Speaking Kashmir in India: A Cautiously Optimistic Note

Vanessa Chishti

The resounding victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections of 2014 and 2019 mark the culmination of longer-term processes in Indian politics that were clearly evident by the 1990s: the steady decline of the once hegemonic Congress party and, following an interregnum of coalition governments, the consolidation of the BJP’s political hegemony. The BJP, and the sangh parivar of which it is part, presents itself as heralding the long awaited realisation of a thwarted possibility: the creation of a strong Hindu Rashtra, which India was cheated of by the “Nehruvian interruption”.[1] The popular backlash against the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination, and the disarray in the Hindu right within the Congress following Sardar Patel’s death allowed Nehru’s vision, otherwise a minority tendency, to dominate the direction of the party, and the new state. The ‘Nehruvian consensus’, especially its commitment to secularism, and state-led capitalist development (mis-described in official mythology as “socialism”), is the target of much strident criticism in Hindutva rhetoric. It is blamed for caging the economic and cultural potential of India. In contrast, the BJP champions an unapologetic commitment to Hindutva and a more full-bodied embrace of neoliberal reform.[2]

To this end, the BJP government has enacted a number of policies: the Ayodhya verdict and the construction of the Ram Mandir, massive disinvestment of profitable public enterprises calculated to benefit corporate cronies, a serious dilution of India’s regime of labour laws, the absurd ‘triple talaq’ bill criminalizing a form of divorce which is already legally void, the enactment of three farm laws designed to deregulate agricultural markets and effectively facilitate a corporate takeover of agriculture, the abrogation of Article 370, and the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) together with proposals for a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). Most of these moves have gone more or less unchallenged thanks to the effeteness of the political opposition, the absence or weakness of peoples’ organizations, and the government’s relentless criminalization and repression of dissent. In Kashmir, an increased troop presence, incarceration of political leaders and activists, a punitive lockdown and a near total communications blackout prevented political demonstrations. On the CAA/NRC and the farm bills, however, the government has encountered spirited mass resistance which has halted (if only temporarily) implementation of these policies and prompted widespread questioning of a regime that was beginning to look invincible.

I offer in this piece some thoughts on how we may locate Kashmir in the midst of all this change and upheaval. In the first part of what follows, I discuss the significance of striking down Article 370 for the political project of Hindutva, and briefly trace the influence of the sangh parivar in shaping the broader national consensus on Kashmir. In the second part, I discuss the anti-CAA/NRC movement and the ongoing farmers movement and suggest that they signal important departures from conventions of politics and political discourse in India, including, perhaps, on the question of Kashmir.

II

Kitna accha lagta hai na?? 70 saal se jo apna kaam pending tha, ek jhatka main kar diya!!”. (Doesn’t it feel great? What was kept pending for seventy years was finished in an instant!).

Evident in the above statement, one of many that I overheard following the abrogation of Article 370, is a palpable sense of personal vindication (apna kaam) shared by many middle-class Hindus in North India. In this milieu, Kashmir is seen as a beautiful place wasted on an overindulged, and yet ungrateful and disloyal Muslim population. Though elements of it existed before, this notion crystallized in popular commonsense in the 1990s. Against the backdrop of the overt communalization of Indian politics, lurid depictions of the militancy in Bollywood films consolidated a hitherto diffuse suspicion into animosity. Through the 1960s, depictions of Kashmir as an eroticized landscape in Bollywood films generated intense national desire. From the 1990s onwards films such as Roja (released mere weeks after the demolition of the Babri Masjid) depicted the danger of this desired landscape being lost to ‘terrorists’.[3] As the sangh parivar’s[4] depiction of Muslims as fifth columnists plotting the territorial disintegration of India acquired vividness in public imagination, the spirit of Jagmohan’s description of the counterinsurgency as “collective punishment of a disloyal population” resonated deeply; Kashmir must be ‘protected’, no matter the cost to its people. It is a testament to the insidiously deep inroads the sangh parivar has made into commonsense that this view is widely held, even by many who do not support Hindutva ideology. Right from 1948, the sangh has framed the special status accorded to J&K, the only Muslim majority state in India, as an intolerable instance of minority appeasement. By destroying this enclave of privilege, then, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah showed themselves to be decisive leaders, unconcerned with pandering to Muslims.

