Jaffna Street ends up demonizing and criminalizing insurgent violence in Kashmir
Generalisations are the mother’s milk of falsification, but let us risk beginning with one. A distinct characteristic of the Kashmir society is the rich tradition of self-flagellation evident not only in day-to-day conversations but also in some of our native literature. It may be a consequence of centuries of foreign rule. The claustrophobic geography of the place may be responsible for catalysing the harshness with which we judge ourselves. After all, if your face is pushed right into the face of your neighbour, you can make mountains out of moles—or is that the right phrase? It might be an expression of helplessness in the face of powerful outside forces. Whatever be the reason, we do love to parade ourselves in sackcloth and ashes. Mir Khalid’s Jaffna Street, published by Rupa Publications, makes a brave attempt to continue this glorious tradition of self-hatred.
One of the achievements of Mir Khalid’s first book, Asbat-e-Khudi, was presenting a veritable challenge to the established paradigms in Iqbaliyat and opening a new window on the fifth floor of the library of Iqbal’s thought. His critique of the dominant understanding of Iqbal’s poetry, traditionally seen as being restricted to theological realms, was well received in Left circles in Pakistan and elsewhere. How does an individual construct and reconstruct himself in the face of the overwhelming challenge of the existence of a God—the ultimate Order? What meaning does revolution hold in this making and unmaking of a personality? Can there be an organised wresting of social power from that Order? Asbat-e-Khudi conversed with these questions, allowing Khalid to move away from existing notions and develop a radical understanding of one of the most important poets of the East at a metaphysical level through his own rebellious poetry. However, in Jaffna Street, Khalid performs a nafi-asbat.
The love for revolutionary engagement with metaphysical ideas does not seem to translate into support for practical engagement with real and vexing political issues. Jaffna Street is an exhibition of derision for revolutionary change at the level of praxis. It sees the state system as a given and any attempt by the population to challenge its monopoly of violence as a venture into chaos and disorder. When the resident “Marxist philosopher” of Khalid’s neighbourhood, Nazir Gaash, demonstrates his aversion to paternalism at an “individual” level, it is seen as “rigorous self-awareness”, but when the peasantry and working class population, as a collective, decides to break the structures of violence through revolutionary politics, they are labelled gangsters. When society calls out Gaash’s philosophical utterances as “blasphemous” and “traitorous”, Khalid likens his ideas to “intellectualism” which, if discovered at a right time, “the rest of the world wouldn’t have known Tariq Ali”. But when insurgents ambush Indian military installations, kill informers, or those accused of passing on information to the other side, he summarily relegates such actions to the realms of criminality. Thus, descriptions like gangsters, racketeers, extortionists, carjackers, louts and kidnappers are used for insurgents and counter-insurgents alike. But such descriptions fail him when his father “with his quick reflexes, parried the blow, and then delivered a swift punch to the policeman’s face that sent him reeling with bloodied nose and slashed lips” or when his paternal grandfather challenges the boss of the Peace Brigade for a knife duel in the open.
In the entire book, all that the insurgents are seen to be doing is beating up young boys on the roadside, trying to carjack, throwing people in shallow graves, kidnapping, extorting money, looting houses, doing armed robberies, and destroying houses when the owners dilly-dally in coughing up extortion payments (as “a service to the cause”). Nowhere are the insurgents seen doing anything that the author may find honourable. Everyone around him—save for himself and his civil servant father—is indulging in “viciousness, cruelties, pretence and hypocrisies”—a postcard picture of a Sheikh-ul-Alam’s wander-raj. However, he does find something “wise” in those insurgents who, after their release from jails, decide to lead a new life away from their past associations. The line between the motivation and aspirations of the insurgents and the counter-insurgent is blurred. We do find the perfunctory mention of “human rights violations” by paramilitary forces, but these violations are said to occur only when the state decides to respond to the “menace” of insurgency.
Mir Khalid is hugely influenced by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and he makes no secret of this. Camus’ writing supplies epigraphs for three chapters while the other 14 are supplied by sundry other western writers and thinkers. Edward Said characterises Camus’ work as a resolute defense of colonialism. Sartre, in his famous preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, demonstrates his “curiously ambivalent” position regarding violence. Although he himself goes farther than Fanon in glorifying violence, yet he calls Sorel’s ideas in Reflections on Violence as “fascist utterances.” Not being able to completely understand these tensions in the writings of his influences and failing to engage with their ideas by keeping the developments around him in mind, Jaffna Street has ended up demonizing and criminalizing insurgent violence in Kashmir.
In Maqbool Bhat’s terms, Khalid also attempts to deny insurgents the voice which they find through revolutionary violence. Not only does he fail to see any sense of direction and necessity in insurgent violence, he also robs them of any agency and presents them as pawns in the chessboard spread out by the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan. He also labels those people who meet him at The Hideout Café in Srinagar with interest in the writings of Edward Said, Derrida, and Iqbal as “wannabes”. He finds it debatable that Kashmiri society was “attaining a measure of intellectual and literary autarky”. For him, the “sprouting like weeds of desperate Edward Said wannabes habituated to turning Derrida and Iqbal into convenient punchlines by pushing their compulsive lightweight writings; their penchant for mundane celebrityhood isn’t autarky.” This condescending attitude towards those first generation readers, who, unlike our author, had no access to his “world of ideas” populated by “Kant, Soren Kierkegaard and Sartre” or to his father’s “ever-expanding library” where “Thomas Hardy, Doyestovsky (sic.), Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemingway” adorned the shelves, is indicative of the authors grudge against the struggles of those with no cultural capital. Somehow, the term “patronization” comes to mind.
If any valuable lessons on the demerits of infighting are to be obtained, lessons Khalid painstakingly enunciates, they will have to be pulled from under the debris of a less-than-charitable attitude towards his “ignorant” countrymen and an internationalist writing style which leaves little doubt as to the intended readership of the book. Jaffna Street is filled with references to foreign movies, songs, and books, which give Khalid an internationalized perspective on everything. Even the name of the book suggests his urge to relate things around him with what Time, Newsweek, and BBC were talking about as he was growing up in Srinagar. Sadly, nowhere do we find any mention of a book or a song or a poem written in Kashmiri or by any Kashmiri. There is a complete ignorance towards native writings. Safa Kadal, where Jaffna Street is located and set, is surrounded with historic shrines which have hugely influenced the worldview of the local population. The book never refers to how these shrines shaped the politics of the place.
This is not a problem specific only to Khalid’s writings, but is discernible in almost all the English language writing emerging out of Kashmir. The civilizational break, partly due to the colonization of our land, society, institutions and minds, and partly due to our own lackadaisical attitude toward traditional wisdom, language and culture, is making our literature, both fiction and non-fiction, appear rootless. A slight change in details and names would make the writings fit any other context easily. The purpose of any writing, any intellectual engagement should be to transform one’s own immediate experiences, which are the most authentic, and pass them off as knowledge. Sadly, Kashmir still awaits that book.
(Basharat Ali is a Research Scholar at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His research focuses on Political Violence)