Parasitical Solidarity

Many Kashmiris, to be specific Muslim Kashmiris, studying in different educational institutions in India are assaulted and harassed every now and then. Such assaults have been frequent — and often organised by the Indian nationalists. The NIT crisis — partly manufactured by the nationalist Indian media — just became a pretext for them to carry out what has always been an organised violence against Muslim Kashmiris staying in Indian cities. The Hindustan Times carried a report (12 April, 2016), documenting at least 30 such attacks on Kashmiris since the last three years. So, in the wake of increased violence against Muslim Kashmiris across India, a “letter of solidarity” was published in media, signed by 29 Kashmiri Pandits, most of them established professionals.

While it is commendable and important that such a moderating letter appeared at a time when vicious anti-Kashmiri Muslim discourse saturates almost all online spaces, but what one must not ignore is the fact that some of the signatories of this “solidarity letter” have been responsible, directly or indirectly, in perpetuating the anti-Kashmiri Muslim discourse, — whose repercussions manifest in violent attacks on Muslim Kashmiris across India. Take the previous letter written in the wake of the JNU episode and signed by 14 signatories of the latest “solidarity letter”. A close analysis of the JNU-related letter indicates that these 14 signatories hold very strong views about the Kashmiri Azadi Movement and Muslim Kashmiris. First, they frame the popular Azadi movement in negative terms by labeling it “communal”, portraying the Kashmiri society as an “Islamised atmosphere” which suppresses others. Then, using vague and unspecific descriptions for the 1990’s killings and displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, they try to implicate the whole Kashmiri society for what happened to Kashmiri Pandits.

After having achieved the effect of portraying Kashmiri Muslims in certain negative terms, they then frame the Kashmiri academics — and by extension this implicates, subtly, all Kashmiri students — in terms of intellectual supporters of “Kalashnikov-advocating separatists.”

Now, when you frame (read demonise) both the Kashmiri Muslim society and its academics (and students) in such a negative way, then the natural outcome is very likely to be violence against them by the Indian nationalists, whose perceptions about Muslim Kashmiris are shaped by such negative descriptions and framings. Though the signatories of the letter position themselves as liberals, who believe in free speech, but in the letter they advocate “weeding out and prosecuting those [“faceless, cowardly Kashmiris”] who indulged in provocative sloganeering.”

This is a mirror image of the Hindutva fascist’s language, not a liberal speaking. Moreover, they also undermined their own liberal position by stating that “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.”

But, what is being obscured here is the fact that the whole JNU episode unfolded on the question of Kashmir in the first place, and as such, discussing Kashmir’s disputed status and other related questions is not “being opportunistic” but a natural response and outcome.

So, what kind of solidarity the letter represents? Is it what Sally Scholz (2008) calls as civic solidarity, which asks state to minimise vulnerabilities of individuals and protect them?  Certainly, it cannot be political solidarity, because for that these signatories need to support Muslim Kashmiri’s struggle against the occupation, but the JNU letter shows to the contrary. Then, is it pseudo-solidarity or what Scholz terms as parasitical solidarity, which is meant “to appear as a form of solidarity only for rhetorical purposes.”

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First published in Kashmir Life on 19 April 2016: http://www.kashmirlife.net/parasitical-solidarity-issue-05-vol-08-102673/

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Yes She Can

On 17 February, in an airy, white lecture theatre in Dublin City University, eight politicians—six men and two women—debated issues ranging from abortion rights to student loans. Each was vying for a seat in Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil Éireann, to represent Dublin’s North-West constituency. One of the two women candidates was Cathleen Carney Boud, the 37-year-old councillor of the city’s North-West ward—a working-class residential area. Boud, a first-time general election contender, took questions confidently and spoke in a measured tone. I met her after the debate to ask about her experience standing in this election. “Once you are in politics,” she said, “you forget about the gender thing.” But that can only happen, she added, “with the support of your party.”

Boud was one of 163 women running to be a Teachtaí Dála, or TD—a member of the Dáil—out of 551 total candidates in the election, which was held on 26 February. The number of women candidates had doubled since the previous election, in 2011, when 86 women ran. The primary reason for this rise was a new law that encouraged political parties to nominate female candidates. But though the law had helped, many believed that a fundamental problem persisted. “Both men and women,” Boud told me, “need to change the mindset about what it means for women to step forward into politics.”

