Terrifying Beauty: A Question Every Kashmiri Photojournalist Must Confront


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.


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. ♦


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

The false narrative of invoking Dogra pride

On 24 January 2017, 11 politicians in Jammu and Kashmir managed to pass a resolution in the 36-member J&K Legislative Council, urging the PDP-BJP coalition government to declare 23 September a public holiday in honour of the last king of the State, Maharaja Hari Singh, who was born on that date in 1895.

Expectedly, the resolution has sparked a political controversy. Some people even accused the National Conference, NC, currently in opposition in the State assembly, and which has eight members in the Legislative Council, of acquiescing to this controversial resolution. Because together with Congress, which has seven members, the two parties (NC and Congress) have a considerable presence in the Council. But on the day of the resolution, they remained absent and made it possible for the 11 members from the ruling coalition (which includes eight members of BJP) to pass it by a voice vote. Three members voted against it. Many of the PDP’s 11 members, of course including Hari Singh’s grandson Vikramadatiya Singh, supported the resolution. PDP MLC Firdous Ahmad Tak and the house leader, Naeem Akhtar joined the BJP members in praising Hari Singh’s contribution to J&K. But since the State already observes 28 public holidays in a year, further increase was not feasible, reasoned Naeem Akhtar. Now, the resolution is pending the approval of the cabinet, and, in the meantime, the two grandsons of Hari Singh have warned of an agitation if the resolution is not approved by the government. 

Purpose of holidays?

Due to their engagement in the mundane chores of daily life, people tend to follow an individualistic course. So, holidays provide an occasion whereby they can reaffirm their shared values and beliefs. However, State can also use holidays to project a certain image of the nation, because holidays are instrumental in recreating the past in a selective way. Thus, holidays become a tool of nation-building. Many scholars (David Cressy 1994; Charles Turner 2006; Sripura Roy 2007; Laura Adams 2010) have worked on this theme. Ali Usman Qasmi (2017) uses the concept of calendar holidays to understand how national identity of Pakistan is formed, and he shows how “various identarian values, political considerations and social processes play an important part” in this process. This means deliberate selection of certain events and figures (who are accorded prestige eventually) and the willful neglect of others. The ultimate purpose is to foster what Zerubavel (1995) calls “the master commemorative narrative” which is used to channel a certain ideology and political message. But it can always be challenged or modified, as the Turkish administration did under the present president Recep Tayyib Erdogan by celebrating the Ottoman past, which was neglected by the Kemalists who took over from the Ottoman rulers. 

In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the system of state holidays plays a function of reiterating its secular image, which means events and figures related to different religious communities are commemorated and thus ascribed solemnity.

But the question is: does Hari Singh deserve a state holiday in his name? And, why is this agenda being pushed by the Jammu-based groups? I will try to address these questions in turn.

Legacy of the Gulab Singh’s Dynasty Rule

Many historians say that Gulab Singh was an able military man but a shrewd, crafty intriguer, and his rule in general was characterised by exploitation of peasantry in all regions of his kingdom. His rule was also a period of economic and political repressions (Bazaz 1954; Rai 2004; Snedden 2015).  From being a young sepoy in the Sikh Empire in 1809, he rose to become one of the influential generals in Ranjit Singh’s Lahore Durbar (1799-1849), because he could put down local rebellions and extract revenues, and knew how to advance his interests. He purchased the Kashmir Valley from the money he looted from the Sikh empire (Snedden 2015). Bawa Satinder Singh in his biography The Jammu Fox (1974) calls Gulab Singh a “veritable economic vampire.” For Christopher Snedden (2015 book), the British were convinced to handover the Kashmir Valley to Gulab Singh because “he was best placed to effectively control Kashmir and look after British interests there.”

As per the veteran communist and former NC leader Krishen Dev Sethi, it was Gulab Singh and his two brothers Suchet and Dhyan Singh who were instrumental in “crushing the resistance movement of Jammu for getting favours from the Lahore Darbar.” Gulab Singh had killed Mian Diddo, who was leading the anti-Durbar resistance movement, thus marking “the start of first of Gulab Singh’s many treasons with Jammu,” (Kashmir Life: 2 Feb 2017).

Finally, Sethi asks how can Gulab Singh and his kinsmen be heroes when they had formalised a shameful agreement which not only “affirm their loyalty to the Khalsa Sarkar and agreed to pay annual gifts,” but “also agreed to send girls to Lahore Darbar from Jammu.” Besides, Gulab Singh dynasty rule was not a Dogra rule, but a Jamwal-Rajput rule, i.e., a dominant caste rule. If these rulers exploited the Muslim peasantry and craftsmen, they didn’t spare the suppressed castes among Hindus either. Sethi cites certain Dogri poems and phrases which talk about the tyrannous rule of Gulab Singh and his kinsmen.      

