Semantic Irrelevance

By Ayush Khanna

Kashmir has been on the boil at regular intervals for a long time now and every time it is, it pleads for attention and coherently states that the status quo is unacceptable and cannot perpetuate. The state has been an innocent victim of the juvenile nationalisms of India and Pakistan. But that is only the pretext behind which the two states hide their positions on Kashmir, with the main reason being the primary resource of the valley – water.  The emphasis has been Kashmir the state, the land and not Kashmiris the people, a fact well known to them.

In the wake of the recent Ramban killings, Kashmiris ask the often repeated questions, “Why are the Indian people silent?” “Where is the Delhi protest we would like to see for Kashmir?” These questions are of course rhetorical and are poignant in their attempt to drive home the apathy of the Indian people and the distinct identity of the Kashmiri people. This apathy and the consequent authoritative colony like rule that the Indian state administers over Kashmir is what spawns and sustains Kashmiri nationalism and separatism.

Azadi, Azadi, Azadi, the bugle call that resonates across the tall mountains, rolling meadows, and swift rivers of the valley. It is an inalienable part of their discussions, their songs and their Azaans. Azadi is a very interesting phrase in the context of the Indian subcontinent. In as much as the subcontinent is perhaps the most diverse strip of land on earth, the phrase assumes immediacy for a depressingly diverse gamut of people. For the Dalit, it is social Azadi, for the Maoists it is economic Azadi, for women it is sexual Azadi from a patriarchal society and for Kashmiris, it is political Azadi.  They seek freedom from the hegemonic Indian State.

The Indian state though is not a novice in dealing with these demands. Right from the inchoate stage of India’s nationhood, India has faced these demands from a linguistically diverse group of people. Some Tamilians under Periyar (E.V Ramaswamy Naicker) and Annadurai had asked for it. So had a section of Sikhs. Groups in the northeast continue their strife for Azadi although any popular support has eroded considerably over time. The Kashmir Valley however remains steadfast in its stand. Since political Azadi is what they look for from the vice-like grip of the Indian Union, a look at the manner in which political Azadi has played out in certain parts of the world recently will make for interesting reading.

Not seven decades back, Indians too were fighting for political Azadi from British colonialists The British were as brazen as possible as far as their intentions are concerned and made no bones about the fact that they were in India to plunder her resources. The British Empire consequently waxed rich exploiting the country and her people, pushing them into abject poverty and deprivation. There was in simple terms no Azadi of any kind and Indians were entirely subject to the measures that continued to flow out of the British apathy for any moral or human rights related sensitivities in the wake of dizzying profit. It is not easy to empathize with the position of an average Indian in such a situation who was rendered expressionless, stripped of any rights, bound by the dynamics that govern the master slave relationship.  Kashmiris often make the comparison between their fate, and the fate of Indians under British rule in an attempt to evoke a modicum of empathy from the Indian people but those who experienced life under the hell of the colonial British boot represent a very small segment of the population for any significant outpouring of empathy.

But spin the globe a little and move away from the Indian subcontinent and a different story of Azadi unfolds. What about Australia, New Zealand and Canada? The perceptions of Azadi in these cases were quite different from the one that Indians fought for and that the Kashmiris are now fighting for. All of them were one time colonies administered with the sole intent of plunder. There was a system prevalent in these colonies that was openly antagonistic to the aspirations of the people. Clearly whenever this happens, the proletariat must rise and rebel against the administration. This is exactly what happened in India. The British levied exorbitant taxes on the poorest of poor, were callously indifferent to famines that killed millions, ruthlessly curbed any voice of dissent, never bestowed any real power to Indians and believed in the racial superiority of white people which they further believed entitled them to rule. And so it was in Australia, New Zealand and Canada with the difference that there was no racial difference between the rulers and the ruled after a point. This was true of the United States too, but they, like India, fought for and attained complete independence unlike the other three. So the primary reason for disenchantment and revolt is the curbing of “Azadi” that are a part and parcel of the administrative dynamics that govern the functioning of a colony.