Among the groups working to change this mindset was the non-profit Women for Election, which was set up five years ago to address gender inequality in Irish politics by supporting women running for political office. Boud, who honed her debate skills through her experience with the organisation, is one of many WFE alumni who stood for the general election. WFE even claimed it played a key role in the results, in which women won 35 races, taking the percentage of women TDs up from 15 to 22.

Ireland’s legislature has always been predominantly male. From the Dáil’s inception in 1919 until 2011, the legislative body saw 1,242 TDs. Of these, only 95—8 percent—were women. The results of the 2011 election, in which 25 of the Dáil’s 166 seats were filled by women, were an improvement, but Ireland still lagged far behind its neighbours. Over 22 percent of members of parliament in the United Kingdom were women, and the parliaments in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland and Norway were all about 40-percent female.

In 2012, Ireland made a radical attempt to catch up to these peers by passing gender quota legislation that tugged at the purse-strings of political parties, encouraging them to nominate more women candidates. In Ireland, political campaigns receive a considerable portion of their money from a national election fund, split among parties in proportion to the votes each received in the previous general election. According to the new gender quota law, though, any party that did not nominate a field of candidates that was at least 30-percent female would lose half its election money. The law seems to have worked: all parties nominated enough women to secure their full funding.

But opinion on the law is still divided. I spoke with Karolina Ó Beacháin Stefanczak, a former politician from Poland who is currently researching gender and political participation in pursuit of a PhD from Dublin City University. She warned against the assumption that more female candidates would necessarily result in more women TDs. Stefanczak even suspected that “two of the historically largest parties added some women to fulfil the quota criteria, but not to get them elected.”

Others were more positive. Boud told me that she supported the gender quota, calling it “the reason that parties are opening up to women candidates.” Michelle O’Donnell Keating, a founder of WFE and a former management consultant, also expressed support for the law. “It would be undemocratic for women to fund political parties through their tax and then not have the same opportunities within the political parties as men,” she told me. But while the law has encouraged gender equality in parties’ nomination processes, Keating said, she is mindful of the fact that it tackles only one of the “five C’s” that researchers have often cited as the barriers Irish women face in politics: candidate selection, confidence, cash, childcare and culture. The latter four are perhaps more difficult to tackle through legislation, but are areas that groups such as WFE can address.

Keating and her co-founder Niamh Gallagher, a policy analyst, started WFE in 2011, after securing funding from private donors and non-profits. Based in an upmarket neighbourhood in southern Dublin, WFE is a small operation, with only four core staff members. It is a non-partisan organisation, meaning it supports women politicians regardless of their party affiliations.

The main elements of WFE’s programming are its three seminars: a half-day one called “Inform,” a one-day one called “Inspire,” and a three-day residential one called “Equip.” These seminars, which are conducted in venues across Ireland, are designed for women who are politically involved, or are considering becoming so. According to Keating, the seminars focus on “developing very practical skills in communications, campaign strategy, media, resilience, and, most importantly, building a cross-party network of political women across Ireland.” Boud had participated in a WFE seminar. While there, she said, she heard invaluable tips on topics such as public speaking and time management. That advice, she said, was hugely helpful to her when she contested the 2014 city council elections—which she won, securing her position as a councillor.

WFE pairs its seminars with a nation-wide media campaign. Gallagher writes a weekly column on gender and politics for the popular newspaper the Irish Independent. The organisation also teamed up with Twitter’s Dublin office to run a campaign around the hashtag #electwomen, which, Keating told me, was used more than half a million times during the election. The organisation has received many media accolades and awards, including the 2015 “Social Entrepreneurs of the Year” award from IMAGE, a prominent magazine.

By 2014, Keating said, around 650 women had participated in a WFE seminar, and of them 190 had run for local or national elections, while 300 played key roles in campaigning. Keating claimed that at the local level, 50 percent of Ireland’s 194 female councillors “have come through a WFE training programme.” She argued that WFE’s campaigns “contributed substantially to the increase of women running in GE16.” But according to Gerard Howlin, a former advisor to Ireland’s prime minister, the new gender quota law was the primary force at play, and any other theory was “just hokum.”

