When it comes to Kashmir, India acts as a police state, holding even speech hostage. Why this obsession with narrative control?
Photo by Alexandre Marchand
In the summer of 2012, I received a phone call from the Indian High Commission in London. It was odd. I hadn’t applied for a visa or any such thing. My wife and three-year-old son had, however, and had been waiting nearly three months. We were scheduled to visit my home in Indian-occupied Kashmir for my sister’s wedding, which was drawing close. We had been anxious and had written to friends and acquaintances to ask if they could help. We knew the drill, of course: for many “cross-border” couples—I was born and raised in Kashmir, my wife in Karachi—the trip home is an annual or biannual ritual of humiliation that must be borne if one is to see one’s people.
I told the voice on the phone that my wife was away—at work at the BBC World Service—and they could call her on her mobile phone. They did; a certain Mr. K told her they’d like to speak with her about her visa application; could she and her husband come for a meeting? When she asked why she needed her husband to come along even though he wasn’t an applicant, they insisted it would be better if he came too. I was still baffled, but we decided to go.
After some brief chitchat at the High Commission in central London, the officer who had asked for the meeting said, “You see, this Channel 4 film has ruined our happiness… These journalists go, make films under cover, and then Delhi calls us!” At this my wife and I looked at each other, searching for the right words, any words—does he think we work for the British broadcaster Channel 4? Do you? Do you?
He was referring to the documentary Kashmir’s Torture Trail, made by BAFTA award-winning British filmmaker Jezza Neumann, which had been broadcast a few days earlier. The film included chilling evidence of widespread use of torture by the Indian Army and police in the disputed region of Kashmir. A torture survivor showed the camera his mutilated legs and said in an interview that he was forced to eat his own flesh by the Indian armed forces in 1991.
But what did my wife or I have to do with all that? Clearly, the film had created some “problems” in Delhi, which had then been communicated to the Commission in London and which were now, incredibly, throwing a spanner in the works for my wife’s visa, though she is neither a documentary filmmaker nor an investigative journalist and certainly doesn’t work for Channel 4. And she had, at the time of her application, given a written assurance, on BBC letterhead, that she would not do any journalistic work while in Kashmir. As a professional journalist, she is always made to do this, but it had never bothered her, as she only gets to go to Kashmir with me once in two years or so and only to spend time with the family.
The conversation then tilted toward my career—my books, my writing—when the officer quite suddenly asked of me, with a twitch on the upper lip, the most unambiguously humiliating thing anyone ever has.
“So… how long will the mass graves sustain you?”
A week or so earlier, I’d written a short Op-Ed in the New York Times about the presence of unmarked and mass graves in the mountains of Kashmir. To my mind, it was a simple, fact-based opinion piece about one of the darkest aspects of what goes on in Kashmir: the discovery of horrific burial sites that contained the remains of those killed by the Indian forces in their anti-insurgency operations in the 1990s. Rights groups had alleged and provided evidence that some of those buried may have been innocent civilians. Like many people, I had felt outraged by this new evidence and written about it. How could any writer with a moral bone or two in his body, and aware of such heinous history in his own home, remain silent?
I took a deep breath, weighed my words. “Mr. X, this is what I do. I write, and I will keep writing, not because I have to or because a certain theme is in season, but simply because I want to. And since you mention the mass graves of Kashmir, perhaps your government might want to do something about them.”
The encounter was surreal, with shades of Stasi-speak in it, with the abhorrent display of bureaucratic power, and if I didn’t have to take my little boy to visit his grandmother and meet his “Kashmere cousins,” I might have left in a huff, perhaps even after hurling the documents with some flourish. But I simply couldn’t bear the thought of my mother’s disappointed, sad face.
At some point in this bizarre encounter, the bureaucrat pointed to a bunch of papers in front of us and said, “Look, I’d approved your case, last week, but then this documentary was broadcast. It ruined our happiness,” he repeated, as though my wife and I had sinned because a leading British TV channel had chosen to make a film on a place we were desperate to go, simply because it was home. “So it will have to go to Delhi for approval…” I looked at the file on the desk, trying to decipher the handwriting for some reason.
The next week, I received another call. The pretense was off. They wanted to talk only to me. “Mr. Mirza, would you be able to meet Minister Sahib for ten minutes?” the voice from the embassy asked. “Just ten minutes.”
“But we just met your officer. We met all his new requirements,” I replied. These had included an additional email from a senior BBC editor vouching that my wife wasn’t going to do any journalism in Kashmir. “So what’s the new meeting for? And who’s Minister Sahib?”
