Saturday, September 03, 2011

Hypocrisy of Distant Cheers

Beyi sund dod chhui bemaane/ Yas akkis banih te sui zaane
(Another’s pain is without meaning/ Only the sufferer knows what it is like) – A Kashmiri saying
Ms. Mridu Rai sent her piece to Open first. But as per her own admission, my piece angered her so much that she didn’t care whether my magazine would publish it or not (“Just writing it is proving to be a soothing balm”, she wrote on Facebook). Nevertheless, even after she was soothed, and without waiting for Open’s response, Ms. Rai’s piece was published in Kafila by one of its administrators – a little boy whose idea of activism is getting a picture clicked in front of a photoshopped board that reads: Screw India.
It took me some time to pick up from Ms. Rai’s academic hubris the questions she has asked. She begins by questioning my right to express my views on a literary festival that was to be held in a land where I was born and where I would have spent my life had we not been driven out by religious extremists in 1990. Like other authors, and publishers, and artists, I was also a part of the advisory committee of the Harud festival. Of course, my interest was to make the festival a success. But how does it amount to conflict of interest, as Ms. Rai thinks it is? Suppose, as a member of the government’s National Advisory Council, Jean Dreze expresses his view on something counter-productive done by the rural development ministry or any other power on the NREGA, does that amount to conflict of interest? Just how?
The other problem Ms. Rai has is with my assertion that in the festival, I was going to talk about ‘everything.’ By ‘everything’, I was only referring to the range of issues whose one end simply doesn’t exist for Ms. Rai and many others like her. There are barbed wires, unmarked mass graves and red-eyed CRPF troopers in Kashmir. But there is also the mass untruth about the killings and the subsequent exodus of a small community called Kashmiri Pandits who became the Tutsis of Kashmir in 1989-90. Those who were killed amidst slogans of Assi gacchi panunuy Pakistan, batav rostuy batinen saan (We want our Pakistan, without Pandit men, but with their women) included poets, academics, teachers, doctors, old men and women, and infants (Please search #OtherGraves on twitter for details of some of these gruesome murders). Not a single person responsible for these killings has ever been convicted. Does Ms. Rai ever raise this issue in her numerous writings or in the seminars she attends? Forget the Kashmiri Pandits for a moment. Has she ever even put up a Facebook message on other killings of innocents in the valley, for instance, of the brutal murder of two young sisters in Sopore in February this year?
Then Ms. Rai goes on and refuses to acknowledge even my hangnail Kashmiri identity as someone who has been in exile for 21 years now. She wants to know what I mean when I say I am “a writer who is from Kashmir.” Well, Ms. Rai, no beating around the bush. I am a Kashmiri Pandit. That makes me a ‘writer’ who is from Kashmir, and not a ‘writer’ who is from Delhi. And that coupled with the fact that I have extensively reported from Kashmir gives my voice the unique legitimacy irrespective of whether you recognise it or not.
Yes, I know that the police clamped down on some of those who expressed their dissent through cyberspace (I will return to it towards the end). But it is also true that the reporter, who broke the story of unmarked mass graves, and many other important stories, continues to live in Kashmir. Those Kashmiris who had accepted the invitation to be a part of this festival also live there: Rahman Rahi, Naseem Shafaie, Shahid Budgami, Shujaat Bukhari, Zareef Ahmed Zareef, Anjum Zamrud Habib, and many many others like the journalist Iftikhar Gilani, whose jail diary “Tihar ke Shab-o-roz” won him the Sahitya Akademi Award (He was to speak at the Kashmir University session but will now attend the forthcoming Jaipur literary festival).
I stand by my usage of the word ‘sabotage’ in my previous piece because I know that some of these writers were called and dissuaded from attending (not necessarily by those who signed that letter against Harud). And they couldn’t say No because they were silenced in the name of the ‘cause.’
Ms. Rai and others had problems with the so-called apolitical nature of the festival. Had Anjum (who was charged under POTA and has written a book, Prisoner No. 100) attended the festival, what would have she spoken about? Houseboats and carpets? The festival, by the way, was to begin with a session titled: Conflicts and Contradictions (Tehelka’s Shoma Chaudhury, writer Omair  Ahmad and myself). And, suppose, for argument sake, even if the festival were to be apolitical, who is Ms. Rai or others to decide what the Kashmiris who live in Kashmir want? If a young Kashmiri wants to meet Chetan Bhagat or get a book signed by Shobha De, who is Ms. Rai to decide otherwise?
The problem with the likes of Ms. Rai is that they suffer from what a friend the other day termed as “Nelsonian vision”. Factor this: Ms. Rai calls the holy Amarnath Yatra a “militarily enabled jingoistic exercise”. What does that mean? That the yatra cannot happen without the military taking over it? (Not true at all since the pilgrims have been welcomed by the locals even at the peak of the 2008 Amarnath agitation). And why is the pilgrimage to one of the holy abodes of Lord Shiva a ‘jingoistic exercise?’ Because Hindu pilgrims from all over the world come there, singing paeans to the almighty, chanting Har Har Mahadev. What should they exult in to win Ms. Rai’s favour? Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa?
Further, Ms. Rai urges us to use our ‘influence’ to “prevail on publishing houses” to print the story of many Kashmiris. How much influence has Ms. Rai used herself for making their stories heard – in publishing, or at least in seminars and conferences that she attends, from Delhi to Dublin?
The truth is that Kashmir has, to quote another friend, turned from war economy to intellectual economy. And it is in the interest of the likes of Ms. Rai that this cheering from distance should go on. A young Kashmiri, Junaid Azim Mattu makes it clear to Ms. Rai in a response to a different matter:
Looking at conflicts and occupations through lenses of liberal academic thought and theory makes us oblivious to certain core realities. When mobs driven by emotions do so, it’s understandable. When grieving families driven by grief do so, it’s justified but when the ideologues of chronic and default anti-statism in New Delhi, Calcutta and elsewhere cheer thirteen year old kids to face automatic weapons with stones – it’s blatant hypocrisy”.
On Ms. Rai’s Facebook post, someone called ‘Rumuz E Bekhudi’ responded by writing: Rahul Pandita shouldn’t be alive. “You mean he should die of shame?” Ms. Rai quips.
Ms. Rai, I will die when I have to, and God willing, it will not be of shame. But I will tell you a story of ‘cyberspace dissent’ that perhaps only you may not feel ashamed of: Last year, on Independence Day, Mumbai’s Free Press Journal carried Vox pop of young Kashmiris on what they felt about India. A bright Kashmiri girl, a Srinagar-based budding artist, spoke about the concerns of ordinary Kashmiris, and then also went about praising chief minister Omar Abdullah. After that, all hell broke loose. Through a Facebook group called “Bekaar Jamaath” (Idle group), and on e-mail and phone, she was threatened and abused by fellow Kashmiris. She was so scared and intimidated that I believe the article had to be removed from the cyber space. Did you, Ms. Rai, know of it? Perhaps not. Had you known of it, would you raise your voice? Not at all, because it doesn’t fit in your vision of ‘freedom of speech’.
And the question of freedom of speech brings me to a question that I want to ask Ms. Rai:  Suppose for a moment that Salman Rushdie was indeed invited to the festival, and that he had accepted it. What would her stand be? And those of others who signed that letter?
But, as of now, I believe, Ms. Rai is tired. On Kafila, she has asked the 14 original signatories of that letter to return her ‘soul’ and ‘individual agency’. “They were only on loan, you know!” she writes.
What does that make Ms. Rai? An intellectual mercenary? 

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