“Until My Freedom Has Come” – Sanjay Kak in Conversation with Nawaz Gul Qanungo

Sanjay Kak is an independent documentary filmmaker whose work includes Jashn e Azadi How we celebrate freedom (2007), a feature-length film about Kashmir. Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a journalist based in Srinagar. His essay “Languages of a Security State” appeared in the anthology under discussion. Here they are in conversation about  “Until my Freedom has come: The new Intifada in Kashmir” an anthology edited by Sanjay Kak. The book is a collection of some of the best writings that have emerged from within Kashmir, and about it. The year 2010 saw Kashmir erupt in some of the biggest anti-India and pro-Independence unarmed protests. In the process, more than 120 Kashmiris, mostly protesting youth but many of them bystanders, were killed by the Indian forces. Looking at the events, the book with contributions from journalists, artists and academics from Kashmir and the world tries to listen to Kashmir in its own voice.

Nawaz Gul Qanungo: Tell me something about the making of the book. How has it been different from your usual work of film making?

Sanjay Kak: Well, first I haven’t written the Book. It’s a Book that I have edited. But creating a structure for a book is not unlike what you do in a film. Particularly in a documentary, you work with gathered material. And then the question is how you arrange it, how you sequence it. That was the major challenge of doing this Book. Because, after all, even in the months of summer last year [2010], between June and October, there were literally hundreds of examples of the kind of writing that one was interested in. So how do you choose? Between this story or that poem or this rap and not that rap So it was really like an editorial job. How you find the right balance between different things

NGQ: So, have you found that balance?

SK: I think so. I was trying to suggest a kind of vibrancy of discourse. Kashmir has always been represented as a single note, a pathetic plea for help. And I have political problems with that. It is not a very rewarding strategy politically and one of the things I tried to do, when I made the film for example, was not to represent Kashmiris only as victims. Therefore, the use of poetry, the use of theatre. I was principally looking for writing that showed self-confidence, self-assertion. Not a plea to the outside world.

Much of the writing in the book speaks as much to itself to Kashmiris as it speaks to the outside world. That will be the way Kashmiris will be able to express themselves. That is, when they confidently speak to themselves and the rest of the world listens. Not that haath jod ke, you know, hum mazloom Kashmiri that period is over. If it ever worked, it doesn’t work in this world now. It’s a very harsh world and nobody wants to listen to sad stories.

NGQ: You have concentrated on writings pertaining to the events of 2010. Is there anything particular in these events that led to the surge in writings in Kashmir that you are talking about? What’s the larger picture?

SK: Something like this doesn’t crop up suddenly. It’s been coming for many years, quietly, in bits and pieces. But there was something about 2010. Something clicked open suddenly. Of course, that material was all waiting, people had been writing since long.

Without trying to make it appear too magical a moment, it was very significant when suddenly first one, then a second and then a third and then a fourth piece of writing started appearing and you could just see everybody encouraged by others’ ability to articulate. And that always has a larger effect and you have a community of readers and writers.

NGQ: How do you see the future of such writing in Kashmir where can it lead to?

SK: See, there is always a danger that areas of conflict become fashionable and one is fully aware of that. Somebody said that there is a danger that Kashmir will become a Tee-shirt, that it’s cool to write about Kashmir.

But so far the people in this volume are concerned, I know their writings, these are people who have been writing for long, and have displayed an extraordinary, long commitment to writing about issues in Kashmir. Even in the younger people, it is not just about self-expression, it’s also finding a way forward. And one thing the structure of the book tries to do is to have that outlook of looking ahead. So while the first section recounts 2010, the last section actually suggests some truly fresh ways of looking at the future. So it’s not writing which just celebrates the moment.

And most of this writing is intensely political. It’s just that it’s not coming from a single source. It is not bound by a particular ideology or a party or a manifesto. But it is political with the polity that I’m interested in, with people intervening in the world around them in solid, substantial ways.

NGQ: There has always been a continual flow of literature related to Kashmir. There is hardly anything that hasn’t been written about in the past. How different is the work that you offer in this book?

SK: There’s a big change. A lot of writing on Kashmir and I don’t think we should call it literature, you can just call it writing has come from a slightly tired, slightly liberal, but [Indian] nationalistic position. Much of the commentary of Kashmir is sourced from the same people for the last twenty years, the so called Kashmir specialist. And I haven’t heard any of them say anything new in the last ten years. And yet they don’t ever seem to be embarrassed by the fact that their analysis of what is happening in Kashmir is constantly proven wrong. And no one seems to ask people in these think-tanks that you guys are paid a salary, how come you can’t figure out what’s going on? And how come you can’t anticipate what’s going on? The reason is they are not interested in seeing what is going on. They are interested in articulating what they are told to that this is what you should see, you should see that elections have happened in Kashmir and all is well. Time has come to somehow correct that.

The new media is a big help here. It has allowed a whole lot of people to comment on events and a whole lot of people are getting information to which they wouldn’t have had any access earlier.

So, that whole Brahminical specialist stranglehold on Kashmir is broken.

