Freedom Through Untouchability: A Letter to Kashmiris — by Murad Saleem

Feb 7, 2021

A deeply embedded sense of existential threat has surrounded Kashmiris from multiple directions, materializing in varying challenges and struggles throughout their history. This letter by Murad Saleem, published in Inverse Journal’s Acquaintance (opinions/perspectives) section, addresses and problematizes such an existential threat, taking into account the struggles that Kashmiris face and the different strategies of resistance that can coalesce to carry a dispossessed people forward. As its messenger, the author of the letter has gathered words of wisdom spanning several centuries and generations, effectively delivering wisdom of his own to his fellow Kashmiris back home.

To Kashmiris (wherever you might be and however you might otherwise describe yourself),

This is a plea—for honesty, to hope, to believe, to remember, to persevere, to re-dedicate ourselves.  These are words of anguish, love, longing and aspiration.  Please consider them.  Please share them.

bar rūye zamīn hīchkās āsūdah nabāshad
ganjī buvad ārām ki dar zīr-e-zamīn ast

The earth’s surface provides no tranquility;
tranquility is a treasure buried below ground.
— Ghanī (d. 1669 CE)

Raḥmati ḥaq.  In Kashmiri, two Arabic-origin words are transformed into a description of the reality beyond death.  When someone dies, we say falaәn gōw rahmati haq – “so-and-so went to that compassionate, true reality.”  We commiserate.  We acknowledge our common experience of life as a domain of cruelty and delusion.  We affirm our common hope that death is a portal to a domain of compassion and truth.

By “delusion” we mean distraction from reality—our common state of self-congratulation and preoccupation with things that do not matter.  It is also our common state of avoidance—of the hard work of self-improvement and making positive social change and the reckoning of death (which is both an essential reality and a constant reminder of essential reality).  As it is said: “Everyone is asleep; when they die, they wake up.”

We have infused death with deep social significance.  This is true of “natural” death.  Our holidays take us to the graves of our ancestors.  Our festivals take us to the graves of our saints.  This is also true of “unnatural” death.  Our historical memory is framed by mass killings.  Our martyrs’ graves symbolize our highest aspirations.  Mourning is our most potent expression of resistance.  This embrace and transformation of the reality of death has buoyed us from drowning in despair.

Our heritage is infused with grief, the layered, textured grief of a culture evolved through multi-generational trauma.  Our wedding songs are laments.  Since July 2019, a new layer of grief has been imposed on us.  It is a layer thick with insidiousness and cruelty.  The killings, lockdowns, suppression, repression, state violence, indignity, economic dislocation, denial of rights, disinformation, betrayal, lying and manipulation of memory and history are not new.  The all-out assault on our identity, our history, our memory, our relation to our homeland and our connection to ourselves is.

Kashmir still exists for Kashmiris, but only precariously.  Those who are hell-bent on destroying us laid plans long ago.  They are now implementing them.  The results remain uncertain.  In that uncertainty is opportunity.  Are we willing to confront these truths?  On what terms?  Are we awake or asleep? 

On Liberation and Loss

Kalhan Ghanī ta Sarfī serāb kəri yem āban
suy āb sāni bāpath zehri lāl āsiyā

This water that nourished Kalhāna, Ghanī and Sarfī,
Why should that same water poison us?
— Abdul Ahad Āzād (d. 1948 CE)

bandah kiz khawayshtan dārad khabar
afraynd munfa‘at rā az zarar
bazm bādayv ast ādam rā wa bāl
razm bādayv ast ādam rā jamāl

The self-aware, self-possessed person
gains advantages from injuries.
Comfort with the Devil leads man to disaster;
combat with the Devil leads man to glory.
— Iqbāl (d. 1938 CE) (as Shāh Hamdān)

We are in the endgame of an epic struggle.  That struggle is over essential, fundamental stuff: which lives matter, which aspirations count, how history is written, what we dare to believe. 

The essential prologue to this epic goes like this.  In the fourteenth century, almost all Kashmiris abandoned their existing religious affiliations (Buddhism and Hinduism) for Islam.  This was a radical and progressive step—a choice against casteist supremacism and for dignity, opportunity and freedom.  Kashmiri society was reconfigured and transformed.   

This transformation was rejected by a subset of Brahmins.  They held on to Brahminical supremacism, an identity of caste privilege built on the immutable inferiority, indignity and bonded labor of everyone else.  This is not to say that every individual who chose to remain Brahmin or every one of their descendants is a supremacist.  However, Brahminical identity is predicated on structural supremacism and, as a self-identified group, Brahmins’ predominant social and political practice has been (and remains) supremacist. For this narrow elite in Kashmir, the liberation of the masses was construed as sacrilege and a personal assault.  They called the Kashmiris who were now Muslims, their relatives, neighbors and people on whom they depended, mlechcha: untouchables. 

This is a central motif of our history.  The Kashmiri masses seek freedom, which Brahmanical supremacists consider an abomination.  Aspiration is condemned as disloyalty.  Liberation is condemned as violence.  Self-determination is condemned as secessionism. 

