Adrift in Kashmir, Bereft in India

Featured Photograph by Ishaan Tankha, Sign at Protest Against CAA-NRC-NPR, 19th December 2019, Jantar Mantar, New Delhi.

Amin Bhat, a Kashmiri playwright, wrote a play – ‘Shinakhti Card’ – based on the the theft, and loss, of an ID card and its disastrous consequences. It is considered a landmark in contemporary Kashmiri literature for a reason, and that has to do with the fact that it responds to the predicament of being invalidated by being unable to show one’s papers. For all those saying ‘Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge’ (‘We Won’t Show Papers’) in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Indian cities and towns, the consequences of what happens when one cannot show papers in occupied Kashmir could act as a salutary warning about the violence of the paper-prison-state. Because what will happen in India, if the CAA-NRC-NPR goes through as planned, is what has already happened, in many ways, in India administered Kashmir.

Not having your papers on your person can sometimes be a fate worse than death in Kashmir. The play recognizes this – and shows how the limbo of non-existence, which happens when the state either cannot recognize a person to be the human they say they are, (because they are unable to produce paper proof) or deliberately chooses not to do so, is one of the worst things to happen to any human being. It amounts to a kind of erasure, an erosion or fading away of being, even while alive. The motif of being invalidated by an inability to produce identification has a history in Indic literatures. It is a fate that recalls the way in which Kalidasa frames Shakuntala’s terror at being un-recognized by the King because she no longer carries the ring he gave her, the marker of her abhjnãna, her identity. One way to think about what happens in Kashmir, and will soon happen in India, as a result of the violence that accompanies identification procedures, in the aftermath of the CAA-NRC-NPR triad becoming operational is to read Abhijnãna Shakuntalam. Except that life in the territories administered by the Indian Republic in the 21st Century does not necessarily follow the rules that mandate happy endings in classical Sanskrit drama. And unlike Shakuntala, none of us have an obliging fish that swallows our identity, and an obliging fisherman who disembowels the obliging fish. Bereft of papers, we would be truly adrift.

That the frayed, tattered costume of the paper proof of identity can be so easily made into a throw-away rag, is a reality that the people left out of the NRC in Assam now know well. It is also something that occurs on a daily basis in Kashmir. Perhaps this can help us find a way to think about what ties the realities of an occupied Kashmir to a post-CAA India. Especially today, on the 5th of February, which happens to mark both the global day of solidarity with Kashmir, as well as six months from the abrogation of Article 370 on the 5th of August, 2019. It gives us pause to consider how we might think both about the indignity that Kashmiris undergo, and have undergone, under decades of Indian occupation, as well as the impending scenario of Indians finding themselves bereft of the right to have rights because they may not have the right papers.

Not carrying your papers can cost you your life. People in the Indian administered part of Kashmir have known this reality intimately, for the past several decades. The standard procedure during a ‘Control and Search Operation’ when the army or a paramilitary force enters a village or settlement in Kashmir, or stops people in the middle of their business, on a busy street, features the now familiar tableau of the soldier scrutinizing papers of people made to seat in a ‘murga’ or ‘chicken’ posture. This is what ‘showing papers’ means, in Kashmir. Some of the people who don’t have their papers on them get taken away. They don’t always return. Sometimes, a person may have papers, and it is their papers that get taken away. And then the person is asked to present themselves at an army camp to retrieve their papers. What happens in those instances is not pleasant. Sometimes, the person does not return from that encounter. Only the paper does.

On the 10th of September last year, Yawar Ahmed Bhat, a student of Class X in Chandgam village in the Pulwama district of South Kashmir, was accosted by an army patrol, and his ID card was confiscated. Since not having an ID card on your person can have very damaging consequences, especially for a male teenager, Yawar, went to the Army Camp to try and retrieve his confiscated card. He was detained for a day, and apparently tortured so badly that when he came home, Yawar locked himself up in his room and refused to speak to anyone except for one of his five sisters. He opened up to her and spoke about how badly he had been abused and humiliated. The shame that he felt about what he had been made to undergo in the army camp broke his will to live. Within a day, after having locked himself in, Yawar ended his life by consuming poison. Identification mechanisms can carry a unique form of toxicity with them.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No people can be free if they enslave others.[/perfectpullquote]

This process of what happens between people and papers cannot mean one thing in Kashmir, and another thing in Delhi, or Lucknow. Eventually, it will inevitably mean the same thing, everywhere.

What exactly does that mean? Lets think about other kinds of papers, like driving licenses or voter cards. There is a difference between a traffic constable asking the driver of an automobile to show their driving licence, an election officer asking you to show your voter ID and a policeman, or any official asking a person to show their  citizenship ID for no specific reason. And once you have a thing like a citizenship ID, there is no way you wont be asked to show it,

The driving license is a permission to use an instrument that is dangerous (cars kill) and a person needs to be qualified and of sound mind and body, and not a minor, to drive. The voter ID, in a similar way, is proof, that you are resident in a particular electoral constituency, and of voting age. It permits you to vote, where you live, and if you are a responsible adult, capable of making informed political choices. But the personal identification document as a general purpose bearer of a person’s veracity is not the same thing. It is not the soul’s permit to drive and reside in the body.

But having to furnish a proof of citizenship is something akin to having to submit to the demand that the soul is the body it says it is. It rests on a fundamental cleavage, between name, person, and the measurable thingness, or quiddity, of personhood, for the purposes of the state. Anyone found wanting can be punished. And who amongst us is exactly what is written of us in the archive.

My mother’s fingerprints do not match the biometrics on her Aadhar card any more. And to receive her meagre school teacher’s pension, of which she is disproportionately proud, she, an eighty two year old woman, trekked to an ‘Aadhar Card Verification Office’ at the outskirts of Delhi, to ‘correct’ the failure of her epidermis to yield the same digital image that is caught in the Aadhar database. Imagine her, not as an upstanding retired schoolteacher of modest means, but as a person with a certain kind of name, speaking with the lilt and sibilance of a certain accent, with no papers to prove who her father, (my grandfather) may have been. And now consider the possibility that she would fail scrutiny at every step, not because the people in uniform examining her were evil, but because the machine would simply not match her body to her soul.

The people who live in Kashmir already know the consequences of the failure of this operation. And as a Kashmiri friend told me recently, “I hope now you will realize that you will never be free unless we are free”. She was talking about cards, registers, numbers and the weapons that are arrayed behind them.

People in India may do well to realize that they stare at the same, bloodthirsty face of the state that stares back at them. and at people in Kashmir. And that they share a similar, though not identical fate  in terms of what the state does to the subjects that it finds wanting. That is why, the sincere desire to ‘Free India’ can never be realized until we, as Indians, can also bring ourselves to accept and understand what Kashmiris mean when they raise their voices, saying ‘Free Kashmir’.

No people can be free if they enslave others.


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Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist with Raqs Media Collective

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