Guest post by ABHIJIT DUTTA
It is not every day that you wake up to find your Twitter timeline flooding with the assertion that Kashmir – of all places – is happy. Dangerous? Of course. Beautiful? well, yes, the postcards are pretty enough. Angry? Sure, they look it. Radical? Oh god, yes. Happy?
If you ask Manu Joseph, author of Serious Men and editor of Open, the answer is yes. In this article, he talks about his interactions with “regular” people in the valley – the non elite, the non journalist, the non artist, the non writer – and is convinced that Kashmir is ready to move on. That it has already moved on. That Kashmir is happy. As proof, he offers these exhibits: (a) record high tourism numbers, (b) 2010 IAS topper Shah Faesal (who tells him “commonsense is finally winning”), (c) a meeting of a District Magistrate with elected leaders of a village (“not a word about politics”, says the DM to Mr. Joseph, “They want to talk about things that matter to them and their families”) and (d) the desire for city life (“we want KFC”).
As perhaps Mr. Joseph had expected, his accusing essay (for that was the tone) was greeted with the most vehement denials from Kashmiris, including, which perhaps he didn’t expect, from Kashmiris living, working and surviving in Kashmir). Within hours of its online publication, the hashtag #KashmirIsHappy was trending on Twitter, with scores of tweets on well known human rights abuses being tagged with the meme: “Kunanposhpura #KashmirIsHappy”, “half widows #KashmirIsHappy”, “Tufail Mattu #KashmirIsHappy”; others were more to the point: “#KashmirIsHappy WTF….it’s not : (“
The tweets spilled onto Facebook timelines and online newssites. Discussions raged. Mr. Joseph’s exhibits were ridiculed, with excellent parodies of his point finding their way into print. It was as if the whole of Kashmir had risen in rebellion to declare, no, they were in fact not happy.
Mr. Joseph’s need to see Kashmir happy is easily explained. It is after all only an indexical representation of the traditional narrative of “Return to normalcy”. How many times have we read that peace is returning to Kashmir and been left staring at images of colorful shikaras making its way across the weed choked Dal Lake? How many times have we been told normalcy is returning? Till the next stone is pelted, the next teenager killed, the next army man shot at.
It is more difficult to understand why Kashmiris are so riled up about being thought of as happy, why the idea of being happy makes them so unhappy? Anyone who has walked down M.A Road or Residency, sat around a shared plate of grilled meats at Khayam chowk, or sipped too sweet chai on the Kashmir University lawns, knows that Kashmiris can laugh with their hearts open, their obscenely handsome features glinting joy. Anyone who has been drawn into their circle of friendship knows that Kashmiris, even the ones you meet for the first time, light up at the sight of you and will go out of their way to make sure you have a good time. Tourists who visited Kashmir in these past months could only talk about the sunshine and the onset of spring (in fact, a festival – aamade bahar – that was hosted to celebrate it was a resounding success with locals and tourists alike). No news of mass demonstrations, no new deaths from teargas, no mysterious drownings, no new mass graves. In fact, there had been token progress: bunkers removed from Lal Chowk, with the promise of removing others across the city. Surely, Kashmiris couldn’t quibble with being happy!
But, in this binary narrative of KFC vs. Azadi, happiness is a bastard emotion. Separated from context and thrust into a nationalist imagination, happiness is a plastic bag tied over a Kashmiri’s face. If tourists come to Kashmir and have a good time, Kashmir is back to being normal. If villagers talk about water and electricity, Kashmir is back to being normal. If Kashmiris are drinking coffee and – wait for it – laughing, Kashmir is surely back to being normal. And if Kashmir is now normal, India can surely forget about everything that they have been screaming, kicking and getting killed over. Problem solved, Happy Ending. Contrary to Mr. Joseph’s assertion, happy Kashmiris do not imply Kashmiris have moved on – it is India that wants to move on and needs the assurance of a “happy” Kashmir to assuage its guilt.
To be happy in Kashmir is not to experience simple emotion, it is tantamount to the accusation of having abandoned the “cause”. And that cause is an amalgam of history (of not just the past two decades, but its colonial and pre-colonial histories), memory (Mr. Joseph mocks this too, reducing Kashmir’s hurt to “trauma as a heritage building”), and the experience of daily life in Kashmir. When Mr. Joseph points to their taste for Café Coffee Day, it pricks. It’s part guilt perhaps – maybe Kashmiris think they should indeed be out on streets pelting stones and “resisting” – and provokes an instinctively defensive reaction. To be seen sipping coffee is to be seen to have given up. The question Mr. Joseph needs to answer is this: is the victim who has stopped crying, still a victim? If the answer is ‘yes, she is’, do you then still point your finger to her dried cheeks?
In the same week as the happiness debate erupted, there was a side event in Kashmir that got little attention. Roushan Illahi, a 22 year old Kashmiri singer who goes by the name “MC Kash” (who finds mention in Mr. Joseph’s article as “a rapper who owns a hood”), released a new single Valley of Saints.
Mr. Illahi had shot to global fame in 2010 when he released the song I Protest (Remembrance), as a response to the protests that led to 120 deaths of young Kashmiris – some not even in their teens – in clashes with Indian forces. The song, set to a background score of bullets being fired and armies marching, and strewn with lines such as “puppet politicians with no soul in sight” and “these killings ain’t random, it’s an organized genocide,” had become an instant anthem, inspiring even book titles and spin off videos that combined footage from the streets with the music.
At the first hearing, Valley of Saints is softer, almost genteel, compared to I Protest. The lilting start is Sufi saint Sheikh Noor-ud-din’s poetry, sung in Kashmiri, and throughout the song there are repeated references to angels, divinity and hope.
I asked Mr. Illahi if the current thaw in tension and the absence of 2010’s fiery clashes were the reason behind this softening: he dismisses the idea.
“I Protest was rooted in anger. Valley of Saints is about love. It’s the love for my people, for my country. It’s about looking inward, about going back in history and understanding who we are as a people, what we have been through down the ages. This is not about what happened in 2010, this is not about what happened 50 years ago, it goes far far back. It’s about feeling proud, proud to be a Kashmiri. I believe for freedom to come we first need to be free in our heads. We need to think of Kashmir in independent terms, not in terms of how India thinks of Kashmir I don’t think the song is softer, it is more powerful,” he says.
I listen to the song again after our call. There is a line in it that goes, “there is hope that never fades in the fight of destiny.” Perhaps Mr. Joseph misunderstood. Perhaps what he really saw on the streets, in the cafes, by the village square, was in fact another H word: Hope. In Kashmir, that is very happy news indeed.