Remade in the Vernacular: The BJP’s Right to Dominate Kashmir

Sick men flock here from many lands,

And go back home in health;

But my own men, racked with hunger and disease,

Lie dying on my roads

If Mahjoor, compelled by love,

Lays bare some bitter truths,

The lovers of my beloved land

Should not take it to heart!

“Naalay Kashmir,” Mahjoor

One of Kashmir’s most beloved poets, Mahjoor began his life as a patwari (a village accountant of sorts), and in his fursat (free time), he illuminated the strife of a region that only the resolve and optimism of a sanguine spirit like himself could capture. These past few weeks remind us how coldly familiar Kashmiris are with the experiences Mahjoor poignantly kindles. Drenched for decades in protracted unease with the Indian state, Kashmiris have been pelted, blinded, tortured, disappeared, plundered, and killed by the national government. 

But what if such a history is…tolerable – worthy of celebration even? And more importantly, what if human rights can be used to justify it?

Last month, the Indian government made certain decisions that have yet again brought Kashmir – a region that Pakistan and India have fought over for decades – to the forefront of conversations about equality, dignity, and freedom. The Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had allowed Kashmir some degree of administrative autonomy in its internal affairs. A related provision, also abrogated, gave the Kashmiri lawmakers authority to decide who could buy land and who could be a permanent resident in the state.

The Indian army has since been deployed to deal with the anticipated recoil to the revocation. There has been a communication blackout. ATMs have run dry. A curfew was imposed. 

For India’s ruling political party, the BJP, the choice to abrogate these provisions concerning Kashmir is couched almost in a language of disease: there is a desire to localize and stop a supposed contagion – of Islamic misogyny, extremism, and economic stagnation. 

For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kashmir has been marred by violence and ruled by ineffective dynastic politicians who have stolen federal money. In an address to the nation, he remarked that integration with the rest of the country would open Kashmir to investment; students could get scholarships; minimum wage laws would be passed; caste reservations and allotments would be implemented; and women could have the same property rights as men. How could anyone oppose this move?

In an age where we have chosen to democratize interpretation of “universal” values, actors of different kinds can now plead “diversity”: this is how I interpret human rights and this is how I choose to secure them, thus subjecting the universal to markedly unique particularities. If each human right is like an item in a clothing store, then Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has simply fashioned a new outfit. Hence, human rights are, in the words of anthropologist Sally Merry, “remade in the vernacular.” 

Such a translation, embedded in a language of justice and righteousness, also acquires legitimacy across borders. Modi is like anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s famed bricoleur: he takes any given right that is at hand (whatever purpose it originally served) to achieve any given goal. An excellent improviser.

As such, right-wing nationalists have been adept at using the tools and ideals of liberalism and left-wing activists and NGOs. Human rights might have universal affectations, but a closer look reveals that they are bound (quite tightly) by space and time. They are adopted by a variety of political actors who render them, frequently in different ways, palatable to indigenous sensibilities. 

Liberalism’s Recoil

While the interpretation can be as diverse as the political and culture background of the actors themselves, the method through which rights are secured is almost always the same: violence, which is often found in dialogues and places that claim to exclude or reduce it. As Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini remark:

“A culture of ethical violence is coalescing; one in which human rights, humanitarianism, and domination are tied…Territories [are] cast within a moral framework of global humanitarianism…In this way they not only regulate the forms of killing but also offer the state itself protection from accusations that its way of killing violated international law.” [1]

The formula for a human rights-led campaign of domination in Indian democracy is marvelously simple: rhetoric + force. And some luck at the polls every few years. 

And lucky has the BJP been. Bollywood actors, academics, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), and a bevy of other individuals and communities on both the international left and right praised and continue to support Narendra Modi and his party. Even Beyoncé, that sweetheart of the American left and icon of diversity, performed at the wedding of the daughter of one of Modi’s most important supporters, Mukesh Ambani. 

For every who liberal who sounds the bugle of freedom, right-wing nationalists are able to respond with, to borrow from Mukul Kesavan, the “BJP’s bloodiest hits.” It is blood cleansed by liberalism’s litany of consecrations. Gender equality. The fight against extremism. Economic prosperity. Justice for the oppressed. 

The sacred, it turns out, can become the profane…and then sacred again. But sacred for a new set of actors, goals, and sensibilities. 

And so, what if the BJP’s human rights formulation is how it is able to realize its subjectivity in an era of politics that traffics in egalitarianism, self-determination, and liberty? Could someone like Eleanor Roosevelt – the chief architect of the UN’s charter on human rights – have imagined that saving Muslim women from patriarchy would become a rallying call of Hindu nationalists in hyper-militarizing a region the size of Minnesota? 

Bharat Mata’s Secularism

There definitely are human rights issues in Kashmir (as there are in other provinces of India). But as Geoff Mann argues,

“because liberalism’s practice has always fallen far short of its ideals, because its practice has in fact required endless illiberalism (unfreedom, injustice, inequality, oppression), the trade-off is one of the key concepts through which a liberal world is rendered sensible.” [2]

It is also one through which violence can be understood and justified.  

Acts of translation are acts of deletion as well. The BJP and its supporters are able to use human rights to justify intervention in Kashmir to address this or that violation of rights without drawing attention to Hindu communal violence against Muslims or Christians – an occurrence tied to India’s only Muslim-majority territory. Even the leading historian on India in the American academy, Partha Chatterjee, has a take on Kashmir peppered with statist language that obfuscates (omits?) the potency of a political ethos that is part of broader interconfessional strife in India and assumes Kashmir’s crisis is like that of any ethnic group in South Asia. 

