Huzaifa Pandit is a Kashmiri poet, translator, and research scholar. I came to know him after receiving some of his translated poems for Life and Legends. I must admit that I’m usually skeptical about interviewing anyone who I do not know very well. But after reading Huzifa’s introduction and his translated poems of Mahjoor, he felt familiar to me.
“Must I suffer more?/ I surrendered my peace to you.” These lines from “Untitled,” a poem by Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor, translated by Huzaifa Pandit, brought back many memories of Jammu and Kashmir, which I visited in 1991, at the invitation of the Janmu Radio Station, to read my poems, with a writer’s delegate from Bihar, India. During my visit, I had the opportunity to see the life of people living in refugee camps in Jammu, who had suffered the Exodus of Kashmiri Hindus* from the valley. I was also given a tour of some sensitive areas not frequented by civilians, escorted by the Indian Army. That was the year of turmoil. Ever since, Kashmir has never been the same, as it was before.
Kashmir, that got its name from the Hindu sage Kashyapa, and has been known in history as the land related to Patanjali, Ashoka, Mir, Lal Ded, Habaa Khatton, Gulab Singh, Hari Singh, the Nehrus, Abdullahs, Shahid Ali, Rushdie and many others, is the home of Huzaifa Pandit. Kashmir has seen a number of political conflicts in its long history, yet people of all faiths lived there in harmony for centuries. But today, Kashmir is divided on the grounds of religion. Once known as heaven on earth, the land of Kashmir is now void of peace, prosperity, and political stability. It is torn apart by the politics and rivalry between India and Pakistan, not to mention China. We cannot talk about the contemporary Kashmiri literature without mentioning the politics in Kashmir and the lives of people affected by this on both sides of the Line of Control; one of the most highly militarized zones in the world.
This interview is not an effort to take sides, or to make any political statement. It is simply an effort to hear the heartbeats of Kashmir, and the voice of a new generation of Kashmiri writer. If you have ever wondered what went wrong in Kashmir, this interview may answer some of your questions.
KSC: You are a Kashmiri Writer, Poet and Translator, born, raised, and educated in Kashmir, as well as in other parts of India. Many Kashmiris today do not want to call themselves Indians, so how do you identify yourself? As an Indian or a Kashmiri? Or a Kashmiri Indian?
HP: I identify myself as a Kashmiri. I identified as a Kashmiri-Indian till the summer of 2008. Those who are familiar with Kashmir will know the summer of 2008 started a cycle of extreme turmoil that culminated in the catastrophic year of 2010, in which 110 civilians were shot dead by the Indian Security forces and Kashmir Police. Many more were maimed and incarcerated.
The Amarnath Shrine row erupted in 2008, which saw massive protests in Kashmir against transfer of forest land to create a transit residential colony for Hindu devotees from India. The government caved in to pressure, as the transfer was cancelled. But the right-wing Hindu organizations in Jammu enforced a highway blockade on Kashmir’s only surface link to India. Many Kashmri truckers were harassed, and one particularly unfortunate one was burnt alive.
In 2009, the Shopian rape case occurred when two young women, Asiya and Neelofar, were found drowned in a nallah next to an armed forces camp. It was established that the women had been sexually assaulted and murdered before thrown into the shallow nallah. The summer also saw massive protests, but the state, after many flip flops, exonerated the forces.
In 2010, protests started over the Patribal fake encounter case. The government responded with harsh measures –firing at protest marches, enforcing very strict curfews, and arresting people. The Indian Home minister called the protest marches as sponsored by Pakistan when they were completely indigenous. This forced me to counter my cherished ideas of India, and disillusionment took their place.
KSC: You are pursuing a PhD, writing a dissertation on “Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Agha Shahid Ali, and Mahmoud Darwish – Loss, Lyricism and Resistance” at the University of Kashmir. Tell us, why did you choose three poets from three different countries, India, Pakistan, and Palestine, for your research? What are the differences and similarities in the outlook of these poets, and how do you personally relate to their beliefs?
HP: Again, the answer lies in 2010. Bored at home during curfew I heard a ghazal of Faiz Ahmed Faiz sung by Fareeda Khanum. The ghazal was “Toofan Ba Dil hai har koi dildaar dekhna” (“Every heart here shelters a storm/My Love, won’t you see?”). It had a couplet that immediately appealed to me as a true representation of the leadership crisis in Kashmir –both the mainstream and separatist leadership –Hurriyat Conference were unable to provide a proper response to the crisis unfolding around them. The couplet was:
“Khaali garchi mimbar-o-mehraab sar nigoon hai khalaq
The pulpit stares vacant
the prayer-rug too empty
yet the dread of robed turban
no one lifts his head,
none dares this temerity.
