Can Electoral Politics Envisage Resistance?

On Wednesday, January 9, 2019, well-known Kashmiri bureaucrat Shah Faesal announced his resignation from Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on Facebook, citing “the unabated killings in Kashmir, and lack of any sincere reach-out from the Union Government”. Faesal seems to be mulling over joining the electoral politics. Since October 2018, there were speculations rife that he was preparing to join the National Conference along with former JNU student activist Shehla Rashid. But, keeping his cards close to his chest, he said on last Thursday that what he will do next “also depends on what people of Kashmiri want me to do. More so the youth. I have an idea how I can do it. I am sure you have ideas too and you want me to factor those ideas in before I take a final decision”.

Dr Shah Faesal (IAS)

This article will expound in some detail the merits and demerits of his idea, which he nebulously outlined in his January 8, Facebook post, wherein he said that he wants to work within the space, which he describes as “some sort of hazy, suspicious, dreadful middle-ground, intersecting resistance and collaboration”. What he alluded is, essentially, analogous to what Nicole Watts calls ‘representational contention’. Let me explain.

Electoral Politics And Resistance

Nicole F Watts (2006, p. 126) argues that “electoral politics can constitute an important and distinct repertoire of contention in a less-than-fully democratic state”. Based on her research on the pro-Kurdish movement, she looks at the participation of the Kurdish activists in Turkey’s institutional and electoral politics and suggests that between 1990 and 2005 such participation allowed the Kurdish movement to create a vital space for its survival, reinforcement, and propagation. Becoming part of the representative institutions, the pro-Kurdish activists could get access to wider audiences (local and international media, the EU diplomats), build organisational infrastructure, organise public gatherings through state institutions, and crucially, have legal protection from prosecution. They created opportunities and resources for pro-Kurdish symbolic politics.

Watts says that although during the 1990s the PKK had become weaker and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was imprisoned, the Kurdish movement nevertheless survived because of the pro-Kurdish representative contention. Initially, pro-Kurdish political parties faced obstructions—when the Turkish Constitutional Court closed them—but, in the April 1999 municipal elections, they went on to win in 13 provinces, and gained control of 37 mayoral seats (including in the largest city of southeast Turkey, Diyarbakir). Such big electoral success was once again repeated by the pro-Kurdish parties in the 2004 elections.

The scene of Assembly when the lawmakers were fighting with each other, literally a Dangal in the house

Enjoying the legislative immunity (and hence enlarged freedom of expression), the pro-Kurdish legislators vigorously articulated the Kurdish grievances and political claims. As Watts (p. 134) says, using institutional avenues and platforms, the Kurdish deputies contributed “to a rapid and dramatic shift in public discourse in which pro-Kurdish claims would become a common feature of political life”. Having taken control of several important municipalities, the Kurdish councillors were able to organise big Newroz (Kurdish new year) events, which hitherto had been regularly suppressed by the state—since the festival was considered as “a potent symbol of Kurdish nationalism”.

In 2001, the Diyarbakir municipality even incorporated into a three-volume history of the city new sections related to Kurds, including mention of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, the Sheikh Said rebellion of 1925. Earlier, in June 2000, a pro-Kurdish mayor had changed the names of 200 streets in the city of Batman, rechristening some of them after important Kurdish events and leaders.

Recognising the significance of representational contention, the Diyarbakir mayor, Feridun Celik, would later remark: “Mayoralty should not only be seen as collecting garbage and investing in infrastructure. We have assumed a political mission and our grassroots have political aspirations”.

Yet, in the course of this political mission, the pro-Kurdish activists and deputies and mayors continued to face state repression. Before the April 1999 elections, dozens of HADEP (Halkin Demokrasi Partisi) members were jailed. In February 2000, Celik along with two other mayors was arrested for aiding separatist rebels. There was increasing pressure on other pro-Kurdish office holders from the state, some were forced to resign, some were debarred from contesting elections for life.

What are the odds for ‘representative contention’ in Kashmir?

Since in semi-democratic states the freedom of expression and free assembly is severely constrained, Watts sees representative contention as “important middle-ground activism” where activists who participate in it negotiate a thin line between formal and informal resistance—though, the armed and unarmed components of the resistance movement are distinct in terms of their functionality.

But, what are the odds for representational contention in the peculiar political context of Kashmir, which Patrick Colm Hogan (2016) defines as “atypical colonialism”. Kashmir is more akin to the Palestinian than Kurdish situation, as illustrated by the political anthropologist Mohamed Junaid. In his 2018 essay Disobedient Bodies, Defiant Objects, Junaid argues that in the early 1990s the “military occupation of public spaces [in Kashmir]established new rules of mobility, assembly, sociality, and, in gen­eral, everyday life, rules that were violently enforced”. In 2019, the militarized administration of Kashmir is deeply institutionalised.

The three factors which Watts considers as essential for a strategy of ‘representative contention’ to succeed are all present in the Kashmir case: regional concentrationformal citizenship, and a high degree of legalism (i.e. adherence to the law by the authorities even when that law allows activists a space for manoeuvre). However, historically speaking, while this strategy has been used at least twice in the post-1947, it yielded only partial gains.

Arguably, it was first used during the Maharaja Hari Sing’s reign, when, under the Constitutional Act (April 22, 1934), a 75-member Praja Sabha (People’s Assembly) was established which extended recommendatory powers to the members. For the emerging Kashmiri leadership, it was an important political opportunity which later expanded a little more under the Jammu and Kashmir Constitutional Act (Sep 1939) that conceded some privileges (like parliamentary immunity) to Praja Sabha members, thus allowing the Kashmiri leadership to express their political grievances without the threat of being jailed.

The Plebiscite Front Experiment 

In the post-Dogra period, the Plebiscite Front also tried to use the strategy of representational contention. However, the organisation’s fervent rhetoric of election boycott eventually came back to bite it in the late 1960s, when the Front started to mull over the possibility of contesting the elections. The youth revolted against the moderate leadership of the Plebiscite Front, accusing them of wavering from their principle stance of the right to self-determination.

Kashmiri women spearheading a rally demanding a plebiscite during Plebscite Front days

In early October 1965, some youth activists even forced their way on to the stage inside the Hazratbal shrine, considered as the bastion of the Plebiscite Front, and heckled the senior most leaders of the organisation, such as Maulana Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi and Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra. The youth accused them of being Delhi’s “stooges”. When the Front announced its intention to contest elections in early 1970, students and youths protested on the streets. The J&K police killed several demonstrators and jailed hundreds of others. However, the biggest hindrance for the Front was the Indian government, which demanded adherence to the Indian constitution.

When, in 1969, the Front wanted to contest the bye-elections for the five vacant Assembly seats, the chief election commissioner of India set a condition: to first accept the finality of Kashmir’s accession with India. The Front decided to stay away from the elections. However, in May 1969, after a string of meetings with the Indian government, the Front decided to contest the panchayat elections. On May 15, the Front leadership announced in Srinagar that it would find “a new path”.

In the meantime, the world powers were trying to get India and Pakistan on to the negotiating table to resolve the Kashmir conflict. However, as reported by Sanaullah  Bhat in his 1980 book, the Russian Prime Minister Kosygin’s proposal to Pakistan and the American President Nixon’s proposal to India were both rejected by the respective countries. By early 1970, the Front entered negotiations with New Delhi and ultimately decided to contest elections. To assuage the public, its general secretary, Khawaja Ghulam Muhammad Shah, issued a statement, announcing that “The Plebiscite Frontwants to take part in the elections so that the Kashmir issue could be resolved with the consent of the Kashmiri people”.

Sensing that people were not supportive of the elections, Sheikh Abdullah also made a mollifying press statement in late January 1970: “I cannot turn away in any way from the Kashmiri people’s issue of the right to self-determination. In the view of the sacrifices given by the Kashmiri people for their right, I cannot give up their just demand”.Sheikh Abdullah framed the election participation as part of the conflict resolution effort. He, however, faced severe opposition from some Front members like Munshi Muhammad Ishaq, who vehemently opposed the elections and insisted on the right to self-determination.

