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What does the slogan say? Violence, Language, and Kashmir

By Arif Hayat Nairang

In his essay, “Paris Under Occupation”[1], Sartre recounts that the occupation didn’t make life impossible. He says, “We Lived”. But the horror of occupation wasn’t something that came from outside and overwhelmed you, rather it came from within:

The horror appeared to be outside us, inherent in things. We could distract ourselves for moments at a time, becoming involved in a lecture, a conversation, a love affair; but we’d always return to ourselves and realize that it had not left us.

This haunting experience of occupation or war and violence, which refuses to settle down or normalize, is also found in the way violence, or political violence to be specific, is understood in Anthropology of Violence. Violence emerges as an object that escapes any comprehension and expression. So, it becomes extremely difficult to convey and locate the actual horror that marks a place which has witnessed violence for a long period. It opens the floodgates to excess, and making sense of this excess takes an effort which radically dissociates itself from the popular modes of expression and language. It qualitatively resembles pain which has pre-linguistic origins.[2] Thus, an effort which seeks to bring out the visceral quality of violence and the horror that it inscribes onto the socio-political life-worlds of people shouldn’t expect a narrative with a proper beginning, middle, and end. However, at the same time, bringing out the haunting absurdity and horror of violence is a responsibility that any such effort must own and confront.

In this vein, the slogans that reverberate in the protests in Kashmir must be understood as the visceral utterance of a population that is not just giving an account of its suffering but is also leading us into the horror that emanates from ‘within’ in the face of violence. It tells us that this horror is not just restricted to Kashmir; it is an essential part of life constituted by the mechanisms of power. The volume of violence may vary and so may its ramifications and metaphorical expressions but life in the face of power is precarious and horrid everywhere. Thus, localizing and essentializing Kashmir or for that matter Palestine, Syria or other warzones of the world as a ‘problem’ that needs a ‘solution’ is essentially wrong. The shouts and cries from Kashmir are not for a superficial solution or resolution; rather they are calls to rethink the notion of freedom and the terms of the political itself. So, an effort, be it political, social or artistic, must not engage with Kashmir by distancing it as a problem lying outside, rather Kashmir is to be located within the horror that marks life in general in terms of its contingent and precarious nature. One doesn’t need to be a Kashmiri to talk about Kashmir, anyone can do that and in various ways, if we realize the horror and pain of being that accompanies this realization. Kashmir doesn’t just stay in Kashmir; it moves out and resonates within us or rather haunts us in various ways, and given the horror, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it always generates extreme reactions from all quarters. In fact, that is its way to be – to haunt us and confront us with incomprehensibility. A paradise, that too on earth, it can’t be, if it is not haunted. So, dispelling the popular imagination of Kashmir as this scenic and idyllic place which has suffered from bad fate also becomes part of the effort. Thus, a return to this idyllic place must not delude us as well. The only way to see this paradise is to be haunted by yourself in the first place. To enter the deeply disturbing world of a transfixed Sufi, who is mired in violence for more than twenty-five years, one can’t help but be haunted, and the good thing about Sufis is that they accept creatures of all kinds in their violent and dystopian worlds. The haunting lets you see the pain that escapes language, a common that inflicts us all and which is let out every now and then in slogans and protests. It’s this haunting resonance and common that get reflected in the case or rather the life of the slogan: “Ham kya chahte?Aazaadi!” (We want Freedom!)

The slogan gained momentum during the 1990s and has continued to reverberate in every protest march since then. My familiarity with the slogan came as a seven or eight-year-old child when I and my friends were taken to an Eid procession by the elder kids in the village. The faint memory that I have is that I was scared by the crowd and fell into a ditch on the way back home. My worried mother, who had no idea about where I was, scolded me and told me that next time I will be punished if go to the processions again. More recently, the five-year-old son of my cousin expressed his fear in his half-broken Kashmiri every time the protesters walked outside their house. I remember, my grandmother’s heart would pound at every slogan when she was alive, while our friends shouted out loudly in the protests. We all have different histories of owning and confronting the haunting that is invoked either by the slogans or the firing that would ensue every now and then, particularly in the 90s.

