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To Understand Kashmir, Demystify The Kashmiri

15/03/2017 1:02 PM IST | Updated 17/03/2017 9:21 AM IST
Fayaz Kabli / Reuters

Disclaimer: Lest I generalise, I must make a disclaimer for what I call Kashmir in reference to this piece and who I call Kashmiri in the thousand words below. I refer to the valley of Kashmir, currently populated by a Muslim majority who identify as ethnically Kashmiri.

Kashmir has been the subject of much coverage and conversation for many months, as it has for the past 70 years. The unrest that began early July still hampers normalcy in the valley, although the word normalcy has always had different definitions in Kashmiri. Every few years, as political seasons change, "normal" is redefined. For example, a hundred and something days into the curfew last year, it became a way of life; the new normal. The resilience to adapt is admirable.

How differently ordinary things are perceived in Kashmir is very telling of what everyday politics look like there.

While many cried foul and blamed neighbouring powers, unemployment, the internet, and even excessive meat consumption for misguiding the impressionable youth in Kashmir, experts disagreed. Conversations in living rooms across India attempted to solve the Kashmir issue; to search for Kashmir massle ka hull. In each of these, history is told and retold in a cold, chronological manner; meted out in brief sentences laden with dates, signatories and legal references. It is a history that sieves out the emotional aspect of the conflict, ignoring the tussle between the states and individuals of two nuclear-powered egos mixed with a stubbornly resilient local population. It is a clash of egoistic nationalisms that has fuelled this conflict for all its years. Kashmir politically acceded to India in 1947 but is yet to do so emotionally.

Recognising nationalism

The geography is mythologised and its politics viewed as those frozen in time. While history unfurls off every tongue easily, little attention is paid to understanding the contemporary every day. The resistance movement is seen as a static, incomprehensible uprising that is aggravated now and then. Its motivations aren't seen as consistent, rather as an avenue of dissent against the state. The reality is that while the triggers may be different at different points in time, at the core of it is memorialisation of a nagging clash of identities. A sub-nationalism such as this existing within the Indian state, most dangerously of all in today's times, has never been acknowledged. This is a nationalism based on ethnicity and can be understood by understanding what it means to be Kashmiri versus being Indian. How differently ordinary things are perceived in Kashmir is very telling of what everyday politics look like there.

Interpreting ideologies

Ideologies are enacted on the streets through voices of citizens. Voices that resound locally yet seldom reach an outsider's ear—voices of people who live everyday as citizens of the Indian nation yet resist that very power structure negotiating their national identity through different forms of political participation. Contemporary representations in mainstream Indian media, film and news do not help. They paint a picture of the Kashmiri they want; understanding them from a paradigm and a vantage point they hold. Local voices on the national news channels are drowned in a series of screams. While the anchor creates a din, speakers try to make their voices heard, often resorting to emphatic screaming. Their exasperation comes out in exaggerations under duress, making their arguments seem devoid of facts.

Understanding how Kashmiris view Indians as outsiders, blending them in with a line of alien rulers, is an important fact in the felt history of Kashmir.

A very telling othering of India and Indians in ordinary conversations on the basis of ethnicity can be overheard in conversations in Kashmir. Kashmir has a firebrand ethnic nationalism brought about, in part, by their history of not having self-governance. The collective memory of centuries of alien rule not only lends perspective to the manifestation of different phases of the resistance movement but also explains why resentment is alive and echoing in speech and actions. The resentment is not solely towards those they consider oppressors, but ethnic-others who have constantly ruled Kashmir. Understanding how Kashmiris view Indians as outsiders, blending them in with a line of alien rulers, is an important fact in the felt history of Kashmir.

The ethnic others

Viewed as a distinct ethnic group, Kashmiris distinguish and create boundaries with those not ethnically Kashmiri or kaeshur. A blanket term used for outsiders in Kashmir is nybrem, irrespective of ethnic and geographic origins. All Indians are referred to as nybrem. It is part of a commonly understood vocabulary. As an insular valley, making this distinction and identifying outsiders is inevitable. The Banihal Pass is a tunnel that separates the Kashmir valley from the rest of Jammu and Kashmir and therefore the Indian plains. This tunnel acts as a symbolic boundary wall separating ethnic kaeshur people and the nybrem.

Racial and ethnic stereotyping happens all across India... What is different for Kashmir is their construction of India as a homogenised other.

Racial and ethnic stereotyping happens all across India. It is inevitable in the vast clash of cultures the country envelops within it. What is different for Kashmir is their construction of India as a homogenised other. In the rest of the country, individuals from different states are met with racial epithets and prejudices that are distinctively regional. The Biharis in Mumbai, Delhiites in Karnataka all have their share of negative stereotypes assigned to them. The othering of non-ethnic Kashmiris as 'Indians' or nybrem is unique and odd for those visiting the valley.

The easiest way to observe these minute yet striking differences is through an analysis of speech. A new web-series titled "Live from Kashmir" is one of the newer media representations that give a picture from on the ground. Other similar instances of documentaries and independent films are important to listen to. A vocabulary of nationalism is evident. Through this particular series, you see empty streets populated by army men; a glimpse of what the shutdown looks like minus the cameras of news you typically see on other channels. You hear people talk of zulm (oppression) by India. Zulm is the operative word in many conversations. However, zulm is never said to be perpetrated by the state or the government, but rather by Hindustan or India. An odd anomaly considering they are citizens of this very state they refer to. As you hear cries of "Kashmir hamara chhod do, Jabri nata tod do (Leave our Kashmir, Break this forced connection)" you see how the politics is lived on the streets.

Amongst the little things one can do to truly understand the conflict, the first would be to better understand the civic space and hear conversations from within. There is a need for accurate media representations and a more accessible contemporary anthropology of the political landscape. One needs to familiarise oneself with the society and its speech to decode everyday politics and sentiments. For a conflict charged with sentiments, a dispassionate view of politics is not enough. To demystify Kashmir, one must begin with the Kashmiri.

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