Innovating our way to Azadi

  • Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad
  • Publish Date: Aug 17 2017 1:36AM
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  • Updated Date: Aug 17 2017 1:36AM
Innovating our way to Azadi

Technological disobedience can be a potent political tool in the resistance movement


In his book The Prince, the 16th century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that "innovation" was imperative for both governing people and misleading them. To him, innovation was a resource for dealing with change and overcoming uncertainty. Kashmir, where the people are ruled through political deceit, policy coercion, bullying and even brute force, too has witnessed such innovation –in the inimitable ways that people have responded to vicious state actions. This is one with how oppressed people elsewhere have responded to state-sponsored viciousness. To overcome the hegemonic narratives of the state and its elite, communities across the world have developed indigenous knowledge systems to either escape the oppression or subvert the status quo.

In Korea, for instance, "self-made inventors" posed a serious challenge to Japanese colonialism in the 1920-30s. These home-grown innovators not only upended the Japanese narrative of invention being a "universal activity" bereft of local specificity, they also effectively connected their indigenous innovations with the questions of self-reliance and Korean nationalism. The idea was so powerful and the movement it spawned so successful that the elite sponsored by the colonial power rulers were compelled to concede that “invention is a native process, culturally embedded, incremental, and could be undertaken by anyone who would persevere through the long process of trial and error”.

Similarly, after the Communist revolution in 1959, Cuba faced a technological drought as foreign capital and companies, opposed to Fidel Castro’s new progressive policies, left the country. Undaunted, the new minister of industry Che Guevara introduced a new paradigm: Cuban innovators simply started breaking up and recreating things, mostly from the scrap. This “reparation, refunctionalisation, and reinvention showed leaps of imagination in opposition to the concepts of innovation favored by the logic of Western mass production,” Ernesto Oroza wrote in Technological Disobedience. "Cubans began to bring this repair-mindset home, turning their own households into laboratories." Orozo described how an “electrician would, during his day shift, repair the engine of a Soviet MIG15 jet fighter and, in the evening -- faced with a country-wide shortage of matches -- build an electric lighter out of a pen and light bulb." It was this "technological disobedience" that helped Cuba survive a near 50-year-long economic blockade imposed by the United States.

In Kashmir, innovation and invention is not as widespread a norm as in revolutionary Cuba, yet, historically, people have responded to state savagery quite imaginatively. After the Afghans invaded Kashmir in 1753, they not only destroyed local industries and appropriated the nation's abundant resources, but also imposed a back-breaking tax system, including “dagshawl”, an excise tax on shawls. Many historians have noted that this exorbitant tax system became “such a burden for the poor shawl weavers that some of them preferred death to the weaver’s profession”. In order to evade tax on Kani shawl, a couple of ingenious innovators introduced a radically different shawl and named it Amlikar. It would not only take less time to weave than Kani shawl but also remained outside the ambit of the usurious tax system.

A more recent instance of technological disobedience in Kashmir is Ghulam Nabi Ahangar's radio station, set up in Dailgam, Islamabad, in 1971, to counter what he termed as state propaganda. For daring to undertake this creative attempt at resistance, he had to endure harassment and intimidation by state and non-state actors. The singing lantern, created in 2007 by the self-made inventor Ghulam Mohammad Mir, is another marvel of Kashmir's technological disobedience. Mir, who comes from a humble family in Kokernag in South Kashmir was tired of the embarrassment he felt every time the Indian army raided his house during the 1990s and found him sleeping naked. The singing lantern, powered by a dry battery, had a remote sensor that would alert him to any human movement near his house in Sagaam village.  

Kashmir has produced many such innovators, most of them, who have dared to disrupt the status quo by not complying with the rules of an "ordered" universe that the rulers crafted for them. Their choices are arbitrary and random, and thus may not adhere to any definable criterion. In his book Economics and Culture, David Thorsby argued that such maverick acts are calculatingly anti- rational.

Sadly, in Kashmir, we haven’t tried to effectively capture such creatively "recalcitrant" and "disobedient" attempts in the conventional Azadi discourse. The nuances of such anti-rational choices are not even properly understood. And this inattention has enabled various outside "sympathetic" organisations to exploit or misappropriate the inventive and artistic potential of our local innovator. Lately, we have seen that many non-Kashmir based organisations, under the pretext of helping local innovators, have started mishandling their innovations. In sum, Kashmiri creativity is politically coerced and resolutely dampened.  


Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad is co-editor of the book Informal Sector Innovations: Insights from Global South. Feedback at