January Issue 2015
Independence and Identity
Frustration, disillusionment, and anger characterise the pro-azadi (pro-independence/separatist) camp in Kashmir nowadays, as voting in the elections is at a peak. For them, voting amounts to recognising and legitimising the brutal and repressive Indian occupation. But have Kashmiris really taken the road to joining the Indian state? Has institutional decay been addressed so that they now have a ‘choice’ to make? If this is not the case, then what is so different about this election that people are thought to have swung themselves into the so-called ‘pro-Indian’ camp? Psephologists, political scientists and the separatists are perplexed by this turnaround. Claiming that nothing is going to change for Kashmiris under post-colonial India, separatists call for the boycott of elections. On the other hand, the Indian state makes much of the opportunity that high poll percentages provide, implying that Kashmiris have accepted the legitimacy of Indian rule, or the Indian institutional structure. Whether separatist or Indian, this reduction of voting to legitimisation of Indian rule needs to be scrutinised for the fallacies on which it stands.
There may be some voters whose consent — express or tacit — lies with Indian sovereignty, but to the majority of Kashmiris the vote is in no sense pro-Indian, considering that their strategic life choices are trampled upon. The Ferguson incident — in which an African-American youth was shot dead in an encounter with a white police officer — is repeated every day of their lives. Much like the Ferguson verdict in which a white-dominated jury cleared Officer Darren Wilson, the Indian army cleared its men in the Pathribal Fake Encounter Case in January. Ferguson is Kashmir personified. The sufferings of Kashmiris, as a collective, are bound to affect their conscience. When their souls are torn asunder between confronting nationalisms, their vote simply cannot be called ‘pro-Indian.’ What is it then? How can it be accounted for?
First and foremost, the vote in the valley has to be seen on the binary of institutional vs. ethnic-valuational structure. Kashmiris as an ethnic group, with subaltern political consciousness and mobilisation, define voting patterns on ethnic identity. This ethnic identity is autonomous, and its insurgent space derives from the antecedent historical and valuational consciousness of ethnicity. The historical component has been alien rule (which includes Indian occupation), while valuational consciousness comprises Kashmiri identity or Koshur. Thus, they do not succumb to the institutional structure of the state that controls them — multi-party democracy, judiciary, etc — but re-orient such structures on their daily lived-experiences. The Kashmiri who stands in queues today won’t stop participating in protests on the streets tomorrow. Thus, Koshur as a subjective author of his insurgency can be democratic today and a staunch separatist tomorrow, or both at the same time. Indian machinations hardly have control over his subjective choices. No matter how seductive Indian promises are, he will remain Koshur, for Koshur is the source of his definition of self. His political agency is defined by ethnic subjectivity that has never been Indian, or for that matter Pakistani.
The perpetual injustice in which both India and Pakistan have objectified Kashmiris, for the definition of their secular and religious nationalisms respectively, has solidified such ethnic subjectivity more strongly. It is ethnic affiliation and subjectivity from which his definition of institutionalised structures (secularism, democracy) comes, and differs from the ‘pro-Indian’ definition. Take for instance the case of Dr Hina Bhat — a BJP candidate from Amirakadal constituency, Srinagar. For the sake of the party, she wants Article 370 (an article that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union) to be debated/abrogated (an Indian nationalist line), but being Kashmiri she will pick up a gun if the article was actually to be abrogated. Also interesting to note is the case of Engineer Rashid, whose previous stint as a Member of the Legislative Assembly signified ‘separatism channelled through the institutionalised democratic processes.’ He has adopted a new way: hoisting the national flag of Kashmir and singing the Kashmiri national anthem at political rallies.
This re-definition calls for a re-problematisation of the location of democratic political process, which departs from statist presumptions of sovereign legitimacy. Re-problematisation of democratic political processes rules out the idea that addressing institutional decay and political engineering will motivate Kashmiris to vote. Rather, their ethnic subjectivity defies definitions of institutions that come from a state that colonises them. Thus, it has to be remembered that the nature of post-colonial Kashmiri ethnic nationalism is neither solely mobilised by instrumentalist political elites, nor by the institutional hegemony of the Indian state or the religious overtures of the Pakistani state.
