In Conversation with Mridu Rai

murmurs-whispers-conversation-mridu-rai-1405017165AM) You were supposed to deliver the first ‘Pt Rughonath Vaishnavi Annual Talk’ but the authorities sought permission from organizers which they had not taken and the program was ultimately cancelled. Was there any laxity on part of JKCCS or is it just the State exercising its military muscle to prevent public intellectuals from speaking on the issue of Kashmir?

MR) I wouldn’t know the details but from what I understand the requisite permission had been asked for. This was a last minute decision by the authorities to put pressure on the venue owner to prevent the seminar from happening. I find it completely surprising because I don’t think I have anything to say that is particularly dangerous. It’s a pity that there isn’t more openness about having conversations flow naturally. Driving a conversation underground is probably more dangerous than letting people speak their minds.

AM) The clampdown on public spheres where conversations can take place is another feature of the State’s repressive machinery. Do you think denial of space can lead Kashmiris to think and consider violent means to voice their views?

MR) I like to think that violence is something that anyone takes to as the very last resort; there is too much to lose. But certainly, a lack of transparent dialogue is always dangerous because it opens up the ground for innuendo; for suspicion, for conspiracy theories and it fosters an atmosphere for repression. We have seen in 1987 when the elections were rigged. Large number of Kashmiris finally gave up on using the idea of democratic way of accessing their rights. I certainly hope that we never see the kind of destructive violence; destructive for Kashmiris themselves that we saw in 2010. Certainly, it’s always better to talk. The state can only stop you so far. It still has to offer you some reason. I would be interested to hear what reasons they offer for having cancelled the event yesterday.

And I think as a historian, I must be the most harmless person (Laughs). I doubt they have any interest in historians writing on pre-47 Kashmir. I think there is a deep suspicion about JKCCS perhaps and it creates the condition in which dialogue is no longer the alternative.

AM) What do you make out of the whole peace process that has been built, some would say manufactured by India and Pakistan involving a gamut of shady NGOs and peaceniks to tell the larger global community that all is well in Kashmir?

MR) I think these are damages that have been done. The silencing in the international arena on Kashmir, the K-word that has disappeared and precisely the kind of collusions that you have referred to.

In 2010, I was invited to join a panel discussion with various experts on Kashmir. I said that if you look at the peace process and various groups involved in it, the security experts especially have the tendency to produce the most counterproductive ways of approaching the problem. They define the problem in Kashmir according to the solutions they want to apply. Does that make sense, rather than the other way round? You should be looking for solutions once you have understood the problem. The security analysts will do it constantly. It misses out on the human dimension of Kashmir issue.

The security experts don’t have time to think about the sadness of enforced disappearances because those things don’t yield solutions. What will yield the solutions is, may be, reshaping the territory, the external boundaries of Kashmir or maybe formalizing the LoC because these are doable things. But that is not understanding the Kashmir problem. That is completely missing out on the whole point.

The fact that LoC stills exists as LoC means that the settlement of Kashmir, the issue of Kashmiris is constantly put on the backburner.

AM) You have written an excellent book ‘Hindu Rulers Muslim Subjects’ which is an important reference to understand the political transitions that have taken place in Kashmir. As a subject of historical enquiry, when and how did Kashmir interest you?

MR) Well, I got into doing my PhD at around the same time as 1989. For me, it was all people were talking about. Punjab was still a very disturbed state. Kashmir certainly interested me but there were many other reasons why I found Kashmir to be a fascinating and important region to study. For instance, the idea that Kashmiris had this regional identity that was so pre-eminent, that had defeated religious identity. It always made me curious because I come from Bihar myself which people suggest has no regional identity; that caste and religion takes over. So for me, Kashmir was interesting in that sense. I have moved a long way from that position and I do think religious identities matter in Kashmir as well and it can’t be avoided. In fact, the putting down of protests often takes the line of religious difference.

1989 – 90 was such an important period in not just Indian history but also globally. People were already talking about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the brining down of the Berlin Wall. Once again, the idea of self-determination, new nations coming into being, was talked about. The languages adopted by many Kashmiris actually echoed that as well. It fascinated me; there was no way to avoid it.

AM) You contend in your book that political mobilization by Muslim subjects against Dogra rule was informed by a religious sensibility in response to the overt Hindu state. Since the Indian state presents itself as a democratic one, do you see a change in response to the religious sensibilities of Kashmiri Muslims?

MR) No, I don’t. While my book doesn’t really present in detail the history of Kashmir after 1947, what it alludes to is the fact that the unrepresentative nature of indigenous rule in Kashmir is just as unrepresentative as it was under the Dogras. Instead of the British in Delhi, you now have an Indian State which may describe itself as democratic but when it comes to Kashmir, it has chosen the path of conniving with anyone who would not challenge the accession of valley.

I also think that the Indian State, in many ways when it has dealt with Kashmir, has also emphasized the Muslim nature of Kashmiris. It’s their way of saying that see Pakistanis could not take away the majority-Muslim area. Even in terms of characterizing the Kashmir’s inclusion with the Indian Union, it is very important for the Indian State to point to them as the largest population of Muslims in the subcontinent. All these reasons suggest that there is long term continuity.

