Kavita Krishnan is Secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA) and politburo member of Communist Party of India - Marxist-Leninist (CPIML). She is a very well known women's rights activist in India. In early November 2016, Kavita was part of large and diverse group of activists, journalists and lawyers associated with different movements in India who visited Kashmir – where the mass anti-India uprising was still raging on. In an email interview with Wande Magazine, Kavita Krishnan reflected on her experience in Kashmir, what she saw and how Kashmir’s revolt was different from those happening in India. The exchange also brings to light some un-said realities of Kashmir’s resistance struggle for the Indian peoples and why Indian movements should start learning from the struggle waged by Kashmiris.
Wande Magazine: Why are you here in Kashmir? And what have you seen here? How is it different or surprising from what you hear about Kashmir in India?
Kavita Krishnan: What struck us all (members of a large and politically diverse team of activists of Indian people’s movements) on our Kashmir visit was the fact that the movement was not against some immediate grievance. Unlike many movements in India, Kashmiris were not demanding ‘justice’ from the Indian State—for Burhan Wani or for anyone else. They were demanding azaadi, self-determination, the right to decide their own fate and future. I think that for many Indians, this is an issue they have trouble recognizing. They would like to tell themselves that Kashmiris are demanding azaadi not for its own sake but because of one or the other human rights violation. I think what we all need to learn to recognize that political rights are also human rights. The right for self-determination is also a human right – and all other rights violations in Kashmir flow from the suppression of this political right.
In virtually every meeting with a section of Kashmiri people – in the village of Karimabad, among students, among lawyers – we found that people made sure not to start by telling us about specific crimes by Indian armed forces in the past few months. Instead they would first start with a history lesson about why they did not consider Kashmir to be an integral part of India. Only once we had assured them of our respect for their position would they be willing to go on and tell us about the many horrendous crimes against people committed by Indian forces.
I think that as an Indian citizen, I felt a sense of profound shame at crimes committed in our name against the people of Kashmir. I was particularly struck by a little Class IV girl I met at a village in Pulwama, who told us that army personnel had come to the village and dragged women by the hair, causing her to fear being raped. When I asked her if she had ever participated in the protests, and if so what demands were raised, she promptly said ‘We ask Modi to quit Kashmir. We want freedom. We want Mehbooba to quit her chair.’ Such political clarity in one so young!
I think one surprising thing for some of us was the high degree of education we found even in rural areas. Compared to rural areas of North India, the level of education seems – on superficial observation at least – to be better. Another thing that struck several of us was that the spaces for ordinary civil society initiatives – public meetings, protests, and students ’ union elections and so on – are severely constricted in Kashmir.
WM: What are the difficulties or prejudices you face in talking honestly about Kashmir in India in the face of backlash from JNU and the current right-wing atmosphere? There is increasing criminalization of democratic spaces in India and none exists in Kashmir, are you hopeful of any conversation taking place in this context?
KK: Speaking truth about Kashmir has always been difficult in India. As it is, even those agitating in India for women’s rights, against nuclear plants, or even against corruption are very easily branded ‘anti-national’ by Governments (the UPA Govt was no exception). What has changed under the Modi Government is the sheer single-minded viciousness with which democratic voices are publicly pilloried as ‘anti-national’ – especially those who show any empathy or solidarity with Kashmir.
In my opinion, the role of the Indian media in this matter is especially culpable in creating a hostile climate for any sane, reasoned response to the Kashmiri people’s movement. Of course, channels like Zee or Times Now or News X have been the worst offenders, but they are not alone. With very few honourable exceptions, electronic media coverage of anything to do with Kashmir is coloured by a prejudiced lens that implies that the Kashmiris are all terrorists. For example, when the Kashmir floods happened, Times Now did a prime time discussion declaring that the role of the Army in flood relief in Kashmir legitimized AFSPA! More recently, Aaj Tak referred to the avalanche in Gurez that killed several Indian soldiers as ‘safed aatank’ – White Terror.
Many panel discussions on Indian television have become reality shows which aim at entertainment primarily – and ultra-nationalist rhetoric against Kashmir, with ‘patriotic’ ex-Army men spewing venom against the ‘anti national human rights wala’ is seen as a sure-fire entertainer. In such discussions, there is little room for history, for nuance, for facts, for analysis and assessment. The script is already ready; the roles of good guys and villains are already assigned.
