By Apar Gupta
Internet shutdowns are when whole districts and regions in India suffer complete online blackouts, most often with access to wireless connectivity shut down or disrupted by government order.
By most accounts, India has the highest number of them globally for two years running. A shameful statistic that is shocking but true. They damage individual rights, social relations, economic growth. As per pure numbers put together by think-tank ICRIER, the 16,315 hours of Internet shutdowns in India cost our economy approximately $3.04 billion during the period 2012 to 2017.
Not only are such measures disproportionate deprivations of freedom of speech and expression, they are also being increasingly becoming a normalised tool of administrative control. They are now enforced for trifles such as festival processions, to prevent cheating in exams, during protests against district officials, and for visits by political functionaries.
There seems to be no clear legal standard, transparency and disclosure how the Internet is being disrupted in India. This is a worrying trend for the world’s largest democracy.
Our recent correspondence with government and subsequent Right to Information (RTI) documentation, laid out below, shows that we are failing to protect our civil liberties both in process and in substance.
Fresh details are being made public that clearly demonstrate how visions of ‘Digital India’ are being shrouded in a cloak of authoritarianism and secrecy.
Noticing the rising tide of shutdowns in 2017, the Internet Freedom Foundation launched the “Keep us Online” online signature campaign.This petition gathered signups from more than 16,000 people and 100 organizations.
We pressed for three clear demands from government that would have opened up legal reform with regard to Internet shutdowns while ensuring an open conversation that would have drawn in academics, technologists, constitutional and free speech experts.
A few developments occurred after this campaign and the growing awareness spurred by increasing media reports and research by several digital rights organizations (SFLC.in, CCG, CIS, DEF, Internet Democracy Project), many of whom were also part of an international coalition of partners under the #KeepItOn network formed by Access Now.
Firstly, Internet shutdowns were earlier implemented under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. This was a law designed to prevent unlawful assemblies which also permitted confiscation and mandated use of private property.
In August, 2017 the Centre formulated the “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017” (referred to as the “Shutdown Rules, 2017”) which now specifically provided for a legal mechanism for disrupting Internet access.
Even though we now had a specific law, which was earlier absent, we voiced our fears that this law would not improve the situation and could even lead to a greater number and frequency of the Internet being shut down in India.
Many of these fears came to be realized in subsequent months. News reports continued to highlight that now both Section 144 and the Shutdown Rules, 2017 were being used concurrently across the country.
Instead of one legal tool, there are now two. The Internet started being cut off in more parts of the country with higher frequency. Many were through orders which were not properly disclosed and the only source of data of the number of shutdowns remained the media and press, indicating an under-reporting and crippling analysis, data driven analysis and the full magnitude of this problem.
At the same time on at least five occasions, questions were asked in Parliament on the number and reasons for Internet shutdowns.
These were raised by Ahamed Hassan, C.P. Narayanan, Husain Dalwai, Kapil Sibal and Rajeev Chandrasekhar. The replies to them were at best evasive, many indicating over a period of months that the Centre was in the process of compiling the number and reasons for these Internet blackouts. In some replies, they even admitted the absence of any record-keeping process that would collect such data.
Such secrecy is symptomatic of India’s shutdown problem. It is also an anathema to a constitutional democracy.
As 2018 progressed, things didn’t get better. Trackers based off media reports showed that if the Shutdown Rules, 2017 were having any effect on Internet bans, it was only in making them grow in frequency. Constrained by the lack of movement for reform, on April 22, 2018 we sent a petition to several government ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
On May 09, 2018 the IT ministry said that the issue was within the jurisdiction of the Department of Telecom (DoT), and similarly our petition from the PMO was transferred to the DoT on April 24, 2018. At this point we were cautiously optimistic and hoped for a substantive response from the DOT.
We finally received a one-page reply from the DOT on June 15, 2018. The response revealed the following:
Firstly, it did not respond to our substantive demands, furnish any data or meaningful information besides stating, “these rules have been formulated after due consultation with appropriate stakeholders”.