I had read Faiz briefly at school, but this spurred in me a new interest in him. I found a lot of Faiz poems like “Raqeeb Say” (“To the Rival”) on the internet, and began reading him earnestly. All his poems appeared to resonate with not only my emotions, but also those of the other Kashmiri around me. I started translating him and by 2015 when I got into the PhD program, I had read quite a bit about him, so he fit in naturally. I had read Shahid’s translation of Faiz The Rebel’s Silhouette, and The Country without a Post Office is one of the most widely quoted books in Kashmir, since it deals with the dark days of 90’s. So, since I wanted to speak of Kashmir, he too fit in nicely. Then Darwish was an obvious choice because the Palestinians and Kashmiris share a common experience of life under occupation. His poetry is a clear representation of the subjugated all around the world.
It appears to me that the three poets present a perfect demonstration of Resistance Poetry, i.e. poetry written from a clear anti-imperial and anti-colonial politics. Such poetry is often thought to be reactionary and propagandist in nature. My endeavor is to point out that they present three different models of such poetry, and prove that such poetry can not only serve as a counter-narrative to official narratives, but also it can actively engender and accommodate strategies of resistance. To advance a simple example, Faiz’s” nazm Nisaar teri galiyon kay aye watan” (“My Life be sacrificed on your lanes, my country”) is a striking description of a people under occupation:
Hai ahl-e-dil kay liye ab yeh nazm-e-bast-o-kushaad
ke sang-o-khisht muqayyad hain aur sag azaad..
For the people who swear by heart,
this diktat during night and day
bricks and stones stand chained
but the hound shall have a field day.
This is a very accurate definition of the claustrophobia that grips one under curfew. My thesis aims to identify how such texts inspire a collective social mobilization against every force. The three different styles point out that it is possible to conceive a trans-national model that critiques imperialism, including cultural and economic imperialism in its myriad forms, along with the various ideological state apparatuses that sustain it.
KSC: What inspired you and your team to start Kashmir Lit (On Fire)?
HP: I didn’t start Kashmir Lit (On Fire). I joined as editor only a few months back, though I was a regular contributor. The founder-editor of the journal is Ather Zia, who teaches anthropology in the states. She started Kashmir Lit for the same reason I chose to work on Resistance Poetry. It allows for a narrative that is decidedly anti-official, anti-national in today’s parlance, because it is important for us to share the experience of Kashmir with a wider world. Besides, there is the realization that a vibrant culture demands a vibrant literary scene. It is an attempt in that direction, to provide valleyites with a platform to exhibit literature produced by them. That said, it is not restricted to Kashmir alone. We accommodate all experiences, though we prefer voices from the margins, as it is a journal of a marginalized people.
KSC: How has the current political situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir affected your writing?
HP: It affects me deeply. I don’t think I would have started writing were it not for conflict. As I said earlier, I started with translations of Faiz. Gradually, I started to read other Urdu poets like Nasir Kazmi, Amjad Islam Amjad, Noon Meem Rashid, and Parveen Shakir. I found in each of them some part of me. I realized that I could channel my frustration and anger at the situation through these translations. When I posted them on Facebook, people outside the state and even the country read them. So, they would inquire about the situation and get educated about Kashmir. Naturally this prompted me to take writing seriously.
Then in 2012, I was diagnosed with chronic PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to over- exposure to death and violence. It turned me suicidal and depressed as I remained confined to bed for four months. Soon I left my job, and shifted to Pune to pursue my masters at University of Pune. There, I studied creative writing for two semesters under such able poets as R Raj Rao and Randhir Khare. The strangeness of a foreign land, and the struggle with my depression prompted me to write poems, as I wanted to articulate all those hidden memories and repressed experiences. But it has had an adverse effect too. Sometimes when a killing happens, or I am exposed to any trigger, the writing faculty is blocked. I can’t get a word out at such times.
KSC: Describe the day to day life of an ordinary person living in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. How is the life of your family different from that of any other Indian family living in other parts of India?
