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The travails of the modern icon

The Kashmir Monitor





By Shiv Visvanathan

Icons have always been a part of memory and heritage, carrying the seal of the sacred. Classical iconography was, in fact, the study of religious icons, an exploration of symbols and their meaning. While iconography has a sense of tradition, modern society looks at its icons differently. The perspective did not always carry the mark of the sacred, but combined folklore and propaganda in interesting ways.

Folklore captures a sense of orality and storytelling in plural ways. Each locality has its own version of the hero and his exploits, providing a sense of a modern epic. Yet, the stories can be deeply plural, reflecting different histories and memories. Shivaji is seen in Maharashtra as the great liberator, but grandmothers in south India used to hushing children to sleep, warning them that Shivaji would come. This sense of plurality was critical and gave to each locality a sense of creating its own icons.


Mass culture and state propaganda operate differently. If folklore has a sense of joy, mass culture brings to its icons a sense of frenzy, hysteria, what one can call a modern sense of idolatry. The narrative possesses an official character which creates a grid of uniformity. The stories are hyperbolic, following a grid. Often there is an attempt to rewrite history or give it a caricatured quality. The figure of Rana Pratap is a good example, where attempts have been made to rewrite his fate in the Battle of Haldighati. Modern memory does not take kindly to defeat and populist memory often takes historical memory and alters it. There is a hyperbolic quality to this rewriting but this act differs from a Stalinist rewriting of histories. Stalin took old Russian heroes, stalwarts of the Bolshevik Revolution, especially those who challenged his dominance, and converted them to non-persons, literally erasing their role in history. The fate of the Indian icon has been constructed differently.

The poignancy comes from a benign neglect, reducing memory and commemoration to a ritualistic event, an empty marker.

In fact, it is interesting to consider the fate of four great modern Indian icons — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose. Each followed a different narrative and each suffered what we can call the travails of the modern icon.

The Gandhi of the independence movement was every child’s icon, hero and idol. But Indian officialdom and the historian created a one-sided Gandhi, a saint rather than an experimental politician. By museum-ising Gandhi, we put his memory into mothballs. He was reduced to a few select anecdotes, a watered-down version who populated textbooks. The uncomfortable questions he raised, the controversies around him were forgotten. From one of the great monuments of the era, he became a memorial and was soon reduced to mnemonic commemorations on birthdays through official clichés. In 2019, it’ll be 150 years since his birth, and one realises he is being strip-mined for official slogans and programmes, where his great quotations become clerical clichés. A Gandhian programme combined the political and the ethical, which Swachh Bharat Abhiyan does not — it is a mere act of governance, a spectacle which has still to encounter untouchability and the septic tank.

The career of Bose followed a different trajectory, of erasure and temporary revival. Bose’s mystique derived from two sources: from the Azad Hind Fauj which was a counter to Gandhi’s satyagrahic imagination, and from the mystery of his disappearance. The fact that there is a mystery around his death created a literal industry of inquiries by every opportunistic politician. The sense of possibility, the repeated excitement of the ever revived question, “what if Bose had lived”, always gave a sense of alternative possibilities and histories to India. Many people felt that the Indian narrative would have been different.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to honour the Azad Hind Fauj tried to cater to this obsession. It was an attempt to play down the Nehruvian imagination. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has attempted to capture history by appropriating Congress icons. It is an act of political envy which reveals that the BJP senses its own national heroes as pygmies before this Congress quartet.

The fate of Nehru has been the most controversial. The memory of Nehru has been battered by opponents ever since the war with China. Nehru has been unfairly constructed as a Pandora’s box of errors since then. People even attributed the roots of the Emergency to his sense of administration. Yet, Nehru pops up like a spring flower after every one of these attacks. The Nehruvian imagination stands like a huge aesthetic canvas despite the BJP’s attempt to belittle him. One has to acknowledge that his leadership evoked a different style, a different set of memories from Indira Gandhi’s. Nehru’s ideas of modernisation still have a political appeal. It was his era that saw the building of the great institutions that Indian modernity talks about. One can criticise their decline, but no one can deny that Nehru brought a magic to modernity and institution-building. A.B. Vajpayee’s attempt to give a Nehruvian touch to his politics testified to the validity of the Nehruvian imagination and style.