The slogan was also strongly felt in the protests after the Nirbhaya incident on the night of 16 December, 2003 in New Delhi, where it became the utterance for freedom as people moved into the streets to ‘take back the night’. It took a strange turn as the student leaders in JNU gave it a new interpretation and ‘azaadi’ became a metaphor for freedom from systemic caste oppression and radical religious forces. It’s striking how the slogan found a seemingly absurd but not so surprising resonance outside Kashmir, as we moved into a realm of power and politics where vulnerability and precarity have come to mark us all. As the prospects of this twisted or maybe even perverse sense of common unfold before us, it also asks us to reflect on what we mean by ‘azaadi’ or freedom and where do the histories of haunting seeking it merge together. Can we think of communities tied together by a sense of grief, pain, and suffering, which is viscerally felt by all of us? What sort of political engagements would that call for?

The slogan also marks its life in the linguistic register. It generates a symbolic universe and becomes the voice of people from Kashmir to Delhi. The other aspect which goes unnoticed is that it is in ‘Urdu’, a language which is not indigenous to Kashmir. That’s not to say that slogans don’t exist in Kashmiri; they do, but the ones in Urdu like the one under discussion, have gained more attention. The fact that Urdu, an alien language which finds its origins in Mughal India, becomes the conduit for Kashmir’s haunted and violent engagement with power should also not come as a surprise. Urdu becomes the mode of interaction between the government forces and Kashmiris, as that is the only language which both the Kashmiris and soldiers who are mostly Hindi or rather Hindustani speakers. Some of the dark humour that emerges in the interaction between the soldiers and Kashmiris – who can’t speak Hindi/Urdu properly and end up being beaten by the soldiers – are indicative of this violent mode of linguistic exchange. Although Urdu is very popular in Kashmir now and one can’t help but notice young boys and girls talking to each other in Urdu in Srinagar, it also signifies your class position. The language has been learnt and adopted in various ways, sometimes to escape the wrath of the soldier checking your identity card or your Urdu teacher, to compose poetry, to write love letters, and to make graffiti. The body and power are thus engaged in a struggle and the language becomes the surface of this struggle. It also echoes in the protests in a haunting manner while shouting out loud the slogan in the language of the ‘other’. We saw it in the last protests popularly called the ‘ragdo protests’, where protestors went into a trance-like state while chanting the slogans and crushing the ground beneath their feet. However, mourning and wailing continue to happen in Kashmiri. Urdu finds a peculiar location in the socio-political life-world of Kashmiris. It is not the language of mourning but that of engagement with power in its different forms. Thus, we can say that Kashmir has engaged with power on its own terms, on its own ‘surface’ and in its own language. It can’t be localized or restricted to an experimental zone of power. It escapes the condition imposed upon it. It opens the floodgates to excess and a possibility through a haunted mode of subjectivity that finds one more expression as women march out in Delhi to take back the night.

Any engagement with Kashmir must consider what is it that haunts us when we confront Kashmir and what is it that is haunting Kashmir. Why does Kashmir resonate outside Kashmir? What is our relation to Kashmir and in what ways does it mark us? Perhaps it’s this relation that the Kashmiri Urdu poet Fareed Pārbati searches for when he says:

lagā kar sab lahū āḳhir hue dāḳhil shahīdoñ meñ
maiñ apnī laash raste se haTāne tak se Dartā huuñ

(We bled as much as we could and became martyrs at last
while I am scared to move my own corpse)[3]

The horror that marks Sartre, and which he finds ‘within’, is revealed in the poet’s encounter with his own corpse. It’s this relation to one’s self that needs to be thought and mulled over as Kashmir moves into a phase of world politics where vulnerability extends itself beyond the war zones.

[1] The essay published in 1944 paints the unsettling picture of the accommodation to violence by the inhabitants of Paris during World War II.

[2] Elaine Scarry brings out this theme wonderfully in her work, Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.

[3] The translation is not literal. The use of ‘we’ and ‘while’ is my emphasis. I must thank my friend Khalid Fayaz for suggesting the poet. The complete ghazal or poem can be found here.

Arif Hayat Nairang
is a graduate student who is working on Kashmir at the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, USA.


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

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