On Self and Self-Determination

‘ibāditi ba jahān bih zi khāksāri nīst
bih az vuzū-e ‘azīzān buvad tayammum-e mā

The humility of untouchables exceeds the worship of ascetics;
our cleansing with dirt is superior to others’ cleansing with water
— Ghanī

balay tihinzi shakar wəndzay
adə chuy yeti kyōh tati ābrū  

Consider the Lord’s calamities sweet
and you’ll find honor in this life and the next.
— Nūruddīn (d. 1438 CE)

Ghanī was a saint.  Like many of our saints, he expressed ideas through verse.  In Ghanī’s case, Persian poetry.  Sā’ib of Tabrīz (a contemporary master of Persian poetry) encountered Ghanī’s work and sought to meet him.  It is said that he wanted an explanation of the words krāl pan (in Kashmiri, “potter’s thread”) in this Persian couplet:

muye mayān-e tu shudah krāl pan
kard judaa kāsaye sar hā zi tan

Your hair-thin waist has become a krāl pan,
severing from bodies many a head.

After Sā’ib made his way to Srinagar, the Mughal governor of Kashmir, Zafar Khān, took Sā’ib to Ghanī’s house in Rajouri Kadal.  They found its doors and windows locked.  They decided to return later when Ghanī might be home.  When they returned, they found the windows and doors open.  They knocked and received no response.  They entered and found no one.  Confused, they waited nearby.  Soon, a man walked up to the house, entered and, upon entering, locked its windows and doors.  Sā’ib knocked and demanded an explanation.  Ghanī answered, “I am a treasure.  When I am in, my house should be guarded like a treasury.  When I am out, anyone who wants may enter.”

This story illustrates a radical and uncompromising idea of the self.  Ghanī was a person of deep self-knowledge and self-possession.  He understood his own worth and was indifferent to status, power and wealth.  Ghanī was famous but committed to a simple life.  His poetry was prized in a time when poetry was prized but he refused recognition by the powerful.  He was a deeply ethical person.

Now consider the political context of Ghanī’s life.  He lived at the beginning of a still-ongoing era of extractive, brutal foreign rule in Kashmir (now, over four centuries old).  During Ghanī’s life, the Mughals ruled Kashmir.  And while the oppression of his time was mild relative to what followed, Ghanī understood injustice and oppression.  When Aurangzeb, the most powerful person of his day, demanded Ghanī’s presence at court, Ghanī refused.  He stayed home.  When he died a few days later, his self-possession and disdain for power were complete.

Ghanī represented a deep-rooted Kashmiri tradition which has flourished since at least the time of Islam’s ascendance in Kashmir.  It is the tradition of Kashmiri saints— Lālla, Nūruddīn, Hamza Makhdūmī, Yaqūb Sarfī, Da’ūd Khākhī, Sŏch Krāl, Mahmūd Ghāmī, Rasūl Mīr, Shams Faqīr and many others.  It is the core tradition of Kashmiris, one with tremendous resonance for us, one which we commonly revere.  The key commitments of this tradition include:

  1. Dignity and respect for all people regardless of caste, creed or status;
  2. Liberating and lifting people up, particularly the most marginalized;
  3. Self-improvement through self-knowledge;
  4. Freedom through self-possession and self-realization;
  5. Disdain for status, wealth and power; and
  6. Seeing the world as a mere proving ground for a reality beyond death.

These commitments constitute what we would now call a commitment to “self-determination” (in its fullest sense—political, economic, social, cultural and personal).  However, in our tradition (compared to the prevailing international law conception), the commitment to self-determination is firmly grounded in spirituality and an expansive moral vision, more comprehensive in its scope, more subtle in its comprehension, more profound in its implication and more practical in its application.  This is a commitment to total liberation, total freedom, total āzādī.

On Modes of Engagement

par tŏy pān yemi somu monu
yemi hyuvu monu din kyōh rāth
yemisay aduyu man sŏponu
tamiy ḍyūṭhuy sura-guru-nāth

He who considers others the same as himself;
he who considers the day to be like the night;
he who understand that everything is God’s;
only such a person witnesses the Supreme Deity.
— Lālla (d. 1392 CE)

nafsәy man mətsәravī
myūṭhi ta zyūṭhi yәtsī
tavay alakh palakh rāvī
wŏndәh kithə māli patsī

Your ego will make you act crazy,
chasing all that’s sweet and fine.
That’s why you’ll lose this world and the next.
How does chasing wealth serve your soul?
— Nūruddīn

Among Kashmiris, there have been four archetypal modes of engagement in this epic struggle between the forces of liberation and the forces of bondage.  I’ll refer to these modes as “pro-self,” “pro-freedom,” “pro-sellout” and “pro-slavery.” 

By pro-self, I mean what most people in Kashmir do most of the time—they recognize their oppression and focus on living well in the circumstances.  Some compromise and corruption are, in the name of living better, considered normal and morally permissible.   

By pro-freedom, I mean principled resistance to oppression, including standing in opposition to pro-sellout and pro-slavery (defined below) forces.  This is in the tradition of the Kashmiri saints. The priority here is personal and collective liberation (in the fullest sense).  Compromise or corruption to live better is unacceptable because it is immoral and perpetuates oppression.  In Kashmir, there are many who have operated and continue to operate in this mode, including both prominent people who may not be considered saintly and saintly people who may not be widely known.   These are our heroes.