Nehru is a perennial icon, whose ability to survive has made a mockery of his critics. Instead of hyperbolic attacks and hysterical critiques, one senses that a quieter nuanced assessment would have been more devastating and effective. Sadly, balance and fairness elude the fate of the Indian icon who sways between hagiography and hysterical downsizing, both of which reduce Indian history to a comic strip of exaggerations.
The recent events around Sardar Patel capture the travails of a modern icon poignantly. Patel, like Bose, was labelled one of the ignored men of modern history, even when both were larger-than-life creatures in folklore. In fact, they did not need the manicuring of history to make them relevant. The BJP’s attempt to appropriate Patel is in that sense pathetic, more interesting as a caricature, a case-study in propaganda than a historical ritual of redemption.

The BJP tried to appropriate Patel by turning from text to spectacle. They did not rewrite history but claimed that Patel was the real exemplar and paradigm of India’s future. It became an example of gigantism, of the regime’s attempts to create spectacular monuments which seek to enter popular memory for their statistical prowess, their ability to make the Guinness World Records than to alter historical perception. Patel, for a few months, will be the tallest statue in the world, till the monument to Shivaji upstages him. In fact, monumentality and gigantism compete with neglect and erasure for the fate of an icon. If one creates artificial erasure, the other emphasises exaggerated attention, and in doing so pretends it is rectifying historical injustice. Exaggerated spectacles rarely rectify history, which has a nuance and logic of its own. What the Modi regime does to its favourite icons, Stalin did to production statistics. It creates an ideological frenzy which commemorates and celebrates not the icon, but the regime, serving as a diversion, a disguise for its own narcissistic preoccupations.

The humanity, the vulnerability, the ethical genius of each of these exemplars disappears in these acts of exaggeration or downsizing. In fact, it shows that the BJP is afflicted by its own sense of history rather than possessing a sense of poetry, accuracy or authenticity. The sadness is that all four icons understood the limits of power and history. One misses professionalism, the craft of academic scholarship in these moments where contemporary power destroys history for opportunistic reasons.

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Reaching out in Kashmir

The Kashmir Monitor



By Sagarika Ghose

On the face of it, there can’t be two more different personalities than former PM Manmohan Singh and PM Modi. The former is the self-effacing soft spoken technocrat, the latter a popular, swaggering, muscular nationalist. Yet in Kashmir, India’s most complex conflict zone, there are lessons that muscular nationalists can learn from the softer more nuanced approach. A careful examination of the Manmohan years shows how the softer touch is always more successful in Kashmir than a hard-fisted ideological offensive, focused on zero tolerance of stone pelters and well-publicized surgical strikes.

It must be recalled here that just two months after the surgical strikes there was a terror strike on the army base at Nagrota. In the last five years there’s been a 94% increase in number of security forces killed and a 177% increase in terrorist incidents. State violence inevitably normalizes and legitimizes extreme violence in society. Overwhelming use of force by the government tends to erode the boundaries between law and crime, thus normalizing violence in society, inevitably paving the way for the next step in unrestrained violence, namely terrorism.


Manmohan Singh’s approach to Kashmir was to soften India-Pakistan borders by opening cross-border trade and implementing the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in 2005, a landmark move which has stood the test of time. By working closely with first Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and then Omar Abdullah, Singh ensured the political process in J&K didn’t flag. By sending a team of interlocutors headed by former editor Dileep Padgaonkar to Kashmir, Singh signaled New Delhi’s doors were open for all Kashmiris.

Yes the Amarnath land dispute spiraled out of control leading to the fall of the PDP-Congress government, but by supporting and co-operating with the subsequent Omar Abdullah government in 2009, Singh signaled his backing to Kashmir’s political process. The bloody count of terrorist killings was relatively low between 2010-2013 (471) before spiking upwards from 2014 onwards. (580 between 2015-2018).

Contrast this with the Modi-led BJP government’s volatile, inconsistent, combative and needlessly aggressive handling of Kashmir. After taking the historic step of aligning with Mufti Sayeed’s PDP, a move that could have created an unforeseen alliance between Muslim Kashmir and Hindu Jammu, the initiative ran aground after the Mufti Sayeed’s death with the BJP showing no appetite to forge policy consensus with Mehbooba Mufti. Even in Mufti Sayeed lifetime, there had been perceived humiliations on the J&K government such as the inadequate disbursal of flood relief.

