Pankaj Mishra in Conversation with David Barsamian
Pankaj Mishra writes for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The Guardian. He is the author Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, An End to Suffering, Temptations of the West and From the Ruins of Empire. David Barsamian is an investigative journalist with the Alternative Radio. Barsamian was deported from India in 2011 and looks forward to return there to report on regions close to his heart, especially Kashmir.
DB: You wrote the introduction to a collection of essays called Kashmir: The Case for Freedom. I’d like you to read the first paragraph.
PM: “Once known for its extraordinary beauty, the Valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest, bloodiest and also the most obscure military occupation in the world. With more than 80,000 people dead in an anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan, the killing fields of Kashmir dwarf those of Palestine and Tibet. In addition to the everyday regime of arbitrary arrests, curfews, raids, and checkpoints enforced by nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers, the Valley’s 4 million Muslims are exposed to extrajudicial execution, rape and torture, with such barbaric variations as live electric wires inserted into penises. ”
DB: And then you proceed to ask the logical next question: “Why, then, does the immense human suffering of Kashmir occupy such an imperceptible place in our moral imagination? ” Why?
PM:There are several reasons for this, particularly in the last decade or so, there has been this idea of India emerging as a great economic power and also as a strategic ally of the U. S., or the West in Asia. There has been a lot of bad news coming out of India that’s not been reported internationally, certainly not in the Western press. I think the government also places very heavy restrictions on reporting out of Kashmir even on foreign correspondents. Many of them, start their tenure by going to Kashmir and being shocked and appalled, because nothing has prepared them for what they see there so they go and do these anguished reports about this horrific situation. Very soon the government cracks down on them, and they are told to stay within their limits. And for the next of their three or four years in India, they observe those limits, because the price is you might have to leave your job or it might become harder for your newspaper to maintain a bureau or an office there. So there are all kinds of restrictions at work there.
So there isn’t really enough reporting happening of the kind that happens, for instance, in Tibet. Even though the Chinese government does not allow journalists to go there, still reports filter out all the time. And when there is a massive event there, like the riots in Lhasa back in 2008-2009, it’s on the front pages and in the headlines for days on end.
You observe that whole libraries of books are devoted to Tibet and to Palestine, but not to Kashmir.
The situation is inherently complicated. And I think the Kashmiris themselves until quite recently have been absent from this discussion of Kashmir internationally. It’s only recently that Kashmiri writers have started to tell their stories and started to write books. That is definitely making a difference. I’m thinking of Basharat Peer’s memoir, Curfewed Night and Mirza Waheed’s novel, The Collaborator. Those books are making a lot of people sit up and take notice. Sanjay Kak has edited a fine collection of essays called Until My Freedom Has Come. But otherwise we’ve had very little academic writing on the subject.
One of the unfortunate omissions has been that Indian intellectuals have rarely taken up this subject. Because, once again, you can alienate and exacerbate and anger a large and powerful constituency in India if you talk about Kashmir in any kind of frank and objective way.
DB: You’ve written, in fact, “on Kashmir Indian writers and intellectuals often appear as evasive, as their Chinese peers on Tibet. ” Talk about the place that Kashmir occupies in the Hindu nationalist imagination.
PM: It’s a very crucial part of their imagination, and that’s one reason why it’s become more and more difficult to have a sensible discussion on Kashmir, because the Hindu nationalist discourse has entered the Indian mainstream. We don’t have to call it Hindu nationalist discourse anymore; it is now part of the Indian nationalist discourse. And Kashmir in that discourse is an atut ang, unbreakable part, of India. Pakistan is already a great wound in this united India, in this fantasy of Mother India. And there’s no question of entertaining any ideas of a more flexible sovereignty for Kashmir, or for India on the whole over Pakistan for South Asia, because you just have to hold on to what you’ve got. There’s just no question on compromising on this issue.
DB: This is not just an internal conflict between the people of Kashmir and the Indian state. One-third of Kashmir is occupied by Pakistan, two-thirds is occupied by India, and a small sliver is occupied by China.
PM: Yes, it is. It’s devilishly complicated. I think at least the Indian-Pakistan bits of this conflict can be resolved. There are parameters. And there actually have been very serious talks on these issues, and the broad outlines of a solution have been clear. It’s also been clear for a long time that instead of being an eternal problem in India-Pakistan relations, Kashmir could actually be a solution to the larger problem of India-Pakistan relations. That once you have a border which is easily crossed by people on both sides of it and trade happens, very soon we move away from these narrow and harsh ideas of national sovereignty, which is good for South Asia as a whole. We so badly need to entertain those ideas at this point.
We’ve invested so much in defending our respective territories. We’ve invested so much emotional and physical and national energies in this whole project of consolidating the nation state, fighting several wars and sinking billions and billions of dollars over the decades into building up nuclear bombs, into building up these great militaries.
