Kashmir and the Intifada of the Mind: An interview with Sanjay Kak

Sanjay Kak is a New Delhi-based, independent documentary filmmaker. His work reflects his interests in ecology, and alternative and resistance politics and movements. His films include How We Celebrate Freedom and Words on Water. His latest film is Red Ant Dream. He is editor of Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir. 

DAVID BARSAMIAN: You’re in the United States for the publication of Until My Freedom Has Come. You have an essay and an introduction in it. Why this book?

SANJAY KAK: Kashmir is often in the news. In the years 2008, 2009, and 2010 there were a series of extraordinary events. That part of the world, which has been plagued by armed conflict for nearly 25 years, saw, in 2008, a marked shift in what was going on. At a time when the armed militancy was seen as having been crushed or subdued or brought under control, suddenly there was a new form of civic protest, mass crowds, hundreds and thousands of people coming out in the streets, which was something not seen in Kashmir in years. So the events in 2008 represented the end of a certain phase of opposition to the Indian military presence there. The whole issue of the right of self-determination got a new shape and form. The following year saw a similar set of protests.

Then in 2010 there was a complete boiling over. From the beginning of March all the way to September, the streets were literally taken over by protesters. There were frequent clashes—more than 120 people lost their lives, most of them young boys. But what was significant about 2010—and it was something that we had seen coming—was that the protest on the street and the stone throwing and the Intifada-like characteristic of that rebellion was also matched by an accompanying flow of writing. Not, obviously, in the mainstream media, which could only see the young men throwing stones, but on the Internet, which by 2010 had really arrived in Kashmir.

I was struck by the incredible maturity and the quality of the thinking that accompanied the street demonstrations. So, the subtitle of the book, The New Intifada in Kashmir, is as much to do with what we’ve been calling the intifada of the mind. Young Kashmiris produced a profusion of new writing. This book tried to recognize this moment and to commemorate something very significant.

In the book, you feature MC Kash, a Kashmiri rapper. What drew you to him?

Along with the other astounding things that were happening in 2010 was the emergence of Kashmiri rappers. Many of them were rapping in English and retaining not just the form of rap, but also its original intention, which was very political. There were a whole lot of them, but MC Kash was the person whose work I was most struck by. It was not just that he was rapping about politics, he was rapping about incidents happening around him. But he was also taking pressure.

As you can imagine, in a conflict zone, rapping and putting it on the Internet doesn’t keep you anonymous for very long. The studio he used to record in was under pressure from the government, so he was having difficulty recording. It was amazing that a 19-year-old kid in a place like that was able to, in whatever way possible, keep doing what he was doing and stick to the politics of it. So “Until My Freedom Has Come” is a line from “I Protest,” one of his raps, and I thought it was an appropriate title for the book. Let me read part of it:


I protest.

I will throw stones and never run.

I will protest until my freedom has come.

I protest for my brother who is dead.

I protest against the bullet in his head.

I protest.

I will throw stones and never run.

I will protest until my freedom has come.


And then what he did, which was a very clever piece of art, he said, “Let’s remember all those who were martyred this year.” Then he read out all the names of the more than 100 young men who had been killed that year on the street. And there was a very ominous end to it. It’s a kind of roll that comes at the end of the rap. And he says:


And you will fight to the death of it.

And you will fight to the death of it.

And you will fight to the death of it.

In 2007, your documentary on Kashmir, How We Celebrate Freedom, was released. Did you anticipate at that time that the armed struggle would move toward nonviolent civil disobedience?

In 2005, 2006, and 2007 when I was working on the film, the struggle for self- determination in Kashmir, the movement for azaadi, appeared to have completely lost energy. There were no visible signs of it. If anything, there was a kind of depression in the air. But when I cut that film and we started showing it in 2007, in several places in India I had this reaction from people who said, “But you seem to suggest that it’s not all over and that something is going to happen.” I was a bit taken aback by that reading of the film, because it wasn’t my articulated intention. I would say, “Really? Is that how you’re reading the film?” Well, I suppose almost like a hunch, the texture of the film has that kind of feeling. But, of course, I didn’t know. It was a bizarre kind of vindication of whatever the instinct was behind putting together the film the next year and we saw a very different kind of political mobilization. The important lesson is that every time the political establishment and security establishment thinks that they’ve got a lid on the situation, it’s only a matter of a couple of years before it explodes again, because there isn’t any real change.