There was growing discontent among the people, and protests continued throughout the Valley. During Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to Srinagar on July 14, the youth and students carried out big demonstrations in Srinagar. Ironically, the Front helped the state government to suppress the protests. In his November 12, 1970, public rally at Pulwama, Abdullah reiterated his earlier position: “Even though I have grown old now, but you should always remember one thing that till I am alive I will keep fighting for the truth and justice and for the Kashmiri people’s birthright, the right to self-determination”.

Although the Plebiscite Front shrugged off the demands from the Indian government that it must change its stance on self-determination for it to be allowed to contest elections, on December 23, Indira Gandhi made it starkly clear to them: “I am speaking as the Prime Minister of India and this is the opinion of whole India that we will not tolerate any talk against our territorial integrity. Some people in Kashmir are saying that they will take an oath of loyalty to the constitution to enter the Assembly and in the Assembly, they will speak of breaking the constitution! We will not allow this to happen.”

In the end, the Plebiscite Front compromised. The party was dissolved after Sheikh Abdullah signed the 1975 Accord, wherein he accepted India’s sovereignty over Kashmir.

The MUF Experiment

As journalist Masood Hussain writes in his detailed Kashmir Life article (March 23, 2016), the Muslim United Front was formed on September 2, 1986, in a hotel in Srinagar. Four days later the new party released its constitution, dedicating it to a boy, Shafaat Ahmad, who was killed by the J&K Police. The MUF was composed of a medley of nascent religious organisations, student and trade union groups, and the established political formations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the Peoples Conference. Among the fledgeling formations were: Majlis-e-Tehfuz-ul-Islam, Ummat-e-Islami, Muslim Students Federation, Muslim Students Union, Muslim Zone Employees Front, Shia Rabitta Committee, Unjman-e-Itehad-e-Muslimeen, and Muslim Employees Front.

“Kafan Posh” MUF candidates at an election rally in Iqbal Park in 1987 before March 23 polling day. (Photos in special arrangement with MERAJUDDIN)

The MUF could mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to its rallies in Srinagar’s Iqbal park—on November 17, 1986, and March 4,1987, (the famous 42-kaffan-poshdemonstration). It was perhaps due to the MUF’s participation that the 1987 elections witnessed about 80% voting, as first-time voters also participated. It got 470580 (approximately 30 per cent) popular votes.

What Was the MUF Agenda?

According to its former member and the candidate from Amira Kadal constituency in Srinagar, Muhammad Yusuf Shah (alias Syed Salahuddin): “We fought elections so that we could pass a resolution in the assembly for freedom of Kashmir. India knew that. That is why they rigged the elections […] Fighting elections were a means to educate masses about the freedom struggle. We wanted the endorsement of public sentiment in the assembly” (Greater Kashmir April 14, 2008).

However, Syed Ali Geelani, who was in jail when the MUF was created, says in his 2006 booklet Deed-o-Shanaid (p. 53) that since the MUF leaders didn’t expect to win the two-thirds majority in the J&K Assembly, so bringing the bill to declare the 1947 conditional Accession as invalid had little chances to happen. Nonetheless, Geelani believes that the MUF could have worked as an effective opposition, and its participation in the state assembly may have provided the people with ahope of change through democratic processes. But, Indian state wanted to install its chosen people, so it rigged the elections.

Syed Ali Geelani

The prevailing political situation determined the demands that the MUF initially put forth; these mostly related to political and civil rights. As Masood Hussain writes, these included: “release of all political detainees, restoration of judiciary’s dignity, reinstatement of dismissed employees, respect for the basic human rights, rollback of Jagmohan’s all ordinances, corrections in the wrong demographic projections and due representation to the Muslims in opportunities in education and jobs”.

The MUF faced state repression right from its inception. Just two weeks prior to March 23, 1987, elections, the J&K police arrested nearly 600 MUF members. Apart from the rigged elections, it cadres faced brutal torture in police custody—the Kashmir police chief of the time was DIG Ali Muhammad Watali. Ultimately, the organisation collapsed, after disagreements emerged among its founding members, and increasing discontent among the youth of Kashmir became threatening. On August 30, 1989, three Assembly members of MUF resigned, the remaining one was assassinated after the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir.

The Engineer Rashid Case

Currently, there is Sheikh Rashid (aka Engineer Rashid), who has carved a place for himself in the domain of ‘representative contention’ and has a decent following from even the pro-Tehreek constituency. He joined the electoral politics in 2008 after facing state brutality, and now heads the Awami Ittihad Party (which he founded in June 2013). In his legislative assembly speeches, public appearances and social media posts, Rashid have reiterated his position of ‘rai-shumari’ (self-determination). The slogan often raised by him, and his supporters is: “sab naarun peh baari, hai haq hamara rai shumari” (what trumps all the slogans, our right the right to self-determination).

Engineer Rashid in action in the J&K Assembly

Starting as an independent legislator from the rural Langate constituency of Handwara, Rashid has cultivated a large following on social media, where he regularly posts his video statements. Unlike the Hurriyat leaders who face prosecution and constant detainments, Rashid has been relatively free to organise political rallies, gatherings and conduct press conferences. In one of his social media videos, posters of JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat and other political figures can be seen behind him on the wall, a political projection.

When he takes a pro-Tehreek position in the J&K legislative assembly, he is sometimes marshalled out, but he cannot be arrested because of the immunity legislators enjoy by law—though on occasions the J&K police have also roughed him up.

What Does History Teach?

The twin cases of the Plebiscite Front and the MUF show that the strategy of ‘representational contention’ has least chances of succeeding in achieving the core objective of the right to self-determination, given that India is not the United Kingdom, Kashmir is not Scotland, and South Asia is not Europian Union.

The PF survived for at least twenty years (1955-1975), but the MUF had a briefer life of just three years (1986-1989). But, there is some continuity. From the PF branched out the other resistance formations, some of which later converged to form the MUF. And, from the disbanded MUF grew Hurriyat, which continues to define the oppositional politics in Kashmir.

What is interesting, though, is that Hurriyat’s position is more akin to the Plebiscite Front than the MUF. The youth revolted against the moderate PF leaders because they decided to contest the elections, which PF had previously boycotted and spoke against, and deviated from the core principle: the right to self-determination. On the other hand, the MUF’s decision to contest the elections was widely supported by people, because its aim was to capture the Assembly and declare the 1947 conditional Accession as invalid. Yet, while Hurriyat’s stand on the right to self-determination is clear, it will find itself in hot water if it even hints at contesting elections. Because, like the PF, Hurriyat is also trapped in its own political rhetoric of election boycott.

At least two generations have grown to understand that an election boycott is an essential tool of political resistance that taking the oath of upholding the Indian constitution, a prerequisite for contesting elections, is a political taboo. It is only when the current resistance leadership unanimously agrees to change the tactics and retry the MUF model that ‘representational contention’ can have real meaning in Kashmir, which brings us to the question: what options Shah Faesal has?

The framework of Representative Contention

In his interview with News and Views program on January 9, 2019, Faesal said that the MUF model can be a basis for reimagining Kashmiri politics. He also said that the present political set up in Kashmir is “fit for a massive disruption” because it does not truthfully represent the larger sentiments of Azadi. So, basically what he is seeking to do is more on the lines of what Engineer Rashid has been doing already.

He can experiment with the model, but for the people associated with the resistance, entering the electoral process would be a tricky situation, as the success in elections may undermine their own politics. As Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow (2007, p. 133) argue engaging with the institutional politics blunts the sharp edge of contention, since “institutional logic takes over from the logic of contentious politics”. When a resistance movement engages with the institutional processes, it faces the hegemonic discourses about the standards of political propriety and proper parliamentary behaviour, which means it can no longer pursue a form of political action which is independent of the system.

