Pankaj Mishra and Mirza Waheed on the death of India’s liberal self-image


Protests at India Gate PHOTO/The Wire

Since the start of the Kashmir crackdown, Pankaj Mishra and Mirza Waheed have exchanged thoughts over email, following the Babri verdict, the CAA, and the roots of the current crisis in secular liberalism.

Mirza Waheed: I’d like to have a conversation about an issue that for me is as personal as it is political. The relationship between Indian and Kashmiri people over the years. Fraught, delicate, yes – but with a certain bond between the two. The accommodation among social, human, beings, around political identities.

Kashmiris went to India, Indians came to Kashmir in various guises. There was hatred, there was commerce, there was love. Now a sinister cloud looms over all of it.

In my own encounters and relationships with the country – the capitol – I found India to be a bruised country, broken in many parts and ways, a cruel country, burning the sweat and blood of millions of its ordinary beings, but also a beautiful and magnificent country, buzzing with humanity, colour, and hope – all at the same time. Now, as it teeters on a precipice, it almost hurts to think what India is doing to its soul.

What of the compact between the people, as India declares itself to be a hate-state as far as Kashmiris and other marginals are concerned? The germ of suspicion and loathing will enter all conversations and imagination around the relationship. The Kashmiri pheriwala knocking on middle and lower middle-class doors in Asansol will find his steps hesitant, unsure.

The itinerant Bengali in Gulmarg will look over his shoulder a bit too often.

The Kashmiri girl student will pray for kindness and mercy as she seeks admission at a technical institute in Jaipur. The Bihari construction worker in Hawal will keep his head down even more and probably accept reduced wages quietly.

I’ve been troubled by all this even before the fresh assault but now do you think we might be face to face with a generational shift in attitudes?

Pankaj Mishra: This is very important. I recall my own teenaged unpolitical self, going to Kashmir in 1987, encountering otherness, and feeling both intrigued and resentful of an otherness that was not assimilable to a north Indian upper-caste fantasy of the Indian nation.

I suspect many Indians today feel an exaggerated version of this resentment and Modi’s evil genius is to give them a frisson of superiority and power. So you can be doing badly in India but still draw satisfaction from the fact of lording it over an alien and antagonistic people.

I think that this feeling – which you see historically in many places where national unity depended on humiliating and subjugating a minority – dominates the attitudes of most Indians towards Kashmiris now. And I suspect it won’t change in our lifetimes.

MW: It is terrifying to contemplate the consequences of what you say. I shift from one nightmare scenario to another: large-scale violence, a generational catastrophe in which the life of the occupied Kashmiri is upended more than it already is, a forced reprogramming of basic civic, social, and political structures…Kashmir burning forever, until nothing’s left.

You’ve engaged with Kashmir and the Kashmiri question for at least two decades, and of course written volumes about it. Is it possible for you to envisage a pause in the current oppression?

Perhaps I’m trying to hope irrationally that there might come a moment when enough conscientious Indian citizens bear on the state and, say, look, if not for the sake of the tortured, blinded children of Kashmir, at least for sake of what’s left of Indian democracy, please stop the brutalitarian assault on Kashmiri lives.

Or is it too late for such a dream, an intervention from within the ’empire’, if I may?

I also wanted to ask something I should’ve asked at the start. What is your first impression of Kashmir? What did you think of India’s presence in Kashmir?

PM: I am glad you ask because we often tend to ignore the deeper phenomenon of psychology and emotion when considering the political relations between peoples.

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