What Independence Day Celebrations Mean
By A.H. Cemendtaur and Yasmin Qureshi
Pictures above: Glimpses of the Bay Area Independence Day programs
Today, sixty-three years after the British left South Asia, the curse of colonization is a distant memory in the minds of a small number of people who are still alive to remember British rule of the sub-continent - for most others it is just a part of history. But every year when August rolls in discontented communities across South Asia wonder what ‘Independence Day’ celebrations mean to them.
In Pakistan, this year’s Independence Day celebrations were marred by all kinds of violence: foreign-sponsored, local--in retaliation, accidental, and through natural disaster. Death-toll from a mindless ongoing war on terror and retaliatory suicide bombings were added to by last month’s airline crash, and now unprecedented (at least in the near past, in the context of Pakistan) death and destruction caused by floods.
Projection of alternate views on South Asia’s ‘independence’ separated two particular Bay Area Independence Day programs from other festivities customarily steeped in nationalism, where people normally get their highs singing anthems and waving flags. The first was a screening of the movie ‘Jashn e Azadi’ (by Sanjay Kak), on August 6, at the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. Though the documentary lacked focus and the cinematographer appeared to be ‘trigger-happy’ [fuzzy-to-sharp transition technique was used ad nauseam], the film is timely and very important as it fills a visible gap. This correspondent is not aware of any other independent movie being made to depict everyday life in the Indian-held Kashmir after the last two violent decades of the past century. To the outside world, today’s Kashmir may appear to be peaceful, generating a couple of news stories—worthy of international coverage--every couple of months, but the movie shows the Kashmiri population to be restive, longing for independence.
Yasmin Qureshi adds:
A Question and Answer session that followed the movie screening is being summarized below.
Q: What was the message of the film?
A: Well, the director Sanjay Kak leaves it to the audience really. His objective was to bring out the voices of the people of Kashmir since we rarely read about them in the media and open an avenue for discussion on the issues and aspirations of the Kashmiris. Back in 2007 the word azadi for Kashmir was shocking for the Indians. As a Kashmiri Sanjay wanted to make a film about the people there and what they feel.
Q: It is true that the media doesn’t cover the Kashmiri Muslims but it also doesn’t cover the pundits either. How do you justify the killing and migration of 100,000 pundits?
A: I disagree that the media doesn’t cover the pundits. In fact most articles published in India on Kashmir address this issue. What they don’t cover is what the army is doing there, the murders, missing people, rapes and what the people there want and why. Recently Shivam Vij had a detailed article on the pundits living in Delhi area, in kafila.org.
Yes, what happened to the pundits is unjustifiable. And certainly Pakistan and the Afghan mujahedeen had a role to play as Kashmiris started crossing borders to get training in the 90s. The people I spoke to in the valley last year wanted them to come back. People there at this point are not in favor of a militant resistance.
Q: You mentioned the media and I am comparing to the media coverage of Palestine in Israel. How is the Indian media coverage?
A: As I mentioned earlier, Kashmir is not covered well in the Indian media. Discussing aspirations of the Kashmiris is taboo. For example, no one wanted to publish my article, ‘Democracy under the Barrel of a Gun’, in India. The media does write about the presence of the army and that the Indian government needs to deal with it but what they don’t cover is what the militarization has done to the society, or, the root causes such as the annexation, as Kashmiris say, ‘The Brahminical rule of India’. Mass graves were found, many women have been raped. This is not covered very well not just by the Indian media but also the international media. There isn’t a discussion on what and why Kashmiris want azadi and what it means.
Siddharth Varadhrajan wrote an article recently on the protests in The Hindu. He mentioned the elections of 2008. What he didn’t mention is that the Kashmiris participated in them more to vote for local governance issues and not anything to do with the future of Kashmir or rule of Indian state. However, the media presented the 60% turnout as a vote of endorsement of the rule of Indian state and the Kashmiris felt betrayed. Partly why we see the kind of massive protests since 2008 is this.