The voice was that of the junior official who had arranged the first meeting with the mid-level diplomat at the Commission. He seemed kind and was disarmingly soft-spoken, which occasionally made me suspect he was a spook, or perhaps the poor man was simply following orders, and he essentially told me that it would be to my benefit if I said yes. I had been preoccupied with the onerous and ultimately futile task of remotely overseeing arrangements for a large Kashmiri wedding, so I didn’t have it in me to investigate and argue further. And therefore I went again, to meet the Minister Sahib, who, as it turned out, was a high–ranking official.
I now live in a place where, in the immortal words of Graham Greene’s Captain Segura, as he explains his torture manual to Wormold, I don’t “belong to the torturable class.” Or perhaps I do. But back home, everyone does.
I sat in his large, leather-heavy office and waited for another homily. He more or less repeated the things I’d heard in the earlier meeting: no one writes about what goes on on the other side, about Pakistan, and so on. Again, I wondered how writing about Pakistan was my responsibility or my problem. (Also, did he not glance at the day’s newspapers, which were full of bad news from Pakistan, if that’s what he longed to read?) Eventually, he got to the point, leaned forward a bit, and, in that conspiratorial whisper reminiscent of odiously patriarchal Bollywood uncles, said, “Actually, Mr. Mirza, you see, in our part of the world it is the husband’s word that matters, you see, that’s why we have called you here. You know how it is.”
I simply couldn’t believe a senior member of the Indian Foreign Service, which prides itself on the good behavior and impeccable manners of its technocratic staff, who are supposed to be apolitical in their dealings with the public, could utter those words. I did not reply, as my mind tried to ward off visions of my wife giving this man a mind-altering cold stare or at least a rudimentary tutorial in how to talk about women. Yes, I know exactly how it is, sir.
I gave him my word that my wife wasn’t going to Kashmir for work; by now she had handed in at least three written statements that she wasn’t. Then I noticed some important-looking, pin-striped guests arrive and wait on the sofa, and so I launched into a speech on Kashmir. I invited the Minister Sahib to read my novel, and then he gently nodded at the “spook” who had been standing all this while. That was that. I went outside for a much-needed smoke and returned to collect my child’s and wife’s duly stamped passports.
While my brief, often discomfiting and sometimes humiliating encounters with the bureaucracy of empire may belong to the theater of the absurd, they remind me of the larger, starker perspective, of people who actually suffer physically for the things they write or say or think. I am thinking of the boys who were tortured for using social media to lodge dissent. I am thinking of minors detained against international law for protesting on the streets of Srinagar. I am thinking of teenagers killed and then blamed for their deaths in much of the mainstream media in India. Here are some of the odious phrases used to describe over a hundred protestors killed by the Indian forces in the bloody summer of 2010 in Kashmir: “agitational terrorists,” “miscreants,” and that perennial favorite of a hawkish state and its errand boys in the media, “misguided youth.” Some of these “misguided youth” were killed while on their way to school or tuitions. Some for simply being out on the road.
I now live in a place where, in the immortal words of Graham Greene’s Captain Segura, as he explains his torture manual to Wormold, I don’t “belong to the torturable class.” Or perhaps I do. But back home, everyone does.
What purpose, then, did these encounters, designed to intimidate, to suggest harm, in fact serve, besides filling me with rage and frustration at the insidious ways of the state when it comes to dealing with dissent of any kind? It put a grain of doubt, and possibly fear, in my mind, not in relation to what I might write in the future—a writer cannot but write—but in relation to what physical obstacles may lie ahead. I was to travel with my son by myself for the first time—owing to work commitments my wife was to join us later—and I have to admit I was a bit ponderous. As I approached the immigration desk at the airport in Delhi a week or so later, I made sure my phone had successfully switched to roaming, I checked numbers for friends in Delhi who might help in case I was stopped, or even deported, but thankfully none of that happened. (A couple of years earlier, they had actually deported the venerable American broadcaster David Barsamian from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. Barsamian’s views on Kashmir, it turned out, may not have been welcome in India.) I made sure my wife, too, had the numbers for my Indian friends, in case, as a British Pakistani, she was turned back from the airport. (In 2010, another American, Professor Shapiro, the partner of Indian academic Dr. Angana Chatterji, who has done extensive work on Kashmir, was also deported from the airport in Delhi.) Quite fittingly perhaps, my son, suffering some kind of jet lag-induced mirth—or subject to the Kashmiri gene that says run when you see a uniform—decided to run through the security gates at the domestic airport in Delhi on our way to Kashmir. It was mildly comic as I saw a member of the Central Industrial Security Force, deployed at airports in India, run after and bring him back to me.
