March 17, 2014

Beyond The Trap Of A Map

We need to recognise the prejudice of ‘Nation-Statism’ and grasp its implications. This is the first step towards a renewed internationalism – which is not just between, but beyond nation-states – that is not only necessary, but urgent.

The state of the world today is inextricably linked with the States in this world. We live in times of extreme wealth and poverty, gross privilege and inequality, enduring forms of discrimination, political and financial manipulation, and many are subjected to poverty, hunger, injustice and continued violence simply because it is profitable for a few. This status-quo is never justified (even at the level of rhetoric, even by the most regressive voices) within nation-states, yet it is de rigueur and accepted at a global level. Why? Why should all humanity and conscience weaken at the national border-control?

 Why should people learn to have concentric circles of affiliation and empathy that start from the self outwards (self, family, community, region, nation, and beyond) and become weaker as they widen? As I have argued in Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference (2008: 186-216), this concentric notion of identity is neither natural not inevitable, though much ink and ideology goes into making it seem so. Global instances of solidarity, struggle and resistance can show us that it is possible to conceive of identity as translational, so that we situate our understanding of self contingently and in relation to equally worthy others who need not be related to us by genetics or geography.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has these opening words in the Preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Why should every child not begin education with this document?

Most of us understand very early on how we are supposed to belong to, and behave on, this planet, throughout our lives; many of the markers that structure our life and work in time and space – such as continents, free markets, democracy – are laden with power and open to interrogation.

Critiques of meta-geography tell us how geography serves political technology: the concept of ‘territory’ as “exclusive ownership of the earth’s surface” has a specific and complex historical lineage (Stuart Elden, 2013), the conventional myth of ‘continents’ is Eurocentric as it arbitrarily gives Europe the status of a continent when it is neither geographically separate from Asia nor is Asia internally culturally coherent by comparison (Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen, 1997). Add to which, the legal spaces and practices, demarcated thus, have a ‘compounded opacity’ because they are seen as objective, timeless, and prepolitical when they really are deeply embedded with political, social and economic life (Nicholas Blomley 1994: xiii). Mapping is political. Borders demarcate, and simultaneously construct, regimes of power.

Moreover, classifying land and people into nations and continents was a historical process fraught with prejudice and power. The violent upheavals of imperialism, colonialism, and decolonisation shaped much of the geography of the modern world. People were conquered/civilised/colonised in the name of economic rationality and assumed moral superiority, they were forcibly moved around the globe to enhance profit and production, and populations were studied and structured into labels that then became self-identificational for the colonised.

The myth of the nation-state as a ‘natural’ entity continuously handed down from history and geography is problematic and detrimental. Viewing the world as a billiard ball model of comparable unitary nation-states (as results from the application of atomistic natural science models to space and society) each responsible for their own populations alone, distorts the global spatial and social relations. Nations and states do not meaningfully overlap in many cases – there are more nations than states, some examples of nation-states are empires, others are supra-national, and their polities overlap (Sylvia Walby 2003). The now-dominant Westphalian model of the nation-states is merely one specific historical way of structuring the world. And it relies upon an unholy nexus of Geography-Economics-Law that has forced truly urgent political questions into the margins. Right from the way in which these powerful disciplines construct their knowledge categories to the way in which they operate as holistic systematising schemas – they subject the individual to the dominating forces of land, capital, rule. 

When people are assigned into units called the nation-states as their primary identity, it is the latitude or longitude of their birth, which, more often than not, determines their life chances. And this nation-statist paradigm actively inculcates indifference, apathy or hostility against those who are different and Other. The contemporary regimes of border-control across the world restrict the movement of people across borders while facilitating the unrestricted movement of capital globally. While the entire basis of ‘free markets’ rests upon the theoretical premise of free (and equilibrating) movement of factors of production (labour and capital), it is capital that is free to move, not labour. If markets can be free and capital has no identity, then why can’t people be free to move and belong without restrictions? As a matter of fact, some are. The privileged few who are reasonably free to exercise their right to live anywhere on the globe, are the expatriates, in sharp contrast to the much-resented migrants. It may be appealing to think this in terms of the sweeping  free markets that have eroded the power of the nation-states, actually, it is the nation-states that have enabled the markets to expand their reach into every sector of society. 

And while every aspect of human life continues to be commodified, commercialised and monetised by the capitalist juggernaut, and economic violence is rampant, the proliferation of neither democracy nor technology will automatically create an internationalist conscience. The hyper-capitalist era  of our times can coexist perfectly well with nation-statism. Indeed, both economic growth and economic crises can create stronger bonds of dependency (through ties of trade and investment) between nations qua nations, but these networks of capital and governmental or business interests can possibly even enable a greater silencing on humanitarian issues that populations face within the nation-states. Also, democracy within the nation-states is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. Yet, which people? The citizens of a nation-state. The logic of democratic arithmetic would seem to require governments to typically care about the welfare of the numerical majority within their national borders. The very structure of the system militates against global concern, concern for the domestic numerical minority, or those who are disenfranchised. Similarly, take a look at technology. There is now a global colossus of knowledge and communication ranging from the CIA Factbook to the ubiquitous Facebook. But has increased knowledge and technology brought us closer together or pushed us further apart? Thanks to many recent revelations, we know that at the level of nation-states, governments have actively pursued an agenda of surveillance against their own populations and other governments. And the general trend in ordinary people’s use of technology has been to personalise their perception of reality (through personalised maps, news feed, and social networks) and limit their ability to encounter newness. 

The existing political, economic and technological systems work for, and benefit from, classifying people into nation-states in a way that systematically limits their geographical imagination and ability to empathise with distant others. 

But, what makes us human is the premise of a shared common humanity. The best human virtues and values cannot be judged within national borders alone. If we care about human freedom and the fulfilment of human potential for everyone, we cannot abandon concern for our fellow beings, wherever they actually are, and wherever they are deemed to legally belong. As a French student protester (in the recent student protests against the deportation of classmates) said: “Everybody should have a chance. Everybody should have a job, work and have a family. When children try to achieve that, France refuses, and that is not my country”. 

Moreover, the problems of humanity remain inescapably international – global production chains of commodities transfer value from the poor to the rich, the affluenza of the few is causally linked to immiserisation of many, waste and want are intertwined in the consumerist ideology that continually ensures that the haves waste and the have-nots want, and pollution, climate change, terrorism, piracy, corruption, tax evasion, trafficking do not adhere to national borders. In response, mere inter-national (between nations) solutions will not suffice, what we need is a renewed internationalism (beyond nations) that engenders a radical anti-imperial transnational cosmopolitan subjectivity. In other words, we belong to the world, the world belongs to us; humanity is our concern – the cosmopolis, our globe, our planet. I am because you are. ‘We’ should be the preferred pronoun of political debates. Recall the Gandhian Talisman: our actions should be judged by their impact on the poorest and weakest human being on this planet. 

Contra a sterile oppositional debate, a radical cosmopolitanism, the way I see it, does not contrast with communitarianism. In fact, radical cosmopolitanism enables genuinely communitarian thinking by imagining the global communitarian identity affiliations in the context of specific political issues, and not as apriori given and defined identities which pre-exist the political struggle. A cosmopolitan subjectivity is not a privilege, it is an ethical necessity. And it needs to be consciously anti-imperial, compromising both imperialism and sovereignty. Sovereignty, which implies the supreme authority of the state over embodied lives, needs to be decoupled from states; sovereignty resides in humanity. Internationalist ethics require us to consider ways in which rights need not derive only from citizenship. Nation-states have, for too long, marked bodies, stifled empathy and creativity, enforced power, dehumanised people, and normalised prejudice, to the extent that the violence inflicted by the nation-state (for example, in the twentieth century) is unparalelled in the history of the world. 

