Pankaj Mishra and Mirza Waheed on the Death of India’s Liberal Self-Image

Since the start of the Kashmir crackdown, Pankaj Mishra and Mirza Waheed have exchanged thoughts over email, following the Babri verdict, the CAA, and the roots of the current crisis in secular liberalism.

Mirza Waheed: I’d like to have a conversation about an issue that for me is as personal as it is political. The relationship between Indian and Kashmiri people over the years. Fraught, delicate, yes – but with a certain bond between the two. The accommodation among social, human, beings, around political identities.

Kashmiris went to India, Indians came to Kashmir in various guises. There was hatred, there was commerce, there was love. Now a sinister cloud looms over all of it.

In my own encounters and relationships with the country – the capitol – I found India to be a bruised country, broken in many parts and ways, a cruel country, burning the sweat and blood of millions of its ordinary beings, but also a beautiful and magnificent country, buzzing with humanity, colour, and hope – all at the same time. Now, as it teeters on a precipice, it almost hurts to think what India is doing to its soul.

What of the compact between the people, as India declares itself to be a hate-state as far as Kashmiris and other marginals are concerned? The germ of suspicion and loathing will enter all conversations and imagination around the relationship. The Kashmiri pheriwala knocking on middle and lower middle-class doors in Asansol will find his steps hesitant, unsure.

The itinerant Bengali in Gulmarg will look over his shoulder a bit too often.

The Kashmiri girl student will pray for kindness and mercy as she seeks admission at a technical institute in Jaipur. The Bihari construction worker in Hawal will keep his head down even more and probably accept reduced wages quietly.

I’ve been troubled by all this even before the fresh assault but now do you think we might be face to face with a generational shift in attitudes?

Pankaj Mishra: This is very important. I recall my own teenaged unpolitical self, going to Kashmir in 1987, encountering otherness, and feeling both intrigued and resentful of an otherness that was not assimilable to a north Indian upper-caste fantasy of the Indian nation.

I suspect many Indians today feel an exaggerated version of this resentment and Modi’s evil genius is to give them a frisson of superiority and power. So you can be doing badly in India but still draw satisfaction from the fact of lording it over an alien and antagonistic people.

I think that this feeling – which you see historically in many places where national unity depended on humiliating and subjugating a minority – dominates the attitudes of most Indians towards Kashmiris now. And I suspect it won’t change in our lifetimes.

MW: It is terrifying to contemplate the consequences of what you say. I shift from one nightmare scenario to another: large-scale violence, a generational catastrophe in which the life of the occupied Kashmiri is upended more than it already is, a forced reprogramming of basic civic, social, and political structures…Kashmir burning forever, until nothing’s left.

You’ve engaged with Kashmir and the Kashmiri question for at least two decades, and of course written volumes about it. Is it possible for you to envisage a pause in the current oppression?

Perhaps I’m trying to hope irrationally that there might come a moment when enough conscientious Indian citizens bear on the state and, say, look, if not for the sake of the tortured, blinded children of Kashmir, at least for sake of what’s left of Indian democracy, please stop the brutalitarian assault on Kashmiri lives.

Or is it too late for such a dream, an intervention from within the ’empire’, if I may?

I also wanted to ask something I should’ve asked at the start. What is your first impression of Kashmir? What did you think of India’s presence in Kashmir?

PM: I am glad you ask because we often tend to ignore the deeper phenomenon of psychology and emotion when considering the political relations between peoples.

Kashmir for my teenaged self was the first revelation of beauty—a landscape so perfectly proportioned, and a people with complexions that Fair & Lovely promised but never delivered. Of course I wanted to return—to actually live there. Someone like Nehru had a near-mystical version of this feeling of love and appropriation. The same has been true for many Indians in their dusty towns and cities on the plains at least since the advent of color films and the aesthetic of Yash Chopra.

A poster from ‘Kashmir ki kali’.

There is a straight line to be drawn culturally and emotionally from Kashmir ki Kali through Silsila to Modi. For the other, darker side of this awakening to beauty is the imperialistic desire to possess it, forever, as Nehru himself first proved in his dealings with Kashmir.

Another relevant analogy would be that Kashmir became the jewel in India’s crown. And like India in the British imagination, the natives became an obstacle to the act of self-cherishing that Kashmir facilitated. They had to be edited out of this incredibly exotic and desirable place, or be degraded to menial status.