I think we can step back from this completely mad process if we start to think of Kashmir as a way forward to a sort of South Asian federation of sorts, where people can travel, where you have extensive trade links across the subcontinent, of the kind that have existed for centuries and centuries. Kashmir was a great gateway to Central Asia, and large parts of what is now Pakistan were gateways to the Silk Road and larger markets across Central Asia. And one should still think of these places in those terms and not just sort of lock oneself into this very impoverished imagination of the nation state.
It’s striking, when you travel from Lahore to Delhi, to see the similarities. The major visible difference is in the signboards. In India, Devanagari, the Hindi script, is dominant; in Pakistan it’s Urdu. But the spoken language, the food, the music, the clothing—the cultural similarities seem to be more than the differences.
This is one instance where you could say the ruling elites of these two countries are almost entirely responsible for this problem: in creating this problem in the first instance in the years leading up to the Partition of India, and then carefully sustaining this problem, very carefully feeding this over the decades, and often quite wrongly. Because there was a time when a lot of Pakistanis were very invested in this whole issue. There was a time when a lot of Indians were invested and could be roused. But often it has failed to become a vote getter. It has failed to energize or galvanize people because they are so concerned with issues much closer home, much closer to their heart—employment, security, stability at home.
But I think the elites have really remained very invested in Kashmir, in making their respective national claims on Kashmir because nationalism for them has been this great self-legitimizing ideology. This is true both for the unelected regimes that we’ve seen in Pakistan and also for the elected governments that we’ve seen in India.
DB: At the Asia Society in New York you said you were “shocked” by your own “ignorance” about Kashmir when you went there and saw the situation. And then you added, “In many ways it was the beginning of my own political education. ” You’re well educated. You went to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. How is it that you could not at least have had better information about the situation in Kashmir?
PM: This is partly because the Indian media itself maintains a consensus on this issue. I remember a long time back, in the late 1980s, being associated briefly with a human rights organization, and they were documenting human rights abuses. That was a bad time, late 1980s, early 1990s, in Kashmir. They used to send out these very well documented reports about atrocities in the Valley to various newspapers in Delhi. I remember a prominent newspaper editor actually telling the chairman of the human rights organization that “we don’t do human rights stories on Kashmir. ”
So there has been this very long conspiracy of silence about Kashmir in the Indian press, with the result that most Indians share an ignorance about what has been happening in Kashmir over the decades. The basic narrative is that there are a lot of Muslim fanatics there backed by various jihadist elements in the Pakistani army and intelligence and various Pakistani terrorist outfits. And they have been using political disaffection in Kashmir, which only apparently exists among a minority of Kashmiris, to basically carry out their nefarious anti-India campaign. That’s basically the narrative that is fed to a large population of Indians.
So if you are someone who has never traveled there—I had actually been there as a tourist. But as a tourist you don’t get to see anything. When I did go there in 1999 and 2000 to write about it, I was shocked by the extent of the militarization of the state. I hadn’t really seen anything like that anywhere else, and still haven’t, really. I’ve been to Tibet, I’ve been to the West Bank. But the militarization of the Valley, back in those days, was extraordinary. Things have improved somewhat, in this respect at least. But at least back in those days you saw an armed soldier practically every 100 meters.
That was an education in the sense that it helped me break out of this consensus that I had also subscribed to for many years and also made me think about larger questions about nationalism, about the relevance of the nation state for our extremely multiethnic, very diverse, multireligious societies. What a poor fit the European model of the nation state had been for us, how it had allowed certain elites to hijack the national agenda and to prioritize their own interests above the interests of ordinary Indians, ordinary Pakistanis. So it really opened up a whole course of political inquiry for me.
And a prominent lawyer like Prashant Bhushan speaking out on Kashmir is physically assaulted. Arundhati Roy, the writer, is threatened with sedition. So there’s a price to pay for speaking out on the issue.
Very much so. I think especially in the last few years there has been a sort of intensifying atmosphere of intolerance, not just on Kashmir but on various issues in India, and any number of non-state actors now. The state really doesn’t have to do much, because it can always rely upon various extremists, various individuals out there to bully people into silence. I think anyone speaking out on this subject is exposing himself or herself to that kind of intimidation and violence.
Kashmir is sometimes called in Urdu jannat-e-benazeer, heaven without equal. I’ve been there multiple times. It is at once one of the most beautiful and depressed and depressing places I’ve ever been to.
It is. This is something I feel constantly, every time I read about Kashmir, every time I think about it, is the suffering of Kashmiris, both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits. The latter were forced to leave their homes and have spent most of the last decade in refugee camps or scattered around the world. It’s an immense tragedy. And we have become so blind to it. Let alone the rest of the world, we in India have become so blind to it. Almost every family in Kashmir has stories of loved ones killed, tortured, disappeared. This is the kind of pain they have lived with. And still with no solution in sight, no end in sight.