On July 8 2016 with the ‘encounter killing’ of Hizbul terrorist Burhan Wani, as a mass uprising flared across the Valley, the Hindu rashtra mentality came to the fore, the barrel of New Delhi’s gun turned towards the Kashmiri people, Hindutva cries of scrapping Article 370 and 35A took hold of the narrative. Already cattle trade bans had created widespread resentment with the murder of a truck driver in Udhampur, and with its political capital quickly exhausted, New Delhi’s face turned implacably hostile towards J&K. Mob lynchings and attacks on Muslims in the rest of India always has a traumatic impact on J&K and only widens the divide; tensions exploded with the Kathua rape and murder of 2018 when a near unbridgeable abyss opened up between Jammu and Valley. Mufti Sayeed’s dream of Hindu-Muslim unity in J&K lay torn apart and buried.

In stances towards Pakistan, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi are quite different too. Singh, although born in Pakistan, shunned dewy eyed nostalgia or the politics of spectacle, refusing a state visit, or the high profile summit, instead keeping up a consistent dialogue at the official level and through the back channel and encouraging civil society contacts. Modi’s Pakistan policy has veered from a high profile Saarc meet at his swearing in, to pointedly ignoring Sharif at an international summit, then a surprise birthday visit to Nawaz Sharif’s home and high visibility handholding to abruptly snapping official level talks after a routine Hurriyat visit to Delhi to the surgical strikes, followed by a lauding of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor at a rally in Punjab. Consistent? Not really.

The elephant in the room in New Delhi’s relationship with Kashmir and Pakistan, is, let’s face it, the way Indian regimes treat India’s Muslims. My starting the Sachar Committee process, declaring that Muslims must have the first right to India’s welfare measures, Singh, himself from a minority community, sent out an inclusive message.

High voltage Hindutva ideology did not let Modi make a similar gesture and by not doing enough to rein in the Hindutva hotheads, the signal given that a fervent Hindu Rashtra now sat in New Delhi. And an ideologically surcharged Hindu Rashtra can never hope to make peace in Kashmir, only a secular inclusive India, true to the Constitution of 1947, can win over J&K.

Its not just Manmohan Singh, another Sikh politician provides lessons too. After Pulwama, Punjab CM, the soldier-politician Amarinder Singh made a tough yet empathetic speech, delivering a firm message to murderers but reaching out to Kashmiri people. Amarinder Singh had the gravitas not to give in to the jhappiyan pappiyan of the Kartarpur Sahib moment, remaining distant and yet committed to peace. And that’s the biggest lesson that PM Modi can learn from the two Sikh leaders: slow, realistic, dignified incremental steps rather than loud muscular nationalism or showy sentimentalism with Pakistan, is the way forward for India in Kashmir.

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Pulwama: In the Aftermath

The Kashmir Monitor



By Imran Yawer

The Pulwama terror attack which claimed the lives of more than 40 CRPF troops was the deadliest to have occurred in Kashmir in terms of casualties. The Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) or Army of Mohammed, claimed responsibility for the attack while Adil Ahmed, a young man from Pulwama who joined JEM in 2018, was identified as the perpetrator. This brutal attack has ratcheted up the already tense relations between India and Pakistan, leading many to wonder what the cross-border implications of the attack will be on the two countries.

Interestingly enough, even before the forensic evaluation of the scene of the crime was completed, the Indian Government embarked on a diplomatic and economic offensive against Pakistan. The Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi was summoned to the Indian Foreign Office for a strongly worded demarche. Concomitantly, the ambassadors of foreign countries were briefed on the attack and on Pakistan’s purported role by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. New Delhi also revoked Pakistan’s MFN status and pledged to launch an all-out effort to isolate Pakistan, an effort that has already been initiated by the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, who on February 16, 2019, declared that custom duties on all imports from Pakistan would be raised to 200 percent. India is further expected to seek Pakistan’s blacklisting in the upcoming FATF meeting, and according to reports, Indian agencies are already busy with preparing a dossier to establish Pakistan’s culpability in the recent Pulwama attack.


Pakistan’s response to these allegations by India has been an outright rejection of any involvement in the attack. The Foreign Office released a statement expressly condemning such ‘acts of violence anywhere in the world’ and dismissed all such inferences made ‘by elements in the Indian media and government that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.’

Insurgency in Kashmir, which once was attributed to links across the border has morphed into a homegrown movement for liberation, at the vanguard of which are the new generation of Kashmiri youth; educated and enlightened. These young liberators are challenging the military might of the Indian establishment and their struggle is garnering popular support from within, which has had a dispiriting effect on the Indian security forces, who despite overwhelming presence in the region have not been able to weaken the will of the Kashmiris.