The striking down of Article 370 has a particular resonance in the sangh parivar’s organizational memory. The Jammu Praja Parishad was founded in 1947 by Balraj Madhok, a member of the RSS. It was a reactionary political party that primarily represented the interests Hindu landlords, money lenders, traders, and former officials of the Maharaja, who was also the party’s chief benefactor. Guided by the RSS, which was banned at the time following Gandhi’s assassination, the Parishad campaigned for the full integration of J&K into India.[5] The mass slaughter that accompanied partition had made it amply clear that neither Pakistan nor the ostensibly secular India would be a hospitable home to religious minorities. The Parishad’s call resonated with Hindus in Jammu who feared the consequences of a pro-Pakistan verdict in a plebiscite. Had the elections to the J&K Constituent Assembly not been heavily manipulated by the NC, the Parishad would have likely won many seats from Jammu. It was the Delhi Agreement of 1952, which stopped well short of full integration, that catalyzed sporadic protests into a popular agitation led by the Parishad. Abdullah’s regime came down heavily on it, but where the repression of pro-Pakistan and pro-independence dissidents had been ignored or applauded, the repression of Parishad activists was met with outrage in Indian political circles and the media. As is well known in Kashmir, Abdullah was imprisoned, and shortly after, under G.M. Bakshi, the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly adopted a constitution declaring the state an ‘integral’ part of India. It is no small irony that this was the same assembly that the Hindu right itself had, quite legitimately, decried as fraudulently constituted.[6]

In addition to seeing it as an especially galling legacy of the Nehruvian interruption, the sangh parivar has treated Article 370 as an aspect of the broader ‘Muslim question’ in India. Alongside the Ram Mandir, the Uniform Civil Code, and the CAA/NRC, the abrogation of Article 370 has for decades been a core Hindutva agenda. Each of these is critical to remaking India as a Hindu Rashtra: Ram Mandir as restitution for imagined historical wrongs, the CAA/NRC to introduce a religious basis into citizenship, and the UCC and repeal of Article 370 to remove the so-called special treatment of minorities. The essential operational elements of the BJP’s Kashmir policy are barely distinguishable from that of previous regimes: armed force, client regimes, and the proactive destruction of any independent political opposition. What distinguishes the BJP, however, is its ‘programmatic’ communalism. Which is quite unlike the ‘pragmatic’ communalism of the Congress. While the Congress has intermittently stoked anti-Muslim violence, while also patronizing Muslim leaders to mobilize votes, the sangh parivar aims for the systematic political disenfranchisement of Muslims. The BJP’s electoral strategy across India has been to render Muslims irrelevant as an electoral force.[7] The process of delimitation currently underway in Kashmir and Jammu, which is expected to manipulate electoral constituencies to reduce the number of assembly seats from Muslim majority areas, marks a major advance in this direction.

The national consensus in India on the political status of Kashmir — that accession is final and above question — spans virtually the entire political spectrum, including the putatively secular and liberal sections of political opposition and civil society. Sadly, the progressive end of the political spectrum is also not outside the consensus entirely. While some are outspoken in their criticism of militarization and its attendant excesses, few question the politics of India’s presence in Kashmir. In 2014, as JNU (my home for several years) fought back against a vicious attack by the BJP government, following slogans of azaadi at a program on Kashmir, an integrationist rhetoric dominated an otherwise vibrant and sophisticated political conversation.[8] Azaadi was glossed as “Bharat main azaadi”, as opposed to “Bharat se azaadi”. Outside of small and increasingly beleaguered circles of students, intellectuals, and activists (the ‘urban naxals’), any question about Kashmir’s political status is practically unspeakable. It is hardly surprising then that the abrogation of Article 370 was met with studied silence or feeble protest. Some criticized the cloak and dagger nature of the operation, others lamented the lockdown and the internet shutdown as excessive, few questioned the validity of the move itself, and virtually none dared broach the subject of Kashmir’s political status. Most of the opposition was falling all over itself to be seen applauding the move.

