State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The jungle ritual (August 4, 2020)

Most moments come to pass; some moments extend themselves in ways that they become annotations on eras. This day last year was such a moment, an oracular dissertation on why and how we had arrived at August 5, 2019, and what lay ahead. It was a moment that defined to humanity yet again the fatal error of confusing elections, even popular elections, with democracy. The latter is not always the consequence of the former, it can often be its casualty.

The dismemberment and downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir, the cold stripping and silencing of what used to be India’s prided crown, were decisions of a popularly elected government, the most handsomely mandated executive in decades. No element of those decisions was democratic — not the way they were arrived at, not the way they were effected.

That said, Kashmir’s was a popular humiliation, a rapturously popular one, whose din drowned protest to a feebleness and eventually drained it; it was the popularity the hunter enjoys in a hunt over the hunted. That was the ritual of the rite, the jungle ritual of might is right. Nobody can rightfully complain they did not see it coming, the jungle cannot complain about itself. An elected jungle is still a jungle, it is decreed to live by its ways. That decree was popularly handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi & Co in May 2019. It was a decree vastly different from the decree of 2014. Understanding the difference is the key to understanding what Modi’s formulation of New India is. It is a majoritarian formulation, not a democratic one.

Modi rode to power in 2014 on the weary spine of the UPA decade, its dissipated energies, its internal debasement and decay, its atrophied will, its palpable lack of mass connect; Modi seemed to embody all the happy contrasts. Modi’s endorsement in 2019, a bigger and resounding ratification, was earned entirely on his own speed. He had demonstrated the will and the potential for doing ‘what no other leader had been able to do in 70 years’. That’s open code for the establishment of Hindu majoritarianism. It has many layers to it, that code — from cow and beef lynch mobs and their celebration to “shamshan-kabristan” speeches to Othering for attire to the empowerment of Adityanath and Pragya Thakur to the denigration of Gandhi and the deification of Godse, the entire narrative of civilizational anger and avenging. Like Pulwama, followed by Balakot. That was the message that won Modi 2019. What has followed are merely consequences. The overriding mood of 2019 wasn’t for electing a democrat; it had been seduced by a demagogue and his diabolical promise. Everything that has happened since was written into the mandate.

I was in Kashmir on assignment from this newspaper this day last year. And this, briefly, is what happened.

At 12.26 am, I began writing a telephone text to my office: “Don’t know what the cabinet will decide in Delhi tomorrow, but the iron curtain is about to…”

My phone snapped. Like at the throw of some switch somewhere. The signal towers collapsed. Internet was gone. I ran down to the landline. Dead. I tried heading out, but there was nowhere to go. There were pickets and barricades, and soldiers frilled out around spools of concertina wires. Lockdown.

I may have never ever felt so shut out and so shut down. Not during the protracted military operations of the IPKF in northern Sri Lanka. Not during the many weeks I was on the frontier reporting the Kargil war. Not during the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo. Not even during the darkest I have witnessed in Kashmir over the past decades.

All through the widespread eruption of armed militancy and the consequent flight of Pandits from the Valley in 1989-90, there was always the old reliable Post and Telegraph Office to carry your typewritten copy to for transmission.

This was not even censorship, not about what you could or couldn’t report. This was being cut out and left cold. We were lost to the world, cauterized from all that existed beyond. There was no recourse, nobody to turn to, nobody to tell we even continued to exist, breathe, eat, pray, bray.

This is how Kashmir was taken and was made to become “normal”. It beggared belief at the time that I considered myself the citizen of a democracy. It still does. I got out a few days later, but that could be of no solace to those I had left behind, fellow citizens so-called, who trade in the Indian rupee and, when required, produce an Aadhaar card or an Indian passport.

What democracy so utterly and absolutely deprives its citizenry? What democracy celebrates such violent dispossession of those it calls its own? What democracy stirs not a little finger to say, look, what’s happening is not right, you cannot do it to a people, not to those you call your own, not to those you sat and supped with till just the other day. What democracy rejoices in denying to others what it seeks to possess for itself? I shall go on pilgrimage to Amarnath but I shall piss on your walls on the way there. What democracy does that?

But that is what we have made of ourselves, that is what we voted for, that is what we invested in and installed in power — a majoritarianism. It’s misplaced to blame Narendra Modi & Co. They were clear and upfront with their agenda; it was all in their manifesto, the bold print, the fine print, what lay there to be read between the lines. This nation voted for what became the CAA, this nation voted for what is going to be the NRC, this nation voted, eyes wide open, for Narendra Modi, a man who likened a pogrom to the death of a pilla, or pup. It must live with the consequences and believe that at 50,000-plus infections a day, we are doing gloriously tackling the coronavirus and that there are no Chinese troops squatting on Indian soil. We should also believe that “goli maaro sa***n ko” is a patriotic cry and reading the Preamble to the Constitution anti-national. We should believe that habeas corpus is no plea to urgency over ensuring human rights, and that the lies of a salaried solicitor must always override the truth of what we can see, whether it is migrants walking thousands of harried miles home or an elderly gent protesting from behind a concertina mesh that he is chained when the world is being told he is free. We must believe the freedom of his chains because it is lies we chose.