This is one reason why you see such readiness to ignore the suffering of ordinary Kashmiris; why a supposedly ‘liberal’ broadcaster can go to Kashmir at the height of a brutal curfew and communications lockdown and tweet out a picture of an apple.

The Kashmiris are forced to be invisible today, and many Indians prefer that they remain so, because Kashmir for many Indians has been a setting of fantasy – not a real place populated with human beings with rights, their own history and culture.

To answer your question – we are looking here at a long obsession that Modi has turned psychotic.

MW: I agree wholeheartedly, as I saw and witnessed first-hand, too, the existence of Kashmir in the Indian imagination as a territory of conquest, a prize. It was  couched in the seemingly benign colours and sounds of what might be termed as middle Bollywood, Silsila and many other films that came before it, when they didn’t need to be overtly jingoistic about Kashmir as Mother India’s crown but simply invisibilise Kashmiris, as you say, or at best show them as a prop.

Remember the glorious music of the 1960s romance Kashmir ki Kali, probably one of composer OP Nayyar’s best scores, and the pairing of Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore. All pretty and glorious, and Kashmir looks magnificent.

Years later, as you grow up, you realise there is not a single Kashmiri or Muslim character in the film. Not a single one.

Then there’s the hugely problematic symbolism of the title that refers to the female lead. It is hard to ignore the role such images have played in shaping Indian attitudes towards Kashmir. As you remember, soon after the reading down of Article 370, some politicians from the Hindu right talked about Kashmir as a place where you can from now on get or ‘marry pretty girls”, to bring home a kali, a “bud of Kashmir”.

I have often felt compelled to think that there isn’t much difference between the representation of Kashmir in Indian cinema and how Kashmir has been covered in the mainstream Indian press. If filmmakers chose not to see Kashmiris as real people, except when required to be the chorus around a song picturised on a shikara, many Indian journalists, if not all, worked hard to erase Kashmiri agency. Or do you think that’s going too far?

PM: No, you are not going too far. This is what modern imperial power does; it dehumanises its victims, and it has a variety of technological means at its disposal.

In the 19th century, when liberals like John Stuart Mill said the Indians and the Irish need to be under despotic rule until they were ready for self-government, they were expressing their opinion, and ordinary British people couldn’t care less about India and Ireland because the liberal imperialists weren’t also pouring their opinions down people’s souls through radio, television and film.

With the expansion of digital media, the liberal nationalist Indian journalist of the last twenty years – or since the 1990s – has possessed an extensively malign power to both ignore and erase the suffering of Kashmiris, and to prejudice a large part of the Indian population against them.

Indian soldiers in Batalik during the Kargil War. Photo: PMO

I think the rot started with Kargil, with an explosion of hyper-patriotism amid an intense ratings war. This is when journalists started to turn into jingos (I am not even speaking of journos with pronounced Hindutva sympathies).

They still didn’t completely lose their souls and minds. Today, of course, the media is largely staffed by Modi toadies who don’t even pretend to be journalists. But let’s not forget that the stage was set for the demagogue of Republic TV long ago by his erstwhile colleagues and their hysterical bombast on television.

You can trace a similar degeneration in Bollywood. The Muslim – whether Indian, Kashmiri, Pakistani – was still recognisably a human being, if not a hero, in the films of the 1990s. It is hard to find mainstream films of late that do not feature this figure as a treacherous villain.

One of the things that both the media and Bollywood has done is mitigate the deep pain and frustration over India’s stalled emergence as an international superpower. They have helped find scapegoats for India’s continued failure to keep its tryst with destiny, and redirected much rage and pain against their vividly imagined villains. This particular dynamic makes the minorities problem so much more acute in India today. Back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s our minds and souls weren’t carrying this burden of extravagant middle-class fantasy of private and national greatness.

MW: I understand the birth of the nexus among Indian media, business elites, and the political classes can be traced to the ’90s when supper TV, and the attendant revenue model, properly arrived in India. As you say, it is quite clear that a lot of the rot started then.

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Do you think the foundational values of journalism (for instance, an ethic of the press as a necessary guarantor of free speech and therefore democracy) might have been weak previously too, given that the collapse of Indian journalism has appeared nothing short of spectacular?

I ask this because perhaps with the exception of Radio Rwanda, I do not recall any national media anywhere celebrating, exhorting, even demanding the crushing of an oppressed people, like Kashmiris, by the state. Or for that matter turning prime time TV into a Muslim-baiting, Muslim-hating platform.

