By Mir Fatimah Kanth
Since early December 2019, there have been large-scale organizing efforts against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 in the form of protests, rallies, marches, sit-ins, and teach-ins in India and abroad. While these protests unfolded across India, Kashmir remained under a digital lockdown imposed after the revocation of its semi-autonomous status through Article 370, on August 5 in 2019. In many of these protests, Kashmir was made hypervisible through “Free Kashmir” posters and chants of Kashmir’s “Azaadi” (Freedom) protest slogan calling for justice in India. Paying attention to these moments of engagement with Kashmir poses questions about what solidarity with Kashmir means within the dominant Indian imagination. It reveals the limits of solidarity – an eagerness to draw upon chants, and protest methods popularly used in Kashmir and an outright denial to hear what Kashmiris are saying.
The slogan “Hum Kya Chahte, Azaadi” (What do we want? Freedom) found a new audience and mode of utterance in the anti-CAA protests across India. Over the last three decades, the chanting of this slogan has symbolized self-determination and freedom for the people of Kashmir. It has now become a rallying cry for justice and hope in India, whereas its utterance in Kashmir has a long history of tortured and mangled bodies, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and indefinite incarceration under draconian laws. Protestors’ demands for Azaadi in India elide the criminalization of its expression in Kashmir and the brutalization of Kashmiri bodies and lives.
In many protests across India, specifically in Mumbai, Mysore, Delhi, and Chennai, “Free Kashmir” placards were spotted amidst a plethora of posters expressing outrage at CAA. The appearance of these placards was deemed controversial in coverage by news media and in responses by the larger public on various social media platforms. Some news media outlets called these acts “unconstitutional,” arguing that the right to protest is a fundamental right, whereas propagating the idea of “Free Kashmir” violates the sovereignty of India. Similarly, many social media users on Twitter and Facebook expressed their dislike and strong disagreement with such acts of protest, for violating ideas of sovereignty and nationalism.
In the case of placards spotted in Mumbai and Mysore, the police took “serious cognizance” of the matter and tracked down the individuals who held these posters. While a complaint was registered by the police under section 153B of the Indian Penal Code (which specifies assertions prejudicial to national integration) against the protestor in Mumbai, the protestor in Mysore was arrested on charges of sedition. In the case of the Mysore protestor, the court later granted anticipatory bail on eight conditions, including the submission of a personal bond and surety. It took three constituent organs of the government—the judiciary, executive, and legislature—to determine what the posters meant, and the intentions of the protestors. Later, both protestors released videos on social media platforms explaining why they held these posters and what they meant by “Free Kashmir.” For both, it meant that Kashmir should be freed from the internet and communications blockade and clarified that they absolutely didn’t mean freedom (Azaadi) from India. The protestor from Mysore went on to issue an apology and specified that they are against separatists who demand freedom from India.
The state’s violent response to these protests has led many to compare it to conditions of life in Kashmir. The government responded to some of these protests through a brutal crackdown on students, imposition of curfews in volatile areas, and suspension of internet access in some parts of New Delhi. However, we may ask, how normalized are these conditions of life in Kashmir that they have now become a standard of comparison to determine levels of state violence? Is this to be understood as a fear that these conditions are spreading from the periphery to the center? In a way, this comparison insinuates that there is very little shock value about Kashmir, that these brutal realities of existence are so acceptable in India, that even to extend solidarity for locking down an entire population for six months must be qualified by a string of conditions.
While this moment could be promising in terms of solidarity across struggles, the hypervisibility afforded to Kashmir makes visible the deep fissures and compromises accompanying solidarity for Kashmir. Solidarity comes at the cost of silencing and erasure of Kashmiris through a long list of terms and conditions. A “Free Kashmir” poster comes to mean everything else other than what it says. Therefore, any expression of outrage and shock must conform to terms and conditions which contain no space for Kashmiris’ aspirations of their own future. Instead, what finds space in these moments of solidarity are discussions of the kinds of freedom that must be granted to Kashmiris—internet, communications, education—as long as these remain bounded by what is acceptable to the collective Indian conscience. Interestingly, this exercise of interpreting the many things that freedom could mean for Kashmir was underway while Kashmiris were carefully locked away under a digital blockade and held in the open-air prisons in their own homes.
This moment holds a potential to liberate Indians from the clutches of communal governance, and brings to light the relationship between India and Kashmir, which is premised upon a refusal to hear what freedom means for Kashmiris.
Reading these symbolic moments in the recent protests in India, we see the limits of solidarity for Kashmir. Over the past few months, it has become clear that outrage over the lockdown in Kashmir is constrained by multiple factors, chiefly, by an overwhelming desire to fit within the parameters of “Indian Nationalism,” resistance to listening to what Kashmiris actually want, and recognizing that solidarity has been required to be conditional. As such, there are no overlaps between the demands made by anti-CAA protestors on questions of citizenship within the realms of nationhood and the long-standing demands for self-determination in Kashmir. However, this moment of questioning the casteist, communal and unequal systems in India holds liberatory potential for its citizens. Therefore, this movement must develop genuine solidarity with Kashmiris. After decades of suppression of Kashmiris, this might just be the golden hour for the people of India to relieve their country of its ghostly presence in Kashmir—by standing with Kashmir.
Mir Fatimah Kanth is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Broadly, her research focuses on militarization, humanitarian development, everyday life and gendered subjectivities in Kashmir.