That said my experience with reaching out on social media on Kashmir has been very good. Video interviews to Hindustan Times during a Kashmir solidarity protest; articles of mine on Kashmir; and an annotated reading list on Kashmir shared by me got a huge positive response – far outweighing the abuse and threats that also poured in. I’ve had strangers reach out asking for a protest to be organised because they can’t bear to think of pellet guns being used on Kashmiris in their name.
So yes, while democratic spaces don’t exist in Kashmir and are shrinking in India, I still have hope of dialogue and mutual respect and understanding. We hope to organize many conversations on Kashmir in India, in the months to come.
WM: Student politics and unions are banned in Kashmir and they have been under attack for many years now. Can you tell us how student politics plays a role in the political outlook of a place while reflecting on your own experiences with student politics and how this experience has played a role in your political outlook?
KK: I think student politics is crucial. When we’re young, just out of school and finding our feet in the world as adults, student politics shapes our outlook on the world. Speaking for myself, I think of my days as an AISA (All India Student’s Association) activist in JNU as a period and process of learning that was just as important as the classroom experience in University! Before I joined student politics, I had a vague sense of being feminist, secular and anti-caste by instinct. Before I joined JNU, I had begun arguing in support of Mandal reservations and against the politics of the Shiv Sena and BJP while in college in Mumbai. But joining organised Left politics while in JNU was a life-changing experience. I had hesitated a lot initially to do so, fearing a loss of my privacy and personal life. But eventually I felt impelled to, because right-wing politics was threatening to take over our lives in the early 1990s and it seemed so important to fight back. People often feel that joining an organisation, especially a communist party, means losing one’s freedom. Becoming an AISA activist and a CPI(ML) [Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)] activist was empowering because a sense of collective struggle and collective responsibility makes you feel more, not less free! As Neruda wrote in his poem ‘To My Party’ – ‘You have given me the freedom that the loner cannot have.’
In India also most campuses do not allow students union politics, and even where they do allow some form of elections, they do not allow everyday student politics.
In 1996 when I was a JNUSU Joint Secretary, the CPI (ML) held an Adhikar Rally in Delhi and we AISA activists in JNU were preparing posters for the rally. The ABVP came and attacked the poster workshop on the pretext that we had posters in support of self-determination in Kashmir. What followed was an intense discussion among the various Left student groups also about self-determination. Back then, though, I would say that the general climate in India for democratic voices on Kashmir was far more bleak than it is now. In the last decade or so, I have seen spaces for public meetings and protests on Kashmir actually increase. Since last year, the attack by the Government on JNU has once again jeopardized many of those hard-won spaces though.
WM: You have played a great role in the Nirbhaya protests in New Delhi. Can you talk about the historical and political conditions that lead to that outburst? In the wider context of militarized sexual violence in Kashmir that is state perpetrated, what can be the possible responses from human rights groups and women’s group’s towards this phenomenon in a place where there exists complete impunity for men in uniform? Also, in Kashmir, according to most human rights groups – the state is the biggest perpetrator of sexual violence against both men and women as Indian armed forces are shielded by AFSPA, how do you think should feminists in India talk about sexual violence in India in this context?
KK: The December 16 protests, as I’ve written earlier, had very diverse voices in them. What was most significant about those protests was the fact that the demand for women’s autonomy, their Bekhauf Azaadi not only on streets but inside their own families and communities, was so strongly articulated and asserted.
We saw those protests as a unique opportunity to interact with a very vast section of people whom we might otherwise never get to meet. These were people who won’t ever hear about Kunan Poshpora or Soni Sori or Thangjam Manorama from most of the TV channels. They got to hear about the legal and institutional impunity for rape by armed personnel – from us. And we got a great response to those efforts. Kashmiri students also joined several of those protests, including one on Republic Day in which they displayed the placard ‘Your Republic Rapes in Kashmir.’
