Aarti Tikoo Singh - Free speech in Delhi, a barricade in Kashmir

Kashmir’s grief is acute. The scars of the brutality and indignity suffered by its people are very deep. Try thinking of Kashmir summer 2010, of the three poor porters who were looking for work but ended up dead in cold blood in a staged encounter by security forces. Of a high school teenager returning from a tuition centre, suddenly hit by a tear gas canister that ruptured his skull. Of wailing mothers over the dead bodies of a hundred sons covered in shroud. All of it is very difficult to imagine, let alone to live. Kashmir’s agony is mind-numbing.
If you can’t empathize with the common innocent Kashmiris who lost someone to the violence of the last 25 years, there is something horribly wrong with your moral compass. On that account, CPI(ML) firebrand Kavita Krishnan shows empathic disposition. She can connect with the anguish of Kashmiris whose lives have been affected by the police and military repression in Kashmir. Never mind, her selective silence on the violence committed by militant separatists against Kashmiri people. So, I am with Krishnan who has exhorted the NIT Srinagar students amidst an ongoing crisis, to take the opportunity to talk, listen and empathize with people in Kashmir instead of demanding the campus be shifted out of the Kashmir Valley.

That said, it is a bit rich that Krishnan who stood by the JNU student dissenters and protestors in Delhi in the name of free speech, and rightly so, chose to give a sanctimonious lecture to the already traumatized NIT students in Srinagar on how it was not constructive on their part to raise the Indian flag and slogans in Kashmir.

She preached to the NIT students, “Much needed mutual empathy is impossible if a wall of slogans and flags is erected, if cricket matches become barricades. NIT students from outside Kashmir, try and speak to Kashmiri fellow students, and understand why they may not feel emotional over the Indian team in a cricket match… If violence has been done to them in the name of India, is it any surprise that students of Kashmir and the North East tend to lose little love for Indian symbols?”

Krishnan delivered these homilies to the beleaguered NIT students, some of whom are still hospitalized after a high-handed police action, and some of whom disclosed on Wednesday that they have been issued rape threats in Kashmir. “If one of you gets raped, the rest will fall silent,” one of the NIT female students broke down while recounting the abuse and threats non-Kashmiri girls often receive on the campus in Kashmir. The NIT students, it is clear, are seeing themselves as unwanted Hindu minorities in a Muslim majority valley.

Instead of showing empathy for the intimidated girls and expressing outrage against such sexual harassment, the cause she is generally seen to espouse, Krishnan went on to give sermons to the students from her Marxist-Lenin pulpit. She could have given the same advice to the Kashmiri students who issued war threats in JNU recently, and who erected a wall of Pakistani slogans in a Meerut college two years ago.

It would have been a great leap in constructive politics had Krishnan counselled the Kashmiri Muslim students studying outside Kashmir, to take the opportunity to understand and empathize with the psyche of non-Kashmiris who too are tormented by hundreds of terror attacks and four wars over Kashmir. The entire country from Kashmir to Delhi to Gujarat to Mumbai bears the marks of violence perpetrated in the name of Kashmir. So is it any surprise that non-Kashmiris look at Kashmiris with suspicion and hostility? No, it is not and yet Krishnan doesn’t feel the necessity to evoke the ‘peace mantra’ and mutual empathy?

She also doesn’t consider it important to dwell on more obvious and logical questions related to free speech. How can nationalistic slogans and Indian flag in Kashmir be a ‘wall’ but ‘nationalistic or anti-nationalistic slogans‘ in Delhi be free speech? Either both are covered by the right to freedom of speech, which from my perspective they are, or both are a ‘wall’ that needs to be dismantled to allow mutual empathy, peaceful coexistence and respect.

Until the 80s, both Indian and Jammu & Kashmir flags coexisted in Kashmir and both the Indian and the Kashmiri identity accommodated each other. However, Pakistan’s relentless campaigns and socio-religious engineering in Kashmir severed its inclusive identity, which of course was also facilitated by India’s various political follies and machinations. It was the Pakistan gun wielded by Kashmiri separatists that silenced and gagged everyone who disagreed with Kashmir’s separation from India. After 26 years of violence, it is still possible that the Kashmiri and the Indian live and flourish together provided they are not made to contest each other by the divisive conniving politics of the anarchic Leftists and the Kashmiri exclusivists.

The way forward is mutual and not selective empathy. But the problem with all political ideologies is that they cannot go beyond the biblical text in which they are theorized and defined.  So any empathy derived from a political ideology is never going to be uniform, even and consistent. It will always be selective. Kavita Krishnan’s empathy, drawn from Marxist-Lenin scriptures is extremely narrow and politically driven.

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