An open letter by a Kashmiri from New York

Dear fellow Kashmiris,

I’m writing this letter from New York, a place far away, yet so close to everything. This city can make you forget, by filching reality away from you. But it also reminds you perpetually, by bringing you close to a different reality, through the pain and suffering of others. There are exiled specimens from all over the world here (yes, mostly those permitted to come to the US). There are Irish and Greeks, escapees from famines and wars. There are Jews from Germany and Germans from Russia, ones who survived persecution. There are Latinos from El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, and Bolivia, who fled Western-backed dictatorial regimes in their countries in the 1970s and 80s. There are Africans who narrowly missed genocide in Southern Sudan. There are Kurds from Turkey, and Berber from North Africa, driven out of their lands by years of conflict. And, then there are African Americans, who were forcibly brought hundreds of years before to slave for their White masters, and who, despite recent claims of dawning of an age of “post-racial America,” are still grovelling at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Their stories tell a similar conclusion: The world is shrinking for small nationalities and powerless minorities.

Large and powerful nations in their desire for control over more territory and unchallenged right to inflict violence run roughshod over legitimate rights of smaller and weaker peoples. Those who claim a permanent “state of exception” have shred international law, which is supposed to guarantee the right of self-determination of nations both “big and small,” to pieces. Persecution of minorities all over the world continues in spite of numerous declarations to uphold human rights. Powerful countries use these declarations selectively, and instrumentally to pursue their parochial goals. Europe, which has been claiming to be the flag-bearer of universal human civilization for centuries, is again in the grip of hatred, readying itself for yet another sacrificial genocide; so is America, whose citizens are being whipped into frenzy by racist, xenophobic, and ignorant politicians.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world is hurtled from one crisis to another. Already an object of global misunderstanding and hatred, it continues to fail to produce an enlightened, effective, and coherent response. It either produces nihilistic violence of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, or builds examples par excellence of vulgar exploitation like Dubai; both based in one way or other on a bastardized, logical extreme of Western rationality, and both far from the lived experience of most Muslims and the spirit of their faith. Amidst all this, where do the founts of hope lie? As Kashmiris, one of these numerous, struggling, small nationalities, caught in the whirlpool of forces of imperialist domination and religio-nationalist chauvinisms of recently formed states—while the grinding machine of military oppression keeps adding to the long history of our suffering—where must we situate ourselves? How must we imagine, think, and plan a new life?

First, let me say this: the continued existence, persistence, and resilience of Kashmiris, and of other oppressed peoples around the world, is itself indicative of the fact that the struggle is on: between the coercive, militarized reality and the power of free imagination, between the drudgery of dominating others and the beauty of resistance, between the technologies of power and the critical practices of the subject, between calculation and compassion, between the patriarchal, paternalistic hatred and the love for justice, between national fascism and national liberation, between metal and heart, bullet and wound, between the shadow of death and the canopy of life. The hope first springs from the existence of this struggle; and this struggle, let’s keep in mind, is happening not between nations, cultures, or civilizations, but within them.

Given this, I would suggest then that we rethink our struggle, and posit it not in terms of Kashmir and India—as territorial entities, with settled national identities (and obviously not in terms of Muslim and non-Muslim, or for that matter, East and West), but as between the opaque rationale that leads to militarized brutalization of the other, and the moral reasoning that necessitates resistance. This reconstitution of our struggle opens us up comprehensively: it leads to openness toward the unknown, and the unknowable others, to radical new ideas and life, to an un-predetermined future. It evokes the obligation to build alliances of solidarity with those others whose suffering is invisible to us, and whose tortured voice we are unable to listen. It demands that the plan for a new life not be based on, or become, a model. The un-predetermined future, however, does not mean an unplanned, chaotic path into the future either.

It would be logically challenging (and useless), in any case, to plan an unplanned, chaotic path. What it means is that the future free and independent Kashmir, to continue to remain free and independent, and to continuously live the moment of freedom, should not replicate any socio-economic blueprints (especially the ones handed out by institutions of the hegemonic global economic order), nor should it accept the kind of modular democracy a tragicomic version of which Indian government makes us Kashmiris suffer every few years. It also means that we challenge those who vacuously exhort us toward setting up of an “Islamic state.” We must renounce these imposters for their historically and logically unsound claims, and constructively dislodge the formalistic aspects of their thinking, while, if possible, retrieve the (deeply buried, and often turned-insignificant) ethical core of Islam, which calls for universal solidarity and social justice.

