CAA-NRC Protests Must Go On – But What About Kashmir? 

Is ‘empathy’ for Kashmir, Kashmiris and their plight enough, even as we sustain the anti-CAA movement?

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

We Indians are emotional creatures. When we are in pain, we shout out loudly, on a grand operatic scale — to the world, to each other. And we measure vicariously to see whose is worse. ‘Are you in more pain or am I?’ Right now, if we measure Kashmir versus the rest of India, they win five times to one. Here’s the pain-math.

Almost all of India has been in protest mode for a month – from 12 December, when the new citizenship law was passed in Parliament. All of Kashmir has been locked away from the rest of India for five times that – since 5 August. It’s ‘Nazarband’ in Kashmir, or ‘eyes wide shut’ as the title of this painting by Shubhra Chaturvedi indicates. Whose eyes? Our eyes shutting Kashmir out or Kashmir’s eyes shut out to the rest of us?

‘Nazarband’, a painting by artist Shubhra Chaturvedi. 
‘Nazarband’, a painting by artist Shubhra Chaturvedi. 
(Photo: Shubhra Chaturvedi)

Mainland India & Kashmir Finally in ‘Similar Worlds of Pain’?

For once, mainland India and Kashmir are locked away in similar worlds of pain and protest. But is there a resonance from this side to that? My artist friend Shubhra is trying to provoke people to think.

“I am on the side of humanity,” Shubhra said. Her work was asking this question of all of us. Did we feel for Kashmir? In these vexed times, can we exist without acknowledging how deeply political everything is?

As Shubhra’s new body of work articulated these questions, in the Kashmir valley, the anger and frustration of living without the basics had begun to wear people down. Initially, there was the fire of disobedience.

Kashmiris shut shops and businesses in protest. Everyone was going there to find out how people were coping. The world’s eyes were on the state. After 12 December, when the rest of the country was going up in flames, dealing with cracked skulls and a republic gone deaf, the pain for Kashmiris became unbearable by comparison. Activist, Kashmiri and JNU student Shehla Rashid summed it up in her tweet:

‘What About Us in Kashmir?’

My closest friend — O — also an activist, started a verbal tirade. “Protests, protests, protests! You go on about JNU and Shaheen Bagh and all but what about us in Kashmir?” It seemed much worse for Kashmiris to witness mainland India speaking up for itself when it felt its rights were infringed upon. Where were these numbers when Kashmiris had their rights snatched? I shot back at O. How dare he say India didn’t and isn’t protesting for the rights of everyone, including Kashmir?

People on the streets were also campaigning for the removal of restrictions in Kashmir. Artists like Shubhra were painting about it. But O didn’t budge.

We had a complete meltdown. Did O think my empathy wasn’t enough? I swore never to speak with him again. He said I didn’t live in Kashmir, so how would I possibly understand? The decades of being broken and disenfranchised, seeing relatives shot in the face, the deprivation of all things at all times. Going from happy middle class to cascading impoverishment only on account of the politics of the state is something that plain empathy could not comprehend. Was the larger political landscape going to tear people apart? Kashmir even further from mainland India, O from me?


Drawing Out the Pain

This is what politics does or can do. This is what Shubhra’s art was meant for. To draw out the pain. To tell people in Kashmir they matter. That their being shut out was like the light going out of us all. On the day we fought, the day the temperature was 6 degrees in downtown Srinagar where O lived. Post the abrogation of 370, electricity had mysteriously become more erratic. Was this the winter? Was it the apathy or dejection of the state electricity board that didn’t see the point of fixing lines in the bitter cold when they weren’t sure if their jobs were secure in the new Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir?

O didn’t know. Except that night after night, when the temperature dropped to minus 2 and the electricity was mostly gone, the invertor gave out, the heating gave out. His sister’s six-month-old twins cried in the cold. There was no way to pump up water for a bath. This pattern had repeated itself over the months as it got colder and snow fell. Pretty snow for outsiders like me. Cruel snow when it took out the basics, like it had for O. Now his car was stuck. Shops were mostly shut. Getting a puncture repaired in the snow required Himalayan climber-type abilities, with most mechanics missing in action. As did buying bread.

Was Empathy Going to Cut It?

Was empathy going to cut it? With the internet and power out, could the protest and art about Kashmir reach the eyes and ears of Kashmiris? “I wish there was internet just so we could do a video call and I could show you how bad it is,” O had said before we stopped talking. The Supreme Court gave its ruling on the internet shutdown in Kashmir. They said it was essential and akin to the right to life. They took on board how people in Kashmir were unable to apply outside to study, or secure results of existing exams like the NEET. How they couldn’t find out about the world, couldn’t deal with going back to a world of no WhatsApp, no Google, no pictures.

And then, having said all of this, the top court politely requested the same government that took it all away to report back with a status update.

Was empathy going to cut it?

I couldn’t bear to not talk to O. We made up. The deal breaker wasn’t politics, it was shoes. O went into a shop. He had no money but he needed retail therapy to recover from the emotional breakdown. His phone call to me was a clincher. “Please Google the name of the manager, North India, for XXX brand. I just fought with them. I’m buying shoes. Google the number and send it to me. I’ve taken out all your angst on them.”


‘When My Killer is My Judge, Where Do I Go for Justice?’

It was over as suddenly as it had begun. O and I had a marathon conversation, calmly. He saw that I saw and understood. As did so many others in mainland India. He just needed to let it all out. I also saw and understood why he was in such competitive pain. That it hurt much more when the rest of India was in a world of protest and outrage. That’s when we need to keep the enormous and continuing pain of the people of Kashmir even closer. As O put it: “Meri qatil hi mera munsif hai, kya mere haq me faisla dega? When my killer is my judge, where do I go for justice?” As my artist friend Shubhra put it, she felt suffocated, when she thought about the pain of Kashmiris. “I felt the only thing I can do is paint,” she said.

The art spoke. The first image was followed by one where the lock was front and centre and massive. In another, there are cross-bars like the door of a jail, with ‘Kashmir fana – Kashmir annihilated,’ written across it in Urdu. In one, there are no hands. “The people have disappeared,” Shubhra explained. I decided to write to make sure they stay on vividly. Front and centre in our consciousness — as we rise in protest.

(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author ofThe Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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