India is the land of Gandhi, nonviolence, and civil disobedience. Much of the freedom struggle used those tactics against the British. What did this do psycologially to the Indian state, which often preferred armed struggle because it gives them the advantage?

That’s true. The mass protests from 2008 onwards in many ways flummoxed the Indian establishment. So long as there was armed militancy, it was very easy for them to say this is a violent armed rebellion and to draw attention to its Islamic and fundamentalist character, as well as draw links to the connections with Pakistan. Of course, all of this was also true. Pakistan has supported the armed struggle in Kashmir, the vast majority of the population of Kashmir are Muslims, and there was an armed struggle. Because it came after 9/11 and the American-fueled Islamophobia that swept the world, the Indian establishment had been quite successful in clubbing Kashmir with, this is connected to Pakistan, and that’s connected to Afghanistan, and, of course, these are shades of the Taliban. That kind of over-simplification.

More than the Indian establishment, the Indian media couldn’t ignore what was happening in Kashmir. Because of the new social media, young people were posting literally hour by hour descriptions of what was going on. People were shooting video and uploading it. Foreign correspondents sitting in New Delhi, even they were not able to travel to Kashmir, got a sense of what was going on. The book describes it as the “New Intifada”—it’s very much a part of our time. While the structures of control remain the same, the resistance has become much more contemporary, much more modern, and much more connected to the world.

On March 14, 2013, the Lok Sabha, which is like the Congress of the Indian State, passed a resolution which said, “The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan, is and shall always be an integral part of India.”

That is the crux of the problem, which is that you have had almost 25 years of an armed militancy in the Kashmir Valley and you have had political resistance to Indian control of Kashmir for 40 years before that. Yet the only response the Indian state can come up with is to keep repeating that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

Surely, if it were an integral part of India then you wouldn’t need more than 600,000 soldiers to keep the population down. So this constant reiteration is a very good indicator of the bankruptcy of political ideas on how to deal with the problem in anything but a military way. I think that it’s done more to shore up the self-confidence of the security establishment.

Because, believe me, there has been a big shift in the way in which the Kashmir issue is being perceived among common people in the rest of India. Seven, eight, ten years ago there was a blanket of silence around Kashmir so it was still possible for the state to throw out any line to the people of India and for the people to believe it. But the last decade has seen a kind of opening up of Kashmir through films, writing, and the Internet. So I think that we are seeing the position of the Indian state becoming morally—it has always been morally and ethically dubious—exposed not just before Kashmiris, before which it stood exposed a long time ago, but before the Indian people.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Hindu Indian nationalist. For that person Kashmir occupies some very special place.

One of the tragedies of the vivisection of the Indian subcontinent at partition was that Kashmir became that trophy around which the honor of both these blighted nations, Pakistan and India, was to be hung. And in the case of India, the fact that it was a Muslim-majority province whose rather unpopular king, Hari Singh the maharaja, was supposed to have acceded to India, it became a trophy for Indian secularism. We are not a Hindu nation because there is a Muslim-majority province and it has acceded to India. In the case of Pakistan, it was the converse, which is, the failure of Pakistan to absorb Kashmir was a failure of the positioning of Pakistan as the homeland for South Asian Muslims.

In all this dialogue, in all this non-dialogue, the Kashmiri was an absent figure. It was all about the honor and the self-image of both those nations because there was a collaborator class in Kashmir, the voice of the Kashmiris was silenced. And it’s tragic. But eventually, the armed struggle began. And without that armed struggle, the voice of the Kashmiri people would probably never have been heard. Perhaps that armed struggle’s time is over, but it did achieve an important thing—it gave a certain kind of agency and centrality to the Kashmiri voice.