Such commitment to a renewed internationalism is reflected in proposals for a planetary parliament (Monbiot 2002). With egalitarian supra-national enfranchisement, there is likely to be much broader humanitarian concern. But, it is important to emphasise the ethical and political premise of our shared humanity as being crucial to such an internationalism. Appealing simply to the economic self-interest of certain constituencies for getting greater coordination between nations, without challenging nation-statism, is ultimately inadequate. Framing inter-nationalism simply as a self-serving co-ordinating response to the transborder challenge of global insecurity or resource scarcity is not enough. Economic arguments are notoriously slippery and ostensibly amoral. One must make the case for internationalism on more than just an economic ground. So, saying that it is the limited resources on this planet with a growing population that requires trans-national collaboration isn’t enough. It is not just about resources. The continuous technological innovation inherent in humankind/humanmind will make sure that every depletion is countered with another discovery – from fossil fuels to biofuels to fracking, from climate change to geoengineering, from earth to interplanetary colonisation. Action prompted by thinking about others only when it serves our own interests will never be truly internationalist in the long run, and it will perforce have an imperialist bias. Further, it will be hostage to changing circumstances and fluctuating economic interests. 

An international solidarity is an ethical commitment to the fundamental and inalienable rights of others to be as free as oneself. Notwithstanding their global location. A worthy  internationalism comes from thinking beyond the nation, even if from within nations; a consciousness of struggle and resistance against injustice, inequality, poverty, oppression and indignity that unites people as fellow human beings who may have been forced by history into divided lands, but who can, through force of conscience and conscious striving, always imagine otherwise.


October 30, 2010

By the Way (musings on heroes, artists, culture, and writing)

I am not a hero. I am not unafraid. I am not a protector. I cannot really say that I will, in the hour of distress, be able to stand above it all and supremely marshall my fears.


As a teenager, I remember thinking upon the question: is it the hour that produces the hero, or is it the hero latent in an individual that emerges in the hour? It was during discussions in an English literature class at school, perhaps after a story we read which featured the heroism of a person at an hour of crisis. I thought of this question and I could not answer it to myself with any degree of certainty.


When things fall apart, who would I be? Years later, I stumbled upon this thought again during a line of Proust in ‘A shadow of young girls in flower’, vol. 2 of In search of Lost Time, (by the way, I am not too keen on Proust popularising, the idea smacks of a recipe for self-help masquerading as literary democratisation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of Alain De Botton when I first set my eyes on and fell in love with Proust. I am not averse to De Botton per se, and much liked the ‘Art of Travel’ by him; the book has a good cover photo of the skies through a plane window. Just the kind of abstract image that books should have on their covers instead of the endless series of legs and feet that most ficiton books seem to have – do an eyeball survey in a big bookstore to test this. And while at the bookstore, you might want to pick something by Adam Phillips, he’s introspective, beautifully crafted and analytically gifted), so, brackets done, coming back to the line in Proust, it was a phrase where the narrator is praising Andree’s acts of kindness as opposed to Albertine’s manner just then. Nothing that might overtly trigger the question in me that it did. Imagine an original metaphysical situation — who would I be?


Not the hero. Much as I like their brave composure. Thankfully, not the villain either. I could not scheme to save my life. I could not be an onlooker or a disinterested participant. Perforce, I would be drawn into things that unfold around me (if it is around me, it is in me).   I would be…I thought…an artist. In a specific sense of the term.


An artist if not necessarily in deed, then in thought. For even thought-artists must be. I would observe the situation with the manic intensity of someone who is unable to distinguish between the trivial and the profound, because everything that is, is. I would perhaps see the big fire bringing the big structure down, and worry for the tiny wings of the little bird that must be singed in this spectacle. It is a response that refuses to recognise proportion and propriety. In that it is artistic. It refuses to recognise the constraints that proportion and propriety can impose upon a freewheeling subjectivity that is committed to being true to an exploration of itself through encounters that may come.


For this reason, the artist is never a hero. And never should be. Heroism is fettersome. Remaking heroism is like thinking of birds flying underwater as they would in air — dragged and artificial. The world needs heroes. And it needs its artists. There must be sparrows and zebras both.


It is the outsides, the peripherals that remain the preserve of the artist’s consciousness. An artist is the phenomenologist of the peripherals. The one who can chose to stay engaged with an unfolding reality without becoming a mystic or a recluse.


In the singed wings of the little bird is the big fire reflected in another way.


Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. It is a legend, of course. But, think of it literally for a moment. Nero the synaesthete who saw divinity in fires and heard tones in crackles. Nero the arsonist. Nero the infamous. Nero, not ever a hero. But, just maybe a good artist, a musician.


In The Dark Knight, the Batman movie by Christopher Nolan (by the way, Nolan’s film ‘Following’ from the early 1980s was one of the best too, and The Dark Knight is gripping, the joker says ‘what does not kill you, makes you stranger’ – a line Albert Camus might have had Meursault say in his novel ‘The Stranger’ 🙂 – how I would love to have a conversation with the scriptwriter of this film! – And you thought Winston Churchill was profound when, referring to his parents, he said solitary trees if at all they grow, grow strong. Batman beats Churchill. Note also that Batman, incidentally, seems to have become ‘harder’ as Bond has become ‘softer’ over time. ‘The hardening Batman and the softening Bond: representing the sociocultural ethics of our times’ here is a topic for an essay that looks at the changing depictions of good versus evil in relation to identity such as class, race, gender, sexuality), so, brackets done, Batman’s butler says to him, ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’. An impressive dialogue, especially within the context of the Burmese tale in the movie, yet, it is incomplete. The logic of the line in the film is that not everything can be reasoned with, and one cannot really ask: Why do some people just want to watch the world burn? Fine. But, that realisation should not stall us from asking: How would a burning world change things?


A magpie sits alone on a television antenna atop a roof. Birds, I notice, always fly from my right to my left across the window as I face it. If only one could be privy to the specialisms of others, albeit for a day (Primo Levi’s book ‘Other people’s trades’ is good); if I could be an ornithologist for a day, I’d know why they fly like that. Or if there is a pattern to their ordinary wanderings across these ethereal autumn skies.


I speak thoughts aloud. The orality of a primitive tradition, where there was sound and music before there was The Word, appeals to me. The written mark – Bible, logocentrism and Derrida (by the way, once he and I spoke for six hours on the phone in a dream, imagine all those copper wires rolled up, carrying sounds like in early telephony, memories transmitted through current in a metal, wonderously quixotic) cited in passing – is the beginning. It is before the Beginning that I want to re-turn (retrace even; Alejo Carpentier’s 1950s book ‘The Lost Steps’ is beautiful in its evocation of an ethnomusicologist’s journey into the past of time in a present continent). I speak these sounds into memory. I am made to fret that I must write them down. Continents of rich and unrivalled oral traditions are condemned to be ‘without history’ – Huntington the political scientist said the world has ‘seven or maybe eight’ civilisations, meaning Africa ‘may’ have one – and violence is routinely imposed by Knowledge arbiters on such oral lives and histories.