I’m aware you’ve addressed this above, but I want to see if it can be interrogated further. Why did the press in India, barring a few exceptions, crumble as if it were a house of cards? How come the press in the world’s largest democracy turned out to be the weakest? What of the ideological accord between the government and the media?

PM: I don’t think we can think of the media in isolation from other institutions that have also proven to be hollow – the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and even the Election Commission. Let’s not forget how quickly and abjectly it fell in line when Indira and Sanjay Gandhi cracked the whip. The question actually is: why did we assume that it was strong in its foundations?

I won’t go as far as some critics who claim that India was always a Hindu Raj, disguising its majoritarian nature with an exalted rhetoric of secularism, and that all its institutions were therefore compromised. I do think we have to withdraw and re-examine some of the extravagant claims made for Indian democracy and secularism, especially those vended by liberal-left intellectuals.

File image of Kashmiri girls shouting slogans in Srinagar in late September. Photo: Reuters

We also have to observe more closely certain processes whereby secular nationalism blends into, or enables, hard-line Hindutva. Take for instance, the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Do you remember the pan-Indian condemnation of it? The English-language press was the loudest in its denunciation.

There were both moral and pragmatic reasons for this unanimity. India had then only recently started on a new path of national modernisation, inaugurated by Rajiv Gandhi in the ’80s, and paved by Narasimha Rao’s liberalising economic reforms. The photos of the demolition made India seem stuck pathetically in the past; it affronted much middle-class pride and opinion.

More importantly, Babri Masjid came to be seen before and after the demolition as a symbol of India’s endangered secular and modern identity. Protecting it from vandalism, or rebuilding it after demolition, became major secular and liberal projects (while the actual situation of Muslims in India kept on deteriorating).

All through the late 1980s and ’90s, another left-liberal resolve was hardening: not to compromise on Kashmir, another symbol, and by far the most prestigious, of India’s secular identity – the jewel in India’s secular crown.

What this meant in practice is that people totally opposed to the BJP –  Nehruvian secularists – came to take a very hard line on Kashmir, and against what they saw as an Islamist- and Pakistan-driven attempt to undermine the idea of India.

The media amplified the post-1992 mood, and after the 1998 nuclear tests and Kargil in 1999, its mood turned openly jingoistic. Ayodhya got lost in the fog of litigation. Kashmir was the new battleground for Indian secularism.

Ayodhya reared up again in the national imagination after Gujarat in 2002. But again, the condemnation of Modi for blighting India’s image went together with a ruthless consensus about what needs to be done in Kashmir.

You have to look at some of the things impeccably liberal folks were saying back then; or remember who originally sent Jagmohan to Kashmir and who supported his brutal crackdown; or who said what when Afzal Guru was hanged on the grounds that India’s ‘collective conscience’ demanded his murder, and who kept stoking xenophobic nationalism over Kashmir long after it became clear that Modi was coming to teach us all new lessons in it.

Afzal Guru. Credit: PTI/Files

Afzal Guru. Photo: PTI/Files

This is why I have long kept saying: Unless we understand the ways in which Indian liberals and secularists enabled and promoted a pitiless nationalism, basically dependent on military force to maintain an increasingly hollowed-out idea of India, we will continue to experience the current calamity as shocking and think of it as inexplicable.

MW: It’s true that the Indian state doesn’t start life as a Hindu supremacist country. I think you once wrote or said – or was it someone else? – that India is the world’s largest experiment in democracy and that experiment is failing.

I remember the Babri demolition quite vividly and, as a young Kashmiri Muslim, it changed the image of India irrevocably for me, fed as we’d been on a staple NCERT diet of a ‘secular, egalitarian republic’ that we must partake in despite the near-universal Kashmiri lived experience of never having felt Indian. (I was too young in 1984 to fully register the scale and horror of the first major socio-political rupture: the daylight pogrom against Indian Sikhs. The other two being 1992 and 2002).

This has somehow taken me back to Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in South Asia.  I admired the book when it came out, and it has since grown in stature as a prescient exposition of the foundational fault-lines in all of South Asia, not just India. I mention it because two of the key projects of the Hindu right, Ayodhya and Kashmir, are both dealt with in great detail.

