Is Rumi an anti-dote for the post-truth America?

rumi

On January 5, 2017, the New Yorker published an article with a revealing title: “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.” Rozina Ali—who is also the editorial staff of the magazine—raised an interesting issue: that in the West, Rumi, the 13th-century poet and scholar, is “typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, an enlightened man” but “less frequently described as a Muslim.” 

Ali’s contention is that Rumi’s poetry has been decoupled by his English translators from its Islamic context, and that way they have effaced “historical dynamism” within the Muslim scholarship. Because “Rumi’s works reflected a broader push and pull between religious spirituality and institutionalised faith” in the Islamic civilisation.

Ali quotes Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, who believes that reading Rumi without the Holy Quran is akin to reading Milton without the Bible; and, while one can appreciate Rumi’s heterodoxy but at the same time that heterodoxy has to be contextualised within the Islamic history. And such contextualisation allows readers to appreciate that the Islamic culture in the thirteenth century “had room for such heterodoxy”. And, that an Islamic scholar of Sharia could also write widely read poetry of love.

Ali’s article has its own context. In the post-truth culture that has apparently ceased the present times coupled with the vicious anti-Muslim discourse that permeates many western and non-western societies, Rumi has assumed a new meaning: a symbol of Muslim contribution to civilisation. What Ali implies is that Rumi can serve as a potent example to counter those—she, for example, cites the US national security advisor General Michael Flynn—who seems ill-disposed towards Islam or tends to believe that non-western people have no contribution to civilisation.

Problematising the issue 

So, paradoxically, Rumi should be depoliticised—since the Muslim context of his poetry was apparently effaced by the Victorian period translators on purpose—to be used as a political symbol in the Trump era. In effect, Ali’s article has two concerns: translation and Islamophobia. The first issue is essentially of an academic nature and the second one is clearly political.

While Coleman Barks is credited with popularising Rumi in the US— “morphing Rumi into American verse”—but he is also blamed for minimising the Islamic references in Rumi’s poetry and thus effacing its cultural context. And some others have resorted to what Professor Safi calls as a kind of “spiritual colonialism,” like Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky, who market and sell their unique interpretive works as Rumi books.

By not remaining faithful to the original, what is lost—in such translations—is the culture, tradition, and memory which a work of art carries within it. Thus, Ali cautions that,

“As conduits between two cultures, translators take on an inherently political project.”

But when we talk about the correct reading or the correct translation, the concept of authority of text comes to the fore and on that Roland Barthes (1967) argues that text has an independent existence of its own, and it is language and not the author which speaks. The culture and personality of an author should be discarded when interpreting a text, because the text is inherently multivalent and there is no one universal meaning in its language.

On a somewhat more mystical plane, Walter Benjamin in his famous essay The Task of the Translator (1926) says that,

“In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air…” or translation makes visible “the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfilment of languages.”

Thus, from the Benjamin’s perspective, even if Islamic references are minimised in Rumi’s poetry, the translation still captures or transmits the elemental mystery which does not necessarily come from the subject matter.

While Ali’s emphasis on the faithful translation of Rumi’s poetry—which means incorporating Islamic context—may not preclude its secular reading, but such contextualisation can enable or enhance what Benjamin calls its cult value. And from the vantage point of the cult value, it is the existence of Rumi’s Masnavi (“The Quran in Persian Language”) that matters rather than its literary value. But the traditional aesthetics of “eternal value and mystery,” Benjamin cautions us, are susceptible to appropriation by fascistic and bourgeoisie ideologies.

This aspect still seems less of Ali’s concern than the politics of translation and its expediency in the current environment of pervasive Islamophobia. This takes us to the key question: whether the Islamic context of Rumi would make a difference to anti-Muslim views? And I am a bit sceptical about that.

Because even though Ali’s idea might not be completely beyond the pale, the issue is not as simple as it may seem. The first thing that we need to understand is that Islamophobia is well-entrenched in the West’s psyche, the reasons for which goes far back to its Orientalist tradition which viewed Islam with some degree of suspicion.

As Edward Said brilliantly explained in his book Orientalism (1978), the certain negative representation of the oriental people (including Muslims) and their cultures served to justify colonial imperialism and to build a positive self-image of Europeans as enlightened and cultured. In the present times, such negative representations of Muslims have a market (it is more exciting and sellable for corporate media) and geopolitical utility (to make militaristic Middle East policies more palatable to the public). Anti-Muslim views persist, because the media and academia plays a big role in it.

The 1988 and 1996 survey studies demonstrate that negative perceptions regarding Muslims were quite prevalent even before 9/11. That event alone just pushed open the floodgates of anti-Muslim views and gave authors like Roger Scruton (2002) and Bernard Lewis (2002) a free hand to write their Islamophobic treatises. The pre-9/11 Muslim bias in the US was also revealed by Wiki Leaks in 2013, releasing classified documents about Nixon administration’s 1972 “Operation Boulder” that targeted Arab Muslims.

In other words, the orientalist tradition in the West has never gone completely. As an illustration of this, we can read Sir John Keegan’s words in The Telegraph (October 8, 2001), in response to the invasion of Afghanistan:

“This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative, productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals.”