Two, there were repeated references to “security” almost chanted like a mantra, without explanation or reasoning to reject our petition.
It stated that, “the other additional issues raised in your reference, such as, increasing number of internet shutdowns, procedures not being followed by State Governments, public inconvenience due to such shutdowns, etc. had already been duly considered while formulating the rules referred above and the consensus being that Security and Safety of the Citizens and the State are paramount and cannot be compromised in any circumstances”.
While the rejection of the petition was disappointing and something which we will keep advocating for, we also became curious.
Who were these “appropriate stakeholders”? How were our concerns, “already… considered while formulating the rules above… [for a] consensus”?
To best of our knowledge there was no public consultation on these rules despite the high level of public interest in this issue.
Furthermore, the Shutdown Rules, 2017 were notified quietly in the official gazette without any press release or official update as has become a standard practice by various ministries of the Central Government.
Due to the DoT’s cryptic denial. we sought more information as the reasoning for rejection primarily relied on the process of formation of the Shutdown Rules, 2017.
These rules are a species of law – specifically being delegated legislation made under the Telegraph Act – and all materials which went into their promulgation would ordinarily fall within the public domain.
June 28, 2018 we filed a RTI request requesting for information on the process for formulation and stakeholder consultations on the Shutdown Rules, 2017.
The denial was premised on an incorrect reading of Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act that actually enables disclosures rather than restricting them. It showed a complete non-application of mind, which is especially worrying as the information sought had to do with the formulation of a law that impacts our freedom of speech and expression.
Yesterday we filed a first appeal against this decision. We continue to hope for reform and advocate for greater transparency to maintain the free and open Internet in India. In many ways, with the second highest number of Internet users in the world, we are going to be setting the template for digital rights around the world.
We must shoulder this responsibility with greater respect for democratic processes that promote transparency and protect fundamental rights, importantly our freedom of speech and expression.
The Kathua false news hall of fame
By Ayush Tiwari
The verdict of a sessions court in Pathankot on the abduction, rape and murder of a minor girl in Jammu’s Kathua district has sifted the wheat from the chaff from the event’s reportage. There were those who pursued the case with sense and sobriety, and those who chose to cover it with spuriosity and ill-will.
This latter crowd includes those whose reportage were simply not factual; those who tried to hoodwink readers through fatuous “disclaimers”; those who peddled misinformed tales on television, and those who produced fantastical claims on social media.
So here, dear readers, is a false news hall of fame of the Kathua incident:
Monger: Dainik Jagran
On April 20, 2018, Dainik Jagran flashed a sensational headline on its front page: “Bada khulasa: Kathua ki bachi se nahi hua tha dushkaram (Big expose: Kathua girl was not raped)”.
The article appeared in various North Indian city editions of Jagran: New Delhi, Agra, Aligarh, Allahabad, Amritsar and even Kathua. It was also published in the Jagran group’s Nai Dunia newspaper.
The story was authored by one Advesh Chauhan from Jammu who claimed the eight year-old Bakarwal girl from Kathua was not raped. To make his case, the author cited two post-mortem reports that allegedly mentioned the injuries and not the sexual assault.
The report argued that there could be other reasons for the victim’s injuries: the ruptured hymen, for instance, was because the nomad girl could be engaged in activities like cycling, swimming, horse riding etc; and scratches on the thigh could be a result of a fall. Conveniently, the article omitted other injuries that might indicate sexual assault.
Fact-checking Jagran’s junk science, AltNews produced a written note by the Board of Doctors of the District Hospital Kathua to the Police. It said the victim’s injuries “could be because of any form of sexual assault”.
Unsurprisingly, the misleading story was pulled down from the website around noon that day. Surprisingly, it was revived that evening.
In June 2018, a medical report proved that the victim was subjected to brutal sexual assault.
What reflects Jagran’s bad faith in this entire affair is that it hasn’t yet issued a note on its erroneous reportage.
