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The Turbulence in Kashmir: an Interview with Nyla Ali Khan

SERENA BLAIZ: Welcome to the Peace Buzz for August 26, 2016.

This is your host, Serena Blaiz, coming to you from Oklahoma City, where our sponsoring organization, the Center for Conscience in Action is located. For many, this may sound like a remote outpost in the peace community, but in fact we have a lot of activity and resources here to draw from, and one of those is Nyla Ali Khan, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

Professor Khan comes from Kashmir, which is a region under the control of India, which has a very interesting recent history, and currently a good bit of turmoil, that needs to be better understood and addressed by the rest of the world. Having Professor Khan nearby gives us an opportunity to try to remedy that, and we spoke with her at length back in April. Sadly, things have not improved for Kashmir, and today we check in again with Nyla to see what is happening, and what we might be able to do to help the pro-democracy movement there find peaceful solutions to decades of mistrust and resentment.

The interview was conducted on August 19th. Transcribed by Siddhartha Garoo.

I want to welcome Nyla Ali Khan back to Peace Buzz, and what I wanted to do was to get an update from her on what is going on in Kashmir. We talked to her earlier this year and, unfortunately, things haven’t really improved in this region. So, we are going to find out what’s going on and what events have occurred, but first I am going to ask you, Nyla, for those who didn’t hear the previous podcast, just give us the brief introduction about the region and politics there.

NYLA:  Hi Serena, I am delighted to be back on Peace Buzz.

So, Jammu and Kashmir is currently a state in the Indian union. The entire state, parts of which are in Pakistan, small parts in China, is politically disputed territory…..and militarily an armed insurrection erupted in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir in 1989. The state has been politically turbulent since then because of the forces of armed insurrection as well as counter insurgency. Intergovernmental organizations as well a human right organizations have been critical of the human rights violations that have taken place in the state since then.

There has been attempt by the government of India to resuscitate the political process as well as political institutions by holding elections every six years. But the problem remains the alienation of the people from the mainstream— mainstream politics. The problem remains the anger, the rage of the younger generation, in particular, that has grown up during the years of armed insurgency and counter insurgency.

The government of India can do a lot more to lessen the alienation and the resentment by, perhaps, restoring the autonomous status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. You see, when Jammu and Kashmir acceded to what was then the dominion of India in 1947, it was a princely state, so when the monarch of the state signed the Instrument of Accession to India, it was done with the understanding that the government of India would have control over three areas – foreign affairs, communications, and defence. And the other areas would be under the control of the state government.

But since 1953, which is the year when the democratically elected government of the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who was my maternal grandfather, was arbitrarily dismissed, and the Sheikh was ousted and arrested by Prime Minister Nehru’s government, Kashmir has been volatile. The reason he was ousted and arrested was because even after becoming Premier he did not give up the demand for self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. So the result was that he was ousted; so a democratically elected government was undemocratically removed.

And since 1953, the government of India has consistently and systematically eroded the constitution of the state as well as the autonomous status of the state, leading to great disillusionment. Now the disillusionment of the populace and the sense of alienation of the younger generation in particular was worsened by the government of Pakistan, which added fuel to the fire and aided and abetted the militant resistance, morally, psychologically, economically, by providing arms and ammunition. They aided and abetted that resistance without a blue print, without looking into how that kind of resistance was unsustainable.

SERENA:  And would it be correct to say that because Pakistan and India, of course have been hostile nations to each other, Pakistan has been using that political situation to get it at India?

NYLA:  I think that is absolutely correct …I think that is absolutely correct.

SERENA:  And when we say J&K, it’s Jammu and Kashmir?

NYLA:  Absolutely.

SERENA:  When I spoke to you earlier this spring, an incident had happened that provoked…….I think what you refer to as counter-insurgency and there were worldwide visuals. Is the current situation, still part of that event?

