After the unprecedented action by Delhi Police in Jawaharlal Nehru University last month that resulted in the arrest of its Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition, the debate has not been confined to whether the government should have taken the extreme step to quell dissent in such a prestigious academic institution. The discourse is now largely shaped by a slogan that has long dominated the narrative in Kashmir: Azadi. Literally meaning freedom, it has become the new buzzword with those who have mustered the courage to counter the growing intolerance and communalism in India.
The student leader clarified that he did not demand Azadi from India, but in India. That is not how people in Kashmir have used this slogan. Kanhaiya Kumar does not realize that it was the Kashmiri context of the slogan that landed him in jail. But the way Kanhaiya used the term Azadi is also not an ordinary outburst. His demand for freedom from discrimination, caste-ism and communalism is something that has been trampled under the jackboot of power and a hysteric notion of nationalism in India. In the nearly two years of the BJP government, hardly any such voice has been heard so loud. Kanhaiya Kumar said his icon was Rohit Vemula – the left oriented youth who was forced to commit suicide in Hyderabad University – and not Afzal Guru. And that is well understood. But looking at how the BJP has monopolized the state and even the thought processes, he also seeksAzadi from the “new India” of Narendra Modi, BJP and RSS.
Although Kanhaiya began a new discourse in Indian politics, and is seen as the new hero of liberal left who could challenge the prowess of Modi (the way Arvind Kejrival emerged from a rights movement), he drew clear lines between liberalism and Kashmir.
A section of Kashmiris was unnecessarily angry at the manner in which Kumar and his supporters distanced themselves from the Kashmir issue. They differentiated between the two Azadis, and rightly so. The Indian left has always stood for restoring greater autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir and the Congress would vow to protect Article 370. But there is no major difference among the mainstream Indian political parties as far as approaching Kashmir is concerned. Afzal Guru’s hanging is a recent example. The Congress picked him from among the long list of those who were on a death row only to appease the Indian voters who had been lured by Modi magic. The Kashmir dispute is itself a legacy of Congress’ wrong doings. It was in power with the National Conference in Kashmir during the 2010 unrest in which 120 civilians were killed, and it defended the actions of the security forces.
The Indian mainstream has always shown double standards when it comes to Kashmir. While Afzal was hanged to “satisfy the collective conscience” of Indian people, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha ordered the release of Rajiv Gandhi killers, and Akali Dal – which is in coalition with BJP in Punjab – has repeatedly advocated clemency for Beant Singh’s killers.
Whether Kanhaiya Kumar will succeed in getting Azadi remains to be seen. He is certainly representing a discontent that has been brewing in India. But it will be unfair to draw parallels between how the slogan is raised in Kashmir and the rest of India. Whatever has happened in Kashmir is the result of systemic disempowerment of a majority community, not in years but in decades.
In the last over 25 years, people’s aspirations have been shaped by the slogan of Azadi, irrespective of what actually would be a solution acceptable to all stakeholders. Kashmir has seen elections and elected governments, phases of peace, employment, and sops that were intended to belie such aspirations. But that has not happened. The incidents in the last few months have shown that the Kashmiri youth is still full of frustration, and their pent up emotions have been given a new way of expression. Thousands of people are attending funerals of militants, although a while ago they had stopped supporting militant violence and had publicly stated that it was not the way to resolve their problems and had only brought destruction.
Interestingly, Kashmir saw an unprecedented strike in protest against the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and former Delhi University teacher SAR Geelani. Those who responded to the strike call given by the Kashmiri separatists identified with Kanhaiya and his colleagues because they felt they were being pushed to the wall. In contrast, no significant protests were held in Delhi over Geelani’s arrest, perhaps because he is a Kashmiri. And that shows that the meaning of the slogan of Azadi changes as it moves from Srinagar to New Delhi.