The Justice Verma Committee, thanks in large part to the movement activists who deposed in front of the commission, had some very good recommendations on addressing the issue of sexual violence in conflict areas. These included:
a) Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law;
b) Special care must also be taken to ensure the safety of women who are complainants and witnesses in cases of sexual assault by armed personnel;
c) There should be special commissioners – who are either judicially or legislatively appointed – for women’s safety and security in all areas of conflict in the country. These commissioners must be chosen from those who have experience with women’s issues, preferably in conflict areas. In addition, such commissioners must be vested with adequate powers to monitor and initiate action for redress and criminal prosecution in all cases of sexual violence against women by armed personnel;
d) Care must be taken to ensure the safety and security of women detainees in police stations, and women at army or paramilitary check points, and this should be a subject under the regular monitoring of the special commissioners mentioned earlier; women from areas in Kashmir, the North-East, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh who were heard at length in the course of preparing our report. We are indeed deeply concerned at the growing distrust of the State and its efforts to designate these regions as ‘areas of conflict’ even when civil society is available to engage and inform the lot of the poor. We are convinced that such an attitude on the part of the State only encourages the alienation of our fellow citizens.
11. At the outset, we notice that impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of Internal Security duties is being legitimized by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country. It must be recognized that women in conflict areas are entitled to all the security and dignity that is afforded to citizens in any other part of our country. India has signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance 106, which has to be honoured. We therefore believe that strong measures to ensure such security and dignity will go a long way not only to provide women in conflict areas their rightful entitlements, but also to
e) The general law relating to detention of women during specified hours of the day must be strictly followed;
f) Training and monitoring of armed personnel must be reoriented to include and emphasize strict observance by the armed personnel of all orders issued in this behalf;
g) There is an imminent need to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible. This is necessary for determining the propriety of resorting to this legislation in the area(s) concerned; and
h) Jurisdictional issues must be resolved immediately and simple procedural protocols put in place to avoid situations where police refuse or refrain from registering cases against paramilitary personnel.
These particular Verma Committee recommendations were systematically ignored by the Government.
Historically, the women’s movement in India has taken up the issue of custodial rapes since its very early days. The Mathura rape case of 1980 that sparked off protests leading to the first progressive changes in the rape law was the case of custodial rape of an adivasi teenage girl by policemen. On the ML Left in India, and the women’s movements associated with it, struggles against state-sponsored VAW have occupied a very important space. I think that’s why women in Bihar or Bastar – who have faced search-and-comb ops and know the sexual violence that almost inevitably accompanies such ops – can very easily feel solidarity with the struggles of women of Kunan Poshpora and Kashmir more generally.
You’re absolutely right when you say that custodial sexual violence has also always been directed against men as well. It is part of the strategy of demoralizing and humiliating the ‘subject’ population and the people’s resistance.
Raising these issues in India, especially in the context of Kashmir, inevitably lead to us being branded as ‘anti-national.’ Even senior journalists, who won’t use the ‘anti-national’ rhetoric, will be quick to suggest that state-sponsored or AFSPA-protected sexual violence is a thing of a past era, in spite of the ample evidence to the contrary!
WM: The Kashmiri history of contact with Indian civil society is very disappointing, and also the levels of cynicism are very high – “Is se kya fayda? We don’t need solidarity from our oppressors?” are the sort of questions that are repeatedly asked. In this context, what is the meaning of building of solidarities and with whom and how?
KK: I think there is an understandable sense of fatigue and resentment amongst Kashmiris towards Indian civil society activists who, while being willing to speak about human rights violations in Kashmir, have not expressed solidarity or support for – or have even explicitly opposed – the violation of the political right to self-determination. But I feel that there is always a need to distinguish between an oppressive State and its citizens. You in Kashmir may not hear of many of the Indians who organize in support of the Kashmir movement in India – because we are hardly likely to get much media coverage! But such Indians are quite courageous, because silence on Kashmir is by far the easier, softer option here. To stand up and be counted on Kashmir is to have stones thrown at you, abuse and threats made against you, and if you are a political party (like the CPI (ML)) effigies of your leaders are burnt by rival political outfits, which can carry an electoral cost.
I think that solidarity between Kashmiri people and activists, and those in India who are honest and outspoken on Kashmir, is important and should be nurtured and welcomed.
WM: Do you think that rights movements in India should start learning from the resistance movement in Kashmir?
KK: Most definitely. The resistance movement in Kashmir has been immensely resilient in fighting back against oppression, violence, disinformation and division. So it can certainly have many lessons for us in India. Moreover, the Indian State has certainly used strategies learnt in Kashmir, Nagaland, and Manipur to suppress peoples in various parts of India! So we too should learn from the experiences of resistance, if they learn from the experiences of oppression.