Over the course of years of rebellion against Indian state rule, tens of thousands of Kashmiris have been killed, thousands have gone missing, and hundreds of thousands have been traumatized and tortured. A report was issued in 2009 by the International People’s Tribunal on Kashmir called “Buried Evidence,” which documented mass graves. What was the state’s response to that report?

A stunning silence. It’s incredible that in this day and age you have documented evidence of more than 2,700 graves in just 3 districts of people who were clearly eliminated in what are called “encounters,” which means they’re unlawful killings and there are as many unmarked graves in other districts of the valley. Yet neither the state government nor the government of India conducted an inquiry, there was no national outrage, there weren’t television programs discussing what happened. That is telling us something about the culture of silence.

You said that India is spoken of as the land of nonviolence and Gandhi. To me, looking at Kashmir is important and why I think and write about it is because what is being perpetrated there is the complete antithesis of the kind of democratic, socialist republic that many of us were meant to  have signed up for.

I think that what India does in Kashmir is a foreboding of what India will do to itself. Because you cannot have uncontrolled, rampant militarization—which is matched by incredibly unlawful laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Public Safety Act—and a culture of impunity, which literally allows the security forces to get away with murder in one part of India and expect that stench is not going to travel to other parts.

It’s interesting that you should say that because many people in the U.S. are saying the same thing about what’s happening internally in this country, with the external torture chambers and kidnappings and drone strikes. We’re seeing a steady erosion of our liberties here at home.

One of the interesting documents leaked to WikiLeaks was a U.S. Embassy report disclosing the findings of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a respected conservative organization which carefully backs up everything. They reported that there had been torture in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The ICRC claimed out of 1,296 detainees it had interviewed, 681 had said they had been tortured. Of those, 498 claimed to have been electrocuted, 381 said they were suspended from the ceiling, and 304 cases were described as sexual. And then the comment from the Guardian, which reported, “Things haven’t changed much since that period.” (The period covered here is 2002 to 2004.)

When we look at deaths—and the figure now is probably somewhere between 68,000 and 70,000 people killed in Kashmir over more than 2 decades. For every killing there must be at least 4 to 5 times as many people who have been wounded. I’m not talking about beatings or people who get a cane on their hand or on the thighs at a public protest. I’m talking about bullet wounds. So we are talking about several hundred thousand people who in this period have been physically wounded in some way—incapacitated or psychologically damaged.

You have another 100,000 people who have been processed through prisons and interrogation centers. It’s ironic. In Kashmir, when you speak to someone who has been through the hands of the police, when they use the word “interrogation,” they actually mean torture. So when somebody says to you that, “Yes, and then they took me to X place and they interrogated me,” what he means is they tortured me.

Torture is endemic, it’s uncontrolled, it’s unregulated. And the Red Cross survey that you are referring to is obviously the tip of the iceberg. If Red Cross officials go to prisons, that’s what they see. But the Red Cross doesn’t have access to torture chambers, it doesn’t have access to police stations. Because it’s not done in some centralized sort of facility, it’s done everywhere.

In Argentina during the “dirty war” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many people were disappeared. An association was formed of the parents and family members, and there would be demonstrations at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. It got a good deal of attention in the international press. There is an organization in Kashmir, the Association for Parents of Disappeared Persons, that also carries out vigils and sit-ins. Yet there’s scant attention paid to their activities.

It’s ironic, they have been doing that for more than a decade. And then if you ask people in the media, they say, “Oh, but what’s news about it? They’ve been doing it for a decade.”  But I want to draw your attention to a recent report called “Alleged Perpetrators.”

“Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir,” that’s the name of the document. You reviewed this report in Caravan magazine in an article entitled “The Apparatus.” You say, “Rifling through the pages of ‘Alleged Perpetrators’ gives you the feeling that you’ve been handed a scale model of the vast mechanism of impunity that underlies the police and military control of Jammu and Kashmir.”

I think that if we are talking about civil disobedience and a democratic right to resist, then this kind of meticulous record keeping and analysis of what has been going on is an extremely powerful tool. This kind of information is a weapon. What is it that keeps young people from having their brains kind of suffocated? Most people who are in their mid-20s have known nothing else. How do they survive? I think they survive because little by little we are being able to push apart the curtains that prevented people from understanding what was going on. With every passing year, understanding of the machinery of the structures of oppression are getting clearer.