I am Africa, I say. Impulsively. What I want to say is that Africa’s history and its many civilisations don’t need the validation of Huntington. But I know, epistemic erasures cause real hardships. Representations in narrative cause real sufferings. It is important, at a petty level, to scheme. In other words, to write memories. I prefer the fictional way of Roland Gant who in his book ‘The World in a Jug’ has the narrator – a white blues musician in segregation era – speak his life and memories of music into a record player. The speech and sound of memory is transcribed by the publisher (in the novel). (By the way, that book had a stance, the narrator sounded a bit like the author in his stance to taking things easy, in preferring to experience the world instead of scheming to get ahead. Maybe he, like his character, lived his life hearing, seeing speaking and sensing it, not just writing it furiously).


I did end up writing this though.




September 19, 2010

Writing to your MP about Kashmir – it couldn’t be easier


Dear Friends, if you can, please try to participate in an awareness campaign about contemporary Kashmir (and if you are based in Kashmir, please circulate on to others).

Wherever you are located, please try to contact your political respresentative and ask them to enquire into the Human Rights situation in Kashmir. From Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International to Independent People’s Tribunal on Kashmir (and others) have highlighted the fact that the Kashmiri people are being denied some of their fundamental democratic rights even while they are claimed as democratic citizens by India.

There are several detailed and scholarly accounts of the Kashmir situation. You can read many of these open-source online, there is also some good journalism and other resources — I am hopeful that someone will soon be able to compile all these in one place (any takers?). So, to avoid any suggestions that may cause this to be seen as biased, here I am only pasting my own link While there may be competing narratives on different sides, there is no reason why they must translate into legal black holes on the ground, or denial of press freedom, or siege-like situations in daily existence.

Over 100 people have been killed in as many days this summer alone (I leave you to calculate the misery of the hundreds of thousands that total up the dead, disappeared, orphaned, widowed, displaced in the last two decades). The people killed in summer 2010 have been unarmed young men (fired upon as they are protesting for their rights, sometimes with stones, or at other times, they were mere witnesses waiting in a shop or part of a funeral procession). There has been a shoot-at-sight curfew this week.

Kashmiris deserve the same dignity and recognition as others. Whatever your political perspective on the issue, the human rights perspective cannot be denied.

Perhaps a few minutes of your time in cyber-activism (such as signing a petition or writing to your MP) may add a relevant voice to the growing chorus of unease around the goings-on in Kashmir.   

If you are based in the UK, you could easily use the where you can easily send a message to your MP. The site has one-click contact details.

I am sure there are such websites for your country also, please feel free to share.

Many thanks and best wishes,


You might want to state the following in your letter or petition:

– Kashmir being one of the most militarized zones in the world

– The Human Rights situation in Kashmir

– Need for changing laws currently in force that allow security forces to kill with immunity.

– Urgency of recognising and engaging Kashmiri aspirations

– Preventing spirals of violence  

– Need for your representative or government to remind its friend India to the duty of care towards citizens, whether actual or claimed.

Here is an edited template of what I sent, blanking out my information and some other details, please add or amend as necessary:

Dear [name of MP],

I am your constituent and I admire your commitment to the cause of justice and appreciate your principled stance on international issues.

I am [ —]. I care for, and write about, important issues that face us as communities.

I recently read/wrote/published/heard [ —– ] on Kashmir. I would like to draw yourattention to this issue.

You might know that at the moment Kashmir is at a critical juncture. Indian forces have killed over 100 people in as many days. The deathtoll rises everyday. They are unarmed young men, (some with stones, and others shot as they try to go about their lives) and children as young as 9. For example, this entire week Kashmiris have been living under a shoot-at-sight curfew, with little by way of television channels or access, food and medicine shortage, often no print newspapers.

India is a democracy and yet Kashmiri people do not have even basic human rights such as the freedom of assembly and protest. Kashmir should not be viewed as a religious issue. Special laws inforce in Kashmir allow the army to shoot people with complete immunity without having to give any reason (such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, and others). The world media is finally beginning to wake up and increasingly recognise that India’s brutality is creating an Intifada.

Our country [ — ] has an interest in South Asia and the Himalayas. As a [ — ], I know that my country is a responsible deliberative democracy where human rights are taken seriously. Even for our economic interests in the region, peace and stability are essential.

I understand that we cannot interfere in matters of another country, especially not one with a standing such as that of India. However, as a good friend, we can remind India of its obligations under international and humanitarian laws.

Among other things, Kashmiris are struggling for their basic rights and freedoms. I say this as a [ — your religion or other views — ] , not as someone who is Muslim [ — or, I say this as a Muslim who — ].

As democratically minded people, we must remind the Indian government of its obligations to redress the grievances of Kashmiri people, accommodate their aspirations.

As a politician with a good conscience, you could at least raise the issue of ongoing protests and repression in Kashmir, ask the government to convey your constituents’ concerns to India and ask them to respect the human rights of the people and remind them of their obligations under international law to not use sovereignty as an excuse for repression.

Unless politicians like you raise this issue, I am afraid the death toll will keep mounting and eventually feed into other global insecurities.

Please do not let the world be a silent witness.

With many thanks, and my best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

[ — ]

September 16, 2010

August 31, 2010

For the Nation of Kashmir

Kashmir: from contact-zone to conflict-zone

Kashmir is a place of blood and memory.

Parts of present-day Kashmir are occupied by India, Pakistan, and China. When you try to locate the territory of Kashmir on a world map (see, for example, , you will find it partitioned into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (P.O.K, called ‘Azaad Kashmir’ and ‘Northern Areas’,  in Pakistan), India Occupied Kashmir (I.O.K, called ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ including ‘Ladakh’, in India), and areas such as Aksai Chin and Shaksam Valley under Chinese control (part of ‘Xinjiang autonomous region’ in China). Yet, even as it is devoured by the big states that surround it, Kashmir cannot be understood through the simplistic framing of ‘India versus Pakistan’, ‘Hindu versus Muslim’, or ‘China allied with Pakistan versus India’. Instead, see Kashmir as a vital link in the Himalayan mountain chain; a historic part of the Silk Route, that is now a violent battleground. Why? Because people in none of these three regions identify themselves as primarily and ‘above all’ Pakistani, Indian, or Chinese. Neither should they be forced to.

Cartography might lie, but topography and cultural geography does not. Kashmir is not India. Kashmir is not Pakistan. Kashmir is not China. Kashmir is the boundary zone of India-China-Pakistan. But it is distinctively Kashmir. And its people – whatever their religion or national identity – are Kashmiris. In the guise of crude nationalist narratives peddled by the surrounding postcolonial states for internal politicking and international leverage, their history is being stolen from the Kashmiri people. Wherever in Kashmir they are, their options boil down to bullets or ballots – bullets if they protest being co-opted into the big country which is not their homeland, and ballots if they agree to being co-opted into the big country which is not their homeland. How can a Kashmiri live under this perpetual erasure of his or her identity? The same way that every colonized peoples have survived through the eras: by interpretation and by insurrection. Interpretations enable a re-understanding of the identity choices available to a person, and insurrections allow a collectivity to challenge unjust dominance by force.