It also has some of the most honest writing on Kashmir by an Indian writer – there’s no other way of describing this from a Kashmiri perspective.

Anyhow, Ayodhya and Kashmir, as you’ve made clear above, demonstrate more than ever the astounding gap that has almost always existed between the image and the deed, between how Indian secularists wanted themselves (and by a strange hubristic extension, India) to be seen elsewhere, in the West.

Since the erasure of Kashmir’s nominal autonomy and the brutal suppression of the most basic human freedoms by the Modi regime, we have seen so many Indian commentators bemoan the condition of their “own citizens” in Kashmir, a favourite trope among historically blind liberal commentators. It’s quite clear that nothing has changed among these segments of the middle and upper classes with regard to how they understand and engage with those who were cast out a long time ago or those who never subscribed to the idea in the first place.

A lawyer reacts as he displays a religious flag during celebrations after Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya land dispute, outside the court in New Delhi on November 9, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

It also seems clear that the Ayodhya verdict is an official declaration of Hindu supremacy. The Indian Muslim, a figure of the most profound tragedy, seems to have submitted to the will of the majoritarian state for now but it’s inconceivable that there won’t be a churning of some kind.

Kashmiris will not relent. Both history and the immediate reaction to the abrogation of Article 370, tell us that. Which brings us to the question: what next? With a faltering economy, and with almost nothing to offer to the millions who were promised a new and prosperous future, it seems that the regime in India will continue to stoke tensions, by keeping the lens zoomed in on old enemies, Muslims, Kashmiris… but also by manufacturing new ones.

Do you sometimes see war on the horizon?

PM: Given the nature of this regime, which is as reckless as it is fanatically ideological, I won’t rule out anything at this point. From the time we started this conversation – shortly after the crackdown on Kashmir – it has speeded-up the process of disenfranchisement, enacting one draconian legislation after another.

When will it stop? Is it even reasonable to think it can stop?

Those atrocities you mention, Babri Masjid and Kashmir, give us no reason to expect caution or moderation. They ought to make us expect a race to the extremes: from Modi to Mahant. They should also remind us that the Indian intelligentsia has consistently underestimated both the resolve of the Hindu supremacists and the consequences flowing from their malign actions. As a result, it is full of Rip Van Winkles today.

In the last few months, the number of people parroting the line that India is being Kashmir-ised has multiplied alarmingly. The analogy is inexact anyway, but we forget how many people explicitly warned of the deep corruption of Indian institutions – basing their prediction on the grotesquely rampant violations of human dignity in Kashmir, the unpunished killings, rapes and tortures – and were dismissed as party-poopers and defamers of India, whose image in the West had to be guarded at all costs, no matter what the reality at home was.

Arundhati Roy was predictably denounced as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ by today’s anti-Modi martyrs when she repeatedly warned against creeping fascism in India. And the biggest accusation against my own articles on Kashmir – levelled by a prominent anti-Modi liberal – was that I was undermining India’s international image.

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But it isn’t just headline events like Ayodhya, Kashmir and the anti-Sikh pogrom that many Indian writers and intellectuals failed to fully reckon with. The ordinary, everyday experiences of hundreds of millions of Indians are also like a closed book to many of them.

You speak of your encounter with the NCERT version of India as a Kashmiri. This collision of ideal with reality is actually more commonplace than the promoters of the NCERT version realise. If you are a Dalit in India, or a poor person from any caste, you know that the nearest thanedar has the power of life and death over you and no amount of platitudes about India’s great experiment with democracy and its amazing Constitution will save you if you arouse the wrath of someone locally powerful.

How can we forget such basic realities of Indian lives in our paeans to the idea of India? The forgetting is of course enabled by excluding all those who bring contrary evidence to the table.

Just look at the pathetically low representation of Dalits and Muslims in the media, or what just one journalist personally affected by anti-Muslim violence (Rana Ayyub) managed to uncover; look at the stories just one English-language journalist from an unconventional background (Praveen Donthi) has broken. Also, look at what the work of Kashmiri writers (Basharat Peer, Malik Sajad, Niya Shahdad) and many others has done to make the world see the human dimension of that perennially disputed region known as Kashmir.

When I first wrote about Kashmir two decades ago, Kashmiri voices were largely absent in journalistic reports and op-ed commentary about Kashmir.

A protest by Kashmiri journalists against the restrictions that have made their work difficult. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

The net result of these exclusions is that a very polished kind of upper-class and upper-caste propaganda has come to represent India to Indians and to others.

