To be able to speak of azadi is not merely the right to speak of self-determination in legalistic terms as to what the UN resolutions have mandated for Kashmir, but also as a general principle, as to why it is not right to subject individuals, genders, populations and geographies to forcible marriage, forcible inclusion and subjugation; of enabling an environment where people can exercise their freedom to accept or reject India, or what it represents or has now come to represent, both at the individual and the collective level without any fear or blackmail
Left-Liberal individuals and groups have been attempting to open up possibilities for having conversation on troubled political questions like the ongoing peoples’ struggle for azadi in Kashmir. Such attempts made mostly in academic spaces which are meant to accommodate reflection on ideas that may not be palatable to the majority, have come under relentless attack by organizations like Akhil Bharti Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) affiliated with the ruling dispensation (BJP) that subscribes to Hindutva and majoritarian Nationalism in India. On the 21st of February 2017, ABVP violently attacked and disrupted a two day programme titled 'Cultures of Protest: A Seminar Exploring Representations of Dissent' in Ramjas College, University of Delhi and did not relent till they had ensured its cancellation. The point of contention was the invitation to Umar Khalid and the raising of slogans that called for Azadi in Kashmir. Last year a cultural programme in JNU to mark Afzal Guru’s hanging, which many people, including the ex-home minister of India at the time, holds to have been unjust, was similarly disrupted. The programme involving recitation of poetry by Agha Shahid Ali and other Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri poets and musicians became a site of controversy and violence unleashed on the participants by ABVP. Thus provoked, some Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students raised slogans for Azadi and against the occupation, the slogans which are as routinized as breathing in Kashmir. In reaction to what was deemed as a grave provocation, particularly because it was happening in a premier academic institution in Delhi, the then HRD minister Smriti Irani, the police and the corporate media clamped down heavily on the organizers for having enabled such an event, resulting in the arrest of three individuals, namely Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition. Hounded and assaulted by fellow Indians including lawyers and the police, they accused the media and the state sources of doctoring videos to falsely implicate them on charges of having raised pro-Kashmir and anti-India slogans that they had never did. On the defensive, the word azadi started acquiring subtler meanings in the Left-Liberal vocabulary till their usage had little to do with its current usage in Kashmir. In the process they conceded ground and effectively helped criminalize a particular sense of the word.
While we must all defend the right to free speech regardless of the politics of people involved and condemn the latest assault in Ramjas college, the other reality that stares us in the face—the remarkable ease with which the academia, political activists and institutions in India bend over backwards to surrender before the right wing assault on free speech. Predictably, as was the case earlier in JNU as well, in wake of the Ramjas assault, one defender of free speech after another is backtracking on the freedom to speak of and for what has been actually forbidden—speech related to ongoing struggle for azadi in Kashmir. Not only do such academics and intellectuals readily compromise with and surrender before fascism by disinviting people and cancelling critical discursive events while encountering what have by now become insipidly repetitive threats of assault on speakers, organizers and infrastructure by ABVP and its undeclared sympathizers, but they do great disservice to the idea of freedom by backsliding on the critical issue at hand—i.e. the meaning of azadi. We must ask, what exactly is under assault from the ABVP and the neo-fascist regime—the freedom to speak of or utter what? The supposed defenders have allowed the debate to be reduced to whether they have uttered the forbidden word azadi or not and if at all they did, what they meant by the word and what not. Azadi thus becomes bukhmari se azadi, beemari se aazadi (freedom from hunger and disease), gender discrimination, manuwaad, so on and so forth—the issues on which ABVP is on the grounds of shared nationalism in perfect harmony with the Left-Liberals, at least in principle. The mediocrity of the Indian intellectuals and activists has thus rendered the word azadi into an empty signifier that can mean anything and nothing and divested it of all its political and critical content at the slightest nudge from the Right. Is it because they lack moral courage or are they deep down, psychically aligned with majoritarian nationalism?
While ABVP is absolutely clear that it will not allow the articulation of or reflection on the ongoing struggle for azadi in Kashmir or resistance to the armed assaults and incursions of the Indian state into the tribal lands and populations in Bastar or other civilian resistances against the state elsewhere in the sub-continent, the so called sympathizers and supporters of various marginal causes backslide on what azadi means on the earliest signs of opposition they encounter. To such defenders of freedom I feel tempted to quote Ghalib along with my liberties at translation:
rag o pai meñ jab utre zahr-e- ham tab dekhiye ky ho
abh to tal hi-e-k m-o-dahan k zm .ish hai!
Let the bitterness of truth (of what azadi means) seep into the inner most being.
As yet, you have only tasted it with the tip of your tongue.
Such defenders render azadi – which is the desire for independence from political and military subjugation in Kashmir into Kashmir mein azadi, (freedoms in Kashmir) as though it were possible to experience freedom under the jackboots of an occupying army that enjoys impunity under AFSPA, or as if the question of azadi in Kashmir were essentially a matter of negotiating interpersonal, gender or inter-faith relations or at best human rights and not a specific claim by a particular people of being essentially and literally wanting to be an independent nation with a right to exist on its own terms. Of course people who demand azadi must be willing to grant similar azadi to those who they claim to speak for or include as part of the envisaged polity. But the hypothetical fears about the impossibility of realizing such a promise cannot be the basis for denying a people the right to resist and question the legitimacy of the existing arrangement or to reimagine the nation, which includes the group, gender and class relations and alliances within and with the wider world.
It goes without saying that India, given its track record and being essentially majoritarian and undemocratic in nature, will not let Kashmir have the freedom it demands regardless of how unpopular India becomes with people in Kashmir or how many Indians think that it is unjust to subjugate, or demand love or compliance from a people under duress. Also given the power differential, Kashmiris cannot achieve freedom from India or for that matter Pakistan through force. Neither is the International community so ethically driven that it will intervene on behalf of Kashmiris, unless such an intervention serves the larger interests of the powers that be. This seems unlikely in the near future but given the uncertain nature of the political, you never know! The question of free speech is however not about what can be realistically achieved and what is ordinarily accepted by majorities or the dominant, but the freedom to inquire and speak of the tabooed domains and to speculate on possibilities of what the convention has rendered nearly impossible.
The question at stake is, what if a particular collectivity under Indian control rejects the idea of India altogether, be it the Gandhian, Nehruvian or for that matter Savarkarite vision of India that is currently in ascendency? Will they be allowed to speak their minds and argue their case against the state and the popular consensus? Will the people who are inclined to hear them out be allowed to do so? Will those who thus get convinced, be allowed to hold on to and publicly support the view? By what right and with what means can such subversive feelings and thoughts be policed over and prevented from being felt and expressed? Particularly, how can the academic institutions evade engagement with political questions about the meaning of nationalism, the reality of its rejection and the visions of azadi (or the lack there of) that are at the heart of the structural violence that prevails in the sub-continent?
To be able to speak of azadi is not merely the right to speak of self-determination in legalistic terms as to what the UN resolutions have mandated for Kashmir, but also as a general principle, as to why it is not right to subject individuals, genders, populations and geographies to forcible marriage, forcible inclusion and subjugation; of enabling an environment where people can exercise their freedom to accept or reject India, or what it represents or has now come to represent, both at the individual and the collective level without any fear or blackmail.
The defence of such a right is the only safeguard against the State’s attempts to exercise absolute control over the bodies and minds of its subjects. The Indian academia and intellectuals are morally bound to resist the state and its diktats on what can and cannot be spoken of—the state that is rapidly evolving into a majoritarian monster and devouring marginal subjects with impunity. Unfortunately the half-hearted defenders of azadi are not up to the task.
The writer is a research scholar affiliated with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics