Kashmir at the Limits of Postcolonial Nationalism

This is a edited transcript of Prof. Suvir Kaul’s Lecture at JNU Alternative Classroom on 17.03.2016 at Freedom Square

I want to begin with a simple expression of solidarity. JNU stands right now internationally, and I will elaborate on what that means, for the right to speak—speak loudly and forcefully, speak rationally and with clarity—of difficult ideas. All across the world, what you are performing here has galvanized university communities. . . . I’m paying this compliment to you to remind you that what is going on here has ramifications not simply for JNU, not simply for Indian universities, but for universities across the sub-continent and across the world. I also want to say, this is—as you know so much better than I do—going to be a very long struggle. So my solidarity and those of people like me are with two our comrades who are still in jail and indeed with the many of you who face the threat of administrative action. You must not back down . . . I know you won’t, and there will be a great many of us joining with you.

What is post about Post-Colonial?

I should move now to my lecture titled, “At the Limits of Postcolonial Nationalism”. My title asks us to think a little more closely about the term ‘colonial’ and indeed about the term ‘post-colonial’. As all of you know, at a simple conversational level the word ‘post’ is meant to mark a major breach: that was the colonial period, the period of empire, the period of imperialism. Now we live in a post colonial period where an independent nation forges its own assumptions about what constitutes justice, what constitutes an appropriate future, what constitutes the participation of citizens in an inclusive democracy . . . or so that understanding of the term ‘post’ [makes clear to] of us. But the term ‘post’ doesn’t mark, as we well know, a breach. It also marks continuities. To that extent the term ‘post’ derives a great deal of its force and its historical power from another term that is often used to describe the transition between the British Empire and India as a part of that British empire and independent India, which is the transfer of power. No matter how much we celebrate the ‘post’ that nationalists achieved when they moved us as an entity towards freedom, we are always dealing with the uncomfortable fact that what we saw happening in 1947, in the prelude to ’47 and in the years after, is actually a systematic transfer of power between colonial elites and postcolonial elites. Now nothing I’m saying here is news to you. All of you in your daily lives, as also in your academic reading, know that this is the case. All of you have been dealing with the fact that what begins this entire JNU “problem,” if I can call it that, or the entire JNU “possibility,” [is] the fact that an act of sedition was invoked to shut up a group of students who were doing what students in a campus should feel entitled to do—raise slogans, debate ideas, quarrel publicly what about what they value in the nature of their public lives. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No matter how much we celebrate the ‘post’ that nationalists achieved when they moved us as an entity towards freedom, we are always dealing with the uncomfortable fact that what we saw happening in 1947, in the prelude to ’47 and in the years after, is actually a systematic transfer of power between colonial elites and postcolonial elites.[/pullquote]
All of you I’m sure have heard more than once about the history of these Acts of sedition [Section 124-A, Indian Penal Code 1860]. As you know it is a colonial Act that the postcolonial government, the independent government of India, has refused to remove from its statute books, the IPC, regardless of the fact that judge after judge at the High Court level and mostly at the Supreme Court level have basically suggested that this Act of sedition ought to have no place in our rule books. But there is an even longer history that gets left out in this conception of a nineteenth century colonial Act that is carried into independent India, and this takes us back to the year 1661 and the Restoration of Charles II. You will remember that in the middle of the seventeenth century—I will spend the next few minutes talking a little about British history—in the middle of the seventeenth century, there was essentially a revolution that dethroned and then decapitated a king. Given the context of seventeenth century insurrections, this was an astonishing and in its own way a world-creating idea at that point. But in 1661 with the Restoration of Charles II what was promulgated was one of the first Acts by the British parliament that convened to welcome him to England . . . what they promulgated was, and I’m going to quote the full title of this act, ‘An Act for the Safety and Preservation of His Majesty’s Person and Government Against Treasonable and Seditious Practices and Attempts’. This is the logic of a monarchy reasserting its absolutist authority that we have inherited via our British administrators. This is the Act that has been used against, as you know, not only your comrades from this campus but against a great many other Indians in vulnerable situations. I will also remind you that Hardik Patel, no matter what his politics, is also in jail on charges of sedition. So this is an Act, an IPC Act, that is being used at will to go after not simply the vulnerable but anybody who might become potentially a threat or a challenge to state power. So one of the long-term struggles that all of us have to engage in—and this too is a part of my understanding of what it means to work towards a genuinely postcolonial judicial apparatus—is to try and get rid of this Act. I have no idea how long the courts will continue to in their own small ways support individuals against the state but the only solution really is to get ourselves to a point where we no longer have to worry about the might of the state and its minions, including those in university administrations who seem to forget what their job is as faculty