Nevertheless, as the Kurdish case illustrates, the representational contention can be instrumentally used to draw limited concessions from the state and push for little changes and reforms. Ideally then Faesal’s option should be to join the Awami Ittihad Party if the intent is to practice the representative contention within the limited space available in Kashmir and not left the political space unoccupied.

It would be ironic to have the MUF model in mind and yet be part of the National Conference because it was the latter that crushed the former. To make an exaggerated analogy, it would be like holding the Nuremberg trials with Hans Frank as the presiding judge. If the idea is to truthfully represent the larger sentiment of Kashmiris, then joining NC makes no sense because NC believes in the finality of the conditional accession while as the people in Kashmir demand their right to self-determination.

Certainly, there are some constitutional provisions (such as Article 35A) which urgently requires to be safeguarded from the RSS and BJP, who seeks to engineer a demographic change in Kashmir by scrapping it. But, it is for Hurriyat, JKLF and other pro-Tehreekformations to decide if they want to strategically use the model of representational contention to achieve the limited objectives in the short run, such a getting political prisoners released, changing names of streets, incorporating Kashmiri history into the school curriculum, and bringing in laws that can strengthen the Article 35A and other constitutional provisions related to the autonomy of Kashmir.

The biggest argument of the resistance leaders is that election results are manipulated by Indian state for propaganda. If people boycott the elections, it will send a strong message to the world. That is a valid point. However, the resistance politics must also move beyond symbolic to the substantive. If an election boycott is useful as a tool of disruption, then contesting elections can also be used for the same purposes. For example, the republican Sinn Fein MPs in Northern Ireland contests election to the Westminster Parliament but they do not sit for the business of the house. It is called the policy of abstentionism, which is a sort of passive resistance. Like election boycott, abstaining is also a disruption; through which Sinn Fein refuses to accept British sovereignty on the Island. If the idea of a boycott is to send a message to the world, then an equally effective but different tool (contest and abstain) can also be used.

Obviously, the legislators from Jammu and Ladakh will create hindrances. Indian state may also repeat 1987, and either ban pro-Tehreek legislators or arm-twist them and may also try to co-opt some of them. So, strong party discipline, loyalty, conviction, and commitment to the cause will determine how the pro-Tehreek legislators will handle tough situations and obstacles when they try representational contention. But, if the Tehreek leadership plays strategically and prepare well, they can make it possible.

This is in tune with the December 14, 2016 statement of the Joint Resistance Leadership: “Now it is time to consolidate our gains and build upon them in order to move ahead further. In this regard, the leadership feels that a long-term sustainable strategy, based on proactive initiatives, programmes, and sustainable modes of protest with maximum public participation in their creation and implementation and minimum costs for the people, is the way forward”.The resistance movement already has huge public support, it can mobilise thousands of people on a single call, but what it requires is proactive, imaginative, and shrewd politics.

***

This article was first published by Kashmir Life on 14 Jan 2019: https://kashmirlife.net/can-electoral-politics-envisage-resistance-197936/?fbclid=IwAR3XDc9dqf-t7IFtOxFaAt6bvrZVHjMWs2eOiH9ZtLIvhe05kVjModVolCQ.

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Badlaav: The Change Has​ Come

Over six feet tall, clean shaven with coiffed hair and brawny physique, Aijaz Rah easily passes as a Hollywood superstar. In fact, the gene of acting occasionally drives him for a role or two in DD Kashir serials. But for Aijaz the first love remains singing, and he proficiently carries forward his legendary father Ghulam Mohammad Rah’s musical legacy.

Aijaz Rah started his career quite young in 1977, singing mostly for Doordarshan Srinagar. He trained under renowned singer Ghulam Nabi Sheikh and music director Muhammad Ashraf and even briefly enrolled in Music and Fine Arts in 1982. Later, on his friends’ suggestions, he went to Bombay in 1986 where he got a breakthrough after two year’s struggle to sing for Jhankar Orchestra. It was during this brief stay in that charismatic city that he got under the tutelage of Karim Chacha, the renowned tablaist, and learned nuances of music.

In recent years almost all songs of Aijaz Rah have been hits. With his Mauj Chi Aekher Mauje Asaan, a painful and melancholic song, he stirred million hearts. The Mauj album earned him Khilat-e-Mehjoor Award in 2008. His Rinda Ho became a rage.   

For the Kashmiri music lovers talented Aijaz Rah has now come up with his latest offering Badlaav, a unique music album that is sure to make you tap your feet on high octane Punjabi tunes. Yes, you heard it right. For the first time, Kashmir meets Punjab in a musical feat that mesmerizes with its enthralling music and profound lyrics of our own patrons of literature: Shamas Fakir, Souchi Krayal, Neyami Sahab, Rehman Rahi, Mahmood Gami and Munawar Khadim.

It took over a month for Aijaz to compose the five songs in an expensive Ludhiana studio in Punjab. And his creative efforts and hard work have finally paid and all the songs have been rendered so beautifully in innovative beats (fusion of Punjabi folk tunes with Kashmiri music) that Badlaav has become a must buy. Aijaz Rah’s thirty years experience comes through his songs. Creating suitable rock tunes for profound lyrics of existential yearnings and metaphysical desires is no mean feat.

On a pleasant April afternoon in a calm Boulevard restaurant, Aijaz Rah had a freewheeling chat with GK Magazine. In bluish patterned sweater over a pink chequered shirt, Rah exuded confidence and restrained excitement.

How the idea for the album struck you?

Actually, last year two of my fans, very well established businessmen, approached me with a very curious question: Why there aren’t any high beat Kashmiri songs? Why can’t we produce songs on the pattern of Punjabi music? I told them in plain words: it takes a good amount to create such kind of music. A few days later, to my utter surprise, I discovered that they had deposited money in my account and they told me: now give us the songs.

Why have you chosen a title like Badlaav for a musical album?

It was the suggestion of some of my friends who said that this album is bringing a kind of change in Kashmiri music so we should name it Badlaav (Change).

You have recorded your album in Ludhiana Punjab. What difference did you find in terms of the professional environment?

Well, Punjab has a thriving music industry with numerous studios all around.  Punjabi music industry has adapted to new times catering to the modern tastes, which is the reason why they are hugely successful. While I was working there I did not find myself bound professionally. In fact, I was struggling with a tune for the song Bulbula while being in Kashmir, but as soon as I entered the Ludhiana studio with its stimulating ambiance, my creative juices just began to flow.

It is perhaps for the first time that a Kashmiri singer and Punjabi artists have worked on a commercial musical project?

Yes, Badlaav boasts of being the first such collaboration between Kashmiri and Punjabi music industry. The people I worked with in Punjab were all highly professional and they are big names in the Punjab music industry. When you will listen to the songs in the album you will surely feel the quality and high standard of work.

You have selected Sufi lyrics for this album, any particular reason?

Basically, my idea was to take great Kashmiri poets to the younger audience so that they hum and remember their rich and soulful poetry and to do that I think high beat music is the right medium since it is of their taste. Rendering such mystical Sufi poetry in rock music demands real hard work and research and I am very thankful to Ghulam Mohammad Shaksaaz sahab for helping me in getting correct pronunciations and rhyme.

Now that you have put in so much hard work to produce this album, what are your expectations?

I am satisfied with my work as it has come out as an excellent piece and I believe Kashmiri music lovers will definitely like the songs. But the problem is not whether people will like it or not, the problem is the devil of piracy which is killing the music industry in Kashmir. And then there is reluctance on the part of distributors and wholesalers who prefer to sell low-grade music albums because they fetch them good profit. If people buy and support good quality Kashmiri music it can flourish; ultimately when an album sells, artist survives. If we don’t recover the costs that go into the making of a good quality music album, how are we going to invest again!

***

This interview was first published in Greater Kashmir on 6 April 2012.

