An Empty Signifier

  • Arif Ayaz Parrey
  • Publish Date: Jan 30 2017 8:36PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Jan 30 2017 8:36PM
An Empty Signifier

                                                       Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi

By promoting it as the only Kashmiri identity outside Kashmir, “Kashmiriyat” has been reduced to a hollowed-out term


Is there something essential about the Kashmiri identity? Essentialization is tricky, because it is always under attack from time and space. No sooner have you grabbed the sand rope of an identity in your hand that it slips through like the rumours of the existence of a past. The markers of an identity are metamorphosed as much by the alchemy of time as they are by the expansion or reduction of the geographical area that identity sprawls on.

But the proud mountains around Kashmir have historically given it an imperviousness conducive for the development of a unique identity. The mountains are so tall that even time dare not try crossing them often.

Within this bowl, cut off from nebrim (external) time and space, a relatively homogenized culture has had the opportunity to simmer in its own juices. Substantial portions of what has been cooking in the Kashmir valley keep spilling into the smaller valleys surrounding it. Kistwar-Baderwah-Doda, Poonch-Rajouri, Kargil, Muzaffarabad, Neelam valley-Gilgit, and the broth from these valleys keeps spilling back into Kashmir, thus introducing new flavours into Kashmir.

As a matter of fact, the notion of mixing might describe the essence of Kashmiri identity better than any notion of purity. Placed as it is on the cusp of three great civilizations (great only in their span, not value, civilization may yet be a plague)—Central Asian, Sino-Tibetan and Indic—Kashmir is one of the only regions of the world where a powerful migrating people have never attempted to kill the native population off en masse (India might be the first). This has resulted in the admixing of a lot of blood in Kashmir, from the earliest migrants from beyond the Khyber, to the citizens of the Indus-valley and the nagvanshis, to migrants from the south, first the Brahmins, then the Buddhists, then Brahmins again, to Chinese and Tibetan monks and traders, and then repeat waves from Central Asia, the subcontinent and China ad nauseam. They all keep coming and making Kashmir their only home.

To make this possible, a unique cultural apparatus has developed in Kashmir. It is marked by hospitality, unusual circumspection, a strong sense of uniqueness bordering superiority, and extreme self-awareness about what makes us unique.

Hospitality is obviously a key, and we are “world famous” for ours. You cannot have such a rich gene pool without the residents welcoming guests, century after century. As true hospitality generates a proclivity to go places, Kashmiris are also fond of travel and will never forgive anyone who restricts our movement. (When India introduced those barbed wires in and around Kashmir, preventing free movement, it only tightened the noose of Kashmiri hatred around its neck.)This freedom to be hosts and travellers of our own accord is at the heart of the political struggle for Azadi.

The harsh climate and time-stopping mountains have made Kashmiris an unusually circumspect people. Vagaries of climate – political and natural – render it as heaven or a drought at different times. So we adjust accordingly. In the best of times, it means not putting all our eggs in a single basket. In the worst of times, it can also mean not being able to make a decisive move when making one is critical. But it also means never making a decision accepting a final defeat. Untiring resistance to force and injustice is a way of life here.

Being cut off from the rest of the world from upto eight months for most of its history, Kashmir has also developed a strong sense of its uniqueness, which borders on chauvinism. It is exacerbated by a few factors. One, the territory of Kashmir is well-defined. Two, the people around us, particularly in the south and west, are obsessed with the idea of purity, and it takes a lot not to feel superior to such pedestrian chauvinism. Three, these very people in our south and west feed our ego by calling us a pure race.

But Kashmiris are and always have been extremely self-aware that what makes us unique is our diversity and not purity. Nor is this diversity like that great Indian trick of “unity in diversity”. Our diversity is organic and natural, literally in our blood. 

In recent years, particularly after the armed uprising in the 1990s, and the international focus it generated, India has felt the need to better justify its rule over Kashmir. Many things have been tried; many more will be in the coming days. In search of such justifications, one of the more important projects has been the discourse of Kashmiriyat.

What is Kashmiriyat? No one knows because, as mentioned earlier, Kashmiri identity has been so spontaneous and organic that we never felt the need to have a name for it. One was simply Koshur. That was enough. 

Another reason no one has a clue what Kashmiriyat means is that the Indian government, both in J&K and in New Delhi, uses it as a stock phrase to deflect crises or to attack opponents. As such, in a glaring example of bad politics, the very state that wants to nurture it in Kashmir and promote it as the only Kashmiri identity outside Kashmir, has hollowed-out the term to a point where it has become an empty signifier, a placeholder for discursive ineptitude.

Consider the two significant occasions Mehbooba Mufti has used the phrase in the last few months. When SAS Geelani refused to open the door for an Indian parliamentary delegation that had come to draw the blinds on the crimes of the state forces (who had killed dozens and blinded hundreds of protestors and bystanders by then) at the peak of 2016 uprising, Mehbooba said that not opening the door was against Kashmiriyat. In January this year, Mehbooba said in Jammu that Jammu had become an example of Kashmiriyat because it “provided a home to all the people of Kashmir, including Kashmiri Pandits, Kashmir Muslims and Kashmiri Sikhs.” She decried the Hurriyat leadership for opposing separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits in the valley.

So, going by her definition alone, Kashmiriyat is welcoming killers inside your home and allowing the fragmentation of the land and people of Kashmir on ethnic lines. If that is the case, then it is a positive development that she thinks Kashmiriyat has moved south from the valley to Jammu. Good riddance! Hopefully it will continue its southward journey to where it came from.