The second thing that needs to be seen is how the nationalism of yesteryear is being re-defined. Consider two instances: First, in the age of post-nationalism, the lack of separatism or ethnic violence — that the Indian state might characterise as the rise of its acceptability in Kashmir — is no longer the parameter to measure national sentiment. Rather, nationalism is now seen in terms of how it works in daily interstices of life with different strategies. Rather than accepting nationalism in the traditional sense, citizens now take the Foucaultian approach in which they challenge or subvert the values and identities imposed on them. Kashmiris personify Foucault in strong terms by measuring the ‘sanity’ of Indian democracy through the ‘insanity’ of killings, mass-disappearances and imprisonments that they have been subjected to by the same democracy. In addition, like ‘free-floating signifiers,’ they will imbibe meanings, but emit ones unexpected of them. Take the case of the National Conference (NC) and see how Foucaultian its strategies are! On the national scene, it will accept the accession, but simultaneously not accept the merger and consider the Kashmir issue unresolved. For the National Conference, like others, voting is about daily issues and not a plebiscite. The value that India puts on ‘Indianness,’ with respect to the National Conference, brings out a distorted form of ‘imposed national identity.’ Omar Abdullah and his cohorts thus straddle the dual consciousness no less than common Kashmiris.
Secondly, nationalisms are not defined in terms of approaches, but subject matter i.e. civic culture, public culture, public institutions, etc. So to see voting (that can be identified as part of public institutions) as the plebiscite for other domains will be an offensive conclusion. Take the case of the Scottish referendum. The majority of Scots may have voted in favour of Britain, but that does not mean they have accepted British nationality in its entirety. For them, economic factors might have played out in favour of Britain, but these factors do not downplay the importance of having other subjects, such as parliament, their own way. For them, Scottish nationalism should still retain its unique character, for they still live the life of Brave Hearts.
In such changing definitions of nationalism, taking the vote as an equivalent of plebiscite will be riding roughshod on nationalism, which India, like other nations, holds dear. Voting cannot be defined as a plebiscite as stated by United Nations Security Council resolutions. Through Resolution 122, UNSC reaffirmed its earlier position (stated in Resolution 91) that the Constituent Assembly convened by the All-Jammu and Kashmir National Conference would not constitute disposition of the state in accordance with plebiscite. So whatever form of elections India holds in Kashmir — fair, unfair or engineered — they are in no sense an affirmation of a plebiscite.
Intellectual pundits in India hold that Kashmiris have now become conscious, and knowing where their betterment lies, they have chosen to be Indian. The swelling in their numbers is a clear indication of a ‘positive political development.’ But this rising political consciousness cannot be simply equated with political development. It is still bereft of adaptability, complexity, autonomy and coherence — qualities that characterise institutionalisation or political development (Huntington 1965, 394). Moreover, this rising political consciousness should not be confused with participant-political culture. Rather, it is marred by recurring currents of parochialism.
Take two instances — that of political sloganeering and familial voting pattern. The sloganeering hinges around two poles: one of praising the candidate or party, and the other that kick-starts campaigning with “Nara-e-Takbir Allahu Akbar.” In some rallies, slogans of “Yahan kya chalay ga? Nizam-e-Mustafa (only the system defined by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) will work here)” have also been heard. The religious colouring of the sloganeering is a clear indicator that Kashmiris bear no testimony to the Indian version of a secular polity. In fact, politics in Kashmir bases itself more on religious than secular tenets. Historically, even Sheikh Abdullah grounded Kashmiri politics in religious colours by carrying out his political campaign from Pathar Masjid and later from Dargah Hazratbal. Test this against Indian secular nationalism, with a slogan of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” in a political rally, and there will be nothing to hear but pin-drop silence. Sixty years on, the Indian democratic structure has yet to hold a political rally that will pass through the streets of Kashmir praising India.
