathological fear of Muslims into a cornerstone of imperial hegemony.” Kumar further argues for the case of a “liberal Islamophobia,” which rejects a clash of civilisations, but recognises that there are indeed “good Muslims” that one can work with.
While liberal Islamophobia might be rhetorically gentler, it still has no respect for the right to self-determination of Muslims—Muslims must be guided from the outside, as they are unable to make rational decisions. Liberal Islamophobia is given a free pass by progressives, who often focus more on the right-wing Islamophobes.
Because it is rooted in centuries of conquest and colonialism, Deepa Kumar argues that Islamophobia “turns a pathological fear of Muslims into a cornerstone of imperial hegemony.”
In this elaborate game of what ifs, the issue at hand—the role of the Indian state and its local compradors in Kashmir—is erased. As a result, the responsibility of nonviolence, freedom of expression, and democracy shifts entirely from state to society. Violence, thus, does not emerge from the state; it is brought about by the “Kalashnikov-wielding azadi movement”.
Looking for Answers
The same applies to suppression and the lack of democratic ethos. No one seems to be asking the most obvious of questions: how do we expect a subjugated and oppressed society living in the most precarious of military occupations to develop a perfectly politically correct resistance movement? Where all attempts are made to divide and rule along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines, and where multiple agencies are at work to destabilise Kashmiri resistance, to what extent can we expect it to be exclusively nonviolent and democratic?
Did India’s cultural, ethnic and religious diversity or the fear of majoritarianism justify British colonialism? How do we understand the role of the state in projecting and shaping particular understandings of “the Kashmiri Muslim”? Are Kashmiris so against the freedom of expression, or do they criticise Harud and Pragaash because of the ways in which these cultural forms have been utilised to project a “normalcy” to the outside world, in addition to being directly sponsored by, or affiliated to, the state?
Where all attempts are made to divide and rule along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines, and where multiple agencies are at work to destabilise Kashmiri resistance, to what extent can we expect it to be exclusively nonviolent and democratic?
Religious identities are constituted in relation to particular social and political moments—what, then, are we to expect in the case of Kashmir? The assumption that any sort of Muslim political assertion will be the doomsday scenario precludes an understanding or context of how the state and the occupation has led to the narrowing of both Kashmiri Muslim and Pandit identities.
Let’s Talk Kashmir
Much like the spectre of anti-Semitism restricts any criticism of the state of Israel, so too do these Islamophobic sentiments foreclose any real discussion of Kashmiri aspirations. The space for an honest discussion on Kashmir might be slowly opening as events at JNU demonstrate; without tackling the impertinent biases, however, it’s an opening only looking to be shut.