URDU: Story of Banishment

Entrances to government offices in Kashmir have a common story to tell: that they are failures of imagination. While Srinagar Municipal Corporation in shiny metallic letters welcomes you when you enter its big arched gate, Roads and Buildings (R&B) department at Rajbagh flaunts its lustrous black marble plaque with words Engineering Complex carved in Roman as well as Arabic letters, and then there is wide steel-grill entrance of Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education carrying its name on either side: Arabic script on the right and Roman script on the left. But none of these departments have translated their English names into the so-called official language of Kashmir – Urdu.
The sorry state of Urdu language in Jammu and Kashmir is all pervading. It has fallen victim to official neglect and there is hardly any government department that uses Urdu for day to day official business. In different cities of India, one finds government hoardings and signboards carrying both English as well as the official language of the state, but same is not true about Kashmir. The nameplates, boards, notices, hoardings and even the Jammu and Kashmir Government logo is bereft of Urdu.
Even where the Urdu script is used, the language is ignored. The example is the death certificate issued by SMC Srinagar. Just below the bold English words Death Certificate, the supposedly Urdu version reads “Certificate Maut” (certificate death), which seems a weird concoction of the two different languages. Any Urdu knowing person can tell you that certificate is not an Urdu word, rather Death Certificate in Urdu should translate into Sanad-e-Wafaat. This is a chronic error of which almost every government department in Kashmir is a victim. Ironically, Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture, and Languages also needs a treatment.
In 1886, when erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir Ranbir Singh declared Urdu as an official language, he did so in order to make it a language of communication between the three linguistically distinct provinces of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. But “Urdu language has been communalized and labeled as a Muslim language. The incumbent officials and higher-ups deliberately ignore this language as they want it to be systematically erased and forgotten” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef, renowned Kashmiri poet and cultural activist of the valley.
“If such a thing had happened in any Indian state,” Zareef Ahmad further says, “people there would have come out on roads and started agitations”.
Retired Section Officer of Manasbal Development Authority, Ghulam Rasool Bhat says that the basic reason for official neglect is that it is much easier to print English language signboards, while Urdu is a bit difficult. He shared an anecdote that once he asked his superior that weren’t they, as per government orders, supposed to use Urdu on signboards? The officer brushed the issue aside saying that it was not compulsory. That shows the level of official apathy meted out to the so-called official language of Jammu and Kashmir.
In order to inquire why Tourism Department does not use Urdu language anywhere, I went to meet Abid Maqbool Bhat, Deputy Director (Publicity) Tourism Department. “We have government orders [to only use the English language] and we cannot change that,” he says. In his white wood-paneled office he was busy and before him on the table lay heaps of papers and files. These greenish files bore the curved name of the state government flanked by a logo: two paddy branches with Jammu and Kashmir Government written in English. I could not find a single file or paper on which Urdu was noticeable. Even the government calendar on the wall was all English.
“For writing signboards and nameplates in Urdu, right type of person are needed, which are hard to find these days.  And besides, it is not mandatory to use Urdu language.” These are the words of Chief Engineer R&B Srinagar, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone.
His contention that it is ‘not mandatory’ to use the official language in public places speaks volumes about the official attitude towards the language.
“Such neglect of Urdu language needs to be addressed. Our civil society and intelligentsia has a role to play in this regard, but it seems as if they are sleeping over this issue,” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef.
Despite neglect at large level, some officers need to be appreciated for their initiatives to have a semblance of the language in the official realm. Health Officer SMC Srinagar Dr. Rubeena Shah made the License Under Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 bilingual on her own because she “thought when other states can have both English as well as their respective state languages why cannot we do the same!”
“Besides,” she reasons “since most of our shopkeepers and vendors are not well versed in the English language it was absurd not to have Urdu options”
When asked why SMC was ignoring the official language, G.N. Qasba Commissioner Srinagar Municipal Corporation replied in assured but ambitious tone: “Give me a month and you will see all these English boards outside our offices replaced with Urdu ones”
Well, it is a wait-and-watch on how much the honorable Commissioner walks the talk and brings some concrete changes.
Meanwhile, forget about other things how Urdu is denied even a symbolic status reflects from the fact that the state emblem adorned with a bloomed lotus and twin paddy branches embraces  Jammu and Kashmir Government in roman letters rather than the official language, Urdu.

***

This story was first published in Greater Kashmir on 29 April 2012: https://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/gk-magazine/urdu-story-of-banishment/119167.html

 

Terrifying Beauty: A Question Every Kashmiri Photojournalist Must Confront

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In any profession, there are stages of achievement to which its practitioners naturally aspire, for achievements confer prestige. Incremental stages of achievement are usually stamped by certificates or awards, which may include money – like the Rs 50,000 cash prize given as part of the Indian Press Photo Award, which many Kashmiri photojournalists have bagged.

So, is it material incentives that primarily motivate photojournalists to risk their lives to capture ‘visually compelling insights about our world’?  Different photojournalists give different answers. For example, in a 2011 article published in Open magazine, photographer Arko Datta said, “I would be lying if I said the awards, fame, and, most importantly, front-page bylines weren’t motivations. But more than anything else, what motivates me is the possibility of making a difference. Not every picture I take may change a life. But the possibility of it is enough.”

This possibility of making a difference through images is illustrated by a story Rafiq Maqbool told the Open magazine’s Aliefya Vahanvaty in the same article: In 1997, Maqbool had taken ‘blind shots’ of a crackdown at Bakhshi Stadium in the Srinagar city after being prevented to take photos by the Indian army. His pictures appeared in print the next day. But their significance – in terms of making a difference – was realised a few days later when the worried parents of a missing youth approached the media. In one of his pictures, Maqbool had accidentally – and fortunately – captured the young man who was said to have gone “missing.” This photograph became a key piece of evidence to prove in court that the young man was present during the military crackdown and had been detained by the army. The ‘missing’ young man was eventually released.

“It taught me,” said Maqbool, “never to take my responsibility lightly. Since then, I’ve always picked up the camera in the belief that a picture can make a difference to at least one life. That gets me through the good days and the bad days.” This belief is not shared by all photographers, though. When Kashmiri photojournalist Showkat Shafi returned from Cox’s Bazar after visiting a Rohingya refugee camp, his sympathy was tinged with a sense of pessimism: “I will wonder what good our pictures did after all.”

However, when someone says, I am doing photojournalism because it can make a difference to somebody’s life, then he or she is making a moral judgment premised on a utilitarian – and altruistic – conception of the photographic enterprise. If this utilitarian – and altruistic – element is at the core of the profession, then the awards and recognition that come with it are but of secondary importance; the primary motive being passion for human service. And to stay steadfast on this path, one must have hope. As Kashmiri photographer Showkat Nanda says, “If I give up hope, then I’m no longer a photographer. Hope is what keeps me working.”

And yet, the question remains: why would a Kashmiri photojournalist risk his or her life and jump into a dangerous theatre of war in a distant land? Is the primary motivation, then, that of ‘making a difference’ or is it, as photojournalist Tauseef Mustafa says in the Open article, that “the action sucks you in”? From their accounts we learn how life-threatening it has been for Kashmiri photojournalists to carry out assignments despite being embedded in well-guarded armies: Rafiq Maqbool in Afghanistan, Tauseef Mustafa in Iraq and Afghanistan and Altaf Qadri in Libya (the latter was embedded with Libyan rebels).

History and culture of war photography

“Ever since cameras were invented in 1839,” says Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “photography has kept company with death.”

As a troupe of professional journalists went into the field to capture the action in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), it became the first bloody conflict “to be witnessed (covered) in the modern sense.” And being the first one to be televised, the Vietnam War (1955-75) “introduced the home front to new tele-intimacy with death and destruction.” For ambitious tabloids and news channels, the governing credo was: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Thus, the element of shock became a commodity which sold in the market. Sontag gives the example of the French magazine Paris Match, which espoused the motto: “The weight of words, the shock of photos.”