There are periods of calm, there are periods of relative peace, which allow people to indulge in all kinds of illusions about how people are finally content and happy in Kashmir under Indian rule, they’re happy with the status quo, and now we just need to normalize the whole situation and we can just forget about what has happened in the last two decades or so. And then the stone pelters suddenly emerge on the streets, and we realize that there is a whole young generation now with its own anger, with its own sense of frustration.
I just don’t see an end to that. Right now we are going through this period of calm, which has again allowed various commentators, various politicians to say things are under control now and we can just keep moving in this direction and that will be the end of it. But we know—we’ve gone through this phase before—yet again there will be an explosion and we’ll be back to wondering, thinking about what can we do here, what went wrong.
It’s a problem, as I say, which can easily turn into a solution if there is enough political will on both sides of the border. And again and again the ruling elites of India and Pakistan show an inability, show this really devastating lack of courage and political will in solving this problem.
While I think the evidence is overwhelming that in 1947 the majority of Kashmiri Muslims would have wanted to accede to Muslim-majority Pakistan, I’m not sure that’s the case today. In the brief inquiries I did when I was there, I didn’t find anyone having a good word to say about Pakistan. They read the media, they see what’s going on across the border. It’s not a state that’s very attractive to them.
The infatuation with Pakistan, even during the most intense years of the anti-Indian insurgency, was limited. And that romance is pretty much dead. From my sense of it, they want to be equidistant from both India and Pakistan. I think that’s why the whole sort of propaganda in India, certainly among Hindu nationalist circles, that certainly these people all want to be Pakistanis and if you give them any degree of autonomy, they will go and join Pakistan, is utterly false, because that moment of infatuation ended a long time ago.
One aspect of this, I believe, too, is the intensity of Kashmiri identity. When I first went there in 1966, I went overland from Delhi via Pathankot, people asked me, “Did you come from India? ” I was taken aback. I thought I was in India. They even then felt this distance from the rest of the subcontinent.
That has been their historical experience. They were never really part of this political and administrative entity that we know as India, which, mind you, is also a creation of the British. In many ways Kashmir was culturally connected to the rest of India, through Buddhism, through Sufi Islam, but it also within the Valley nurtured, developed certain traditions, which were quite different from Islamic and Hindu Buddhist traditions elsewhere in the country. So it had a very clear sense of its identity—and being geographically located where it is in this Valley, relatively isolated, which allows people everywhere, wherever they are in mountain valleys, to develop. There are many books on this subject, about Southeast Asian hill communities, how they are very different from the rice-cultivating communities near the coasts. So there are real differences to be observed there.
And I think they also had a very clear sense of their political identity, which in the years leading up to the Partition was formed by an active opposition to the very decadent, dissolute Hindu rulers of the Valley. So their political journey, their cultural identity has departed in significant ways from the rest of India. And, very obviously, post-partition South Asia, post-partition India, the government did very little to make them feel part of this larger entity called India. In fact, their sense of alienation deepened all through those early decades when Nehru was in power in Delhi.
There were also the broken promises of plebiscites.
Indeed. All through these decades they felt more and more isolated and more and more alienated from the rest of India. Yet again, that cultural identity I think also prevents them from embracing the fundamentalist project, which is the one that many Pakistanis, many ISI operatives, many people in the Pakistani army try to foist upon the Valley, which is sort of militant versions of political Islam—fundamentalist ideas that, again, did not really find a foothold in the Kashmir Valley because their own traditions were so much stronger. So that’s one reason, again, why that propaganda about them being closet fundamentalists or closeted Pakistanis is so false.
DB: You mentioned the ISI. That’s the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency. In Kashmir, the name of Syed Geelani comes up a lot. Again, in these casual conversations I’ve had with Kashmiris, he seemed to command a great deal of respect. Did you have an opportunity to talk to him?
PM: I have spoken to him. I think one of the reasons why he is widely respected, first of all, is that he’s been around for a very long time. He is one of the most senior Kashmiri leaders. So simply by sticking around for so long and having a kind of presence in local politics, he commands a voice. There are a lot of people I know who disagree with him very strongly on any number of issues. His stance came from a certain kind of political Islam that was influential also in Pakistan at one point, deriving from Maududi.
DB: The Deobandi movement.
PM:Partly that, and partly the works of the philosopher Maududi, who became posthumously influential in Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq. But I think there haven’t been that many takers for that vision in the Valley of Kashmir. So he remains important as a political voice, as a political presence, but his ideology hasn’t really found very hospitable soil.
DB: Who are some of the younger voices?
PM:You’ve had people come up and then become somewhat confined to their respective areas. Like Mirwaiz, for instance. When he first emerged, much was expected of him. But it turns out that he really only commands the allegiance of people living in Srinagar, and that only a certain part of the Srinagar.