In the last years, regions of the P.O.K saw nationalist Kashmiri protests against Pakistan (for example, in Muzzafarabad in December 2009), and, at the moment, nationalist Kashmiris in I.O.K are witnessing a harsh repression at the hands of Indian security forces; on average a person a day has been killed in the last two months since June 2010, nearly half of them have been teenagers (my focus is I.O.K, in particular the ongoing brutality in the Kashmir Valley, and the various erasures of blood and memory that surround it). Some in I.O.K give rallying cries in support of P.O.K (‘Muzzafarabad Chalo’), and in turn others in P.O.K warn that they will cross over to ‘help their brothers in I.O.K’ (see Moreover, even during periods of so-called ‘normalcy’, people in both P.O.K (some being Shia ethnic minority in Sunni-majority areas) and in I.O.K (being a Muslim majority region in a Hindu-majority India) often live with severe restrictions on their freedom and face multiple levels of discrimination. No wonder Kashmiris who live under occupation feel a solidarity for their kind across the boundary lines.

The story of the mountain-peoples of Eurasia is, by and large, a tragedy. Run your index finger on the multi-coloured land surface of a modern day political world map, and you will see how many ‘problem areas’ (some states, some sub-state entities, some overlapping zones of displaced peoples) – Tibet, Kashmir, North Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria – were thriving zones of contact between diverse communities that traded goods and exchanged ideas along the arteries of the ‘Silk Route’. Like many of these other places, Kashmir, a Himalayan zone of contact between diverse peoples in history, has become a zone of conflict, due in large measure to modern boundary-making processes which had evolved to accommodate economic privileges and political trade-offs with rivals that were necessary for European (especially British) colonization of the region.

Genesis of the ‘Mandarin-Machiavelli interaction’

Empires of the ancient world had a fluid notion of boundaries. In parts of the Himalayas especially, there were multiple systems of power transmission – these ranged from marriages to tributes to reincarnations. The idea of people owing an overarching allegiance to a national identity (over religious, ethnic or other forms of affiliation) is a relatively modern construct. The British Empire in south Asia was nitpicky and dissonant, it was an empire run by a democracy, that expanded by median diplomacy, strategic but grounded thinking, conceptual reconstruction, and accounting, as much as it did by force. Unlike the earlier rulers who came from central Asia, the British operated primarily on the dual bases of economic rationality and assumed moral superiority. They often drew lines on maps opportunistically, and in time, these ‘boundaries’ would get transformed into ‘frontiers’. Moreover, in the case of the Himalayan mountains, the British never saw much advantage in direct control (they calculated that the administrative, policing, transportation costs were too high and the returns not worthwhile when compared to the fertile and bustling plains) and preferred, instead, to follow a stated policy of “controlling the hills from the plains”. In order to do this, the administration at the center needed to depend on local elites in the peripheral regions. So, the system was set up during colonial times – the bureaucrats at the center would be the administrators and policy makers and they would cultivate local aristocratic, political and business elites in the peripheral regions. Often, they would patronize rival elites in a peripheral region and ‘activate’ their influence as and when required. In the middle of the 20th century when the British formally left, the postcolonial Asian states inherited this mindset and this system of governance. To this day, the Indian state manages its peripheries in this way. Both Kashmir and the ‘North-East’ are examples.

Why does this matter? Because it sets up structures of power and responsibility that do not overlap meaningfully. The bureaucrats and politicians at the center do not have direct interaction with the regions; their interest is only to have a ‘reliable’ power base in the periphery. Equally, the local elites in the periphery exaggerate reports of their influence over ‘their’ people in order to gain maximum advantage from the centre. This pattern of (what I would call) Mandarin-Machiavelli interaction has characterized the relationship of India with Kashmir (or rather of New Delhi with Srinagar). Neither the center nor the periphery has any interest to be genuinely concerned about the people in whose name they wield power and exercise authority. What is more, in such a scenario, there is enormous potential of corruption as long as it doesn’t harm the ruling interests of both ends of the chain, and any dissent will only be tolerated if it can be channelized for political gains. Otherwise, those dissenting or seeking change will be punished and brutalized. This is exactly what is happening in I.O.K today.

Kashmir as India’s disputed ‘integral’

I.O.K (‘India occupied Kashmir’, called ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ including ‘Ladakh’, in India) has never been an indisputable part of India. Paradoxically, arguing this historical fact invariably causes most Indians to assert even more vigorously that Kashmir is an ‘integral’ part of India. Why? Why is Kashmir so fundamental to the Indian psyche?

The average Indian insists that Kashmir is an indisputable part of India to be held by force when necessary in the same way that the Indian state insists that Kashmir is an ‘integral’ part of India while occupying it by military means. Indians and the Indian state find it necessary to repeatedly state this because they know that Kashmir is not actually an indisputable part of India and this galls them.

It is no coincidence that Kashmir and the North-East were two of the least involved regions during the nationalist freedom struggle which led to India’s independence, and it is these regions which have remained least understood in the mainstream nationalist imagination. In Kashmir, for example, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the Kashmiri Nationalists (led by Sheikh Abdullah) and the Kashmiri Communists (both Hindu and Muslim) who shaped the pre-1947 political landscape by their opposition to princely rule (of the unrepresentative Dogra monarch); integration with India was an ‘unintended consequence’ of their progressivist leanings. With time, their faith in India was rudely jolted – independent India came to fear two things most – Muslims and communists (Kashmir had both).

This way Kashmir is viewed in the mainstream Indian imagination is linked to the wider evolution of Indian self-perception in the decades after independence and more specifically to the quantum shift in the political and economic structure of Indian society in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Indian nation that had been born (from a partitioning) with idealistic anti-colonial promises  saw its first national event in the assassination of its biggest moral voice – Mahatma Gandhi – at the hands of a Hindu fanatical extremist. The successive decades saw an undoing of the social, political, economic, moral ideals which had motivated the people in their anti-colonial independence struggle. The two biggest, and significantly reactionary, transformations that India has seen since its independence became most visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s – the rise of economic and religious fundamentalism – Neoliberalism and Hindutva. From the late 1940s to late 1980s (with the exception of the rather telling ‘Emergency period’ and its aftermath), electoral politics in India was dominated by the traditional elites. Within such a system, there was a continued ‘capture’ of the Indian state by the privileged, the only route into political imagination left for others was through asserting ‘identity politics’ (especially caste-based identities, as in the case of the BSP or Bahujan Samaj party, and the Mayawati – their leader – phenomenon).

The founding myth of the postcolonial Indian state was that of a ‘sovereign democratic republic’ (original preamble to the Indian constitution) and it was later amended to become, ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’. The same amendment  (42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976) that added the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’, also inserted the word ‘integrity’ in addition to the ‘unity’ originally mentioned; the changed preamble went from ‘unity of the nation’ to ‘unity and integrity of the nation’. It is of crucial importance that the labels confirming India as ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’, and the pledge for ‘integrity’ came about in 1976 during the Emergency era (1975-1977) which witnessed a general curtailment of the freedoms of most ordinary Indians, especially those such as religious minorities and the economically deprived. In other words, by the 1970s, India’s founding myths were already severely challenged, and therefore needed to be proclaimed as an exercise in self-justification. There was discrimination against religious minorities (for example, as an unstated rule, Muslims were never placed in ‘sensitive’ government positions – not that this has gone away – see study for a recent report that state-run banks in India routinely turn away Muslims), hence India needed to call itself ‘secular’. There was growing inequality and continued widespread poverty, hence India needed to call itself ‘socialist’. There was justified alienation in various parts of the country due to ignorance and corrupt misgovernance enabled by the Mandarin-Machiavelli relations (and the ‘integrity’ of India’s neighbor Pakistan had been challenged with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971), hence India’s ‘integrity’ needed to be affirmed.