The surge in violence in Kashmir is rooted in decades of violence, repression and discrimination against the Kashmiri people. According to the UN, the ‘excessive use of force, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, detention of families and children, as well as enforced disappearances’ is tantamount to a gross and consistent violation of human rights. All evidence suggests that by resorting to hardline policies in Kashmir, India has failed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Kashmiri people. Against such a backdrop, pointing a finger at Pakistan for bloodshed and violence in Kashmir is both vile and risible. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014, had vowed to undertake a hard line policy in its dealings with Pakistan and to crackdown on the separatist movement in Kashmir.

As such, the Modi Administration, like its predecessors has been unable to recognise discontent and disenfranchisement among the Kashmiris against Indian policies, and their disproportionate use of force, in a trend that will continue unless India brings sanity and rationality in its Kashmir policy. With general elections in India only a few months away, the Indian Prime Minister would need to project an image of tough leadership in regard to national security matters. As the situation currently stands, he is already under pressure from hard line groups for a decisive retaliation against Pakistan, much in the pattern of the ‘surgical strikes’ India claimed to have carried out against Pakistan, following the 2016 attack on an Indian army base in which 19 soldiers were killed; claims that have been denied by Pakistan.

Meanwhile, according to media reports from February 15, 2019, the US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, assured his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval of US’ cooperation “to work together to ensure that Pakistan ceased to be a safe haven for JEM and terrorist groups that targeted India, the US and others in the region.” It was further reported that in a telephone call, Bolton had assured Doval of US’ support for India’s right “to defend itself against cross-border attacks.” On February 16, 2019, Modi stated that the “country understood the anger simmering within the soldiers,” and gave free reign to the military to respond to acts of violence in kind.

Pakistan’s response to these allegations by India has been an outright rejection of any involvement in the attack. The Foreign Office released a statement expressly condemning such ‘acts of violence anywhere in the world’ and dismissed all such inferences made ‘by elements in the Indian media and government that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations

Although, JEM has been classified a proscribed organization in Pakistan, India claims that the group and its leader, Masood Azhar, were openly active in Pakistan, raising money, recruiting, and training. India has further attributed several similar terrorist activities to the group, including a 2001, raid on its parliament in New Delhi, and demands that Pakistan should take ‘immediate and verifiable action’ to stop the activities of these militants. In response, Pakistan has vehemently rejected these insinuations as ‘part of New Delhi’s known rhetoric and tactics” to divert global attention from their human rights violations. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has called for an end to such ‘tit for tat’ accusations, in favour of the resumption of dialogue. In fact, since assuming office, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has repeatedly focused on dialogue with the promise to take two steps forward for every one step taken by India, in order to forge friendly ties; an effort that has been stonewalled by the Modi administration on grounds that India saw no constructive approach from Pakistan.

The terrorist attack in Pulwama has been rightly condemned by the international community, including Pakistan. At the same time, there has also been a growing realization that the reinvigoration of insurgency in Kashmir is home based and home grown, in popular reaction to India’s ‘muscular policies’ in the form of atrocities by Indian security forces on helpless protestors. The option for peace in Kashmir is only achievable if India desists from pursuing its hardline policies against hapless Kashmiris and if it works in tandem with Pakistan to find a solution that brings harmony to a region that has long been plagued by instability and conflict.

The old practices of blaming and intimidation have proven ineffective for India in the past, suggesting the need for an alternative strategy that does not rest on the need for one-upping the other but on collective efforts geared towards sustainable peace in the region.

For its part, Pakistan also needs to exercise greater insight and control on the clandestine activities of non-state actors that operate from within the country to malign the State with their unacceptable actions. Just days before the Pulwama attack, Jaish ul-Adl, a Salafi jihadist terrorist organization based in the Sistan and Baluchistan Province of Iran, carried out a car bomb attack against Iranian revolutionary guards, killing 27 of them. The brutality of the attack by an organization that has allegedly sought shelter in Pakistan, prompted the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, to warn that ‘unless Pakistan did more to crack down on Jaish al-Adl, Iran would take action it deemed appropriate’.

While the State of Pakistan or its agencies may not be involved in carrying out or supporting activities detrimental to peace and stability in the region, the buck does not stop there. We need to get up from our languorous slumber and exercise greater vigilance. The evolutionary trends in terrorism have already outwitted even the most resourceful countries. In South Asia, its burgeoning existence is a painful reality. ‘No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism, often perpetrated from outside’. Today, Iran seethes with anger, India grits its teeth and the world is looking for foot prints in Pakistan, in such times, we should not be found cuddling the neighbour’s sheep.