One of the things that the Indian government has done very successfully is prevent the emergence of political voices in the Valley or encouraged the emergence of people known to be close to the Indian government or to the Indian government’s vision of how things should go in Kashmir. So any number of politicians and political parties have been bankrolled and funded by intelligence agencies over the years. Any number of journalists and various newspapers have been funded, have been set up by intelligence agencies. So that’s a very murky area.
One of the interesting things that happened—and I was in India at the time—in late 2009 a report came out called Buried Evidence, about mass graves all over Kashmir. Many thousands of Kashmiris have gone missing. What’s interesting is that this report itself was buried and disappeared. There was hardly any commentary on it.
There have been some of us writing about this subject, and also pointing out that the uncovering of 3,000 corpses in mass graves anywhere else in the world would prompt a media firestorm. You would have headlines and commentary for days and days on end. But here we are. All the evidence is there. It’s been well documented, it’s been verified, certified by very respectable authorities in the realm of human rights. And no response. The government does not feel obliged to say anything about it. There have been requests, reports by various human rights organizations. But silence. So this is a measure of just how all of us conspire in maintaining this conspiracy of silence over Kashmir: the international media, the various international governments, the Indian media, the Indian newspapers, television channels. At least the media in India, which went ballistic just a few weeks ago over these clashes at the border and this beheading of, I think it was, two Indian soldiers, never really talk about what happens in Kashmir itself. These kinds of incidents are relatively commonplace and have been for a very long time.
We are talking in late January, 2013. As you mentioned, there have been again clashes on the border, soldiers killed, tensions rise, bellicose statements are issued by both sides. These are not two ordinary countries. These are nuclear-armed states with the ability to deliver those weapons of mass destruction. There have already been multiple wars in the Kashmir area. The danger here is acute.
We should all worry about this. And one reason why Kashmir remains an urgent issue, even though we don’t really pay much attention to it, is because, as you point out, it is a dispute between two nuclear-armed countries. People have now become concerned about what’s happening in the dispute over these islands in the Pacific between China and Japan. China is a nuclear-armed power, Japan is not. But Japan might start developing nuclear bombs, if this goes on. That’s obviously a significant area of concern. But here we’ve already got two countries which have fought major wars over this issue and are full of any number of belligerent people. Both of them have extremely jingoistic media. So this is something to be extremely worried about. We know from bitter historical experience how major wars can erupt out of tiny sparks; just a few exchanges here and there, and before you know it, full scale conflict. War has this completely irrational, illogical momentum, and it becomes very, very difficult to stop.
One of the unusual characteristics of the Kashmir situation is something known as half-widows. There have been various reports issued about women who have lost their male provider, be it father, brother, uncle, or husband, but they don’t have the death certificate, they’ve gone missing. The Indian state says, Well, they’ve gone over to Pakistan or whatever, they’ve fled. Thus they are unable to collect any kind of compensation. And of course they live in an emotional limbo. It is a painful and unresolved circumstance.
I remember when I first went there and I was in my early days as a reporter, I remember tactlessly asking a Kashmiri journalist who had told me precisely about this problem. I said, “Where can I find these people? ” and he said, “Knock on any door. ” He was more or less right. So this is a very widespread problem—one of the many. You have people who are suffering from various trauma-related injuries who haven’t recovered psychologically from the various wounds and scars reflected not just on the physical body but on their psyches. The are a number of documented cases of depression and suicide. You’re really looking at a society that’s undergone a very serious and long trauma. So you have all kind of pathologies and all kinds of problems there. This is just one of them.
DB: That describes some of the effects of occupation on the Kashmiris. Have you thought about or looked at what the impact of the occupation has done to India itself in terms of civil rights and human rights?
PM: This is a problem that we have seen for decades, for centuries. Various writers, philosophers, thinkers have pointed this out. Colonialism, military occupation not only brutalizes the obvious victims, the people who are occupied, but also brutalizes the occupier, the colonialist. So you see a rapid deterioration in the political climate of India, in the intellectual climate of India, if you see growing intolerance and the way in which the security forces, for instance, behave, the kind of impunity they enjoy, whether in central India or even increasingly in urban centers. One of the things that has emerged from this recent horrific case of an assault on a young woman in New Delhi is how people actually fear approaching the police because they fear they might actually be further victimized by the police in all kinds of horrific ways. And there’s no redress against that. There’s no recourse to justice against the might of the police. So I think the kind of damage this military occupation in Kashmir and the Northeast, this frequent recourse to brute force in these areas is really incalculable.
We see the effects today. We see it all around us, in the way the political climate has been poisoned; in the way we talk about certain issues. Also, the army used to be regarded as a largely apolitical force. We never really used to hear from military chiefs in the way we do now—every time something happens in Kashmir or on the border, suddenly the army chief is doing multiple interviews. I think the enhanced role of the army in political affairs is an extremely disturbing development. The fact that the local army chiefs in Kashmir can publicly overrule the elected chief minister of the state tells you something about how things have deteriorated there politically. So I think in various parts of India you can see the effects of this kind of long and brutal military occupation.