HP: The routine life of an ordinary person in Kashmir is fundamentally different from that in Jammu or other parts of India. One simple difference is that in Kashmir, you always carry your identity card with you because any soldier or policeman can stop you and demand it. There are about 6.5 -7.5 hundred thousand armed forces in Kashmir who enjoy absolute impunity to kill, arrest, assault, and loot under the law Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or Public Services Act. One is constantly a suspect, and uncertainty is a permanent feature of our lives. Our health, economy, trade, and every other aspect of life suffers because we have to deal constantly with crackdowns, curfews, protests, killings, and turmoil. Under such conditions, we remain in a state of perpetual mourning, resignation, anxiety, and denial. No child outside Kashmir can imagine losing out on school for seven or eight months at a stretch, nor does any business elsewhere stay shut for so long. Yet last year we witnessed precisely that as we remained under curfew for all those months. Outside Kashmir, you can stay out late without attracting attention or getting your family frantic. Nor will you be forced to stop for a military convoy and get beaten if the car stops a little ahead of the convoy. You can go out in the morning, and in all probability return home unharmed at night. In Kashmir, it is a lottery – you can be shot, die, or get injured in a blast, get beaten by forces, or simply disappear after being detained.
KSC: Do you believe that India “occupied” the state of Jammu and Kashmir, or Kashmir becoming a part of India was the result of the Instrument of Accession*(1), a legal document executed by Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir*(2), to seek help from India, after receiving threats and attacks from Provisional Government of the North-West Frontier Province and the Government of Pakistan? And, what was a transitional provision at that time, later became a permanent feature of the Indian constitution, after the state constituent assembly of Jammu and Kashmir dissolved itself on January 25th 1957, without recommending to repeal the article or suggesting any amendment in it?
HP: It is occupation, without any doubt. There are two UN resolutions* to that effect passed after India took the case to the UN. First, the sequence of events that the Indian state intervened in, after being asked by Hari Singh is itself contentious. AG Noorani and other historians have contended that the army landed before the instrument of accession was signed. Second, Hari Singh was only the legal ruler, not the legitimate ruler. The Dogras had purchased Kashmir lock, stock, and barrel for a sum of 75 lac nanashahi, half of what they demanded of the Sikhs, and in effect, a pittance. Such a deal, as Mridu Rai points out in Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects was unprecedented in history for the proprietary rights it vested in the Maharaja. He was by no yardstick the ruler of the people. What justice is it that a conditional and temporary decision by a man whose forefathers were merciless tyrants (Kashmir had a beef ban punishable by death courtesy Maharaja Partap Singh), who himself sanctioned some of the worst massacres in Kashmir including the Zaldagar Massacre, where 22 protesting weavers were shot, should be recognized as having made a decision for a population he constantly suppressed?
The government of India itself applied the distinction when the Nizam of Hyderabad refused to accede to India. On August 8, 1953 the Sadar–i–Riyasat, or constitutional head, Karan Singh – son of Hari Singh the erstwhile Maharaja– dismissed Sheikh Abdullah as Prime Minister on trumped up charges of having lost the confidence of his cabinet. Further, he was put under arrest in the infamous Kashmir conspiracy case along with Mirza Afzal Beg and 22 others, who were accused of conspiracy against the state for allegedly espousing the cause of an independent Kashmir. In his place, a Government of India stooge, Bakshi Ghulam Mohamad, was installed. Naturally, the assembly was bound to dissolve without any alteration. The legitimacy of India’s case in Kashmir is lost at the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah. Anything after that is mere rhetoric.
KSC: Do you believe the political independence of the state of Jammu and Kashmir from India, (without the independence of the rest of the Kashmir occupied by Pakistan and China) is possible? Would this political freedom of Kashmir as an independent country bring peace in the Indian subcontinent, or lead to a greater instability in the region marred by terrorism and controlled by religious fanatics?
HP: No, if political independence has to happen, it must happen for all three parts together. Good walls make for good neighbors. If the Kashmir issue were resolved, it would allow India and Pakistan to forego the weapon race, and concentrate on removing the crushing poverty that afflicts both countries. Loss of life would be minimized, and reactionary politics and politics of communalism would naturally subside as both countries would stop meddling in each other’s affairs. When people are given a chance to live a life of dignity, peace automatically follows. The politicians would actually be held responsible, as they would no longer be able to distract people by raking Kashmir.
KSC: Please talk about the human right issues or any kind of censorship that you have personally experienced in Jammu and Kashmir that has concerned you. Why do we so seldom hear about the human rights issues in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and not hold Pakistan and China accountable for border terrorism and supplying arms and weapons to the Indian Kashmiri youths and terrorists, that are equally responsible for the unrest in Kashmir region?
