Azadi in the Lexicon of the Aam Admi: Gowhar Fazili


During the swearing in speech at Ram Leela Maidan, the word Azadi found its place of pride on Arvind Kejriwal’s symbolic cap. ‘ Mujhe Chahiye Poori Azadi’ it said.   The word Azadi has travelled from the freedom struggle in Kashmir, to the movement against gendered violence in Delhi and is now entering the lexicon of Aam Aadmi.  The Aam Aadmi’s historic ascension to power through a referendum resonates well with the long standing demand in Kashmir seeking to let the people decide their political future directly.

The Arvind Kejriwal moment in Delhi can be conceptualized as a revolutionary moment (as against movement) and thus compared with a similar moment in 1987 Kashmir when Muslim United Front (MUF) sought to uproot National Conference-Congress combine from the political equation and what is more, nearly succeeded.  Though the two moments are very dissimilar in many ways and I will lay these differences out as we proceed, I see some merit in comparing the common revolutionary spirit behind each, which in the ultimate analysis may be summed up as the restoration of dignity to the people.  In one case it involves its restoration from an occupying state and its local surrogates.  In the other, from the capitalist-politician nexus that has rendered people inconsequential.  The farce is ritually staged as a contest between two corrupt parties—one wearing a hard fascist mask and the other wearing a soft nationalist mask—the BJP and the Congress.

Kejriwal’s cap canvases for a metaphorical ‘poori azadi’ that is complete independence or freedom.  Yet his campaign is built around tangible objectives that translate into concrete micro level changes that common people find palpable. People can rest their hopes on these symbolic and practical benefits until the promise of the ultimate freedom and utopia comes to fruition.  The entrenched interests challenged by this virtual restoration of agency and hope to the Aam Aadmi are not likely to let it proceed unimpeded once the party begins to address substantial issues.  We should not be surprised if the party is eventually co-opted, subverted or tamed in some manner and made to serve the very interests against which it has risen.  Regardless the pedagogic value of this attempt should not be lost on revolutionary movements.  Such value will sustain beyond its efficacy and particular context as acknowledged even by its detractors and that is on what we should focus our attention.

Kejriwal’s subtle and creative use of religion in his speech may be compared with its relatively crude use by Muslim United Front (MUF) which for example excluded Non Muslims from the political discourse in its very name. Had it been named People’s United Front (PUF) for instance, perhaps it would have had a different ring to it. After all there are people in Kashmir who identify themselves differently (such as Pandits and Sikhs) and MUF should have been sensitive to the existence of such people. While those entrenched in power would have opposed MUF regardless of how it was named, it is inexcusable to exclude whole groups of people by definition.  This does not mean that MUF or its equivalent should not have taken inspiration from the revolutionary legacy of Islam and harnessed its metaphorical symbolism for the movement, which it may have actually sought to do. In fact all such emancipatory traditions should be salvaged from fascistic appropriation. The use of such traditions should however be manifestly inclusionary. Majoritarianism and exclusionary politics does not sit well with democracy and revolution.  These are at the very heart of fascistic perversion.

AAP may not have cut much ice among Indian Muslims as of yet regardless of its stated anti-communal equidistance from BJP and Congress.  This could be because the party is not informed by the particularities of the Muslim condition in India, having essentially emerged out of the movement against nepotism and corruption and not against communalism or for that matter caste or gender discrimination.  However when Arvind Kejriwal makes references to Allah, Ishwar, Prabhu and divinity in various other forms in the same breath, such use has serious symbolic value.  His praathna, ‘Insaan ka Insaan se ho Bhaichara!’ emphasising humanism in wake of hyper-communalized political discourse in India is poignant.

Following 1987 rigging, the state at the disposal of powerful illegitimate interests brought its might against the people’s uprising in Kashmir.  The rigged elections and accompanying repression radicalized people.  In Delhi, the same interests while using the instruments of state to subvert Aam Aadmi movement for instance by trumping up false charges against its leaders did not go all out to crush the movement by force. Besides the phenomenon being located at the heart of India rather than in some isolated and dispensable fringe, the proliferation of relatively independent and sympathetic media may have ensured that AAP is not ruthlessly suppressed.  It may also be harder to render the Aam Aadmi at the heart of the nation into the nations other.

One major factor that plays out differently between Kashmir and Delhi is the symbolic geo-political dimension –the manner in which the two neighbouring states are able to use Kashmir to keep their respective populations away from substantial issues.  Both the states ensure that Kashmir remains a permanent site for dissipation of public frustration at the cost of the indigenous people’s resistance and struggle for freedom and dignity. When nothing else works, hang an Afzal, raise the bogey of terrorism or bring the armies to the brink of war on the LOC!  The people of Jammu as well as Kashmir, India as well as Pakistan are hostage to this communalising strategy of the two imperial states.  The revolutionary people’s movement especially in Jammu and Kashmir has not as yet learnt to break free from this statist paradigm by imagining people and politics in ways that are inclusive and creative, such that it confounds the state.  The day that happens, the real Azadi, where people matter regardless of their numbers or influence, will not be a distant dream.