By pro-sellout, I mean those who facilitate and justify oppression for personal gain.  The priority here is self-aggrandizement.  These are our traitors.  They aid, enable and abet oppression while helping to obscure and legitimate it. 

By pro-slavery, I mean those who are in principle committed to oppression.  Their priority is to perpetuate a system of self-serving domination.  These are our tormentors.

This typology helps us see certain things.  Independent of one’s politics (and independent of their personal flaws and any mistakes they have made), Kashmiris have many heroes to look to who we may not recognize as such.  Prominent, contemporary personalities who embody the pro-freedom mode include Parveena Ahangar, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Parvez Imroz, Yasin Malik and Mian Abdul Qayoom. 

Independent of one’s politics (and independent of their personal qualities and any good they have done), the “pro-India” cadres in Kashmir (the politicians, the bureaucrats, the businesspeople, the police, the judges, the militias, the informants) embody the pro-sellout mode.  Our prominent, contemporary traitors include Omar Abdullah, Farooq Amin, Altaf Bukhari, Asif Burza, Sajad Lone and Mehbooba Mufti. 

Independent of one’s politics and religious affiliation, Brahmanical supremacists embody the pro-slavery mode in Kashmir.  This is not new.  For centuries, they have been committed to the political, economic and social domination of the Kashmiri masses.  But the nature of the oppression to which these forces are committed has changed.  In recent decades, with the involvement and influence of the disciples of Savarkar and Golwalkar (including the RSS and the BJP), their project has expanded to include cultural domination.  They now seek to erase Kashmiri history, memory and capacity—to control the land and eliminate or completely marginalize most of its indigenous peoples.

As a result of this expanded pro-slavery project, the nature of the oppression that the pro-sellout camp has aided, enabled and abetted has changed—it now goes beyond gross violations and crimes against humanity toward the genocidal.  At the same time, the consequences of the common corruption of Kashmiris has changed while Kashmiris face elevated pressure to be corrupt (consider the economic conditions prevailing in Kashmir today).  Instead of simply empowering the persecution of our people, we are and will be facilitating the destruction of our people.   

We should not have any delusions about the disciples of Savarkar and Golwalkar.  Their gurus endorsed and modeled themselves after Germany’s Nazis and Italy’s Fascists.   Golwalkar, building on Savarkar’s ideas, cited Nazi precedent as a “good lesson for us…to learn and profit by.”  He instructed that Hindu strength meant “Muslims would have to play the part of German Jews.”  The have demonstrated their wherewithal repeatedly, including in Ayodhya in 1992, Gujarat in 2002 and Jammu and Kashmir since 2019 (fulfilling the seven-decade old plans of their colleague Shyama Prasad Mukherjee).  If those examples are too abstract, meditate on the life and death of Asifa Bano.

Hindutva-like rule—the vicious dehumanization, demonization and subjugation of Muslims by supremacist Hindus justified by an imaginary history and constructed past atrocities—is centuries-old in Kashmir.  Contemporary Hindutva rule in Kashmir adds three wrinkles: 1) the goal of cultural domination and the intent to destroy indigenous Muslims (instead of simply subjugating and exploiting them), 2) economic disempowerment, exploitation and bondage through capitalist (rather than feudal) policies and the connivance of non-local business elites and institutions and 3) disinformation through the technology of mass media and public relations to package wholesale disempowerment and destruction as “democratization” and “development.”  They have brought together their native (casteist) supremacist hatred and the most pernicious achievements of European civilization (fascism, colonialism, rapacious capitalism and denialism).

On “Kashmiri” and Why It Matters

dar hamraham gham-e vatan ast
gul-e bā khār chīda rā mānam

My homeland’s sorrows are with me constantly;
roses are picked from beds with their thorns.
— Ghanī

While this writing is focused on the Valley of Kashmir and ethnic Kashmiris, neither the Valley nor ethnic Kashmiris should be the sole focus of our consideration or concern.  We should be explicit about this because one of the most transparent, tawdry and effective moves of casteist supremacists is to exploit ethnic, caste, religious, class and other differences in the service of their own agenda.  And we in the resistance, with our own prejudices, facilitate our own disempowerment by allowing ourselves to be preyed upon and divided.  Consider, for example, the successful development, exploitation and marketing by supremacists in Jammu and Ladakh of an imaginary narrative of ethnic Kashmiri favoritism and dominance in Jammu and Kashmir.  We should not empower our tormentors or fail to learn from the past. 

The indigenous peoples of the territories of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual.  They have a history of ongoing exchange (through trade and otherwise) and an overlapping modern political history.  They share many common concerns, much common experience and a history of common resistance.  They are also all immediate targets of, and victims of, the same supremacists.  These peoples’ fates are connected.  There are meaningful, and mutually beneficial, reasons for that common resistance to be reinvigorated.

