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From Crimson to Maroon: The Many Shades of the Left on the Kashmir Issue

By Shruthi Venukumar 

Jawaharlal Nehru University was once called the fourth bastion of the Left. Historian Harbans Mukhia, who worked and lived in JNU for more than 30 years, recently stated that since the beginning, the number of Leftist teachers at the university never exceeded a dozen. Regardless, to the outside world, even to students from other universities, JNU is known as a campus where the Left dominates in student politics as well as academics. Moreover, the Left in JNU is widely seen as monolithic. In this article, I attempt to delineate the differences between the perspectives on Kashmir of some dominant and some upcoming Left student-organizations in JNU, based on interviews with their members. I also make some general observations on the nature of Left politics on campus vis-à-vis Kashmir and grade them against my understanding of the issue.

The organizations were broadly divided into two camps: those that supported the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir and those that did not. To the ones that supported self-determination, I posed the question of the modalities concerning the process – the specific means and ways in which they propose to engage with the people of Kashmir, finding out what percentage wanted secession, the method of determining that percentage, the approach to engaging with non-violent separatists as opposed to armed rebels and so on. I interviewed members of six students’ organizations in all. The names of mother parties are mentioned in brackets wherever applicable. The others are unaffiliated.

Students Federation of India [Communist Party of India (Marxist)]: SFI supports demilitarisation, the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), justice for the victims of human rights violations by the security forces, the dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits to the valley, economic restoration, internal dialogue towards maximum autonomy, and Indo-Pakistan dialogue.

It is not in favour of self-determination and holds that a “landlocked and not particularly resource-rich entity like Kashmir is bound to become a client of imperialism in case of secession. It will provide US imperialism a base to unleash its machinations against all neighbouring countries.” (Source: ‘Nation, Nationalism and Nationalities’, Resistance, Quarterly Release, March 2016), Students’ Federation of India, JNU Unit.)

All India Students Federation [Communist Party of India]: Like its mother party, AISF supported self-determination for the people of Kashmir till the 1980s. Kunwar Sudhanshu Lal, who was the President of the Delhi unit of AISF while he was pursuing his education at JNU, informed me that ever since violent separatism took root, the students’ organization of the CPI has maintained that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

All India Students Association [Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist]: AISA stands for Kashmiri self-determination and believes that no dialogue or referendum can happen at gun point. It wants AFSPA to be repealed and extrajudicial killings, rapes, disappearances to be looked into, after which everyone who has stakes in Kashmir must be engaged with. Shivani Nag elaborates that the organization is also concerned about the nature of an independent Kashmir created after self-determination – whether it would be democratic and progressive or one controlled by religious groups where women might not be equal and democracy not actualized. I was also informed that such issues are debated with greater nuance at the level of the party (CPI-ML).

Democratic Students Federation: DSF was formed after a section of the JNU wing of SFI was derecognized by CPI(M) a few years ago. It remains unaffiliated to any mainstream political party and does not support self-determination. It is “unequivocally opposed to secessionist terrorism in Kashmir. While opposing capital punishment in principle, we (DSF) do not consider Afzal Guru – who was convicted in the terrorist attack on parliament – as a “martyr”. It is terrorism on the one hand and state repression on the other that has created a vicious cycle of violence in Kashmir. Both forms of violence are inimical to a peaceful and just solution to the Kashmir problem.” (Source: Pamphlet issued by DSF dated 11/3/2016)

The New Materialists: They identify as a group and not as an organisation. It is Marxist Leninist in ideology. It believes that India is a prison house of various nationalities such as Kashmiris, Tamils, Nagas, etc., that have been forcefully united without mutual agreement. It posits that both India and Pakistan have violently occupied Kashmir and calls to draw a distinction between religious fundamentalists from India/Pakistan and the common people, who seek self-determination. According to the group, as long as a demand for self-determination through a referendum reflects the aspirations of the common people of Kashmir, it will be a fight for self-determination and not another separatist movement. According to S. Ananda Krishna Raj, a member, the group holds that if a freedom movement forms a coalition with a mainstream Communist political party, it should be on the basis of a common minimum programme with a progressive character that provides for labour and women’s rights and safeguards against religious fundamentalism.