A 22-year-old sitting in Srinagar can probably write a sharper commentary on Kashmir than somebody sitting in a think-tank in Delhi. And that’s exciting That an understanding is now not the preserve of just the ‘specialist’. It’s a much more democratic field out there. But, of course, there’s the production of garbage too. A lot of garbage will be produced in such a situation but at least people are not asphyxiated, people’s voices had otherwise been choked. So you never actually realized what was going on.

But today, say, Omar Abdullah or the army commander in Kashmir makes a ridiculous statement. In three hours, it will be taken apart on the internet. For anybody who’s interested, you get a very good sense of what people are thinking, of the implication of various things, of what various things mean.

NGQ: You spoke about balance while talking about the writings that you chose for the anthology. And you look at these writings as something that challenges the traditional, conventional narrative on Kashmir, the narrative that has generally emerged from India or the rest of the world in the past decades. But even within Kashmir, is there a counter-narrative too?

SK: Journalism in Kashmir is under tremendous pressure. A lot of journalists who work there function under tremendous pressure. it isn’t fair to expect people under such pressure to come up with a coherent counter-narrative. But that’s not to say that journalists in Kashmir don’t have a counter-narrative. They do. It’s just that their publications don’t necessarily have [it]. Anybody who knows the media environment in Kashmir, and particularly in Srinagar, anyone would appreciate what tremendous pressure people work under.

Having said that, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, even the Indian mainstream media could not but help reflect something of the truth.

At times, you can keep everything hidden underneath, when you can work up a spin and say, ‘This is what is going on. ‘ But there are times when the whole thing just boils over and you are unable to play your own thing, and that is what happened.

Even the international media which has been very tame on Kashmir for many, many years could not help it this time. We saw quite a few stories in international publications which displayed a very, very solid understanding of what was going. Even in this volume, I have kept two pieces by foreign correspondents. Not just because they talk about very interesting things but it gives you an understanding that here is a mainstream wire service reporting on a particular issue and see the intensity of observation.

Of course, journalists always have those observations but the question is does your agency or your publication make the required space for it? That’s the point. And that was very interesting. Actually there were a couple of stories from The New York Times also that I wanted but it was too expensive for us to get the rights to do it.

Nobody wants to look too foolish finally. When the pressure starts building from the bottom, from the internet, reporters and editors also have to make place for a more realistic story. And when the national media starts reporting it, then the international media also does So it is extremely important to push from the bottom upwards.

Look at what’s happening on television. They will put out a ridiculous story like that last year’s telephone intercepts [1] saying “Aur jaanen jani chahiyen aur logon ko maarna chahiye (More lives must be lost, more people be gotten killed) ” and all that. I got a call from a very senior journalist saying, ‘What’s happening? This doesn’t make any sense. ‘ And already, on the internet, there was a counter-translation of the intercept and the television channels were only able to run that story for about twelve hours. Normally, they would have run it for a week. But because people got on to their tails, they had to stop themselves.

Why I am talking about this is I hope that our volume would do something like that. So long as this material is scattered all over the internet, you can ignore it. But I want to see how people who write about Kashmir this year ignore the fact that this book exists and it’s accessible.

The battle to make the mass media and the corporate media approximate the truth will not happen by appealing to their morality or their sense of fair play, but by just embarrassing them. By having writing available there, by having commentary available there, by having that book out there which just forces them to represent the true reality.

NGQ: As you write in your essay in this book, you went to Kashmir in 2003 after a gap of 14 years. Why, even as a filmmaker, did it so long?

SK: For someone who is born a Kashmiri Pandit, the years between say 1990 and 2000 were very perplexing, irrespective of what you thought of what was going on. I had gone in 1989 and then for more than a decade I didn’t go back. Finally I went in 2003 and I wasn’t intending to make a film. I just went back, to see what was going on. It was just a tourist trip.

But even in 2003 what was going on in Srinagar, and outside it, was extremely disturbing. Even as a tourist, you couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. The most astonishing thing was the level and impact of militarization. And that’s also because everything else takes time to figure out.

And every year since then, it has slightly changed. Srinagar is not so visibly militarized anymore. The countryside is more carefully militarized now. The main highways are not as visibly militarized as they were then. But in 2003, it was unbelievable. And it didn’t take too much even for a bunch of visitors from Delhi to start finding the presence of the military oppressive and threatening although they should have been no reason for one to feel that way.

So, for me going back to Kashmir in 2003 was actually disturbing. I came back and sometimes I’m embarrassed to use this word I came back very humiliated. Because I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what was going on. Here I was someone who used to read several newspapers every day, watch television, meet people and hence believed I was well informed. And yet I was shocked by how little one knew of what was going on. It was sheer embarrassment and humiliation that as a Kashmiri if I didn’t know this, then what the hell was going on? I returned pretty soon, in a couple of months, and decided that I will do a film [2]. That’s a long answer but that’s [what it is].

