Kashmir, the fiction Indians know all about Kashmir

  • Aditya Sinha
  • Publish Date: Jan 19 2016 1:01PM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 12 2016 6:55PM
Kashmir, the fiction Indians know all about Kashmir

Indians know all about Kashmir. Thanks to mainstream television – news, advertisements, movie reruns, and all the rest of it – we the people of India know everything that is there to know about this valley. Indians know, for a fact, that once upon a time, all was peaceful and idyllic in this paradisiacal valley and apple cheeked girls forever batted their eyelids in head-to-toe Shalimar Bagh tourist costumes as they rowed through the lotus strewn lakes, shyly smiling at men falling over into the water while crooning Mohd Rafi songs at them. Indians know, for a fact, that the set and the scene then changed, and instead of star crossed lovers, now there were only young men that looked like Hrithik Roshan and Aamir Khan who insisted on blowing up bridges or killing Indian soldiers, preferably during Republic Day parades. Indians know, for a fact, that if there is a terrorist attack in the country, it is most likely a Kashmiri who is behind it, or at the very least, a Pakistani who executed the attack with the help of a Kashmiri. Indians know, for a fact, that the only thing between a Kashmiri or a Kashmiri-Pakistani or a Pakistani-Kashmiri blowing us up is our brave jawans, who – apni jaan ki parwah na karte hue – are holding them down, maintaining peace.

For those who might know other facts, maybe because they actually live in this paradisiacal valley of terrorists or because they have bothered to visit and spend some time outside of the Mughal Gardens or the perimeter of the Dal, this deeply shared Knowledge of Kashmir is annoying for being ill-informed and simplistic, but not much more. There is perception and there is reality and when the two flow like the Jhelum and the Indus, there will be no meeting. It isn’t ideal but it is what it is. Black is black, white is white.

So when the flow changes and Indus and Jhelum rush to meet each other, and Indian television tries to swim with the current, one has to wonder and say, wait a minute. What just happened there.

It can be said plainly that while appropriation of Kashmir’s landscape into a mainstream Indian narrative, which is to say an integrationist, nationalist, jingoistic, and touristic narrative, is nothing new, what is mighty curious is a new wave of cultural production that is trying to reconcile the happy valley with the valley of terrorists. The result? Tall tales that stretch your imagination, and the warm fuzzy cuddly comforts of deniability.

It could be because, in spite of best efforts, news has leaked out that we have not quite been the model Gandhian nation when it comes to treating Kashmiris. Indians have heard whispers of rape and torture committed by, of all horrors, our brave jawans, though it has never been proven, and while most likely false, there is no smoke without fire. Then there are television discussions (shouting matches/cock fights/hissing competitions) about AFSPA, a complicated matter really, but something to do with how the Army – yup, brave jawans, the very same ones – behaves with the people they are supposed to protect. Yes, yes, we know it’s most likely that they only rape and beat and torture and murder the Hrithik Roshans and Aamir Khans (and now, the Shahid Kapoors) who would have blown up the neighbourhood school in Vasant Vihar, or maybe the Parliament, but still yaar. Not all of them. Also, thanks to their own contemptible transgressions in all spheres of governance, the Government is not an entity Indians want to believe in toto, and therefore will listen to others – say, like the journalist Manu Joseph – when they say Kashmiris, actually, are very happy people, a real nice bunch, who top IAS exams, dream of KFC burgers and who have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Azadi and plebiscite or Pakistan.

And, so ICICI will sell you “unexpected rewards” while showing cute Kashmiri kids prancing through meadows to the tune of the classic koshur ditty hukus bukus teli wan chukus, and Havell’s will feature a bright little teenage girl on a quest to serve her pheran-clad Kashmiri father hot food. On the big screen, Nargis Fakhri will dress up as a pretty (harmless) Kashmiri bride in Rockstar, and Kailash Kher will sing songs filled with lament and with images of beautiful Kashmiris in pastoral landscapes interspersed with shuttered shops in presumable curfews.