Modern-day readers and viewers consumed shocking or dramatic visuals and news producers readily provided such content, thus they co-constituted each other. The logic of market drove the photographic enterprise, where “the hunt for dramatic…images” became “part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.” As modern human beings got acclimatised to dramatic visuals of wars and conflicts, so professionally (and sometimes heroically) brought to us by photojournalists, we were moulded into “a spectators of calamities taking place in another country.” However, as Sontag rightly says, “Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed.” Which is why some conflicts resonate with people, while others are ignored.

What makes pictures compelling?

What is it about pictures that make them so compelling, so powerful, or so useful for the media and the market? Sontag argues that being complex, nuanced and sometimes laden with a certain vocabulary, written accounts do not create the same effect as photographs. “A photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all,” she avers. It is one of the great qualities of a picture that it gets stuck in people’s minds, “like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb.” Every day, one is exposed to the bombastic visual content on television and in movies, “but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite.”

Another remarkable feature of photographs is their intrinsic objectivity, and, coupled with their status as an incontrovertible document of a moment of reality, they act as historical witnesses. Or as Virginia Woolf said, “simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.”

It was around the Second World War that photojournalism came into its own. Robert Capa shot to fame with his dramatic 1936 picture of a Republican soldier getting shot during the Spanish Civil War. This iconic picture, the falling soldier, appeared in Life magazine on July 12, 1937. Later, Capa went on to form, along with David Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Magnum Photo Agency in Paris in 1941 as a representative of “venturesome freelance photographers.” For Magnum, a photographer was a rover who covered the world beat, bore witness and chronicled his own times. With the advent of colour photography, still visuals of war acquired a heightened appearance of reality. They were the reason Larry Burrows’ colour photographs of terrified Vietnamese civilians and wounded American soldiers published in Life “fortified the outcry against the American presence in Vietnam.”

But, as Sontag reminds us, only certain wars or conflicts (the Spanish Civil War, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Balkan wars) attracted international cameras, because not all wars were “invested with the meaning of larger struggles.” More brutal wars and conflicts (such as in Sudan, between Iraq/Kurds and Russia/Chechnya) “have gone relatively under-photographed.”

If we have an awareness of (and sympathy for) the suffering of only certain people, it is because grievable subjects are selectively constructed. One should recall here the treatment of Kashmir in the mainstream Indian media. Despite regularly covering the conflict, the mainstream media renders grieving Kashmiri families invisible, as the only grievable subjects for Indian media are soldiers (jawans) and their families. It is in this context of the mendacious – to the extent of criminal – propaganda of the mainstream (especially electronic) Indian media, Kashmiri journalists, especially the photographers, assumes special significance.

Facets of Kashmiri photojournalism

Ghulam Mohiuddin Rehbar (born 1904) is considered “the first photojournalist” of Kashmir, because he took the aftermath pictures of the July 13, 1931 massacre. Today, Kashmir has dozens of photojournalists, some of them working for international news agencies. Not all photographers are well read, and few of them, among the senior cohort, are graduates of media schools. Founded in 2003, the Kashmir Press Photographers Association now has around 35 members.

That there is a conflict (or war) on in Kashmir gives added weight to Kashmiri journalism as important professional sector, both locally and internationally, and Kashmiri journalists naturally find themselves at the centre of communication (as nodal points) between Kashmir and the world. News about the Kashmir conflict reaches the world mostly through Kashmiri journalists, whose writings and photographs often appear in leading international publications. Regular military skirmishes at the Line of Control, anti-India protests or gun-battles between militants and Indian troops are events of interest for which international media outlets usually rely on local Kashmiri journalists.

Not surprisingly, Kashmiri photojournalists have faced life-threatening situations; some of them have been grievously injured and killed in the past 30 years. Mushtaq Ali, a videographer with ANI, was killed in a parcel bomb attack, whose original target was the then BBC and Reuters correspondent Yusuf Jameel (presently with the Deccan Chronicle.) In the early 1990s, photojournalist Meraj-ud-Din lost an eye to a grenade splinter.

Irfan Ahmad was bed-ridden for eight months after getting injured in a bomb blast on August 10, 2000 (the bomb, killed, apart from a dozen policemen, Hindustan Timesphotojournalist Pradeep Bhatia.) In 2001, the Kashmir Times photojournalist Abdul Qayyum was severely beaten up by a security guard outside a hospital in Srinagar. During the 2016 uprising, Kashmiri photojournalists were particularly targeted. Thirty-year-old Zuhaib Maqbool lost his vision after police at Rainawari (in downtown Srinagar) fired pellets at him on the fateful day of September 4, 2016.

Paradoxically, it is the conflict which has mainly ‘exposed’ Kashmiri journalists to the outside world, and given some of them prominence. It is the war photography which has earned Kashmiri photojournalists acclaim and recognition. So, while it may sound crude and ironic, it is the war content which has become a source of capital, in its material as well as symbolic aspects. One can cite many instances, but let me give one: the bomb blasts of August 10, 2000 at Lal Chowk, killed a photojournalist and several police officers, but the picture of a policeman enveloped in flames by AP photojournalist, Rafiq Maqbool, won him an honourable mention for the Robert Capa award. That is what “visually compelling insights about our world” are all about.

There is another remarkable aspect of photojournalism. Unlike other art forms, says Sontag, “photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced.”

For example, on April 7, 2016, a young Kashmiri journalist, Javaid Naikoo, was covering the funeral cortege of slain Kashmiri rebel Waseem Malla in Shopian, a town 52-kms south of Srinagar. Some people, mostly young boys, had climbed poplar trees to have a glimpse of the slain rebel. Naikoo immediately pulled his Micromax smartphone and captured the scene: a silhouette of people hanging on trees while watching the funeral. His picture was widely shared on social media, and later it featured on Kashmiri author Shahnaz Bashir’s book of short stories Scattered Souls (HarperCollins, 2017). For Naikoo, it was by sheer ‘luck’ that he captured that moment.

One of the reasons Naikoo’s photograph gained iconic status in the visual culture of Kashmiri resistance was its spontaneity and roughness, or, as one commenter said, it was “extraordinary.” However, being on the cover of Scattered Souls, Naikoo’s photograph will not produce uniform effects and meanings, because, in the words of Sontag, “the photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.”

Nevertheless, according to Marianne Hirsch, “Iconic images are static. Even if they are recontextualised in myriad news outlets, they continue to point back indexically and to be used to reinterpret the moment when they were shot, a moment of political witness recorded by the camera.” One can evaluate both these arguments – Sontag’s and Hirsch’s – in the context of the reception according to the recently published book of Kashmir photograph by nine Kashmir photographers spanning three decades, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016.

While illustrating, the visual narrative of Kashmiri photographers has also corroborated: their pictures serve as a repository of vital testimonies against war crimes and state violence. Especially for the relatives of the disappeared persons, photographs are key to their struggle for justice. As the narrator of Mirza Waheed’s short story ‘A Trail of Dew’aptly says, “You see, the single most important thing for the family of a missing person is the photograph. Without it, the person can’t be. Without it, the disappeared cannot exist. I doubt you understand.”

Thus, the visual narratives produced by Kashmiri photojournalists have served to constitute a symbolic resistance, creating points of references and emblems of the azaadi struggle. Visual narrative enables remembrance, because, to quote Sontag again, “To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.”

‘We are serving the cause of azaadi by documenting state oppression and people’s resistance’, is a common refrain among many young Kashmiri photojournalists. However, there is also a healthy competition among them to get published in prominent Indian publications or in international media outlets; and they have role models within Kashmir whom they follow. The profession usually leads to war photography, because that is what interests outsiders about Kashmir, mostly. And, in an attempt (or zeal) to capture the perfect war photograph (or to document state oppression, as some may argue), the ethics of what should go to print and what should remain unpublished, even un-photographed, is often overlooked by many young Kashmiri photojournalists.