Every occupation has a local collaborator class on the ground. In Kashmir, what is the nature of that class? I’m thinking of Frantz Fanon, writing about this issue in Algeria.
There’s always that collaborator class, without which occupations would be very difficult to sustain. I take a somewhat sympathetic view of the collaborationist class in places like Kashmir, because I think there aren’t that many choices for many people living there if you want to pursue the option of a daily life that is relatively unencumbered. Lives are encumbered in all sorts of ways, so you can only speak about it relatively. Then you find yourself making certain compromises, doing certain things, because you can’t really sustain resistance for such a long time without any kind of local assistance within India or international assistance, and still expose yourself to moral condemnation from elsewhere, that here you are, collaborating with the occupation authorities. I think people have to make very hard choices in these situations. Sometimes you may not applaud those choices, but one can understand those choices.
The Valley is a veritable landscape of army barracks, watchtowers, detention centers, etc. I noticed Hindu religious symbols and slogans on the walls of some of these structures. Is Hindu nationalism part of the animus that’s driving the occupation?
As I said before, I think what happened—and this is still very poorly understood—is that Hindu nationalism has changed the discourse in India. And what also happened during the years the Hindu nationalists were in power was that large elements of the army, which, again, used to be a secular institution, were saffronized in a way they hadn’t been previously. So there is a kind of Hindu nationalist element within the army. We saw that when a serving officer in the army was indicted in a terrorism case near Bombay. It’s not surprising to me that the whole discourse of defending and protecting Mother India is now phrased so explicitly in Hindu nationalist terms in Kashmir.
The rape of the 23-year-old student and her subsequent brutal mutilation and murder attracted not just Indian but global attention. But, again, Kashmir falls through the cracks. I’m thinking of what happened, for example, in the 1990s in the village of Kunan Poshpora, where reportedly scores of Kashmiri women were gang-raped by members of the Indian military. To this day there has been no arrests, no prosecutions. There have been other incidents as well. The army has total immunity.
This is something that a lot of us have to now realize—that what happened to this young woman in Delhi is an experience that has been widespread. It’s been shared by lots of women in places like Kashmir, not just in Kashmir but in the Northeastern states, where there has been a vocal and strong movement against precisely this practice of using rape as a weapon of intimidation, Any number of very brave women from the Northeast have demonstrated, often prominently. And yet it hasn’t made its way into either the national or the international conversation about India.
One of my hopes emerging from this recent anger and sense of frustration that many Indians feel over this incident is that there will be greater consciousness about what has been happening in Kashmir and the Northeast for some time. And when we think about rape in India today, that we can also include within our consciousness this horrific experience of any number of Kashmiri women or women in the Northeast.
But I don’t see reporting on “patriarchy” or “misogyny. ”
Well, it has been used.
The point I’m making is that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There’s just a huge cultural background, context to the commodification and abuse of women. On one hand, there’s the mother image, the goddess, above reproach and pristine; and then there are the street people, as it were, the untermenschen.
Misogyny and patriarchy have been in many ways encoded into the culture for a very long time. Because they have been around for such a long time, we need to also focus on new aspects, new socioeconomic configurations, especially in cities like Delhi and Bombay, where you have a lot of people who are living in extremely degrading circumstances and are constantly being brutalized by their experience. So you have really now millions and millions of people living in this netherworld of these large cities, where there are new degrading perceptions of women, particularly women who are now increasingly visible in the workplace and increasingly becoming part of the work force in a way they wouldn’t have been previously. There are all kinds of new tensions that are emerging in these cities. Those have also to be considered along with these older issues of patriarchy and misogyny.
DB: I note you’ve used terms such as “unanchored” and “stranded” to describe this huge population who have moved from villages to the big cities of India.
PM: There is now going to be, I think, this huge reservoir of anger and frustration and discontent, which can supply, in the worst-case scenario, the army, the storm troopers for any kind of authoritarian movement. India today displays all the classic symptoms of pre-authoritarianism—where you have a very large and extremely angry underclass; you have political elites losing legitimacy rapidly; there is really no national project to speak of, it’s all been broken up. We’ve been told to get rich on our own, separately, quickly. We’ve lost our sense of a larger society, of collective welfare. Neoliberalism has taken care of that. So there’s a new discourse there. And yet a vast majority of the country’s population will not be able to get rich. It already knows that. There have been several years now where it’s been trying very hard and has actually failed to acquire these gadgets, these tokens of consumer modernity. So there’s a lot of free-floating anger and frustration in India today. I think populist politicians, authoritarian-minded politicians who have been employing them here and there, in a place like Bombay. Bal Thackeray, who passed away recently, was a master of that kind of authoritarian politics. But there are other figures all around the country. We see a somewhat milder version of that in someone like Mamata Banerjee in Calcutta, who has effectively deployed the politics of fear and the politics of resentment. And I suspect people like her and maybe own more extreme versions of her would be the rule rather than the exception in years to come.