By convention, many refer to the various peoples who are indigenous to the territories of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir (a constructed political entity) as “Kashmiris.”  I would like to suggest a reappropriation of “Kashmiri” as a political identity.  My purpose here is to redeploy this identity to facilitate a common resistance while channeling the power and pedigree of the resistance that has been forged in the crucible that is and has been the Valley of Kashmir.  As a political identity, “Kashmiri” should include anyone who, in good faith:

  1. in the above typology, is committed to a pro-freedom agenda;
  2. is connected to, and working from, a contextualized, robust history of the peoples of the territories of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir; and
  3. seeks to understand and be respectful of the experiences and aspirations of those peoples.

In this conception, what matters is commitment, connection and conduct (not any specific ethnic, linguistic, religious or other identity).  There is no distinction among those from different regions or on the basis of current residence, current citizenship or number of generations removed from residing in those territories.  Iqbāl, Robert Thorpe and Ved Bhasin are Kashmiris.  Sheikh Abdullah (who is clearly pro-sellout rather than pro-freedom in the above typology) is not. 

On Recognition and Memory

dunyā chu kāvә yәnivōlay

This world is just a wedding feast for crows.
— Shams Faqīr (d. 1901 CE)

zayr gardūṅ ādam ādam rākhūrd
milatay bar milatay dīgar charav
jāṅ zāhil khat sōzad chūṅ sapand
khayz rā zadil nālihāiy daradmand

Under the heavens one man devours another,
one nation exploits another.
My soul burns for the people of the Valley.
Pangs of anguish cry out from my heart.
— Iqbāl (as Zindah Rūd)

There are competing notions of what “Kashmiri” does or should mean in a political sense.  Let me describe two.  One, lately popular among Brahmanical supremacists, is the idea that only ethnic Kashmiris who descend from those who entrenched themselves in Brahmanical supremacism in the 14th century are authentic or “aboriginal” Kashmiris.  This idea is transparently rooted in nothing other than the self-serving, bigoted imaginations of Brahmanical supremacists. 

There is a second notion that has been popular for the last few decades among pro-sellout and pro-slavery forces.  It is the idea of Kashmiriyat (an Urdu-derived neologism that means “Kashmiriness”).  This term was originally employed by Abdul Ahad Āzād to signify the tradition of pro-freedom resistance in Kashmir.  It was resurrected in the late 1970s by Kashmiri intellectuals as a marker of a distinct ethnic identity in response to heightened Indian attempts to compel conformity with Indian notions of what Kashmiris ought to believe and aspire to. 

However, whatever positive potential Kashmiriyat had was appropriated and redeployed to India’s service.  Pro-sellout and pro-slavery forces in Kashmir and their Indian enablers recast Kashmiriyat as a “syncretic” and “secular” tradition.  Their basic idea is that historic “communal harmony” in Kashmir was due to Kashmiri Muslims not being actual Muslims.  Instead, they were hybrid, spiritual-but-not-religious, quietistic Hindu-Muslims.  For our purposes, there are three key things to point out: what, how and why this happened. 

The what is the appropriation and intentional misconstruction of history and memory (or organized lying) and the use of the resources of the state to evangelize lies.  The how is by means of obscuring reality and demonization.  Muslims are (falsely) cast as inherently bigoted and violent, Brahmanical supremacists are (falsely) cast as inherently tolerant and peaceful and actual history—the principled, non-bigoted, non-hateful resistance of Kashmiri Muslims (from an ethos of deep Muslim religiosity) to the dehumanization, exploitation, demonization and violence of Brahmanical supremacists—is entirely obscured.  The why is in order to demonize the resistance of (predominantly Muslim) Kashmiris to oppression as “foreign terror” and “Islamic fundamentalism” rather than the indigenous, deeply rooted resistance that it is.  The contemporary political ideology of Kashmiriyat is the perverse inversion of actual Kashmiriyat in the service of a pro-sellout and pro-slavery agenda.

This obscuring of history and organized lying are not happenstance or isolated in Kashmir.  They are aspects of the ongoing, longstanding psychological warfare that has been waged by pro-sellout and pro-slavery forces on Kashmiris.  The purpose here is to destroy the pro-liberation possibility—it is the colonization of Kashmiris’ history, memory and sense of self, to sow doubt and mistrust, to debilitate through exacerbating personal and collective insecurity and to destroy Kashmiris’ capacity at self-knowledge, self-possession and resistance.  At the same time, by demonizing and dehumanizing Kashmiris, they succeed in obscuring the violations committed against Kashmiris and eliminating the possibility of a broader resistance by depriving us the allyship of people who believe in rights, liberation and justice. 

Many significant phenomena in Kashmir operate in this way.  Consider, for example, the phenomena of the “fake encounter killing” or “enforced disappearances.”  Or the narrative of Article 370 granting Kashmiris “autonomy” and “superior rights” when it in fact was utilized to validate a colonial occupation and the denial of rights.  Or the narrative that Kashmiris are “spoiled” and “thankless” beneficiaries of the largesse of the Indian state while India has in fact brutalized Kashmiris and mercilessly exploited Kashmiris’ bodies, water, timber, land and other resources. 