Instead of seeking to build a state based on religious ideology (which in essence would not look much different from India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, or the US and would always be exclusivist) we must build an independent, free society based on faith—faith and trust in each other. This confidence in each other would mean getting rid of the fear of the other, and of mutual suspicion; and in consequence, it would mean a society that doesn’t feel a need to keep an eye on each other, that renounces surveillance, and its executing spies. We must keep in mind though that this mutual confidence cannot be grounded in our sameness, but in the unreservedly given acceptance to the uniqueness of our separate beings as individuals and cultural groups, brought together through a freely chosen fellowship, as full and meaningful participants in the society that is always fluid and becoming. We must not think like the Indian nationalists do: that we are one as Kashmiris; that there is something called “Kashmiriness,” which like some sort of genetic or chemical substance, or blood, we all have in our bodies. Instead of oneness, we must think in terms of togetherness.

The basis of our togetherness is freedom, democracy and dignity. I often think of the three ideas together: there can be no democracy without freedom and dignity, nor can there be freedom without democracy and dignity, and obviously, freedom and democracy is dignity. Only such society which freely allows and appreciates criticism, and not in an empty, meaningless fashion, as is the trend in the West these days, but keeps itself open to progressive transformation through critique (progressive: what continuously expands the horizon of freedom and rights), is worthy of being called truly democratic. And dignity arises from freedom from suspicion and stereotype, and therefore from a positive trust that the society places in its fellow citizens and cultural groups. When I think of Azadi I see freedom, democracy, and dignity as its inseparable core.

You and I know that we have been regularly asked, both by those who oppose us and those who support us, to explicitly state what we mean when we ‘demand’ Azadi. We have often articulated it only in formal terms: that we want independence from India—a freedom from its illegitimate sovereignty over our lives (and yes, those who sit at the helm of coercive power, have refused even to hear this clear statement of our Azadi). But we know that Azadi goes far beyond this voluntary separation from a forced union. It touches upon the core of what it means to live as a small, but dignified nationality in a world where the global leviathan of big capital and its associated uneven crises meets, in a violent orgy, the international space saturated with muscular, bellicose, (often nuclear armed) nation-states. Our search for Azadi is, in reality, the only choice left in this din. Not that we can compete with big nations in their pursuit of dominance (I see desire for dominance as a sort of death-wish, madness—a mutually-assured destruction), but we truly don’t want to, even if we could.

We don’t demand to create just another state in the world; that wouldn’t make any sense. Our demand for Azadi is a clear need and aspiration—and a last, desperate wish, if you will; so that when the big states would have mutually assured our collective destruction, we could know that we at least lived a better life, and it will be sweeter because we would have done it without brawn, bruises, or too much money. That is what we mean when we say we have a right to decide our own future (path, if not destination). Big bully states have decided their and our future, and we can’t escape the moment when it all vanishes—this Utopia that things will always remain the same, but we demand that till that time is upon us let’s find our own way in this world. We will go down with you, but we can’t be forced to walk along with you all the way to that final burial ground.

My fellow Kashmiris, we have borne the wounds of our collective suffering on our bodies. And yes for the Azadi that we talk about it is a price absolutely worth paying. Our bodies are testament enough that we deserve Azadi. We, however, don’t demand our own Azadi only, but Azadi for all the suffering, small nations and minorities with whom we stand in moral solidarity—a principle we derive equally from Islam and other faiths, and from the universal norm of just coexistence that underlie our collective life on planet earth.

If our Azadi has the moral content that it has, it would not be so difficult to answer the questions that will unquestionably face us in the future, after (and before) our inevitable independence. Since we can’t deny that we live in that coercive, real-world which we want to cast off to build a new Kashmiri society, we will have to engage with it, but on our own terms, in the spirit of Azadi—Azadi as a living principle. What will be our relationship with the states of India, Pakistan, or China? And, what will be our relationship with the peoples of these countries and the world? Azadi demands unconditional friendship with our neighbours.

We must offer this unconditional friendship, an offer that will never be withdrawn, to both the big and small states in our neighbourhood. It would mean never to harm them, or their mutual relations, but to actively foster healthy relations in South and Greater Asia, to infuse in them a spirit of mutual cooperation. For the peoples of these neighbouring, and other countries, it would mean unrestricted access to Kashmir and its sites of pilgrimage; except for those whose visits are proven to have a violent intent: that would lead to violence against humans and nature. In the same spirit of Azadi wouldn’t Kashmiris happily accept the presence of those whose safety is threatened in their own countries of origin for speaking for justice and truth? Who wouldn’t offer with gratitude Arundhati Roy a Kashmiri citizenship?