NGQ: And then you came up with this film and I’m repeating this word ‘balance’ once again and there were observations that you had come up with only one side of the story. And that you even glorified the armed uprising

SK: Yeah See, I don’t have a problem with being one-sided. I have long ago given up on the idea that every issue has two sides. Maybe it does, but we don’t have to subscribe to both sides all the time. I know this is one of the tenets of journalism, and particularly of broadcast journalism, that you must always ‘balance’ the argument. That if you have an Adolf Hitler on the panel, you bring some Jewish victim of his and it’s all fine. It’s a trap. It’s what prevents you from actually telling the truth. That if there is a rape victim, we must talk to the police also. That otherwise, it won’t be ‘balanced’.

But, sometimes it makes more sense to present one side, and do it well. And not worry that, ‘O, I have to do the other side also, ‘ and so on.

So I’m not obsessed with appearing ‘balanced’. If you want to destabilize conventional understanding, you have to destabilize it by being one sided. You can’t do it by appearing ‘balanced’.

I didn’t want to leave people comfortable after watching the film. That was not my intention. I didn’t want them to feel reassured that, ‘Ah, right, everything is fine. ‘ I wanted them to be troubled.

And whether the film glorifies the armed struggle or not, I don’t know it doesn’t but that really depends on how you are watching it, and who is watching it. But I know it works to destabilize people’s opinions. It certainly did in 2007 when I started showing the film. For a lot of people, they just couldn’t believe that this was what was in essence going on in Kashmir.

By that, however, I don’t mean that I am making a case for making films badly or making even a biased film.

But then, what is balance, after all? If I may ask, whose balance should it be? Balance ka bhi to koi point hota hai na. It can have variable positions, right. I can balance it somewhere here, or I can balance it somewhere there. So, this is where I found my balance. And if somebody finds it biased or imbalanced, I don’t have a problem with that. You know, they have to provide a counterargument.

And this ‘balance’ must be punctured as an idea. Because young journalism students are all the time plagued with this balance, balance, balance. Because that’s the system. So someone like myself who works outside it, I will use any opportunity to attack this ‘balance’.

Most people who came to watch the film sat through the entire length of the film. I have shown that film very extensively. In fact, I have shown that film more than I have shown any film that I have made in twenty years. It’s a long film two hours and nineteen minutes and it’s not an easy film to watch. Yet it continues to show all the time. What does that mean? It means that in its size and length and complexity and ambiguity, people found something.

I keep saying that it’s a 139-minute film and I have an interval half way through. For me the challenge always is how many people get up and walk away. And when people come to see a documentary, normally they think it must be an hour long. So they land up. And then they are watching and watching and watching you feel many will go away but they don’t. So even if they are angry with me at the end, the fact that they didn’t go away is important for me.

So, sometimes complex modes of telling stories have their own advantage.

NGQ: It hasn’t been too long since this book has been released. But do you see any difference between the way your film was received some five years back and the way this book has been received so far?

SK: Yes. Yes. I think so. But even when my film was released in 2007, I was expecting a much more hostile reception. When we were cutting the film, my editor and I would often talk about the fact that, you know, joote padenge we’ll be taken apart. But even in 2007, something already had changed in people’s minds.

And this year, for example, what happened in 2008, 2009 and 2010, things have changed a little more. We talked about it at the day of the launch. That the launch event was so sabhya [sober] that people were almost disappointed! But I’m not. Because actually it’s a great thing that you can say those things about Kashmir and not have people go blue in the face anymore.

Somebody actually commented on the very fact that some things were being taken for granted in that room like for example the fact that there is a political movement going on in Kashmir for the right to self-determination. Now, grudgingly or not, people have come to concede this. At least that huge hill has been crossed, of ‘Oh no! This is about India and Pakistan. ‘ Nobody was talking about Pakistan that day (laughs). And that’s very interesting. And that has been the big, big achievement of the last three years. That the discourse around Kashmir now centres on Kashmir. That obsession with it being an Indo-Pak affair is gone, which is not to say that Pakistan is not a factor. But that complete single-minded focus on Pakistan has ended and that helps. It has helped towards a much more receptive audience for a book like this.

NGQ: You write in your essay about your experience and observations in Kashmir. You talk about militarization and ‘breakdown of institutions of democratic governance’. And ‘something with far-reaching consequences for India brewing in those troubles’. What consequences exactly are you talking about?

SK: I have this dual identity as a Kashmiri and an Indian. As an Indian I would be very, very concerned about the growing militarization of our society.

Whatever happened in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram in the 1950s and 60s happened very quietly and without much public debate. What is happening in Kashmir in terms of the extent of militarization is serious. Then there’s the prospect of militarization of central India, like in Bastar and Chhattisgarh. I think a very, very serious debate has to go on in India as well. It’s not just about Kashmir. It is about what kind of vision do we have of society? We can go on calling ourselves the largest democracy in the world but if slowly the largest democracy in the world is going to be governed by the military large parts of it are that’s a very deadly thing.

People are very quick to get on to this. When I showed the film [Jashn-e-azadi How we celebrate freedom] in Patna, that’s what the conversation was about. The audience on its own was obsessed about the militarization part. Like the extent of the military and its control, and the implications of it for a democracy and so on.