The message is clear. Yes, we know there is trouble. But it is still a beautiful place, we now see – and care about – the fact that there are Kashmiris in Kashmir, who are also beautiful, and we want to reclaim what is lost – yaadan teriyan, as Kher croons – together. People to People zindabaad, everything else is politics, keep it aside, take it away. Haider takes it farther, singing openly about the abuses of AFSPA, but decides that the Kashmiri political action is really a personal reaction. In its sympathy and willingness to understand the protagonist’s rage through an irrelevant and manipulative plot that answers to a dead poet’s literary imagination, Haider is a textbook example of this new confessional attitude of Indians to Kashmir.

It is like Indians are saying look, we are not bad people, we don’t want blood on our hands, not all of you are terrorists, we don’t like all this communal nonsense, come let’s dance in each others arms and sing songs on top of mountains. And when the floods come, you will see that it is my brave jawan who will come scoop you out of the water, never mind that there is case to argue that excessive militarization might well be causing the floods. We admit there have been some bad apples, but really, most of them are juicy oranges.

And that brings us to the Olx ad, voted as a ‘Best’ by The Economic Times/Brand Equity panel of consumers who rate commercials each week. There is already even a sequel. The message? Yes, there is army, there are camps, and there are guns. But really, it’s happy friendship day every day. Bashir and Brave Jawan are buddies who hang out all the time, run into each other’s localities and love each other to bits.

Since this is being published in Kashmir, it would be a waste of space to spell out the reality. It would be much too obvious to say oh but he would have been shot dead hundred meters outside the camp, or that the brave jawan might well have been shot at in that shop he hangs out at night. It would be crude to point out that when Bashir asks for a party and the soldier says, what party, I will give my life, people think about Tral and Uri and Pulwama and 2010 and Afzal Guru.

But for Indians fed on stories about the kindness of Kashmiris during Amarnath Yatra, or memories from their own holidays to the valley, it all makes complete sense. Kashmiris are generous to a fault, the cliche about being the most hospitable people on earth merely a factual description. Into this narrative, how do you unpack the Olx ad, which lies halfway between ignorance and chicanery.

What the Olx ad inadvertently falls into is an old trope that the military uses: Sadbhavna. There is nothing innocent, warm, or fuzzy about Operation Sadbhavna. It is what it is called: an operation. Imagine its devilish purpose: to persuade a population that never mind our constant surveillance and violent acts of disciplining, we really only want to win your hearts and minds.  As the saying goes, “get them by their balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Yes, without a doubt, the army and the paramilitary do good work – they build roads and bridges, provide relief during disasters, fund schools, and even take Kashmiri kids on “national integration tours”. But, as that great orator-politician who recently went to Oxford to argue that Britain owes reparations to India for colonising it said, “it’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.”, adding that “many countries have built railways and roads without having to be colonized in order to do so.”

Maybe somebody in Kashmir should make a time capsule and store away that quote to be used in a future debate (200 years hence?) on whether India owes Kashmir reparations for its military occupation, despite all the Sadbhavna.

I tried arguing all this with a friend – a dear friend, an usually reasonable friend, a friend I went to college with. He was greatly impressed by the ad and its message. We went back and forth for a while, his primary retort to all that I said to him being I was biased – for a fact! – because I had spent too much time with Kashmiris. I said, well, that could mean that I am biased in favour of the reality, couldn’t it?

And then he made his final argument, leaving me stunned and without any comeback:

“It’s not about the reality at all” he said. He meant to say that this was ‘just an ad’ that had nothing to do with politics, a feel-good commercial about human connections and e-commerce. Why get caught up with all the difficult stuff, the “reality”.

Where do you go from there. I had to admit he was right. For the vast majority of us in India, it is not about the reality at all. In fact, when it comes to Kashmir there is no reality to begin with. Kashmir is a lost idea, a vagueness that Indians can no longer grasp, the tangle of images, the shards of fact, splintered by a quarter century of fictions, made into an impenetrable fog. Good only for a Vishal Bharadwaj to set 16th century romances in.

In his book of essays, Birds of Heaven, the Nigerian author Ben Okri writes “Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

I have a bad feeling about the script we are now writing.

(Abhijit Dutta is a freelance writer)