We are about to be told more lies this day, in continuation of the consecration of crimes. This day is such a moment, when democracy appears a casualty of elections, not its consequence. Kashmir described how that happened and what it would lead to. It was a dry run on the tools and methods of subjugation, on the uses of lies and propaganda, on the subversion of institutions and integrity, on the populist derailing of democracy. Keep watching, there will be, I promise, much to watch.

State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The government has become a spur to disruption and chaos

A fair lot has happened in the six months since India’s crown was sundered, downgraded and hammered into a prison-house sans parallel. Today is six months since the hobnailed silencing of Jammu and Kashmir. That silence has since flown the imposed suffocations of the Valley and become an uproar ringing across the nation: Aazaadi! Continue reading “The government has become a spur to disruption and chaos”

State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Kashmir: It’s Been a Month – September 4, 2019

 

Human beings probably best reveal themselves in how they regard fellow humans. In pronouncing upon the other, by word or by deed, they often pronounce upon themselves. A fortnight before I watched the lockdown shroud descend on Kashmir on the night of August 4-5, I happened to be crossing the Valley on another assignment — a remembrance, part personal, of 20 years since the war over Kargil.

The Amarnath Yatra was in bustle, protected convoys were whistling up and down the road from Srinagar to Baltal, the preferred base camp to the holy cave. For a while, I journeyed lodged in the belly of one such column; the road is narrow and often only permits single-file traffic. An hour out north of Srinagar, between Ganderbal and Wayil, the pilgrim carriers came to a halt. It was a hamlet called Nunner. Habitation hugged the road close on either side; in a recess stood a copse-like opening shaded over by robust summer foliage; some village folk hung about outdoors, mostly idling. Presently, men began to leap off their buses, as if to a common trigger, and lined up along the wayside.

They dropped their pyjamas and trousers — those wearing shorts were swifter on the draw — and began to relieve themselves on the village walls, someone’s home, someone’s shopfront, someone’s little lumber depot. Some among the impromptu party chortled, their delight not entirely on account of the unburdening of bladders; their delight, clearly, also a sensation of achievement. Others wiggled their pelvises and scored abstract patterns with their discharge. Yet others called out to mates to participate in the collective and wanton violation; many declined, but some were willing.

No native of Nunner motioned them off their property, much less utter a word in reproach. The pilgrims had the company of armed jawans, in buses fore and aft. This was a secure desecration. I should state I tried to reason with their wrongdoing and suggested a more open space, just a little down the road, near Wayil perhaps, where Sindh nullah flows. I was shown a middle finger by one who wasn’t yet done fastening his drawstring. Another said, as if to spit on me: “Tuu bhi inhi mein se hai kya? (Are you also one of them?)”

The Indian male is notoriously unmindful and indiscreet about letting off pressure below his belly-button, but this was no lone-ranger act of furtive opportunism. This was a mindful, methodical dose of abuse, of which I was only a collateral recipient. That man had the bully’s post-barbarism cheer to his tone. Nunner — or Nunner by any other name — was always going to be their chosen place for defilement; there was, to the whole passing spectacle, a retributive triumphalism — here, this is what we will do to you, take it.

Nunner’s scars were already beginning to evaporate as the buses departed; the pilgrims had revealed a few indelible things about themselves.

Our book of revelations has proceeded infamously apace since that brag, brazenly made, in the summer of 2014 by one of our elected eminences — it can now be said that it is possible to have a majority government in this country without the support of… (read India’s largest religious minority; also read Majoritarianism). What did that reveal to us of the dispensation that governs us?

What do we reveal of ourselves when we ascend the high pulpit and brandish the rhetoric of paanch-pachees and shamshan-kabristan? What do we reveal of ourselves when we motion compatriots to banishment in Pakistan? What do we reveal of ourselves when we slaughter a youngster for the headgear he sports? What do we reveal of ourselves when we lynch because someone reads another book, follows another faith, eats another meal? What do we reveal of ourselves when we make a celebration of that lynching? What do we reveal of ourselves when we endorse the devilish marauders of a little girl? What do we reveal of ourselves when we make common cause to obstruct justice for the parents of that little girl? What do we reveal of ourselves when we cheer the assassin of the man we still call the Father of the Indian Nation? What do we reveal of ourselves when we collaborate to deliver landslide mandates to each and all of such unabashed purveyors of bigotry? What do we reveal of ourselves in turning lusty champions of hatred? What have we revealed of ourselves in Kashmir?