You write:“The brutal rupture of disappearances is often compounded by random acts of cruelty.”

There is this case, for example, “Manzoor Ahmad Beigh, a 40-year-old car broker from Srinagar, was picked up in May 2009 and taken to Cargo camp, another well-known interrogation center, under the orders of Inspector Khurshed Ahmed of the Special Operations Group, Jammu and Kashmir Police. There were no charges against Manzoor Ahmad, just Inspector Wani weighing in to help another car broker recover an unpaid debt of rupees 40,000.” That’s about $800. “When Manzoor Ahmed had left Cargo camp 3 hours later, it was for the hospital, where he was reported dead on arrival. A later investigation by the State Human Rights Commission referred to injuries on his shoulders, head, and chest with ‘intraparenchymal hemorrhage of his kidneys.’”

The point is that when you have the cover of impunity and you have incredible amounts of power vested in the armed forces and the police, then it is not going to be possible to control criminality. So Abu Ghraib. But when you hand over unbridled power to individuals, then you’re going to see criminality. Then you cannot say that this is the fog of war or this is an aberration. None of that. We have to accept that that kind of criminality is built into those systems of control.

In various conflict zones around the world, like Kashmir, one often hears the experts say, “It’s a very complicated issue,” which is sometimes code for just shut up, it’s too obscure for you to comprehend. Is Kashmir too difficult for people to comprehend?

Any issue is difficult to comprehend. You can make the Kashmir issue extremely complicated, but the most important thing would be to ask people there what it was about. To me, that’s always a way of cutting to the heart of the matter. Because we are talking about democratic rights, finally. And if you’re not talking about democratic rights, then it’s all right for people in Delhi or Islamabad or Washington to be figuring out what’s going to happen to Kashmir. But so long as we pay some kind of lip service to the idea of democracy, then we have to ask people what they’re thinking. With all the complexities that are in the air, there are some things that are very clear to people in Kashmir. The presence of the Indian military is abhorred and the relationship with India has a huge question mark over it. These are two things Kashmiris are not confused about that people outside might be confused about.

The mainstream media in India, from independence in 1947, has always been part of the project of the Indian state. The Indian media has seen itself as part of building the state. They have never had a kind of adversarial relationship with the state. And now, for the last 20 years, in what has been called “liberalization,” it’s big business. And big business and the state usually have quite a cozy kind of relationship. During this period the Indian state has managed to control what voices are allowed to speak for Kashmiris.

We are in a very interesting moment when the fortress that has been built around public opinion in Kashmir is beginning to crack. It’s an exciting time. Even if one doesn’t see a solution around the corner, one can certainly see lots of people engaged in thinking about Kashmir. There is an explosion of new scholarly work on Kashmir, both by Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris all across the world, a lot of good work happening at American universities. So I’m not at all pessimistic about what the future brings. The near future may well be chaotic and depressing, but as people who believe in ideas, we must believe that good thought and good thinking is going to illuminate something for the future.

One of the themes reiterated by those who support continued “occupation” of Kashmir by Indian security forces is the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits, the Kashmiri Hindu Brahmins. These people say they were forced out, brutalized, and they lost everything. You are a Kashmiri Pandit and your family is from Kashmir originally. What credence do you give to those kinds of reports?

That’s a fact. The years 1989, 1990, and 1991 were very chaotic in Kashmir. There was a sudden and almost unplanned armed insurrection. There was an immediate and brutal crackdown and conditions were terrible. There was chaos in the air. In that situation, the Kashmiri Pandits, who were only 2 percent of the population, found themselves extremely vulnerable, despite the fact that there was a long history, if not of great cordiality, but certainly of mutual respect between the Muslim majority and the Hindu Brahmin minority.