NYLA:  That’s a good question. The problem with the response of the government of India to the militant movement in Kashmir is that they have chosen to respond belligerently, aggressively employing military means, instead of employing political diplomacy and initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders and negotiations. There is a large section of the populace of Jammu and Kashmir that is still ecumenical; a large section of the populace that would still veer away from the forces of radicalization or any kind of monocultural identity.

SERENA: India is primarily Hindu and Pakistan is primarily Muslim?

NYLA:  Absolutely. The difference between the two in terms of their respective constitutions is that Pakistan is now a theocratic country or an Islamic republic and India constitutionally is a secular republic, although the current federal government in India subscribes to right wing Hindutva ideology and is ultra nationalistic, and that ideology is clearly reflected in the response of this government to any signs of dissent or insurrection in Kashmir.

SERENA:  And I think Americans can relate this to right wing reactions in the United States to acts of terrorism that the media responds……militarized rather than deal with criminal prosecution or when diplomacy is needed etc…

NYLA: Yes, like transitional justice…

SERENA: We saw this after 2001…… other incidents that happened that kind of spurned immediate militaristic and belligerent reactions that in the long term do not have positive effects. I am just trying to give myself and other people basis for understanding what is going on in Kashmir.

NYLA: I think that is a very good analogy….It’s a very good analogy.

SERENA: I am guilty of this as much as anybody….Americans know so little of the rest of the world and this area of course…..I mean the United States is as far as I know, not militarily in Jammu and Kashmir but certainly has a role in Indian and Pakistani conflict and in the general region…..of course in Afghanistan and the wider region. And that is one of the reasons I asked you, when we talked in between our visits, how does the situation there play into the greater situation in global politics in terms of fighting consultant war on terror?

Does that….your recent article, ‘Belligerent leaders using nationalistic and religious rhetoric to mask geopolitical aims”, that was published in South Asian Citizen’s web….

NYLA:  As well as CounterPunch in this country….

SERENA: Right….and you seem to be saying that there is a danger in the reaction that has been used and a better approach would be to give autonomous self-determination to these regions.

NYLA: I think the problem with the reaction of and to militant resistance in Kashmir….and just real quick for your listeners, I would like to tell them that couple of months ago, a young militant commander, a 22-year-old militant commander was killed by Indian paramilitary personnel and the reaction to his killing was overwhelming. There was a lot of anger, fury, protest marches and demonstrations that were taken out by ordinary people, who were not connected with militancy or necessarily with the militant movement.

Now I think that the people involved in those protests and demonstrations, all of them might not have been angry just about the death of this militant commander…but I think, it was the simmering alienation to which fuel was added by the killing of this young man, who had become a social media icon more than anything else.

Now, I am very critical of any attempt to romanticize militancy, but when a nation state, particularly one as powerful as India, which is a growing military and economic power, responds to the insurgency in one of its units in a belligerent way…the result is that the forces of radicalization gain legitimacy because ordinary people are pushed to the wall and even those who have been resisting the discourse and forces of radicalization and who are lot more ecumenical in their politics and culture, when they see this kind of militaristic response, they think, where do I turn ?

SERENA:  And you use the term simmering, which is perhaps being too kind, because you are going back to 1953, and I happen to know that is a long time because I was born in 1953. And, so if your region, your nation, your unit is waiting that long for some kind of political resolution, I mean little good can come from that, especially when there are difference. I mean look at our country, differences in faith, in culture, in race, and those things become elements in promoting resentment and soliciting violence on one side or the other and the same thing . . . human beings are the same wherever you are. Can the US or can even the peace movement globally have some kind of impact in seeking and addressing particular people or nations about the situation to prompt better activity ?

NYLA:  I think that is really a good question, but before I reply to that  I would like to go back to your earlier question about India and Pakistan using Kashmir as a bargaining chip. I think that is a very valid point because a lot of Kashmiris raise the slogan of self-determination or plebiscite with sincerity, but for a lot of people in Kashmir—military officials, political actors, mainstream as well as separatists, bureaucrats and also military and bureaucratic officials in India and Pakistan—the slogan of self-determination or plebiscite has simply become rhetorical.

