An Anniversary

Chant of the Masked People–II

Nirmalangshu Mukherjee

[Slightly shorter version of the piece was published earlier in EPW. Since the anniversary of those events are going on, it may be interesting to look at the original piece.]

In this context, the deeply problematic Kashmir issue, especially when it is raised in connection with terrorism, offers a unique opportunity to the suggested authoritarian project. In fact, the oppoitunity is maximized when the situation in 'terrorist-infested' Kashmir can be projected as an attack on the sovereignty and the constitutional framework of India. The attack on the Indian parliament and the subsequent conviction of Mohammad Afzal Guru as the sole surviving 'terrorist' accomplished that job for the entire 'nationalist' right wing sections of the population, especially the Sangh parivar. Therefore, it is no wonder that, on every December 13 (the day the parliament was attacked), the RSS and BJP used to raise the pitch demanding the execution of Afzal Guru. It is ironical though that it is the second UPA government that finally hanged Afzal just months before the general elections of 2014. Such was the importance of Afzal Guru for Indian electoral democracy.

The other, dissident side of the story is that, ever since the trial on the parliament attack case began, democratic opposition to the entire legal process kept growing. By the time Guru was hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail, a considerable dissident literature was widely available. In a powerful review of this literature, along with his own careful reading of the case, the eminent historian and legal expert A G Noorani wrote (Why Afzal Guru Matters, Frontline, May 17, 2013) :
The execution was perpetrated for blatantly electoral ends. But the ferocity of the reaction in Kashmir shocked its perpetrators in the government and others in New Delhi who had egged it on, within and outside the Congress. It revealed the complete disconnect between the people of Kashmir and their rulers in New Delhi as well as the chasm between the brave human rights activists who pleaded for Afzal Guru's release and the smug ignorant ones who justified the execution, ironically in the name of the rule of law... The entire case must be read in this context and in the historical context of great miscarriages of justice...
This explains why Afzal Guru's death aroused the wrath it did. Unlike Maqbool Butt, he was not a symbol. He personified the lot of his people. They suffer at the hands of the very forces and the agencies as he did; until he was put to death. If acquitted, he would have spoken freely. He knew too much. The man had to be killed. It was a frame-up like the famous Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. Only this time, there was no judicial redress.

Afzal's hanging signalled a disturbing divide in the visible, articulate, non-subaltern public domain. On the one hand, there is the vast 'nationalist' crowd for whom Afzal was an enemy of the state and his execution was a patriotic action. On the other, there is the curious mix of a very small group of 'brave human rights activists" and the miserable millions in the valley for whom Afzal's hanging 'personified the lot of his people' and signalled the collapse of real democratic order. The small but determined meetings of remembrance that have been taking place every year since 9 February 2013, mostly in Kashmir but elsewhere in the country as well, symbolized this divide.

It is reasonable to assume that the right-wing authoritarian regime currently in power is very aware of this divide. It knows that commemoration of Afzal's hanging is vastly unpopular with the sections of the population that fill the audience of the mainstream media. So, by taking "tough measures' on these ceremonies, the regime can safely enforce its authority with popular approval while breaking the back of the dissident movement around Kashmir. The project is central to the communal agenda of the Sangh since an attack on the independent identity of Kashmir is ipso facto an attack on Islam in the jaundiced eyes of the parivar. The great opportunity is that, to emphasize, this communal task can be pursued with popular patriotic approval.

In fact, there was a significant precedence to this plan last year, also in JNU. Apparently, a small group of students invited none other than S A R Geelani himself to address a commemorative meeting on Afzal on 9 February 2015. To remind, along with Afzal, Geelani and two others were also charged with participation in the attack on the parliament. The notorious POTA court sentenced Geelani, Afzal and one other to death. After spending over a year in the death row, Geelani was finally released after the High Court acquitted him of all charges. Needless to say, Geelani was brutally tortured during the interrogation stage.

Thus, after Afzal's death, Dr Geelani has emerged as the 'bearer' of the dark image comprising Kashmir, azadi, Islam, terrorism, and the attack on the parliament. That meeting last year was also attacked by a rival student group in JNU. One may presume that proper instructions were conveyed in advance this year for the concerned parties to take appropriate action. The threat of tough measures emanating from the highest authorities signalled the determination of the regime to make full use of the opportunity.

If the commemoration of the death of a 'terrorist convict' is an opportunity for the right-wing regime, it is a difficult problem for the mainstream left-liberal opposition. The mainstream left did not cover itself with glory during the entire political process leading to conviction and execution of Afzal Guru and the subsequent 'ferocity of the reaction in Kashmir'. With notable individual exceptions, the mainstream left as a whole never gave any definite support either to the Kashmiri freedom struggle or to protest on the 'great miscarriage of justice' regarding Afzal Guru. This is because, within a statist framework, each of these causes tests the idea of democratic dissent at the extremities of the framework. These causes challenge the otherwise progressive left to face two sharp issues:

(a)  Do the people of Kashmir have a right to self-determination even if the Indian parliament had unanimously resolved in favour of inclusion of Kashmir within the union of India?

(b)  Is it legitimate to protest the judgment of the Supreme Court of India after all legal avenues have been duly exhausted and the President of India had given his seal of approval?

The dilemma is glaring. While affirmative answers to these questions appear to challenge the supremacy of the parliament and the Apex Court, negative answers appear to curtail the fundamental right of democratic dissent. Dilemmas often induce silence. The strategic statist silence worked well as long as Kashmir remained a distant problem on the other side of the Himalayas.

