the twentyfourth cup of nun chai


Back 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. It was this presentation that would lead me three years later to both New Delhi and Sarai, and inadvertently to Kashmir.

5 years had passed since Josie gave the presentation. And now in December 2010 Josie and I sat, down the hall from that classroom, with two cups of nun chai in her office.

I told Josie that Shuddhabrata Sengupta, one of the co-founders of Sarai whom we both knew, was one of seven people under investigation for sedition, under section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, because of his remarks on Kashmir at a seminar which took place last October in New Delhi.

On November 29 the Delhi Police lodged an FIR against Shuddhabrata along with 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.

Josie was quite astounded and thought of emailing Shuddha. She asked about the legal system in India; if it was actually the state that was concerned with sedition or if the investigation had its roots in a kind of larger political agitation. I later learnt that the registration of the FIR was made on the basis of information received from a complainant group Roots in Kashmir.

Roots in Kashmir is a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation that claims to represent Kashmiri Pandits, while also reportedly having links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a Hindutva organisation known for a long list of violent agitations, including the assassination of Gandhi back in 1948. One of the founding members of Roots in Kashmir, who has become quite infamous for his reductive rhetoric on the Sarai Reader List, also happens to work as the Indian editor of a newspaper for Indian Diaspora in Australia. Things that were taking place in Delhi and Kashmir were not always so far from home.

Josie asked about the religious makeup of Kashmir and we spoke about the way that Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism had moved across the region, inhabiting different places at different times and in different ways to produce what is sometimes described as “Kashmir’s syncretic culture”. Drawing upon what she knew of Partition and contemporary political issues, Josie asked if there were problems between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir today. We spoke of the emergence of armed conflict, the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits and the contested histories that surround these events. We spoke of the way that religious identities can be conflated with political alliances in ways that perpetuate the cyclical kinds of communalism epitomised in the rhetoric of organisations like Roots in Kashmir.

But Josie was a little confused by what was meant with the term “communalism”. Before I came to Delhi, I used the word “communal” in a positive way to describe the community based, socially oriented nature of much of my own art practice and Josie was also familiar with using the word “communal” along these lines. I explained to Josie that in the context of South Asia communalism was the term used to describe the conflict and violence that emerges between two communities – usually along the lines of religious difference.

Josie’s voice became hazy for a moment as she tried to recall when India “entered” Kashmir. She was surprised to hear it began in 1947 – almost simultaneously with the double sided coin of Partition and Independence. For sometime we discussed the events that followed 1947, which brought us to the present moment in which a recently passed Summer saw more than 100 people lose their lives in almost as many days and a seminar whose speakers were now faced with charges of sedition for what they said about the military occupation that was responsible for those deaths.

Josie said she wondered how long it would take. And by this she meant azadi (freedom).


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