Gulab Singh’s successors Ranbir and Pratap didn’t do anything substantially progressive or emancipatory during their reign either. Ranbir is credited with introducing a juridical system Ranbir Penal Code RPC in 1870’s, but Pratap is held directly responsible for causing enormous loss of life during the 1877-79 famine in which, as per Sir Walter Lawrence (1895), only two-fifths survived of the total population in Kashmir (p.213). This tragic event birthed a Kashmiri proverb “Drag tsalih ta dagh tsali na!” (famine may leave, but the pain will never go away!).

WITH DAGGERS DRAWN: Hari Singh’s dogra forces outside Jamia Masjid, Srinagar after the 1931 massacre Photo: Kashmir Research Centre

The Role of The State Council in Reforms

Since the inception of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the colonial British government intervened many times to influence the State’s administrative decisions, largely based on its own strategic considerations. However, in 1889, the British Indian government, as a Paramount power, significantly restricted the sovereignty of Maharaja Pratap Singh by establishing the State Council (1889-1905) in Jammu and Kashmir, through which some very important reforms were started in key areas of education, land, roads and military. Maharaja Pratap Singh had no choice but to support the new measures because the Paramount power had put pressure on him (Zutshi 1986). It was the State Council who appointed Sir Walter Lawrence as the Settlement Commissioner, which initiated the earlier land reforms. And it was the State Council which set up the rules in 1891 and 1904 that ensured at least some kind of reservation for the natives in the state services. It was these initial reforms started by the State Council that Pratap and Hari Singh formalised later because the Paramount power directed them to do so.   

It is important to point out that though British had strategic concerns in starting these reforms, but the Muslim subjects of the State welcomed the State Council. This is evident in the 1909 petition which a thirty-seven-member representatives of the Muslim community sent to the Private Secretary of the Viceroy: “No sooner the Kashmir Resudency [sic] was established here that the things took a turn for the better.” In the wake of the July 1931 killings by Hari Singh’s soldiers, the appointment of Glancy Commission was also a British colonial government intervention. So, one should keep in mind the British factor while talking about the reforms in the pre-1947 Jammu and Kashmir which are sometimes wrongly attributed to Hari Singh.

To be sure, Hari Singh, who became the ruler in Sep 1925, was relatively progressive, as he modernised his State and supported the State Council’s reform programmes. But to say he did not discriminate against any religious community is not factually correct. For example, in 1931, he allowed three political parties — Kashmiri Pandit Conference, the Hindu Sabha, and the Shirmoni Khalsa Darbar, but clearly left the majority Muslim population without an organised political party (Korbel 1954). As per the 1932 Glancy Commission report, there were only 718 Muslim teachers out of 2201 in the State. In 1931, only 2052 Muslims were employed in mid and high-rank state services out of 8683 and out of 355 gazetted posts, only 55 were held by Muslims. There were 5200 Hindu grain and pulses dealers as against 1091 Muslims. The State Arms Act allowed only Dogras and Rajputs to own fire arms. Though 73% population was dependent of agriculture, ownership of land was held by assamidars (landlords) and the de facto owner was the ruler.

There wasn’t much improvement in the socio-economic conditions of Muslims and Scheduled Castes even after a decade of Hari Singh’s reign. The 1941 census shows that out of a 4 million population, 77% were Muslims, but only 4% Muslims and 1.5% Scheduled Castes were literate. The total literacy rate was just around 7%. Freedom of press and freedom of assembly was highly restricted. For example, between 1943-44, Muslim-owned newspapers like Jamhoor, Itihaad and Al-Mujahid were banned, while as Hamdard (edited by Prem Nath Bazaz) was heavily fined (Durrani 2004).

The resignation of Prime Minister of the State Sir Albion Banerjee on 15 March 1929 was further indictment of a discriminatory system, which led Banerjee to say, “Jammu and Kashmir State is labouring under many disadvantages, with a large Muhammadan population absolutely illiterate, labouring under poverty and very low economic conditions of living in the villages and practically governed like dumb-driven cattle.”

The 1931 political upsurge provides a clear indication that Hari Singh administration was discriminatory. This fact also becomes evident in the Glancy Commission report of 1932, which recommended measures for the improvement of the Muslim community and non-interference in their religion.   

It was the tumults of post-1931 which pressurised the Maharaja to appoint a Franchise Committee under Sir Barjor Dalal, which recommended a Legislative Assembly. Eventually, the 75-member Praja Sabha (People Assembly) was established under the Constitutional Act (22 April 1934) but it had only recommendatory powers as under section 3, the Maharaja “reserved in himself all of his pre-existing powers.” Moreover, 35 members were nominated by the Maharaja and only 8% population was eligible to vote, because one had to have $1500 worth of property and be literate to have voting rights. Women had no voting rights at all. Even though the Jammu and Kashmir Constitutional Act (Sep 1939) conceded certain privileges to Praja Sabha in theory, still Maharaja could overrule in almost all matters. For example, the High Court was not the final arbiter of the Constitution or the Praja Sabha had the right to discuss the State budget but couldn’t vote against it. This was the reason that the Supreme Court of India observed in 1952: “it [the 1939 Constitution] did not constitute even a partial surrender by His Highness of his sovereign rights in favour of the Praja Sabha.”