Coward: The Sunday Guardian
There must have been much gleeful rubbing of hands when the editorial board at The Sunday Guardian struck upon the solution to the ultimate question: how do we circulate false information on the Kathua case without being held responsible for it?
So on April 14, Sushil Pandit’s awkwardly deceitful column Anatomy of a Concoction* was published in the paper under the tag “fake news”. An asterisk was added to circumvent a prospective controversy: “*This article is a pure concoction based on fiction. Any resemblance with any character or event is unintentional and coincidental.” Truly a guardian.
Pandit’s piece churned out three pieces of fiction:
- The eight-year-old Bakarwal girl was not raped.
- Her real parents were murdered and she’s apparently inherited property for which she could have been killed by her own relatives.
- The accused in the case were framed by the Crime Branch.
The first claim is obviously false. So is the second one, since channels interviewed both biological and adoptive parents (see here, here and here). The third claim has zero truth value since six of the eight accused were convicted by the sessions court in Pathankot on June 10. The seventh accused was acquitted given lack of evidence. Three of the six held guilty were convicted for destruction of evidence.
When Newslaundry had reached out to Madhav Das Nalapat, the editorial director of The Sunday Guardian, he justified the column’s deceit by claiming that “Sushil Pandit has the right to pen literature”. Nalapat spun it as a freedom of expression issue: “As someone who was more than once on the receiving end of having my writing driven off print pages, I would rather err on the side of freedom of expression than its suppression.”
Except Mr Nalapat, you did not err on the side of freedom of expression. You erred on the side of facts. By airing demonstrably false claims in your paper, you first spat on your editorial duty. By cushioning it under “fake news”, you then licked it back. And that’s cowardice.
Mr Pandit’s protective disclaimer, of course, seemed to have been mysteriously lost while on his way to the Republic TV studios, where he repeated some of his claims.
Spinmeisters: Zee News
Zee News is one of the few national channels that serves the people. Sudhir Chaudhary haters will now shoot this down and claim there is ample evidence that the channel serves its political masters (they’ll point to this, this, this, this, this and this). Well, you rootless cosmopolitans, the equation is rather indirect—one serves the people by serving the masters it elects. mic drop.
In April last year, in a segment on Zee News, Sudhir Chaudhary asked the following questions:
- A man let his son and nephew rape a girl. How is this possible?
- The temple where the victim was raped had four windows and three doors. How could the girl have been raped there?
- The son of the temple priest, Vishal Jangotra, was taking an examination in Meerut. How could he have committed a crime in Jammu?
The father has been found guilty by the court, and the nephew’s fate is to be decided by a juvenile court. So spare us the sanskari onslaught, Mr Chaudhary. The temple did have all those windows and doors, (and even God, who was tragically a prime witness in the case), but the chargesheet had noted that the victim was drugged and hidden inside the temple: “…they took the girl and kept her inside Devisthan under the table over two Chatayees (plastic Mats) and then covered her with two Darees (cotton thread Mats).”
As for Jangotra, he has been acquitted by the court. Mr Chaudhary was quick to jump on this and claim vindication on his show. He claimed that Zee News had proved that Vishal was in Meerut that day because of footage showing him in an ATM in Meeranpur, Muzzaffarnagar. This, said Chaudhary, led to his acquittal.
In its verdict, however, the court stated that the prosecution did not verify the authenticity of this news report. “No statement of any official of SBI Meeranpur was recorded regarding this. He (Sub Inspector Urfan Wani) further admitted that on confiscating the hard disk pertaining to the ATM of Meeranpur, the said hard disk was never sealed from any magistrate,” the court said.
It’s a pyrrhic victory, Mr Chaudhary. And did you talk about the absurdity and ignorance of the other two questions you asked? No. You let that slide.
Absolutely cuckoo: Madhu Kishwar
With the apostles of lies, cowardice and spins in full sway, how far thou remain, St Cuckoo? Though it tarries, wait for it.
