As I write this piece, I remain painfully aware that the 16-year-old Kashmiri actor Zaira Wasim must want very much to be left in peace, and not to be discussed as she has been discussed by many of us during the last few days. Unfortunately, the open letter of “apology” that she addressed to the Kashmiri people at large and circulated over social media platforms this weekend – I place the word in inverted commas advisedly – has opened up a debate that cannot easily be wished away. The act for which Wasim offered her remorse was that of meeting with her state’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, who is widely perceived to have lost the popular mandate after her indecisive handling of the unrest that followed the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani last July. And it seems evident that Wasim’s gesture of contrition was summoned forth by forces of opinion-formation that stirred up a mood of anger against her. As a result, this talented young woman now disavows the recognition that has come her way for playing the wrestler Geeta Phogat in the film Dangal. Reading her “apology”, I was chilled to the bone by its cadences. The text read exactly like a condemned heretic’s forced public recantation under the Inquisition’s encouragement in medieval Europe.

This unfortunate episode reminded me, also, of the manner in which the Srinagar girl band Pragaash, formed in 2012, was forced into silence the following year by a campaign of threat and abuse, and a condemnation by the state’s grand mufti. Predictably, many voices from the Valley have asked whether these two cases warrant the magnitude and intensity of discussion that they have aroused in the rest of India, especially when such everyday Kashmiri realities as the flagrant abuse of power and the killing, maiming and rape of civilians often go unremarked (in fact, these horrors do not go unremarked by Indian commentators). Equally predictably, many cheerleaders of Hindu majoritarianism have demanded to know what Indian liberals have to say on the subject, and why they have not voiced their outrage as they would, had the supposed perpetrators of this social censorship been Hindu (in fact, many Indian liberals have voiced their views on the subject with abundant clarity). As usual, the arguments on both sides are premised on the empty rhetoric of “what about?” and “where were you when?”

Internal siege

The silencing of Pragaash as well as of Zaira Wasim points to a profoundly tragic aspect of any long drawn-out conflict between a nation-state and a region whose aspirations towards self-governance it wishes to suppress. While the nation-state enacts an external siege upon such a region, that region enacts an internal siege upon itself. The external and more obvious siege is manifested through a heightened military presence, the subversion of the civil rule of law by the expediencies of undeclared war, extrajudicial executions, and the horrifying use of mass rape as a weapon of subjugation. The internal siege is less obvious, because it is viewed as a natural and inevitable reaction to the crisis – which, to a certain extent, is true. It is manifested in the hardening of a regional identity through the certitudes of a singular ideology, one that will brook no questioning and permit no diversity, and that will penalise any deviation from its cultural vision and its programme of political action.

In this Manichean situation, both sides strip the individual and society – in whose name both claim to exert themselves – of volition, agency, and the right to dissent. As in most such conflict situations, it is women and artists who suffer the most. Women become objectified into symbols to be fought over by the contending ideologies, to be constrained or violated. And artists are silenced, because they embody the possibility of autonomous, irrepressible expression, which is anathema to both contending sides. And the woman artist comes to bear the brunt of the contention. What the internal siege does, above all, is to preclude any discussion of asymmetries and inequities internal to the region, whether of gender, class, opportunity or cultural freedom – on the familiar grounds that it will weaken the cause, produce disunity within the ranks, and leave the region open to manipulation by the enemy. In emphasising the need to present a united front against the external enemy, internal debate tends to be ignored or deferred.

Any attempt to discuss the problems that afflict contemporary Kashmiri culture is promptly rebutted with proclamations that Kashmir is “under occupation”, that we cannot forget the women of Kunan Poshpora, that the fate of a few young female musicians cannot compare with the fate of the hundreds of young men who have been extrajudicially murdered during the years of turbulence. The Kashmiri people’s experience of oppression over the decades, and even centuries, deserves our deepest empathy. However, in approaching the Kashmir narrative today, it is clear that we are increasingly confronted by an attitude of Kashmiri exceptionalism. By this, I indicate that body of ahistorical opinion in the Valley – most prominently associated with the Hurriyat Conference – which holds that Kashmir’s destiny sets it uniquely apart from India, that its most concrete connections lie in the House of Islam, and that it can only be defined by rejecting all possible affinities and solidarities with implicitly “Hindu” India. Such an attitude is intended to make it difficult for Kashmiris to find common ground with their counterparts in “mainland” India.

Uncomfortable truths

Even as we acknowledge the extreme degree to which Kashmir has suffered from an explosive mixture of factional strife, low-intensity warfare, insurgency and state violence, we must recognise the narrowness that this exceptionalism has imposed on Kashmiri culture. By culture, I do not mean only the expressive and archived forms of art-making; I mean, also, an intellectual and affective matrix that can nurture a diversity of views. And we must accept that a very powerful strand within Kashmiri exceptionalism is an increasingly dominant Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which is antagonistic both to the claims of the arts and to the possibility that women might stake their own claim to freedom and expression.

When I wrote recently that I grieve for a lost Kashmir that once produced philosophers, poets, artists, actors, singers, theatre-makers, I was not being merely nostalgic for the land of my ancestors, whose mystical and philosophical traditions nourished Abhinavagupta, Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, Krishna Joo Razdan, Ustad Muhammad Abdullah Tibetbakal, and Swami Laxman Joo. What I had in mind, more pertinently to our present moment, was the robustly modern and cosmopolitan 20th-century Kashmir that enabled a dazzling spectrum of cultural practitioners to flourish: to name only a few, poets like Mahjoor, Zinda Kaul, Dina Nath Kaul “Nadim” and Rahman Rahi; singers like Shameema Dev Azad;masters of the folk theatre form known as bhand pather, such as Mohammed Subhan Bhagat; and artists like Ghulam Rasool Santosh.

This is not, by any means, to say that Kashmir no longer produces writers, artists, photographers, musicians, or filmmakers. Of course it does. But my fear is that these cultural producers must work under, and despite, conditions of appalling constraint laid down both by Indian hyper-nationalism and Kashmiri exceptionalism. I write this with a heavy heart, recognising that the vortex of Kashmir’s predicament draws the imagination into itself with neither repose nor respite. And yet, the gaze that is turned in on itself in Kashmir can miss the subcontinent-wide circulations and kaleidoscopic possibilities that have always animated Kashmiri culture, which has never been isolated from the rest of South Asia.

Ranjit Hoskote’s translation of the 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded has appeared as I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Penguin Classics, 2011).