III

In his analysis of why fascism, an avowedly pro-capitalist ideology, won mass support among the German working class despite being demonstrably against their material interests, Wilhelm Reich describes fascist ideology as a “mixture of rebellious emotions and reactionary social ideas”.[9] Fascism tapped into the anger and frustration felt by working class people, but offered a false resolution: it misdirected these emotions at Jews, and away from the ruling class, ultimately preserving capitalist class relations. Although the sangh parivar employs a socially inclusive language to emphasize Hindu unity, it is at its core a Brahminical, patriarchal project which can only incorporate the vast majority of the Hindu population — women, Dalits, OBCs and tribals — as inferiors.[10] Further, the BJP advocates a mercenary pursuit of neoliberalism. How do we understand the popular appeal of Hindutva, beyond the upper class, upper caste elite whose narrow interests it represents? Herein lies the significance of the “Gujarat model”. Narendra Modi’s success in breaking an electoral coalition of Muslims and lower castes engineered by the Congress demonstrated that violence against Muslims could mask “internal” contradictions by displacing them onto an ‘external’ enemy.[11] Although carnage on the scale of 2002 has not repeated since, the use of communalism to break lower caste and Muslim alliances that threaten to edge out upper castes has become standard. The animosity directed at Muslims (and other ‘anti-nationals’) is then, partially at least, an expression of rebellious emotions turned to perversely reactionary ends.[12]

The anti-CAA/NRC movement and the farmers movement have begun to upend this false resolution and turn rebellious emotions the right side up; together they constitute a deep renewal of emancipatory politics in India. The anti-CAA/NRC movement, led by Muslim women, has defended India’s secular constitution, and has in the process revivified the public discourse on secularism, interpreting it as an ethic of respectful, democratic coexistence and not just an anemic state ideology. Described by many as suffused by a maternal wisdom, Shaheen Bagh (the first, most visible and therefore best documented of over 120 such protest sites) was witness to deeply moving gestures of solidarity as people of all faiths heeded their call; langar by Sikh farmers from Punjab, inter-faith prayer, an invitation to Kashmiri Pandits to share their experiences of loss and dislocation.[13] Usually only visible in Indian political discourse as abject victims[14], Muslim women outflanked community leaders who are content with deriving advantage from their influence over Muslim votes without raising substantive issues. They broke the stigma associated with Muslim political mobilization in India. The farmers movement, led by left-wing farm unions who also form the core of its organized strength, is fighting a wave of accumulation by dispossession that threatens millions of precarious livelihoods. It has refocused attention on the government and corporate interests it represents, and is demanding wider reforms to address the agrarian crisis. Their emphasis on shared material interests has successfully cut through the vitriolic communal rhetoric of the sangh. Mahapanchayats have been held in Muzaffarnagar, the site of anti-Muslim riots in 2013, which were attended by tens of thousands of people, Hindus and Muslims, expressing regret at the killings, roaring pledges of communal amity and announcing boycotts of the BJP.

Perturbed by the electric impact of the anti-CAA/NRC movement, the BJP turned to its usual failsafe — religious polarization. It engineered the Delhi riots and proceeded to unlawfully imprison several young activists. In the farmers movement, however, the BJP confronts an adversary that it has not been able to silence, delegitimize or crush. This resilience is in large part due to the organized character of the radical left wing farm unions that are leading the movement. It also has to do with the fact that a majority of the protesting protesters belong to socially dominant castes — the very same social milieu (predominantly Haryana and Punjab) from which the Indian Army recruits a majority of it soldiers. This alone diminishes the ability of the government to use force to break up the protest. Attempts at branding the farmers as ‘terrorists’ (khalistanis) and ‘anti-nationals’ have been singularly ineffective and have, instead, prompted a veritable explosion of rebellious conversation — on social media, in chaupals and market squares.[15] All winter in 2020, I spent hundreds of hours, transfixed, watching interviews of protesting farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh on YouTube. The farmers, many of them former BJP supporters, went beyond critiquing the farm bills — they offered a systematic critique of the regime itself.