What to show and what not to

In the wake of Daniel Pearl’s murder in Karachi in 2002, and the release of a video of his murder, a fierce debate ensued in the US: should the press exercise its right to show the video or respect Pearl’s widow and refrain from giving her more pain through its broadcast and publication?

“With our dead,” writes Sontag, “there has always been a powerful interdiction against showing the naked face.” She cites a few examples where the American press withheld publication of photos that showed the faces of fallen American soldiers, and she emphatically denounces the hypocrisy that lies behind it, because “this is a dignity not thought necessary to accord to others.”

One is forced to say that in Kashmir, the ethics of according dignity to relatives of the dead, or to the dead, is yet to be learned. The largest circulated English daily in the Valley, Greater Kashmir, on June 12, 2010, carried the slain teenager Tufail Matoo’s disfigured face on its front page and, repeating the same mistake six years later, published on its front page, on July 9, 2016, the photograph of the bullet-ridden bodies of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and his two associates. Online ‘news portals’, which have mushroomed on social media in last few years, have simply tossed ethics out the window. This is not only unprofessional but also an unethical and amoral practice.

And this bring us to an important issue: the tendency among a new crop of photojournalists in Kashmir to take pictures of grieving people, and the congratulatory fervour their publications create on social media. What makes people write comments like “beautiful” or “congratulations” on otherwise poignant pictures of grieving mothers and sisters, or relatives of the dead?

I would argue that it is the sense of aesthetics associated with photography that makes commenters focus on a photographer’s art rather than the content. Moreover, many people seem to miss the point that there is, even if thin, a difference between art and photography. Art, like that of Rollie Mukherjee’s paintings or APDP calendars about pain and suffering in Kashmir, can be aesthetically ‘beautiful’; however, when a photograph on the same subject-matter is ‘beautified’, not only is its avowed altruistic purpose diminished, it also ceases to be journalism.

The sense of aesthetics which drives a photojournalist’s desire to take ‘beautiful’ pictures and share them enthusiastically on social media is determined, in a broader sense, by the logic of the market. “See, I took a great award-deserving picture!” photojournalists seem to be telling their followers. That is why you will often find a photo credit stamped on poignant photos, sometimes crudely put right on the face of a grieving subject. Such photo credit help contribute to the commodification of photos, making them open to the wider market. And ‘beautification’ of poignant pictures is achieved when respondents praise them with superlatives (superb, beautiful, great, ultimate etc.); In this whole episode photographers are complicit, because they actively seek approval and praise on social media for their war photos.

Some might argue that their objective is to show the suffering of Kashmiris so that the outside world is moved. While poignant pictures can certainly move people, we should remember that a lot will depend on who the audiences are and where the picture is being seen or shown. Have the pictures of Kashmiri pellet victims had an impact in the outside world? Perhaps, yes. Was Indian civil society moved by those pictures? One cannot be too sure.

When compelling pictures of pellet victims were published on social media during the 2016 uprising, did people congratulate the photographers? I don’t think so. Then why did people recently congratulate a photographer for his picture of “a boy walking through a ruined house”? Could it be because it was featured as the Photo of the Day (December 19,  2017) in the Washington Post?

Perhaps among some people in Kashmir, such tendencies are determined by a sense that Kashmiri narrative is getting international attention, that Kashmiris can challenge the Indian media’s wrongful projection of the Kashmiri struggle. Hence, when they say ‘congratulations,’ they might mean it as a gesture of solidarity for the common cause. This is implicit in the narratives of reports such as ‘Nine Kashmiri Photojournalists Who Won Laurels at the International Level’ (With Kashmir: June 3, 2017). But, one cannot say for sure that this sense of solidarity explains all the congratulatory comments on social media.

Yet another interpretation could be that many people in Kashmir have got used to – or inured – to pictures of violence, pain and suffering, owing to the rapid diffusion of such visuals. Or, perhaps, in the words of Wordsworth, people’s sensibilities have been “reduced…to a state of almost savage torpor.”

But then again, can we be certain that ceaseless exposure to images of violence, horrific incidents and suffering ultimately blunts the mind and dulls our sympathy? An affirmative response to this question would amount to what Sontag calls conservative critique, with which she concurred in her previous book On Photography (1977), but later found it problematic. Taking a more sceptical line, she asks 26 years later in Regarding the Pain of Others, “What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralises the moral force of photographs of atrocities?”

The argument that after some time, and due to ceaseless repetition, sympathy for images of pathos ultimately withers is countered by Sontag by referring to rituals like martyrdom enactments in ta’ziyah, which, despite having been watched many times over never cease to move observant Shia audiences. However, I would argue, the context, or rather atmosphere, where ta’ziyah is enacted is qualitatively different than the atmosphere of social media, where a plethora of images (poignant, funny, awkward, entertaining, historical, artistic etc.) compete for attention, fleetingly pass through one’s field of vision, and thus make one continuously shift one’s sensory gear from one emotion to another. It is in this context of a content-saturated world that a book like Witness becomes more effective, as one can immerse oneself in it in contemplative solitude, in an undistracted atmosphere where emotions can be concentrated on one subject only.

To give a psychoanalytical spin to Diana Taylor’s powerful concept of ‘Percepticide‘, can we say that because the state has inflicted so much violence, oppression and suffering on the Kashmiri people,  it has caused a percepticide among some Kashmiris? Not because despite seeing it all people do not admit that they are seeing but because they see, and even admit that they are seeing, yet go into congratulatory mode on seeing it. This means that despite seeing their own death and subjugation, they fail to properly acknowledge that turning away from the victim in the photo and focussing on the success of the photographer instead is thus tantamount to colluding with the violence of the state – the violence whose purpose is to weaken and subjugate Kashmiris to the extent that it becomes taken-for-granted, a fait accompli.

In a sense, the state has dug a vast visual graveyard and some people, instead of visiting in solemn silence, stroll in it as boisterous tourists. If photographs of pathos primarily stir a congratulatory tune in the hearts of some, it implies that their inner chords of sympathy and solidarity have loosened, perhaps even been completely severed.

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This essay was first published in The Wire on 28 June 2018: https://thewire.in/media/the-many-facets-of-photojournalism-in-kashmir

On ‘Dolmut’

Dolmut is a polysemous Kashmiri term, and it is typically used as an informal noun: a lunatic, a crazy person. It is also used for someone who is a non-conformist. Moreover, the term is often employed as an exclamatory expression, similar to telling someone admonishingly: “Idiot!” And yet, this phrase or expression has a range of other uses. For example, imagine you send a long slipshod piece of writing to your busy friend for her feedback and she opens the document and quickly skims through it. She whispers to herself, “Dolmut!” Here, the expression implicitly means: how come the sender expected that I will waste my valuable time reading such a long, tedious, and badly punctuated text. Yet, one more example: two friends calculate expenses of their recent trip. One of the friends, who is little clumsy, says the total expenses incurred on the trip were ten thousand bucks. The other friend, a smarter fellow, snaps back: “Tse ma dolmut!” reminding him that he forgot to include the hotel rent. Here the expression is a context-dependent locution, specific to close interpersonal relationships; it is analogous to: “Dude, are you crazy!”

To be frank, my interest in the term Dolmut was spurred by the controversy raked by Kashmiri author Mir Khalid’s interview in Kashmir INK (27 Nov 2017). After Khalid made rather unflattering comments about the emerging Kashmiri writers of English, whom he dismissed as “vectors for an epidemic of sloppy writing,” and called their efforts “a pathologized literary trend,” a verbal skirmish ensued. In a joint riposte to Khalid, two Kashmiri students of English literature—Towfeeq and Sahil—from Jamia Millia Islamia criticized Khalid’s blunt remarks, which as per them, betrayed an orientalist mindset. They wrote: “one must ask Khalid here if the western authors who have provided an overview of the ‘general human condition’ are the ones like Conrad, Kipling, and Eliot. One wonders why even after reading so many ‘serious’ western authors, Khalid has missed a book as important as Edward Said’s Orientalism,” (Kashmir INK: 4 Dec). However, in a rather curious case of riposte-against-the-riposte, Imtiyaz Assad, an occasional contributor to Greater Kashmir, defended Khalid’s remarks in his article published in Greater Kashmir on 15 Dec 2017. After taking down Khalid’s young critics, he rhetorically said: “Why should it get on our nerves when it is purely in our better interest and likely to act an impetus to the active breed of writers to give birth to something great and set a glorious example? We celebrate mediocrity, and make holy cows of our local authors who are yet to step out of their narrow orbits and shed their goddamn hubris.”