I am also particularly grateful to JNU for having allowed us to think once again about Kashmir. I know this is an extraordinarily complex idea. The importance of JNU is that you have allowed a conversation, initiated a conversation, however broken or put down. You have initiated a conversation about Kashmir that is not permissible anywhere in Kashmir (applause). I hope all of you are aware—I’m sure you are—that anyone in Kashmir, especially in the universities, who has asked any questions about the administration and its use of power, the government and its use of power—and it doesn’t matter who’s in power there, which mainstream political party is in power there [for] they have all been quick to use the Public Safety Act to lock people up and this Public Safety Act like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, both of these of course drew their legitimacy and their historical legacy from colonial laws. You will remember, I’m sure some of you who know this kind of legal history better than I do, that it was Lord Linlithgow who promulgated the first Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance and he did so precisely because Gandhi and the national movement were becoming very difficult for him to handle. That is the AFSPA that the postcolonial government confirmed in order for it to send in the military to Nagaland, in Manipur in various parts of the northeast including Tripura, and that is certainly the Act that continues to allow all manner of military impunity in Kashmir. These are some of the ways in which our institutional structures inhabit the world of colonial and not of postcolonial thinking.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]a postcolonial nation is in a sense . . . a nation always in the making, never perfect, never arrived at, because it is the product of an everyday tension between democracy and nationalism.[/pullquote]
Indeed for me the even more challenging idea is that of the hold of empire on the modern political imagination. We all believe that the moment of decolonization has come and gone. We all hope for and sometimes we presume that our political imaginations have found a kind of emancipatory vocabulary that is no longer in the thrall of colonial conceptions, imperial conceptions of the importance of nation-states, or indeed of the importance of particular forms of citizenship. You will all remember that in the empire we were subjects not citizens. That transition is an enormously difficult transition, as we see. It cannot be made simply at the level of form, simply at the level of language. Speaker after speaker has informed you that democracy, democratic thought, democratic practice is an ongoing process. It has to be reaffirmed in everyday choices but it also has to be reaffirmed in the nature of the experiences you are allowed to have. It cannot be blunted and denied with the forceful ease with which government after government seems to want to do so. So part of what I wanted to remind us about here is that a postcolonial nation is in a sense . . . a nation always in the making, never perfect, never arrived at, because it is the product of an everyday tension between democracy and nationalism. This for me is one of the cardinal principles that guides my political optimism and my political hope. I keep imagining that all of us know those moments in everyday life, in the life of individuals or in the life of communities, where democratic aspiration rubs up against the instruments of nationalism and questions those nationalisms. Those are the moments where difficulty emerges; those are the moments where political possibility emerges. Now I’m doing this at a very abstract level but I wanted to flesh it out a little by calling attention to my own experiences, as a Kashmiri, of life in Kashmir.