Collective: Collective holds that there needs to be a more serious engagement with the struggles and aspirations of the people of Kashmir in the debates on campus. (Pamphlet issued by Collective titled, “Where Do We Stand in the Movement”) It is against violence against the innocent and believes that the army of both Pakistan and India should withdraw from Kashmir. As for the modalities of engagement with the Kashmiris, Pankhuri Zaheer from the organisation holds that it cannot determine the means of struggle which the Kashmiris should deploy to fight Indian oppression. (Source: “Where Do We Stand in the Movement”, The Collective, pamphlet issued on 9/3/2016)

Collating from the above, my observation is that Left students’ organisations that are independent of political parties are more flexible in their stand and perspectives on Kashmir than those organisations that are affiliated to mainstream political parties with some clout in the national/regional politics of India. This gives the former the advantage of changing their views in line with changing perspectives which is often the case when one is a student and is increasingly exposed to newer and more nuanced perspectives and standpoints as one’s inquiry progresses. Students’ organizations that were formerly associated with mainstream parties but are now independent have more intellectual flexibility in formulating standpoints differing from their former allegiances.

This is not to say that party affiliation makes students’ organisations stagnant. If an advanced perspective is at odds with or goes beyond the stand of the mother political party, a student can either leave the organisation or try to persuade the organisation about his/her new perspective by presenting its merits. The reception and visibility of this perspective might depend on the student’s position in the hierarchy of cadres. The latter is no guarantee of the acceptance of the perspective for debate within the party. Political parties tend to hold fast to their philosophies and principles. A student’s organisation with no affiliation to a political party has the advantage of perspectives but might lack the resources to take action according to the demands of their perspectives. As is clear from the organisations and groups mentioned in this article, Leftist leanings do not always manifest in joining/forming an organisation that contests the Students Union elections. Some groups adopt a name and have well formed ideas regarding a socialist world while preferring to be formal/informal circles where ideas are discussed freely.

What I found most interesting were the conversations I had off the record, often with people who requested anonymity. One person told me that he believed that the responsibility of articulating the demand for secession was on the shoulders of the people of Kashmir themselves. The question which then arises is whether the people of Kashmir have the wherewithal to voice their opinions on self-determination. How amenable is popular media to giving them a platform to voice their demands?

In a country where patriotism and nationalism are conventionally understood to mean unquestioned allegiance to India and where demands of secession are seen as anti-national, what are the options available to non-violent separatists to voice their demands? If calls for secession are deemed seditious by the media and the general masses at large, much before a court proceeds to preside over the issue, how comfortable would a person in Kashmir feel in expressing their wishes without fear of reprisal in a state where AFSPA is an every day repressive reality?

Many Left-leaning students are rightfully concerned about the state of women’s rights and labour rights in an independent Kashmir. However, it should be left to the people of the valley to decide the order in which they achieve freedom and gender/economic emancipation. Another student held that the removal of AFSPA and ending the everyday oppression of Kashmiris will end the demand for secession. This is an over-simplification of the aspirations of the people. It is possible that people deem secession to be an assertion of their identity. Who decides that it is alright to deny people the right to decide whether they want to identify as a separate nation? Should the state subscribe to the notion of “we give you human rights in exchange for your willingness to recognize our sovereignty”? Whether it is people who want a borderless world or the followers of strict territorial nationalism, there is a need to understand that the right to decide on this question of nationalism lies solely in the hands of the concerned people.

The Kashmir valley comprises of 95.6% Muslims and 3.24% Hindus. Buddhists and Christians make up other minorities. The Kashmiri Pandits too, who were forced to flee the valley in an exodus from the late 1980’s to 1991 and live as internally displaced persons in the country, have legitimate claims to the land. There has not been any attempt to bring all of these groups on the table to voice their respective opinions as regards the territory of Kashmir and the modalities of engagement. There could be differences of opinion even within the same group. Given the decades of hurt and hatred, such a conversation can be painful and could be derailed if not moderated (not censored) with sensitivity.

Regardless of which shade of red they preferred, the students were committed to debates and discussions on Kashmir. That is the merit and power of students’ politics. These are youth who are passionate about the issues of the world and refuse to be confined to personal concerns. If students actively engaged in politics remain committed to debates and avoid subscribing to dogmas and remain open to questioning their beliefs, students’ politics can go a long way in bringing about the long-needed social change. A disturbing trend has been the general masses discrediting students leaders based on the assumption that they are out to carve out a place for themselves in mainstream politics. Many JNUites, who are active in politics, come from backgrounds where they have experienced atrocities like the Bathani Tola massacre, AFSPA, and extreme backwardness, etc., first hand. If these students take up the mantle of mainstream politics, they deserve the benefit of doubt regarding their commitment to tangible change.

Photo-credit: Haneefa Muhammed

Shruthi Venukumar is a freelance journalist. Formerly an Editor with Macmillan Education India and Senior Editor with Youth Ki Awaaz, she has written extensively for Hindustan Times, Times of India and various online magazines. A former student of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, she has published fiction with Westland and is looking forward to the publication of her poems in an anthology later this year.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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