Dissent

#StandWithKashmir: We Demand the Same Rights Being Celebrated at JNU

Like JNU, the people of Jammu and Kashmir too need the space to be able to debate all issues openly – free from the violence that pro-separatist groups use to ensure there is no space for dissent.

Voters stand in a queue to cast their votes in the assembly elections at Shangus in south Kashmir in 2014. Credit: PTI

Voters stand in a queue to cast their votes in the assembly elections at Shangus in south Kashmir in 2014. Credit: PTI

We are a group of liberal, secular Kashmiris whose voices mostly go unnoticed and unheard by the mainstream Indian media and in Kashmir. We feel deeply concerned and personally affected by the continuing turmoil and renewed militancy in the valley. But today, we wish to make a rejoinder to a statement recently published by a group of anonymous women faculty that claims to be connected to Kashmir through their work.

The anonymous writers are somewhat like those who came to JNU, abused the goodwill, trust and naïveté of their Indian nationalist communist friends, made hate speeches, threatened war and then ran away, leaving their friends to suffer the consequences of what they did. We are not them. We are not anonymous; we believe in standing up for the ideas of liberty and human rights instead of hiding behind others’ backs.

As we watch, the students and faculty of various Indian universities and institutions rough it out, in a democratic and peaceful manner, over the right to freedom of expression that makes us all proud of our democratic heritage. Despite scathing criticisms from mainstream media and repressive action from some sections of our society, we also look back with dismay and disquiet at how our democratic rights for the same freedoms in the Kashmir valley have been crushed under the heavy boots of suppression and suffocated in the Islamised atmosphere that permeates every sphere and institution. Not many have spoken up for us.

The student protest in JNU and its inept handling has resulted in many unintended consequences. Instead of focusing on weeding out and prosecuting those who indulged in provocative sloganeering and threatened to destroy India, there was an over-zealousness to declare as seditious those who might not have been. But nothing beats the irony of some pro-separatist Kashmiri and other academics using the protest as an opportunity to play with people’s perceptions and create the paradoxical, illusory collapse of #StandWithJNU with #StandWithKashmir.

Through this public statement, we join issue with this group of  ‘anonymous women faculty’ that has taken up the task of speaking on behalf of the whole of Kashmir.

We claim to speak for us and for every Kashmiri silenced by the Kalashnikov-sporting separatist. Through this statement we invite all voiceless, suppressed, secular and non-violent Kashmiris to join with us to reclaim our voices in Kashmir from the forces of violence and suppression unleashed by the ‘azadi’ movement.

Despite the grave suppressions imposed in Kashmir by the ‘azadi’ movement that these academics represent, and even as they claim to support the defence of free speech across the whole of India, we wish to use this opportunity to suggest an open dialogue with the ‘azadi’ spokespersons, about the Kashmir issue that these academics claim was raised at JNU and then sidelined. Whatever transpired at JNU after that distasteful, unsavoury event must not stop us from discussing some of the ‘fundamental’ concerns affecting every Kashmiri in and outside the valley. We can only hope that these ‘academics’ are willing to step into spaces for dialogue that are not the controlled environments that they are most comfortable in and that cater to the propagation of only their viewpoints.

Now, let us take up some of the points raised by these academics:

Harassment:

First and foremost, we express our helplessness and anguish over the harassment and ‘othering’ of Kashmiri Muslim students by their co-students, landlords, neighbourhood bullies, and sometimes even local police, in various Indian cities.

In many ways, the humiliations that they are subjected to remind some of us of the slurs and slights that we endured after our forced eviction from Kashmir in 1990 and during the refuge we took in different parts of the country. The only difference is that we were called “impotent” “cowards” and they are being called “anti-national” “terrorists”. This stereotyping and insulting of people in India is just short of becoming a national culture. In post-1990 Kashmir, it is the Bihari labourer at the receiving end. UP walas earn the abuse in Bombay, in West Bengal the Bangladeshi migrant, and elsewhere, Africans and students from Northeast India. Following the JNU incident that was triggered by a few faceless, cowardly Kashmiris, we fear that innocent Kashmiri Muslims living in cities across India will bear the brunt of the folly committed by a few individuals. As common, secular and law-abiding Kashmiris, we strongly appeal to our countrymen and women to show tolerance, compassion and kindness towards Kashmiri Muslims, who are citizens of India equal to the members of other communities.