Donald Trump, Alt-right, Golden Dawn or Marine Le Pen represent a movement which is informed by nativism. This movement exploits perceived and real fears to create (or preserve?) a discourse which tries to sustain the cultural demarcations through which self-identity of being European (white) is maintained. Preserving cultural segregation makes not only “othering” possible but is essential for internal cohesion and a superior self-image. But it is also important to remember that not Muslims alone are perceived as “other”. Blacks and Hispanics too are. In the past, Japanese, Chinese, and even Irish Catholics were also despised.

So the question is, would it matter to such nativist movements whether the “other” is cosmopolitan or not? Whether Rumi’s poetry was influenced by Islam? Or whether Muslims of the US inherent Rumi? For such a movement, the other is simply “the other” because they are different; they don’t share the same values. And hence they don’t belong.

If we look at how Nazis excluded the Jews, it becomes clear that the latter’s cultural heritage and cosmopolitan disposition hardly came in their aid. Though some Jews were let off on the consideration of being “prominent Jews” (for example, war veterans). Yet, in the words of historian Louis de Jong it “was a general practice to allow certain exceptions in order to be able to maintain the general rule all the more easily.” And ironically, Nazis had built anti-Jewish museums and libraries about which Hannah Arendt says in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963):

“We owe to this strange craze the preservation of many great cultural treasures of European Jewry.”

So when the Nazis were hounding Walter Benjamin—and he had to commit suicide in September 1940—it didn’t matter that his mysticism had Judaistic context or he was a close friend of the philosopher of Jewish Mysticism Gerhard Scholem. A Jew was a Jew for the Nazis. If it had mattered that a Sufi Muslim was somewhat better than a “usual” Muslim, then during the Gujrat pogrom, mobs would have spared the Sufi shrines. But they didn’t. Because Muslim was a Muslim for them; even if he was a Member of Parliament, it didn’t change their hatred.

Although the situation for Muslims is not as precarious as it was for Jews in the 1930s, but the way President Trump could openly sign executive orders banning Muslims on the Holocaust Memorial Day must raise alarm bells. His national security council includes dangerous people like Stephen Bannon. Moreover, the hate crime against Muslims in the US has increased. The Pew Research shows that 257 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crime occurred in 2015 that is a 67% increase from 2014. And yet, violence against Muslims has been manifesting in other subtler ways.

One is through physical violence, which is visited upon a Muslim on a street in the form of a hate crime, but another is the hidden violence of indifference, schadenfreude and sadism—the latter two pervade social media. The hidden violence of indifference typically manifests itself on such occasions when, for example, the bloody attacks in France (or on whites) evoke world-wide sympathies and symbolic solidary gestures but not when such (and much brutal) attacks happen against Muslims. This kind of hidden violence reminds one of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple in which the minister Anthony Anderson tells his wife:

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”

Thankfully, the recent demonstrations against the Muslim ban order have rekindled some hope.

In conclusion, I want to share an anecdote: One fine evening in 2013, my Indian friend walked into the common kitchen of our university dorm and he, surprised on seeing my newly grown beard, remarked with a toothy grin:

“Now you look like a terrorist. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Of course he said this in jest, but I was deeply offended. However, the lesson this episode brought to me was this: your ardently secular, Rumi-loving friend may be nurturing racist, bigoted views without even realising it.

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First published in Express Tribune on 6th Feb 2017: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/45819/is-rumi-an-anti-dote-for-the-post-truth-america/

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Godman’s Goose

In 1992 three Pulwama villages invoked draw-of-lots to decide where their faith-healer Syed Gayas-ud-din Bukhari should stay. Babhaar, a dusky Pulwama hamlet won. Quickly, the god-man migrated out of his native Rupwen village in Budgam.

Bukhari’s murid (follower), sheep-herder Dost Muhammad Wagay gave-up sheep-husbandry and followed his Pir to Babhar. As a watchman of Pir’s new home, Dost stayed put there, ever since.

The new Babhar residence of the Pir remained crowded with his followers, who visited him regularly. For establishing a spiritual centre by Pir, Babhar’s four zamindars (landowners) — Syeda Begum (Mrs Abdul Ahad Malik), Ghulam Mohammad Mir, Farooq Ahmad Sheikh, and Ali Mohammad Sheikh — gifted land. Pir’s popularity had surged donations and offerings. Within a decade, Pir’s new residence flourished into a vibrant spiritual centre, attracting people from all social and economic classes.

“Even the rich and influential would pay a visit here,” says Dost Muhammad, now a frail elderly in his 60’s.

The seminary known as Darul Aloom Rohani Markaz, tucked inside dense apple orchards, is spread over 6.6 kanals. Inside the walled seminary, air of tranquility and silence pervades. Shrubs and evergreens encircle its manicured garden.

Amidst this serene quietude stand a couple of structures. Right at the entry, a two-level concrete and glass structure, painted in white and green, greets a visitor. It is the Rohani Markaz (spiritual centre).

“This is the place where Pir Sahib used to sit with his followers,” explains Dost Muhammad. “It is now locked, but if you peep through the glass windows you can see his framed pictures inside.”

On the right side is a well furnished white varnished mosque, decked with traditional pagoda-style tin roof. Abutting the mosque on the far side rests Bukhari in his tomb.

The place where Pir used to sit.