Niamh Kirk, a journalist who reported on gender issues in the 2011 general election, told me she believed that another important factor in the increase of women was the slew of austerity measures imposed by the former ruling party, which had an adverse impact on things that disproportionately affect women, such as child care, women’s aid groups and domestic utilities costs—particularly water costs. “I think,” she said, “it is easier to get political when an anti-water charge protest is literally happening down the bottom of your road.”

Whatever has caused the increase in women political participants, the election results did see a rise in the number of successful women candidates. The tally of 35 new women TDs was a record in Irish history. Approximately 40 percent of the new women TDs, Keating claimed, have in some way obtained training or support from WFE.

Gallagher especially stressed the importance of WFE as a connector for women politicians across parties. “As we see our new Dáil forming,” she said, “we see many female politicians of many parties going into those doors—and they have already met one another this year, last year and the year before through Women for Election.”

Boud, however, will not be walking through those doors; she was not able to secure enough votes to earn a seat in the Dáil. But WFE may yet play a role in her future political endeavours. “I think it is hugely important,” she told me, “to have an organisation that engages with women and gives them encouragement.”

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First published in The Caravan Magazine on April 1, 2016: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/lede/yes-she-can-rise-ireland-women-politicians#sthash.1gsaMeCi.dpuf

Yes She Can

Open Letter to NIT Srinagar Students

Dear NIT Srinagar Students,

I am writing to you as a fellow student; in good faith and with a hope that you will read my message with an open mind, i am opening this conversation.

First of all, let us try to understand what happened the last Friday. As far as one could see and learn from the news reports, it was a squabble between the two youth groups inside an engineering college in the wake of a cricket match result. On the surface of it, there is nothing new about such incidents — these are common occurrences in any university or college around the world. But unlike other squabbles within educational institutions there was something unique about this particular squabble that happened inside the premises of NIT Srinagar. What was unique?

Let’s be frank about it, because only by having a frank conversation can we resolve the differences or find a common ground to continue to live with mutual respect and harmony. In my opinion, it was the clash of ideologies, or to be specific, the clash of nationalisms: Indian and Kashmiri. Now, ask yourself a question: was any one student in the NIT not aware that these two opposing ideologies exist within the NIT premises? I guess, having shared a common space and having lived in Kashmir and conversed with the local students for a long time, most of the non-Kashmiri NIT students must have got the idea that most of the Kashmiri students espouse a different nationalist ideology than their’s. So, how was it that so far you had never fought the way you did on the last Friday? Many cricket matches happened before as well during which the Indian nationalist and the Kashmiri nationalist ideologues must have supported the opposing teams and even exchanged tense looks and yet didn’t start violence inside the campus?

Remember, even knowing each others’ differing ideological predispositions, you carried along well and even organised wonderful events like Techvaganza and Exuberance; on social media you shared photos of these events and people involved, wishing and congratulating each other. At that time, you appreciated the beautiful qualities and attributes each one of you carry within yourselves. I am sure, some of you are good friends, even if you belong to the opposing camps. This is not a rare situation, I am sure you are mature enough to know that ideologically opposed people do not necessarily always abuse and fight. They can have mutual respect for each other and carry a good relationship. I live with a staunch BJP supporter, but we dine and laugh together; we share our food; we discuss politics and religion without ever displaying any acrimony; he knows my political stance and i know his, we differ ideologically, but we never fought. Human relationships are above politics.

But, here is the thing. I am curious to see how will you negotiate a tough decision on Monday when you will come face to face with your fellow NIT students who do not believe and do not want to be forced to believe in what you believe. Will you bury the hatchets and find a common ground and respect each others’ belief systems and ideologies, and reproduce the same camaraderie and friendship which you demonstrated during Techvaganza and Exuberance? or will you continue to see the Friday incident as the only relationship that ever existed between you? You are mature enough to decide for yourselves which kind of world you want to reproduce through your actions and behaviours; for what you want to be known; and what you want to make of your experiences as a student in NIT Srinagar.