My experiences of life in Kashmir

I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Bengal though Kashmir was always home. These are issues I’ve developed at greater length in the book that Professor Uday Kumar has mentioned—Of Gardens and Graves—which is my attempt to come to terms with what has been happening in Kashmir not only in the last 25 or 26 years but in the lead up to what today we’ve come to think of as the problem of Jammu and Kashmir. I didn’t grow in Kashmir, I grew up in Bengal, but Kashmir was always home because my grandparents had homes there. In fact, they had identical homes next to each other. I would always visit over the summer. In 1989 . . . in January 1990, as you know, in the face of an armed insurrection, there was a massive governmental crackdown. Kashmir changed, Srinagar changed in a way that it hadn’t before. Nobody [but] my father went back to check up on our house for two or three years after, but then there was a long period, almost a decade, when nobody went home to our homes in Srinagar. But in 2003, when political events there seemed calmer and the insurgency seemed to—and I’m using the vocabulary that is used by the state and the newspapers—when the insurgency seemed to have been checked we went back to try and revive our house there. All our neighbours—and here I will identify them as Muslim because they continued to live there where the largest number of the Pandits had left—every one of our neighbours said that things were so much better then. I remember walking around the city wondering how this constituted, how what I was seeing there constituted, being ‘better’. It was armed encampment. Certain parts of Srinagar continue to be an armed encampment even today, but in 2003 you could not go anywhere in the city without seeing automatic weapons-carrying BSF or CRPF or military police all across the city, every 150 yards. One of the reasons, oddly enough, our house was untouched was because at the two main entry points into this neighbourhood were enormous bunkers. So nobody came and went from that neighbourhood without fear of being questioned or worse.

That’s the moment when I began to wonder, as somebody who easily, effortlessly thought of himself as both Indian and Kashmiri, about what it means to live in a situation where all my democratic beliefs in being Indian were up against what I was seeing, my experience of life, in Kashmir. I was enormously troubled, as you can imagine, by what I saw there, by what I heard and by the fact that every time I expressed my sympathy with what was the visible oppression of people around me, my neighbours would say ‘no, no you mustn’t feel badly. We know what happened with you people.’ But I was always in an anomalous situation. I was notionally a Pandit, one of those families that had left in 1990, but in fact I hadn’t. I was always a visitor and it was out of my troubled feeling then that I began to try and read. It is easy enough to think when you’re growing up in India or you’re growing up in Kashmir, if you’re growing up Indian and Kashmiri, to think you know enough about the history of Kashmir to recognize that something enormously has gone wrong. As a matter of fact I knew nothing and I am certainly more educated than most. It took an enormous amount of work for me, and conversations, conversations—most importantly, empathetic conversations—with people around me. It took an enormous amount of work for me to read against my own sense that I understood the history of Kashmir, not just what had happened in 1947 during independence, including the instrument of accession signed by the Raja, handing over the authority of Jammu and Kashmir in the face of tribal invaders from Pakistan to the Indian army which landed there. I discovered a far more complicated history. I also discovered a much worse picture of Indian parliamentary democracy or electoral democracy that I could’ve imagined.

Almost every one of the early elections in Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the seats in Kashmir, were rigged, by which I mean candidates were elected unopposed. If you as a candidate decided to turn in your papers to the Election Commission, unless you had been pre-approved there was no chance you would be allowed to even stand for elections. So on the face of it, for three decades and more India could claim to the world, and in fact could claim to itself, that elections were being conducted in Kashmir with great regularity and it was only a fringe group of people who were not acknowledging India’s political and moral legitimacy. As it turns out, electoral democracy was precisely the façade under which Kashmiri political opinion, particularly Muslim political opinion, was being marginalized entirely. Now this complicates my understanding and I recommend that it should complicate our understanding of the ease with which we think of Kashmir as an atoot ang of this nation. That doesn’t mean, that doesn’t mean even for a moment, that I have got to a comfortable position where I can say ‘because I believe in the principle of self determination I know what the future of Kashmir can be.’ I don’t have any longer the right to know that, and I recommend that for all of us as democrats, that we do not have the a priori right to decide how a people or a community should think about their political future (applause).