The BJP has thus sought to make room for militant politics and collective violence for its theory of democracy to work. Public rituals, rath yatras (chariot processions), and rallies become instances through which it seeks affirmation and legitimacy from the masses. The BJP appeals to collective entitlements for groups through what anthropologist McKim Marriott once called “substance codes” of blood and soil.

That the Tamil Tigers – one of history’s most prolific and innovative suicide bombers – had training camps based out of Southern India during the Sri Lankan civil war evades the BJP’s counterextremist ethos. (Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tigress, Dhanu). 

So the predicament is a familiar one: how do we make sense of a moral economy in which religiously motivated communal violence escapes the pejorative calculus of terms like “terrorism,” where “terrorism” invites active state intervention, but beef lynchings or the rape of Kashmiri women by the Indian army are not even categorized as such? As anthropologist Stanley Tambiah astutely observes, “participatory democracy, competitive elections, mass militancy, and crowd violence are not disconnected.”  

The putatively secular Indian state has not sought to relegate religion to the private sphere, but to actively reshape it through the intervention of the law. Chatterjee notes,

“If it was accepted that the state could intervene in religious institutions or practices in order to protect other social and economic rights, then what was the ground for intervening only in the affairs of one religious community and not of others?” [3]

The answer to Kashmiris, and Indian Muslims broadly, is fairly obvious. 

Yet again, Chatterjee suggests, the ostensibly universalist contours of contemporary statecraft and human rights appear to be inadequate for the postcolonial world. 

Looking Ahead

Three developments might arise out of the current situation:

First, as Srinath Raghavan has remarked, the BJP might be setting a bad precedent. If it can invoke president’s rule or take legislative action to politically weaken a province where it loses electorally, who is to say ruling political parties in the future won’t do the same? Human rights will be remade again. Next time in a new vernacular, which could very much be unfriendly to the BJP. 

Second, given the implicit and explicit stamp of approval by all those who apparently matter (Beyoncé, Obama, Mohammad bin Zayed, etc.), Modi and his supporters have been extremely blessed in carrying out an agenda that has had significant ramifications for interconfessional life in India – chief among which is the BJP’s move to create a National Register of Citizenship (NRC), under which a documentation of citizenship (mostly for ethnic Bengalis) is required. 

BJP party president Amit Shah stated,

“We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except [Buddhists], Hindus and Sikhs.”

The NRC could possibly strip citizenship from lifelong Indian Muslims and Hindus, particularly in the Eastern province of Assam, but offer only Hindus a path to citizenship.

The third and arguably most consequential issue, especially as it pertains to the future of Kashmir, is that Kashmiri Hindus (known as Pandits) might actually fall prey to neoliberalism in a way far worse than they have to nationalist politics. “Now the Kashmiri Hindus will return on our terms,” one Pandit exclaimed in response to the abrogation of Article 370. 

Those terms will inevitably be dictated by the BJP’s robust neoliberal platform. It remains unclear how (or whether) more economically and politically powerful actors with business interests in Kashmir would be willing to concede the land and resources now up for grabs to Pandits because it is their “birth right” or the “land of their ancestors” or the “homes they were forced to leave behind.” Kashmiri land is now, as Deepti Misri and Mona Bhan observe, “open to settlement by any Indian Hindu who has the necessary financial means.” Having been supposedly relegated to their exalted peaks, Pandits look to be treated (rightly) as aggrieved natives of the region, but the market will insist on treating them like customers. 

Pandits have facilitated the expansion of a nationalist agenda, but now may be carried along by this agenda’s proliferation, possibly into the deep stupor of neoliberalism – out of which only the wealthy emerge. If the BJP wants to bring to Kashmir what the rest of India already has, then raging economic inequality might become the norm: 1 percent of Indians hold 73 percent of the country’s wealth.

More than five years of the BJP’s nationalist adventures thus appear to be slipping into what one could be excused for calling a free market bonanza: a state of emergency invoked in furtherance of an intervention to address an array of human rights violations, ultimately to allow the market to chop up Kashmir in the name of commerce. Human rights will be remade (again), in the language of efficiency and allocation. 

Is it possible that this account has mischaracterized, almost “relativized,” human rights? That the way human rights have been used by the BJP represents not their realization but a grave betrayal of their authorial and liberatory intent? Anyone who has experienced discrimination on the basis of religion or gender understands that such rights are not insignificant. But the hope here isn’t to deconstruct human rights as much as it is strip this paradigm of its innocence, so as to open the door to new possibilities that may allow Kashmiris to see a better tomorrow.

For Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims – who share language, culture, food, clothing, and a storied history in a land whose bucolic majesty has tempted both kings and titans for centuries – abrogation of constitutional provisions without input from their own representatives is but a makeshift, patchwork solution to the region’s protracted fight to even hold itself together. 

Works Cited:

  1. Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon. The Human Right to Dominate (Oxford Studies in Culture and Politics). New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.
  2. http://bostonreview.net/science-nature/geoff-mann-it-was-not-supposed-end-way?fbclid=IwAR2QjuAtG1ramzd9s1mofCdhoYisY17ji9lJdM4zxsy-tc3RP607VJi-S4s
  3. Chatterjee, Partha. “Secularism and Toleration.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 28 (Jul. 9, 1994), pp. 1768-1777.

Photo credit: https://iheartpakistan.tumblr.com/post/146264830167/ratti-gali-lake-the-ratti-gali-lake-is-an-alpine


About the author: Shahrukh Khan is a guest contributor. He is a JD candidate at Emory University School of Law. His interests include American law, history, and Punjabi culture. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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