From 1947 onwards, post-colonial India saw itself as an inheritor of the British imperial mantle in the region. Indian leadership, while aware of the negative legacies of the empire, also inherited its realpolitik attitudes, which were made worse by a euphoria of emergent nationalism and self-righteousness. The regime had changed but the processes had simply replaced foreign elites with a home-grown indigenous elite (for example, a significant number of rulers from the erstwhile princely states were appointed as bureaucrats, ambassadors, policymakers). Add to which there was the personality cult of Nehru whose personal friendships, affiliations, and dispositions could brook little opposition and loomed large on the decision-making processes in a democratic state. In the subsequent decades, notwithstanding the official non-aligned third-worldist stance, India’s political priorities –national and international – were shaped by its close relations with the old and new imperial powers. An entrenched (often English-speaking, Brahminical, Hindu) elite thrived domestically, India began to be seen as a regional hegemon, relations with neighbours (China, Pakistan) rapidly deteriorated, and electoral politics became a game of patronage.

In the years following independence, India refused to negotiate with China on the boundary issue (while simultaneously following a less-than-pragmatic policy on Tibet), pursued an ill-advised ‘forward policy’ in NEFA (North East Frontier Areas), and Nehru – a Kashmiri himself and fond of Kashmir; Kashmir was special – promised Kashmiris a plebiscite to determine their future.

In the middle of the 20th century, my grandfather, then a young man, stood among the crowd at Lal Chowk in the centre of Srinagar (capital of I.O.K) listening to the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru make a rousing speech to the people of Kashmir – ‘Kashmir ke log koi bhhed-bakri nahin hain ki hamne kaha yahaan chalo ya wahaan chalo’ (the people of Kashmir can’t be led like goat or sheep in one direction or the other) – in which he promised them a choice to determine their identity, specifically a plebiscite to determine their own future. In later years, my grandfather would often recall those words of Nehru apologetically (recently he passed away and I went again to Srinagar to mourn for him in his birthplace, the land of my lost memories). This Nehruvian promise came to naught as India’s stance on Kashmir became ever more legalistic.

As for India’s claim that Kashmir is ‘integral’ to India to confirm its secular credentials (being the only Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority India): what an irony, since India’s secular credentials (being an afterthought as the ‘Emergency’ time amendment shows) were not ‘integral’ to the Indian state at its founding!

Internationally, the Indian state has thrived by trading on its publicized self-image as democratic, secular, and peaceful. The comparison has always been with neighbours like China and Pakistan – one communist, the other theocratic (to the wider western world, nothing could be worse than someone who is a ‘Commie’ or ‘Islamic’). The world at large has been fooled for too long by the articulate, if not argumentative, Indian upper class governmental and corporate elite and their publicity machines. So successful is this illusion about India, that the world media consistently under-reports the Indian state’s brutality when it comes to Naxalites, the ‘North East’ (the only part of the country which is referred to by geographical co-ordinates; a telling synecdochic use of the generic term ‘north east’ to refer to one or all of the 7 different states together), and always, Kashmir.

India is demographically a Hindu majority state, and for all its talk of ‘unity in diversity’, it is intolerant towards its minorities. That discrimination and intolerance flourishes in Pakistan or China or the West is no justification for ignoring this fact in India. For instance, there is a violent ongoing repression of the tribals, there is recurrent and extreme state brutality in Kashmir, there have been orchestrated pogroms against the Muslims (Gujarat 2002), violence against the Sikhs (Delhi 1984), the Christians (Orissa 2007-08), add to which, there is a constant ongoing broad-ranging discrimination against people in terms of their religion, caste, class, gender, sexuality. Of course, India is democratic, secular, and peaceful, except when it needs to suppress those that don’t look like mainstream Indians (the Hindus) – these ‘others’ include its tribals and indigenous people, ‘lower’ castes, its minorities, its ‘north eastern’ peoples (ethnically different, they are derisively referred to as ‘Chinks’, often confused for Chinese in the main metropolises, and seen as different and separate), and Muslims. The only people who fit India’s self-narrative best are affluent Hindus.

Today, India wishes to be recognized as a ‘superpower-in-waiting’, yet like other superpowers (to wit, the USA) it is rotting from within. After the end of the Cold War, both the blatant privatization (euphemistically called ‘liberalisation’) of the Indian economy, and the overt  ‘Hinduisation’ of Indian polity (rise of right-wing parties like the BJP) came to full flowering in the 1990s; together this created an intolerant and unholy consensus in the arenas of politics and economics. Today, both the main national parties – Congress and BJP – converge on the ‘free-market’ economic fundamentals and the political space is given over to divisive ‘vote-bank’ driven identity politics. Over time, this has resulted in greater inequality, more deprivation, and a disenfranchisement of large sections of the country, but it has been politically profitable for those who instigated these changes. The Hinduising reactionary BJP came to power spreading its message of bigotry, and the Congress leader with a carefully maintained image who engineered the neoliberal restructuring of the country (as the Finance Minister) in the early 1990s, is the Prime Minister of the country today. In his recent remarks, he (bizarrely) used the public reaction to his budget in 1991 as a counter to the criticism of his Nuclear Bill in 2010 (here’s a news excerpt from – ‘”To say that this [the Nuclear Bill] has been brought to promote American interests, to promote American corporations, I think, this is far from the truth”…He [the PM] said such charges against him were not new as he had faced these even in 1992 when he presented the budget as the then finance minister…Singh [the PM] said the whole opposition, with a few exceptions, demanded his impeachment claiming that the budget had been prepared in the US’).

In so many regions and in so many ways, the project and vision of postcolonial India is coming apart at the seams. The same-old routine use of the narrative of ‘national integration’ and ‘outside infiltration’ (Pakistani trained terrorists in Kashmir, China-trained Maoists in Eastern India) cannot inoculate a country that is failing its people – economically, politically, socially.

The Indian political class is superbly corrupt. Entry into politics is seen as a route for upward class mobility by enabling wealth accumulation; generally only the sons and scions of those with pre-existing political connexions rise through the ranks, unless one is a goon with a criminal record! Indian bureaucracy has a reputation for being tremendously arrogant. It is a truism that Indian bureaucrats are generally smug and supercilious, unwilling to learn or exchange ideas from any but the most hawkish and pro-establishment intellectuals. The large swathes of Indian middle classes are stuffed with intolerance, unthinking mass entertainment, and over consumption – fed by a corporatized media that ‘manufactures consent’ in a textbook Chomsky way. The mix of ignorance and blustery self-confidence that one encounters in middle class Indians rivals Americans (they share this ‘superpower’ trait!). All of the above – a corrupt political class, a smug bureaucracy, an unthinking and avidly consuming middle class – makes India a wonderful ‘market’ globally. This is the reason why the world keeps silent when Indian state commits or abets violent atrocities, both inside its boundaries and outside.