Pir’s loyal followers still visit his white-washed brick and mortar tomb — burning incense sticks around it, hanging garlands, tying votive threads on the window handle bars. They donate money in the brown steel safe that sits comfortably at the tomb’s entrance.

“His murids regularly visit the shrine and organize niyaz (a feast in somebody’s memory),” Dost Muhammad informed while advising to remove shoes before stepping on the tomb steps.

There are other structures around also. A two storey building used as a dormitory for the students of the Darul Aloom, a concrete one storey building where the Pir used to sit after migration, a big store house, and a stone plinth of an abandoned construction — now converted into a kitchen garden.

“Previously this place thrived on the footfalls,” says Dost, “politicians, police officers would come here. It was always a lively place.” But not anymore.

Currently, all is not well with this serene habitat. After Pir’s death in March 2009, the 6.6 kanal property has turned into a site of dispute, dividing relatives and the villagers. The centre for community’s spiritual growth has now become a devise issue.

The division is unique. On one side stands Pir’s 58-year-old son Syed Mukhtar Ahmad Bukhari, and Majeed, one of the land donors. Opposing them are Syed Bashir Ahmad Andrabi (Pir’s son-in-law) and the three remaining land donors. The dispute is already seven year old. They lodged FIRs and petitioned courts, and on one occasion, entered into physical brawl also.

Grave of Pir's mother

Pir’s son Mukhtar and his supporters hold that since the seminary’s property belonged to the Pir, his children are its natural and legal inheritors.

Opponents, however, contend that the land was gifted for building a religious institution — a Takeer (Trust) — and not as a personal property.

“When my illiterate father and aunt [Syeda Begum] donated their ancestral land they did it for the sole purpose of establishment of a Trust,” says Abdul Qayoom, son of a land-donor Ghulam Muhammad Mir. “After Pir’s death, his son, who had rarely visited the seminary, claimed ownership.”

Qayoom alleges that Mukhtar even sold seminary’s land at Sombur, in Pampore outskirts, which Pir had purchased from the donations raised at Babhar centre.

But Mukhtar refutes the allegation. “We (one son and four daughters of Bukhari) are the rightful owners of everything that our father owned, and only an owner can sell the property,” he explained.

What makes the case a curious family dispute over property is the presence of Syed Bashir Ahmad, Pir’s son-in-law, in the opposition camp. Working in Handicrafts department, he lives in Srinagar. Presently, the seminary is in occupation of the group that Bashir supports.

Qayoom says more than 100 students are currently enrolled in the seminary, functioning under the guidance of Maulana Shakeel ul Rehman. “It was the wasiyat (will)” says Qayoom, “of the Pir Sahib that Syed Bashir Ahmad should become his spiritual janasheen (successor)”.

Mukhtar neither accepts his brother-in-law as Bukhari’s ‘spiritual’ successor nor does he accept that the land, including the seminary, belongs to any institution.

“My brother-in-law in cahoots with the other party started this dispute,” Mukhtar said. “He claimed he is entitled to care-taking of the property. However, we filed a case in the civil court against him and the Pulwama court has issued a stay order, barring his entry into the premises.”

Qayoom argues that seminary cannot become a personal property because different government departments have also donated to it: toilets by Block Development Office, funds donated by MLAs and Deputy Commissioner, and RDA.

“Actually it is our land donated for a purpose,” explains Qayoom. “If they try to make it a personal property we will take it back.”

When the property transfer was under process in 2010, the opposing group had submitted their objections to the Additional DC Pulwama before 90 days. But, they alleged, a revenue officer was influenced to ensure the land ownership to Pir’s son.

Three years ahead of his death, Qayoom claims, Pir had written a wasiyat stating the property belongs to the Trust and there are witnesses to vouch for that. These documents, however, were kept by a judge.

Mukhtar alleged that his opponents joined by Maulvi Shakeel ur Rehman started Darul Aloom after evicting his family forcefully from the property in June 2010.

Ruhani Markaz

“We had to leave as we feared for our lives,” says Mukhtar. “We had no other option. The case is now pending with DC Pulwama.”

On June 26, 2010 at 5 pm, according to Mukhtar, some 5 to 7 people barged into the seminary premises wielding sticks. They attacked his family and few other people. Mukhtar was with a neighbour at the time, but his son was at the seminary. In the melee one Mohammad Abbas Sheikh was critically injured and hospitalised.

But the opposing group has a different narration about the June 26 incident. They allege that men supporting Mukhtar attacked their women Syeda Begum and Saja Begum, then in their 60’s.

Both the groups registered cases against each other with police. “We lodged an FIR against physical assault. They lodged a counter FIR alleging molestation of old women,” says Abdul Majeed, another resident whose family had also donated 2 kanals of land to the Pir in 1998. But unlike other three families he supports Mukhtar’s right to inheritance, insisting the land transfer to the Pir was through a gift deed.

“The Quran and Sharia makes the inheritance clear,” says Majeed, “Property transfers to legal heirs. The land was given to Pir in 1992 and till 2009 there was no Darul Aloom around. He died in 2009 and after three months the property was transferred to his children.”

Majeed alleges that opponents have “forcefully” brought poor kids from remote corners of Kashmir to the seminary to keep it running. “At the moment, i guess, there must be barely 15 students enrolled. They just want to make money through it. They want the donated land back and talk of Trust is just a smokescreen,” he says.