And how we see ourselves, or wish to be seen by others, shapes all that we do and think. The Buddha was clear about this: our desires make us who we are at any given point. We have seen it up close in the case of Britain, a country trapped in absurd narcissistic fantasies of imperial-era greatness, which have culminated in spectacular acts of self-harm: Brexit, and the elevation of a walking Churchillian delusion to high office.

I think many in the postcolonial Indian intelligentsia have also suffered from an extravagant imagination. They have too rashly connected their personal fortunes and individual identity to a supposed ‘rise’ of India, or a noble ‘idea of India.’

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Even the apotheosis of a figure like Modi did not stop them from deifying Indian democracy. Of course, all human beings need some kind of private or collective fantasy to make life meaningful. But inhabiting a Potemkin village, and then inviting others into it, is never a good idea.

Many of the entrepreneurs in what Siddhartha Deb called the ‘India racket,’ many of whom even initially supported Modi, are now of course at the avant garde of the Resistance to Modi. But wisdom in hindsight is always cheap, shallow and self-serving.

I now constantly meet Westerners who have read Dexter Filkins’ article in the New Yorker and become aware of Hindu supremacism, and who ask me, ‘How could this happen in India?’ I don’t want to accuse them of being naive, because they have been very poorly educated and informed by the India racketeers.

But I do want to tell them that the question is wrongly phrased. It should be: ‘How could this not happen in India?’

In other words, what we are living through is not some tragic downfall of a once great secular democracy. Rather, we are experiencing, with great shock and horror, the collapse of our own exalted ideas about ourselves. Acknowledging the latter is vital if we are not to dangerously prolong our state of self-deception and attempt to restore a reality that never existed.

MW: What are your thoughts on the protests across India?

My brief and quick thoughts: The student-led protests in India against autocratic citizenship laws that recall Nazi legal frameworks certainly represent glowing embers of hope. But I worry that the possibility of another act of mass violence against minorities isn’t too far-fetched.

Anti-CAA protesters in Delhi. Photo: PTI

I say this because the response of the state has been brutalitarian. Reports of police brutality in Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, and towns across UP, portray a ruling dispensation inseparable from what seems like an ingrained and pathological hatred of Muslims. The large numbers of non-Muslim protestors across Indian cities is a reassuring foil to what’s unfolding in India. I don’t want to speculate whether this is the moment when the tide turns, but it does seem like a once in a lifetime chance to prevent India hurtling down an abyss from which there’s no return.

PM: I wrote in August, in the days following Modi’s assault on Kashmir, that ‘the undreamed-of scenes witnessed in Hong Kong lately – of young professionals resisting the diktats of remote-controlling authoritarian nationalists – could one day become commonplace in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai.’ But I did not expect this to happen so soon.

It has been heartening to see, especially after the unchallenged mutilation of Kashmir, so many people reject the sectarian hatred promoted by Modi’s regime. The size and scale of the protests makes me wonder if there are more young people who realise that their investment in Modi as an economic wizard and provider of jobs has gone very bad, and who can now see through the Modi-Shah ruse of divide-and-rule.

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Unfortunately, you are right to worry that this rare burst of opposition to Modi will be met by some nefarious tactic. We cannot underestimate Modi’s ability to conjure up a Nixon-style backlash from the so-called ‘silent majority’.

And you are right about the ingrained hatred of Muslims. This is where we started our conversation: Modi’s ability to galvanise his base with feelings of hatred and revenge. This is his bread-and-butter. How will he exist without it?

It should also not be forgotten that Hindu manhood, as conceived by Savarkar and his followers, is built upon humiliation and degradation of Muslims. That’s what fundamentally explains the Modi’s government’s moves on Kashmir and the citizenship bills. How will the strutting Hindu male cope with resistance by Muslims – people he thinks he has beaten and bullied into submissive silence?

I fear that something terrible lies ahead.

The issues we’ve discussed – the rise of a Hindu supremacist mindset with the help of Bollywood and the media – point to a long-term and radical shift in the subjectivity of many Indians. This won’t be easy to change. And only seven months have passed in Modi’s second stint. I desperately want to be proved wrong, but there is a long way to go before we come to the end of this nightmare.

Pankaj Mishra is an essayist and novelist. Mirza Waheed is a novelist, originally from Kashmir.