In such an environment, proper political consciousness is rare. Indian people are fed the ‘national integration’ mantra and they lap it up, unable to perceive the way in which people such as the Kashmiris are being dehumanized. The average middle-class Indian (who grows up learning in history and geography books at school about everywhere in the world except for the countries that are India’s neighbours) is intolerant of Pakistan, suspicious of China, unwilling to commingle with Muslims or ‘lower castes’, and willfully blind to the poverty that surrounds them – s/he is focused on making money, spending money, and occasionally, redemption through self-help. Kashmir is a distant nightmare for them.

Indian politicians ultimately don’t care for Kashmir. When the situation looks extremely grim, as now, they make a few statements, a few changes happen at the state level (, a few lies are spun, and some schemes are floated to keep onboard the public opinion. The leadership is, by turns and at different levels, dull, corrupt, and lacking in morals.

Most importantly, the compulsions of India’s domestic politics ensure that there is no real potential for dialogue and understanding on Kashmir. The entrenched national narrative is so strong that any move forward is seized by the opposition as ‘compromise’ and ‘betrayal’. Given the circumstances, even the most measly statement made by the government representatives that recognizes any problem in Kashmir or questions the Hindu right-wing is challenged by the xenophobic intolerant right-wing politicians (BJP and their ilk) and capitalised for political gain (see BJP asking the Home Minister to apologise for commenting on ‘saffron terror’/Hindu right-wing extremism, and BJP challenging the PM for his statement on autonomy for Kashmir).

What is more, India’s political, military and bureaucratic interests in Kashmir are not coherently aligned, and are subject to the varying intensity and profitability of India’s strategic international alliances. The strength and honesty of political will of Indian government on Kashmir then becomes a pawn in line with India’s interests in Afghanistan, and in turn hostage to US policy on ‘Af-Pak’.

Finally, India’s defence sector is rapidly modernizing and therefore internationally very lucrative at the moment (see Asia’s biggest arms bazaar was held in Delhi in February 2010; India set up its first defence/aerospace SEZ in November 2009). At the same time, there is an excessive use of force in the occupation of Kashmir. Such conflict then unleashes its own perverse incentives such as the increased expenditure on arms and debilitates the initiatives for peace. In any case, the militarization of security in India is a dangerous development for the dehumanizing violence it enables (some Indian military tactics in Kashmir are excessive even for the Israeli IDF! see

Kashmir is not an ‘integral’ part of India. It is a disputed integral, in fact, as I have argued, Indian attitude to Kashmir can only be understood in the wider context of the failed political, economic, and social promises of postcolonial India. In the name of ‘national integration’, India is occupying a region against the will of the people who live there. Kashmir is ‘integral’ only to the life of Kashmiris.

The Tragedy of Kashmir

Having a historical legacy as a sacred site of early Himalayan Buddhism, Kashmir was a Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority India at the time of India’s independence from the British; through most of the last millennium, it was variously ruled by Central and West Asian originating-Mughal-Afghan dynasties, in the 19th century, it was ruled by Sikhs from whom the British acquired it and sold it on to a Hindu Dogra King. As a people of the mountains who had been bartered by the British, Kashmiris were aware of the oppression they faced.  The distinctive identity of Kashmir was shaped by multiple influences and rulerships. Kashmir’s history is a knot of contested interpretations made worse by ignorance.

The biggest myth of recent times is that of seeing Kashmir historically in terms of Muslims versus Hindus, instead of Muslims and Hindus.

Kashmiris did not see themselves in these terms until they were classified as such by the political games of the later part of the 20th century.  The centuries-old tradition of ‘Kashmiriyat’ bears testimony to the identity of Kashmiris as a people who did not let their religious affiliations overwhelm their ethnic and regional commonality. Contemporary Hindu religious extremists/activists often try to extrapolate selective facts from Kashmir’s rich history to push their communal case  – citing especially the forced conversions to Islam (see for a scholarly contradiction of this claim, notable because written by a Kashmiri Hindu, so it defies assumed communal viewpoint in this regard), and the 1989 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (minority Hindus) from the valley as having been forced by Kashmiri Muslims.

Kashmiris were a people who were somehow ‘bargained’ into nationhood when the British left the region. From mid-19th century onwards, the practice of statecraft and governance came to be tied closely to statistics, enumeration and classification (the first census in UK was carried out in 1800s). In the colonies too, the British tried to stabilize and centralize channels of power by classifying their subjects and dealing with them in terms of races, genetic stock, community leaders, and religion. Hindus and Muslims were two important lenses through which people were perceived, roused, and then divided up during partition. In the case of Kashmir, this British formula was messed-up –the Muslims were the majority in Kashmir, but the ruler (Hari Singh) was not Muslim, Indian PM Nehru was Kashmiri Hindu but close to Sheikh Abdullah, the most prominent Kashmiri leader, a Muslim. Plus, the entire Himalayas, including Kashmir, had been constructed as a strategic geopolitical buffer in the imperial trajectory till then; the ‘Great Game’ was a kind of proto- Cold War. When India and Pakistan were being carved, Kashmir was coveted on either side (this manic struggle over possessing Kashmir has led to multiple wars – 1947, 1965, 1999 – between India and Pakistan – both of whom use Kashmir as a propaganda pawn for their opportunistic and hypocritical purposes – and a continued boundary stalemate, including over the unpopulated Aksai-Chin area, between India and China).

In so many ways, Kashmir was ‘special’. The Kashmiri political voice and consciousness was different from that of the rest of India. The Kashmiris of an earlier generation – up until the 1980s – saw themselves as ‘Kashmiris’, in spite of everything. Kashmiris as a people have historically shared language, mannerisms, speech inflections, customs and even some festivals (such as the springtime ‘Badaamwari’). Today, very little understanding of this commonality remains. Why?

Because mainstream India (and Pakistan) never understood Kashmir nor cared for Kashmiri people.

When Pakistan and India came into being, Kashmir was attacked by one side to obtain it by force and its unrepresentative ruler was forced by the other side to sign an ‘instrument of accession’ as a condition of providing help in repelling the attack. Where were the Kashmiri people’s aspirations accounted for in all of this? In India, they were promised self-determination but over the successive decades witnessed a tug of war between the centre and periphery during which governments in Srinagar were removed from power, puppets were installed, and elections were rigged. India saw the people of Kashmir as inherently ‘alien’ and ‘untrustworthy’, somehow always already ‘tainted’.

The progressivist aspirations of Kashmir’s leaders and their openly communist leanings from the 1930s onwards did not help either when it came to the fast-polarising ideological alliances between states in the Cold War era (various other larger factors were salient in this framing also, such as the Dalai Lama’s exile to India, Z.A Bhutto forging the alliance with communist China). The Communists of Kashmir had surnames that were both Hindu and Muslim. The intellectuals of Kashmir had vivid memories of pre-independence Lahore, a centre of gravity in those times. But, most people in India have never heard of Kashmir and communism together in the same sentence (I recommend Andrew Whitehead’s recent article ‘The People’s Militia: Communists and Kashmiri nationalism in the 1940s’, Twentieth Century Communism, 2: 1 2010, pp. 141-168; it discusses the radical ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto of 1944 and the drastic land reforms, the ‘Quit Kashmir’ [note not ‘Quit India’] cries of 1946, the Kashmiri women militia of 1940s who were the first women in India trained to use rifles during the late 1940s, and the subsequent worries about the spread of communism in Kashmir, both in India and beyond. Whitehead quotes the diplomat Josef Korbel’s words from the 1954 book Danger in Kashmir: “Kashmir might eventually become the hub of Communist activities in Southern Asia”. Let me add that Korbel was the father of Madeleine Albright and the mentor of Condoleezza Rice, both ex-US Secretaries of State). The currently evolving Chinese stance on Kashmir (China denying visa in Aug 2010 to an Indian general posted in Kashmir see for a hasty write-up without historical context) is news only to someone who doesn’t know of Sheikh Abdullah meeting Chou-en-Lai in Algiers in 1967.