Q: But what about the militant movement in Kashmir? If it got independent they would take over.
A: The argument that Indian army shouldn't leave Kashmir or the Kashmiris shouldn't be independent because the militants will take over to me is similar to the argument that the US shouldn't leave Iraq or Afghanistan. Isn't that what was said even during the Vietnam War?
At this point it is really a people’s movement--students, youth, women, civilians. The people saw what the militant movement did to them and how the Indian army dealt with it. Almost every family was impacted by it, killed, tortured or in custody. Also they see the power of the protests. I had asked the same when I went to the valley last year. What people said was the militant groups are not that prominent now and they don’t need a militant resistance anymore. I spoke to a friend just two days ago to ask the same question since I knew someone would ask. He narrated an incident. Two militants came to join a protest in a village but the people pushed them out!
Q: Why is the Indian government’s attitude so belligerent? Is it because of the vote bank they may lose?
A: There are many reasons. Yes, the vote bank is certainly an important one. Kashmir is considered ‘Bharat ka attot ang’ and to discuss anything about autonomy or independence leads to the question about further disintegration of India in the east for example or how it would impact other insurgencies such as in central tribal areas…also the fact that it borders with Pakistan. The argument is: ‘If we reduce troops Pakistan will invade’. There isn’t a great willingness on either side to deal with this issue even though it is most important from a geo-political angle. Also, Kashmir is rich in natural resources, source of water and India wouldn’t want to give those up.
Someone from the audience expanded on the ‘atoot ang’ by giving the history of the Dogra rule and how Maharaja Hari Singh annexed Kashmir(and that it was conditional) without taking the opinion of the Muslim majority and how that was the opposite of what happened in other princely states like Junagarh or Hyderabad where the majority was Hindu and the ruler was Muslim and the vote went the will of the majority population.
Ali Hasan Cemendtaur continues:
The other program with an alternate view on the Independence Day was a panel discussion on the Indo-Pak peace process. The discussion titled "We Refuse to Be Enemies" took place on August 14, at the spiffy office of Global Fund for Women (GFW).
The panelists included Admiral (Retd) L. Ramdas, former Chairman of the Pakistan - India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy; Lalita Ramdas, Board Chair of Greenpeace International; Nosheen Ali, a scholar at the Stanford University, visiting from Pakistan; and Samar MinAllah, a Pashtun independent filmmaker based in Islamabad. The discussion was moderated by Anu Mandavilli of the Friends of South Asia (FOSA) and Anasuya Sengupta of GFW.
Lalita Ramdas talked about the troubled history of India-Pakistan relations and how people of the two countries carry an emotional baggage that must be shed. She described her experience of visiting Pakistan where she was received with warmth. She was of the opinion that the environmental threats faced by the region can unify people. She applauded the efforts of women peace activists of the two countries who showed tremendous creativity in meeting each other —outside India and Pakistan — during the worst periods of confrontation in the region.
Nosheen Ali spoke of the media’s role in humanizing and often dehumanizing people across the border. She found the idea of India and Pakistan’s ‘competing nationalism’ absurd. Ali also spoke of the US role in disturbing peace in the region; she gave the example of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, a project that would have unified the three countries through a common economic interest, but has been shelved under the US pressure.
Admiral Ramdas talked about the highs and lows in Indo-Pak relations. He elaborated on the geo-politics and mentioned the US and the Chinese interests in the region. Ramdas called the Pakistan Army to be the most powerful political party of Pakistan, and recalled that the closest India and Pakistan came to bury the hatchet and solve most of the issues between them, was during General Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Ramdas thought it was promising that the window for dialog between the two countries has been kept open.
The speeches were followed by a lively Q&A session. Members of the audience expressed their frustration over the red tape woven around the visa process. One person noted that the bureaucracy was a hassle only for common folks — thugs and terrorist cross borders without seeking any permission. But it was also observed that the Internet has conquered many barriers for the people. Now Internet social media and free video conferencing services can be used to facilitate people to people contact.