Off-centre | Society

Being ‘nearish’: Internal-outsiders in the Kashmir conflict

Jawahira Banoo, a protester, after a demonstration on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Jawahira Banoo, a protester, after a demonstration on the outskirts of Srinagar.   | Photo Credit: AP

I have been working as a teacher in Jammu and Kashmir since July, and have always keenly followed this conflicted region as a researcher. My fascination with the Valley probably began as a teenager when I lived here with my Army father who was posted here.

A colleague recently went home to the Valley, and when she returned last weekend, she said that she only feels a sense of helplessness now. I can’t even feel anger, she said, because feeling angry comes with the hope that something might change. She spoke of the little things that make you afraid and frustrated. Like, earlier, there used to be J&K policemen even when they were stopped by the Army. It didn’t guarantee anything, but there was a sense of relief that a Kashmiri was there with them. Now, even that isn’t there, it’s only the Indian Army, she said.

It has been over 90 days of lockdown/ shutdown/ prohibition/ crackdown/ security measures. Is there an all-enveloping technical term for this status of limbo or repression? If there is, can it communicate the latest heavy-handedness of the Indian state? Can it be a metaphor for the years of eroding agency, normality and consent? Will it paint a picture of increasing humiliation, terror and hopelessness?

Scholarly dilemma

New words need to be coined so that we as a people can understand what it means to be near a conflict but not really of it. And ‘nearish’ is how I title my ethical and scholarly dilemma of being invested in a conflict and trying to piece out what my role is and what my role ought to be. ‘Nearish’ is also how I translate my more than 8,000 words of academic research into 800.

My perspective on this conflict has revolved around the role of the audience. And ‘internal-outsider’ is the term I use to describe this audience. Internal-outsiders are those who have an indirect role to play but have had their identity directly defined by this territory. From existing research, I have derived some characteristics to define the internal-outsider. These are as below:

Internal-outsiders have a mutually dependent relationship with the state — one of protection and power. They are the third dimension to the conflict — a paradoxical constituent, defined by their physical proximity to, and distance from, the conflict. They are the overwhelming norm while the actual constituents of the conflict are the outlier or the alienated. It is the internal-outsiders who have the microphone, that is, the access to be heard.

Stripped of agency

The attribute that ties all these characteristics together is agency. And agency is also the attribute that highlights the stark difference between the audience to the conflict and the Kashmiris, the constituents of the conflict. Agency is the concept I want to examine here, so that we as the internal-outsiders can start examining our role.

Agency can be defined as the power or ability to act in our best interests, of our own free will, to produce a specific result. The thing about agency in a democracy is that sometimes the only agency you have is your voice. If you have been heard, you count.

Even when elections become a numbers game, your vote is part of the numbers; you count. Therefore, while agency may remain an elusive idea to the internal-outsider, it remains an inhuman illusion to the Kashmiri.

When Article 370 was revoked for the benefit of my ‘brothers and sisters’, not a single one of them was consulted, not one of them was heard, nor is being heard. If consent is absent, so is agency; and vice versa.

Agency doesn’t disappear overnight. I have been at the periphery of this conflict in many different ways over the years. Fundamentally, though, like all Indians I was taught over and over again that Jammu and Kashmir is the crown of India. Losing this territory would mean losing our toughest frontier. I was in college by the time I realised that the map of India I had learnt to draw and am proud of was warped. Yet, it remains integral to me; this land is integral to my identity as an Indian.

Land over people

So, when I wonder about how we as a nation decided it was acceptable to treat an entire group of people in this increasingly dictatorial manner, the answer is simple. It is when we started believing that this land was more important to us than the people who inhabited it. And, as another corollary, the internal-outsider became more important than the Kashmiri.

Nonetheless, as internal-outsiders we are missing something that never existed. I am not denying the ties that we as a people have to this land. But we as a people have denied the Kashmiris their one sense of security by revoking Article 370. We promised them a vote, a right to self-determination, but we have denied them democracy and dignity.

It is hard to imagine what happens next to the Kashmiri. It is easy to predict what happens to the internal-outsider. The audience that watches will continue to receive reports of normality, of postpaid services being restored in the Valley, of children returning to school to sit exams they are not prepared for. In all this pretence of normality, the thing to remember is that it is not about us.

We can miss something we never had, but it is time to let go. Let go of the fond belief that we, the internal-outsiders, have, of thinking of Kashmir as a territory we possess or have any ownership over. It is easy to see the hurt and defeat and even hopelessness in the eyes I have met here. It is hard not to meet those eyes with a sense of shame. It is even harder to look at the mirror and see the villain there, but it is time to start reconciling ourselves to our reflection if we want to restore hope to ourselves and to the Kashmiri.

The writer has a Masters in Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University, Washington, D.C., and is currently teaching in Jammu and Kashmir.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 11:13:27 PM |

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