In April 2018, Kishwar had claimed that the Kathua rape is the handiwork of “jehadi” Rohingyas in Jammu. She alleged that the then J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti used the murder as a “counterblast strategy” to deal with Hindu anger over their settlement.
Very likely that family accused of rape have been scapegoated. Murder of #Asifa suspected to be handiwork of jehadi #Rohingyas settled by PDP in Jammu region. Since Jammu people angry at settling criminal Rohingya in Hindu areas, Mehbooba used this murder as counterblast strategy
And then she uncovered the ultimate plot behind the case in a long Twitter thread:
1/n Far more to #Asifa case than media allowing to come out. Just spoke to senior lawyers in Jammu.They are emphatic that they don’t defend the rapist & killer. But pointing to political mischief being played by PDP at behest of Geelani Hurriyat with @RisingKashmir in the lead
9:50 PM – Apr 12, 2018
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1,645 people are talking about this
All this bunkum wasn’t just reserved for social media. According to Kashmir Reader, Kishwar travelled to Jammu in April last year to convince the victim’s father that he should defer the case to the CBI, and not the local J&K police.
Recounting the meeting, the father said: “They (Kishwar and her companions) wanted us to go for a CBI investigation. They said, what is the problem with a CBI probe? They (CBI) will do proper investigations into the case. Aapko kya takleef hai (what is your grievance)?
“I told them I don’t want a CBI probe. I am satisfied with the Crime Branch investigations. The government is doing the right thing. Wo doodh ka doodh aur paani ka paani nikalenge (they will bring out the truth).”
Despite Kishwar’s odious efforts, the case was left to the police. When the verdict was announced on Monday, Kishwar’s denial was both calumnious and comic:
Facebook Drowning in Anti-Muslim Hate Speech
By David Gilbert
At the end of February, Facebook launched an ad campaign in the Indian state of Maharashtra that was designed to inform users about resources available to protect against harassment and hate speech.
But instead of informing the public, it enraged them.
Facebook’s mistake: portraying a troll as a member of the lower Dalit caste, an oversight that essentially reinforced ugly stereotypes against the very group that is most discriminated against on its platform. Hundreds of users reported the ad as hate speech, and within a day the ad was removed. But the incident symbolized Facebook’s mounting failures in its biggest market, particularly when it comes to the spread of harassment and hate speech.
In fact, despite Facebook’s efforts, it’s barely made a dent in that department: 93 percent of all hate speech posts reported to Facebook by monitoring group Equality Labs remain on the platform — including content advocating violence, bullying and use of offensive slurs, according to a new report from the South Asian advocacy group, which is dedicated to ending caste-based discrimination, Islamophobia and religious intolerance.
Facebook’s inability to curb hate speech is disproportionately harming India’s Muslim minorities and at times spilling over into real-world violence, according to the report, which draws worrying comparisons between the situation in India and the platform’s failures in Myanmar, where it was used to fuel violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
“Facebook has failed its caste, gender, and religious minority users.” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, one of the authors of the report, told VICE News. ”By its own community standards, it has not fulfilled the bare minimum required to ensure that hate speech and disinformation does not become normalized in the platform.”
Facebook has faced near ceaseless criticism at home and abroad for the often-unchecked megaphone it provides to hate mongers and merchants of disinformation. In India, those flaws appear super-charged and directed primarily at one community: Muslims. According to the report:
Islamophobic content was the biggest source of hate speech on Facebook in India, accounting for 37 percent of the content reported by Equality Labs. Fake News (16 percent), casteism (13 percent) and gender/sexuality hate speech (13 percent) were the next biggest groups.
43 percent of the hate speech Facebook initially removed was restored within 90 days, and 100% of these restored posts were Islamophobic in nature.
Facebook repeatedly states it responds to the majority of reports in under 24 hrs, but Equality Labs found that the median response time in India was 48 hours.
Facebook reporting violations
Facebook said it has removed some of the content Equality Labs flagged as breaching its Community Standards, though it has not seen the full report. But the company did not respond to a question about why so much of the content that was removed later reappeared on the platform.
