In 2005 Josie gave a brief presentation to a small class of art students in Sydney about an organisation she had visited in New Delhi called Sarai. Three years later, it was this presentation that would lead me to New Delhi, Sarai and inadvertently to Kashmir. 5 years later Josie and I sat together in her office with two cups of nun chai.
I told Josie that Shuddhabrata Sengupta, one of the co-founders of Sarai, was one of seven people under investigation for sedition under section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. On November 29 the Delhi Police lodged an FIR against Shuddhabrata along with the author Arundhati Roy, Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Professor S.A.R. Geelani of Delhi University, the poet Varavara Rao, Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussein of Kashmir University, and the human rights activist Sujato Bhadra. This was all because of their remarks on Kashmir at a seminar organised last October in Delhi. Josie was astounded, “I should email Shuddha. Is it the actual state charging them or some other group with a political agenda of their own?”
The registration of the FIR was made on the basis of information received from the complainant group Roots in Kashmir. This is a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation that claims to represent Kashmiri Pandits. It also has links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindutva organisation known for a long list of violent agitations, including the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. One of the founding members of Roots in Kashmir, who has become quite infamous for his reductive communal rhetoric on various online platforms, also happens to work as the Indian editor of a newspaper for Indian Diaspora in Australia. What takes place in Delhi and Kashmir is not always far from Australia.
Particularly in South Asia, but the world over too, religious identities are often conflated with politics, in ways that dangerously perpetuate cycles of communal violence. But for Josie, ‘communal’ was a word she was accustomed to using in a positive way to describe a community based or socially oriented way of approaching art or life. She was surprised to learn that in the context of South Asia communal is a term used to describe the antagonism and violence that emerges between two communities – usually along lines of religious difference.
Josie became hazy for a moment, “When did India enter Kashmir?” She was surprised to hear it began in 1947 – almost simultaneously with the double-sided coin of Partition and Independence. More than sixty years later, the events of 1947 have directly shaped the events of the 2010 summer, which saw more than 100 people lose their lives in almost as many days and a seminar whose speakers faced charges of sedition for what they said about the military occupation that was responsible for those deaths. “I wonder how much longer it will take?” By ‘it’, Josie meant azadi (freedom).