And yet, the most significant event that casts serious doubt about his secular credentials is his role in the horrific massacre of the Jammu Muslims in 1947. Over 200,000 Muslims were killed and driven out from the eastern Jammu province under his nose, altering the demographics in Jammu region: from 44% Muslims in 1941 to only 27% in 2011.   

So, those who cite examples of his developmental projects need to answer this: can we measure a ruler’s legacy only by the narrow parameters of material development while ignoring the moral and ethical responsibilities which seem to have been willfully neglected by him during the critical moments of 1947? Moreover, why did Nehru admonish him in a letter for only talking about his dynasty’s rights while neglecting the rights of his subjects?

Political Economy of the Revisionist History

That Hari Singh’s heirs would try to build a positive image of their family rule is understandable. But this whole campaign can be seen from a political economy perspective also. Both brothers Ajatshatru and Vikramadatiya Singh hold significant positions of trustees in the influential Jammu and Kashmir Dharmath Trust, one of the largest religious managing bodies. Apart from a school and a research center, the Dharmath Trust controls over 175 temples (including Raghunath temple in Jammu and Kheer Bhawani in Kashmir). And annually, it generates millions of rupees.

The Dharmath Trust was liberally utilised by Maharaja Pratap Singh to fund the construction of numerous temples and religious ventures to recreate Banaras in Jammu. Till 1935, the Dharmath Trust was managed by the State government. However, in 1959, Hari Singh appointed his son Karan Singh as the sole trustee of the re-constituted Dharmath Council. Currently, the organisation is composed of Karan Singh as its Chairman Trustee, his two sons as trustees, while for a five-member council eminent members of Jammu society are appointed. The Singh brothers belong to a dominant caste in Jammu: Jamwal-Rajput. The Kashmiri Pandits have tried to challenge the hold of Rajput Jamwals over the Trust by filing a PIL in May 2012, urging the government to takeover the organisation. But the State government objected to it (Outlook, May 19, 2012). This has created acrimony between the two groups to the point that the president of the Dharmath Trust issued a veiled threat to Kashmiri Pandits in May 2015, “Attempts by a section of the Kashmiri Pandits who are living securely in the Dogra heartland to vilify Dr. Karan Singh and the Dharmarth Trust are highly condemnable and will be counterproductive for the community,” (U4UVoice, 6 May 2015).    

So, it seems there is what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms as ‘social, cultural and economic capital’ is at stake here. For Hari Singh’s heirs and those related to them in class and caste, the Dharmath Trust and their lineage is an indispensable part of their capitals. To reproduce these capitals, a positive image of lineage is essential for legitimacy and wider respect. This movement to re-package Jamwal-Rajput monarchs as Dogra heroes is done by invoking Dogra pride, a strategy to make all sections of the Jammu society part of it, by framing the issue as “about the pride of Jammu region.” In this process, eliding the history of oppression against the Scheduled Castes and Muslims of Jammu.

This subtle imposition of dominant caste symbolisms and meanings obscure power relations in the Jammu society, because it is considered legitimate by other groups once “pride of Jammu region” is invoked. And all this is done through a process of what Bourdieu calls misrecognition: “The process whereby power relations are perceived not for what they objectively are but in a form which renders them legitimate in the eyes of the beholder.”      

Since the early 2000’s, a kind of public relations campaign was started to resurrect the image of Jamwal-Rajput rulers, who remain largely unpopular in the history or at least unpopular among a large section of people in Jammu and Kashmir and beyond. During Mufti Sayeed’s first term as the Chief Minister, a Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair was set up in University of Jammu headed by a Chair Professor. Siddiq Wahid, former vice-chancellor of IUST and the former BJP member Prof Hari Om have served this position in turns. Reportedly, vice-chancellor of Jammu University Prof Amitabh Matoo (2002-2008) had “set a condition of quitting ‘active politics’ to Prof Hari Om before joining the Jammu University again on a two years’ contract for the prestigious Gulab Singh chair” (Twocircles.net: 22 August 2007). In Sep 2006, senior NCP leader from Jammu, Thakur Randhir Singh, asked for Maharaja Hari Singh Chair in Jammu University and a chapter in history textbooks to highlight the “glorious achievements” of the last monarch which had been, as per Ranbhir Singh, conspiratorially hidden (Greater Kashmir: 26 Sep 2006). In October 2009, a commemorative postage stamp on Maharaja Gulab Singh was released by Indian Postal Services. Ironically, Gulab and Ranbir Singh were staunch British allies during British colonisation of the sub-continent. The initial successes of this PR campaign led Manu Khajuria write in 2015,: “Though most historians have wronged Maharaja Hari Singh, more have now arisen to counter it, not in an attempt to seek a consensus, but because they believe that there are two sides to every story,” (Daily O, 21 Sep 2015). In her column, Manu tried to portray a distinctly favourable image of Hari Singh, showing him as a progressive, secular, and visionary king. But, since her column was more of a hagiography, it was obviously self-defeating.  But ultimately, the 2016 resolution was initiated by Hari Singh’s 51-year-old grandson Ajatshatru Singh, who is a BJP-nominated Member of J&K Legislative Council. Ironically, he had served as a minister of state in the National Conference government (1996-2002) before joining BJP in November 2015. While his elder brother and hotelier, Vikramadatiya Singh, is a member of PDP since August 2015.