There are more formative narratives that play the same way.  Consider, for example, the narrative of a “tribal invasion” in 1947 (in fact, these were comrades of the Poonchi armed resistance joining an indigenous anti-colonial, self-determination struggle against tyrannical rule) deployed to validate a false narrative of “Pakistani terrorism,” justify a pre-planned Indian military occupation and obscure the simultaneous, state-supported, Hindu supremacist, genocidal campaign against Jammu Muslims (the Jammu Massacre).  Or the narrative of Sheikh Abdullah as the “most popular leader in Kashmir” (in fact, Sheikh Abdullah was one of many prominent political personalities but the only one propped up by the Dogras and Indian National Congress; his colleagues recognized him as a traitor in the 1930s), to justify as legitimate the machinations of India and its pro-slavery allies in Kashmir in an authoritarian environment of suppression, repression and unfreedom stage-managed from Delhi. 

Memory and history are essential for self-knowledge, self-possession and resistance.  The pro-slavery project in Kashmir today has heightened its attack on memory and history for this reason.  And in response we must double-down on memory and history.  We have to decolonize our own minds, see more of everything that matters and see it more clearly.  And this requires what the Kashmiri saints called ma’rifa—"recognition of reality” or “overcoming delusion” (Lālla is commonly called Lālla ‘Ārifa because she saw reality for what it is).

Perspective and language are essential in this process of recognition.  We must not accept the framing or employ the language of the pro-sellout or pro-slavery forces.  We must not use euphemisms or obscure realities.  For example, we must recognize India’s illegal occupation of Kashmir as colonial domination.  We must recognize the pro-sellout forces as self-serving sellouts who have enabled and facilitated our colonial domination, human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity and now the destruction of our people.  We must name names.  We must draw clear lines and not actively or passively participate in the normalization of behavior that leads to our own destruction. 

We can no longer abide the pro-self mode.  It has always meant participation in the violence and violations against our people.  It now means aiding and abetting collective suicide.  The realities now are much starker.  For any who previously harbored confusion or thought that their individual conduct was not of major consequence, the pro-slavery forces and their Indian fascist enablers have made things much clearer.  Confusion, indecision, passivity and inactivity all serve the pro-slavery agenda.  Are you working for Savarkar and Golwalkar or Lālla and Nūruddīn?  

On Commitments and Reform

zaystan andar had sāhil khatāst
sāhil mā sangay andar rāhe māst
bā kirāṅ dar sākhtan marge duwām
garcha andar bahr galtī subah wa shām
zindagī jōlāṅ miyān kōh wa dasht
ay khunak mōjay ki az sāhil guzasht

To live in the bounds of the shore is sin;
the shore is just a stone in our path.
To limit oneself to the shore is eternal death,
Even as the sea seethes morning and evening.
Life is to leap in mountains and deserts—
Blessed be the wave that breaches the shore!
— Iqbāl (as Ghanī)

Another reality dispositively clarified (if there was any doubt) since August 2019 is whether incremental change or “reform” within Indian mechanisms is possible.  Arguments for incrementalism and reform in Kashmir have been indefensible throughout the Indian colonial period.  To begin with, such arguments conceded gross illegality (including illegal occupation, colonization and an absence of basic freedoms and rights) and depended on obvious lies (e.g., that Indian commitments meant something) while also betraying the pro-freedom sacrifices of generations of our ancestors. 

They also required the suspension of all logic.  Why would any rational person believe that India is committed to constitutional democracy and the rule of law when India constantly demonstrates the fact that it is not?  Kashmiris should know this better than anyone.  We have lived the reality of Indian “democracy” and “law” for over seven decades.

In August 2019, India abandoned its remaining nominal legal commitments to Kashmiris (Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution) in extravagant violation of its own commitments and constitutional norms.  Those Indian constitutional provisions were themselves illegalities (they were enacted in violation of international law and the legal instrument—the Instrument of Accession—that India claims grants it sovereignty over Kashmir).  They were the self-serving product of self-dealing with their pro-sellout minions (especially Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference).  India materially violated those commitments for decades (the “erosion of Article 370”) and legalized those violations through further self-dealing (including through its Supreme Court).  Now, India has reneged entirely on those commitments through more brazen self-dealing.  India’s purposes were and are illegal.  Its “commitments” were simply the nominal legalization of illegalities for as long as India found them useful.

Consider the (extremely dark, pathetic and tragic) comedy of the current pro-sellout lot in Kashmir.  They are now licking the boots of fascist criminals who treat them as criminals.  They are begging those fascists to abandon their longstanding goals (the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and the “complete integration” of Kashmir with India) just as they have achieved them.  They are asking a state that has ably demonstrated how meaningless its commitments are to recommit itself to commitments it has just proudly abandoned.  Their ultimate aspiration is to re-establish a tyrannical colonial reality of pervasive criminality and exploitation that the tyrant himself now considers seditious.  

Another way to examine the pro-sellout argument for incrementalism is to evaluate what the pro-sellout lot was able to achieve through it.  Consider the most singular achievement of that lot—land to the tiller.  Since August 2019, India has taken great pains to demonstrate that that too was a fleeting political gimmick. 