But why didn’t police help them if the court, as he claimed, had ruled in their favour?

“I approached the police several times. Even I visited the then SSP. But they are dragging the case. Police informed the court that they failed to locate the disputed land site!”

Police, this writer talked to, said they are not authorised to talk. Off the record, however, they said the jurisdiction of the case lies with the revenue authorities. “Legally speaking, we can just provide protection but cannot evict any party,” says a police man at Police Station Pulwama.

Qayoom alleges that Majeed is siding with Mukhtar because one of his relatives, the erstwhile general secretary of the Trust, has misappropriated cash and gold that came as donation.

“He was the bank account holder on behalf of the Trust and I have evidences against him,” alleges Qayoom. “He used Rs 75 lakh of seminary money for the construction of his own house.’’

Majeed refutes these allegations.

Mukhtar, a deputy secretary in Legislative Assembly, says the land donators lack even a shred of evidence to prove that they gave land for the Trust.

“It is a 20 years old thing,” says Mukhtar, “why was the Trust not legally registered in these years? When he (Pir) was alive why didn’t they ask him to register the Trust? If the lands transfer documents were executed in 1995 why didn’t they follow it up till 2009?”

Dost Muhammad

Admitting to the existence of a “religious centre” on the site, Mukhtar said: “it is our pesha [profession] and our livelihood depends on it. Our forefathers too were part of it. We are in this business for the last 100 years or so.”

Hinting at the traditional association of certain castes with the pesha, Mukhtar says his brother-in-law is no Andrabi, but a Shah. “His claims on enrolment make no sense as the property ultimately belongs to me. They are just illegal trespassers occupying the premises against court orders,” asserts Mukhtar.

Talking strictly within the legal framework of inheritance, Mukhtar admitted selling a land plot at Druss. “Suppose I have intention to build a mosque but I die suddenly and I have legal heirs, isn’t it their choice whether they build it or not?” he asked. “His (Pir’s) intentions were indeed noble, but he couldn’t complete it, so what can one do! It is now the discretion of his legal heirs whether they want to continue their father’s mission or use it for their own purpose. Others have no business meddling in this.” He said same argument holds true for another land sale at Sombur.

Asked about his father’s intention in purchasing the Sombur land, Mukhtar explained thus: “If Mirwaiz Kashmir purchases a land that does not mean that he will necessarily build a mosque everywhere.”

“One has his family to look after also. Rohaniyat (spirituality) is fine but one has to live also.”

At ground zero, the new generation is cracking jokes. “The Pir duped the naïve peasants,” one young man, claiming to be equidistant from the warring factions, said. He, however, believed the seminary, if permitted to grow, would contribute positively to the community.

“If the Pir has transferred the seminary property to his heirs, it is a clear case of fraud,” said Tariq Ahmad, a PhD scholar and a Babhar native. “Such cases have made people increasingly wary about pir-muridi system.”

Seminary hostel.

Interestingly, the faith in Pir was unquestioned among warring factions. Village majority believes that Wasiyat must prevail.

Interestingly, the watchman Dost Muhammad’s existence is lost to the parties. He has diligently taken care of the seminary for the last 20 years, at times even sleeping empty stomach. He does not get any salary, but his solemn faith in his Pir keeps him going. Elderly Dost somehow managing a meagre sustenance, tending the kitchen garden and doing the domestic chores.

“Pir Sahib told me,” Dost said with a clear conviction in his soft voice, “If I work here, I will get great rewards in the life hereafter.”

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First published in Kashmir Life on 21 June 2016: http://www.kashmirlife.net/godmans-goose-issue-14-vol-08-108835/

What does Aleppo mean now!

When Aleppo fell the last week (or was liberated, from the viewpoint of Assad regime and his supporters), emotions ran high and verbal duels ensued.

Arguments and counter-arguments were presented, examples were cited, evidences were thrown at, and all this by those who weren’t Syrian, or for that matter Arab, but Kashmiris – non-stakeholders, in the conflict studies terms. What was my position on the issue? I sought out a genuine answer. But even when I had a position – whether informed or uninformed – I was a little hesitant to share it publicly. While I would like to believe it had nothing to do with my fear of upsetting certain friends and acquaintances, but I am afraid that would not be completely true. But even then that was not the entire story either.

Though I have had a bad experience of displeasing and eventually losing few friends because of my explicit and vocal position on Kashmir, on Aleppo, or on Syria for that matter, my silence was more to do with my reluctant, though partially successful, attempt to cultivate a sense of disinterestedness in other “problems”. I remember a casual conversation with my teacher at IUST back in 2009 in which he said and I paraphrase that we Kashmiris have a curious tendency to get too emotionally involved in other conflicts – he cited Palestine as an example – and in the process invite too much burden on our minds which should be in clear and consistent focus on our own problem, a huge and historical problem.

I know this may sound strange and may even seem a morally and ethically undesirable, and outrageous, position to seek, but this attempt of disinterestedness is a process I am reluctantly experimenting with, as a way of both retaining sanity in the prevailing quagmire and becoming unencumbered of a burden which I think is not needed when my own – and my people’s – position is already too heavily saddled with an onerous responsibility; there is big and long fight to fight in one’s own backyard.