Coming to family-voting patterns, in both villages and semi-urban dwellings (even within parts of Srinagar itself), family pressures to vote bear heavily on individual choices. Considering the conservative leanings and patriarchal character of Kashmiri society, the pressure exerted by family heads sways the vote and the political inclination of the contesting candidates hardly matters. The conservative disposition is more sedimented when it comes to women (Kashmir Times, November 2014). The voters may vote for any creed — Indian, Kashmiri or Pakistani. It would be premature to call such political agency pro-Indian, when its political choices are framed in the culture of parochialism.
Another dimension to parochialism is ethnic parochialism, reinforced by the institutional apparatus of the Indian state. Rather than institutional acceptance and legitimisation of nationalist parties with time, as the Indian version of institutionalisation will tell us, the reverse has happened in the valley with a reinforcement of ethnic parochialism.
Fourthly, and most importantly, the factor of ‘group security’ plays an important role when it comes to subaltern political mobilisation. This plays out both at the local level and at the level of the colonial relationship. At the national level, take the case of BJP. The Congress Party learnt a lesson whenever it stood on an agenda in opposition to Kashmir; for example in the election of 1977, known as the ‘only fair election,’ people chose the lesser evil of the National Conference (NC) over Congress, even when the Indira-Sheikh accord concluded by NC leader Sheikh Abdullah struck Kashmiris as a stab in the back.
The patronising of the communal vote by BJP in Jammu — a microcosm of communal orientation — directly contributes to the sense of ethnic belonging in the valley. No matter whom they vote for, their sense of BJP as a communal party plays a part in the turnout. Not to mention the foul intentions of the BJP of playing with the last vestiges of article 370, which is ingrained in the psyche of Kashmiris. Thus, while the BJP-led Indian government is banking on assimilation, Kashmiris define their political expression of identity in exclusionist terms. This contradictory political vocabulary makes it hard to accept that the vote is in any sense a legitimisation of Indian rule in Kashmir. Group security, at the local level, plays out in a different manner. Here, candidates are measured in different terms of how well they balance the Kashmiri identity, domestic issues and religious identity. Over time, Kashmiri identity has taken on different connotations. These connotations are a preservation of Article 370, opposition to a separate homeland for Pandits in the valley (which goes against the grain of Kashmiriyat) and concern over the environmental effects of the over-burdening Amaranth yatra. So when politicians seek votes on these grounds, they in the process become actors for the preservation of indigenous identity. Such assertions of independent socio-political development, away from the processes and institutions of the Indian state, indicate that Kashmiris view their polity as a subjective, sovereign actor in a very political manner.
The separatist movement, in subordination to colonial rule, is inevitably discontinuous and ridden by divisions on account of heterogeneity of society. So if we see a high percentage of voting in certain areas, it is not to be taken as a green signal for the Indian occupation. More pertinent to voting in the conflict-ridden territories is the psychology in which intermittent temporary adjustments are sought by people for survival, without any long-term commitment to alien rule.
Finally, the power vacuum has to be filled. At such times, people avoid the ascent of politicians that will leave them in worse off conditions. Even in mainland India and elsewhere, people now see nationalism as a primitive leftover that has to be shrugged off. For them periodical voting is not about rejuvenating nationalism but to bring in a lot that puts them in a better position, whether economic or social. Kashmiris, in the current context, see voting in the same vein. So to vote is not exactly choosing the best, but to keep the worse lot from assuming power.
This approach of reducing voting to a plebiscite leaves Kashmiris with no choice but to fall back on the source of self: Koshur. Koshur sees huge contradictions in Indian democracy. These days, such contradictions have become more extreme, when during the day the Kashmiri is looked upon as a ‘potential terrorist’ by the Indian army and in the evening as an ‘Indian democrat’ by news hour debates on the Indian media. Ethnics, including Kashmiris, in such manifest contradictions, know well that ‘repression and ‘democratisation’ cannot go together.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
Latief and Fayaz A. Dar are research scholars at the University of Hyderabad