It has become a way to—it’s become a bargaining chip—the slogan of self-determination or autonomy for Kashmiris have become rhetorical. There are times when India gets belligerent and tells Pakistan that they need to vacate the portion of Kashmir that they hold; that they need to demilitarize the portion of Kashmir, which they hold, and give human rights and liberties to Kashmiris on their side of the border; Pakistan decides to respond just as aggressively and screams itself hoarse about the Kashmiri people’s right of self-determination, and then both countries, whenever there is a spell of camaraderie or they decide to establish an amicable relationship, then put the Kashmiri people’s right of self-determination on the back burner.

So, there is a lack of sincerity, lack of political will on both sides of the border to resolve the issue. One of the biggest problems that exists within Indian-administered Kashmir as well as Pakistani-administered Kashmir is that, in order to gain legitimacy, any political actor must enjoy the support, must enjoy the blessings of the establishment. So a political actor, particularly a mainstream one, in order to be successful in Jammu and Kashmir requires the blessings as well as patronage of the government of India. Separatist politicians in Jammu and Kashmir would require the patronage of the government of Pakistan and the military of Pakistan. In the Kashmir on the Pakistani side, no political actor is eligible to run for office unless he or she enjoys the patronage of the Pakistani military and the deep state or high-level elements within the intelligence services.

You see, so the depoliticization of the indigenous political space and criminalization of dissident politics on both sides of the border is particularly troubling and has led to the brutalization of Kashmiri society. It has clearly and will continue to have long term damaging effects.

When excesses, whether they are military, or religious, or political are not curbed, they have terrible long term damaging effects. And when religion and politics are conflated, especially self-determination, that is a problem. The rest of the world—the world community turns a blind eye to those movements for self-determination that are presented in the garb of religion or religious discourse in which there is no separation of religion and politics, particularly in this day and age of the growth of ISIS, Taliban, etc. If religion and politics are not deliberately and carefully separated in a movement for self- determination, the world community becomes suspicious. So we need to make sure that the political dimension of the movement for self-determination is highlighted, showcased, and YES, peace activists can do a lot by highlighting human right violations that occur–human right violations for which the government as well as militant organizations are responsible.

Of course as responsible citizens, we need to hold up a mirror to the state government as well as to the federal government and we can do that more easily because they are accountable to us in a democratic setup, more accountable than militant organizations are—but human right violations on both sides need to be highlighted, need to be showcased.

SERENA: Right. So, who are the agents that would—a movement, or organization may be amnesty international—who are the agents they could address in seeking some solutions?

NYLA: The current response of the government of India to Amnesty has not been very favourable. It has not been very amicable—the government of India has made it clear to Amnesty that they don’t want them to interfere in Kashmir. And the United Nations Human Rights Commission sought permission from the governments of India and Pakistan to probe into complaints of human right violations in Indian-administered Kashmir as well as Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

A couple of days ago, or may be yesterday, the government of Pakistan made a statement that the United Nation Human Rights Commission was welcome to go to their side of Kashmir and was welcome to probe complaints of human right violations on their side of Kashmir. Now, I don’t know if that statement was simply rhetorical—there has been no follow-up—but the government of India has denied the United Nation Human Right Commission the permission to enter their side of the Kashmir or the permission to probe into any complaint of human rights violation. So right now the government of India is calling the shots as far as that goes.

SERENA: You are listening to Peace Buzz.

We are speaking to Nyla Ali Khan about the unrest in Kashmir and surrounding area,s where people are releasing years of pent up frustration about the lack of democratic governmental accountability. The region controlled primarily by India is being impacted by the negative situation within India itself.

At this point in the interview I asked about how the regional branch of Amnesty International was dealing with things? It was a very timely question because just a day or two before, coerced by ultra right-wing protests in Bangalore or Bengaloru, India has forced the local Amnesty International office to close for the safety of its staff. The protests were directly related to the relationship between India and Kashmir. We paused to look up breaking news on the incident, and Nyla read from news report by providing context about various players.