HP: Sigh! That list is very long. Personally I have been shot at thrice by security forces (I didn’t get hit but the boy next to me did) while participating in peaceful protests against the state. I was also beaten very severely while coming out of the masjid after namaz in 2010 by CRPF personnel. I have grown up with images of young neighbors shot dead, including Iqbal, who was younger to me, and bodies limp from torture. The first memory I can recollect in my life is an army man parading a neighbor in our lane at Nawab Bazar at gun point. Next are the bloodied shoes of Rauf – another young man shot dead when he tried to get into his house from a neighbor’s house during a crackdown. There were numerous such people and memories that would fill an entire book.
As for human right violations in Pakistan and China, we hear less of them because they happen less. The region of Kashmir occupied by China is anyway uninhabited, so no question of violations. As for Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir we do hear of them too. Human Rights Watch, for example, published a report in 2006, which highlighted that the violations mainly occur in denying freedom of expression* in POK and ensuring dissenting politicians and activists are punished. But unlike the Indian side, torture is not commonplace. Pakistan granted conditional access to UNHRC last year to visit its Kashmir, but India didn’t. Amnesty International’s annual report of 2016 also highlighted the same concerns. HR violations occur more in Blaochistan and regions adjoining it.
Again, it is not true that we are not aware of Pakistan’s role in pushing Kashmir to militancy. Pakistan is culpable too. But it is a case of shifting responsibilities. The events that led to militancy were created by New Delhi, with its interference in Kashmir ensuring a climate of no accountability. Rigging of elections was done at the centre’s behest, not Pakistan. As for terrorists, recently, the IPS officer Shailendra Mishra, who served as SSP Srinagar, conceded that the militants in Kashmir are not terrorists, and citing the example of Burhan Wani and Waseem Malla, pointed out that they are products of the system that failed them.
KSC: How might the situation in Kashmir return to normal? How can the intellectual community in India and abroad help the cause of the Kashmiri people, who are not only Muslims but other minorities, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Buddhists, and Christians also, and voice their concerns?
HP: The situation in Kashmir can only return to normal when there is political will and serious political engagement rather than cosmetic measures and packages. The first step is to create a safe and secure environment for everyone, including the minorities for they suffer equally. A bullet or grenade blast doesn’t distinguish between religions. The first step to be taken has to be systematic demilitarization and removal of AFSPA – a demand that both the PDP and NC have promised and demanded of the center. In fact, NC passed the resolution for Autonomy in the assembly but it was rubbished by New Delhi. The recommendations of various interlocutors, including ones appointed by UPA regime in 2011, met the same fate. This has to be addressed – Kashmir has to be assured its voice counts.
As for intellectuals, well they can create public awareness for one. Second, they can help document, archive, and research the situation in Kashmir, create lobbying groups, create avenues for young aspiring and meritorious Kashmiris at universities abroad by establishing scholarships or sharing their expertise. This will lead to more well-informed Kashmiri youth who can replace the hackneyed leadership of opportunists and lead real social and political change.
KSC: Does the majority of people in Kashmir want political freedom from India? If yes, how the general election, there always shows different results, and state government has not been able to support the political agendas and aspiration of Kashmiri people?
HP: Yes, the majority want freedom. It is a mistake to conflate the Kashmir issue with elections. Elections are for everyday issues: roads, water, hospitals, et al. We have to live too. We can’t suspend our needs till freedom. The PDP, for example, came in on the promise of Healing Touch – the late Mufti Syed dissolved the much feared and hated militia force, Ikhwan, and created two more universities in Kashmir. Omar Abdullah – the former Chief Minister– has gone on record on this as much, as has Mehbooba Mufti – the current CM. However, if elections are to be held as the yardstick, Kashmiris have reportedly boycotted elections e.g., the recent parliamentary by-elections. Budgam, for example, recorded 2% polling, and Anantnag elections had to be postponed indefinitely after the government acknowledged that polling couldn’t be conducted without causing a massacre. In 1996, the armed forces literally dragged people out at gunpoint to bolster voting percentages. Elections will show different results always, as they don’t represent anything other than a desire for better governance. They are not a substitute for political dialogue or resolution.
KSC: The Aazadi for Kashmir (freedom for Kashmir) slogan that rose from the premises of JNU sparked a big national debate, and earned the support of many writers, artists, and activists in India, as well as abroad, everyone interpreting the meaning of “freedom for Kashmir” in many different ways. Where does that movement stand now?
