Kashmir lays India bare. Old clichés of democracy, constitution, free media now look very shallow – A conversation with Sanjay Kak

5 June 2020

Sanjay Kak is a film maker and writer based in New Delhi. His latest work includes ‘Witness / Kashmir 1986-2016 / Nine Photographers’ (Yaarbal Books, 2017) and ‘Red Ant Dream—Mati Ke Lal’ (2014). His documentary ‘Jashn e Azadi—How We Celebrate Freedom’ (2007) was a scathing indictment of the Indian state in Kashmir, breaking the news of the valley’s mass graves. He also edited ‘Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir’ (Penguin 2011 and Haymarket 2013), an anthology that covered the Kashmir conflict in the backdrop of the 2010 anti-India uprising.

Abid Bhat is a freelance photojournalist based in Srinagar. He tweets @bhat_abid

Nawaz Gul Qanungo tweets @nawazqanungo

The press in Kashmir has witnessed rather extraordinary times of late, even by its own standards: journalists facing India’s anti-terror law followed by three of their colleagues receiving the Pulitzer Prize. What possibilities, if at all, remain for media under such violent state attack? We discuss with film maker Sanjay Kak.

‘It’s not that the memorable photographs prove something. But they do open windows in the minds of the viewer, even very tiny ones, make them understand what Kashmiris experience. That’s what the young soldier at the barricade is looking for, too: the subversive image.’ In picture, protesters in Srinagar throw stones at Indian soldiers, 20 August 2019. Photo by ABID BHAT

Nawaz Gul Qanungo: I can’t help asking first of all: the Pulitzer couldn’t have come at a better moment. What crossed your mind on hearing the news? It completely electrified the space here; does it make a difference on the ground too?

Sanjay Kak: The Pulitzer for the Associated Press photographers is an extraordinary achievement, but it also became an extraordinary event, because of what everyone read into it, and the way the media, especially in India, reflected it. Think of it like one of those ink-blot tests that were so popular with psychologists in the 1960s! My own delight had an extra edge I’ll admit, because Dar Yasin is a friend, and he is of course one of the nine amazing Kashmiri photographers whose work is curated in Witness, the photo-book we published at Yaarbal Books.

In India most things to do with Kashmir have come to gather a weight and valence that is quite out of proportion. That’s probably because Kashmir has become the thin skin that lays India bare before the world. The protection offered by the old trusted clichés—largest democracy in the world, constitutional proprieties, free media—all these have started to look very shallow.

That said, in Kashmir, amongst Kashmiris the world over, and even amongst those who simply are in sympathy with the struggles of the people of Kashmir, for all of them the timing could not have been better. In the ‘New Kashmir’ imposed on its people in August last year, following the abrogation of the region’s—admittedly limited—autonomy, the pressure on the media has intensified to an alarming degree. We are no more talking just of newspaper editors and owners feeling the heat. That is a done deal, through a complex mix of financial and coercive means, and I’d say that New Delhi has pretty much managed to break the back of whatever nominal independence the media in Kashmir had secured for itself. In this round it looks like they’re targeting reporters and photojournalists, those on the frontlines of the news gathering business. These are the people who are being called in for questioning by the counter-insurgency police, and booked under the most draconian provisions in the law, like the UAPA, meant to tackle ‘terrorism’. And in at least three recent cases, journalists have been incarcerated for long periods of time.

So the news of this Pulitzer arrives in Kashmir on the back of a year when things have been really really bad for journalists. Of course it was received with pride in the achievement of ‘our own,’ but also much more. It was seen as a validation of the stories that had made it out of Kashmir, and it was seen as a salute to all those who report the stories that the Indian state does not want carried to the world. It became a Pulitzer that thousands of Kashmiris claimed, a prize that was seen as given not simply to three photographers, but as if to Kashmir’s truth. And for the young journalists and photographers, who had begun to feel anxious and fearful with the charges and arrests, it was certainly a big morale booster.

In India the official reaction seemed predictable, at least initially. They tried to ignore it, and the mainstream media took its cues from there. But once Pulitzer made the citation public, that became impossible. Let me read it to you: “For striking images captured during a communications blackout in Kashmir depicting life in the contested territory after India stripped it of its semi-autonomy.” The reference to the communications blackout they might have been able to live with, but “contested territory”? “Stripped of its semi-autonomy”? Those words are like hand-grenades to the Indian establishment. The Associated Press (AP) didn’t make it easier, when its President thanked the team because of whom “the world was able to witness a dramatic escalation of the long struggle over the region’s independence.” That last sentence is more than a grenade for the Indian establishment, that’s nothing less than a Stinger missile! And that is precisely how the Indian media played it up: the outrage was so enormous, and so full of manufactured rage, that one thought the anchors and panelists might simply choke on their own bile.