(Daily Times, Lahore)

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Pulwama Reveals Limits to Muscular Policies

The Kashmir Monitor



By M.K.Bhadrakumar

The fedayeen attack in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, on Thursday killing 44 paramilitary personnel and injuring scores of others should be properly understood.
At the most obvious level, the country is paying a very heavy price for the Modi government’s Kashmir policies — riveted on relentless state suppression of an alienated people — and its muscular, one-dimensional approach toward Pakistan — giving a ‘free hand’ to the security establishment to pay back in the same coin.

The Modi government’s hardline policy has proved not only futile but may increasingly become counterproductive. Indeed, the crisis in J&K has deepened in the past 3-4 years while the security tsars don’t even have a back channel to Pakistan anymore.


In all probability, the Jaish-e-Mohammed led by Masood Azhar continues to enjoy the patronage of Pakistani security establishment. But Islamabad has swiftly responded that “We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.”

But the bottom line is that the massacre in Pulwama could have been foretold. Pakistan’s internal security situation has significantly improved and cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan has tapered off. This creates a sense of triumphalism and an ‘itch’ to settle scores, as it were.

Nonetheless, one striking thing must be noted — the timing. The campaign for the 2019 parliamentary poll is gathering momentum. To be sure, the attack casts the government and PM Modi in very poor light.

Our ruling elite is hard-pressed to be seen reacting strongly and decisively. The dilemma is palpable. On the one hand, disconnect between the authorities and the people of J&K is almost unbridgeable today. On the other hand, any ratcheting up of tensions with Pakistan is inextricably linked to regional security and stability.

Significantly, the crisis has erupted just four days before the next round of talks between the US and the Taliban in Islamabad on February 18 and the final hearing on the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged R&AW operative, at the International Court of Justice at the Hague on the same day. Is it a mere coincidence?

The Pakistani PM Imran Khan is personally mediating between the US officials and Taliban leadership. To be sure, what is unfolding will be of momentous consequence for President Trump personally, whose decision to bring the ‘endless war’ in Afghanistan to an end is directly related to his own bid for re-election in 2020.

Fundamentally, though, the Pulwama attack has been directed at the paramilitary forces — not the Indian Army. It aimed to hit our security tsars below the belt and expose them as inept and vacuous people.

The ICJ hearing on February 18 provides the backdrop to the Pulwama attack. At the Hague, India is having to defend itself against the Pakistani allegations of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan will leave no stone unturned to level charges that India has been undertaking covert operations to destabilise it. There seems to be a message in all this for the Indian security establishment.

Of course, in the final analysis, the buck stops at Modi’s desk. The sensible thing should have been to follow up the BJP’s tie-up with PDP to form a coalition government in Srinagar with political initiatives to create synergy for a peace process in the Valley.

Similarly, nothing would have been lost by engaging Pakistan in talks. Good statecraft dictates that a country engages its adversaries on core issues of differences and disputes instead of resorting to meaningless theatrics to impress the uninformed public gallery.

Arguably, conditions were propitious to open a new page in our relations with Pakistan. The election of Imran Khan and the overture made by him (as well as army chief Qamar Bajwa) did open a window of opportunity.

But our security establishment, with its entrenched zero sum mindset, preferred to quibble and look for alibis not to engage with Imran Khan — that he is a mere rubber stamp of the military, that he hobnobs with Islamist groups, that he is a bird of passage and so on. Modi could have — and should have — asserted.

At the end of the day, the conclusion becomes unavoidable that an India-Pakistan moratorium on muscle-flexing is badly needed. This ancient ruckus must be laid to rest — and the shenanigans that go on below the radar must be ended conclusively. It involves statecraft to rein in hawks from crowding the skies. Of course, the easy thing to do is always to whip up jingoism.

With the Afghan power calculus shifting, a new beginning is possible. There is food for thought that Masood Azhar, who has a chequered past leading all the way to Kandahar, has surged in the Valley after an absence of 20 years.

And the Pulwama attack took place just 4 days before serious talks are beginning in Islamabad, finally, to rehabilitate the Taliban as a mainstream political force and India will be defending its own reputation at the Hague. We must read the tea leaves correctly.

Meanwhile, in political terms, in the face of the infinite tragedy in Pulwama, the government must make the effort to evolve a consensus opinion in the country to address the crisis in J&K, which is undeniably the root cause of terrorism.

But that may be too much to expect from the Modi government, whose focus is on vilifying political opponents and harassing them, or systematically polarising the national opinion.


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