To my surprise, many of the farmers (and not just the ones from Punjab!) questioned the abrogation of Article 370, and the lockdown and internet shut down in Kashmir and Jammu. In one video, a jaat man from Haryana speaking about the internet shut down at the protest sites on the borders of Delhi said, “They always tell us that Kashmiris are terrorists and that is why the internet is shut down there. They are calling us terrorists! Now I know they shut down the internet to prevent people from talking to one another, and to defeat peoples’ movements. Who knows what is really happening in Kashmir?” I had to wonder: how would politics in, and politics about Kashmir be different if Kashmiris were not totally dehumanized in the eyes of the Indian electorate? The ideological edifice that legitimizes the excesses of the Indian establishment is far from shaken, but this is the closest I have seen it come to trembling in the last two decades. I don’t want to make too much of this possibility, for the legacies of history are bitter and not easily forgotten, but I will watch peoples’ movements in India with a very cautious optimism.

[1] Satish Deshpande, “Hindutva and its Spatial Strategies”, Contemporary India: A Sociological View, (New Delhi: Penguin, 2004), pp. 81-82.

[2] This contrast is, of course, deliberately overdrawn; both the secular and the dirigiste character of the Indian state were always marked by ambiguity, and had been substantially eroded well before the BJP emerged as a major national player. That said, it is important not to make too much, or too little of the difference between the political hegemonies of the Congress and the BJP. See: Achin Vanaik, “India’s Two Hegemonies”, New Left Review, Vol. 112, (July/August 2018), 29-59. (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii112/articles/achin-vanaik-india-s-two-hegemonies)

[3] Tejaswini Niranjana, “Integrating Whose Nation? Tourists and Terrorists in ‘Roja’”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jan. 15, 1994), pp. 79-82.

[4] Sangh Parivar is an umbrella term for the Hindu nationalist organisations.

[5] Undoubtedly motivated by the fact that big landlords in Jammu and Kashmir were dispossessed without compensation, whereas this was not the case in India.

[6] Vanessa Chishti, “Kashmir: The Long Descent”, Catalyst, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter 2020), pp. 101-129.

[7] Unsurprisingly, the representation of Muslims among Lok Sabha MPs waxes and wanes in proportion to the BJPs electoral fortunes and is currently at an all-time low. For an illuminating discussion of Muslim representation see: Ghazala Jamil, ‘Who Can Represent Muslims in Electoral Politics? Debates in the Muslim Public Sphere’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 54, Issue No. 17 (27 Apr. 2019). (https://www.epw.in/engage/article/who-can-represent-muslims-electoral-politics)

[8] Explicit ‘Kashmir as integral part of India’ statements apart, this integrationist rhetoric takes many forms: descriptions of the question as one of ‘internal’ colonialism, a ‘federal’ or ‘regional’ question, eliding the difference between demands for statehood (such as Telangana) and demands for secession, lamenting the tragedy of the state killing ‘its own people’ and so on.

[9] For a brief but illuminating exposition on Reich’s ideas, see: Jairus Banaji, “The Political Culture of Fascism”, Historical Materialism. 19 Feb. 2017. (https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/political-culture-fascism)

[10] For an insider account of the RSS by a former member see: Bhanwar Meghwanshi, I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS, (New Delhi: Navayana, 2020).

[11] Ornit Shani, Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence in Gujarat, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[12] For a general discussion of the cathartic functions of violence in Indian politics, see: Thomas Blom Hansen, The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics, (New Delhi: Aleph, 2021).  

[13] Seema Mustafa (ed.), Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality. (New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2020).

[14] The flip side of this, of course, is the long standing and plainly self-interested refusal by male ‘community’ leaders to address questions of gender justice, citing the looming threat of majoritarianism. For a brief and insightful comment on this and related issues see: Albeena Shakil, “Need Both Gender Justice and Minority Rights, Not Either Or!”, The Leaflet.  (https://www.theleaflet.in/specialissues/need-both-gender-justice-and-minority-rights-not-either-or-by-albeena-shakil/).

[15] National Dastak is one of many YouTube channels that covered the protests. This channel is especially interesting because their reporters covered the Ghazipur border site most extensively — where most of the protestors are from Western UP.


Dr. Vanessa Chishti is an Associate Professor at Jindal Global Law School. Her areas of interest include modern South Asian history, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Feminist political economy, and theories of social reproduction. Her Ph.D. thesis entitled ‘Articulating Kashmir: Commodity Economy and the Politics of Representation c.1770-1930’ offers a historical political economy of modern Kashmir and is currently under revision for publication into a book manuscript of the same title.

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