While not about the controversy per se, this essay was certainly inspired by it. Because what I observed in the whole episode was that one side was telling the other: “You are Dolmut, dude!” For Towfeeq and Sahil, Khalid was dolmut, because he didn’t conform to the prevailing ‘consensus’ regarding the literary merit of the emerging Kashmiri writers of English, and betrayed certain orientalist tendencies in his interview. For Imtiyaz, the young literature students, Towfeeq and Sahil, were dalmit (plural), for, as he put it, they were “glorifying the half-baked stuff.”

Let me clarify. This piece is not to pour scorn on any side, nor do I intend to assess the merits and demerits of what each side said. Rather my attempt in this short essay is to present a nuanced understanding of the expression Dolmut than its colloquial usage might suggest.

A Few Illustrative Anecdotes

On the fine morning of 3 September 2017, on Eid’s eve, I told my family that I was joining the Eid prayers at Tanchi Bagh (local name of a sports ground). Traditionally, our family performs Eid prayers either in Eid Gah or Jamia (of Pampore). Little surprised, my father, otherwise a moderately ritualistic man on religious matters, said, in an authoritative first-person plural: “We are not going there, pray quietly in your own mosque.”

“Why? What is wrong praying there?” I asked him, in a light-hearted manner.

My father gave me a rather pithy, but allusive, reply: “Se’yat Yii.”

Now, Se’yat Yii is a remarkably complex phrase, and difficult to pin down to its literal meaning. In its rough translation, it could mean: “You might invite divine retribution!”

I fully understand why my father would use that expression. Firstly, our family has remained closely associated with sufis and shrines. Though well-traveled, my great-grandfather was a little whimsical man—his only picture shows him sitting cross-legged on a lawn chair, lost in thoughts over a hookah. Around his middle age he had started religiously following a godman called Ahad Bab, who, for some time, also lived in our home. My great-grandfather was a devoted disciple and did what all good disciples do, which naturally endeared him to Ahad Bab. Their association didn’t break even after death; they are buried near each other: Ahad Bab is buried under a modest Pagoda-style stone-and-wood tomb, and my great grandfather just near the tomb’s entrance. My father was the favorite kid of my great-grandfather; and from very early age, he was introduced to the mystical world of Sufism by him. I remember, during the mid-1990’s, when people would dread walking through Frestabal, the bastion of notorious state-backed militia leader Papa Kisthwari, my father took me, a shy and gauche ten-year-old kid, with him to attend a Sufiana mehfil (Sufi recital) at his sister’s home in that neighbourhood; it was evening time and we briskly, and gingerly, crossed Papa Kishtwari’s guarded residence. Father loves Sufiana music, and, like his siblings, he is also a shrine goer. So, when he said Se’yat Yii, he meant he didn’t want me to stray from the tradition.

Secondly, from the last decade or so Tanchi Bagh (the sports ground) has emerged as an alternate site where Eid prayers are organised by Jamiat e Ahl-e-Hadeeth, a religious organisation relatively new to our town, and whose negative image has been contrived by its rivals which has stuck in the minds of old school people like my father. The organization is viewed as anti-saints and anti-shrines; and its adherents are pejoratively termed as “Badd Ateqaed” (badd: bad; ateqaed: faithful).

However, despite my father’s half-hearted advisory, I went to Tanchi Bagh. I was perhaps the first person from our family to break the long tradition and pray in Ahl-e-Hadeeth Eid congregation; probably, I was the first person from our neighborhood lane to do so. But my decision to join Tanchi Bagh Eid gathering was simply guided by my curiosity to see how different it would be. After praying on a fresh blue tarpaulin, spread on the gentle turf of the sprawling ground, I went to meet a friend Sartaj, who also comes from a traditionally Barelvi leaning family. At the cusp of his adult life, however, this friend had embraced the Ahl-e-Hadeeth school of thought. Of course, his family was not pleased with this ‘conversion’, but they soon got used to his views and practices, and whenever he tried to assert his opinions, they waved them aside with a good laugh. Though, his cousins and other relatives taunted him and told him half-jokingly: “Tse chukh koett’i baneomut,” (You have become a koett’i; the term koett’i is a pejorative metonym used by some people for a person of Ahl-e-Hadees school of thought).

If their views regarding Sartaj’s conversion—from a traditionally Barelvi to Ahl-e-Hadeeth—were mildly disapproving, there were others who had a rather harsh opinion of people like him. I had a chance to have a long conversation with such a person. One of my neighborhood acquaintances, Jamshid, a man in his mid-thirties (who also has a deep interest in English literature), terms people like Sartaj as ‘Dolmut.’ For Jamshid, not only people associated with Ahl-e-Hadeeth but even the adherents of Jamaat-e-Islami are actually “Watti Dalmit.

Here, the expression Dolmut assumes double meaning: lunatic (a noun) and strayed (an adverb). It is in this double sense that the expression “Waati Dalmit” can be understood in relation to Sartaj’s ‘conversion’ and the adherents of the school of thought he follows. Watti means from the path and Dalmit (plural noun/adverb) means having strayed.

In such seemingly banal situations, Dolmut is not simply an innocuous colloquial phrase shorn of any underlying political or ideological meaning. Rather Dolmut has definite characteristics of what Steven Poole calls Unspeak. As Poole (2006:3) explains, “It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to… [erase or silence] any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.” Thus, within itself, the expression Dolmut (or Dalmit) carries an ideological violence by accomplishing naturalization of one ideology and demonization of other. That which has strayed from the path has strayed from which path? Of course, the mainstream path. And, mainstream path does not need to be explicitly spelled out, as it is already assumed which school of thought is the mainstream. Since it has a taken-for-granted status, it is the prevailing ideology, or what Gramsci calls hegemony.

However, since you being Dolmut means you have strayed from the path, you still have a chance to salvage your position to get back into the mainstream fold. This also means that by joining the other school of thought, Dolmut is but a naïve and immature person, if not one who is bereft of faith. Though, interestingly, when I broke the news to Jamshid’s uncle that I had Eid prayers at Tanchi Bagh, he responded with a sardonic smile and said, “Near’ kalmi par naiyee masjid manz!” (trans: go and declare kalima anew in the mosque)—when he said mosque he gestured to a nearby Hanafi mosque.

While the expression Dolmut is employed in a range of situations with varied illocutionary force, I have heard it more dramatically used by a journalist friend from Srinagar. He often uses the expression to sneer at his political opponents. But, characteristically, to augment its smirking effect, he adds a slang to it: “Hah’r”. Thus, his way of denouncing, say Minister Drabu’s latest statement or irritating news anchor Arnob Goswami’s ranting, would be “Dolmut Hah’r” (this bastard has gone crazy!).

For the prosecution, and the society at large, Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s novel The Outsider, was Dolmut because he showed no remorse on the death of his mother. The right (or appropriate) thing was to say I felt sad, devastated on her death. But for him, his mother’s death was more of an annoyance, or so it seemed to him when he faced the reality of her death. That he didn’t feel sad or devastated was one thing, but it was socially blasphemous to declare so. And it is here, in this specific situation, that he was accused of being Dolmut. Because he had strayed from the path of social codes. In the foreword to the novel, Camus writes, “Lying is not only what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.” Paradoxically, for being true to his feelings and expressing their state in an unadulterated manner, Meursault received reprobation from the society.