Free speech:

While JNU students and faculty are fighting for civil liberties, it is gravely ironic that the academics sympathetic to the cause of Kashmiri ‘azadi’ and self-determination have never spoken out against the gagging and killings of Kashmiri dissenters, minorities, Leftists, communists and moderate Kashmiris in the 1990s, 2000s, or even now.

When the vice chancellor of Kashmir University Mushir-ul-Haq was murdered in Srinagar in 1990, we did not read any ‘azadi’-sympathising academic protesting in the letter to the editor columns of local and national newspapers. When poets like Sarwanand Koul Premi and Abdul Sattar Ranjoor (a member of Communist Party of India) were killed by the champions of self-determination, we did not hear any academics protesting in the streets of Srinagar or Delhi or elsewhere. Nor did we hear any academic protestation over the murder of the director of Doordarshan Lassa Koul, journalist Saidan Shafi, columnist PN Bhat, political activist Yousuf Halwai, or any of the other prominent Kashmiris who have been killed. We have seen how some of the intelligentsia who are now actively voicing their support for ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘right to dissent’ previously championed the cancellation of ‘Harud literary festival’ in Srinagar. Similarly, none of the ‘azadi’ backing academics uttered a word to support for ‘Pragash’, a Kashmiri girls’ rock band.

While we stand by Wendy Doniger and MF Hussain, and also by Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, those “azadi”-backing academics still justify the continuing ban and ‘fatwas’ against the latter two. Do we need to remind them of the tactical silence that was maintained during another such case, when, in September 2015, Kashmir University students, chanting slogans of “azadi”, disrupted a marathon organised on the university premises, vandalised the event setup, abused and physically harmed the participants, and sexually harassed the female participants? It is also telling that the “azadi”-chanting women academics did not consider it important enough to raise their voices against the acid attacks on Kashmiri girls who refused to wear burqas and defied the militant dress code diktats in Kashmir in the ’90s.

As we have stood against such  academicians who show selective outrage, we have always stood by the victims of human rights violations committed by the Indian state. Whether it is rape victims of Kunan Poshpora, or innocent men who were killed in a fake encounter in Pathribal, we demand justice for all.

Dalits:

The concern shown by certain women academics about the abominable brahminical persecution of dalits appears to be nothing more than a political game of ‘who can be holier than thou’ – that is, a strategic ploy to shame Indians about the structural flaws and imbalances in Indian society and institutions in order to paint Kashmiri society in benign light. Their concern for India’s dalits would go a long way in the overall fight against casteism in India if only they also highlighted the institutionalized casteist, sectarian, ethnic and religious prejudices and gender discrimination that Kashmiri society continues to perpetuate against Ahmadis, non-Peers, non-Sayeeds, non-Aghas, Hanjis, other so-called low castes, Pandits, Sikhs, Christians, Tibetan Muslims, Gujjars, Paharis, Biharis and the LGBT community. Even today, the former scavenger community in Kashmir continues to be considered the lowest of the low by many so-called upper caste Kashmiris. Their school and college-going children need as much support from the larger community in Kashmir as students like Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar have drawn from the separatist Kashmiri academia.

Self-determination:

A simple glance at the map of J&K would show that the Kashmir valley is just one part of the whole state and not the complete state. (It is in fact a very small part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir). Thus, it would be a misrepresentation to consider the whole state of J&K, Kashmir. Geographically, the Ladakh and Jammu divisions together form the majority of the landmass of the state. They have not seen any demand to separate from India. Jammu natives have been demanding a separate state within India and Leh Buddhists have been demanding a union territory within India, so that they can completely divorce themselves from the complications of sharing resources with the rest of the state and avoid being dragged into the problem that is Kashmir.