On Monday morning when the NIT Srinagar gate will open once again, i am curious to know if your hearts and minds will remain closed because you couldn’t rise above your nationalist ideologies or you had a change of heart.

Yours Sincerely,

Muhammad Tahir

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First published in Greater Kashmir on 4th March 2016: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/story/213726.html

Problem of Portrayal

Abrar ul Mustafa’s piece in GK (22 May, 2015) tried to sketch a portrait of an unknown political figure Abdul Rehman Rahat. As it turned out, and expectedly, the author heaped praise after praise on his subject throughout the essay; and for a moment one felt as if the only thing left to bestow on Mr. Rahat was the title of sainthood by the Holy See.

This has become a norm in Kashmir to conceal, willfully or otherwise, any grey shades of political and other personalities, and present their angelic qualities only, as if they had never committed any mistakes in their entire lives or had never erred throughout their careers. Most of the authors who write essays about famous or forgotten personalities in Kashmir tend to use clichéd expressions and fill their write ups with truckload of adjectives to create a sanitized image, a mythical figure, an infallible entity. But it goes without saying that no human being can ever be infallible; as a clichéd expression goes: ‘to err is human.’  What one expects when reading about political or cultural personalities is a truer account of their lives, and that includes touching those aspects of their lives which may be unflattering, negative, and even controversial. Any attempt to conceal such aspects either indicates intellectual dishonesty, lack of moral courage, or political interest. In the long run, such approach is defeating. As an instance, for more than six decades Indian intellectuals cultivated a certain narrative about their independence leaders like Mohandas Gandhi (which helped in sustaining his saintly image of ‘Mahatma’ and ‘the father of the nation’) and Jawaharlal Nehru. But intellectuals like Arundhati Roy and Perry Anderson broke their saintly images through critical reading of their lives and ideas. Roy perused through voluminous archival materials and came up with a long introduction for the book The Saint and The Doctor (Navayana 2014) in which she deconstructed the mythical figure of Mahatma (Great Soul) woven around the person of Mohandas Gandhi. She calls him ‘the saint of the status quo’ and quoting from Gandhi’s own writings (Navajivan 1921) revealed to us his other side – the side which endorsed institutionalized injustice in the shape of the caste system in India. She asks rhetorically, “Is it enough to say Gandhi was complicated, and let it go at that? There is no doubt that Gandhi was an extraordinary and fascinating man, but during India’s struggle for freedom, did he really speak Truth to Power? Did he really ally himself with the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of his people?”. Upon reading the whole introduction, one could safely say, ‘No, he did not’.

Likewise, Anderson’s in his long essay The Indian Ideology for the London Review of Books also critiques Gandhi for infusing “a massive dose of religion into the national movement”, holding Hinduism as essential cultural ideal for India, and being intransigent as far as allowing separate electorate for the Untouchables and demolishing the caste system was concerned. Anderson equally castigates Nehru for lacking “ideas of his own” and advertising a pseudo picture of India as a liberal and secular democracy. He argues that Nehru in order to maximize territory for India utterly disregarded popular wills in the regions which were reluctant to join India in 1947 and used force to compel their rulers. Nehru, in Anderson’s view, used his personal rapport with Lord Mountbatten for early transfer of power which had its consequences in sparking communal pogroms, killing over a million people. Anderson’s is an insightful critique of not only of the two respected Indian leaders but of the overstated Indian ideology as a whole.

Both Roy and Anderson came under severe attack from so-called liberal Indian intellectuals for their profoundly scholarly critiques of mythologized Indian leaders and their ideologies. But as Yahya Choudhry (2013) rightly describes in his Jacobin review essay, such attempts are symptomatic of “…Indian intellectuals’ attempts to police the limits of discourse surrounding India’s storied history. Though easily disproven, their claims and invective reflect an automatic effort not only to insulate the prevailing ideology from criticism, but to punish those who try to point out its errors”.