Overall, researchers pinned the blame squarely on Facebook, which it described as ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with the torrent of hate speech on its platform. With almost 300 million active accounts and potentially hundreds of millions more still to join, India is Facebook’s biggest market, and its most challenging, with unique obstacles to overcome,. “Indian religious and socio-political contexts are complex enough to require their own review and co-design process to adequately address safety.” the report said.
But instead of tailoring a solution to cope with India’s specific challenges, the company continues to rely on community standards and practices designed for western markets, Equality Labs says, that don’t track with India’s challenges.
The problem is two-fold.
First, Facebook’s moderators have not been trained to properly understand the nuance and cultural context of posts in dozens of languages, Equality Labs said.
Second, Facebook only supports eight of India’s 22 official languages, meaning community standards and reporting mechanisms are often only available in English — meaning users don’t even know how to flag hate speech. To try and cover over the cracks, Facebook continues to rely on an army of volunteer translators to deal with issues in the languages it doesn’t support.
“If they have enough money to enter the market shouldn’t they have enough money to protect the users in those markets, particularly as they make money off the violence they face?” Soundararajan said.
The rise of Islamophobic hate speech on Facebook has coincided with a rise in real-world violence against Muslims in India, which has been fomented in part by increasingly divisive national politics. According to a recent study, Muslims were the victims of 59 percent of cases of religiously motivated violence — even though they make up less than 15 percent of the population.
Considering the current environment in India, Facebook has no excuse not to have had a better response plan in place to address Islamophobia, said Soundararajan, nor should they have been surprised, particularly in the wake of the atrocities in Myanmar.
“As early as 2013 Facebook knew the content on its platform could lead to large scale communal riots,” Soundararajan said. She points to Facebook’s role in helping to instigate the Muzaffarnagar riots. which led to left more than 50 deaths and over 75,000 people displaced from their homes. “Many say these riots were sparked by videos which were spread in part on Facebook.”
The report highlights a range of hate speech that circulates on Facebook in India. Among the most surprising was the proliferation of Pepe the Frog, the image favored among American white supremacists. In India, the internet meme was used to glorify the 1992 desecration of the Babri Masjid mosque in the Ayodhya district of Uttar Pradesh state by Hindu nationalist mobs, an act that triggered riots across India and the killing of hundreds of innocent Muslims.
The use of Pepe the Frog, considered an anti-Semitic hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, shows the common language of hate speech across the globe. Facebook knows this too. Documents uncovered by Motherboard a year ago show the company has a specific policy for Pepe, that doesn’t ban the image completely but deletes it if shown “in the context of hate, endorsed by hate groups to convey hateful messages.”
The report also reveals a worrying crossover with the hate speech problems Facebook encountered in Myanmar. According to Equality Labs, 6 percent of all Islamophobic posts researchers examined were anti-Rohingya posts. Facebook users labeled Rohingya “cockroaches” and posted screenshots from a debunked video claiming to show Rohingya slaughtering and cannibalizing Hindus.
When the video was removed from Facebook and WhatsApp, users got around the ban by posting graphic screenshots from the video, some as recently as last month’s Lok Sabha elections.
“Clearly something is wrong with Facebook moderation when it comes to Rohingya centered hate speech and given the precarious conditions Rohingya face in India and across South Asia, this issue must be dealt with immediately,” the report says.
Ultimately, the problems facing Facebook in India stems from its failure to engage with activists and groups in India, Equality Labs said. And simply hiring more staff won’t solve the problem.
“Facebook staff lacks the cultural competency needed to recognize, respect, and serve caste, religious, gender, and queer minorities,” the report says. “The hiring of Indian staff alone does not ensure cultural competence across India’s multitude of marginalized communities.”
Facebook did engage to some extent with activists in India, and at the company’s South Asian Safety Summit held in Delhi last fall, Equality Labs presented an early draft of its findings — but the process was “slow and often times did not address the structural problems our report outlines,” Soundararajan said.
