It struck me all of a sudden, midway through a class I take. I was showing my students Hannah Gadsby’s show ‘Nanette’, which is on Netflix. Hannah is a lesbian stand-up comedian who uses her power and magnetic stage presence to hook you to something you might not otherwise want to see: her trauma. She describes how she was attacked and raped when she was seventeen and then twenty in the small town in Tasmania where she lived — for being different. And then she says what it was like to rebuild herself after.
“To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity,” Hannah says. “The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. They are the weak. To yield and not break, that is incredible strength… diversity is strength. Difference is a teacher. Fear difference, you learn nothing.”
How Kashmiris Inverted the Humiliation Heaped on Them
The story of Kashmir 80-plus days after having their right to decide their politics, their lives, their future taken away; people are saying exactly what Hannah did. After feeling like they were punished by the Indian state for being ‘different’, they decided to turn that ‘difference’ into their trump card, and show the BJP-led government just what it was like to invert the humiliation heaped on them. It was a bizarre scenario that unfolded in Kashmir this week.
Most mainstream party leaders are in jail. Despite that, the election commission went ahead and conducted block-level elections. 310 seats were voted on, and the conventional wisdom in the weeks leading up to results day was this: there is only one mainstream party not in jail — the BJP.
Would they sweep these elections or was the anger and trauma of the people Kashmir going to find political expression?
The answer was unequivocal when the results came in on 24 October. Independent candidates, allegedly backed by mainstream parties, won 217 of the 310 seats. The BJP tally was 81. Where else in the country do local elections take place when the political system is under siege? And where else do people still choose to display their defiance in ingenious ways?
Kashmir Conundrum: ‘The System Has Been Derailed by the System’
The real story of this election and the comment made by the people is one of people’s resistance. Kashmir’s very own civil disobedience. Lost in the din of media focus on atrocities and traumas. But this big picture needs context to be understood properly.
I was part of a four-member fact-finding team. I went into Jammu and Kashmir for two and then six days, along with civil rights activist Shabnam Hashmi, psychiatrist Anirudh Kala, and public health intellectual Brinelle D'Souza.
We met 350 people across five districts, and wrote our findings as a 76 page report, that paints an emotional landscape of trauma.
A journalist sitting at Srinagar’s Press Club looked away, lowered his head, with the sun falling on his mostly bald pate, as he underlined how the trauma post the abrogation of Article 370 is a structural break with all past traumas. “People had stakes in the system (the Indian state),” he said. “Generally, what happens is that the system is derailed by rebels. Here the irony is that the system has been derailed by the system.”
But just like Hannah Gadsby described, the Kashmiris have turned their adversity into a resistance movement entirely driven by its people.
They decided to keep their shops and businesses shut despite great fear of reprisal by the Indian state and their most visible arm – the security forces. In the past, lockdowns or bandh calls were given at the behest of separatist leaders – like the one that took place in 2016 after the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by security forces. This time, all leaders are either under house arrest or in jail. So, the people of Kashmir decided to resist the hostility of the Indian state as a collective — by keeping their establishments shut of their own volition. Entirely self-driven.
The Decision to Remain in Lockdown Mode
The narrative being spun by the government is that the lockdown persists because of threats from militants. The incidents of violence and killing of truck drivers and others from outside Kashmir in the last fortnight, made this story seem credible. But to focus on the killings is to miss the big picture entirely. Militancy is not new to Kashmir. Neither is the fear of militants. Or that of security forces. But of the 350 people we met, we found only one or two instances where they said there were posters put up in mosques, asking people to keep their businesses shut.
Most people said they were way past being dictated only by those fears that are pretty much normalised in Kashmir. This time, their response has been entirely different.
The point was driven home more clearly when we drove out of Srinagar, 53 kilometres northwest to the district of Baramulla. Past empty streets and downed shutters. To a home full of women of varying ages – from teachers in their mid- thirties to a grandmother who was seventy-two. The women articulated their choice to remain in lockdown mode louder and more aggressively than the men we met.
The stakes for them to choose to keep offices and private businesses shut were very high. Two children in this family were preparing for their medical entrance exams under the NEET or the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test. So, the family paid for expensive coaching classes — one lakh rupees a month. And with the voluntary lockdown, their kids weren’t going for these classes. All that money was down the tube.
But the women insisted this is a choice they have thought about and discussed ad nauseum.
“Even if we have to keep up the bandh for a year or two, we will do so for the sake of changing the state of affairs, for the future of our kids.” Consider what they were saying. The future of their children is more secure if they remain in this political resistance, than if they agree to do business with the Indian state.
J&K BDC Polls: Voting Overwhelmingly for Independents is Part of Resistance
Voting overwhelmingly for independent candidates is part of this resistance. There have never been block-level or local elections before in Kashmir. It’s after the striking down of Kashmir’s status that this was made possible.
And the central government wanted to use these elections to paint the complete strangulation of political rights of the people of Kashmir as ‘normal’.
If local elections are held, then surely everything is as it should be, isn’t it? Or so the story would go. But this is Kashmir. Long held suffering has bent even the ridiculous into a post-ridiculous dystopia, that cannot but make the government’s picture look like an elaborate and poorly-enacted farce.
Silence Tells Us the Story of Rupture — A Sharp Break With the Past
As a team going into Kashmir, this is not at all what we had prepared for. But we did know that we needed to step back and look at the big picture. To do that, we had to stay away from descriptions of pellet gun injuries and stories of torture. Those were there, undisputedly perhaps. But those have existed since 2010, when a different political regime was in charge. Focusing on atrocities therefore, would take away from trying to establish whether something fundamental had shifted in Kashmir or not.
When we looked at the everyday, the shopkeepers and homemakers struggling to stay put and resist, the silence told us the story of rupture — a sharp break with the past.
This was entirely new. That every household had internalised what happened to them as traumatic in exactly the same way. And each home and business more or less reacted alike, across districts and across the Kashmir landscape. They had reacted with the resilience that a broken-down lesbian like Hannah Gadsby displayed. A woman who rebuilt herself after decades of alienation and trauma. An alienated people that decided to act collectively, minus a leadership.
The other people that have acted similarly in India and pretty much everywhere else around the world are the LGBTQI+ community — living their lives mostly under siege.
‘We Kashmiris Are Crazy People’
There is something fiercely funny about Hannah and Kashmir. She admonished the straight white men in her audience; telling them to learn to accept difference. “Pull up your socks, people,” she said tersely. And then added with a hilariously macabre twist – “Fashion advice from a lesbian. How humiliating!” Everyone laughed.
On our last day, we had a lavish spread laid out by our hosts and people we leaned on to understand what was going on in Kashmir. A wise old Kashmiri tucked into the wazwan – the rishta and tabaqmaas and remarked, a twinkle in his eye – “We Kashmiris are crazy people. We have a big feast even when someone dies. To celebrate their life. Someone is dead and we cook a seven-course meal.”
“In that case,” said one of us, “please point me to the next funeral.”
More laughter. Of the lesbian-defiant-resilient sort.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Context/Westland, now in stores and also on Amazon.in. She tweets at@RevatiLaul. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)