It’s not simply that if you don’t sort it out, there is a threat of militancy coming back. That’s fine, those are things which pertain to Kashmir and Kashmiris. But the implications for the rest of India really have to do with, you know, are we slowly going to see large parts of this country going to military control? Because we don’t have the political means to address it? Whether it’s in the north-east or whether it is in Chhattisgarh or in Kashmir, it will keep growing.

And armies are professional institutions. They are not unhappy to have new territories, new forces, new budgets given to them. Why would they mind? They are not going to say that it’s a bad idea. But it is really up to the political class to think about it. But they are usually so bankrupt of ideas that all they can think of is increase the number of paramilitary and move soldiers from here to there

NGQ: You spoke about India as a democracy Arundhati Roy has been writing a lot about it. Some time back there was also something written by Harsh Mander. He wrote that although he was concerned about India’s failings as a democracy, he didn’t share the ‘pessimism’ of Arundhati Roy, and that he still had enough hope for India’s democracy. Someone posed this question elsewhere too How do you see these two arguments?

SK: It depends on where you are standing, that old thing of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. But the point is why are you saying what you are saying? Am I trying to reassure you, in which case I will say that the glass is half-full. Jo kuchh bhi hai theek hi hai. But if I’m trying to alert you to growing dangers, then I’m going to tell you that the glass is half-empty. So if you ask me, I am most heartened by the functioning parts of India’s democracy by which I mean the ability of people to protest and resist. That’s what makes India an exciting place. Whether it is in the Narmada Valley or whether it is in Orissa or elsewhere, I find that to be the best part of Indian democracy. Whatever it is, people are not rolling over and dying and saying, ‘Theek hai, maar do hum ko Fine, kill us. ‘

But having said that, I won’t say India is a ‘great, shining democracy’. Elections are not democracy. We all know how elections are conducted. It doesn’t matter that people turn out to vote, it doesn’t matter that there is an eighty-percent turn-out and it doesn’t matter that they vote governments in or vote them out every five years. It still cannot be called democracy. Certainly not now, with the kind of money it involves.

So I believe that India is a democracy but it is a democracy in an advanced state of crisis. Again, democracies are always like that. Democracy is when you are crying hoarse on a daily basis, for everything, whether it’s about why my garbage is not being collected or why poor people are being thrown out of Delhi or why there’s corruption in CWG. That’s the only way it can be.

Otherwise, in advanced capitalist nations, there is a kind of sannaata silence and even those who protest know that it means nothing. Because the other side has won. In the United States, in Europe, Capitalism has won. So there is no debate, and whatever debate they have, it’s just theoretical. It’s not a serious thing.

Here, that part of democracy, that argument, is still intact.

Abroad, a silence has crept in. Even ‘radical’ people speak like in some seminar room in a university There’s nothing ‘out there’, just a small disturbance once in a while.

Here, there is vibrancy. Everybody is protesting about something, and that’s how it should be.

NGQ: Coming back to the original question of militarisation and its consequences when you look at Jammu and Kashmir, does this apply only in the valley? Why do we, per se, see reactions to militarisation only in the valley?

SK: It’s not quite correct to say there’s no reaction to militarisation in Jammu or in Ladakh.

In Ladakh, a tiny population has literally been overwhelmed by the army for 30-40 years now. It’s a very serious issue there because due to its overwhelming presence, the army is this single biggest engine of everything. It’s just that in the Kashmir valley, there has been a political pro-independence movement around which the outrage against militarisation has snowballed.

Talk about Jammu and I’m not talking about the Jammu city but areas like Rajouri, Poonch and Doda the level of militarization there is probably higher than in the valley. You don’t hear people yelling and screaming because the political mobilisation is not as strong.

Talk to people in the north-east [of India], you think they are not yelling and screaming about militarisation? They are. Are they not talking about AFSPA [the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a law that effectively allows the army to kill on mere suspicion]? They are. It’s just that no one’s listening. No one wants to talk about it. In the Kashmir valley, people are somehow able to draw some attention. Otherwise, the fear and the oppressive nature of militarised zones is pretty universal. It’s just that it has come to be articulated in the Kashmir valley.

NGQ: And then there are also the differences between the people of these regions, too, not to talk about History. In fact, the timeline that you have included at the end of the book mentions the massacre of Muslims in Jammu in 1947, something that’s seldom been discussed in the public domain.

SK: See, the differences too have not happened in a flash. In 1947, the Dogra maharaja, being from Jammu, naturally had a kind of loyalty towards the people of Jammu. In 1947, Jammu became the sight of one of the worst communal riots that we know. Not much has been written about it but now people have started writing. You know why and this might come as news to most people because the Jammu city was a Muslim majority city in 1947. And something like more than 50 percent of this population fled from the Jammu city and its environs. Hafiz Saeed [founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba] comes from a place 30 km away from Jammu.