That movement is still intact. There are a lot of activists, academicians, and authors like Sanjay Kak, Arundhati Roy, Nitasha Kaul, Dibyesh Anand, and others who support the Kashmir cause. They continue to work for and highlight Kashmir at the national and international level. Facebook, with its skewed policies of siding with the establishment, keeps blocking them, but they continue to work online and offline to generate support for Kashmir.
KSC: What does Aazadi (freedom) of Kashmir mean to you, as there are many kinds of freedom one can ask for?
HP: There are no different meanings of “azaadi” anywhere. It means a life of dignity and security everywhere, as Faiz pointed out in his poem “Subh-e-Azaadi” (“Dawn of Freedom”).
KSC: How do you look at an insurgency that joins hands with sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, resulting in horrific conditions for non-Muslim people who have lived in Kashmir for generations, and who have had to flee their homes to live in other parts of India? Many of them are still living in refugee camps in Jammu for decades. What is their future in Kashmir?
First, I take umbrage at such word – sponsored terrorism. Kashmiris have an agency, and if they choose to stand against India or pick up arms, they can do so. Please be cleared of this Bollywood stereotype of those “Jab Jab phool khilay” types that suggest we Kashmiris are naïve and prone to be misled. There has been and continues to be significant resistance against the idea of India in Kashmir since 1947. Pakistan could only cash in on the disenchantment. They couldn’t and can’t do so in say Maharastra or UP. Please look at photographs of militant funerals and compare them with the funeral of say Mufti Syed – the ex CM. You will realize militancy is indigenous.
I have said this before through my work, and so have others. The Kashmiri Pandit exodus was a terrible shame. The minority felt persecuted, and there were genuine apprehensions. I know KP friends who were harassed by militants and had to leave. I think JKCCS is coming up with a report on KPs too i.e. human right abuses faced by KPs. But ultimately, it is and was a failure of governance. The militants are not supposed to be a law-abiding body – the best they can claim is moral legitimacy. It is the responsibility of government to safeguard the rights and property of Pandits. No exodus happens without the willful failure of government to intervene. And it has failed them since. As you point out, many are living in Jagti still. Now they have been offered jobs and perks, but ultimately, the Kashmiri Pandit as a whole will not come to Kashmir unless safety is guaranteed. The government can’t guarantee the safety of the majority, let alone the minority.
As for their future, I am no expert on KP affairs. But for a lot of the new generation that is born after exodus, the future is as good as that of any of their fellow countrymen. They don’t have ties of nostalgia to the old land that will call them back to settle, unlike their parents’ generation. People talk of dilution of cultures, but I doubt that will happen. Communities are ultimately imaginary groups bound by ties of identification. I am not sure KPs have stopped identifying themselves as a community, no matter how scattered they are over the world. Cultural purity is another issue – all cultures evolve and change over time. So shall theirs.
KSC: Does the threat posed to the freedom of expression by fundamentalists (in all groups), and the rise of radical forces in India concern you?
It concerns every sane individual. It can only lead to radicalization of the common people, and no good ever came out of collective hysteria. History is replete with examples of that, including Nazi Germany. It will make India devoid of every progressive force and institution of excellence that has contributed to its progress in the past. It will only ensure that safe spaces shrink and negate any chance of a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict.
KSC: What do you love about India, and what not?
HP: There are two Indias – one is the political India, and the other is the India of its people. Unfortunately, now the distinction seems to be fading, which is a grave concern. I have always loved the diversity of India, and the richness of its various cultures. For example, Pune is very close to my heart, and I deem the two years I spent there the most precious of my life. This is partly why I keep going to the city. Similarly, I loved Kolkata when I visited it earlier this year, to present a paper at JU. I count a lot of Indians among my friends. Yet I dislike the fact that there is such staggering inequality and poverty in India, and am concerned by the apathy of upper class, middle class and government alike towards it.
KSC: Please share some of your poems on Kashmir in which we can see the faces of our Kashmiri brothers and sisters, experience the challenges of their lives, and learn about their fears and hopes for the future.
HP: Okay. To read the poems, CLICK HERE.
Today, Kashmir stands at a crossroad. Kashmir movement lacks a strong leadership and the aspirations of Kashmiri people are divided. There is a part of Kashmir that dreams to merge with Pakistan. Then there is a part of Kashmir that wants to remain with India. But those who dream of a freedom from both India and Pakistan, hope, “One day when there are no half-wet black clouds, in the warm blue sky… green green grass will dance in the drowsy sun…” (from “A Kashmiri fairy tale”, by Huzaifa Pandit).
The UN Resolutions*
Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is an Indian-American Poet and Filmmaker, based in the United States.