Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Let us grant Kashmir freedom from Indian aesthetics

When Indian politicians talk of “development" we know that they mean clearing forests and shaving hills to spread a viral small town, planting an “eight-lane" highway on which no one follows the lanes, amoeba-like golf courses, and malls that are called “plazas" or even malls. A few years ago, the Goan government even classified coconut palms as grass so that the builders can raze them without permission. Much thought goes into the ugliness of the great republic.

So, when India promises “development" to Kashmir, anyone who has seen that exquisite place will be terrified even if he is not a career alarmist. Now that India has politically co-opted Kashmir beyond ambiguity, I propose we grant it freedom from Indian urban aesthetics and from that amiable Indian tourist, who can trash a whole hill in no time, and who shadows white women beseeching them for selfies. You may want to argue it is very “elitist" to deny Kashmiris the dismal smog of “development", and to deny Indian tourists the right to do to Kashmir what they have done to Shimla and Manali and Ooty. I do not wish to quarrel with you on that matter today; instead, I will seed a thought: Can Kashmir be a Bhutan, without the farce of official happiness, where a high price tag regulates human traffic for a greater moral cause? In fact, can Kashmir be the start of a more intelligent form of urban planning and tourism in India?

How did it come to be that the astonishing integration of Kashmir, a political masterstroke, has so easily acquired the moral masquerade of development? How did a nation that could not “develop" vast regions in its firm control have the confidence to officially integrate a reluctant state in the name of progress?

On most days, if not all, an average Kashmiri resident has a better quality of life than most Indians. He lives in a better home than an average person in Mumbai; he is in the proximity of great beauty, breathes clean air and, in the winters, he even skis down one of the best slopes in the world. I would argue that in recent times he has faced far lower risk of a human rights violation than an average poor Indian because of the political spin given to any such violation. And, crimes against women are low. But progress is always about change and overrating change, and for long the young of Kashmir have felt the rot of a life without prospects. In their hierarchy of wants, “development" was much higher than what their liberal handlers let on.

When Kashmiris argue among themselves what do they argue about? What are the two sides? Do they have two sides? A “debate" where everyone says the same things to people who have similar views is called a litfest. Everywhere else, among people who are not obsolete in their own time, who debate in bazaars and restaurants, they spar over conflicting ideas. For long, the most influential ambassadors of Kashmir have only transmitted the hypothesis that all Kashmiris wish for independence from India.

This was promoted by the sort of person who was born with the loudest megaphone: an upper-caste Kashmiri feudal lord who was made to feel like a social underdog by the Indian state, who knew how to talk to the Western liberal elite, who knew what an “op-ed" was, who made up for all his literary limitations through the hyperbole of homelessness and subjugation.

Do you know of a society today where such a person and the poor agree on an issue? Do sophisticates and the poor have identical views on politics anymore? So, why has the world not heard the other side? In a polarized world, where is the polarization in Kashmir? The most fervent wish of the average Kashmiri was so drowned in the noise of making India the villain that Narendra Modi’s liberation of Kashmir from its own elite in the name of “development" may actually turn out to be a popular move in the region.

A few years ago, I interviewed several Kashmiris, most of whom were not activists or writers or politicians; many of them had never been interviewed before. They were tired of politics, they were ready to move on, they were ready to be co-opted by India if that would bring them jobs and prosperity, because being co-opted by their elite did not get them anywhere. Some of Kashmir’s cultural elite, too, wished to move on. “But we can’t say it, you know," one of them told me, “we can’t say it publicly without a lot of our brothers from Dubai and America abusing us." The young spoke of wanting the trappings of progress, and multinationals and malls, and cricket matches and fun. They made me swear that I will not quote them because they would be shamed on social media by their elite, including those who lived good lives in New York and Dubai.

After I reported this attitude in a story titled Sorry, Kashmir Is Happy, a few more educated and frustrated youth cautiously opened up to me. One young man wrote to me saying that Kashmir is represented in the global media “by a certain section of people who impose their political ideology on others".

I do hear now and then from my Kashmiri foes, too, who are chiefly artistic. Every time something bad happens in Kashmir, they lampoon me by saying, “Kashmir is happy." They fear happiness, because it is trauma that keeps their politics alive. I do not say Kashmir is happy today, but then in this world, it is hard to escape happiness.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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