But it is our political responsibility, particularly our political responsibility as teachers and as students, to argue that that conversation about Kashmir—its future, its past, its present—must happen, and it must happen in places like this because this government will not let it happen anywhere else. So it becomes our responsibility and it becomes our right to have that conversation (applause) and that is partly what JNU has allowed to happen. Believe me, as I began by saying, these conversations are resonating across the globe. For all their pitfalls and their difficulties, there should not be a single line—and I know that JNU believes in the multiplicity of voices that should debate these questions. I’m not for a second arguing that JNU Students Union or the faculty community at large should come out with a line on Kashmir, not at all. What is important is that these conversations, these difficult conversations, should happen and that they should become part and parcel of our understanding of a much broader national conception. That to me is what a genuinely postcolonial nationalism will make available to us: at least the possibility of political debates about the flash points in our democracy, not just in our nation but in our democracy.

Coercive Nationalism?

I also want to ask us—and this I’m asking almost as a theoretical challenge to the students at JNU—because we, people like me who did not grow up as colonial subjects, who were born when India became independent, we grew up, we learned, we were proud of, the very powerful legacy of anti-colonial nationalism. That legacy, unfortunately, blunted our awareness of those parts of this country where there were struggles that pre-dated Gandhian nationalism or the Gandhian national movement, and which continued to be marginalized in independent India. It took my generation a long time to recognize what we were not able to see because we were so much the beneficiaries or the legatees of this form of anti-colonial nationalism with all its celebratory overtones. Now I worry, as all of you do and as Professor Janaki Nair said a great many of the speakers [also did] about the history of that nationalism because it turns out to be, if not a coercive history—and very often it is a coercive history—it turns out to be a history that marginalizes many communities. So my challenge to you and your generation is: what kind of nationalism should we attempt to replace it with or is the term nationalism, the idea of nationalism, the political mobilisatory power of nationalism, so necessarily tainted that there is no possibility of doing anything but refusing it at every point? There is a reason that I’m asking this question. It will be your challenge in the years ahead—it will be our challenge too—but it will be your challenge for longer and perhaps you will be able to think about it more creatively.

Many years ago, when Mrs. Thatcher, Prime Minister Thatcher, in England went on to win two elections, a great many people wondered about one astonishing fact: the English laboring classes, the English working classes, seemed to have voted in enormously large numbers for her. Now this seemed to be a contradiction in terms. Rather than voting for Labour they were voting for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, for her version of the Conservative Party. Now Stuart Hall, whose work some of you will know, the brilliant Jamaican cultural critic who lived his life in the United Kingdom, asked what seemed to be a deceptively simple question: why did that happen? How do you explain the fact that large constituencies, particularly working class constituencies, in Britain who should never have believed in Margaret Thatcher believed in her? There were at least two arguments that he developed. One was that Margaret Thatcher had tapped into, in its own ironic way, a postcolonial Britain, into a Britain that seemed diminished by the loss of its imperial territories and which seemed to have very little by way of ideological possibility to offer its citizens. What Margaret Thatcher made available was a particularly powerful, jingoistic, militarized nationalism. All of you will remember the war around the Las Malvinas, the islands off the coast Argentina, where Margaret Thatcher sent in the British Navy to make sure Argentina didn’t effect its rightful claim to those islands. That form of jingoistic nationalism, militarized nationalism, is something that is on the rise in India too and we have to figure out ways in which to counter it.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We have resurrected, I shouldn’t say the word we—you people have resurrected—the term Azadi [/pullquote]
But there was something else that Stuart Hall argued that has stuck with me all these years. He said the Left in England—the broad Left—had too easily evacuated the symbols of patriotism and nationalism, thus allowing Margaret Thatcher and the Tory Party to claim them as their own. What were these symbols? The Queen, the flag and the national anthem (the odious ‘Rule Britannia’ which promises that Britons will never be slaves and was written at the time when Britain was enslaving hundreds of thousands of, not only Africans, but people across the world). He pointed out that what the Left had not done was to find an equally persuasive set of symbols with which to counter these traditional imperial symbols of British nationality. That I suspect is our challenge too at this point. We have resurrected, I shouldn’t say the word we—you people have resurrected—the term Azadi (we’ll be debating it in the lectures in the week to come). That is a term that potentially has the power to resonate against the insistence on our worshipping Bharat Mata, our saluting the flag, our not even questioning the crores, the thousands of crores, that are spent on our armies and our paramilitary apparatus. But it is only one term—not of recent provenance, but of a relatively recent currency. So it is our challenge, those of us who believe in democracy and progressive thought, to be able to articulate a set of ideas, images that will be powerful enough to resist the vulgar, militarized nationalism centered around particular slogans that is so favoured by politicians of all stripes, and indeed administrators of all kinds.