India has, to the surprise of many, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, approaching, I think, 200 million people. They’re cricket stars, Bollywood celebrities, the foreign minister is a Muslim, several presidents have been Muslim. But the parallel track to that is the destruction of the Babri Mosque, massacres in Mumbai, a major massacre in Gujarat in 2002. What is the status of Indian Muslims?
It’s a very demoralized and depressed minority at this point. Economically, in every index you look at of human development it’s lagging behind.
DB: Because the state is not attending to its needs?
PM: The state is completely unresponsive to the Muslim minority. But, mind you, the state is unresponsive to even members of the so-called majority, so that is not an exceptional case at all. But I think what has happened since the advent of Hindu nationalism, the BJP, Bharatiya Janata Party, the RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as a major force in Indian politics is that Muslims have been marginalized and they have lost even the kind of political voice they used to have at one point. They’re purely an electoral vote bank for many politicians, who still claim to speak for them. The fact is that all kinds of affirmative action projects to improve their capabilities and improve literacy levels, or improve employment levels in the government, for instance, they are torpedoed by various political parties. They don’t really get anywhere. And also, because in the community as a whole there are very poor levels of education, so they’re not well placed, like a lot of Indians, again, to take advantage of the new service-oriented economy. So the bonanza of the last two decades of economic growth has not reached a large majority of Muslims. You don’t have too many stories of Muslim businessmen or entrepreneurs doing extremely well across India.
DB: You might know, Basharat Peer is writing a book about Indian Muslims.
DB: How has the Indian state and media interpreted what has been described as Tahrir Square before Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris turned out to peacefully demonstrate in 2008, 2009, 2010, completely flying in the face of the narrative that these are jihadis, militant fundamentalists supported by Pakistan? How have they navigated that? And isn’t it interesting that nobody here, at least in the U. S., even knows that these demonstrations took place.
PM: True. It’s been interesting. Because for a long time, when I first started writing about Kashmir, I used to hear this argument among Indian liberals, that if only Kashmiris were to renounce violence and terrorism, if they were to take to the streets in large numbers and demonstrate, India would be faced with an unanswerable moral dilemma. And that precisely happened, as you say, in those years, when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris appeared in the cities of the Kashmir Valley to demonstrate. It was a difficult thing, I think, for most people to understand, because many people in the Indian media had already kind of subscribed to the propaganda that Kashmir has now been settled, infiltration from across the border is down to historically low levels, the militants have been routed, and basically the whole thing has been resolved. And suddenly this younger generation of Kashmiris were on the street. So it was a very difficult thing to figure out, to explain, to analyze.
For a while the demonstrations were on the front pages. And soon enough the propaganda machine started cranking out reports of how these people are really in contact with their ISI handlers across the border, and various transcripts of phone conversations were published by outlets of the Indian media demonstrating that this is obviously true, that once again Pakistan is behind these demonstrations. So that’s where it ended, basically, that even these big and spontaneous expressions of public anger and disaffection in Kashmir could yet again be repackaged as a pro-Pakistan or Pakistan-backed campaign against India.
DB: In your book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana you recount meeting in a train compartment an army officer who had recently served in Kashmir. He tells you, “We can be more tough, but there is too much political pressure. It is always there. Otherwise the army can set Kashmir right in one month, if politicians give us free hand. ” Then he brought up human rights. “I am very religious. I go to temple regularly, and I think human rights are fine. But when it comes to the unity and integrity of the country, human rights are no consideration. I don’t care. The country is more important than human rights. ” And then in the same compartment you quote a contractor from Central India saying, “Human rights, people are talking bloody nonsense! What is human rights when there is terrorism from Pakistan’s side?! ”
PM: I had forgotten that, actually. That must have happened sometime in 1993, when I was traveling to gather material for that book. But that’s a very common reaction. That kind of conversation must have happened a million times across India during that period when the insurgency, back in the early to mid-1990s, was at its most intense point. But that’s also a classic sort of the right-wing militaristic response to a situation like that. We’ve heard that kind of discourse also in this country, where people have argued that if only the American military hadn’t been fighting with one hand tied behind its back in Vietnam, we could have won that as well. People always say that kind of thing.
DB: What role does water play in terms of strategic power and an incentive for the Indian state not to relinquish control over Kashmir?
PM: I think it’s playing an increasingly important role. Water is going to be a source of conflicts not just in South Asia but across Asia. You already see a lot of tensions with China over the damming of the Brahmaputra when it flows through Tibet, and the same kind of tensions cropping up between India and Pakistan. That was one success story of the whole relationship, the Indus Water Treaty. But that’s beginning to unravel.