On Order and Survival

vyәti hŏkan tə hez grezan
teli māli āsiya wandar rāj

The rivers will run dry and sewers overflow;
then, dear, will apes rule.
— Nūruddīn

We are witnessing the realization of the darkest prophecies of our scripture and our saints.  Consider the climate crisis.  For the last few hundred years, a narrow elite has greedily exploited most people on Earth and much of the Earth’s accessible resources.  They destroyed ancient ways of living and ancient ways of describing the universe and called this “civilization.”  They eradicated habitats and species en masse and they called this “development.”  They have knowingly, actively destroyed the planet on which all life depends.  This is indefensible immorality.  It is presumptuousness and callous disregard on an unimaginable scale.  It is stunningly sociopathic and suicidal.  We are told that this criminality is an unfortunate byproduct of “progress.”  We are told that slowing or stopping this destruction is insanity because it would be too “expensive.”

Consider, in this context, the current pandemic.  What is the power of these gods with all of their “progress” when confronted with a microscopically small, inanimate creature unleashed due to their relentless pillaging?  They are brought to their knees.  How do their leading societies view modest sacrifices to protect themselves and their communities?  They view basic humanitarianism (even when it is self-serving) as “oppression.”

When they are forced to slow their “productivity” and bear witness (if there was any doubt) to the fact that their own conduct is responsible for the destruction confronting humanity everywhere and that, despite all of their heedless rapacity, the damage they have caused is still reversible, they are eager to double-down on exploitation and destruction.  The land is on fire, the oceans are acidifying, the glaciers are melting.  We are being choked by plastics.  They fear a decline in their hoarded wealth.  They are maniacally greedy for more devastation.  This is advanced delusion at a mass scale.  These elites are unable to save themselves.  Should we have hope that they will save us?

More “development,” more “progress” and more technology will not save us.  The problem is not a lack of capacity or resources.  The problem is delusion—the self-satisfaction, greed and total lack of accountability of the elites who demonstrate (despite what they tend to claim) that they believe that only certain lives matter, that power and wealth are indicators of virtue, that marginalized people deserve contempt and deserve to suffer.   And we, like so many other marginalized peoples, have accepted this as good and normal.

This is not good or normal. Our inheritance should help us see that.  So should our collective experience.  We are the underbelly of “progress.”  We ask for recognition on the basis of their commitments and their principles.  They deny and deprive us.  That denial is not for lack of understanding or awareness.  It is because we do not matter and neither do their commitments or principles.  Their self-determination means nothing for us—it is cover for what actually governs their order of unaccountable, exploitative rule by elites.  What matters to them is their wealth and their “sovereignty.”

It is not happenstance that the pro-slavery forces and their Indian allies are destroying us in the name of “development” and “progress.”  It is not coincidental that these fascists’ plans are focused on expropriation of land, industrialization and the unchecked exploitation of natural resources in our ecologically fragile and environmentally critical homeland.  We are told that we are “undeveloped”—that we need more “progress”—because we have not meaningfully contributed to this criminality.  This new onslaught is on top of our ongoing struggle to survive the ecological, cultural, social, economic and political violations of the “progress” they have already delivered.

This goes beyond delusion.  It is fraud.  India’s confidence game in Kashmir is aided and abetted by the pro-slavery and pro-sellout lots within and the “international community” without.  This fraud is extensive and gets at the purported core commitments of the international order—peace, security, self-determination and human rights.  The international community has actively observed India’s ongoing and escalating violence, belligerence and violations in Kashmir for over seven decades.   They are deeply knowledgeable.  They committed themselves to self-determination and human rights and resolved to recognize and protect our rights.  What they have done instead is permit and facilitate India’s criminality in Kashmir until our very existence is threatened.  They are deeply complicit.

On Freedom and Untouchability

bādeh sabā agar ba Geneva guzar kunī
harfay zamā ba majlis aqwām bāzgōay
dihqān wa kisht wa jōway wa khyābān farōkhtand
qōmay farōkhtand wa chi arzāṅ farōkhtand!

Morning breeze, if you pass through Geneva,
deliver a message to the League of Nations:
they have vilely sold tillers, fields, streams and orchards,
they have vilely sold a people, and at a vile price!
— Iqbāl (as Zindah Rūd)

guftand jahāṅ tō āyā bitūmī sāzad
guftam ke ne mī sāzad guftand ke bar hamzan

They asked, “Does the world conform to your vision?”
I said, “No.”  They said, “Destroy (and reconstruct) it.”
— Iqbāl

jahāni tāzah kī afkār tāzah say hay namūd
ki sang wa khisht say hōtay nayīṅ jahāṅ paydā

Novel worlds are born only from novel thinking,
as the world is not created by stone and brick.
— Iqbāl

We are denied our right to self-determination although it is recognized by the international community’s most authoritative body (the UN Security Council).  We are the victims of colonization in a “post-colonial” era.  We are denied all democratic rights by the “world’s largest democracy.”  We are denied legal protections under a constitutional system that champions the “rule of law.”  We should know better than anyone that these institutions are false and that their commitments are lies.