Those non-Kashmiri Indians who spew hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric today and claim Kashmir as an undying part of India, do they know of one festival or tradition of Kashmiri Hindus, let alone of Kashmiri Muslims? But, why speak of festivals. Ask the average Indian what happened in Kashmir in the late 1980s. Some might know about the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley from 1989 onwards (only some, for mainstream India does not actually care for Kashmiris, either Hindu or Muslim, they care for their own existential need to control and possess Kashmir). In all probability, they will not know of the 1987 elections in Kashmir. India perpetrated massive electoral fraud in Kashmir, denying the Kashmiri people their fundamental democratic right. By the 1980s, a neurotic and splintering India was acting desperate. The 1987 elections in Kashmir were rigged to prevent the Kashmiri people from electing anyone but those ‘approved’ by New Delhi, every grievance of the Kashmiri people (who are majority Muslim) was seen through the anti-national lens.  Is it any surprise then that some of those Kashmiri Muslims, frustrated and pigeonholed by India for decades, actually turned to radical political Islam, given the role of the Pakistani ISI, the wider dynamics of the closing Cold War (like Muslims everywhere else, Kashmiris too were/are affected by radical political Islam, which in many parts of the world was deliberately encouraged by the West as a counter to communist ‘red’ threat), and the Afghan and central Asian scenario at the time?

In the 1980s, radical Islamism rose in Kashmir. But let us not forget the figure of Jagmohan the Governor of Kashmir in the 1980s (1984-1989, again in 1990) who played a prominent (though not exclusive) role in instigating the departure of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley. A communal right-wing Hindu who later joined the BJP, he was the representative of the centre in Muslim majority Kashmir in these turbulent years which included the 1987 election rigging (his main achievement there was renovating the ‘Vaishno Devi’ Hindu shrine; in 2010 he’s currently selling a book with the title ‘Reforming Vaishno Devi and a case for Reformed, Reawakened and Enlightened Hinduism’, and being favourably reviewed in some media with the words, “among the many reasons I admire Jagmohan, the former BJP minister who sadly, seems to find no place in his party these days, is because he has no hesitation in talking about Hinduism”, see Much more needs to be written about his terrible tenure in Kashmir in the 1980s.

Still, as Pankaj Mishra details, “Jagmohan’s pro-Hindu policies in Kashmir, and the lack of economic opportunities for educated Muslim Kashmiris, drove many Kashmiri youth to support Islamist parties that were gaining influence in the state”. These Islamist parties were “helped by the growth of madrassas, the privately owned theology schools which were often run by Muslims from Assam in eastern India, over a thousand miles away, where mass killings of Muslims in the early Eighties had forced their migration to Kashmir”. During Jagmohan’s tenure there, the elected government of Kashmir was dismissed twice, number of Muslims being recruited in government service went down, non-Muslims were encouraged to work in Kashmir; also he sought to impose “a peculiarly Hindu modernity” on the state, permitting unrestricted sale of alcohol but forbidding Muslims to slaughter sheep on a Hindu festival day (see Jagmohan was removed in 1989, but reappointed in 1990 (at which the state government resigned in protest) to govern Kashmir directly under central rule and deal with the militants. In her analysis of ‘Kashmir and International Law: how war crimes fuel the conflict’, Patricia Grossman writes, “In response to widespread threats and targeted attacks and killings by militant groups, many Hindus had fled. Jagmohan’s government ultimately assisted some 90,000 Hindus in leaving the Kashmir Valley for camps in Jammu and New Delhi” (see What of those Kashmiris (mostly Muslim) who remained in the valley? Grossman documents, “In the weeks that followed, Indian army and security forces opened fire repeatedly on unarmed protesters, in some cases shooting to kill wounded prisoners. These killings constituted a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Foreign journalists were expelled from Kashmir for several months, and new laws enacted granting the security forces increased powers, limiting defendants’ rights, imposing restrictions on public gatherings, and prohibiting virtual any public expression of dissent”.

Many Kashmiris (and others in India; Sanghvi, the reviewer of Jagmohan’s book – see link above – disparagingly calls them ‘secular journos’) believe that he envisaged a ‘total solution’ for Kashmir, and the reason he aided the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus was because he planned to isolate the Kashmiri Muslims from the Kashmiri Hindus and then ‘deal’ with them by violent means.

In a way that has come to pass. In a more fundamental way than theocratic Islamic Pakistan could ever do with all its cross border airwave propaganda and infiltration, a democratic India with its bungling Hinduised outlook has managed to convert Kashmir into a sorry communal battleground. The proliferation of the politics of hate has meant that the rise of Hindutva in India has been mirrored by the growing Islamism in Kashmir.

The Kashmiris are alienated evermore each day. In the last two decades, the Kashmiri psyche has been surgically cleaved into Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims. An entire generation of Kashmiri Hindus have grown up outside Kashmir in India where they have learnt to identify themselves as ‘Hindus’ before calling themselves Kashmiris in the right-wing Hindu sentiment of mainstream India. This generation of young people is a recruiting ground for Hindu extremists for the RSS, VHP, BJP and the kind. Their justified nostalgia for their homeland is condensed into narratives of anti-Muslim hate which can be exploited for political vote gain. Equally, an entire generation of Kashmiri Muslims have grown up inside Kashmir where they have learnt to identify themselves as ‘Muslims’ before calling themselves Kashmiris in the environment of militancy and a brutal Indian military occupation who view them only as latent Islamic fundamentalists. Their justified aspirations of life and livelihood are daily denied by lack of representation and discrimination. In their imagination, Kashmiri Hindus are a traitorous pro-Indian minority, linked to the oppressive Hindu Indian majority. Often, even the valley leaders who supposedly represent them are self-serving, corrupt, and manipulate their sentiments for political gain.

This two-fold absence – Kashmiri  Hindus whose memory is wiped clean of Kashmiri Muslims as being Kashmiris and who have had to strike roots outside their homeland and adapt to mainstream India, and Kashmiri Muslims who have lived under militancy and an Indian military occupation without the memory of Kashmiri Hindus being Kashmiris and who are tired of being scapegoated for machinations beyond their control – is the grafting of a virtual partition of Kashmir’s history and identity.

Until the 1980s, a Kashmiri – Hindu or Muslim – might say, we the people of Kashmir, do not belong to India, we are Kashmiri. Beyond the Banihal tunnel (Jawahar tunnel) was the land of Lipton tea, not Mogul chai. India was an ‘other’ to a Kashmir as much as a Kashmiri was an ‘other’ to an Indian. Now, a Kashmiri will, in all probability, speak in line with their location and their precise suffering will systematically depend on their experience of where they spent the last two decades – within the valley or outside it.