On television, nearly everything smacks of a regressive neocolonial habit. Do not trust the natives to tell their story.
This creeping sense, however remote, that your travel home may be made difficult, thwarted even, at the very least adds another layer of anxiety to your mind and a bad taste to your mouth. Self-censorship is, of course, out of the question. In fact, if anything, one is further emboldened to challenge and question the repressive regimes that seek to control thought or, at the very least, build real and intangible walls of control and surveillance around your existence.
And India does build both discrete and concrete walls of surveillance and repression and downright illegitimate structures as a matter of routine in Kashmir. As I have tried to say before, for all practical purposes, India behaves and acts as a police state in Kashmir, in the manner of a junta that seeks, and often achieves, complete control over what goes on. In 2010, when more than 120 people, many of them teenagers, were killed on the streets and, mostly unknown to the world, Kashmiris lived under a curfew lasting nearly seventy days in total, newspapers were physically stopped from going to press, Internet was blocked often, and local TV channels were barred from news broadcasts, all in the name of maintaining law and order. In a few instances, accredited journalists were simply thrashed by the armed forces for trying to do their job. The inescapable irony amid all this was that the local chief minister used the Internet to communicate to the public decisions of the state, while severe curbs were placed on the local media and on the use of electronic messaging by the common people. Sending text messages via prepaid phones in Kashmir continues to be banned. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, Internet access and mobile phones were blocked in all of Kashmir, as they are every year on all such days. This is only a minor illustration of how the world’s largest democracy exercises its rule in the disputed region.
More recently, and in yet another Kafkaesque turn, Ocean of Tears, a documentary film produced with the help of semi-official institutions and which depicted violence against women in Kashmir, was not allowed to be screened at the local state-run University of Kashmir. The same university is, however, dressed up if a politician from Delhi wants to visit for scenic political photo ops. The Kashmir University Students Union remains banned to this day for the simple reason that its members don’t follow official dictates on what constitutes democratic political activism. It is even more shameful, and speaks of a deeply insecure state, when you consider that students unions from India are actively encouraged, incentivized, to recruit members on campus in Kashmir. Kashmiri cable TV news channels remain banned, too, while mainstream broadcasters favored by the durbar in Delhi are always welcome. Nearly everything smacks of a regressive neocolonial habit. Do not trust the natives to tell their story. Only primetime stars with massive ratings in India can narrate Kashmir—or, for that matter, other areas of discontent, dissent, or rebellion—for audiences in India. And it is to achieve this media-management goal that the Indian state and its representatives in Kashmir routinely incentivize local media organizations with sustained ad revenues and cut-rate loans, or punish those who may call a spade a spade by withdrawing state patronage. These small and big media houses then choose to survive, rather than perish, so they can at least report the news.
Deeply entrenched and therefore what may appear, to the uncurious, as a normative structure of control, state functionaries’ unambiguous entitlement to dictate what is—and more vitally what is not—written and said about in repressed realms seems to sometimes gain a tacit acceptance among the receiving “subjects.” People try to carry on with their lives as bread and butter takes precedence, but some do rise up and scream if pushed to the wall.
Let me turn to another aspect, which may be described as culture and media management. In September 2013, world-renowned conductor Zubin Mehta performed Beethoven, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky in the famous Shalimar Gardens by the shores of Dal Lake in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.
On the face of it, this was an innocuous celebration of music, the fulfillment of a gentleman maestro’s lifelong desire. On closer inspection, though, it turned out to be farcical, bordering on the most hideous comedy. It had all the trappings of a Mughal-era musical soirée meant for the court’s grandees. Imagine a bunch of Army officers in civvies, babus, self-important politicians—many of whom can’t tell Western classical music from Iggy Pop—fawning journalists drenched in self-congratulation on being invited to a barricaded, closed-to-the-commoners concert in a walled Mughal garden. People wrote about the concert, those who attended it and those who didn’t, most pieces either naïve paeans to the importance of music in healing people (who had been expressly barred from listening to it) or cautions against politicizing such an altruistic exercise in high art.
