When I went to
Srinagar in 2003 it was after a gap of 14 years. I was shocked by what
had happened to Kashmir. To walk from our home to the nearby market
in Lal Chowk one had to make it past half-a-dozen bunkers, with soldiers
with fingers on the triggers of ak-47s, with transparent magazines with
bullets shining through. This was not the Kashmir I knew at all! Then
as I began to move about the city, and then to the countryside, the
level of militarisation was so awesome, the fear and sullen anger amongst
the people so palpable — I was convinced there was something very
complex here that needed to be engaged with.
be fair to say that your film Jashn-e-Azadi is about the secessionist
It’s a film
that tries to understand the desire for azadi without trying to assign
to it the rigid certainties that most Indians seem to demand of it.
Whether that desire amounts to secession from India, as an independent
State, or a merger with Pakistan, I don’t know. I don’t
think there is a definitive answer to that in Kashmir either. But azadi
is certainly about self-determination. And it is the ignorance of azadi
that I find missing in the public discourse about Kashmir in India.
shocked to see the disconnect between the people and the State?
Our ignorance of
Kashmiri feelings about India is the outcome of 60 years of a hermetic,
controlled knowledge system which forces us to think of Kashmir in only
one way: that it’s a part of India. But in Kashmir you will see
that there is a long history to this distance. Many Kashmiris have not
naturally seen themselves as Indian. My own grandfather was a Kashmiri
Pandit, but I can remember up until the 70s, when he was going to Delhi
he would say he was going to India. He had grown up in an independent
Kashmir, and even after 1947 a certain distance had remained.
acknowledges the use of video from “anonymous Kashmiri cameramen”.
How credible are the archival videos?
That archival video
is testimony of an incredible time. So is the video gathered for network
television today. The filtering actually takes place in newsrooms in
Delhi. It has been my experience that the often-deadly images that come
from Kashmir can make it to the afternoon news, but are slowly reduced,
until they become meaningless 30-second news-bites in primetime news.
This works backwards to the crew on the ground who realise there is
no point risking your life shooting something you know the network doesn’t
value. So self-censorship builds in. On the other hand these “anonymous
Kashmiri cameramen” of the 1990s wanted to communicate a sense
of what was happening there. You can use video to tell lies, but you
can also search within it for truth. You can decide whether you want
to be exhilarated by the sight of 7,000 people protesting or be terrified
has not really dealt with the issue of Kashmiri Pandits.
It has often bothered
me that all discussion on Kashmir in Indian public discourse invariably
turns into a discussion on Kashmiri Pandits. In the last 20 years, there
was first a sentiment for azadi, then an insurrection, and then the
Pandits had to leave. So why can’t we, just once, go back and
understand what’s behind there, and then make our way forward?
Most Kashmiri Pandits
obviously saw themselves as a part of India, but how do you resolve
a situation where they are a tiny minority in a place which is fighting
for self-determination? It was thus not altogether unexpected that they
felt isolated, even targeted, and had to leave. In this film I wanted
to first bridge the understanding of what the sentiment for azadi in
What has happened
to Kashmiri Pandits is terrible, particularly to the rural and poorer
class among them. It is an enormous failure on the part of Kashmiri
society that they have not been able to resolve. But why is nobody asking
me why I haven’t dealt with other important issues in Kashmir:
custodial deaths, the politicisation of the Army or the continuing presence
of Kashmiri Sikhs there? Does it have to do with the unacknowledged
but tacit assumption that India is a Hindu country?
Kashmiri Muslims didn’t want self-determination even in the early
I can only go by
what I hear and read. I think it is fair to say that in the 90s, the
overwhelming sentiment in Kashmir was pro-azadi. You may take as evidence
what Jagmohan writes in his memoirs, that when he arrived as Governor
in Srinagar in 1990, the only people he could trust were the security
guards at Raj Bhavan!
the reasons for such an overwhelming sentiment of azadi to appear 40
years into Indian independence?
In my own understanding
of Kashmir, I think that the hundred years prior to 1947 are a very
crucial piece of history. That century of Dogra rule was highly brutal
and oppressive for the vast, vast majority of Kashmiris, especially
it’s predominantly Muslim peasantry. So in 1947 when the Maharaja
left, there was a huge surge in expectations of what was expected to
follow. There followed the highly successful land reforms in 1952 that
unshackled the productive capacities of the peasant and led to a self-assertiveness
in the face of perceived injustice. Of course, Pakistan played an important
role in encouraging these tendencies, particularly after India played
mid-wife to the birth of Bangladesh.
Do you think
the Kashmiri Muslims have felt let down by not just India but also Indians?
Indian liberal-left-progressive can and does take a position on the
massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, or of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.
Even mainstream media like ndtv and Indian Express can. But to honestly
deal with Kashmir asks for a lot more from us. If people are making
a sustained argument for some form of disengagement with the Indian
republic for 60 years, should we not at least understand what they are
saying? Or should we say — oh, there’ve been human rights
violations and if we control them, all will be well. I think Kashmir
forces us to ask very fundamental questions of how India is constituted
and how much of it is held together by coercion.
Until 1993, Indian
civil liberties groups had a substantial engagement with Kashmir. But
by the mid-nineties, when the apparently secular jklf faded out, they
were probably not comfortable when the avowedly Islamic Hizbul Mujahideen
took over the driving seat. But Kashmiri sentiment didn’t change,
what do you think the Kashmiri Muslim wants?
demand is that of troop withdrawal, of a disengagement of the military
apparatus. From ordinary Kashmiri Muslims in the countryside to even
those sitting in the Srinagar secretariat, they will all say they want
withdrawal of troops.
Indian State been a victor in Kashmir?
Are you talking
about the reduction in the number of militants? A former militant veteran
told me that at a certain point there was a tactical retreat by the
militant leadership. He said “We didn’t want an azadi that
nobody was left to enjoy the fruits of. We could not afford to continue
losing our best young men who were being killed like flies”. But
you can’t take silence and domination for victory. The Indian
security forces dominate every aspect of life in Kashmir. But can they
take the lid off even briefly?
An Army officer
once told us the situation in Kashmir was totally under control today,
unlike, say the mid-nineties. When was the Army withdrawing, we asked?
He was shocked: Withdraw? There would be chaos, he said. I suppose he
means that the Army is not only controlling the militants but also sitting
on top of a civil population. As you lift that lid, there might be a
few surprises in store for India. I’m not saying militants will
run amuck in the Valley but you never know what form politics will take.
You see how the security forces clear out of the way whenever there
is the funeral of a militant commander, when thousands come out to protest
and shout slogans of azadi. The film begins with one such in 1992 and
ends with one in 2005. In those few hours when the lid is lifted, the
expression of rage is in very much the same terms. Over 14 years we
hear the same slogans, the same anger and rage and passion. We can’t
assume that since the people are exhausted and if you remove the chains
they will, like docile lambs, walk into the Indian Union.