However with time, the administration of New Zealand, Australia and Canada gradually moved into the hands of the people of these countries. Britain gradually dropped the reins of power until the people of these countries chose their own leaders and as democracy took root, and they governed themselves. The all-important gap between the administration and the aspirations of the people began closing in until they merged completely.  But what is most interesting and important to note is that the queen of England is still the figure head of these states today. These countries have accepted her as the figure head because she is not an impediment to the merging of the administration and the aspirations of the people as the monarch of England was in the case of India and what is today the United States of America. Her inclusion in the identities of the people from Australia, Canada and New Zealand is just semantics. Her inclusion or exclusion in the identities of these people makes absolutely no tangible difference to them. And semantics by itself has never been worth fighting and dying for. Australia and England are bitter rivals on the cricket pitch, many British still view the largest Island in the world with disdain as one inhabited by the descendants of convicts, there is a lot of bitterness in the relationship and yet that does not prevent the Australians from accepting the queen of England as their monarch and figurehead.  It is this very irrelevance of semantics that should be pertinent for the Kashmir question. Can we see the creation of a situation where the addition of the word “Indian” becomes semantically irrelevant to a Kashmiri with the word having no tangible impact on them?

In the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival, the renowned Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal said that freedom is a state of the mind.  When the host Karan Thapar inquired further and asked whether she means that Kashmiris can obtain their Azadi within the boundaries of India and Pakistan, she said, “absolutely. I’m not a believer of divisions. Azadi does not mean a seat in the UN; it means a sense of ownership of the place and constitutional rights”.  Looking at Azadi from the lens of only a division to search for a distinct identity may be a parochial way of looking at what is implied by Azadi.  This to me is integral to the idea or state of semantic irrelevance. For even if Kashmir is an independent country, the people of Jammu and Kashmir might not feel like they have Azadi since the method of administration might not be people centric. Conversely, within India or Pakistan, the administration could meet all the aspirations of the people.

But to reach such a state, the Indian government must ensure that the administration of Jammu and Kashmir is truly of, for and by the people. The AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) has to go. The merger between the administration and the aspiration of the peoples has to take place because only that can lead to semantic irrelevance. The pain and grief of the unmarked graves might never subside and might be embedded in the histories of the people of Kashmir for a long time but the least that the Indian government can do is to recover the prodigious loss of moral ground. Is the word “Indian” truly so hateful as to be worth more loss of lives and anarchy?  As of now, the word “Indian”, is not just a word that tags along with their identities. It comes with the baggage of the AFSPA in their everyday lives which is not a life that any human would ever consider as “free”. It is one that snatches away the sense of ownership of the place that Ayesha Jalal spoke about. The army should mean to the Kashmiris exactly what it means to the rest of India:  an entity that guards our borders and has no business to intrude into our personal lives.  The Indian government must ensure that the word “Indian” is just semantics with no additional baggage. One that is free of unmarked graves and rigged elections. One that is not an impediment to the aspirations of the people and the administration just like Queen Elizabeth is to the identities of Australians. If a state of semantic irrelevance is created, the people of Jammu and Kashmir will be forced to face a choice between fighting and dying for the semantics of whether they would like to see the word “Indian” disappear from their identities or whether they would rather focus on education, peace and prosperity. That is a choice that we as Indians for our part, must ensure the Kashmiris have. Once they have that choice, what they do with it is entirely their prerogative, but to ensure that they have the choice is in my opinion, the moral obligation of every Indian and thus the Indian Government.  Only once such a state is reached can the Indian Government and people even begin to explore the possibility of a common nationhood with the Kashmiri people.

I often wonder what course our history would have charted if the British government granted the first demand for Home rule by the Congress and allowed it to truly take root. If the British too had worried about the loss of moral ground and yearned for semantic irrelevance. I am quite certain that we would have had the statue of Queen Victoria outside the Lok Sabha in all her regal grandeur and opulence standing tall next to the nakedness of Mahatma Gandhi.

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