Whether I support or not any side of the Syrian conflict is immaterial; it won’t make any tangible difference at all; not in the least through social media. Inevitably, Assad and his allies will fight and his opponents will not give up either; Syria, unfortunately, has defied all theories of stalemate, and whatever could have provided a way out.

Moreover, any position taken vis-a-vis any conflict is essentially governed by self-interest; that is a hard fact, if not the human nature. Therefore, positions of involved nation-states and parties in relation to the Syrian conflict are largely determined by this reasoning. Now, what can possibly influence the nation-states to not pursue their self-interests? I haven’t got an answer yet to this troubling question.

All I have to offer is a nebulous expression on the prevailing situation: Aleppo is two things: an event and a metaphor; Aleppo is a metaphor for our times: of everything which is wrong about our times; Aleppo as an event is a cruel chapter in the checkered history of humanity – and perhaps, an empirical reiteration for those who tend to believe that larger violence begets larger victory!

As the event has reached its tragic climax in the second week of December, it has already laid bare the whole gamut of contrived narratives and consequently whipped up and locked in tension emotions far and wide: on the one hand have sectarian biases masquerading as political pragmatism and on the other hand are ideological partialities; and yet, in between all this, outraged voices spar with the curious cases of political correctness. Like the incredible bramble-like war-scape of Syria itself, reactions to it eventually cast light on our own human frailties; as Hobbes wrote: “For such is the nature of man, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance.” (Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes; 1651)

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First published in the Greater Kashmir on 23 December 2016: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/what-does-aleppo-mean-now/236889.html

Witnessing the Summer Uprising in Kashmir

kashmir-protests

This summer I visited Kashmir to collect important data for my research thesis, and also to see my family. While it took a while clearing needless bureaucratic hassles to get access to hardbound newspaper archives, I was optimistic in getting my work done gradually. But soon my optimistic self was to be overwhelmed by the most significant political event in the recent Kashmiri history: on 8th July a local rebel leader Burhan Wani was killed and immediately spontaneous street protests erupted in entire Kashmir valley.

Burhan Wani, who had joined an indigenous rebel group as a teenager, was quite popular – in large part due to his good-looks and social media persona built over the years. He attracted lot of Kashmiris, particularly youth, and also drew some of them to militant ranks; and that is why when he was killed, at the young age of 22, in a “military encounter” in south Kashmir, his funeral procession was largely thronged by young men and women. By some estimates his funeral procession, which was held in his hometown Tral, around 50 km from the capital city Srinagar, was attended by over 200,000 mourners – one of the largest for any Kashmiri ever. As a mark of solidarity, and political convention among pro-independence Kashmiri dissidents, all business establishments, government offices, transport, educational institutions were closed in the wake of his death, which brought most economic and other day to day activities to a virtual halt, including my data collection work.

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But explosive situations aren’t new to Kashmir, for Kashmiris have been living under constant pressures of the raging conflict and concomitant militarization and political upheavals since early 1990’s; and also 2008 and 2010 mass protests occurred not so long ago. However, what was certainly different this time around was the emotional intensity and spread of these Intifada like protests. While in 2008 and 2010, people of urban centres were more active protest participants, this time the protest wave had swept not only the entire Kashmir valley – traditionally the centre of perpetual political agitations – but also reached relatively peaceful Chenab area in the Jammu region. And yet, what was also different during this time was the sheer scale and appalling brutality of state violence. As many commentators in media have already described, the current state violence against protestors in Kashmir has been unprecedented. In its report, a fact-finding team of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which spent a week in Kashmir (October 14-22), made following observations: “The government responded by heavy and forceful military clampdown which resulted in a continuing spate of killings, injuries and arrests of people which continues unabated almost every day till the present.”

And, giving details about the human cost of such “heavy and forceful military clampdown” against Kashmiri civilians, the PUCL reported that from 9th July to 15th October, “the total number of civilians killed by the police and the security forces was 101…[and] It was reported that 12 people died due to pellets fired by the forces. It was also learnt that 1 policeman too was killed in mob violence.”

The report further revealed that, “a total of 15,000 persons were injured in this period with 12, 344 being admitted in various hospitals. About a thousand persons were injured in the eye due to pellets resulting in 300 cases of blinding, which included a large proportion of school going children.”

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Witnessing the Horrors of Brutal State Action

The morning of 9th July was eerily silent in Pampore, my hometown, because curfew was promptly imposed there. However, mass protests had engulfed most towns and villages. I rushed to the local hospital to see an acquaintance of mine who had been injured in police action when he tried to reach Tral to join funeral, and it was there in the Emergency ward that I saw pellet-ridden bodies for the first time. By noon, ambulance after ambulance arrived with over dozen grievously injured protestors. One of them died after a party of feared Special Task Force (STF) violently barged into the hospital and roughed up his attendants inside the ambulance. Everyone was left in utter shock. Soon, reports began to come that ambulances were being deliberately targeted by paramilitary men and at some places government forces had barged into hospital premises and thrashed medical staff and injured patients. As protests continued unabated, many houses were ransacked, private vehicles smashed and agricultural produce destroyed. It looked like a planned state tactic to crush the uprising.