The activists are now calling on Facebook to conduct an independent, third-party human rights audit on the problems in India, similar to the civil rights audit it is conducting in the U.S.
“Facebook is complicit with the extremism that is pulling apart Indian society and it must act before it is too late,” Soundararajan said.
English Writing in Kashmir: A Literary Culture’s Rise From Conflict
By Basharat Shameem
In truly bringing Kashmiri literary tradition on to the international scene, the eminent poet Agha Shahid Ali could be seen as a prime example. He was certainly one of the first true voices from Kashmir who produced fine poetry in English. Among the various literary narratives published in the recent years, many important works of fiction which have caught readers’ attention worldwide are Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and The Scattered Souls, Siddhartha Gigoo’s The Garden of Solitude and Mehr, and Nitasha Kaul’s Residue,to mention a few. Memoirs like Sudha Koul’s The Tiger Ladies and Basharat Peer’s The Curfewed Nightare other literary feats. Poets like Subhash Kak, K.L. Chowdhari, Lalita Pandit and Mohammad Zahid are also being increasingly recognised in the literary circles. All these writers mainly write in English as they yearn for a global audience to hear and read the narrations which tell the stories of their experience of a very complex lived reality. In many ways, these writings indicate the beginning of the phase of Kashmiri English writing tradition.
It has to be said that contemporary Kashmiri English writing seems to have been more significantly influenced by the specific historical conditions pertaining to the conflict than the writings in other languages. This is in no way to demean the artistic or literary features in these writings which have retained the literary purity amidst all the topicality. On the contrary, it supposedly suggests a general historical reality wherein a literary culture is born and bred among certain specific historical and material conditions—conflict and violence in this case. Besides these poets and writers, many other young people are taking to different artistic expression like poetry, music, painting and graphic arts to express their profound angst at the existing conditions of the conflict. In significant ways, these writings provide witness to many profound issues like identity, justice, struggle, and oppression which are usually absent in the mainstream narratives on/of Kashmir. In doing so, these writings provide an alternative and heterogeneous account of a reality that seems to counter the view of the mainstream discourses that neglect very basic and yet very important facets of Kashmir’s reality and experience.
In their own ways, the new generation of Kashmiri writers reflect on the situation of the Kashmir of early 1990s, when Kashmiris took up arms against Indian rule and ushered in the era of a full-fledged militancy. Agha Shahid Ali with his poetry collections The Country without a Post Office and Rooms are Never Finished can be regarded as the first modern chronicler of Kashmir’s current pain. Agha Shahid describes the calamity of the 1990s in the following words:
Summer 1992 — when for two years Death had turned
Every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala.
This is the immediate historical backdrop against which the writings of our new writers are set as they endeavour to explore these realities by reflecting the perspectives of the people who face siege and repression from all sides. These new narratives can be seen as historiographies which sensitively bring to fore many unknown or unexpressed dimensions of the Kashmir conflict, thereby drawing attention to a long-neglected human story. Though the texts, under mention, grow out of a specific and critical historical reality, they convey a multiplicity of versions and facets that armed conflict in Kashmir has stimulated. This cannot be categorised as merely a “literature of protest” or “literature of propaganda” as some self-assuming critics would lead us to believe. The sensitive reflection of profound dimensions of human condition at a certain point is the real characteristic of literature.
Through the art of fiction, these writers have attempted to give an outlet to the suppressed aspirations and collective memories of violence and loss of home. In their narratives, memory, identity and time play a very significant role. Finally, these works also show how literature can intervene to challenge the contorted truths of power structures in the contemporary world. The idea of loss brought about by the memory becomes the new metaphorical ingredient of this type of literature. Out of its specific set of circumstances, it tries to develop a new aesthetic out of the elements of a lost joy and the current moments of suffering. For instance, in his poem “Exile”, Subhash Kak writes:
Memories get hazy
even recounting doesn’t help
I need to look at pictures
or listen to music to remember
and sometimes walking through narrow lanes of my town
a sudden perfume escaping from a window
halts my steps and I am transported
to my childhood years.