The people who populate the so called Azad Kashmir [Pakistan-administered Kashmir] are all Muslims who went from Jammu. Hindus who had fled from that side came and settled in Jammu. And Jammu suddenly became a communalized city when it never was. But because of the accident of Partition, the whole character of Jammu changed. And it remained dominated by the maharaja for some time even after Partition After all, that was the ruling power.

Now for 50 years after that, in order to keep Kashmir, you had these client governments in Srinagar. Whether it was Sheikh Abdullah or Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, or whoever it was, the whole idea was to keep the Kashmiris calm. So the people of Jammu always felt left out. Whether it’s true or not it’s not they would be encouraged to feel that way.

People have done analyses on the actual funds spent [upon the various regions of Jammu and Kashmir] and there is no such disparity. But they give the impression that it’s all being taken by the Kashmiris. Who is going to unearth and look at the data? So a situation has been created in which the Ladakhis, the Jammu people and the Kashmiris all hate each other. People are told that it’s the Kashmiris who are dominating the rest. Of course there are some Kashmiris who are dominating but those are the clients of the Indian State, an Omar Abdullah, or his father and grandfather, or a Bakshi or a Sadiq.

And such animosities exist even elsewhere. Look at Andhra, where the Telengana people think the coastal people are taking the whole thing, and the coastal people believe the opposite. It takes very little to accentuate those differences.

In case of Kashmir, it has been in India’s interest to have those animosities. To have the people of Jammu say let Kashmir go to hell. But if you look at Jammu, it’s not just the Jammu city. The Jammu region includes Rajouri, Doda and Poonch too and those regions are generally Muslim majority regions and you don’t know what those people want. But people consider Jammu to be a whole separate territory [from Kashmir]. And Ladakh too is not only Leh. Ladakh is also Kargil. Kargil is a Shia Muslim-dominated area. You don’t know what people there want either.

So this simplification of a Buddhist Ladakh, a Muslim Kashmir and a Hindu Jammu which to begin with is not true actually is used to play on those animosities that have been historically accentuated in Kashmir.

So the people of Jammu feel resentful when, in reality, Jammu in the last 20 years has benefited enormously. Not just because the Pandits came there but because of the tension in the valley, whatever industrialization occurred in the state, it all happened in Jammu.

That’s also not to say that the people of Jammu for example are going to be pro-azadi. But we should not read too much meaning in the kind of animosities we are being told exist.

Another problem is that people don’t talk to each other. There is no genuine dialogue. Even though people travel all across, there is no genuine political interaction. What has transformed opinion in Delhi is that in all universities and colleges now, there are kids from Kashmir; and just talking to them makes a difference. Who are these young people who show up for our book launch? Not the Kashmiris, the others They are all people who have Kashmiri friends in their college or university or their workplace So over a hundred conversations, you suddenly discover an alternative reality. They go for a book launch here, a documentary release there, discuss things on Facebook and these little things actually change mindsets. That’s why it’s extremely important for students from Kashmir to come out and study in Delhi or Chennai or elsewhere. Because wherever they go, they make a huge impact just by being themselves. And people get to realize that these are not some mad lunatics out to destroy the world.

NGQ: One more thing I wanted to ask about militarisation, the government has been talking about troop reduction since quite some time, especially in the wake of the protests of the last few years. What has been the extent of this reduction?

SK: There is no seriousness about troop reduction at all. There hasn’t been any. Whenever the chief minister makes a statement of troop reduction, the army commander denies it. Not only are they not serious about it, each time they raise the issue it actually makes it more dangerous because you realise that it’s the army and the defense ministry that’s actually calling the shots and not the political class. It’s an embarrassment for the civilian government more than anything else.

NGQ: You also write in your essay about this ‘revelation centered on the national media’ where ‘what was reported seemed far removed from the reality unfolding on the ground’. But again, if we look at it, whether you talk about the Indian or the international media, most of their people working on the ground are Kashmiris themselves people who are very much aware of what is happening on the ground. Where is the failure then?

SK: As I said, it’s not that journalists don’t know the story. They do. For example, because I’m a film-maker, when I watch a television crew working in Srinagar I’m very interested in what are they filming. And I’ve spoken to people who are working in television there. Here is what happens. There is an incident and you go and you shoot the story. It’s possible that if you uplink it at 12 in the noon, a three-minute story will go through. And it has some sense in it. By the time its 4 in the afternoon, those three minutes have become one minute and all the nuanced explanatory bits have gone out. By the time it’s the nine o clock news at night, the reporter has also gone out of the story and there’s a voice over and it’s become a ‘bomb blast in Lal Chowk’. Now who may have been behind it, you know, what the larger story is all that is lost.

So eventually as a reporter, why would you write a 700-word nuanced story if it is never going to be carried? You will do it one day, you’ll do it the second day, you do it the third day, but the fourth day you’ll just give them what they want. That’s what happens to television journalists, and that’s what happens to photojournalists. They know there’s a certain kind of photograph that will make it to the front page. So you will not take the other kind of photograph. If there’s a massive protest in Srinagar and you take nine pictures of policemen beating up boys, they are not likely to make it. But if you take one picture of a bunch of boys beating up a policeman, that’s going to be on the front page of every single newspaper.