Over many years, and perhaps centuries now, Kashmir’s Muslims have had a fractured relationship with Kashmir’s Hindus. The relationship between Muslims and Sikhs, if not so laden with power, coercion, and retribution, has remained fraught with potential violence. The same has been the case within Kashmir’s various Muslim communities and social groups. I don’t suggest that all these fractures can be easily sutured, but it is incumbent upon all of us, and comparatively easier, to remove violence from these relationships. A new life deserves a chance. History must not be allowed to come in the way of building a shared future. Within Kashmir, our society requires gestures of friendship not only between communities that will constitute the Kashmiri nation but also among individuals, from within their own and other groups. It is much more an obligation upon Kashmir’s Muslim majority to extend a hand of true and everlasting friendship to Kashmir’s minorities.

Our Azadi, the basis of our new life as a nation and society, is deeply connected with Kashmir as a place. This place, however, is a place of generosity and hospitality, and not of exclusion or hostility. Our ties to Kashmir are not natural but of nature. And by that, my friends, I mean we have a strong obligation as grateful residents of Kashmir to prevent relations of exploitation between humans and nature. Nature is not a natural resource. It is a collective gift, which has to be judiciously shared with, and protected for, humans and non-human forms of life, now and for future. What would Azadi be worth for Kashmir if its trees were gone; if its rivers and lakes dried out and its mountains were dug up; if its air was polluted and the soil was full of chemicals; if its bears and snow leopards, those other proud residents of Kashmir, were forced to come down, or hunted out of their natural habitats? What forms would our sources of sustenance—our economy—take in terms of an Azadi that is in a respectful relationship with nature? What would we produce, and how would we consume?

How would a balance be struck between production and consumption, which is in ethical alignment with our obligation towards nature as well as our principles of justified needs? Must we not do away with economic rationalism, industrial overproduction, and runaway consumerism? And how would we exchange our goods and services? Shouldn’t small-scale business become a principle and normative mode of exchange in our society, one that will remain ever watchful against predatory corporatization?

My friends, our journey towards freedom began the day we realized that we need to be free. As time has gone by, more and more of us have understood that it is only by struggling and achieving freedom for Kashmir and its residents that we can truly and authentically live our lives. Our work of construction has, accordingly, long begun, and it will require an extraordinary effort of will and tremendous endurance to create a sort of society that is really worth living in. We wouldn’t have succeeded in achieving our true freedom if we don’t expunge from our hearts and minds the last traces of hatred and violent anger toward others, including those who oppress us.

We must remember that we are fighting against ideologies and processes that legitimize, and lead to, the domination of others, not those who execute it, especially not the foot soldiers of occupation. We must become what we want to be, not what our oppressor wants to turn us into. I don’t advocate sterile processes of “dialogue” as an alternative to the methods we adopt in our everyday resistance—especially the “dialogue” where one side is backed by military power. Dialogue can happen only in a free and fair atmosphere of mutual comprehension. What sort of a dialogue can take place when one side denies the other the right to be free? What sort of a meeting place can there be between justice and injustice? We must, however, not close our ears and eyes to what the other is saying or showing us. Listening is a great gesture of friendship. We must politely refuse to accept what is fundamentally unjust.

In this moment of suffering, our fundamental duty is toward our own people, toward those who are hit the most every time our society protests, the poor and the weak. My thoughts go to that one Kashmiri mother in a picture I saw recently who was being violently pushed around by a cop, an ignorant man, who could be her neighbour. And I still can’t get the image of a little boy weeping over the body of his dead brother out of my head. His scream of pain, draining all the blood from his face, cut through the picture and hit me like a shell. No freedom is worth an innocent life. Our occupiers tell us the same, while they continue to feed innocent Kashmiri lives to the fires of occupation.

Our occupiers tell us to send our children to schools, where they could learn how Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chander Bose fought for India’s freedom, but they don’t want our children to learn about their own long overdue freedoms, far from enjoy them. They urge, and even force, us to vote in their form of democracy, a democracy stripped down to the barren and inconsequential act of voting, a democracy designed not to empower our voice but to inflate turnouts. My friends, we are through with it. Our imagination is more powerful than their military. They have been proven wrong over and over again. We must keep the spirit of Azadi alive, because that is the only way it can be. That is the only way we can be.


October 31, 2010

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