As the conflict and conflicting opinions, pertaining to Kashmir, continue to perpetuate each other, writing and research is likely to unfold new perspectives in the time to come. This can be stated with some certainty as it is now an established fact that narration or narratives—whether factual or fictional—do not describe reality in absolute terms only; rather, they attempt to present fresh perceptions and dimensions that offer new trajectories of reality. The writer of a work of literature does not aim at presenting historical facts in the same way that a historian does. Instead, he looks beyond facts to the spirit underlying those facts. This lends credence to the fact that an event, which might have a mere statistical importance for a historian or a journalist, could reveal many underlying angles of perception when presented in a work of fiction.
The narratives are mainly structured round and alternate between the present, “now”, and the past, “then”. The narratives do remember the Kashmir of the past in which the stream of life flowed smoothly, when militancy did not exist, and when life flowed along an even tenor. During the days of armed militancy, peace departed, and honour and security of life also took their leave. With their departure, a besieged people learnt to live under the shadow of the gun. The life and honour of people were at the mercy of the gun-toting armed forces and the militants. The sense of loss is especially made palpable through human loss that is defined and depicted in terms of killings, tortures, rapes, injuries, other forms of physical coercion, and even a huge displacement of a large section of population as portrayed in The Garden of Solitude.
All this brings to the fore the crux of the matter, that is, the issue of identity. In the context of the situation in Kashmir, the concept of identity is extremely crucial, complex and intriguing. Here, identity has multiple facets and also a differential composition; it operates also on many levels—the individual, collective, regional, and above all, religious. The complexity of the issue of identity becomes all too evident in the way events unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The aforementioned texts under study bring to prominence the fact that it would be fallacious to assume a homogenous conception of Kashmiri identity. In all these narratives, the protagonists seem to struggle for their identity at the individual level, but they find that it has a close bearing upon the larger collective identity.
For centuries, Kashmiri culture was defined by its plurality and scope for tolerant practices of diverse faiths and ideas that wove people together in harmony. This interfusion of distinctive practices of belief led to the articulation of a new cultural identity which came to be known as “Kashmiriyat”. Kashmiri Muslims, despite being the majority, found themselves at a disadvantageous position in contrast to the minority Pandits. This was because of the disproportionate division of socio-economic privileges that favoured the minority Pandits. The construct of Kashmiriyat was manipulated to overlook the growing political and economic demands of Kashmiris. With the outbreak of the armed uprising against the Indian state in late 1980s, the nature of discontent and resistance changed and Kashmiri Muslim aspirations aligned with the appeal to religious identity. To bring this out, Siddhartha Gigoo, in his novel, alludes to the “reinforcement of a new cultural identity.” Mirza Waheed, in The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, and Shahnaz Bashir in The Half Mother, also recount the surge of people’s religious passions with the onset of the armed movement. The new Kashmiri identity is thus shown to recast itself in religious terms, and this has put Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits at loggerheads and relations between them appear ambivalent as of now. Agha Shahid’s poem “Farewell”, which he refers to as a “plaintive love letter” from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit evocatively, describes this tragic aspect:
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory…
Lalita Pandit, another Kashmiri-American academician and poet, reveals this aspect in her poem “Anantnag” in these lines:
What of that? Now you are
A stranger, an enemy.
Children stare with
suspicion. They have learnt
to hate; they are afraid.
Hollow eyed ghosts
walk the streets.
The aforementioned Kashmiri literary narratives can be seen as gripping histories as well as forceful tales of the human predicament in locales marked by violent conflict. In almost all these expressions, personal narratives have been unearthed, processed through the literary imagination, and re-crafted as collective expressions. The creative imagination of these Kashmiri writers who write mainly in English is able to capture the different facets and perceptions of people caught in a situation marked by contestation and confrontation.
(The writer is a blogger and a youth activist based in Kulgam)