Or if you take dramatic pictures of boys with masks throwing stones at you, it will definitely make it to the magazine cover. But if you take a picture of policemen with catapults shooting marbles at boys, that’s not going to make it. It’s not that people don’t have those pictures. I have seen photographs of catapults issued to the CRPF men, but you never see those pictures.

When I showed my film in Srinagar for the first time, a senior Hurriyat leader in the audience got up and started chastising the local press. And he said, ‘Sanjay, you have done a great work, but look at our journalists’ And I stopped him midway and I said, ‘Look, hang on’

I didn’t know who he was at that time. Later, I discovered that he was a senior leader. I said, ‘Look I think you are making a mistake. You forget that my name is Sanjay Kak. And I live in New Delhi. And I have come here to make a film and I will go back to the security of New Delhi. These people don’t have that advantage. They have families that live in the village. They have relatives, they have brothers who run small businesses, they are vulnerable. ‘

So, to answer your question now, I’m not saying all of them are angels. A lot of journalists, like a lot of film makers and a lot of everybody else, are highly compromised and amoral and crooked. That’s accepted. But there is a lot of good people and I know what kind of pressure they have to deal with in order to be honest with what they are doing. There’s tremendous editorial pressure. Particularly when it comes to Kashmir, the filters get sharper and sharper as the stories go up the ladder. It’s not easy.

NGQ: Apart from how the government has responded to public protests in the last three years, there has been a lot of talk about people participating in various elections and that the turn-outs were very high. There have of course been quite a few elections since 2008. In fact, even now the Panchayat elections are underway and the turn-outs again are high. What do you make of these elections? Perhaps I could add here that when I was traveling in Delhi, I met two young Kashmiri youth. They are based in Delhi, where they are running a business. After some conversation, they asked me, ‘Why is it that every summer it [the protests] starts and scores get killed, and by the time it’s winter, everything is over as if nothing had happened. ‘ On one hand you have the government which questions the very basis of the protests of the last three years, massive that they have been actually. And on the other hand, you have those among Kashmiris who think it’s ‘unproductive’. ‘What do we get out of it finally, ‘ they ask

SK: That would be a slightly apolitical way of looking at it. Ideally, all of us wish that hum ne ek agitation ki aur hum ne bahut zor lagaya aur hum jeet gaye that we had an agitation, pushed hard, and we won. But, I have closely watched, say, something like the Narmada Bachao Andolan [3] for 10 years or maybe 15 years. The point is you have to look at the gains. Like I said, I have seen from 2003 what the gains are. Look at 2010, it can’t happen overnight in a place which is so militarised, where the politics is so subverted, where there are so many intelligence agencies, where there isn’t really an authentic politics possible, and if there is, it’s underground Despite all this, the protests of the last three years have made the armed militancy pull back. They say, ‘OK, hang on. Let’s see what these people are doing. ‘ And it has also drawn a lot of national attention. People are speaking out fearlessly.

Most importantly, we must never forget that in Kashmir, the armed movement came so quickly that there hasn’t really been a political conversation in Kashmir. Conversation, for example, about what kind of Kashmir are we fighting for. That hasn’t happened. These conversations are just beginning. So, I would say that in fact in 2010 if the government of India had said, ‘OK, thank you very much, here is your azadi, ‘ [laughs] that would have been terrible! That society is still preparing for it.

Look at the young people who would have expected 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds in jeans and fancy hair-cuts leading political protests? That age group had disappeared for years in between.

This kind of impatience is often displayed by people who are not political. If anybody who has fought on the ground and I don’t mean in an armed sense, but anybody who has been involved in politics on the ground knows how long it takes to actually create a platform, create a space, create solidarities.

Look at the vexed issue of Kashmiri Pandits. See the shifts that have happened in Kashmir in the last two-three years. There was once this awkward silence you could wreck any conversation by saying, ‘What about Kashmir Pandits? ‘ Now, at least, you have got past that hurdle. Earlier, it was like a wall. Anybody who was not a Kashmiri Pandit, any Kashmiri Muslim, could be put on the defensive by saying, ‘So what about Kashmiri Pandits? ‘ I don’t find that defensiveness anymore because people have a host of answers.

So it’s not just something that crops up in the season and goes away with the wind. There is a reality to it you cannot go on protesting endlessly I have seen something similar in the Narmada Valley too. You can’t just leave everything at home and throw stones on the streets year after year. People have to eat. They are not being subsidized by the state government. They are not being paid by the state like the CRPF men are. So whatever it is, people have to live they have to survive the winter they have to take care of their crops and what not.

NGQ: Even yesterday, the chief minister, Omar Abdullah, came out with a statement saying, ‘Where were these people the separatists in winter? ‘ [4]

SK: I would say, ‘Where was he in winter, I want to know. ‘ He was also in Jammu or Delhi, right? (Laughs.)

NGQ: So again talking about the elections and the big turn-outs How else can people’s demands be ascertained and responded to?