Does the Pulitzer change anything on the ground, or make photographers and journalists much safer? Well it gives them some visibility which is good, and offers protection. But it also sharpens the anxieties of those charged with controlling the narrative that emerges out of Kashmir. That can never be good… When in power, anxious people are also unstable, unpredictable people. So while prizes do not and cannot change the ground realities, it’s good reporting, writing, and images that can certainly affect them.

‘Communication shutdowns are not really to prevent militants from using these channels. But to prevent people from reaching out to each other, to break affinities and solidarities. Most of all, to prevent news and images from travelling out of Kashmir.’ File photo by ABID BHAT

It’s been a long time since we started hearing about people’s phones being confiscated by the police and their photo and video galleries erased. What is it about the image that makes it so powerful, what is so ‘dangerous’ about it?

In these, what are sometimes fashionably described as our “post-truth” times, isn’t it fascinating how much charge a single image, or 15 seconds of video, can carry? At check posts in Kashmir, especially in the rural areas, the military are not only frisking young men for arms, or ammunition. Most of the time they’re looking for their phones, coercing them into opening them, and then deleting images that the soldiers do not approve of. If the content meets with their disapproval, then you can be sure that there will be the mandatory slaps. But if it moves into what might be considered politically challenging, it might even turn into physical beating. We know that these frequent and long-running shutdowns of mobile networks in Kashmir, and of the internet generally, these are not really done to prevent militants from using these channels, as we are constantly told. Certainly not. These are enforced to prevent people from reaching out to each other, to sharing news, and they are meant to break affinities and solidarities. Most of all, they are meant to prevent news and images from travelling out of Kashmir.

Many things make an image “dangerous,” and it is not the evidentiary value alone that makes an image potent. So it’s not the fact that policemen are trying to break up a funeral procession that makes an image memorable, but the posture of the father trying to shield his son’s body on the bier that makes it pierce people’s imaginations. In the same way we all know of the protests, we know that young women do take part in them. But it is the hijab-wearing college student, fancy sneakers in place, throwing a stone that people remember, because the photograph carries the ferocity in her body language. So I’d say that most often it’s not that the memorable photographs prove something. What they do is to open windows in the minds of the viewer, even very tiny ones, make them think, make them understand for themselves what people in Kashmir are experiencing. That’s what the young soldier scrolling through the phone at the barricade is looking for, too, that’s what makes those images subversive.

‘We all know young women take part in protests, but it’s the hijab-wearing college student throwing a stone that people remember, because the photograph carries the ferocity in her body language.’ File photo by ABID BHAT

What do you make of the latest developments—the charges against the young photographer Masrat Zahra, and more senior journalists like Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani? This of course is not a first—Kamran Yousuf was in prison for months while Aasif Sultan is still languishing in prison. And there are others. But these have usually been under the façade of accusations of activities outside of journalism—helping stone-pelters (Kamran), helping militants (Aasif). This time around, however, they’ve simply been charged for, well, performing their journalistic duties…

I think the threat of the application of draconian laws such as the UAPA for circulating a not-very-recent image of a protest, or for the language used in an Instagram caption, which is what happened with photographer Masrat Zahra, this is much more than an interference in the performance of journalistic duties. In her case they did not even use the word “journalist” about her, she was charged just for doing what she had done, as an individual using the social media. I see these as signals meant to terrorise young people, and stem the circulation of ideas at the very source, in the spaces where those thoughts are first generated.

While the charges against the two journalist you mention, Kamran and Aasif, are flimsy, because the UAPA is invoked we can be sure that long periods of incarceration as an undertrial will be built into the sequence. Kamran is now out, but Aasif was picked up more than 20 months ago and he’s still in detention… However, I don’t think this attempt to shut down people’s voices, or their imaginations, has worked in the past, and I don’t think it will work in the future. In Kashmir this present phase of the struggle is now 30 years old. Every time we have seen a generation get exhausted by the pressure, and the constant sense of being embattled, new people take their place. That is how it is with journalists and photographers too. I’m constantly surprised by the new bylines that you see emerging from Kashmir, both in print and image—sharp, focused, journalistically sound. The fact that the state finds their point of view problematic is not going to stem this flow.

From the authorities’ perspective, consider the sheer scale of the lockdown last year post 5 August and how successful it was to keep the street out of bounds for most. There was terribly bad press globally, but wasn’t that expected? The state cannot achieve an airtight situation where no information goes out at all, there are after all people at work on the ground who have been documenting Kashmir since decades now and it’s not just the journalists. Some of them will always succeed even in the most obstructive conditions, as we have seen. Yet the state clearly feels it’s not had enough control and it will go further, unconcerned of the damning reactions it has received from around the world. I want to ask: is there really anything still left for the state to control? What is it trying to achieve here really?

For the longest time the Indian state did seem very concerned about the optics surrounding Kashmir, and no matter what their boots were doing on the ground, there was a conscious effort to put a liberal, emancipatory spin on it. In this, India was the victim, Pakistan was the aggressor, and the Kashmiris were simply part of the scenic background.