We have suffered too much and too long trying to make their commitments truer.  We are now at an existential crossroads.  It is delusion to continue on the same course.  They have broken our bodies.  They have ravaged our minds.  They have taken our land.  What they cannot take from us, and what we cannot give up or continue to ignore, is our intellectual and spiritual inheritance.  We need to survive and bequeath it to our children.  We need to confront the lies and false commitments of India and the international community.  We need to force recognition and accountability for what we have experienced.  We need to confront their delusion with the truth of our inheritance.  We must achieve that in a world in which we are marginalized and only marginally exist.  We need it, our children need it, the world needs it.

We need to embrace untouchability.  We should wear mlechcha as a badge.  We should appropriate and re-direct the term, as invincibility instead of inferiority and power instead of pollution.  We need to embrace our inheritance—our language, our culture, the understandings of our ancestors.  It is now more necessary than ever that we anchor ourselves to our inheritance rather than barter it away.

We must have the faith and ambition to imagine possibilities beyond India, Pakistan and the text of UN Security Council resolutions.  Those possibilities were insufficient in the late 1940s—our ancestors had struggled for centuries for more than their promises.  What the intervening seven decades have given us is oppression, repression, violence, betrayal and clarity on how broken all of those possibilities were and are.  While we fight to survive, we have to believe in and fight for the total liberation—political, economic, social, cultural, personal and spiritual—that our saints sought.   We should start with ourselves but not fight only for ourselves.  The prevailing nation-state system has itself failed.  It has not delivered security, freedom, dignity or opportunity.  Neither global elites, nor the national and international bodies they control, have demonstrated the capacity to stop the destruction they have wrought and are wreaking.

We have suffered violation after violation of rules and norms they claim are inviolable and absolute.  What have those injuries afforded us?  Trauma and suffering in spades, yes.  But also capacity—to see their reality and our reality for what they are and to know what we can endure and survive.  We are battered but resilient still and more resilient for what we continue to endure.  We experienced floods six years ago, a man-made disaster.  The waters caused extensive damage.  They also revealed a lot, including that after decades of intense psychological warfare and the cultivation of social discord and disharmony all is not lost.  We witnessed our collective resilience and capacity, what yet remained alive within us.

The benefit of the current onslaught is stark clarity.  And it is time for a hard reset.  Our opportunity now is to deal with our rot.  It is the accumulated rot of centuries of institutionalized corruption, systematic state violence and colonial occupation.  We cannot accept our destruction, victimhood or further participation in our destruction.  We can and must resist.

We must stand for haq—compassion and truth against cruelty and delusion but also the proper, the fair and reasonable, our entitlement, our duty, our rights and justice.  We must embrace haq today, in all these senses, and not wait for the reality beyond death.  Haq is the reason why our martyrs’ graves symbolize our highest aspirations.  We call them shahīd—witnesses in the ultimate sense and to what ultimately matters.  They have borne witness to truth with their lives.  And so must we.

On Effort and Beauty

sarma ki hawauṅ mayṅ hay ‘uryaṅ badan us ka
dayta hay hunar jis ka amīruṅ ko dōshāla

His body stands exposed to bitter, wintery winds
whose fine skill delivers the wealthy exquisite shawls
— Iqbāl

When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks, who collects
                  its fallen fleece from the slopes?
O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished, who weighs the
                hairs on the jeweler’s balance?
They make a desolation and call it peace.
Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?
— Agha Shahid Ali (d. 2001 CE)

Our saints tell us that marginalized people, even if few in number, can overcome the powerful.  All that is required is faith, commitment and effort.  Faithful effort does not return hate with hate or ugliness with ugliness.  It returns hate with creativity and ugliness with beauty.  It acts with indignation but not anger.

Take the Kashmiri shawl as a symbol.  What the world sees is an object—an elegant textile.  We too tend to see the shawl as object—an object of pride (perhaps in part because others prize it) or a commodity by which to turn a profit.  We do not see what the shawl has been, is and could be. 

The Kashmiri shawl is Kashmiri genius.  It is Islam’s transformation of Kashmiri society—the liberation of enslaved people through productive work.  It is the dynamism of Kashmiri culture—the synthesis of old elements and new elements to create and contribute something unique and unsurpassed in the world.  It is the cultivation and intelligent utilization of local resources—the fusing of wool from Ladakhi goats and silk from Kashmiri worms.   It is productivity through collaboration—the coordinated labor of multiple people with differentiated roles and skills.  It is principled resistance to exploitation—shawlworkers have long been targets of exploitation and pro-freedom resistance leaders (and not just in 1865). 

The Kashmiri shawl tells our story—of survival and resistance, of transforming exploitation into transcendental beauty.