We have revealed that we can weaponize the prejudices of the party that profaned Nunner. We have revealed, too, that we can do to a whole people what Major Leetul Gogoi did to that young shawl-weaver called Farooq Dar. Only, Dar was far more fortunate. He was trussed up with ropes and was sent on one round astride the bonnet of an army jeep. Kashmir is trussed up in concertina wires, and it has been a month. Kashmir has not been allowed to speak, and it has been a month. Kashmir has not been allowed its say, and it has been a month. Kashmir is no longer Kashmir, and it has been a month. It was stripped and demoted through the mechanics of a diabolical subterfuge, and it has been a month. Kashmir’s supreme will came to reside in a governor who, until the dawn of the night of long knives, was professing he knew nothing of what the fuss was all about, and it has been a month. Kashmiris pronounced that will, through their governor, with their voices muzzled and often interned, their conversations abrogated, their movement frozen, their neighbourhoods sealed, their aspirations and anger tear-gassed, their protests pelleted, their prayers quartered. They make the biggest jailhouse of this democracy, nearly eight million inmates. It has been a month. It’s a patent lie that Kashmir is normal; to label reports of a populace seething and stifled propaganda is the most pernicious propaganda.

Kashmir is a hard and complicated place, no less because it also lies infiltrated and instigated by rogue instruments across the cantankerous fence. It is also a rending place because its soul was inconsolably cauterized by the gun-point hounding out of Kashmiri Pandits in 1989-90. Governments can be hard and complicated and rending in their ways too.

Our governments have been no exception; they’ve been serially hard on our people. In the Northeast, in Punjab, in West Bengal, in the troubled jungle geographies of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand, all across this sovereignty during the Emergency. In the “defence of the realm”, governments have employed unspeakable excesses. But seldom has the celebration of such excesses been so wide and so untrammelled and unashamed. Let Kashmiris cry. Lock them up, starve them, be done with them, we care that they should be dealt with, now or never. Let them suffer. Let them be maimed. Let them die. It’s all well and just if Kashmir can be vacated of the Kashmiris who inhabit Kashmir. Kashmir is the paradise of our lusting, Kashmiris are the parasites that need extinguishing to make way for us. It’s what we have revealed of ourselves, one human to another, this past month. You must brush your teeth before you smell the coffee each morning; one morning, look yourself up in the mirror. It’s been a month, a fair time to reveal yourself to yourself.

 

Kashmir

Notes From An Operation Theatre

This is how we did it, this is how it is usually done. There are standard operating procedures. The subject must first be prepared for what’s to come, even if the arrangements cause some consternation and distress, even if the subject appears baffled and unwilling. The subject needs to be persuaded what is being done is only for their good, there’s no cause for panic or fretting. It may hurt a little in the beginning but it will all turn out well in the end. It’s strong medicine being administered, but it’s essential medicine. Don’t worry, you’ll be just fine, this is for your own good.

Sanitisation is required. Doors need to be secured. Sounds need to be shut. Nothing may come in. Nothing may slip out. This needs clinical planning and execution. It needs trained personnel in close attendance. It needs precision tools. It needs expert minding. Nothing can be out of place, nothing can be permitted to go wrong.

Faces masked, hands gloved, anaesthesia administered: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5… “Scalpel!”

And so it was that Kashmir was taken.

The soldiery was commandeered and deployed, so many thousands even the birds huddled close. Then, in the darkened shadows of night, an unseen hand moved to unbounded muffling: no movement, no messaging, no sound nor syllable. Landlines gone. Mobile networks gone. Broadband gone. Cable television gone. Civic restrictions on. The countdown to a comprehensive stilling. Kashmir etherised. Kashmir under treatment. Codename Operation Kashmir.

It was to emerge from that induced coma, its constitutional feathers ripped, its body carved, dismembered and downgraded to manageable contours, its prominent “anti-bodies” identified and referred to sterilised laboratories. Other known and potential “germs” scraped out and packed off to distant quarantines.

Surgical strike. This is how it happens, this is how it is usually done. There are standard operating procedures.

Post-operative remarks of the Surgeon-General on ailment and aftermath

Infection and contamination are to be prevented at all costs, anything that jeopardises the outcomes of this procedure must be proscribed. Amputation of sections cannot be ruled out because pathology suggests gangrene may have set in in some places. The requirements of critical care remain pressing; robust doses of medication will need to be pumped in for a sustained period, and there will have to be mandatory and frequent phases of sedation in order that eventual recovery on desired lines can be expected.