National Conference’s Devender Singh Rana supported the resolution of declaring Hari Singh’s birthday as a state holiday and may have also played a role in convincing his party members to let the resolution pass. And it won’t be unreasonable to speculate that Vikramadatiya Singh’s presence in PDP was a strategic move to lobby for this latest resolution. If that was the intention, then Rajput-Jamwal’s have achieved the first step. Fortuitously, in Mehbooba Mufti they are likely to find a willing partner to fulfill their plan, probably subject to a quid pro quo.   

But, if the J&K cabinet ultimately announces 23 September as a state holiday, would it mean that Hari Singh embodies principles and values that people in Jammu and Kashmir commonly share? Would it mean they share the same understanding of history as far as Hari Singh’s rule is concerned? If not, then a reasonable solution, to avoid an imminent agitation from Jammu, would be to make it a restricted holiday, confined to Jammu region only. It would be hypocritical and an anti-thesis to the State’s own narrative to have a state holiday on 23 Sep following the state holiday on 13 July commemorating those who were killed by the Hari Singh administration on 13 July 1931.

Muhammad Tahir is a Ph.D researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland


Abdul Qayoom Durrani, “Sahafat-e-Kashmir,” Izhaar Sons, Lahore: 2004.

Christopher Snedden, “Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris,” Hurst and Company: London, 2015.

Mridu Rai, “Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir,” Orient Blackswan: New Delhi, 2004.

Muhammad Yusuf Saraf, “Kashmiris Fight for Freedom,” Ferozsons Ltd.: Lahore, 2005

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture,” Sage: London, 1977.

Prem Nath Bazaz, “The History of Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir,” Pamposh Publication: New Delhi, 1954.

Ali Usmani Qasmi, “Identity formation through national calendar: holidays and commemorations in Pakistan,” Nations and Nationalism, 16 Feb 2017.

Upendra Kishen Zutshi, “Emergence of Political Awakening in Kashmir,” Manohar: New Delhi, 1986.

Walter Roper Lawrence, “The Valley of Kashmir,” H. Frowde: London, 1895.

“J&K Dharmarth Trust tears into Kashmiri Pandit Organization accusations,” U4UVoice, 6 May 2015,  http://u4uvoice.com/jk-dharmarth-trust-tears-into-kashmiri-pandit-organization-accusations/.

“J&K: BJP leader Prof. Hari Om retires from active politics,” Two Circles, 22 August 2007, http://twocircles.net/2007aug22/j_k_bjp_leader_prof_hari_om_retires_active_politics.html.

“PIL Filed for Take Over of Dharmarth Trust by J&K Govt,” Outlook, 19 May 2012, http://www.outlookindia.com/newswire/story/pil-filed-for-take-over-of-dharmarth-trust-by-jk-govt/763126.

“Hari Singh’s Birthday: Family scions to launch agitation if Sep 23 is not declared state holiday,” Kashmir Life, 20 Feb 2017, http://www.kashmirlife.net/hari-singhs-birthday-family-scions-launch-agitation-sep-23-not-declared-state-holiday-132963/.

Krishan Dev Sethi, “Hari Singh a despot, not a hero,” Kashmir Life, 2 Feb 2017, http://www.kashmirlife.net/hari-singh-despot-not-hero-131216/.

Manu Khajuria, “Hari Singh was more than a Hindu king who ruled over a Muslim majority state,” Daily O, 21 Sep 2015, http://www.dailyo.in/politics/maharaja-hari-singh-jammu-and-kashmir-dogra-aksai-chin-pakistan-hindus-muslims/story/1/6363.html.