A version of this article also appeared in the Kashmir Reader

5 thoughts on “Azadi in the Lexicon of the Aam Admi: Gowhar Fazili”

  1. While broadly being in agreement with your analysis of AAP, Gowhar, I do want to re-state here a comment I had made when Shuddhabrata made this link between the feminist aazadi slogan and Kashmir, in his post over a year ago on Kafila. I feel the need to re-state what I said then in almost exactly the same words because apparently Shuddha’s re-writing of the history of the aazadi slogan has now been mainstreamed, and its other histories wiped out – an old old story for women’s movements and feminist politics.
    Shuddha, yourself and other young(er) men may have heard this slogan outside Kashmir for the first time, in the post-December 16th protests in Delhi. But for most of us feminists of different generations who marched in those days, the slogan Behnen mangein aazadi came from a long South Asian feminist lineage. This slogan comes from the Pakistani women’s movement in the early 1980s, and came to India via Kamla Bhasin who made it into a feisty joyous song of defiance that we have sung for decades. it is open to endless innovations, and has been made to refer to any number of things from which we want aazadi.
    This is not just nit-picking, as I hope you will agree. It is about not freezing a moment in time so that all its palimpsest-like qualities are erased.
    Feminists particularly have long had to struggle against being appropriated as something else, and even longer against being seen as derivative of something else, and forever in fact against being told gender is really class or caste or nationality.
    In fact, I had a conversation with Shuddha before he wrote that post, when he first said this to me, when I corrected his impression that this slogan “came from Kashmir”. That he still chose to present it as such, and why you, Gowhar, ignore, or did not note the discussion on that post, makes me wonder why it is so easy to dismiss some histories and exalt others, and why women’s movements and women’s histories have to be at the receiving end of “the enormous condescension of posterity”, even in our own time.
    Aazadi is a dream that belongs to many and varied sections, and all of these have independent histories and stories, and each deserves to be told in its own terms.

    1. If it appears in my writing that I am freezing the history of the word azadi, that has not been my intention. The history of the word azadi certainly precedes its entry into the Kashmiri lexicon. The word is not a Kashmiri coinage though Kashmiris have through its extensive usage made it their very own. Its local form ‘azaedi’ has a different ring to it. In its varied usages it may sound like moaning, be full of sarcasm, irony and ridicule or provide a temporary release from the myriad indignities of living under occupation. To think that the feminist movement or other revolutionary or liberation movements against various forms of oppression in South and Central Asia would not have used it, would be patently unimaginative and historically naive. Risking such erasure in this piece, I have tried to juxtapose and problematize two contemporary instances of its use in Delhi and Kashmir and read them together. I am doing this knowing that it is a taboo to do so both for Indians as well as Kashmiris. It is my belief that if the struggle for independence in Kashmir and the common man’s struggle in Delhi are not informed by the feminist movement these are not worth fighting for. The same is true for the Aam Aadmi or feminist struggle that is comfortable with military repression and forcible assimilation of its counterparts elsewhere or Azadi movement in Kashmir that believes it can remain morally and intellectually aloof from other struggles against oppression even if these be among its ‘oppressors’. Conversely all those who call themselves Indians are culpable in the occupation of and repression in Kashmir and thus qualify as oppressors until the situation prevails.

  2. Persianized Urdu is lingua-franca of Kashmir, the usage of word ‘Azadi’ should not be read more than that. So, it is futile exercise to make on set of Kashmir’s armed struggle as a departure point for its getting in vogue. Moreover, what is important to underline and understand is twin aspects related to Azadi – one, Azadi ‘from’ and two Azadi ‘for’. Both Kashmir and women’s movements have their distinct domains and spheres.
    When it comes to comparison that you make between, AAP and MUF, 1987 and 2013. You mean to say MUF failed and AAP succeeded, because of internal and external factors. MUF was in a periphery of India, was exclusionary in nature, while as, AAP was in center of India [Delhi], and AAP is inclusive of everyone other than ‘Khaas’ – meaning corrupt. This a very childish kind of understanding u have, u need to learn that although everything can be compared but it is not rational to do so. For ur understanding Earth, Moon, and Jupiter all are spherical, revolve around sun are part of solar system, and hence they are similar, it is not so simply Dear Fazili. Ape and man are similar with only difference of tail and more bodily hair. U seem to be uttering same words what Mehbooba Mufti has to say about MUF and AAP, don’t try to simplify things so much, that they lose their originality, also analysis like this reveals ur shallowness and fickle comprehension of issue. Next time give a proper thought before u write, dont let typing speed to halt ur insight.

  3. Mister Gowher it is a well written piece especially the way you conclude it that, as long as people and two nation-sates are hostage to their communalised frenzy and don’t see issues from humanist perspective situation will remain grim. In this respect I too think that people of Kashmir should shun the historical baggage and think pragmatically to confront the problems.

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