What endows the word Dolmut with its certain illocutionary power is that it is essentially a metaphorical expression. For Aristotle, metaphor is a decorative linguistic device which serves a purpose in rhetorical discourses: to persuade. But Nietzsche takes a different line and sees a metaphorical expression as the fundamental human impulse. “To be truthful,” says Nietzsche, “is to employ customary metaphors…this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone.” A rational being, thus, is the one who behaves and acts as per the conventions of society and its definition of a literal truth of things; one acts rationally when one acts as per the conventional metaphors. Even if Meursault had lied to himself and publicly said in the court that he felt sad or devastated on his mother’s death, he would have been ‘truthful’, because, as Nietzsche says, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” His untrue statement—untrue because he didn’t feel it inside—would have been, though, a manifestation of his being rational because only by playing by the (metaphorical) conventions of the society, by expressing the ‘truth’ that society wants to hear, one is considered rational. Acting otherwise threatens the self-image of the society, and the social order itself. But, by forgetting that he was supposed to forget his truer feelings and only express the ‘truth’, Meursault strayed from the conventional path and became Dolmut, an outsider. ♦

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First published by the Wande Magazine on 27 May 2018: http://www.wandemag.com/on-dolmut/

Book Review: Doors to Future

Through media we have seen how clasping a few rags, desperate migrants and refugees, forced by excruciatingly hard circumstances, boarded those brittle crafts and rubber boats and embarked on perilous sea journey; many drowned on the way and many succeeded in reaching the safe shores of Fortress Europe. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West while tracing the complicated journey that migrants surmount after fleeing their home countries, recreates the complex universe of their experiences and the convoluted emotions and tensions of separation from one’s homeland and the dear ones. His vigorous novel, thus, is the story that media images cannot tell us.   

The novel is timely: it is about refugees or migration. It is more about migration actually. “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid tries to tell us. And, as we travel from the war-ravaged — unnamed — country of Saeed and Nadia, the protagonists, to the Greek island of Mykonos and then to metropolitan cities of London and San Francisco, where they end up after passing through mysterious doors, their intimate migrant experiences, albeit inflected by their varying temperaments, is revealed to us in its attendant complexity.

“It was said in those days,” says the narrator of Exit West half way through the novel,“that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side.”

This brief passage through a rectangular dark door, which mysteriously takes people to faraway places, is all there is about the journey from the home country to the country of refuge. But this brevity is deliberate, as it serves to keep the narrative focused on subjective experiences of migration rather than its outwardly, almost Homeric, image of courageous sea journey — what in media we have seen umpteen times already. However, even within this minimalist description, we can feel those dramatic elements that mark a migrant’s arduous travel: Nadia’s “gasping struggle” and her exit from the door as “cold and bruised and damp.”

Saeed (an adman) and Nadia (an insurance agent) have a dissimilar attitude towards life. If Nadia is pragmatic, Saeed has a stronger sense of nostalgia. He is attached to his family, while Nadia has left hers and lives a rebelliously independent life. Despite being somewhat different people, they find love for each other. But, as they are forced by circumstances to flee their country, and get enmeshed in the vagaries of migrant life, they begin to drift apart and become emotionally aloof — as if they just happen to share a common shelter. Yet, Nadia tells herself, Saeed was “just out of rhythm with her in this moment.”

Nadia is a strong character who wills to life, and this becomes starkly apparent in her attitude to the very mundane. When Saeed turns nervous and impatient because Nadia had taken too long in the washroom of a London house where they had ended up and asks her “What the hell are you doing?”Nadia holds her ground, and we see: “What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, as so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”

Nadia’s pragmatic attitude would allow her to tackle the roughness in the house which they were sharing with many other migrants because Nadia believed that “in life roughness had to be managed.” And this roughness emanated from prejudices and suspicions within the migrant community as much from the white natives, whose social landscape was disturbed by the sudden intrusion of foreigners. If it was not Nadia, Saeed would be lost in this new situation, because his nostalgia for his homeland never really left him, and Nadia realised that the more they moved away from their country of birth, “the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  

This pain of separation from one’s homeland and grudging adjustments to new reality borne out of migration is the main theme of the novel. And yet, under Saeed and Nadia’s bitter-sweet love story runs a parallel current: universality, or inevitability, of migration. Through this idea, Hamid seeks to counter what he, at a public talk, called “nostalgic political impulses,” which animates the mushrooming nativist parties in the western countries. Hamid wants to affirm that “everyone is a migrant — even people who are in the same place because that place changes over decades.” For me, this idea conjures up Ludo, the protagonist of 2013 novel A General Theory of Oblivion which I had read over the last summer. Ludo, a Portuguese woman, bricks herself in her apartment in the wake of the Angolan war against the Portuguese authorities, and she sustains in that apartment for thirty years, all the while receiving news from outside in bits and pieces. In these three decades, Luanda, the capital city, has changed, the world has changed. And thus, even though staying in the same apartment for three decades Ludo had migrated through time.

Among the brief vignettes that Hamid adroitly places in his narrative, there is a story of an old woman from Palo Alto—who “lived in the same house her entire life”—which conveys this message of migration through time.    

But there is a dystopian angle to migration as well, or so it seems, as one moves toward the later part of the novel: the white natives rise against the migrants, the government beefs up surveillance, and pushes the migrants from city spaces to its peripheries. Though ethnically diverse, the migrants also organise themselves and fight back. This is a scenario, a worst nightmare which Hamid forces us to visualise beforehand, perhaps to underline its inevitability, and, at the same time, by constructing it in a certain way, anticipating it as less alarming.

“Harrowing photographs,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.” It is narratives, then, that help. For a telling example, one can safely juxtapose the heart-rending picture of lifeless toddler Aylan Kurdi and Exit West: the former really haunt us while the latter attempts to make us understand. If the poignant picture of Aylan Kurdi moved us, stirred our conscience and sympathy for refugees, Exit West has potential to make us understand their complex lives. So, to slightly misquote Sontag, “To understand is, more and more, not to call up a picture but to be able to recall a narrative.” In the context of the recent refugee crisis, one can name Exit West as that defining book.

On a certain Friday night, when I sat to write this review I counted, just out of curiosity, the number of orange sticky flags I had expended during the reading of Exit West. It was exactly twenty. Re-reading those marked pages after one month immediately revived the moments and feelings in which they were previously read. That I could easily, almost seamlessly, reconnect with the plot and the storyline of the novel speaks of its brilliance. Hamid’s understated eloquence is almost poetic and his style of description sparse yet compelling.

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This review was first published in Kashmir Narrator on 29 Mar 2018: http://kashmirnarrator.com/book-review-doors-to-future/

A Bloody Night in Pampore

Don’t tell me Papa Kishtwari looked ferocious,
And his eyes had all the fire of terror;
That his hairs were dyed dark ginger
And he walked with intimidating airs.

Tell me about that January night in 1996,
Which was the Night of Salvation,
When his armed pack of savage men,
After having slain a man at the door of a mosque,
Dragged a saffron trader from his home and tied
Him to an almond tree in his own courtyard.
And set his house on fire, his elderly mother still inside.
In her trembling pleas to Papa Kishtwari,
What did Samad’s wife tell him?
Did she faint terror-stricken
And sank to the January’s cold ground?
Or did she run to save
Her husband’s elderly mother,
Who was trapped
Inside the slowly burning house?

Tell me what she did when Papa Kishtwari shot
Samad Dar in front of his sons and daughters?
And rendered her a (yet another) widow of the dirty war?
Did her eyes freeze in the womb of that darkest night
And made her a piece of cold stone?
Did she feel the burning steel rip her heart?
And she was blown in the whirlwind of death?
Or, she untied her husband’s blood-soaked body
Off the almond tree which they had planted years ago?

Note: The poem is based on a true incident.

 

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This poem was first published by Kashmir Lit in Mar 2018: http://www.kashmirlit.org/bloody-night-pampore-mohamad-tahir/.