AM) Speaking on the question of justice, in view of Indian State’s inability to deliver justice in Kashmir, who should Kashmiris seek justice from? And does not seeking justice mean the disintegration of Indian State in Kashmir because if they deliver justice, it means they effectually don’t exist?

MR) Well, that’s right. If you are talking about seeking justice where Kashmiris will have to go, one very important arena without which there won’t be sufficient pressure on the Indian State to deliver justice would be the international arena. There is considerable pressure that can be brought upon the government of India to at least tone down its overt instances of forcible occupation in Kashmir. But another very important arena for Kashmiris to access is that of the opinion making Indian classes, because there they seem to be so little interest in Kashmir. It takes excessive acts such as violence against Kashmiris in 2010 for Indian middle class to sit and notice. And then it is forgotten too quickly. There has to be a way to bear pressure on the Indian government so that the trend of impunity in Kashmir is not allowed to continue. And pressure is the only way to do this. History has already shown that violent resistance doesn’t take Kashmiris very far.

It’s easy for the State to put down violence and it gives them legitimacy in the international community to say that this is a violent militant movement informed by fundamentalism. These are all the characterizations that Indian State has used. And it makes it easy to justify putting it down.

The legitimacy of movement in Kashmir is even constructed but you need to build a consensus amongst these two quarters. It also means to bypass the Indian state. Telling it that look, we don’t believe that you can deliver justice. You have not shown the capacity to deliver justice. Instead of rectifying the wrongs, you don’t even acknowledge that there are any wrongs done. Now you tell us who is behaving unjustly here, who is more violent!

AM) Your book Geographies of Justice: Caste and Violence in Colonial North India is said to focus on the questions of caste and violence in the context of new ideas about community, nation and territory and nation in the north of India. Can you tell us more about it?

MR) As I said, a lot of questions arose from researching Kashmir. Questions like how do you legitimate out and out violence? You see that in case of Kashmir, different languages that are used to legitimate that violence, the security State’s own languages, that it is India’s threat to democracy, that is why it is all justified.

In case of caste, it is the same questions that you don’t think about the international threat, you are not thinking of the security of the State, but you are talking about internal security and social stability. So those languages are used to legitimize out and out violence. If you think about the number of deaths caused by caste wars in India, it outdoes the number in Kashmir.

AM) What are your current academic engagements? Are you writing a new book on Kashmir? Apart from teaching and writing, what keeps you busy?

MR) Well, right now I am trying to finish my second book which is not directly related to Kashmir. It is about caste and violence, particularly Bihar. A lot of questions that I ask came from my first book on Kashmir. In the arenas of caste, I look for the appeal to social justice. I don’t see them working. The different languages through which people try to overcome caste domination and why is it so easy to put down caste resistance with violence. In the past as well, there was violence in caste relations but there used to be at least an attempt at portraying some kind of legitimacy of ideology. But now we hear about caste war. Why does violence become so acceptable?

But after this I hope to return to Kashmir and write a book on the much more contemporary period.

After teaching and writing, is there anything else? (Laughs). It’s an interesting phase in my life; teaching is a time consuming job. Whatever time I have left is for sleeping a little (Laughs). I really feel like a nerd who has nothing else to do but teach, write and read.

It’s not spoken about very much. People just assume that caste violence happens in Bihar. It’s an automatic assumption. But nobody really knows the numbers and extent of caste violence. It’s same like in Kashmir where the extent of violence is become routinised and made invisible.

AM) Tell us something about yourself. You recently shifted from Dublin to teach at a university in Kolkata city. When did you visit Kashmir for the first time? How often do you visit Kashmir now?

MR) I am from Bihar, the polar opposite of Kashmir (Laughs). I have never really lived in Bihar, unfortunately. My father used to be in the Indian Diplomatic Service. If in India, I have always lived in New Delhi, so I consider much more myself a Dilliwalli.

I have just returned from spending something like twenty five years of my life in abroad. I went to do my PhD in the United States and then I decided to stay on and teach. I ended up teaching there for almost thirteen years and then moved to Dublin. And finally Kolkata.

While it is so wonderful to be at these institutions in the West, I feel to teach South Asian history, you have to be in South Asia. I get to teach things without having to explain from the scratch. I am at Presidency University in Kolkata, and I am looking forward to teach a course in Kashmir.

The first time I visited Kashmir was a long time back in 1985 on a holiday with my parents and brother. I thought I had seen Kashmir, from the movies shot here but nothing prepared you for the place. I loved it.

That was my first visit. After that I came for research in 1994 and ’95. And then back again in 1997 and then back again very briefly in 2000. And then again in 2005 and now after nine long years in 2014. I hope with this new project I get to come much more frequently. It’s easier to do it from Kolkata then it is from any place abroad.

AM) Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MR) Well, thank you very much for having this conversation with me.

Originally published here —


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