NYLA:  ABVP protests against Amnesty International—ABVP is a ultra right -wing nationalist organization that is affiliated with the party that is currently in power in India. And that organization tried to enter Amnesty’s Bangalore office, but they were stopped by the police. They have been staging protests against Amnesty and this organization even filed a complaint against Amnesty alleging that an event it held in Bangalore on the on-going crisis in Kashmir valley was antinational. A sedition case has been filed against Amnesty. Although it denied the charge, acting on the advice of the Bangalore police, Amnesty has shut its office in the city.

SERENA:  So it highlights what are talking about?

NYLA: So the head of Amnesty’s India division said that the federal government needed to uphold the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. He added that the sedition law was being misused by several state governments to silence activists, who are critical of government policies, which highlights what I am saying, and which is why the international community needs to get involved. And, I think the onus to get the international community involved lies on the populace of Kashmir; the onus lies on those who claim to lead the political movement for self-determination to separate religion and politics and to present this movement in a more ecumenical form which world activists would like to take forward, without any allegation being levelled against them, because in this day and age, the growth of bigotry, the growth of fanaticism . . . and I am not just talking about organizations like ISIS and Taliban but Christian fanaticism, Hindu fanaticism, Jewish fanaticism. We see those fundamentalisms rearing their ugly heads the world over—that is a reality, and in the wake of 9/11, the world has become increasingly polarized. There is a divide between “us” and “them,” a very carefully constructed divide between the “civilized world” and the “barbaric world.” That is the paradigm within which we operate, so that needs to be kept in mind when we seek to take political movements for people’s rights forward.

SERENA:  Right, so hopefully in a more positive thing, you went back within the last couple of months . . . you went back to the area, and I saw on facebook that you gave some lectures, you talked to people, you visited universities and I think community groups. Can you tell us a little bit about that, about some of the positive things that you did and learned?

NYLA:  So, I spent 6 weeks in Kashmir this summer and I went to quite a few colleges. I went to a couple of university campuses more than a couple of times, and all of these institutions are in rural areas. A couple of them are in the backwaters, and I went to these places as an academic. I met with a lot of students—girls as well as boys. I talked with them about their academic ambitions, I talked with them about their projects, I talked with them about applied theory, about learning to find ways to converge literary/ cultural theory and politics…. ground realities, pragmatic politics and literary theory. and I had very interesting conversations with a lot of students as well as faculty.

I saw in these rural areas, even in backwaters, a healthy curiosity and inquisitiveness—a desire to know more about the outside world, to explore, to find parallels between cultural situations that those kids are living in and other parts of the world to forge boundaries across religious divide and ideological divides—so as to find common ground between agendas of groups affected by conflicts in other parts of the world and those students.

So there is a lot of intelligence, ambition there, an unquenchable for knowledge, a desire to reach their full potential in those parts, despite everything that those children have been going through for the past 26 years now—and they are dealing with not just militarization and brutalization caused by governments, but they are also dealing with a militant movement. They are dealing with an attempt to conflate politics and religion.

Now religion is a very important aspect of South Asian societies, as it has become an important aspect of American society as well in this day and age. So religion being such an important aspect of South Asian societies, it cannot be written off. It has to be recognized as a force. It has to be recognized as an important dimension of South Asia. Any sensible, intelligent statesman will find ways to accommodate religious identities within a secular framework so that religious discourse does not become exclusionary but is inclusive; so that religious discourse recognizes the need for an ecumenical political framework; so that people are able to practice their religious faiths, which they hold very dear, within a political and cultural framework that is amenable to positive and constructive outside influences.

SERENA:  And so there is tolerance for the differences…..right?

NYLA: Absolutely.

SERENA: So, what is the situation in terms of opportunity for education for girls, even younger than college and university students, you were meeting with? Is it difficult for girls to get educated in that area?