Now coming back to Mustafa’s piece, what it suffers from is the uncritical and exaggerating tone through which Rahat’s personality is discussed. If you closely examine the choice of words and composition of sentences, you can see the ills of the exaggeration galore in the writing.  For example, we get Rahat who “played a saviour’s role” or as the writer puts it “Rahat was the lone savior”. There is no better way to infuse heroic qualities into a character than making him a ‘lone savior’, like Sunny Deol in movie Gaddar who goes all the way to Pakistan to fight a full-fledged state, single handedly.  We are also presented with “Rahat who sacrificed everything on the road to freedom and dignity”, and because of this he was “awarded the prestigious National Honour, the Plaque, by then Prime Minister of India”. Now, if Rahat, as a Kashmiri politician, was awarded by Indira Gandhi in 1972, then he must have definitely “sacrificed everything” for anything but for “freedom and dignity” of Kashmiris. The author again tries to reinforce his mythical portrayal of Rahat by calling him “undoubtedly a selfless politician… [Who] gave tremendous sacrifices for the sake of people”, but then immediately in the next sentence we are reminded that it was his “political career” (a profession).

In the later part of the essay, we are told that Rahat was deeply influenced by Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq, “whose era is believed to be the golden age in the history of Kashmir”. I doubt such claim will stand historical evidence, even if we exclude Zainul Abdin (Budshah) from the scene.

If indeed Sadiq’s period was “the golden age”, how was it that? Did Sadiq’s era engender Kashmiri cultural Renaissance, did it set rolling a decadal two digit economic growth, or did it enhance Jammu and Kashmir’s political autonomy a notch higher? In short, in which aspect of Kashmiri society this golden age reflected itself? And where are the evidences and references to back the claim/s?

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First published in Greater Kashmir on June 6, 2015: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/problem-of-portrayal/188497.html

An evening at KU!

When the former education minister of J&K government Nayeem Akhtar proposed the idea of evening classes in June last year, he emphasized that Kashmir university should offer those courses – probably he meant engineering and professional programs – for which Kashmiri students are forced to seek admission outside their homeland, and often face harassment and great inconvenience there. He had cited the problems around “Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme”, the 1200 crore project for 5 years (2011-2016), launched by the Government of India in 2011 – a year after the youth-lead 2010 mass uprising in Kashmir had grabbed the world attention. This scheme, being implemented by All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), has drawn lot of flak for its poor and unprofessional management. In certain cases, many Kashmiri students were duped by unscrupulous NGOs and consultancies; some of them were humiliated and throw out of their colleges in India. As a result, enthusiasm for this scheme has diminished among prospective students. For example, the Hindustan Times report (Jan 2016), cited AICTE statistics to show that 70% J&K students (out of 3742) didn’t take up the scholarship offer for the 2015-16 session.

Within the above context, the idea of evening classes certainly seems a good one, but when this idea was being mulled over, did the administration consider limitations and resource constraints such a project would face? It seems, inconsistent with general work culture in Kashmir, they have not done their homework properly. Nevertheless, I will not dismiss this idea off-hand, but, as things stand at present, it seems to be not a well thought out plan. If the current administration at KU is still keen to implement this project – some reports suggest that current VC has already taken the decision – it has to answer certain questions before going ahead. Otherwise, like the PMSS scheme, it will be yet another source of inconvenience to the students than any purported move to make universities “round the clock knowledge centres”.

Firstly, science and engineering as specialized and time-intensive programs require both qualified teachers and specific infrastructure. Does KU have enough resources (human and material) to impart standard and satisfactory education to the prospective students? In other words, if a student has to pay a hefty sum for these self-financed evening courses, would it be worth every penny?
Second, if you double the intake capacity from the current 3500 students to 7000 students, how are you going to manage the administrative process (challans, fees, documentations etc.) for such a big number? In other words, do you need to hire more staff? And if you hire more staff, isn’t it going to put more pressure on the already difficult financial situation of the university? What is your plan B?
Thirdly, you have assured that buses will be made available through private transporters, but given the political context of Kashmir where a situation can turn anytime from “normal” to “troubled”, what arrangements have you thought about to provide at that time?
Last but not the least, “evening” in late autumn is different than “evening” in summer – due to change in daylight saving time – so what will be the class arrangement during that time of academic year?
I am sure many people in Kashmir will see these questions as valid, and before sending their sons and daughters for the expensive evening classes they would like to be convinced that it will be both worthwhile and safe.
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First published in Greater Kashmir on 30 March 2016: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/an-evening-at-ku/213396.html