We see in Pakistan a number of extremists who want to keep alive the idea of India as the great enemy. They have cottoned on to this subject in a big way. When I was there last year, among the extremists there was constantly this discourse about how India is basically responsible for the floods in Pakistan, India is responsible for the drought, India is responsible for basically everything bad that is happening in Pakistan. But water kept cropping up as the most important theme. Having failed to get their way in Kashmir, having failed to really inflict a serious defeat on the Indian military, what they have now cottoned on to to make themselves relevant to the Pakistani masses is this idea that India is cheating us out of our legitimate share of water. This is going to become, I think, a more serious issue between the two countries.
Large areas of South Asia are described as water-stressed. I was in Uttarakhand a couple of years ago, where a major dam was built. People in towns, like Tehri, and in villages there don’t have water to drink or bathe in. The water they were once using is now going to New Delhi.
The water table has been plunging across North India for quite some time. This is one of the stories that don’t get reported. What we don’t hear is just how unsustainable this particular model of economic growth that we’ve signed up to is, this urbanization program, for example, the fact that so many of India’s limited resources are being diverted to basically providing for these growing urban populations. We’re seeing a slow catastrophe developing in large parts of rural India: water tables plunging, soil becoming uncultivable, even in the great granary of India, the Punjab, where we’re seeing the long-term effects of the Green Revolution now playing themselves out. These are some of the most important, the most serious stories that are emerging out of India today. And very little attention is being paid to them because that’s not what makes money circulate, that’s not what gets foreign investors excited, that’s not what makes for stimulating conversations at cocktail parties in Delhi, where so much of this knowledge circulates and then makes its way into the international pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
DB: Is there much focus on or attention being paid to climate change in India?
PM: Not as much as it should be. Definitely not. Because this is going to affect a vast majority of India’s population which live in rural areas and depend on agriculture. Monsoon patterns have been shifting, alarmingly. People have been talking about this. There’s a lot of literature on water. We know that major rivers, like the Ganges, are going dry at very important points in their journey towards the ocean.
And the Yamuna in Delhi is a veritable cesspool. It stinks.
And it’s all visible. That’s the other thing. It’s not like you have to do a lot of research or lose yourself in some library or archive for days on end to uncover this. It’s in front of you. It hits you the moment you leave an air-conditioned mall or some other air-conditioned building. It’s just all out there. But there is very little concern about this. Sometimes I feel there’s more discourse about environmental issues in China than in India today. I think we really sort of close our ears from that whole conversation at this point and have completely devoted ourselves to building ourselves up as this great superpower all set on this uninterrupted trajectory all the way up to international superpowerdom.
DB: V. S. Naipaul once described India as a country of “a million mutinies. ” Indeed, from the Northeast, to Chhattisgarh, in Central India to Kashmir, there are various uprisings, rebellions, revolts, resistances. What accounts for this impressive pushback to corporate and state power from underprivileged, poor people?
PM: At some point people feel that they have to respond, they have to resist. One of the great things about India today, one of the things that gives me hope is the network of activists and various organizations around the country: political, environmental people active in the field of adult literacy or fighting on behalf of the tribals being dispossessed of their land, trade unionists. Any number of people out there working very hard to create lives of dignity. One of the ways in which a lot of people realize you can live a dignified life is through resistance, is through actively engaging in political resistance. Not forming political parties or standing for elections. That’s absolutely the wrong way of entering politics. But this is one way many people across India have chosen, that we will not let ourselves be trampled into the earth by the combined powers of multinational corporations and the state, that we will resist. This idea has gone around.
When Naipaul spoke of the “million mutinies, ” he was thinking more in terms of individuals rising and claiming their share of the richness of the world. He did not really mean these various sort of movements that have sprung up in India over the last two decades or so, which I think are more important than this individualistic aspiration for consumer modernity that he was describing. I think this is more crucial and probably more significant for India’s future.
DB: Talk about the Maoist rebellions in Central India?
PM: That’s a very complicated instance of this kind of uprising by people who feel themselves victimized and feel that they have to resist. It’s been around for decades and decades. The origins of the movement go back to the early years of independent India, when it had a very different form. It has been changing form over several decades, and is now relatively fragmented, spread across a very wide swath of territory in Central and South India, with several leadership centers and various movements and outfits. So it’s hard to generalize about the Maoists as a very coherent group or movement.
But what they are representing, if one can speak broadly, is this frustration, this disenchantment with many aspects of India today, especially one that presses down very hard on people who were never really part of modern India’s development, never part of any great plans. They were left alone in their forests, where they’ve lived for centuries and centuries. But now in the greed for resources, in this scramble for commodities, even people who have been allowed to basically maintain their lifestyles and continue their existence in these forests for a long time, even they are being disrupted, even they are being forced to leave. So people who are outside of the sort of administrative structures of the modern state, even they are now being affected by this sort of widespread greed of the multinational corporations and, of course, the institutions of state that are helping them. I think the Maoists are expressing this kind of resistance at this point.