First published in the Kashmir Narrator on 25 April 2017: http://kashmirnarrator.com/hari-singh-deserve-state-holiday-false-narrative-invoking-dogra-pride/

A Dialogue on Time

This is a random dialogue between a half-baked philosopher and a half-baked scientist on the concept of Time:
P: There is space, but there is no time; time is just a concept for convenience; it’s the grandest illusion of all that human beings have ever conceived of.
S: But isn’t it proven by science. Thousands of scientific treatises have talked about space and time.
P: I don’t deny there is space, there is space; it has material, empirical reality and it exists. But time has no material reality as it is just an abstract conception.
S: So, do you mean the concept of time as 4th dimension is not correct?
P: Yes. It is hokum!
S: How can you prove that time does not exist?
P: You don’t prove anything about something which is non-existent in the first place; you deconstruct the idea behind it and you approach the word that expresses the concept.
S: What is your idea of time then?
P: I believe it is a concept to order our understanding of the world around us and to order our messy world; without this concept we would feel lost.
S: This is not a precise explanation, it is just an abstract opinion. You still do not convince me about the non-existence of time.
P: Can you convince me of its existence?
S: Yes, i can. Imagine your family came to the town in the 18th century. Through the succession of your forefathers came you in the 21st century. That means your family has been in this town for 300 years. A long time, in other words.
P: Hmm….
S: You seem to be not convinced still. Let me give you another example. A more scientific one. Imagine sun is millions of light years away from the earth, that is a distance, but it takes 8 minutes for sunlight to reach us, that is time.
P: That is the illusion I am talking about. What you call as “time” is your concept of how physical entities behave, change shape or grow in the space. Now let me illustrate: the basic unit of time, for the sake of argument, is second. How you measure this unit?
S: Second is measured by milli-seconds. What a weird question that is!
P: Exactly. That is the point. There is no external scale on which you measure time. It is arbitrary; the standard is already set up and standardised by humans for their own convenience; or as T.P. Thomson would say by Capitalism, or as Vanessa Ogle would argue by disparate social, religious, and political forces. How long is a second? I bet no one can answer it except saying second is equal to so-and-so of so-and-so milli seconds and when I will ask how long is a millisecond it will be stretched to absurdity. The truth is there is no time. It is a concept, a word, an idea. For example, if the duration of the second is as long as it takes to say the 2 syllable word ‘second’, than what if humans would have set it differently in which it would have been as long as it takes to say the 6 syllable word ‘imaginativeness’, which is a 15 letter word and takes longer than to say second? Even if things had been ordered a little differently due to longer duration of second nothing about the world would have changed at all. Space would have remained the same space as we experience it now. My turning 30 is not related to time, it is related to my growth within the space. Day and night are not occasions of time, but celestial movements. Some countries in the north get very little night than south. We are physical entities growing and developing and reproducing and redeveloping within a space and that is the only material reality. Time is an abstract concept through which we make sense out of all these activities, through which we give order to what is otherwise disorderly.
to be continued….in space
Occured on the 14 February 2016, 1:28 AM