SK: No, I’m not saying that elections don’t mean anything. They just don’t mean what the government of India wants us to think they mean.

If I were in a small village in Kupwara and my son got picked up by the local army unit, who will I go to? I can only go to my local MLA, right? Even if that MLA is a crook and I don’t like him. People think that if this is what it takes. That we know this guy is in collusion with the army and the state or whatever, but tomorrow if four boys are picked up, at least we can go to him and say, ‘Look we voted for you and now you get these boys out. ‘ It’s like buying a kind of insurance.

Or if our transformer gets burnt out in winter and you have the prospect that it may not get repaired for five months if you haven’t voted for the MLA. One must never confuse voters turn-out with larger political goals, not just in Kashmir but even in the rest of India. Most elections are ‘municipal’ elections electricity, water supply, drainage, roads, school, these are the issues. People cannot all the time wage huge structural battles. They have to live too.

After all, what do elections mean? If you really stare at the data, you will be horrified. You will be horrified at what they tell you about what’s going on. Even the 2008 elections the trouble is that no one stares at them. Because somebody talks about the voter turnout, everybody says, ‘Arey yaar, ye log kaise agaye vote dene Abhi tak to patthar maar rahe the These Kashmiris are very erratic. ‘ But even if you just stare at the hard data, you will realise that it’s telling you something very, very different. I don’t want to tell you what it says because that’s an essay I plan to write. (Laughs.)

NGQ: Then why do you see the pro-independence political leadership in Kashmir somehow not being able to come to terms with it?

SK: I think that they they are (Pauses.) This is the (Pauses again.)

I don’t think that they are entirely representative, firstly, of what people are thinking. They are like you have a wave and then you have some things that are floating on top of that wave? The so called separatist leadership is really like something floating on the top. And sometimes that wave goes up and they also go up. And sometimes that thing goes down and they also go down. They don’t have an organic relationship with people, at least most of them don’t. I don’t want to take names but the exception would be someone like [Syed Ali Shah] Geelani. He doesn’t have that organic relationship but because he has this image of being a resolutely anti-India person, he has a broader appeal. Even for people who don’t like him or who don’t approve of his politics. But generally they will say, ‘Geelani, whatever it is, he has not compromised. ‘

So in a place where every other kind of politician has had to be hugely compromised, it’s not fair to over-expect things from the so called separatist leadership Because they are like journalists, only multiplied by a factor of 100. The amount of pressure they are under is huge.

But the real political leadership in Kashmir has yet to emerge. And it will not emerge easily. Because, if it does, their heads will be blown off. I mean, come on, you don’t believe that you can have protests like 2010 just spontaneously! And I also don’t believe that it’s because of Geelani that they come out. There are people in localities and there are people in the areas, people who are thinking, political leaders. It’s just that we don’t know who they are. Not in some underground kind of way but just that people have realized that to stand up and say that I’m a neta is a guarantee that they are going to go after you. So why would you? Otherwise, you think you can have six months of protests against one of the most fearsome military establishments in the world and then you have the CRPF not knowing what to do? How can that happen? There must be a network somewhere, there must be a command structure. How informal can you get after all?

NGQ: You talked about the young boys coming out on the streets to protest. How do you gauge the response of the state against them?

SK: They are going after them tooth and nail. But it cannot work. You can’t terrorise every individual. You can terrorize some, but more people will appear. So they are effectively once again radicalizing a whole generation. In 2008, 2009 and even 2010, the young people who came out on the streets came out of euphoria. Like, ‘Arey, ye bhi allowed hota hai? Patthar bhi maar sakte hain? Aur police waalon ko bhaga bhi sakte hain Oh, is this too possible? Can we throw stones too? Can we actually chase the police away? ‘

So they come out in euphoria and do just that, ‘Let’s throw some stones and chase some policemen. ‘ But when you arrest them in turn, and you torture them, and you slap the Public Safety Act against young kids, you are back to 1990. You are back to radicalizing them.

And once you go after them, they are going to start thinking. They are going to ask questions. They are going to read. They will want to know who Hari Singh was. They will want to know who Sheikh Abdullah was. So you are actually radicalizing them and this is what they [the establishment] don’t understand. Because the police and security people, however much they think they have a good understanding of psychology and people’s minds they actually don’t. There is a certain mindset that if you scare the youth, they will keep quiet. But it doesn’t work that way.

NGQ: You talk about the political leadership and how it is or is not representative of the people of Kashmir. I found it quite interesting that the only political leader to make it to the book is Masarat Alam. Why did you choose to include his interview in this anthology?

SK: Yes, you mean why does he figure in the book? He is there precisely to give you an indication of the kind of figure who not many people know no one ever considers him in the ‘mainstream’. He is not given the darjaa [position] of a leader, you know. He is just some shadowy guy with a big beard. But yet everybody knew that there was a time last year [2010] when Masarat was certainly the key player in what was going on. But it was not that once Masarat was picked up [arrested by the police], the protests disappeared completely. So, obviously there are other people like him, less visible perhaps. So there must be many people like that.

