A Conversation with Gautam Navlakha

By Ather Zia

Gautam is an Indian human rights activist. He is an Editorial Consultant with Economic and Political Weekly and is also the co-convener International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir. Here he talks about Kashmiri politics and the summer unrest.

What is your reading of what Omar Abdullah has been saying following the unbaiting unrest?

Very difficult to say? What Omar said, trying to create a climate for a deal, giving the contours of the deals, he is actually talking about dilution of autonomy, getting concessions from Delhi, it is an attempt at kite flying

Will it work?

It won’t, the spiel he gave, he is trying to occupy a moral high ground but the mood of people remains of anger; He spoke about many things. Kashmir was never merged, acceded. Admitting this is a ground reality. He did not go far enough. He ascertained the dispute. He spoke about the instrument accession, he restricted himself. There is the compulsion of towing the pro Indian line, because they will have to be the separatists if they do not.

What about the current anger on the streets of Srinagar? How do you see this process? There are people who have taken to representing the process, like Syed Ali Shah Geelani but there are also narratives that call this movement leaderless? Is there such a thing as leaderless movement?

No movement is ever leaderless, that is a newspaper clich√©. The relationship between leader and people has undergone a dramatic change. People are no longer a cattle, this is a big change. The political articulation of Kashmiri youth is different, drastically different from past. I don’t want to exaggerate, the young Kashmiris have lived through the kind of horror that one would expect them to emerge angry, incoherent, it’s none of that. How remarkable is that in a region where gun entered 21 years back and became a part of political articulation the youth have consciously said no to the gun. It’s like a collective of individuals is emerging, which took shape and became mass protest.

Can you trace the trajectory of this process of resistance as it manifests as a culture of demonstration and protest?

What the youth is now doing on the streets of Kashmir has to be followed from 2008. You can say that it has matured from that time. Look at the slogan, there are no trivial slogans to vent their anger that is not what is being done in 2010. Yet the demand is political. What they have now is experience. They could have gone otherwise? They saw the limits of armed resistance they discovered the power of mass protests in 2008. It is that which transformed. Today it’s not the leader who called people out but people who call the leaders out if people find anything objectionable, people land on their houses and chastise them and they back track. It’s remarkable.

So how can we interpret the process, this shifting?

The despondency that had prevailed in people during armed resistance has been replaced by a degree of confidence and empowerment that it is not impossible to defy the state power, which is a remarkable change. There is a shift; all struggles always have their long history, the peaks and troughs, questioning oneself. After the state assembly election even if it was rigged a certain number of people did come out and vote. Although we attribute motives, people have other considerations, who participated and voted it became clear those who voted and who did not. Assembly elections will not solve peoples problem, but there are civilian needs, needs of earning a livelihood, which people need to be taken care of, educating their kids, it also material sustenance. The point I am trying to make it that this movement has recharged that 2008 showed power of mass protest and it showed New Delhi that within three years a struggle can change its nature and become productive in many ways than one. 2008 was a watershed mark. Armed resistance has two sides, the hero’s’ sides and the other side which disturbed many. Their relation to Pakistan was being questioned which was causing disquiet.

Outside forces have no right to dictate the movement. They have no right. The indigenous movement has all the rights. But we need to understand that indigenous movements can be influenced they will listen to people, they are exposed to such criticism, there are anecdotes to back me up. If it is an auxiliary like the Spanish war where they did not become the main force and did not take the main leadership, where they just acted as an auxiliary force to Spanish forces but this was under threat of being attacked and hijacked. However people came out against it. Harkatul Ansar when they issued statements warning attack on people going to Amaranth, Kashmiri people and the indigenous movement came out because they did not want to be hijacked. The heroism of armed fighter beyond a certain point had a stalemate which was transcended by the 2008 movement.

So considering 2008 was the point where people realized the power of peaceful protest, what do you think of the youth and how does literacy both academic and political contribute?

Political element is acute, people who writing and all of them are young, 30’s and below the tone is measured and they are engaging in a dialogue. The only thing that I find lacking is unfortunately the kind of scholarship to study the political economy of Kashmir. The relation of dependency that has been created between the India Union and Kashmir, no research has been done, especially by Kashmiris themselves. It’s the result of oppressive condition, critical thinking has been swallowed. Education has become the way of a government job. The critical engagement is never encouraged. In Jammu University you can have a student union in which Hindu fanatics are allowed to participate but in Kashmir this is completely denied. Student union is banned. I don’t know what word to use, what kind of VC says that people cannot protest.

What about the role of intellectuals?

Well, there is so little intellectual output, you require teachers to guide you think critically when you don’t have that, then that part of intellectual activity becomes weak. The rest of the thing is what people have learnt on their own newspaper and internet, without relevant guides and a set of people to talk to it is incredibly difficult to produce anything and that entirely would have debilitated people. However the young Kashmiris are expressing themselves, they have taken over, completely of their own learning. They are politically conscious, aware and sharp. They are now expressing themselves, in newspapers, magazines, books, films, if not anything else the on Facebook.

Do you see any difference between the response from the older Kashmiris and the younger ones?

Earlier the political party had a feudal ethos, the people followed like a flock; those relations had marking of feudal nature now you are growing in an atmosphere of bullets and violence. As a child your capacity for critical thinking has been fueled by these horrors in a way. There is a paradoxical relation between oppression and emancipation. It took 2 decades in coming. Having gone through that overcoming fear of somebody armed and wielding, this generation has achieved a lot. The earlier generation had not seen that. I do not reject armed resistance helping them overcome fear, which was also accompanied by humiliation at the same time. They saw its limits and combined it to create the language that they are speaking now. I have been pointing from 2000 onwards the youth that is growing up, I feel personally vindicated. I feel excited; they have changed the language of discourse and transformed it.

What about the women in this entire process?

Women still have to demand their share, their right in this movement. I am of the opinion that you cannot talk about a movement when 50 percent of the contributors are mainly silent. Intellectual output is great from them but in terms of political participation it could be dharna, in talks, in panels, they still have a long way to go. They have to find representation, today the conditions today are far more conducive and there is a potential. Armed resistance had kept women and mass protest at bay. It did not allow active participation in political movement. They were never at forefront. Relations between women and men have to be gauged; women are not subordinate, however they are not in the center stage or equal partners. They do not make up for qualitatively shift, it is still some way off. It will not happen after we take care of this issue of Azaadi (freedom) nobody has a date for that. Does that mean women should wait? No. Their engagement has to increase commensurate to their size. Once they catch up, and they can only go ahead. They are able and sharp. If there is an attempt to push them back they will not allow backtracking but I do want to point patriarchy is ongoing battle unfortunately. Look at Association of the Parents of the Disappeared People (APDP), those women did not challenge patriarchy but they are coming out to send a signal that it is possible for them to make their voices heard.

Any final message for Kashmiris?

Stay the course. I support the right of Kashmiri self-determination. Whatever the outcome I will respect that. I will respect, I am convinced that right of self-determination is achievable and viable. It’s perfectly possible to have that in future if people work hard enough peacefully. This is what we have to do, nurse this opinion and create an acceptance in Indian masses.

For further information about Gautam’s project in Kashmir visit: http://www.kashmirprocess.org/

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