Second, demographically, the population of J&K is not composed of just Kashmiris but also of various tribes, and ethnic and linguistic groups like Gujjars, Dogras, Ladakhis, Kargilis, Gilgitis, and Baltis. No group other than the Kashmiris have either voiced such a demand or expressed their alignment with it. Many secessionists, most prominently Syed Ali Shah Geelani, reject the whole idea of secular democracy and yet feel that they should be granted the right to communal self-determination.

Third, among Kashmiris themselves, not every Kashmiri Muslim subscribes to the demand of separation from India. The Kashmiri Hindu Pandit population was terrorised, massacred, and forced into migration from the valley on communal grounds and on account of not aligning with the demands of Kashmir’s separation from India. Thus, it’s a great misnomer to present “azadi” as a demand of the whole state and all its residents.

These form, however, only the tip of the iceberg of issues that have bedevilled Kashmir over much of its troubled past. We definitely need to discuss and debate them – but that discussion needs to start in Kashmir.

If some people in Kashmir see the debates about freedom of expression and the ongoing celebration of JNU’s culture of dissent as an opportunity to ask the “foundational questions” about Kashmir’s disputed political status, we think that is being opportunistic.

We are people of Kashmir and we disagree with the dominant narrative of Kashmir’s “azadi tehreek” and its spokespersons. We have always wanted to discuss all these and many more issues – not because of what has recently happened at JNU, but because these issues need to be discussed openly, honestly, and in an atmosphere of freedom. In fact, this has been the need from a time even before the first innocent person in Kashmir was killed for “azadi”.

It is not only ironic but also sheer opportunism, that while these anonymous women faculty members seek to “find a common vocabulary with the JNU students and left-liberal faculty, to establish a firm platform for solidarity with Kashmiri voices and ask some important questions”, they conveniently ignore the fact that the same “democratic venues of dissent and debate” have been destroyed by the very people for whom they speak. Yes, nationalism, freedom of expression, the everyday brutalities of living in Kashmir, and even the “easy binaries between violence and nonviolence” can and should be discussed. But these are issues that are first of all for the people of Kashmir to discuss amongst themselves. This can be possible only after the public and intellectual spaces all over Kashmir under control of the Kalashnikov-advocating separatists and their intellectual supporters have been reclaimed.

We see dialogue, debate and questioning as crucial processes towards the resolution of the problem of Kashmir. If you really believe in ideals like “free expression” and “right to dissent,” we invite you to join us in asking for the same freedoms in Kashmir. We ask you to use your influence with the people for whom you claim to speak, to renounce violence, and to fight with us for the same rights and freedoms for which you praise the students and faculty of Indian academic institutions.

The spirit of freedom of speech that you welcome in JNU is what we seek also in Kashmir.

Signatories:

  1. Aalok Aima, artist and business executive
  2. Aarti Tikoo Singh, journalist
  3. Abrar Mustafa, business executive
  4. Ajay Raina, filmmaker
  5. Arshia Malik, teacher
  6. Arif Maghribi Khan, psychiatrist
  7. Bhawna Kak, learning consultant
  8. Chetna Kaul, filmmaker
  9. Ieshan Vinay Misri, social worker
  10. Khalid Baig, entrepreneur
  11. Mushtaq Dar, salesman
  12. Nihansh Bhat, finance professional
  13. Niyati Bhat, writer, visual arts & cinema student
  14. Preeti Bakaya, policy & communications professional
  15. Rahul Jalali, journalist
  16. Rajesh Razdan, product manager
  17. Randhir Bhan, architect
  18. Ravinder Kaul, cultural critic
  19. Rayan, student (full name cannot be disclosed)
  20. Shantiveer Kaul, writer and columnist
  21. Sualeh Keen, cultural critic
  22. Sushant Taing, freelance writer
  23. Shahid, procurement professional (full name cannot be disclosed)
  24. Vinayak Razdan, writer & startup co-founder