NGQ: What about the poems and lyrics that you have included in the book. There are excerpts from a graphic novel too.

SK: I used a lot of poetry in my film too. It is very much a part of the oral culture, it’s a real thing. In fact, a lot more work needs to be done on that and I’m sure it will be done. So there is poetry of protest and so on and so forth. Kashmir did not have a long literary tradition, but poetry has always been there. You find people of the younger generation who can rattle off poetry in ways that at least I couldn’t when I was growing up in India. People know the work of Iqbal, they know the work of Faiz, they know the work of so many poets just (snaps his fingers) like that. So it’s a place where poetry is a very real thing it’s not something distant.

NGQ: We often hear something called lasting peace in Kashmir. What according to you could bring such peace to Kashmir?

SK: Extraordinary imagination. Kashmir could be that place of all our fantasies, a place between India, Pakistan, China and Central Asia, which was its traditional role, a kind of crossroads. But it cannot be that if we have narrow and timid imaginations of Kashmir with a flag, an army, a navy, an air force. Not that way.

In fact, I was just going through Nitasha Kaul’s [5] piece in the anthology and she says, ‘Look, when people ask whether Kashmir is sustainable I have spent the last year living in Bhutan. If Bhutan can be an independent country, then certainly Kashmir can be. ‘ So it’s not about viability, it’s really about whether we have the imagination. Does even the Kashmiri leadership have the imagination for a solution, where it doesn’t need to have its own army, tanks, fighter pilots and jets?

Look at Europe. They clobbered for hundreds of years just like we are doing to each other. And look at them now. I went to this place called South Tyrol. And the parallels with Kashmir are incredible. The Germans and the Italians fought over South Tyrol for a hundred years, worse than India and Pakistan. Ultimately, a solution was carved out and South Tyrol is an autonomous region. It has excellent relations with Germany, excellent relations with Italy and both support it. It’s a fantastic trade zone because all the trade between the south of Europe and its north goes through there.

I traveled there during an art show once and I said, my god! And people have actually talked about this as a parallel for Kashmir, the South Tyrol Model [6]. To dikkat kya hai ki hum logon ki imagination thodi si dhas gayi hai we seem to have lost our imagination.

So we shouldn’t be crude about it. A solution to Kashmir cannot be a crude solution. Like you give it independence and the border will start at Lakhanpur, that can’t work. It will have to be an imaginative solution which can take on board the aspirations of the people of the Ladakh and Jammu region. And then it can be something quite remarkable. We are only limited by our own imaginations.

Interview ends.


1. On July 8, 2010, various Indian television news channels including NDTV and Times Now first ran these stories playing the phone call intercepts between ‘two Hurriyat leaders’.

See the websites of the television news channels Times Now and NDTV here:

‘Martyr 10-15 during valley protests’ http://www.timesnow.tv/Martyr-10-15-during-valley-protests/articleshow/4349185. cms

Is some of the Kashmir violence planned and instigated? http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/is-some-of-the-kashmir-violence-planned-and-instigated-36352

Also see:

“Some incidents in Kashmir instigated”, The Hindu, July 9, 2010. The report quoted ‘top sources in the home ministry’ saying that ‘security officials were looking at a number of intercepted conversations between different individuals and extremist elements that point to deliberate attempts at instigating violence and clashes’; that ‘intercepts showed that hardline separatists had even discussed the possibility of killing at least 15 people in a procession in Budgam district on the outskirts of Srinagar’; and that ‘extremist and hardline elements in the Valley were rebuked for not being able to engineer large-scale violence and deaths in south Kashmir’.

2. Jashn-e-azaadi How we celebrate freedom (2007) is a feature length documentary about Kashmir. Written and directed by Sanjay Kak; 139 mins; Kashmiri/Urdu/English; English subtitles. The film was screened in India and across the globe and met both controversy and critical acclaim. See the official website here: http://kashmirfilm.wordpress.com/

3. Narmada Bachao Andolan or Save the Narmada Movement has been campaigning since more than two decades in India against the construction of big dams and the resultant, often forcible, displacement of the tribal people.

4. On May 27, 2011, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah wrote on his site on Twitter: “What is it about our Hurriyat friends & there need to create trouble on Fridays only in Summer. Where were they all through winter???? ” [Sic]. Link: http://twitter.com/#! /abdullah_omar/status/73991369798057984

See: www.twitter.com/abdullah_omar

Also see: Where were they during winter, asks CM, Greater Kashmir, May 28, 2011.

5. Nitasha Kaul has contributed to the book Until my freedom has come her essay Kashmir: A Place of Blood and Memory, which is an attempt at imagining a just future for Kashmir. Formerly a professor of economics in Bristol, Nitasha did her doctorate in economics and philosophy in the UK. Her as-yet-unpublished novel, Residue, about Kashmiris in exile, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009.

6. See AG Noorani’s essay The South Tyrol Model in the newsmagazine Frontline, December 4-17, 2004.

7. Shorter versions of this interview appeared in Dawn (2011) and SocialistWorker.org (2013).


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