Masked Outsiders
Unfortunately, the Himalayan barrier was seriously breached with the arrest of the JNU students especially that of the president of the students’ union who happened to be affiliated with the mainstream left. The situation was grave for the leftist teachers of JNU who were faced with the difficult task of adhering to the party-line on Kashmir while finding convincing arguments to defend their students in the public domain. Since the students were charged with 'anti-national' activities around the issue of Kashmir, it was difficult to continue to maintain silence on Kashmir.

The simultaneous arrest of Dr Geelani on the same charges just escalated the problem for the mainstream left. As noted, Geelani is very much the face of Kashmir; he cannot be defended without sharing his cause. If Geelani's case was placed in the same political package with the students, the pernicious cause of Kashmir would have infected the task of defending the students as well. As one well-known teacher activist of Delhi told this writer frankly, "If we now get involved with Geelani's struggles, we will lose all our other battles".

The solution to this rather turbulent problem was to, first, delink Geelani from the students by simply sidelining Geelani's case in an otherwise charged public discourse. Second, a very impressive campaign was launched not to highlight injustice in Kashmir and people's democratic right to protest about it but to convert the incidental factors of students and university education as the central issues. The simmering protests on Rohit Vemula's suicide in the University of Hyderabad were linked up with the arrest of JNU students to reach the wider perspective on university education. Third, once the "left-Ambedkarite" package was carefully formulated as the real issue regarding the arrest of the students, the 'party-line' was restored by separating the JNU students from direct 'anti-national' engagement with Kashmir.

Opinion about the 'anti-national' character of the event of 9 February varied. For the hardliners, the very meeting to commemorate Afzal was 'anti-national' and severe judicial punishment was called for. Others, mostly from the mainstream left-liberal forces, agreed that the meeting was wrong and distasteful, but it did not violate any law of the land. However, everybody without exception agreed that the two specific slogans about dismemberment and destruction of India were definitely 'anti-national' and some form of punishment was in order. With this universal agreement on the 'nationalist' limits of dissent, the core authoritarian project of the regime found full endorsement. In effect, the regime made sure that, outside the valley, people will find it difficult to hold memorial meetings on Afzal in public.

Even the leaders of the otherwise vigorous student movement agreed with the basic dictat of the regime. Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNUSU said :
"We are appalled at the way the entire incident is being used to malign JNU students. At the outset, we want to condemn the undemocratic slogans that were raised by some people on that day. It is important to note that the slogans were not raised by members of Left organisations or JNU students".

Elsewhere, Kumar stated that what happened on 9 February was most objectionable warranting judicial action ('"karvai honi chahiye"). JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid said,

"We condemn the undemocratic slogans that were raised by some people on that day. In fact, when the sloganeering had been taking place, it was the Left-progressive organisations and students, including JNUSU office-bearers, who asked the organisers to stop the slogans, which were regressive".

The JNU community thus cannot be held responsible for the "undemocratic slogans" heard on that day.

At last thus the "Left-progressive" organisations found their fall guy. The universally condemnable slogans were not given by anyone from JNU; they were given by 'outsiders'. With timely help from the media, some videos of 9 February surfaced, showing several people covering their faces while shouting slogans. The insinuation is difficult to miss: these were the outsiders shouting those condemnable undemocratic slogans.

Suppose, as darkly suggested in a number of reports on the incident, that these 'outsiders' were students from Kashmir affiliated to various institutions in Delhi. By designating them as 'outsiders', the JNU community extricated itself from the problem of identifying with their cause; in effect, the community turned its back on their judicial destiny. The entire weight of an increasingly authoritarian regime is to be borne by a dozen or so young Kashmiris wearing masks and chanting furious slogans, hoping someone will listen. Do people know who they are? Why do they need to put on masks in free, democratic India? What is their compulsion for screaming those disturbing slogans and risking their lives in the process?

It is reasonable to assume that they belong to the current generation of Kashmiris who have spent their entire lives amidst catastrophic violence in which the civilian death-toll is nearing 95,000 in three decades of gut-wrenching conflict. They have heard about, if not actually witnessed, rape and murder of friends and relations on a regular basis as over half a million soldiers of the Indian union, armed with AFSPA, ransack their lives. They are witness to unmarked mass graves where erstwhile "missing persons" found their place. They are surrounded by thousands of women and children undergoing psychological collapse. They have surely taken part since childhood in endless protests, strikes, shut downs, and processions as another atrocity occurred somewhere in the neighbourhood. Perhaps they know of friends barely out of their teens who compulsively joined the ranks of militancy knowing full well that, by now, the 'shelf-life' of a militant is a year at most. Perhaps they have carried the bullet-ridden bodies of their friends while marching in shivering cold with hundreds of others, weeping and screaming at the marauding Indian state.

On 9 February, they assembled again to commemorate the memory of a fellow Kashmiri who "personified the lot of his people." They congregate because "they suffer at the hands of the very forces and the agencies as he did; until he was put to death". With the instinctive alertness of a prey, they put on masks as they always do in Kashmir, before they screamed again cursing the state that has ruined their land. On this solemn occasion though they had friends from this side of the Himalayas, a tiny group of brave idealistic students who rallied in solidarity. Hand in hand, they chanted the song of hope and freedom.

The hope was short-lived as the predatory state struck. After the confusion partially cleared, the Kashmiris suddenly realized that no one from democratic India was holding their hands anymore. As if that was not enough, they have now been marked, isolated, and abandoned to the wolves so that the preparations for a left-Ambedkarite revolution can proceed unhindered in multiple colours.


It is another matter that the vicissitudes of electoral politics in Kashmir has its own compulsions that, for now, might have saved these masked people shouting 'undemocratic slogans' from further harm, notwithstanding the patriotic demand for punishment by democratic India.

Vol. 49, No.36, Mar 12 - 18, 2017