The concert was nothing but political, or at the very least manipulated into aiding a certain kind of politics, one that is used to shore up the obfuscatory “narrative of normalcy” in Kashmir. Sadly, by the end of the spectacle, it felt like an orchestra in the service of statecraft, straight out of some bad Third Reich novel. Orchestral music can be uplifting, rapture-inducing, cathartic, and many other things. But in the service of the state, it can also be used to hide the creak of the busy machinery of repression and the howls of its victims.
To organize a concert with military precision amid a brutalized, besieged, and disenfranchised population smacks of imperial hubris, particularly so if the natives for whom the concert was supposed to bring “harmony”—as the German ambassador to India who helped organize the concert put it—are not even invited. In a newspaper report on the refurbishment of the majestic Mughal garden in preparation for the concert, there was mention of workers whitewashing some old papier-mâché art to make it all spick and span. One couldn’t help exclaim that a new empire was inadvertently whitewashing the symbols of an old one. There is another layer of irony to this. Musical efforts to add some glamor quotient to what is essentially a military occupation in the lead-up to the state’s 2014 elections can also throw into relief such a small detail as this: over half a million soldiers are stationed in Kashmir to enforce Indian rule, making it the largest militarized region in the world. Some of these soldiers and paramilitaries may be involved in massacres, torture, extra-judicial murders, or fake encounters (India’s term for extra-judicial executions) and rapes. Some may have also been deployed to provide armed escort to the esteemed conductor and the very important persons invited to the concert. Some of them were certainly responsible for the killing of at least four civilians in South Kashmir on the day, as the red carpet was being rolled out at the concert in the garden.
But why this obsession with narrative control?
Is there at work here a tradition of protecting some mythical idea of India, as though it were a genetically unvarying, homogenous mass of people who must speak in one voice when it comes to “sensitive matters” such as Kashmir? Perhaps. In the new India, a potent partnership necessitated by the demands of corporatized media came into being in the 1990s, which, while paving the way for a powerful and sometimes free press, has over the last two decades somehow morphed into a scarily powerful entity. The business-media-business partnership seems to have in the process helped eschew that good old rudimentary principle of journalism—scrutiny of the things that the state wants to suppress. Every time I’ve heard that all-encompassing phrase “National Interest” on TV or some parts of print media in India, I have wondered, “But you have the armed forces or other institutions of the state to protect national interest—when did it become the nine o’clock anchor’s job?”
I refuse to believe a mighty modern state would try to send an explicit message to a sometimes angry writer, but it was the manner of it, the idea of it, which appeared dangerous and indicative of a structure that would do anything to ensure compliance.
Much of the intelligentsia ceded ground inch by inch until reaching a point where it seems perfectly acceptable for the state to force-feed a protestor who has been on a hunger strike for thirteen years. We’re talking about a state apparatus that prefers to keep in detention and feed with a nose tube the brave Manipuri hunger striker Irom Chanu Sharmila rather than repeal what is by all accounts a draconian, authoritarian law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, that has been in place in Manipur since 1958, and in Kashmir since 1990. The law, imposed to protect the military from prosecution for any act committed in the line of duty, essentially provides immunity to murderers, rapists, and torturers in the name of law and order.
A recent report by Praveen Donthi in the magazine The Caravan reveals how easily Indian security can find journalists who might report favorably on their legal and illegal activities. It turns out they don’t have to make too much of an effort, as some mainstream journalists are more than willing to toe the official line, especially on terror investigations. As a former bureaucrat put it, “We don’t have to pay anything.” This is far more inimical to freedom of expression than outright repression. In the case of the latter, there is at least a record of shame, a concrete reason to outrage and protest.
There may be an amateur explanation for this, or at least a quasi-explanation. Some star journalists and TV anchors identify so closely with the idea of a powerful state and its interests that they need not be turned. Some of them candidly say that they can’t do anything that might be seen as antithetical to national interest. India’s media has been in some state of boom, and occasional bust, for more than a decade, and its relationship with India Inc. and the state is increasingly one of give and take. But there may be another historical reason for the acquiescence of some sections of the media: it’s mostly run by a generation comprising the children of the middle or upper classes, essentially an urban elite whose parents or grandparents were builders of modern India, many of whom worked directly for the state, its steel-frame bureaucracy, the Nehruvian engine that kept a wildly diverse country together with railways and other enterprises of state power. The identification with the state has been organic, with built-in ideological accord, and the state has therefore seldom needed to suppress expression or crack down on what is written in the press or shown on TV. There simply hasn’t been much radical scrutiny of the state, at least on what are referred to as security issues, such as the separatist tendencies or freedom struggles in Northeast India or Kashmir. So-called Northeast India (seven diverse states, each with a specific problem with the Indian state), the Maoist insurgency in India’s heartland, the outright rebellion in contemporary Kashmir, which has seen an independentist movement since the decolonization of South Asia in 1947—all remain no-scrutiny areas for much of the mainstream press in India, especially some parts of the electronic variety, because the state wants it that way. The reflex of primetime seems to be that the state is always right. And if at all the mainstream press delves into the darkness, we only get sanitized versions of what the state does on the so-called margins.
