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Friday, 10 June 2011

Indigenous narratives

Indigenous narratives are key to the solution of Kashmir. They can't emerge without media space though I wouldn't discount facebook and others.

One has constantly decried the obvious lack of space for indigenous narratives to emerge throughout the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. In a month when election mania is slowly but surely gathering pace on this side of the LoC, that space is further squeezed to enable competing candidates to publicise their personalities in a bid to (re)elect themselves for the AJK Legislative Assembly that throughout it's five year term, is hardly going to be doing any legislating.

The parallel and actual centre of power at the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in the shape of its Kashmir Council will ensure that.

In the six years that one has spent here and having spoken to thousands of voters in the process, the opinion is almost unequivocal that most candidates are fooling the public and there is little that the public can do to address this dilemma. This is not to suggest that amongst the many who vote do not have a rational basis for voting and it certainly doesn't mean that the public do not believe in the democratic process. They simply feel powerless and committed to participate at one and the same time.

The manner in which society and socio-political structures have developed since 1947 ensured that 'might is right' as opposed to 'people's right' was deeply etched in the psyche of the people here. Coupled with the air of unaccountability that permeated each and every public institution, the sincere activist always had his or her working space throttled at birth. Change if any, was and is assumed to come from the top and that when a highly courageous and sincere individual would emerge with the leadership qualities that every citizen could take inspiration from. It's an all-together separate matter that the system as well as the psyche developed amongst the people would ensure that no such person could ever emerge.

It is evident that there has been no paucity of bright sparks that have tried all out to change the prevailing scenario. There have even been political leaders untainted by corruption emerging at the helm of affairs. Nevertheless-be it a politician or activist–developing consensus in an organisational format with the necessary clout to out-manoeuvre opponents hasn't transpired. They were either outwitted, marginalised or came up against a torrent whose ferocity was simply unbearable.

Thus, when analysing how such a society in such a dire predicament can progress and partake in the challenges of the modern era, one has to begin by imagining how the dominating sense of public despondency can be overcome. In this sixty-four year journey, many a false prophet has also emerged which only adds to the herculean effort that is required. Identifying the basic parameters based on which society can develop a common reference point is fundamental to this task. In one's work on civil society development, certain common features dominated the concerns of most people that sincerely demand change.

The first is a clear sense of feeling in limbo. The public understands that they live in a disputed territory contested by two neighbours distinct from each other by religion (at least that's the pervading sense). They understand that their own sentiments or aspirations are severely curtailed by this externally contrived structure. Thus, an outstanding national question exists and the public realises that elections do not address that most basic of parameters related to their existence. Many also recognise the extremely limited space that candidates have for expressing their views on the Kashmir Issue. It is abundantly clear to most that whatever has been spent in the name of Kashmir has been a front to line private pockets. In fact, many a candidate has expressed such opinion.

The second parameter or set of parameters relate to requirements of 'good governance'. Much of the public senses that with most matters of governance in the hands of Pakistan's Kashmir Council, there is little that their candidate can do to address or formulate structures that make governance deliverable, transparent or accountable. They understand that their candidate can be a voice for their baradari (caste), that their representative must not on any account be defeated by a competing baradari. The public recognises that what arrives in the shape of funds for their constituency could possibly translate into a metalled road leading to their village or an electricity pole or two. Their political leader will stand up for them at the local police station, may support their version of a land/property dispute, may even get their off-spring into a teaching job, poorer elements of society may even be happy with potable water; in the shape of expenses or otherwise.

Despite no meaningful institutional participation of the citizens in the political process known as the AJK Legislative Assembly Elections and having said as much, it could still be described as a participatory democracy, though still in it's elementary stages of evolution. The participation of citizens is dependent on party patronage, upholding on certain views including the unstinting commitment to Kashmir's accession to Pakistan (which itself opens up a whole stack of canned worms) and various other pre-conditions which limit the diversity of view that can be expressed in public. The local media, traditionally boisterous whenever election campaigning is in full swing, is also a party to that restriction at a point in time when it should be most lucid.

Though nationalists have adapted somewhat in their strategy to increase the diversity of public opinion, they are still extremely limited in efficacy on all fronts. There has always been a tendency for sympathisers of India's role in the world to be measured in terms of how it affects Pakistan. Views of India and Pakistan for that matter are very touchy subjects and not much expressed by Kashmiri public intellectual opinion. Something that is rather a shame considering Kashmiri public opinion needs to assert and 'enforce' it's multiplicity of views and help assist Indian and Pakistani public opinion. The public of AJK have yet to embark on a sustained launch for a 24-hour news channel that can air their views in a balanced way, enabling AJK public opinion to crystallise and transform into civil society institutions. That's the overseas Kashmiris, particularly those living in Britain that I'm referring to. A local private channel judging from form, may well be compromised in how it could operate.

Indigenous narratives are key to the solution of Kashmir. They can't emerge without media space though I wouldn't discount facebook and others. Pakistani private TV channels should have obliged in sharing that space but it's likely a bit too much to ask from a nation that has much more important issues on it's plate. India would probably argue in a similar fashion or at least the excuse could be similar. As for the rest of the globe, that's another herculean task some shoulders somewhere need to bear.

Like all challenges historic and contemporary, there are stages involved in realising a dream

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The writer is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 10th of June 2011

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