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‘This psychological barrier is made of barbed wire’

  • Prof Suvir Kaul looks at the current crisis in Kashmir from the point of view of a scholar and a Kashmiri Pandit
  • The author of the Kashmir book ‘Of Gardens and Graves’ calls the Valley a ‘giant holding camp’

Indian paramilitary forces stand guard near a temporary checkpoint in Srinagar on 23 August; and
Indian paramilitary forces stand guard near a temporary checkpoint in Srinagar on 23 August; and (Photo: AP)

Prof. Suvir Kaul is the A.M. Rosenthal professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 2015 book Of Gardens And Graves, which weaves together poetry and his experiences in Srinagar as a scholar and a Kashmiri Pandit, with images by photojournalist Javed Dar. His book does much that current conversations do not: It contends with the complexity of the situation, is considered in every claim it makes, and forces us to confront the full extent of the suffering of Kashmiris, brought home in part through Prof. Kaul’s translations of Kashmiri poems about conflict and Dar’s photographs. His commentary on the poems is particularly poignant and incisive. In this interview, he reminds us, once again, that the “real sufferers are those who are interned since 5 August in the giant holding camp that is now Kashmir". Edited excerpts:

Prof. Suvir Kaul.
Prof. Suvir Kaul. (Photo: Suvir Kaul)

Given that you still have family in Kashmir, what impact has this “siege" had on you? How does it compare with earlier unrest?

Members of my family were in Srinagar but a cousin flew in and accompanied them back to Delhi. They were forced to leave because there was no way to communicate—as we live near a neighbourhood known for its resistance to the paramilitary presence, our landline was not restored, and, of course, cellphones and internet access remain cut off. Oddly, this time I did not feel they were unsafe, though we did worry about them getting food and medicines.

In the past, there have been very long curfews and periods of unrest, and moments when street battles between protesters and security forces rendered life difficult, but this time the clampdown is so complete that our neighbourhood was rendered lifeless. When my aunt arrived in Delhi, she posted a brief message: “Came back last night. Heartbroken, sad, angry and helpless about the siege in the Valley."

But my fears are not just about Kashmir. I am convinced that the political and legal template used for the “integration" of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into India is flexible enough to be used to change the quasi-federal structure of the Constitution itself. The Centre can arrogate to itself the authority to rewrite its relationships with the different states that have individualized links to the union (like all those listed under Article 371). This centralization of power has grave implications for India’s democracy.

Of Gardens And Graves—Essays On Kashmir, Poems in Translation: By Suvir Kaul, photographs by Javed Dar, Three Essays Collective, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>500.
Of Gardens And Graves—Essays On Kashmir, Poems in Translation: By Suvir Kaul, photographs by Javed Dar, Three Essays Collective, 256 pages, 500.

In your book, you have mentioned being both a “proud Indian and a democrat", and a Kashmiri Pandit. The move on Article 370 has been justified using the Pandits. How do you see current events affecting Pandit aspirations?

Many Pandits—but by no means all—are celebrating this abrogation. Some even claim that 370 allowed J&K’s Muslim majority to persecute minorities, which is a fantastical claim, and one that I had never seen made until now. I believe the Centre’s actions have made it much, much harder for Pandits to return to Kashmir. The fact is, those who wanted to return have done so. Those who haven’t, have no intentions of returning. Most Pandits have, in the past three decades, established lives elsewhere, sold or given up on their properties in Kashmir. Those who go back only make brief visits, particularly to religious shrines. Their children do not think of Kashmir as home, and even if they did, would they really return to a Kashmir being controlled only by armed might? The absence of the Pandits has altered the texture of Kashmiri life, and their loss is not mourned by them alone. The Kashmiri Muslims I know recognize how much was lost, and perhaps how much can never be recovered.

I wonder if Pandits (or the government) have thought through the implications of the loss of Article 370. Till today, Delhi University has reserved seats for “Kashmiri Migrants". Now that Kashmir and Jammu are (going to be) Union territories, can Pandits still be considered “migrants"? Will such reservations remain? If Article 35A no longer applies, and there are no special privileges for “state subjects", then Pandits too will be denied preferential access to state jobs, which were often their staple. They lose just as much as ex-state subjects from Jammu or Ladakh, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh.

The home minister referred to Article 370 as a “psychological barrier" to Kashmiris joining the Indian union. Given your book’s focus on the conflict’s psychological impact, how do you respond?

Those Kashmiris who have refused to participate in the Indian union have done so not because of Article 370 but because they believe in self-determination, an ideal which the Indian government recognized when it created Article 370. If there has been a “psychological barrier" between Kashmiris and the union, it has been one built of barbed wire and concrete barriers, and the brutal actions of the Indian security apparatus. There is virtually no family in Kashmir that does not know someone who has been beaten or maimed or killed or disappeared. Human rights groups have documented these abuses at great length—their reports are a terrible account of the daily experiences that have brutalized Kashmiris and so entirely alienated them.

The primary rationale for the move on Article 370 has been that it was a barrier to development and the prosperity of the Kashmiri people. Will it spur development?

I cannot see how. As Jean Drèze (among others) has noted, J&K is better in most major development indices than even “prosperous" states like Gujarat. Drèze rightly traces this to J&K’s separate constitution allowing for massive land reforms in the 1950s (see Sheikh Abdullah’s Naya Kashmir manifesto). Prabhat Patnaik has similarly argued that the state’s political economy has benefited from Article 370. Many misinformed people believe the state has been receiving disproportionate amounts of Central aid, but this expenditure is often tied to Central government projects, like those of the NHPC. For strategic reasons, the state is not allowed to develop hydropower schemes that could add to its revenue, and has to buy power produced within its borders.

Indian-style “development" is a dubious prospect for the region. Tens of thousands of labourers and artisans from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh come to Kashmir to earn better wages than they can at home or elsewhere in India—why does that happen if the economy of Kashmir is so impoverished by Article 370? Of course, the infrastructure can be more developed—that is true of all Indian states. Remember, however, that in J&K, infrastructural development—roads, bridges, cantonments—obeys the priorities of the security apparatus. Unsurprisingly, the best roads are those that the Army needs and controls for its operations.

Your book speaks of the importance of art and poetry to access the experiences of the Kashmiri people. What more can they teach us?

Works of art mobilize affect and the imagination to move their audience into zones of experience and feeling that they would not ordinarily discover. They give form to inchoate experiences, and, at their most powerful, grant discovery and insight to their readers. Journalistic writing or human rights reports can also do a version of this, but their form is different, and their aims are usually more particular. In my book, I published a series of photographs by Javed Dar, and they function as a visual counterpoint to the poems and my commentary. My hope was to enable the reader to “see" more vividly.

The government claims the Kashmir issue is one that previous regimes have done “nothing" to address. They consider this the best way to solve a complex problem—a cutting of the Gordian knot.

Yes, the Gordian knot—you will remember that Alexander’s success at cutting through this knot was the prelude to his conquests in Asia. That is indeed the role this metaphor plays in the Hindutva-vadi imagination of this government: They can now formalize the conquest of a state whose prior legal arrangements with the Indian union previous governments had respected, even if they hollowed out so many of the provisions of autonomy.

In your wide reading, have you come across any alternative ways of moving towards a solution?

I have steadfastly refused to answer this question, as it is one that should be addressed to the people resident in J&K rather than to academics, bureaucrats or politicians. And yes, there are always alternatives, but you need to develop them in discussion with the people whose future is at stake.

Partha P. Chakrabartty is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia, US.

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