It might be a little early to say, but it might be worth saying it nevertheless. With his resignation from the Indian Administrative Service last week after returning from a year at Harvard Kennedy School, Shah Faesal is generating a whole lot of false hope among a section of the young in Kashmir by his statements to the media. His jump from the bureaucratic ladder to that of politicians may also be rattling some ambitious, opportunistic people. After being a star bureaucrat for a decade, Faesal has learnt that this ladder goes higher and that the bureaucrat is merely an employee.
By safely ensconcing himself in unionist politics, Faesal has revealed himself as only the latest symptom of a brutal and stifling apparatus that only just manages Kashmir for India between cycles of unmitigated violence and enforced calm. He has been trying hard to make the symptom look like agency.
It is hard to miss the two fundamental contradictions that accompanied his resignation and his plunge into politics.
First, while imagining a place for himself on a higher moral plane, Faesal said he will guide Kashmiri aspirants for the Indian Administrative Service, the very institution he resigned from in an act of defiance and protest against New Delhi. By saying so he separates himself from the morality of his imagined subjects – the battered Kashmiri youth who vehemently confront the State on the street and through social media.
Second, he unwittingly admitted to an interviewer on India Today TV channel that he did not have “the strength of character” needed to join the Hurriyat Conference. This was in response to a question asking him if he was going to join the separatists.
“When it comes to joining Hurriyat, honestly speaking I do not think I have that strength of character,” he had said. “The kind of struggles, which Hurriyat people go through, I cannot possibly at this stage of my life go through those struggles. So, I am choosing an easier option, which is electoral politics.”
It can safely be assumed that he refers to a struggle for the political right of self-determination, which is at the core of the Kashmir question, an utterance he also wants removed from a list of taboo words.
When you hear Shah Faesal speak, you can sense his outrage and discomfort with how the State has been dealing with Kashmiri people, especially its young. But his willful ignorance of the structural source of why it is so is frightening.
De-historicisation and misrepresentation have been at the heart of the Indian State’s project in Kashmir. New Delhi has deployed all its power – military, media, economic and cultural – for constructing and sustaining an ahistorical, obfuscatory narrative and creating a space for a mostly coercive electoral process in the blighted land.
That space and process were both delivered a deathblow by the Kashmiri armed rebellion, which came right on the back of a patently rigged election of 1987. (Which Faesal mercifully is not oblivious of, though apparently only for the purposes of justifying his not so dramatic plunge.)
Reconstructing that process and recreating a new avatar of that annihilated space was a military operation. The memory of Indian soldiers sending Kashmiri voters to polling booths not so far ago in 1996 is still fresh in the minds of people.
New Delhi’s biggest success, if one may call it that, in Kashmir since the rupture of 1989 is to have resurrected regular elections by constant deployment of bribes, military force, and a suitable narrative for nurturing and expanding space for it.
But that began coming apart from 2008 through 2010, and the process and space for it was finally hit a mortal blow in the months after the July 2016 killing of the militant commander Burhan Wani. That year, angry Kashmiris targeted both the State apparatus and the electoral space, the middle ground for an amenable politics that New Delhi has traditionally allowed here.
The electoral middle ground in Kashmir almost vanished to the extent that the only major election held after Wani’s death registered just 7% voter turnout. Another scheduled bye-poll for Anantnag parliamentary constituency was cancelled and could never be held.
This reversal of New Delhi’s meticulously crafted and internationally sellable success in Kashmir has now become its most immediate and serious challenge. All effort – ranging from anti-militancy Operation All Out to bringing in a politician like Satya Pal Malik as governor – is now directed at recreating that stymied dynamic at any cost. Any resistance to it is a legitimate military target.
But New Delhi’s cynical treatment of even its allies in Kashmir – the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, and lately even Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference – has vindicated Kashmir’s young in their determined tossing out of the mainstream politician from their sphere.
The militarily constructed electoral-political space was deliberately fragmented in recent years to deny any one Kashmir-based party a sway on it, and later it was disparagingly destroyed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Faesal himself acknowledges it in a piece he co-authored with Mehboob Makhdoomi that was published in the Indian Express newspaper on January 3. Both military and political advice for New Delhi has been rife to reverse this.
Reimagining the same old
To the ever acutely rebellious and lately fearless Kashmiri youth, this is where Shah Faesal comes in. And, this is also where he is apparently locating himself when he speaks of an attempt to reimagine electoral politics in Kashmir, to help resuscitate it. It is another matter that the state’s politician governor says Faesal could serve the people better as a bureaucrat.
“What do you do to people, you give them roads, you give them water supplies, you give them electricity but you snatch their sense of dignity, you disempower them, you depoliticize them,” Faesal told India Today TV. “What do you do with that?”
This is the right question, similar to what all other Kashmir-based political groups have asked at different stages since elections were reinstated in 1996.
Now, deploying the language of dignity, disempowerment and de-politicisation Faesal is setting out to lure Kashmir’s young to the hollowed out “institutions of governance and democracy” by reimagining the same old.
“So, as somebody who has seen the system from very close I see it as an opportunity to may be build faith of the youngsters and the young generation into these institutions,” said Faesal in an interview.
The late Peoples Democratic Party leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, and later his daughter Mehbooba Mufti had said the same when they were permitted the space to use “separatist rhetoric” on their way to taking state power.
Now, Faesal hopes to mainstream Kashmiri youth and stem, possibly even end, their alienation but without summoning the “strength of character” to confront what many of them see as a deadly military occupation of their homeland.
Isn’t this what all the mainstream political groups from the entire spectrum in Kashmir have been saying, in addition to their peddling the constructs of “autonomy”, “self-rule” and “achievable nationhood”?
Even as Faesal wants to be an addition to the spectrum, he brings it nothing more than his own ambition to climb up the ladder of state power. In the end it is all about himself rather than Kashmir.
Time spent at Harvard can help shine a light on a lot of issues, and help you to hope, understand and see more. But India-Kashmir-Pakistan is the business of another school of politics.
All violence in Kashmir is contained in the status quo that has an unimaginably huge appetite for swallowing (or storing up) so-called Kashmiri icons.