Q & A with Sanjay Kak

by Ather Zia

Sanjay Kak is an independent documentary film-maker of Kashmiri origin, born in Pune in 1958. He is an award winning director and some of his notable works include, “In the forest hangs a bridge” (1999), “One Weapon” (1997) and “Harvest of Rain” (1995). His film based on the anti-dam movement in the Narmada Valley, “Words on Water” (2003), has been screened widely and won many major international awards.

“Jashn-e-Azadi – How we celebrate freedom”, was released in 2007 generating a vibrant discussion on Kashmir issue.

Some excerpts from an interview with Sanjay.

Please talk a bit about your film, Jashn-e-Azadi?

Jashn-e-Azadi “it’s called “How we celebrate freedom” in English“is a film that I finished last year. It’s a long documentary, one that tries to understand some of the impulses behind the idea of Azadi, of freedom, in Kashmir. It tries to stay clear of the well-known“and by now tired, even unconvincing“old explanations for what has been happening in Kashmir for the last 20 years. It tries to uncover through the images and sounds of today the long history of what makes the present what it is.

Do you see your film taking the Kashmir discussion towards an alternate reality in the Indian media?

Well, I don’t think this film alone has taken the discussion there, but it probably made it’s way into the world at the right moment.

I began working on it, quite intuitively, when the first chink seemed visible to me, when it seemed that the time may be coming to begin a conversation on Kashmir in India. And yes, it certainly was finished at almost the precise moment when that debate on Kashmir in India has once again re-surfaced or you could say come above the ground.

When the film was first shown in March 2007, there was not much that one could see in the Indian media that reflected an alternative reality on Kashmir. I wouldn’t expect it to either. The mainstream, corporate media is too closely tied in with the project of the Indian nation, and of the Indian State, to really question the fundamentals of what is happening in Kashmir, for example to read India’s presence as an ‘occupation’. Leave aside the mainstream corporate media, even liberal, progressive opinion in India is remarkably subdued when it comes to Kashmir. So when we began showing the film in 2007, we were fully prepared for an audience that would resist the arguments of the film, prepared for large amounts of hostility.

Instead the opposite has happened: large numbers of people have received the film with an openness that has surprised me. And this summer of 2008, when there were once again huge protests in Kashmir, and hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris came out on the streets, the Indian media was forced to overcome their normal jaded attitude to Kashmir and forced to take note of what the ground reality may be.

Ever since your film has been released, I am guessing last April was the time when it started doing first rounds, some very important trends have come to fore. One Kashmiri society, especially the youth have clearly veered towards the idea of Independence and possess a stance of informed politics wherein violent struggle has ceased to impress them? Is this correct?

I think that the use of violence or indeed non-violence cannot be seen as an ‘instinctive’ choice. I don’t think that historically people have resorted to armed struggle because they are ‘impressed’ by it, or because they necessarily believe that ‘violence’ will deliver them the end result. For me, Gandhi’s use of ahimsa was a strategic decision, just as the African National Congress’s use of armed struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa was strategic. And in the context of the Indian freedom movement, Gandhi’s non-violence was always located not very far from the possibility of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary tactics. So violent struggle or informed politics are not a binary instead, they should be seen as strategic choices.

The point is that in Kashmir today, a new generation may have sensed that the kind of armed resistance that has characterized the struggle in the Kashmir valley for the last two decades, has run its course, tactically. But I don’t think that this can be read as a “failure” of armed resistance, more as a shift in tactics. These twenty years have taken a toll on the Kashmiri people, but they have also given them something like a collective memory of a national struggle. When young people poured out onto the streets of Srinagar this summer, many of them were only toddlers in the early 1990s, and they have grown amidst violence and repression, they are not a simple, pampered generation. And the fact that they may have not all taken to armed militancy should not have confused any of us into believing that they were not political. How could they not be? Their bodies and their minds carry the scars of what they have been through. This is a toughened lot. This summer they came out in huge numbers because they believed in the political goals of the movement, not because they endorsed non-violence, or rejected armed struggle.

You belong to a larger group of progressive secular opinion leaders in India. There is a clear emergence of discussing Kashmir differently as opposed to the rigid stance of it being an integral part? Do you see your film as a manifestation of this mindset and is it in any way related to the changed direction of Kashmiri movement?

Progressive secular opinion leaders…? Certainly not me! And I wouldn’t be able to speak on their behalf anyway. However cohesive progressive/secular opinion in India may seem to an outsider, Kashmir really puts them in a divided space! My own position on Kashmir was fashioned by the years I spent working on Jashn-e-Azadi, which began in 2003, and carried on while the film was shot and edited, and finally released in 2007. So it was fashioned over several years that preceded what you call the “changed direction” of the movement that is visible this summer.

But I think it would be something of an exaggeration to believe that the loosening up of Indian rigidities on Kashmir is all a reaction to the events of this summer, to the “non-violence” of it. I think it would be more accurate to say that these have created a space in which liberal opinion has been able to secure a platform from which it can speak a little more freely about Kashmir. Without being attacked for supporting militancy, armed rebellion, Islamic jehad, what have you. In my case for example, my desire to return to Kashmir in 2003, and think of a film, had a lot to do with my understanding of the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, and my own scrutiny of the ways in which so many Kashmiris “ and in particular SAR Geelani “ were so shamelessly implicated in it. It was my discomfort with the ways in which India was going “ not just in Kashmir, mind you, but in the Narmada valley as well that took me to Kashmir, and made me spend time there. With my nose to the ground, as it were!

And once you spend time in Kashmir, and look and listen, and turn away from the falsifications and twisted manipulations of the Indian mass media, how can your understanding not change? I’ve spent most of the last year showing Jashn in different parts of India. Just that exposure over 139 minutes in a darkened space really unsettles many, many thinking Indians. Why is that? Not because the film is brilliant, but because the film shares with them a vision of what Kashmiris are struggling for, and how. People respond to truth, you know.

Where do you think Kashmir as an issue is headed, considering the situation right now?

I think everything is up in the air. This summer the illusion created by the Indian State that the situation in Kashmir was totally sown up in its favor has gone up in a puff of smoke. And yet what takes the place of that illusion: everything is uncertain, many many questions are being asked of the resistance, not just by Kashmiris, but also the whole world. Living in a militarized zone, in the shadow of an armed struggle, does atrophy people’s abilities to think politically. Until now the movement may have had to react, however weakly, to what India and Pakistan were doing in Kashmir. Now the onus is on them: they have to make the moves. And watch and see how their neighbors react!

Some prominent opinion leaders and writers in India, like Arundhati Roy, Vir Sanghvi, Jug Suraya, Swaminathan Aiyar have recently embarked openly on a much avoided discussion of letting Kashmiri’s decide their future as a state, do you see more Indians thinking in this vein or is it just a phase?

I think it is a huge development for Indians to see this long taboo sphere being discussed, openly and vigorously, no doubt about that. But I also think that Kashmiris should be less selective in the way they read commentary, both Indian and International, on Kashmir. For one, clubbing these quite diverse set of opinions together is not very useful: they may have all talked about letting Kashmiri’s decide, but they are coming from very different positions, they are doing so for very different reasons, and so the ways in which they are received will be very different and what else were they saying? What are the questions they are asking? And who will answer them? I see more and more Indians joining in the debate. I wish we had more Kashmiris also participating.

What role do you see Kashmiri Pandits playing in the emerging political scene in India regarding Kashmir? Also considering they have migrated all over India, do you think their return and the subsequent assimilation into mainstream is still possible? A generation of Pandit children has grown outside who now have a stake in careers and wealth outside the valley, what do you foresee, if I may use the word?

I’m personally uncomfortable seeing a people as a “factor” in such calculations, but I guess we cannot shy away from the fact that Pandits will henceforth not be counted only as Kashmiris as this algebra is worked out, but as Kashmiri Pandits.

I have consistently maintained that the exodus of Pandits from the valley in the early 1990s was not just a personal tragedy for them, but a great tragedy for Kashmir, for Kashmiri Muslims, and indeed for India as well. And the ways in which they were manipulated by right-wing politics in India made their already disrupted and destroyed lives a matter of hideous pride for the Hindu right. Through the 1990’s they were the proof that was needed that the movement in Kashmir was communal. So if Pandits fled the valley because they felt themselves victims of prejudice, as refugees they became perpetual victims of another kind of communalism. In the years since, some have been destroyed by a life of endless limbo, and here I speak of the 35,000 or so that languish in camps in Jammu.

Many others mostly the better educated, or the better off have quietly recovered from the trauma of dislocation and loss, and gone on to build some sort of dignified lives for themselves all over India, and the world. These are people who are tied to the valley only by nostalgia now. They love the valley and everything about it. But they also sense that they are slowly losing any real touch with it.

But these are not the ones we will hear from in the coming years. The ones we will hear from are the angry, virulently right-wing, communal elements, who dominate the airwaves and the cyberspace, and pour more and more dissonance and hatred into whatever they touch. Sometimes when I hear and read them, I really wonder: do these people really love Kashmir? Or is their attachment to their grief more? If they do ever want to go back and live there, then why are they so hard and inflexible and unforgiving? They seem to have lost the survivors skill that was so essential for a tiny minority to survive so many hundred years of being a minority!

How has the Pandit community reacted to your film?

Once again, I don’t know what it means to say “Pandit community”. Many Pandits have seen the film and been quietly even tearfully appreciative of it. Others, especially those who I call the ‘net warriors’ were sort of full time engaged in waging a cyber-war on Jashn-e-Azadi.  But I think they are getting bored now, too many people have seen the film, and are making up their own minds about it

Why has their response been the way it is?

I can only guess. And a year after it is done I think I can make a good guess.

You see the victimhood of the right-wing Hindutva leaning Kashmiri Pandit is constructed around an insistence on two things. First, the resistance in Kashmir was about nothing more than an Islamic jehad. Second their exodus was only“and exclusively“on account of the communalism of their neighbors.

Since Jashn-e-Azadi tries to question the first, and does not endorse the second, it is seen as a dangerous piece of propaganda. After all, take away the victimhood and what remains of their political position? Awkward questions will begin to be asked of them as a community.

As we saw recently there has been a resurgence of Kashmiri non-violent resistance, what has prompted people to take to streets?

I don’t think anyone could have predicted that this summer would see the kind of resurgence of popular sentiment that we have seen and our attempts to explain it post-facto will remain only partial. After all, most people seemed ready to turn out in the elections due this year, even the most ardent separatists were appearing reconciled to it. The only thing I could have said before this summer, and that is the sense that I tried to communicate through my film, is that the story of resistance in Kashmir is far from over. What form it takes, what directions it will travel, that is more difficult to predict. What prompted people? I think the sense that “it’s now or wait ten years for the next wave”.

Is the government of India able to handle this new peaceful face of Kashmiri resistance?

See, we must distinguish between the first reactions of the security apparatus when faced with peaceful mass resistance, which they were not prepared for, and taken aback by, and the long term ability of the Indian state to wear out any form of resistance to it. They may not be able to resolve the Kashmir issue, but the Indian state certainly knows how to “handle” peaceful resistance. Remember the struggle in another valley, the Narmada valley, in central lndia?

You have said that your film has not even scratched the surface, and more work needs to be done; do you intend some more work on Kashmir?

Who knows? I do realize the importance of more work being done to tell the story of what is happening in Kashmir. I hope others will also respond to this need, Kashmiris and others.

If you had to suggest a way forward, I know as a political filmmaker you must have given it some thought, how would you solve Kashmir?

I don’t think I have the skills to suggest a way forward, to draw a road-map to that glorious dawn of peace. But I certainly know that the essential pre-requisite is democracy, of allowing people to speak their minds, of creating a space in which everyone is free to articulate their demand for their azadi, and this includes all those who may see themselves as part of Kashmir: Muslims, Pandits, Hindus, Buddhists.

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