NYLA: Well, the literacy rate for women, for girls is relatively high in Kashmir. I am not talking about the quality of education. I am not talking about opportunities or lack thereof after they graduate. But the literacy rate is relatively high. Of course, Kashmir is a conservative society, so girls have always faced cultural barriers, and there is a lack of cultural empowerment even though women in that part of the world are politically empowered in terms of the constitution giving them the right to vote, the right to run for public office, the right to an equal education, and equal work for equal pay. So they enjoy those constitutional rights, but to what extent those rights are implemented is the million dollar question.

You see, it is now that we see a woman presidential candidate in the United States, even though women have enjoyed constitutional rights for decades. So, it has taken a long time for this to come about. Likewise, Kashmiri women enjoy these political rights and, currently, we have a woman head of government, who clearly is not very successful given the political turbulence in the state. But there are cultural barriers that women run into and then there are also regressive interpretations of religions. Not every interpretation of religion is enlightened. Not every interpretation of religion is emancipatory.

SERENA: And that is true everywhere.

NYLA: That is true everywhere. So there are some interpretations that limit the growth of women.

SERENA:  So, when you go back there…..you have a status, a noted academic and author in the United States and back there. Are you somewhat unique? Are you a rarity? Are there other women like you, who have that kind of status and ability to go around and speak to young people?

NYLA: My mother is a retired professor of English, who taught at a women’s college in Srinagar, Kashmir for 34 years. There are quite a few women academics in Kashmir and quite a few Kashmiri women academics in other parts of the world as well. Now, I have been very fortunate to enjoy the emotional and political support of the progressive people not just in my home state but in my adopted country as well and that has given me a lot of exposure and has put me in touch with people who espouse democratic principles, who espouse emancipation of women, who espouse a liberatory discourse that would facilitate the self-determination of the people, particularly women.

And I have been fortunate to get published by very reputable presses in this country. I have been writing for national newspapers as well as local English newspapers in Kashmir since 2005 now. That has helped me to put my name out there and, then to be very honest with you, the fact that I have a political background piques curiosity and interest, and I probably am more mobile than a lot of women academics, who live in Kashmir. And so my mobility gave me access to educational institutions that were removed from the capital city, which is where my family lives, and I was able to go to those places to meet with people, to make presentations, deliver lectures, etc. So the mobility factor helped a lot, which not everyone enjoys.

SERENA: Well, again not just there

NYLA: And not just there…absolutely.

SERENA: And there is one thing that I think, I am pleased to see that for the last 20 years or so, education of women worldwide is such an important thing for the development of undeveloped countries and to bring economies along.

NYLA: I think it is important for people to realize, especially those who subscribe to bigoted views, that no such society can grow, no society can evolve without the full participation of educated women. I think a fear that a lot of religious societies have is that educated women will veer away from or will undermine religion, but as we have seen historically, a movement for independence for self-determinations—even in the movement for India’s independence from the British [I am talking about pre-partition India’s fight against the British colonial power] we saw that liberated and emancipated women, who fought shoulder to shoulder with men for independence and to build their nations, developed their political identities within a religious and familial framework, so the two are not mutually exclusive.

SERENA: It’s just the fear…

NYLA: Absolutely.

SERENA: Fear of change is overwhelming.

NYLA: Exactly.

SERENA: Well our time is up. Nyla, thank you for sharing again. Keep us informed of what is going on in Kashmir.

NYLA: Thank you so much!

SERENA: Hopefully, we can raise some interest and some activity in the global peace and human right movement.

NYLA:  I always enjoy talking with you and I, specially, appreciate the fact that you are able to draw analogies between situations in the United States and other parts of the world. There are a lot of commonalities, and the more common ground we are able to create, the faster and more efficiently will we be able to resolve conflicts – political as well as religious.

SERENA: Well that is certainly one of our goals here at Peace Buzz. Thank you again.

NYLA: Thank you Serena, bye bye.

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