Idea of a Nation

“What I propose to do today” so begins Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture at Sorbonne, “is to analyze with you an idea which, though seemingly clear, lends itself to the most dangerous misunderstandings.” This idea of nation or nationalism to which Renan emphatically reminded his audience of ‘dangerous misunderstandings’, continues to be a hard topic for assessment and explanation. People have this general tendency to take the nation-state as something evolutionary political formation, and regard empires ‘as anomalies’. However, when we look at the general history it becomes quite clear that people have largely lived in empires, “with the nation-state the exception rather than the rule”. So what really triggered this certain shift from large empires (Hapsburg, Romanov, Ottoman etc.) to new entities now called as nation-states (France, Germany etc.)? And what factors influenced the course of their formation?
The debate on the idea of nation or nationalism has meandered through different intellectual spheres, from Giambatista Vico’s subjectivisation of the nations (Vico saw nation as a part of human history as opposed to the divine history) to the German Romantic notions as expressed by Herder ( his concept of Volk culture was the earliest accentuation of ethnic national identity ) or Meinecke ( who borrowed from Herder and gave a new concept of Kulturnation – “an extended family with one national characteristic”); From Fichte’s concept of a “natural law of divine development” or Hegel, Burke and Maistre’s emphasis on religiously and communally based norms – what Hegel called Sittlichkeit – as an essential element of national identity to the modernist concept of the “imagined communities”, the idea persists with its profound complexities and continues to be a subject of immense intellectual debate.
To answer our question we have to look at the factors that were responsible for the emergence of the phenomenon of nationalism, which according to sociologist Ernest Gellner “invents nations where they do not exist” (1964:168). Arguing under the modernist framework Gellner emphasizes on the ‘invented-ness’ of a nation which was possible by the imposition of a ‘common high culture’ on a number of different local folk cultures. This ‘invented-ness’ of the nation is thoroughly dealt with by Benedict Anderson in his seminal work Imagined Communities. For Anderson the rise of the ‘print-capitalism’, at the dawn of the 17th century, made possible for ‘rapidly growing number of people to think about themselves, and relate to others, in profoundly new ways’. The great communities of the past (Christendom, Islamic Ummah or Middle Kingdom), according to Anderson, imagined themselves ‘largely through the medium of sacred language and written script’. These communities ‘conceived of themselves as cosmically, through the medium of sacred language, linked to a super terrestrial order of power’. However, with the advent of the modern ‘print capitalism’ there occurred a rapid vernacularization of languages which, consequently, were elevated to ‘the status of languages-of-power’ and became a sort of competitors with Latin, and thus became a deciding factor for the decline of this sacred language – Latin – and ultimately ‘fragmented, pluralized, and territorialized’ the sacred communities. Moreover, their ‘unselfconscious coherence’ diminished gradually with the exploration of the non-European world. This discovery ‘abruptly widened the cultural and geographical horizon and hence also men’s conception of possible forms of human life.’ For Gellner, nationalism was instigated by industrialization – a determining feature of modernity. The transition from the pre-modern (agro-literate) to the modern period (the industrial era) was an outcome of rapid economic progress. Industrial society, in order to sustain itself, depends on perpetual growth and this can be achieved by perennial shift in the occupational structure. The changing nature of work demanded cultural homogeneity and in order to achieve that state emphasized on the development of education which defined the status of the individual. Therefore a major populace of the society was politicized, which ultimately gave rise to the phenomenon of nationalism – which was largely an interest of elite or people of ‘high culture’. In the period of industrialization a ‘high culture pervades the whole society, defines it, and needs to be sustained by the polity’. Hence history acts as a pivot around which the nationalist discourse is weaved; it is interpreted and remembered in a particular way so that “there is a uniform and unitary memory amongst the people of the nation”. This ‘unitary memory’ is indispensable for the formation of a ‘unitary consciousness’. Thus, time has a great significance which makes an important tool for nationalists for the promotion of nationalism. The memory of the past and aspirations for the future are entwined with a homogeneous ‘high culture’ which creates a concrete social bond within a population. As Tom Nairn writes:
“All cultures have been obsessed by the dead and placed them in another world. Nationalism re-houses them in this world. Through its agency the past ceases being ‘immemorial’: it gets memorialized into time present, and so acquires a future. For the first time it is meaningfully projected on to the screen of futurity”.
Thus, the dead are memorialized through monuments, cenotaphs and ‘tombs of Unknown soldiers’. National identity is cultivated through collective memory that helps in defining the national character and provides a main link to cultural pasts. For French, 1789 is the defining moment of their history, and thus it is a unitary ‘collective memory’; the memory of this selective past (French Revolution) makes it instant; therefore an identity is created which leads to the imagining of the nation. So we can say only after politics became an aspect of the larger society that nationalism was introduced, and this occurred with modernity. With the growth of capital industry there emerged a new middle class that became a predominant actor in the socio-political arena and consequently changed its nature.
Eventually, with politics becoming ‘non-elite, then a majority, concern’, these majorities could aspire for the common goals. This subjective transition in group imagination from considering themselves as community to a politically-aware and self-conscious society brought a structural change – the movement from ‘Gameinschaft’ (community) to ‘Gesellschaft’ (society). Gellner is of the view that it is in this ‘Gesellschaft’ (modernity) that nation-state and activities of nationalism were possible.
Primodalists on the other hand saw nation not simply a construct of modernity but as an entity that has formed through natural evolution from ethnic communities of the pre-modern period. The major advocates of this theory are Clifford Geertz, Walker Connor and John Hutchinson. According to these theorists culture is a ‘continuum transmitting ethnic groupings in history into the nations of modernity, and will continue in some form into the future’. Anthony D. Smith in his book The Ethnic Origins of Nations argues that the ‘unitary concept’ of a ‘natural nation’ is their ethnic make up. He identifies ‘three revolutions’ through which nationalism emerged. These are the transition from feudalism to capitalism; the ‘revolution in the control of administration’; and the cultural and educational revolution. The characteristics of nations and their nationalisms, however, exist in elements prior to these revolutions that are located in a group’s ethnie – embedded in the culture. Preserving the ethnie thus becomes an utmost importance if the goal of nation-state is approached via ethnicity. Germany during 1930’s and the Balkans in the last decade exhibited this extreme tendency by homogenizing culture with ethnicity, culminating into Holocaust in Germany or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation (1806) had accentuated this notion of the German nation-state quite emphatically:
“Thus was the German nation placed-sufficiently united within itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples-in the middle of Europe, as a wall to divide races not akin ….”


