It was late afternoon and the summer wind in Sydney was still very warm. “Nun chai is much nicer in cold weather,” I told Susie.
“But isn’t it hot, like this, in India?” she asked. Nun chai is common only in Kashmir, but there are similar variations in other Himalayan regions like Tibet. In most of India nun chai is just as foreign as it is here in Sydney. Implicitly, Kashmir’s independent identity started to emerge through the nun chai. Susie seemed to get it.
Susie wanted to know the historical context that lead to the summer of 2010. We began to speak about the history of Kashmir and its geographical fragmentation over time, “Did you ever feel scared?” Fear is not really the way I would frame things in Kashmir. I was lucky never to feel scared because people looked after me with such incredible warmth. But I do fear how quickly the violence of a military occupation becomes normal, how swiftly it becomes part of the everyday.
I was staying with friends in Sopore. Three of us were sitting together at home, chatting and laughing, when there was a sudden explosion outside. From the sound alone my friends knew it was tear gas. No one batted an eye. That sound, and many others like it, had become part of the soundtrack of everyday life for their generation. These were the sounds people had become accustomed to: a stone, a tear gas canister, a Kalashnikov.
“That everyday violence reminds me of Gaza and also Katherine in the Northern Territory.” Susie used to work as an art teacher at a high school in Katherine, a town with a large Aboriginal population in the Northern Territory of Australia. “People in Australia find it easy to talk about conflicts taking place in distant countries, but we have this real inability to look at our own backyard.” Susie went on, “Violence is normalised in Katherine too. Police violence, domestic violence, street violence. Things that wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else in Australia are commonplace there, and people walk past without looking twice, without calling the police and without helping. I loved it up there, but this quiet acceptance of violence was hard.”
In 2007, the Australian federal government implemented The Northern Territory Intervention in response to the NT government’s Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. This saw hundreds of soldiers from the Australian Defence Force deployed in remote Aboriginal communities across the NT, causing much turmoil for community members but achieving very little; to date there has not been one prosecution for child abuse come from the exercise.
Places like Katherine along with Gaza and Kashmir are all examples of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes in his 2005 work State of Exception. The state of exception describes the way that governments increase their power during times of crisis, ultimately creating political environments where law is legally suspended. What is different about Agamben’s thought from his predecessors is that this legal suspension of law (aka the state of exception) is not an aberration on an otherwise lawful state but rather one of the most central powers of control possessed by contemporary nation states, democracies included. Azadi (freedom) is needed everywhere.
There is a unique solidarity between Kashmir and Palestine; on the streets in Kashmir you can see Free Palestine graffiti and in Palestine there is Free Kashmir graffiti. Kashmir listens to, watches and learns from the tactics deployed in Palestine’s successive intifadas. They also watch the political alliances – economic and military – brokered between Israel and other nations, including the US and India. In recent years in Kashmir there has been a shift from guns to stones; and from militants hiding in people’s homes during the day and moving from place to place only under the cover of darkness to an emerging tech savvy militancy and the proud faces of youth and women protesting on the streets in the face of India’s armed security forces.
Kashmir is building a creative new kind of intifada whose gentler tactics very cleverly unveil the Indian state’s strategic aggression to an international audience. But nobody seems to be taking much notice. Perhaps this is because India is one of the world’s largest markets. The result of this oversight means a return to more militant ways in Kashmir sadly seems inevitable.