 “Scars of Pellet Gun”

While listening to conversations I realized “pellet” was the most frequently used term on streets and homes and, also, in media.  There was a reason. Pellet gun was never used at a scale as it was during the summer 2016; and the damage to human bodies it caused was unprecedented as PUCL reported. As such, its use against Kashmiri protestors has been opposed by many rights groups, including Amnesty, which described this so-called non-lethal weapon as “inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate” and hence not appropriate for policing protests. Even some Indian legislators on the floor of the Indian parliament voiced their opposition against pellet guns. “Shoot the people but do not use pellet guns. Pellet Guns are worse than live bullets. It is worse than killing people,” a senior India politician said in the Parliament on Aug 10. But despite much opposition the government did not stop using them, and still insist on its necessity. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Indian paramilitary force, which remains deployed in huge numbers on Kashmiri streets – along with army and police – to crush the ongoing protests, has justified use of pellet guns, as according to the CRPF affidavit, only other alternative for it is “to open fire with rifles, which may cause more fatalities.” In response to a public litigation, CRPF revealed that it has fired 1.2 million pellets in the first 32 days of street protests. Each cartridge of pump-action shot gun contains lead pellet, which disperse into hundreds of tiny pieces, and when aimed from close range these pellets can penetrate soft tissues of the targeted body. The extent of damage caused by pellets shots, especially to eyes, has been widely documented in press reports. One of the detailed and descriptive reportages on this terrible phenomenon was Ellen Barry’s story in The New York Times “An Epidemic of Dead Eyes in Kashmir as India Uses Pellet Guns on Protestors” (28 August).

dsc_0079And The Deadlock Continues…

Indian media frames the current uprising in Kashmir as a law and order issue or Pakistan orchestrated problem and indiscriminately uses the term “mob violence” to describe the street protests and deliberately focuses on stone-pelting incidents. As a result, Indian media is despised in Kashmir. Its framing not only obscures the fact that the government forces used excessive force to thwart even peaceful congregations, but provides a cover for punitive state actions. In what The Indian Express (Oct 21) describes as “the biggest crackdown in two decades” the state authorities in Kashmir have arrested at least 7000 people, with around 500 of them under Public Safety Act (PSA), which Amnesty International calls as a “lawless law” (because a person arrested under PSA remains in custody without trail for at least 6 months). Among the arrested are 85 minors, some of them on sedition charges.

The Indian government blamed Pakistan for the protests, refusing to engage it on Kashmir, while as Pakistan publicly assured strong diplomatic and political support to what its calls as the “Kashmiri freedom struggle.” In the hope to bring much needed international attention to their cause and make some headway politically, Kashmiris continue to adhere to protest calendars issued week after week by Hurriyat, an amalgam of pro-independence parties. The deadlock seems to not go away.

But as evident in the mass participation of people in the current anti-India uprising, the political aspiration of Kashmiris for Azadi (independence) does not seem to wane despite long spells of military crackdown that was unleashed to crush the Kashmiri armed movement in the early 1990’s and then again to suppress the 2008 and 2010 pro-independence protests. And still, rather than responding politically – a measure also advocated by many senior Indian parliamentarians, diplomats, and journalists – to the political demands of Kashmiris the government of India has chosen a hard approach with the sole objective to bring the writ of the state back on the streets of Kashmir. Although, a delegation of Indian Parliamentarians went to Kashmir, but it didn’t help in breaking the ice as Kashmiri pro-independence leaders refused to meet the delegates, arguing that, first, the delegation did not have the mandate, and second, the Indian state has discredited the institution of dialogue because, in the past, similar delegations visited Kashmir during the times of political crisis but nothing concrete followed after that. And the deadlock continues…

References:

[http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/3/8414/Forces-Raid-Hospitals-in-Kashmir].

[http://thewire.in/52403/kashmir-ambulance-police-crpf/]

[http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/world/asia/pellet-guns-used-in-kashmir-protests-cause-dead-eyes-epidemic.html]

[http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/media-practice/the-sly-media-lies-about-kashmir-9548]

[http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/front-page/in-3-months-85-minors-arrested-for-rioting-endangering-life-of-others/230677.html]

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First published on Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR) website: http://iicrr.ie/witnessing-the-summer-uprising-in-kashmir/

Review: Long Ago I Died (2011)

sameer-rk

 

Director: Shah Ifat Gazia

Script: Maryam Shamas

Poetry: H.Kirmani

 

I am not wounded, yet in pain…I am the witness

When the case of Sameer Rah’s brutal murder seemed to being systematically obfuscated Ifat Gazia, a young bio-chemistry student from Kashmir, decided to follow her personal calling and, borrowing a small DV camera from her teacher, to search out the truth; she put together a team by searching Facebook for “the right kind of people”, who shared her conviction to speak Truth to the power; their daring endeavour took the shape of a moving 20 minute long documentary Long Ago I died.

in our home, no questions have ever been answered

Long Ago I died is the film that seeks answers; it is an attempt at tearing up the thick screen of mystery which has been deftly weaved around the death of 9 year old Sameer Rah by the state. It tells the tale of “the youngest victim of the [2010] uprising” by taking us to the site where it all happened, bringing out on camera for the first time those who witnessed the ruthless murder of a 9 year old Kashmiri kid.

The film opens with the iconic scenes of 2008 and 2010 Kashmir uprisings — with masses of people converging on thoroughfares and every big and small street, waving flags and chanting pro-independence slogans — thus contextualising the incident and the situation in which it had taken place.