The chief cause of affliction by this acute malady was found to be the unfettered and long-term prescription of a feel-good drug called 370. It played havoc and triggered a rash of ruinous symptoms that were getting out of hand. It constricted and suffocated some parts, throttled the nerves. It was found that exclusive privileges enjoyed under the influence of 370 had begun to score fatal sores; it was urgent to de-clog starved channels and infuse hitherto restricted interests and influences to restore vigour and vibrancy. Overdosing on 370 had also led to bloating of some sensory organs, which in turn had prompted delusionary fits and, very often, violent lunging towards secession. External instigation was aiding these symptoms, but there were internal wellsprings too, feeding the disorder and its destructive syndrome.

Gupkar has been cauterised and cleansed. We ran a super-sopper along the length of the avenue and swept up the residue. Gupkar was a chronic trigger to Kashmiri misconduct. This is where all its rulers reigned from and took turns ruining the realm for nearly half a century: Sheikh Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, Mehbooba Mufti and, for an interregnum, Ghulam Nabi Azad. These three families and their legatees, their patrons and partners — the Abdullahs, the Muftis, the Nehru-Gandhis — were identified as the core of the carbuncle, a knife had to be run through their monopoly on malevolence, and the possibility of any recurrence stitched up.

Comprehensive surgical restructuring was required to ensure that. That manoeuvre was successfully conducted. One body part — Ladakh — had to be cleaved away in order that it could afford enhanced blood flow. The remaining, and chief, body part — Jammu and Kashmir — had to be radically repurposed to control recurrent paroxysms and correct faulty alignment. To that end, it was necessary that its command centre was relocated. That has been achieved. Power will no longer be located in, or issue from, Gupkar or its gallery of residents. Power will henceforth be a prescribed entity designated Lieutenant Governor who shall function under the direction and authority of a command centre self-invested with the best interests of the nation.

Should Gupkar eminences — or those aspiring to their expired authority, the likes of Sajjad Lone, even Shah Faesal — behave and reveal signs of correction, they may earn allowance to contest seats for a new confederacy of municipals which is to be called, in the aid of keeping spirits and appearances, the legislative Assembly of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir itself revealed imbalances inimical to the well-being of the bodypolitic; they will require to be attended to and remedied in order that proper functioning can be restored. A separate team of experts may be assigned to suggest ways so that one body part (Kashmir) is not pressing overly upon another, and under-attended body parts (Jammu, in the main) can be given their due. In the interests of good health and prosperity, Jammu and Kashmir should be read and understood, henceforth, as Jammu and Kashmir, not Kashmir and Jammu, as has, unfortunately, been the case so far. That’s a rectification we recommend to the separate team of experts to keep in mind when they go about their business of re-ordering the physical geography of this still living entity.

Post-operative conditions are usually a period demanding careful watch, monitoring and patience. This has been a monumental exercise, and despite the best efforts, there could be ups and downs. They will have to be handled firmly and resolutely.

We have reserves of strong medicine and enough well-trained personnel, there is no cause for alarm on that front. For the moment, all is well, contrary to uninformed reports you may be fed. One of the precautions we took in order to be able to undertake such a critical and vital gambit was that we informed very few. So do not pay heed to those who do not know.

Hallucinatory vignettes coursing a bloodshot, pellet-ridden eye

That lamb I had, which they commanded to silence, it bleated, and they shot it… That pigeon was the only thing I saw moving, and then something of it caught the concertina and it fluttered and then it moved no more… There was that graffiti on the wall, “India Go Back” and it had an exclamation on it the shape of a gun… then the wall turned, as if to the change of a camera angle, and it became flat as a road, and there were boots marching on it… Someone was shrieking and it was a silent shriek that did not even turn to a balloon of vapour because this isn’t our winter… I was writing an essay on Peace and everytime I wrote Peace it spelt itself Panic… I threw a stone and it took my arm away… That phone of mine, it was so smooth, and just the size, I used it as soap to bathe… None of this can be true… What is true is what I am told every time I come to… “Everything is fine, everything is calm, everything is normal, everything is for your own good, everything is under control…” …So my blistered eye is a lie dipped in a surreal slipstream, and these nightmares are a matinee screening I bought tickets for… the movies have returned to Kashmir as promised… all is well.

Kashmir

Diary of Srinagar lockdown I & II

A reporter’s worst nightmare is not being able to tell the story; this week, the powers enacted it coldly, and with singular completeness. But it’s poor form to complain of being pinched when everything around you is being hammered. The reporter in Kashmir this week was a niggling collateral to seismic enactments whose impulsive after-tremors have been stilled by jackboots and commanded at gunpoint to behave.

These are fragments from a diary that lay proscribed for days:

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Shortly after I arrive in Srinagar mid-afternoon, a friend of several decades comes around and insists on ferrying me home. “No point getting locked up in a room with nowhere to go. It isn’t safe, a big lockdown is coming.”

“How do you know a lockdown is coming?” I ask him, a little irritably.

“If a lockdown isn’t coming, why are you even here?” he retorts.

Argument over.

Continue reading “Diary of Srinagar lockdown I & II”