By Rishabh Bajoria:
I grew up in the cocoon of the urban middle class in mainland India, a good lot in the lottery of birth. My biggest concern was often falling behind in the neoliberal race of consumption. This can be for clothes, cars, smartphones, etc. Politics seemed to exist in its own sphere with its actors playing their parts in a chaotic circus. This included Members of Parliament throwing chairs at each other and screaming on late night television news channels. Ostensibly, politics affected us only on voting days or when school was cancelled because of a “bandh” called by a party. The cultivation of such aloofness was supplemented by shallow news reporting, both by mainstream print and television media houses. At best, we knew what the entertaining and charismatic Mr Arnab Goswami, editor-in chief of English news channel Times Now, wanted us to know. These phenomena are further enhanced by the general trend away from reading books among an increasingly Americanised urban youth. The result is a politically apathetic generation, with a blunted sense of critical thinking. The perfect manifestation of this attitude is the popular reaction to the “Kashmir issue.”
I would argue that the primary reason the urban youth is magnetically attracted to the idea of Kashmir being an “Integral part of India” is due to their poor grasp of history. There are various structural reasons for this. The foremost is the general devaluation of a humanities education in neoliberal capitalism, because even education has a monetary function. After all, employability in a lucrative job for an engineer/lawyer is exponentially better than a historian. School textbooks designed to construct the notion of a just and righteous state by inculcating an uncritical attitude of the Constitution and the legal structure that flows from it do not help either. Civics is taught as a self-evident set of rules which one must follow as if there could be no other form of societal arrangement. Perhaps most importantly, the nation is portrayed as an inevitability. Ancient history is taught as ancient Indian history, where “Indian” is used not in the geographical sense of the word, but the national one. The “nationalist struggle” is shown as a linear series of events, always leading to the grand climax of 1947. The result is the inculcation of a meta narrative of an ostensibly natural Indian nation state.
Kashmir is shown to us through a hyper-nationalist lens. We are fed that Maharaja Hari Singh was acting as a “legitimate sovereign” (often not in so many words, but with the same effect) when he signed the Instrument of Accession and assimilated Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union. This is pivotal to highlight the binary, pre and post-1989 (rise of militancy). It lends support to the argument that the root of the Kashmiri “problem” lies not in the will of its people, but across the Line of Control. After all, right thinking people do not rise up in rebellion against their own State. So, either the state is not theirs, or the people are not right thinking. The eternal enemy Pakistan, which also happens to be an Islamic nation state, is shown as the devil causing unrest in our peaceful house. It is seen not only as the source of “terrorism, but also as a subversive influence brainwashing the Kashmiri youth. As a result, Kashmir, the jewel of the nation, becomes a matter of pride, even for a 12-year-old.
Even the political spectrum available on the mainstream media is extremely narrow. Most media houses do not challenge the fundamental assumption that Kashmir is inherently a part of India. As a result, the coverage varies from Times Now blaming every act of dissent on Pakistan, to even supposedly left-leaning newspapers treating the Indian state like the elder brother who was too harsh on his younger sibling and perhaps owes him an apology. The protagonists of our movies say “Doodh maango kheer denge, Kashmir maango cheer denge.” (You ask for milk, we’ll give you rice pudding, ask for Kashmir and we’ll tear you apart;Movie: Maa Tujhe Salaam). This creates a situation where emotion supersedes rationality and evidence.
Therefore, even when some of us hear about human rights abuses or unjust laws like the Armed Forces Special Forces Act, we dismiss them as anomalies (AFSPA gives impunity and other powers to the Indian Army in certain volatile regions of India). Anomalies to the actions of a liberal, just state trying to save its “own citizens” from increasing “terrorism.” They are seen as necessary evils to maintain the territorial integrity of “Bharat Mata,” (Mother India). Thus, the collective indignation of peers, teachers and parents alike when Google shows a part of Jammu and Kashmir constituting of Pakistani territory. The tragedy is that the possibility of an alternative imagination is never placed in front of a privileged Bania male child like me.
The effect of these processes on our imagination is that Kashmir becomes a territory to possess for one of these larger nation-states. In this perceived tug of war, the people of Kashmir, living their every day, experiencing occupation, don’t find space in this imagination.
Their utility is restricted to being fodder for Pakistani subversion or as a loyal part of the Indian Union. That is why mass protests in Kashmir caused by Burhan Wani’s encounter killing are reduced to a conspiracy by the Inter-Services Intelligence. This narrative denies the Kashmiri person any ability to speak. It is coloured with an undertow of Islamophobia which is also structurally cultivated in most upper caste families. The fact that Subramanian Swamy, Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP, can share a picture from a rally where Afzal Guru’s hanging is being protested and the majority of the attendees are Muslims, with the caption “And they say terror does not have a religion,” says a lot. The appalling facet of this is the support it receives from large sections of the privileged.
So, when Arnab Goswami dismisses Burhan Wani as an “anti-national terrorist” while claiming to speak for the “nation,” he is being more truthful than liberal or centre-left academics would like to admit. This is because he is speaking for a part of that nation, the urban, English speaking, upper caste, upper-middle class. This is not just a part of the “nation,” but is arguably the most important harbinger of nationalism as sociologist Yogendra Singh has argued. Thus, it should not be surprising that it cultivates an ecosystem of dehistoricised and oversimplified debates on Kashmir, riddled with ostensibly neat binaries, between “good” and “bad,” “terrorist” and “army man,” “Indian” and “Pakistani” and “national” and “anti-national.” The upper middle class is too preoccupied with furthering their self-interest in the neoliberal order to stop and ask themselves what these words mean. To ask themselves if human beings matter in the battle for territory. In fact, if one honestly seeks to address these questions, it is likely to cause an existential crisis as the privileged will realise their own complicity in the oppression. If people with social and political capital start giving a voice to the suppressed Kashmiri will, it will be a lot harder for the Indian state to maintain the legitimacy of its occupation in the “national mainstream.” This challenge could force the Indian government to change the status quo.
Hence, young, privileged children like me are often encouraged, most immediately by our family and peers, but also by a number of abstract processes, to be uncritical technocrats. Everything, including education is a means to an end. That is why the middle class tells the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University that they pay for students’ education and not their politics. It is because education has become a purely apolitical, functional exercise in its imagination and because “politics” is not worth the hassle. We can afford to do this because the effect of such nationalistic politics for our material lives is beneficial, without us realising it. Therefore, we as a generation are trained not to look beyond our own nose. It is the cultivation of this attitude, which is at the root of the privileged imagination of Kashmir as a land without a people.