In one of the scenes, Sameer’s friend in brownish stripped pheran leads us to Sameer’s house through a winding narrow street. He holds a Kanger inside. When Ifat asks him whether he used to play with Sameer, he replies in brief, “Cricket. Ifat and the young lad walks briskly between the brick and mortar walls of the empty street in inner Batamaloo area of Srinagar; sound of their marching feet echoes around and one wonders how intensely horrifying it would have been when young Sameer, in a yellow T-shirt, had walked the same path on that fateful curfew day 2nd August 2010.

What Sameer’s murder brought to his family is poignantly captured; his inconsolable father tries to feel his presence in his books. It is hard for him to recount how his beloved son was brutally murdered. It is even harder to conjure up the horrible image of his frail young body being trampled under the large jackboots, and his kidneys crushed.

Somewhere our history is at war with our Truth. 

Around the middle, the film may seem to drift away, as the director has padded the narrative with brief appearances of some young Kashmiris. But that in no way hinders the progress of the film, but rather compliments the theme.

This film does not only reveal the strong belief among the people that justice has not been done in the case of Sameer Rah’s murder, but it also subtly exhibit, at the larger plane, the archetypical mindset of the Kashmiri youth; showing us in the nature and the tone of the film how daily exposure to violence and deaths and perennial clouds of uncertainly that loom large over Kashmiri life, has shaped their outlook of life and how they respond to their extraordinary situation.

If studied comprehensively, the film has elements of post-modern ingenuity; it does not follow conventional linear pattern of narrative. What it does, instead, is that it touches upon the different aspects of the experience of Kashmiri youth and links these disparate strands through powerful poetic narration that gives it a smooth flow. There are minor flaws here and there, but all those technicalities and nuances can be overlooked for the humanistic content and the powerful eloquence of the film. The expressive verses of H. Kirmani just flow through the film and heighten the impact of the visuals presented: “Our journey is yet unaccomplished. But we know one thing. The travelers have changed. They have changed. The hermit is now the warrior. We are still walking. Let the caravan grow.”

Maryam Shamas’s script is rather well-crafted. Juxtaposition of eloquent words with equally suggestive visuals has lent the film required ambiance of poignancy and pathos.

Disappeared into the darkness that has engulfed the thousands

Ifat Gazia and her team deserve all praise for their brave effort to highlight the murder of Sameer Rah that was largely ignored by the Indian media. By visually documenting the case and the accounts of the witnesses of the murder they have tried to counter the denial of the murder by the state and, more importantly, not let it slip away from the memory of the people.

The last visual of the film comes with a message that can hardly be ignored: A fallen chinar leaf is resting on rusty parched land and on the foreground is a quotation speaking out the restrained anger of young Kashmiri hearts:

Where a bullet is unasked, death becomes a dignity…And…where oppression is called peace, violence becomes a virtue…  

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Written in September 2011.

Why state is afraid of protest marches

kashmir-protestsKashmir witnessed three large scale civil uprisings within a decade: 2008, 2010 and 2016. In 2008, Kashmiris made massive peaceful marches (Eidgah Chalo, TRC Chalo, Lal Chowk Chalo, and Pampore Chalo) successful by adhering to the basic principles of volunteerism and leadership, but, like in 2010, the state didn’t allow any space for democratic dissentbut ruthlessly imposed stringent curfews and restrictions to scuttle any mass gatherings in 2016 — which were scheduled back to back: Islambad Chalo (25 July), Kulgam Chalo (27 July), Jamia Masjid Chalo (29 July), and Dargah Hazratbal Chalo (5 August).