DB: And across the border in Nepal, where you’ve traveled and reported on, there was a successful revolt. The centuries-old Hindu monarchy was overthrown. Do the Indian groups—I’m going to call them groups—that call themselves Maoist derive any inspiration, are they influenced at all by what happened in Nepal?
PM: Oh, yes. It has played a very important role in the political imagination of a lot of Maoists. And, of course a lot of the Nepalese Maoists have had direct contacts with their counterparts in India. Over the years, there has been constant dialogue between them. Not that they are working together, but there has been this sharing of experiences and everything.
At the same time, Nepal is a small country and it was much easier to carry out the overthrow of the monarchy which was an institution which had been ripe for ousting for decades and decades. It’s much easier to do that in Nepal than in India, where I think this whole fantasy of capturing state power is going to remain a fantasy, because India is just far too big for any one force, any one movement to take over the levers of the state. I think one reason why we haven’t had a revolution in India is because it’s too large, too complex, and too diverse.
In Orissa there’s a struggle going on around POSCO, the proposed South Korean steel plant. This is the largest single foreign investment in India. It has been met with blockades and nonviolent civil disobedience. And so far the people of that very poor area, have been successful in blocking this project from going forward.
This is the power of many of these movements of civil disobedience in India today. They have been extremely effective in checking this extremely arbitrary power given to corporations and the state. They can still bring to a grinding halt some of the most powerful mining and steel corporations in the world. That also sends out the message to other people who might think that India is a country like, let’s say, China or Singapore, where you can just go in and the state will do everything it can to expedite your investments and make you earn a good return on them, that India is a place where there are a lot of people who are going to fight very hard for their rights, and their right to live the kind of life they have been accustomed to living, the kind of life they want to live, and they are not going to be displaced. They don’t want to go and live in these nightmarish cement apartment blocks. This is not an option that is at all attractive to them. They would rather continue to live where they are. They do not want these cash inducements that are offered to them. It’s a very interesting instance of people affirming their right to a kind of lifestyle that doesn’t really partake of the supposed great benefits of consumer modernity.
DB: What do you see happening in Kashmir? Can the occupation go on indefinitely?
PM: I don’t think it can. It’s ultimately unsustainable in the sense that it can undermine many democratic institutions—it has already done that—and remain counterproductive. You can keep up the bare bones of the occupation, obviously. India has a very large army, so it can afford to keep that many people in the Valley and continue the occupation as long as it can, technically at least. But I think the price it is paying for that occupation in terms of the damage being done to civil rights and human rights, to the security infrastructure, to the future of democracy in India generally, that has just been too high a price to pay. I think if we continue to pay that high price, we’re just going to see a lot more violence, not just in Kashmir but also within India today, and a lot more repression at the same time, a lot more authoritarianism. In that sense I think the occupation is unsustainable, not because India can’t afford to have that many soldiers in the Valley.
DB: So the call for azaadi, for freedom, is still some distance away.
PM: Yes. And I think we have to specify what is meant by azaadi and in what context can it be realized. And there is not just one context. I think for an outsider, especially for an Indian citizen like myself, to say, “Look, azaadi is virtually impossible in the present circumstances, ” is a harsh thing to say, and I would hesitate in saying that. But the fact is that we have to think of innovative and creative ways in which we can think of azaadi, in which we can manifest the real meaning of azaadi, and not just think of yet another nation state which becomes this buffer zone between two hostile nation states, becomes hospitable to all kinds of imperialist interventions in the region.
We have to remember also that Kashmir itself is a multinational, a multiethnic, multireligious society, if we are thinking of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. So the whole idea of national self-determination there also has a different cast.
So there are all these complexities that open up once you start examining the idea of azaadi. As an aspiration for an end to brutal military rule, it makes perfect and clear sense. But I think when we start thinking about it slightly more deeply, about political alternatives, then we have to be slightly more creative than thinking along these lines, which have led India and Pakistan into the trap which we find ourselves in, which is these unwieldy nation states.
DB: What sources would you recommend for people to find out more about these issues?
PM: I would strongly recommend the writings of this new generation of Kashmiri writers. We’ve mentioned Basharat Peer and Mirza Waheed. Siddhartha Gigoo is an interesting young novelist. There are many more coming up. They’re writing their books now. We will hear from more of them in the years to come. That’s where one can look for accurate portrayals of life in Kashmir today, political possibilities for the future. I think we have to give up at this point, to be honest, on Indian and Pakistani versions of the Kashmiri problem.
DB: You mean the official narratives.
PM: Yes, and go straight to the source, because now, as I said, there are many more Kashmiri voices now available out there in the international arena. There is no excuse now for people to remain uninformed or misinformed about this issue.