That has been changing over the years, the pretense was slowly being dropped, especially after the BJP was swept into power a second time in 2019, and most sharply after the 5 August abrogation of Jammu & Kashmir’s autonomy. For one I think it has become obvious that the truth is out on Kashmir, at least internationally, and India is no longer able to control the narrative. We forget that Kashmir has been out of bounds to foreign correspondents for several years now, and the mandarins in New Delhi would probably like to see international media attention totally shut out from the region. But those barriers have still not worked, and Kashmiri journalists have continued to carry the news out—the Pulitzer to the AP crew is proof of that, right?

I’d say the spin on Kashmir right now is more for consumption within India, for that is where the control of the narrative is yielding considerable dividend. If you recall the last election that Narendra Modi won, the deadly attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitary soldiers in Pulwama was converted into a major electoral plank, and Kashmiris were at the center of that convulsion of ramped up nationalistic rhetoric. In general, there is little pretense involved, and Kashmiris are very much in the cross hairs now, the main target of the vilification. We know how Kashmiris all across India are being targeted, and there have been dozens of instances in which educational institutions and police have stood by while their Kashmiri students have been actually physically attacked. In a more general atmosphere of Islamophobia, which is an essential part of the right-wing Hindutva argument, Kashmir is firmly ensconced as a key piece.

‘In Kashmir’s struggle, every time we have seen a generation get exhausted by the pressure, and the constant sense of being embattled, new people take their place.’ File photo by ABID BHAT

For years now many have been warning that India’s draconian record in Kashmir will return to haunt it. The ease with which the UAPA is being invoked in India is not new. But the brazen spectacle that’s been made out of the Bhima Koregaon case, with Navlakha and Teltumbde imprisoned among the latest, is surely something new? Are we looking at how things are naturally progressing for India as a repressive state? Or is it particularly the long-term ideological goals of the RSS at work considering the BJP is in such absolute control in India today? There’s of course no comparison here, at least not yet, but do you see the growing convergence in the ways the state has wielded its power in Kashmir and how it’s increasingly doing so in India lately? Where will it go?

I would avoid the temptation of assuming that the emerging shape of the repressive state in India has its roots only in Kashmir for that would be an injustice to the struggles of the people of Nagaland and Mizoram and Manipur, amongst others. We must never forget that so much that happened in Kashmir was first experimented with by a militarized state in these north-eastern parts of India, in Telengana, and so on. Having said that it is true that Kashmir has provided a sort of limitless laboratory situation for so many of the newer experiments in controlling restive populations, especially in surveillance, and in the complete disregard for legal, procedural and even constitutional protections. Of course the recent arrests of Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, and earlier of Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, and others of the Bhima Koregaon Nine, these are consistent with what has happened in Kashmir. These are intimidatory tactics, meant to silence everyone, not just activists on the ground, but also lawyers, intellectuals, and everyone who can offer opposition to the ideas that are being pushed upon us.

On Kashmir you have had Jashn-e-Azadi (documentary), Intifada (anthology), and Witness (photo-book). These were very different formats which in turn was, I guess, partly a product of their times and the material involved. But today, with what’s happening, what possibilities do you see for writers, journalists, filmmakers in Kashmir? Looking at the speed with which things are changing, it’s impossible for the news media—or whatever little remains of it—to even catch up. Newspapers have been pressurized like never before while others have been forced to fold. What can be done best to help make sense of the present moment and somehow also make it visible to the public?

I’d say we need a combination of obstinacy and flexibility. We have to be obstinate in the insistence on telling the story of what has been happening in Kashmir, we have to get better and better at telling that story. And we have to be flexible in what medium we choose to tell it. Is there a place for a feature-length essay film like Jashn-e-Azadi today? I’d say yes, but there is also space for those quick five-minute videos that so many people are making and putting up online. The two must not be seen as substitutes for each other but rather as complementary.

Until My Freedom Has Come brought together a body of diverse writing (and some graphic art by the wonderful Malik Sajad!) into an anthology: each of those individual pieces had already had a life on the web, but now they had another. Witness did the same with photographs. In some ways Witness too extended the reach of the spaces reached by the photographs it contains, and carried it to the so-called art-space, and that is not something that I would ignore either.

The point is to reach out to newer and newer audiences, and I’m certain Sajad has done that very well with his graphic novel Munoo, reaching out to a universe of young people who have a natural affinity for the graphic novel. Someone like Mir Suhail might do that through his work as a cartoonist, and MCKash or Ahmer might do it through Rap. In just the same way I see people using Instagram and Twitter to continuously keep Kashmir out there, and that is critical. We cannot let them silence us. We will be obstinate. But we will not get slow and sluggish in our obstinacy. We will be supple and fluid and flexible.

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