On Operative Principles

haych maydānī ke rōzay dar wular
mōj ya mī guft bā mōj digar
chand dar qulzum bayak dīgar zanaym
khayz tāyāk dam basāhil sar zanaym
zādeh mā ya’nay āṅ jōay kuhan
shōr awdar wādī wa kōh wa daman
har zamāṅ barsang rah khōd rāznad
tā banāay keh rābar mī kunad

Do you not know that one day a wave
said to another in Wular Lake:
‘How long will we break against each other in this ocean?
Rise up, let us break the shore together.
Our child, you know, that ancient river
fills valleys, mountains and meadows with its roar;
it constantly strikes the rocks on its path
until it rips away the mountains’ fabric.’
— Iqbāl (as Ghanī)

sultanat nāzuk tar āmad az hubāb
azdamay ōr atwāṅ kardan kharāb

Empire is weaker than a bubble;
it can be destroyed by a single breath.
— Iqbāl (as Ghanī)

To stand up to and defy the standard bearers of tyranny is the greatest honor of humanity. The history of ripping off from tyrants their democratic robes and exposing their monstrosity is as old as the history of man. This glorious chapter of our history has been luminescent for centuries. We have never had, nor shall ever have, a dearth of heroes, who as moths embrace the flame, are ever ready to lay down their lives for liberty….In this never-ending conflict between truth and falsehood, those who respond to their conscience and identify themselves with the standard bearers of truth, covet no rewards and desire no praise. This long and trying struggle sees many crests and troughs. The passage of time and unfavorable circumstance may affect its intensity but cannot put an end to it. It is the greatest duty of every upholder of truth to continue this struggle in all its intensity. Negligence can only lead to a state where not only does humanity lose the purpose and meaning of our existence but slows down that current of noble deeds that has sustained prophets and those that revolutionized human life.

— Maqbool Bhat (d. 1984 CE)
Excerpted from a letter from Tihar Jail to Mian Sarwar, dated August 7, 1981

We must fight the enemy in unison. History remains witness to the fact that big military powers have repeatedly perished in front of the force of peoples’ unity and truth. Courage, patience, and discipline are those weapons of a defenseless people which can defeat the enemy with howsoever enormous an arsenal….The Indian State’s occupation and its machinations are as hurtful for the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley as for Jammu’s Dogra community; as against the interests of the Muslims of Pir Panjal and Kargil as for the Buddhists of Ladakh. The Indian State not only wants to occupy our land, but it also intends to destroy our collective identity and brotherhood. We must not allow their heinous plot to succeed at any cost. We must all together stand with the resistance struggle to secure our lives, property, and our demographic character. We must each contribute at our own level and according to our capacities and participate in the glorious caravan of resistance towards the goal of complete freedom and decimation of the Indian occupation. At this juncture, there is no other alternative but to fight with full determination. India should know that even if they bring their entire armed forces into our State, even then the people of Jammu and Kashmir will not let go the struggle for their rights and liberation.

— Syed Ali Shah Geelani
Excerpted from “Statement and Program of Action in Response to the Current Kashmir Situation,” dated August 23, 2019

Your role in this struggle is your inheritance.  How you shape it is up to you.  As you consider how to refine or enhance your role, consider three people.  First, think about the most pious relative or neighbor or teacher or friend that you have or had.  That person represents what you are fighting for.  Second, think about the unborn child of the youngest member of your extended family. That person represents who you are fighting for.  Third, think about the soldier or policeman or other state actor who violated someone you love. That person represents what and who you are fighting against.  In everything, prioritize the long-term future over the current and the community over yourself.

From my limited vantage point, I offer some working operative principles (or touchstones) as we collectively continue mapping our pro-freedom struggle to our evolving reality.

For those in Kashmir:

  • Survive but minimize your participation in corruption.
  • Resist and minimize your participation in suffering.
  • Preserve memory. Retain and record everything you can about our experience.
  • Build capacity. Educate, encourage and empower, especially the young.
  • Decolonize minds. Amplify accurate understanding of our reality and our history.
  • Identify corruption. Make even small acts of selling out socially costly (without discouraging redemption).
  • Recognize commitment. Venerate our heroes, amplify their ideas and facilitate their work.
  • Work collaboratively. Coordinate widely without centralizing leadership or control.
  • Build solidarity. Bridge the differences that are used to divide us; focus on shared principles.
  • Get creative. Do the beautiful in the face of the ugly.
  • Buy locally. Increase community welfare and security; decrease dependency on non-locals.
  • Act ethically. Avoid anything that directly or indirectly harms community or personal welfare.

For those outside of Kashmir:

  • Speak truth, especially to power. Confront lies and misrepresentations about our experience and our struggle.
  • Take risks. Do what those in Kashmir cannot.
  • Preserve memory. Archive and publish everything you can about our experience.
  • Build capacity. Encourage and facilitate education and professional development, especially of the young.
  • Decolonize narratives. Amplify accurate understanding of our reality and our history.
  • Identify corruption. Make even small acts of selling out socially costly (without discouraging redemption).
  • Recognize commitment. Venerate our heroes, amplify their ideas and facilitate their work.
  • Build solidarity. Build bridges among our diaspora; broaden our allies.
  • Get creative. Develop better ways to amplify our people’s voices and confront our enemies.
  • Connect locally. Increase understanding of evolving realities, issues and needs in Kashmir.
  • Generate ideas. Think critically and constructively about our freedom movement; imagine novel possibilities.
  • Find creative ways to facilitate the dignified existence of Kashmiris in Kashmir.

 

Think.  Liberate.  Resist.

oru zuv ta doru kŏṭhu

The views, perspectives and opinions presented in this letter are the author’s own.

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About the Contributor

The author is a Kashmiri activist currently residing outside of Kashmir. Murad Saleem is a pen name.