Thinking beyond the Empire with Agha Shahid Ali

So I offer that to you as a challenge. Is there a possibility for us to be able to develop a political imaginary outside of the thrall of empire because, as far as I’m concerned, our suspicion of the flag and other national symbols like that is well founded. Symbols like these have historically always been used to mobilize majority populations in the service of elite interests. But figure out ways, persuasive ways, in which to counter them—because there is an enormous world of public opinion outside of JNU and outside of our worlds that needs to be educated into these conversations. That too is your challenge. My way of dealing with my own demons, the demons of somebody who wishes to be thought of as Indian and democratic while being thought of as Kashmiri, was to write a book about this whole process. That entire book really is the story of my struggle to come to terms with some ideas. Now I’m not recommending that all of you go off to write books along those lines. But I am recommending that you recognize that this is your challenge. Kashmir is the flash point where this entire JNU problem began. You have stumbled upon, you have articulated symptomatically, what is one of the powerful problems, one of the most powerful articulations of the problem, of postcolonial Indian nationalism. How and why and when will we get to a point when we can rid ourselves of the burden of the imperial nation-state formation to a point when we can ask the kind of questions that can lead to a genuinely egalitarian, inclusive community at the end of it? [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Agha Shahid Ali’s wonderful poem “A Pastoral.”… a poem of loss, of longing, but also of political hope[/pullquote]
I’m going to stop talking about nationalism now but I did want to end by taking us back to A Country Without a Post Office. That is where you will remember all of this began. I thought that I would read—not all of because it is a comparatively long poem—but I would read several stanzas from a poem that is contained within the volume of poetry that is A Country without a Post Office. This is Agha Shahid Ali’s wonderful poem “A Pastoral.” It is a poem of loss, of longing, but also of political hope and that is why I read it to you. Not only to remind you of what Kashmiris have suffered and continue to suffer but of political possibility and solidarity. Agha Shahid Ali dedicated this poem to a Hindu friend of his. This is “A Pastoral”:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.
We’ll tear our shirts for tourniquets
and bind the open thorns, warm the ivy
into roses. Quick, by the pomegranate—
the bird will say—Humankind can bear

This is the both our problem and our possibility ‘Humankind can bear everything’.

No need to stop the ear
to stories rumored in branches:

This is the invitation: No need to stop our ears to the stories that have circulated to us from the margins of our nation.

Pluck the blood: My words will echo thus
at sunset, by the ivy, but to what purpose?
In the drawer of the cedar stand,
white in the verandah, we’ll find letters:
When the post offices died, the mailman
knew we’d return to answer them. Better

if he’d let them speed to death,
blacked out by Autumn’s Press Trust
not like this, taking away our breath,
holding it with love’s anonymous
scripts: “See how your world has cracked.
Why aren’t you here? Where are you? Come back.
Is history deaf there, across the oceans?”

“Is history deaf there,”—I’m repeating a line that he doesn’t repeat—“Is history deaf there, across the oceans?” . . . or indeed across the Pir Panjal Pass?

Quick, the bird will say. And we’ll try
the keys, with the first one open the door
into the drawing room. Mirror after mirror,
textiled by dust, will blind us to our return
as we light oil lamps. The glass map of our country,

still on the wall, will tear us to lace—
We’ll go past our ancestors, up the staircase,
holding their wills against our hearts. Their wish
was we return—forever!—and inherit (Quick, the bird
will say) that to which we belong, not like this—
to get news of our death after the world’s.

On that note, thank you for listening to me and good luck with your struggles ahead. All of us are with you. Thank you so much.


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Suvir Kaul Written by:

Suvir Kaul is A.M. Rosenthal Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA

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