The Semiotics of Happiness

Guest post by ABHIJIT DUTTA

MC Kash - Photo by Ashish Sharma / Openthemagazine.com

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.


11 thoughts on “The Semiotics of Happiness”

  1. Kashmir has always faced aggression be it Mauryas, Guptas, Palas, Turks, Mughals, Sikhs, Afghans, British, even Dogras and now Indians…a land crying for freedom, for an independent identity since you can recall.

    Mr Joseph’s article was what he wanted to hear from Kashmiris not what Kashmiris told him. “A KFC”??…gimme a break, why didn’t they mention Disneyland?

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  2. I have been thr for some time, and they dont seem to be happy and peaceful. A long way to go. Definitly I’m sure independence wont give them what they need or what majority of people from Kashmir want but yeah “Hope” an give them hope to live.

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  3. It is this romanticizing of the Kashmir University youth, the Huriyat backed lawyers association and the separatisis agenda of keeping Kashmir’s wounds open to serve their political cause that is slowing down the healing process in Kashmir.

    In a recent seminar on Enhancing Kashmir’s Pride in Srinagar, the youth clearly argued against being chained to a violent past which was subverting their future. If they want a well governed, economically vibrant, secure society the romanticists have a problem with it – it takes the romance of violence out of their system.

    This is what they had to say: There is a Kashmir beyond Kashmir University – that Kashmir is yearning to move on, Hoping for that eternally elusive hope which would allow their children to live in an environment of trust and peace. Yes the governance model leaves much to be desired but that is a narrative we as Kashmiris have to shape. It hurts when every emotional writing aimed at sensationalizing Kashmir takes us away from our rightful destiny.

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  4. Remember Khalistan? After enough rounds of ammunition were fired by police and paramilitary forces, armed insurgency in Punjab was re-routed towards horticulture. From guns to roses, in other words. I’m trying to remember if they also had a ‘happiness-and-governance’ phase in between. Does anybody remember?
    I do know that never before in the subcontinent’s history has the Kashmiris’ ‘happiness’ been such a matter of tender concern for mainland India.

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  5. Simply put, the PEOPLE of Kashmir never wished to be Indian. Sheikh Abdullah himself chose India simply because India offered the most autonomy. And unlike Khalistan, the overwhelming majority of Kashmiris support independence – in fact, just a few years ago as the vaishnodevi controversy arose, hundreds of thousands of people protested for independence (according to BBC). Hundreds of thousands out of a population of 4 million people in the valley – thats a huge chunk of people defying the law and attending a protest.

    To think that Kashmiris have just given up on their dreams of independence and are now just concerned with KFC and being good Indian citizens is delusional. National movements don’t die so quickly. So to Naveeta, the APHC isn’t keeping the issue burning – the will of the people is. Pundits are loyal to India, but Pundits made up only 5-10% of Kashmiris at most. The Muslim majority is not ready to move on as you may think. Rather, they are simply transitioning to a non-violent movement.

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  6. And “Romanticizing” Kashmir University youth seem to have affected mental health of certain Indians, who exactly don’t the political scenario of Kashmir…. But why should i blame them, they see what corrupt media shows them… Indian media airs the assault by Shah Rukh Khan on security for hours but doesn’t find a minute or two to air the humiliation, discrimination, lathis and kicks that we get day in and day out from your oppressive forces… And not forgetting the bullets that small boys get in turn for shouting “INDIAN DOGS GO BACK”….

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  7. if i listen to rizwan lone’s words “the PEOPLE of Kashmir never wished to be Indian” i want to ask him why should the kashmirirs per se want to be against India, particulalry when one reminds oneself of the fact thatHall of them the hindus, the Muslims, the sikhs, the Anglo Indians etc. etc. fought together as Indians against the invader British rule? i can only understand rizwan by replying that you being a Muslim want it that way, because for you Pakistan being the Muslim part of the continent is where you muslims feel you belong to. and this is exactly the reason why we, the non Muslim Indians and Kashmiris and the Indian Govt. too do not trust your azadi and separatist agenda and security forces have to be installed to keep you in check. for you muslims nothing else matters else than your own religion and you are prepared to kill both your own self as well as other innocents to achieve the goal your religion your book teaches you to. and it is the “indian dogs” who are giving security to so many of your own folk and undoing the damage done by your extremists by opening schools, giving training to your youth and the like. shame to the anonymous “beautiful prison kashmir” to call them dogs!
    it is a sad affair that so just many of the Indians too do not recognise that the common man/woman in kashmir wants to live peacefully, roti kapada and makan is also their main goal and NOT this selfish agenda of some who either in the name of religion or in their own personal power interest game want to keep the agenda of atrocities on kashmiris by the indian security forces alive. the islamic fundamentalists have done more damage to the kashmiris than the security forces can ever do. and eventhough things are really changing in a positive direction some like to keep the violence agenda alive-for their own personal interests of course! i have experienced it myself in the last 2 years from interviews with a whole lot of people from different strata of life as well as from personal experiences of those kashiris who decided to live on in the valley and are doing a constructive job today too. they all are proofs that things are ok and can be much better in kashmir if these separatists and these pro muslim fanatics do not interfere with the folk. they are the ones who are inciting innocent kashmiris, poor and unheathy due to failing infrastructure facilities and winning votes from them.if the islamic agenda is taken out from their heads i am sure we can get kashmir back to its paradisical past soon. that is one more reason i pray that the kashmiri Hindus and the rest Indians come back and resettle in the valley. many of my elder islamic friends have said it themselves! they want their gurus to return they want the chaman lkashmir to bloom again with their presence…..

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