Even some of the most liberal voices in the media suffer from a sudden and strange moral malfunction when it comes to the war in Kashmir or the persecution of minorities within contemporary India. In September 2013, thousands of Muslims were made homeless, nearly fifty killed, and at least twenty women brutally raped in Muzaffarnagar, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, in what might pass in history as one of the most blatant and disgraceful acts of persecution in the country. While some pundits and activists initially paid lip service or checked the conscience box on Twitter, the local government—incensed when a few media outlets dared to show the images of destitute children living in paper shelters in the cold—had the camps evacuated toward the end of 2013 instead of providing shelter suitable for human habitation. The conspiratorial silence, barring a few brave and chilling reports, almost all by women journalists, over Muzaffarnagar speaks volumes about how a mega-state manages its speakers. The absence of outrage among the Indian commentariat, some of whose members are often quick to pounce on high-profile cases of rights abuses, points to the increasingly pro-establishment attitudes among the middle classes.
It is an instructive tamasha when art, and artists, are marshaled, or manipulated, into the service of the state and its projects. It goes against the very grain of artistic freedom and autonomy.
What is at play is not the threat of harm or intimidation, as became gradually clear in my case—the file didn’t have to go to Delhi, it was always there, and for god’s sake, what security clearance does a three-year-old boy need? It’s the suggestion of harm, the subtle menacing of state or empire as it expresses itself: We know everything, and you know that; we can do anything, and you better know that. So perhaps tone it down. I refuse to believe a mighty modern state would try to send an explicit message to a sometimes angry writer—and I still believe they don’t really care in the end—but it was the manner of it, the idea of it, which appeared dangerous and indicative of a structure that would do anything to ensure compliance. It makes you sad and angry. Angry that someone is trying to play you.
States with neocolonial tendencies may not march on sovereign nations to acquire exploitable territory, but they can always cannibalize their own people or those living on the margins, work sometimes aided by all-too-willing media entrepreneurs and celebrities.
Yet I have thought about what my personal brushes with state power, however absurd, however arbitrary, but quite potent as vehicles of the empire’s intent vis-à-vis dissent or even mere difference, signify. I suppose the stated and unstated purpose is to install a loose but overarching framework of surveillance, of eyes watching you, both in the physical and, perhaps more significantly, the subliminal sense, where you begin to entertain and abhor an element of doubt, of fear, and to agonize about the sacrosanct space enclosed on the written page. States with neocolonial tendencies may not march on sovereign nations to acquire exploitable territory, but they can always cannibalize their own people or those living on the margins, work sometimes aided by all-too-willing media entrepreneurs and celebrities.
There comes a point for some, however, when the mind knows no fear, thinks nothing of the consequences for the self. I witnessed a glimpse of it in the big diplomatic premises: if the cost of speaking the truth, however small and immaterial to the indifferent edifices of the modern superstate, is to be prevented from seeing one’s family, or being unable to travel, so be it. It made me angry that someone was trying to play me.
Ironically, these small and large, direct and indirect, craven and brazen, attempts at curtailing thought sometimes have the opposite effect. A writer tries to inhabit a moral world and, by confronting impediments, is often emboldened to keep going. And it is in that attempt that the pen seeks to challenge the might of the empire.
Let us turn to the beginning again.
Toward the end of our first meeting with the visa bureaucrat, he told us an approval might happen soon—after Delhi approves—and we should check again in a week or so. He also mentioned, ever so casually, that my wife should consider applying for a multiple-entry visa the next time. Both aghast and amused, my wife softly said, “Well, Mr. X, if a single-entry one isn’t happening, why bother?”
To which he said, “It can happen. It happens sometimes.” And looked at me.
Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir. His debut novel The Collaborator was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhat First Book Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. It was also book of the year for The Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Financial Times, Business Standard, and The Telegraph India, among others. Waheed has written for the BBC, The Guardian, Granta, Guernica, Al Jazeera English, and the New York Times. He lives in London.
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