I believe the state is averse to Chalo(March on…) calls partly because they engender a strong visual spectacle of Azadi-demanding-Kashmiri swhich defeats and deflates the well-nurtured official propaganda image of waiting-in-ques-for-voting-Kashmiris. At different forums, including the UN and Indian parliament, Indian political leadership, diplomats, and statist intellectuals often quote voting percentages in Kashmir elections as acceptance of the Indian rule by Kashmiris — we just witnessed it in the recent Kashmir Debate in the Indian parliament (on 18th July and 10th August, 2016). This has become a standard line of argument to counter demands of plebiscite; and the image of waiting-in-qukashmir-women-protestses-for-voting-Kashmiris best serve this propaganda.
However, when the massive pro-freedom march TRC Chalo happened in 2008, Arundhati Roy, who witnessed and wrote about it in the Outlook Magazine (September 2008), called TRC Chalo a referendum for Independence. Eid Gah Chalo was even much bigger — by some estimates it was a million march, ergo a strong and formidable reaffirmation of Azadi sentiment among Kashmiris. Since then, the state never allowed any Chalo call to succeed; Section 144, which bars assembly of people, remained in force ad infinitum;full force has been used to foil Chalo calls, to the extent of killing and injuring unarmed, peaceful protestors.
But there are inherent limitations to what state can achieve through its coercive and violent machinery and how much the politics of the subjugated can be controlled. As political scientist James Scott demonstrates in his book Weapons of the Weak (1985) resistance of the oppressed never ceases; it manifests itself through different means, like gossiping, euphemism, grumbling, and other cultural and linguistic distortions. This is called “Hidden Script” which is a veiled resistance of the subjugated group; it is veiled so as not to invite violence of the oppressor. A good example is the special Islamic prayer which I heard recently during Friday prayers: Ya Hafizu Kul Mehfoozin and Ya Ghalibu Kul Maghloobin. These prayers, though metaphysical and spiritual in nature, still carry implicit political meanings in the context of oppression.
On the other hand, open defiance of authority or hegemony is called as “Public Script”, as it is done openly with an explicit gesture of non-compliance through apublic speech, an article or through any other verbal or non-verbal mode. Scott elaborates: As long as public defiance is not impacting the relation of power in a public way the state tolerates it. But if the defiance is such as to “tear the public fabric of hegemony” it causes crisis of legitimacy for the state (p. 204). Here, I would like to quote the much quoted paragraph from the book to get the gist of Scott’s argument:
“Most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites” (p. 137).
In other words, we can say the subjugated populace always devise new ways and weapons of resistance and that is why the tight state control over public mobilisations and political marches start to weaken, or became ineffective, when a more spontaneous and unpredictable political gatherings emerge. Indian state has come face to face to it now in Kashmir. For a more recent example, when Abu Qasim, a well-known militant commander, was killed in October 2015, his funeral was thronged by thousands of people in Kulgam. Again, on January 20, 2016, funeral of slain Hizbul Mujahideen rebel, Shariq Ahmad Bhat, in Pulwama was attended by around 25,000 people. In another incident, the Pampore town erupted with protests, when a fierce encounter started at Entrepreneur Development Institute(EDI) Pampore on February 21, 2016. For three days, big crowds of agitating men and women, perched on either side of river Jhelum, were seen trying to approach the encounter site, eulogising and praying for the militants positioned inside the large EDI building. Thus, with each armed encounter between Indian troops and Kashmiri (and non-Kashmiri) rebels ending in large spontaneous funeral processions for the latter, the formidable state control over Chalo calls have been undermined or rendered irrelevant. And, with the new phenomenon of spontaneous mass funerals, the contest between visual spectacles have entered a decisive mode. Burhan’s historic 40 funerals attended by over 200,000 people at Tral town (and prayers-in-absentia attended worldwide by thousands of admirers), has augmented the rebellious, Azadi-demanding-Kashmiris image.
To borrow from Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri anthropologist, what self-created images and videos achieved for Burhan and his associates was that they “reclaimed the humanity of the ‘Kashmiri militant,’ and reconnected the idea of the rebel with his people at the visceral level.” Burhan’s “visual counterculture” in the virtual domain now itself operates as an unprecedented tool of resistance.
What also deeply undermined and defeated the Indian stock narrative on Kashmir were the heart-wrenching graphic images of pellet-hit faces of young Kashmiri boys and girls. Mehbooba Mufti and her education minister Naeem Akhtar’s canards that bullets and pellets were fired in self-defence failed to convince even her Indian well-wishers,who on the floor of the Indian parliament, criticised gross state violence against civilians. One of the parliamentarians described pellet gun as a symbol of state oppression.  So ultimately, the lies and half-truths of PDP leadership fell flat in the face of credible evidences gathered from the ground zero by some courageous journalists. These evidences showed disturbing and cruel reality of excessive and disproportionate use of force by the government forces on both stone hurling youth and unarmed and peaceful protestors (and even on bystanders).
A powerful visual presentation of what an Indian team of ophthalmologists called as “war-like situation” was created on social media by a Pakistani rights group which showed how pellet-hit disfigured faces of famous celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, Amitabh Bachan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and others would look like. These images were created to evoke sympathy for pellet-victims and underscore its inhuman and brutal nature. The real images of actual pellet-hit youth — waiting-in-ques-for-operation — blew away the facade of waiting-in-ques-for-voting.
After young Kashmiri, Shah Faesal, became an IAS topper in 2009, his image was being used in the service of statist narrative on Kashmir. On NDTV website, Faesal’s photo was juxtaposed with Burhan’s to show “Two Faces of Kashmir: Educated Militants and IAS Toppers.” During the current civil uprising, some Indian news outlets employed the same visual device to create parallels: Good Kashmiri and Bad Kashmiri. But sensing negative fallout of such construct in the current surcharged situation, Faesal came down hard on what he called as “sadistic propaganda machine”, and thus decried: “By juxtaposing my photos with the images of a slain militant commander, a section of national media has once again fallen back upon its conventional savagery that cashes on falsehoods, divides people and create more hatred,” he wrote on his Facebook post. So, one of the prominent young Kashmiri faces used for the statist narrative was now, lately, dragging his feet and openly calling it a propaganda.This public criticism and disapproval, thus, rendered the whole exercise (the visual presentation of a state bureaucrat in opposition to a young Kashmiri rebel) in its different avatars both ineffective and unethical.
But the contest of images is far from over, and given the intransigence of the Indian state on the Kashmir conflict and the acute bias of its compliant media, negative and distorted visual portrayals and presentations of Kashmir protests and protestors will continue unabated because one of the tools and tactics for state to ‘rule’ is controlling and regulating narratives, or better still, obfuscating them.

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First published in Kashmir Reader on 14 August 2016: http://kashmirreader.com/2016/08/14/why-state-is-afraid-of-protest-marches/

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/