Published in Greater Kashmir (March 25, 2009) 

Kashmir Conflict and Academic Discourses

Recently I was reading a journal article “Federalism and the Indian Experience with Nation Building: An Appraisal” written by a Kashmiri academician Prof. Noor Ahmad Baba in South Asian Survey (2011). His central idea is that unity in a federal system can be achieved only through affective and political integration not through misconceived legal integration. Thus, he sees Kashmir Conflict as an outcome of problematic post-colonial over-centralizing Indian political system that infringed upon the autonomous ethno-regional status of Kashmiris. Well, does this analysis seem familiar to you? Yes, indeed it is. Because what Prof. Baba is driving at in his article is now a well-worn theme on Kashmir conflict and he is merely trying to sell old wine in a new bottle.
In fact, most of the academic works on Kashmir conflict somewhat carry the similar theme: denial of democracy to Kashmiris created the Kashmir conflict. For example, Sumit Ganguly (1996) would say Kashmir represents “both the mobilization success and, simultaneously, the institutional failure of Indian democracy” (pp. 76-107). His basic argument is like this: the armed militancy in Kashmir occurred because institutional structure of post-colonial India did not accommodate Kashmir’s political demands as they, with gradual modernization and increasing literacy, became politically more assertive. He is drawing from Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the absence of strong political institutions together with rapid economic growth far from contributing to democracy can lead to political instability. In other words modernization created new avenues of social and economic mobility and bolstered demands for political participation. When educated and politically conscious mass of people (thanks to growth of mass media also) emerged, gradually they began to seek their political rights. But as their political demands were not accommodated within an institutional framework it culminated in political violence in 1989.
Then we have Sumantra Bose (1997) arguing more or less in similar vein. His argument is that Kashmir’s strong urge for secession is a result of “…Indian states’ consistent policy of denying democracy” to the people of Kashmir (p. 19). The similar arguments come from other authors who lay blame at Indian states’ interventionist role in Kashmiri politics (dismissal of an elected Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah in 1985, his party National Conference’s Accord with Congress and rigged elections, especially in 1987) as responsible for giving birth to armed militancy in Kashmir in 1989 (Bhattacharjea, 1994; Hewitt, 1995).
Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay (1997), looks at economic dimension of the conflict, arguing that “shrinking career opportunities for the urban middle class combined with closed avenues for the expression of their political dissent” was the main motivating factors for secessionist movement. (p. 495).
All these are very fine points. But they hardly explain why would people get ready to die because they were not allowed to express their political aspirations through institutionalized medium? Why call to arms so suddenly resonated strongly across the people of Kashmir? And importantly, why would people demand “azadi” (independence) or merger with Pakistan when all the fight was about genuine elections?
Then, to address these questions, do we need to look beyond paradigms that dominate the academic discourse on Kashmir conflict? The answer is yes.
What we have been reading and hearing all along (mainly through the nexus of academia-media-political rhetoric) is state versions of India and Pakistan, referring to conspiracies and circumstances of partition, reducing the Kashmir conflict to a property dispute or blame games of who is responsible for militancy in Kashmir. Behind these dominant state-patronized themes Kashmir’s autonomous political agency gets blurred. It is this independent political agency of Kashmiri nation that is at stake and it is the responsibility of Kashmiri academics and scholars to present the Kashmir case from Kashmiri perspective, as and when it evolved from twentieth century through present dynamic times. What we need is radical break from the dominant discourses on Kashmir Conflict.
The denial-of-democracy and other arguments of above mentioned authors have come under serious academic scrutiny to the point of engendering a discursive break.
Let us take the Pakhtoon raid theory first. Australian scholar Christopher Snedden in his book Kashmir: The Unwritten History (2013) busted the long discussed theory around the circumstances of Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession to India. Snedden through primary sources establishes that there were three main reasons for Jammu and Kashmir’s dispute. First, a Muslim Uprising in Poonch region started by ex-British India servicemen from that area against the Maharaja. Second, the large scale massacre of Jammu Muslims, especially targeting people of eastern Jammu. And finally, the formation of Azad Kashmir provisional government on 24 October 1947. This significant research on the beginnings of the Kashmir Conflict shedS light on important historical events that had remained obscured under dominant discourses. It busted the biggest myth that Pakhtoon raid on October 22, 1947 was the sole reason that forced Maharaja to accede to India.
Now let us come to the recent events in Kashmiri political history. The 1989 armed uprising has drawn attention of academics and media alike. But here too we see a dominant discourse being perpetuated to undermine the Kashmiri version of the most significant and determining political event. The 1989 armed uprising is attributed to failure of democracy in Kashmir. But this discourse is also countered by the major protagonists of the 1987.
For example, the Chief of Hizbul Mujhadeen, Syed Salahuddin in an interview with Greater Kashmir (published on April 14, 2008) somehow cleared the notion about 1987 elections (whose rigging is seen as a main reason for the start of armed militancy in Kashmir). I would quote his reply in full here:
“It is absolutely wrong that I picked up arms because the elections were rigged. Muftis are giving the election results a wrong twist. I was a freedom fighter long before I fought elections. I have inherited this from my forebears. My brother, Sayed Ghulam Muhammad, was the district president of Plebiscite Front in Budgam. My grandfather, Haji Ghulam Mohiuddin, was tortured by a very infamous police officer; his mouth stuffed with hot potatoes, kicked and beaten, because he used to observe Indian Independence Day as a ‘black day.’ We fought elections so that we could pass resolution in the assembly for freedom of Kashmir. India knew that. That is why they rigged the elections. People remember that when I was campaigning for the elections, I used to begin my speech with ay mard-e-mujahid jaag zara. Fighting elections were a means to educate masses about the freedom struggle. We wanted endorsement of public sentiment in the assembly. Otherwise who would have voted for my person, I was nobody. But people voted for the sentiment. Even the relatives of my opponent Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah voted for me. And those who were campaigning for elections became top resistance leaders. We were ideologically driven by the struggle for freedom.
There was a case against me in which the then SSP had said that I was not campaigning for elections but for freedom.”
If the Muslim United Front (MUF) had won the elections, we would have tabled a resolution for right of self-determination. India would have dissolved the assembly and that would have triggered the freedom struggle. Majority of the MUF members were in favour of such a resolution. The MUF was anti-India by its very nature and essence. We were going to use elections to get to the goal, but that didn’t mature.”
Similarly another protagonist of 1987 Abdul Aziz, popularly known as Genaral Mosa (presently the President of Tehreek-i-Kashmir) shared similar thoughts in an interview with Rising Kashmir in December 2013: “it was not just in 1989 that guns came here. They have come here since 1947. Youth did not go to Pakistan in 1989. Prior to that, outfits were working underground. There were Al-Fata and Student Federation operating. In 1965 and 1975, guns and grenades were recovered here. So those routes have never stopped and shall never close. Kashmir’s struggle for freedom was a process laden with phases and 1989 was one of the chapters.”
These two protagonists of 1989 emphasize on that fact that prior to 1987 elections there existed an active political movement (Plebiscite Front, Al Fatah etc) against Indian rule. The dominant discourse about 1989 armed uprising is either the denial-of-democracy or the Pakistan-sponsored “terrorism” or “proxy war” in Kashmir.
What is lost in these discourses is the subject of Kashmiri nationalism. In fact, there is hardly any systemic study done on the subject of Kashmiri nationalism so far, despite its political significance.
Although Sumantra Bose (1997) and Rekha Chowdhary Tremblay (1997) do talk about Kashmiri nationalism in their works but their treatment of this subject is informed by what John Cockell calls as “precast statist parameters of inquiry” (Cockell, 2000, p. 325) that reduces Kashmiri self-determination movement as a political mobilization responding to existing unaccommodating institutional channels. The problem with such line of inquiry is that it “effectively denies the Kashmiri community any autonomous political agency outside of that defined by these institutions” (ibid).
In his analysis of Kashmiri nationalist movement, John G. Cockell (2000) defines it as “subaltern insurgent consciousness…informed by the collective ethnic awareness of subjective community and autonomous political agency” (p. 340). His argument is that in post-colonial condition Kashmiris carved out a separate political space (Plebiscite Front, J&K Youth League, Muslim United Front, All Parties Hurriyat Conference) to replace the state-controlled institutions that denied their autonomous political agency (p. 332-33).
Cockell’s analysis of Kashmiri nationalism is a significant departure from Tremblay’s assessment. While Cockell recognizes “the autonomous origins and ideology” of the Kashmiri identity (p. 326), Trembley perceives it as a “construct” shaped in post-colonial “nation-building” process involving legal and constitutional apparatuses, like Article 370 and State Subject law that created a sense of separate identity among Kashmiris (p. 486-87). Trembley is reluctant to see Kashmiri self-determination movement as a genuine political expression of Kashmiri national identity outside of post-colonial institutional framework.
That is why Cockell’s analysis is significant as it is unconventional. But there lies a problem in his analysis too and that is he does not problematize the element of “Kashmiriyat” which forms an important part of his thesis. Chitralekha Zutshi (2003) in her historical study of the concept calls Kashmiriyat a “homogenizing discourse…a neat way to propagate the idea of a peaceful coexistence of religious communities while obscuring the question of economic, material and social differences between them.” (p. 329). However, despite this problem Cockell provides a fresh outlook and enhances our understanding of the Kashmir conflict as his insights mark a change in the dominant discourse that undermines Kashmir’s independent political agency.
Significantly, 2008 and 2010 civil uprisings changed the way Kashmir conflict was perceived. These two uprisings spawned numerous writings (Until My Freedom Has Come; Kashmir: A Case for Freedom; Of Occupation and Resistance etc.) but what is different about them is their treatment of the subject. These new writings employ subjective elements to present Kashmir as a conflict involving real humans living under hard circumstances and not merely a territorial dispute between the two nation-states armed with all kinds of weapons. These new writings are bold, informed, and assertive.
In summary, what we have so far as academic scholarship on Kashmir Conflict is ridden with bias and politics of selectivity. Of late, the new entries into the field have opened up ways to explore the conflict anew and counter the dominant discourses whipped up by a strong nexus of academia-media-political rhetoric. What we need is academic focus, informal coordination, personal commitments and collective imagination.

Published in Greater Kashmir (January 16, 2014)