But I think what we don’t recognize is that in that chaos there were all kinds of forces who would use that community in order to achieve other ends. We’re talking about, say, a population of probably not more than 150,000 people. And it is true that in 1990 and 1991, about 200 people from this small community were killed. Of course, it’s also true that in that same period probably 8,000 Kashmiri Muslims were killed. But we’re not doing math here, we’re not doing an equation of how many more people died because it’s true that even in a minority of 150,000, if 200 get killed, it is going to panic those people.

But the question is, who did those killings? It’s not Kashmiri Muslims who killed them. It’s important to identify and bring to book people responsible for the killings, whether they were Hindus or Muslims is not relevant. But in a time like that, in this completely chaotic, turbulent early 1990s, it’s very difficult to say who wanted to precipitate a crisis. Because if I were an extremist fringe militant organization, I might want to attack Kashmiri Pandits in order to precipitate a certain polarization between the communities. It could be argued that from the Indian state’s point of view also, the targeting of the Kashmiri Pandits served a useful purpose because it allowed the Indian state to paint the movement there, which saw itself as a movement for the liberation of Kashmir, as a fundamentalist Islamic movement. And as we discussed, there is also criminality. So if there were three families in a remote village and somebody had an eye on their land, in those prevailing chaotic circumstances, it would be possible to target those peop,le and benefit from it.

Where I stand, apart from the general discourse on the position of the Kashmiri Pandits, is that I do not believe that this makes Kashmiri Muslims as a community or as a people culpable for those few crimes. That’s something in my work I’ve always tried to avoid. The troubles in Kashmir have not been communal in nature. That’s the word that we in India use for the tension between Hindus and Muslims. We use a polite term for it. “Communal tensions” they are called. There is no denying the fact that Kashmiri Pandits were in severe danger in Kashmir in the early 1990s. There is no doubt they were targeted and killed. And in the resultant chaos there was an exodus of this minority over the space of a few years left Kashmir.

It must also be at the same time that however tragic this was, the state made no attempt to stop that exodus. In the early 1990s, India was being riven with this new right-wing Hindu mobilization. And so the Kashmiri Pandit minority who left Kashmir at a time like that fell straight into the hands of the Hindutva right wing. That was the real tragedy, that what was a chaotic situation, which was local to Kashmir and could perhaps have been resolved in other ways. Suddenly, it became an issue around which Hindu mobilization in India was being constructed and Kashmir became an integral part of that.

Were Kashmiri Pandits forced to leave Kashmir? Yes, circumstances did force them. Were they victims? Of course they were. But they were victims in the same way that Kashmiri Muslims were victims. If we were to take a count of the migration during the 1990s from the Kashmir Valley, I can tell you more Kashmiri Muslims left for various reasons. But because they are Muslims, it’s not seen in the same way. One of the great tragedies of what has happened in Kashmir in the 1990s is that the distinctions between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus suddenly were cast in concrete. As I said before, it’s not exactly as if the two communities were absorbed in each other. They were separate and distinct, but they had found a way of surviving for centuries. It could have retained that quality, but it didn’t.

Would that tolerance be attributed to the type of Islam found in Kashmir, with its roots in the Sufi tradition?

I think so. People forget that Islam in Kashmir came not at the point of a sword, it came with the Sufi orders from Iran. They came as people who offered not just emancipation and spiritual sustenance, but they brought such artistic skills as carving, carpet weaving, and embroidery.

I often use this metaphor. You’ve been there. It’s not just the natural beauty. Without meaning to sound sentimental about it, I do see it as a blessed place. There is something to be said about this beautiful valley, which sits at the trijunction of three great civilizational impulses—Islam to the west, Hinduism to the south, and Buddhism to the east.

Kashmiri society and culture have been shaped by all of these and as a result there is something distinct about Kashmiri Islam. Of course there were distinctions between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims, but culturally there was a kind of commonality. And it’s only militant Hinduism, Hindutva, which has now made those porous and soft borders between these communities hard and harsh.


David Barsamian is a radio producer, journalist, author and lecturer. He is founder and director of Alternative Radio, an independent weekly series based in Boulder, Colorado. His interviews and articles appear regularly in the Progressive and Z Magazine He is the author of several books, including Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky; and Louder Than Bombs: Interviews from The Progressive Magazine.