The sheer toll on Kashmiri people has been staggering. Over hundred thousand Kashmiri Hindus left their homeland, several hundred were killed, numberless young people have grown up in refugee camps. Especially for those who were poor and from rural areas of Kashmir, it has been a journey of ruin and devastation. Having lost home and homeland, living on handouts in the festering, sweltering chaos of refugee camps in India, peddling wares, being discriminated against, they have no political voice other than the high-pitched shrill of the right-wing Hindu leaders. The Indian state consistently downplays their situation and thus helps to channelize their frustrations into Hindu extremism by having no vision for their future, ignoring their specific plight on the one hand, and by being generally Islamophobic, on the other.

The arithmetic gets really truly miserable when it comes to the Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley. Their tragedy is to live their life under constant threat of militancy and an Indian military occupation of anywhere between tens to hundreds of thousands security personnel (and India being a big lucrative market that is ‘secular democratic’ and not-Islamic, the world is happy to turn a blind eye to what happens in Kashmir). Since 1989, over 60000 people in Kashmir have been killed, over 7000 gone missing, several hundred thousand have been maimed, tortured, psychologically damaged (see In addition, there are thousands of unmarked graves, thousands of women have been raped, tens of thousands widowed and children orphaned. In the crazy count of violence, numbers lose meaning.  The atrocities – murders, rapes, torture, extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances – committed by the Indian security forces in Kashmir are not investigated properly (as in the recent Shopian rape case of 2009).

There are currently existing draconian laws, such as the Armed Forces (Jammu & Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which was applied in Kashmir in 1990 (see for political violence in Kashmir and AFSPA and for a genesis of the AFSPA from the 1950s in India’s ‘North East’). This act gives the armed forces carte blanche powers to search, arrest, and shoot people with immunity (something that the army often does with impunity in the ‘disturbed’ areas). The people living in Kashmir for the last two decades have only seen the inhuman face of an occupying force which degrades and kills people if they dare to raise their voice, which rapes women, kills young boys, kills beggars in fake encounters (see Under such circumstances, it is the paramount duty of mainstream Indians to stand up and be counted, to convey the message to the Indian government that such atrocities cannot and should not be committed in their name.

Instead of rabid anti-Muslim hate-mongering and chanting how Kashmir is ‘integral’ to India (which can only produce mirror responses of hard-line intolerant Islamic ideologues inside the Kashmir valley), the non-Kashmiri Indians have a duty to recognize the rights of Kashmiris as a people. Yes, the Kashmiri Hindus had to leave their homeland, but how will the perpetuation of violence and hatred help their cause?

Kashmiri Hindus themselves have been used as pawns by the Indian state. Their story is one of a small but educated and comparatively elite, affluent minority in a Muslim majority state who had close connections with the Indian establishment and were always targeted and cultivated by Indian intelligence machinery as agents of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), IB (Intelligence Bureau) and the Indian state. Such machinations over the decades since independence have only served to widen the gulf between Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims.

The Indian state has failed both Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims, failing to account for the aspirations of both communities; it has however, succeeded in dividing them in a fundamental (hopefully not irreversible) way. The tragedies of Kashmir are under-reported in India and treacherously ignored worldwide.

What Kashmiris Want

Since the late 1980s, Kashmir has been a war zone. Successive Indian governments have let Kashmiris down. In its negotiations with the leaders of Kashmir, India has been more willing to recognize the ‘politics of their struggle’ (who represents what voice, can be played off against whom to what effect) as opposed to their essential ‘political struggle’.

The demand of the Kashmiri people is ‘Azaadi’. Freedom. Freedom to be themselves, to choose their national destiny.

We are not Indians. We are Kashmiris. We have a history, a language, a culture that demands recognition.

Instead of recognizing this gut-wrenching, existential cry of the Kashmiri people, the Indian state sends in more guns, more troops, more rolls of barbed wire, more bribes, more bullets. When this does not work and the Kashmiris scream ‘Go India Go’, they send in a battery of Words – Development, Employment, Infrastructure, Laws, Training, Security, Curfew. The big words fall flat and disappear without trace between the folds of the pheran, in the wrinkles on the face, on the marks on the graves, and in the flow of Kashmiri blood.

Here’s a valid question to ask Indian political leaders, bureaucrats, army chiefs, right-wing extremists, the ignorant layperson: Are you blind? Can you not see that we want a recognition of our identity as a people?

Burn your Bollywood movies. Come to Kashmir. Walk through our cities. The bridges. The ruins. The graves. Look at what we eat. Look at our buildings. Our shrines. Our architecture. Our speech. Our history. Speak to us. See how we live. We are not you. We have never been you. We don’t want to be you.

Freedom cannot be finally denied. Nations do sometimes let territories go. Borders do sometimes get realigned. Small states can manage to survive in the middle of large ones (I am in one: Bhutan).

For over 50 years, every schoolchild in India has been fed lies – shown an incorrect map of Kashmir that they only recognize as being false once they see a map printed outside India.

What do Indians know about Kashmir anyway?

One: Exotic Tourist version / Kashmir the Beautiful (from holiday photographs)

Kashmir is a picture postcard beautiful land crowned by the lofty Himalayas and marked by clear running streams. Old romantic ruins, walnut trees, apple orchards, wood houses and rare flowers populate the region. There are people huddling with cups of almond kahwa over the kangri embers in winter, reflections of red Chinar leaves on the Dal lake in autumn, bustle in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk in summer, and some landslides when it rains. The children are excited for months before the big festivals and pretty women in embroidered pherans are everywhere. There are shikaras and houseboats, unrivalled wood carvings, intricately decorated Papier-Mache boxes, and of course, the shahtoosh, cashmere and pashmina woollens.

Two: Security Problem version / Kashmir the Cruel (from media photographs)

The place on maps with the name Kashmir is a conflict riven divided territory where bloodshed has not ceased for decades now. In the name of separatism, insurgency, militancy, freedom-struggle, territorial integrity, occupation or terrorism, this bloody valley has seen people dying, endless grieving and lost orphans. Kashmir is the name for a problem – like Palestine. Curvy newsprint alphabets indifferently remark the deaths in the valley; some number shot by soldiers, shot by militants. People read and often forget.

The political and public perceptions of Kashmir vary at the levels of the Indian state and the Indian individuals. For most Indians, Kashmir is an exotic place, unreal and wholly imaginary. In the time-honoured manner of stereotyping, the Kashmiris are not seen as real people, they are ‘the other’; represented to suit the self-image of mainstream Indians. In the pendulum swing between Bollywood movies and Islamophobia, typically, Kashmir is either – filled with an entire assortment of enchanting people and precious things (rosy-cheeked fair girls, apples, walnuts) – or a dangerous place filled with a repugnant, ungrateful, and violent Muslims and almost-Muslims. For the last two decades, it has largely been the latter.

But this ‘wrecked paradise’ of Kashmir is inhabited by real people with real lives and aspirations. The longer India occupies Kashmir instead of understanding what the people there want, the more it will pave the way for the influence of hard-line intolerance in the valley (already, a land with famous women poetesses like Lalla Ded and Habba Khatoon, is becoming known for women like Asiya Andrabi, the head of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or Daughters of the People, which seeks to promote compulsory veiling for women and attempts to enforce rigid Islamic values hitherto alien in Kashmir’s syncretic culture).

Protests by Stones and Phones

Nearly half of those killed in Kashmir in recent weeks were teenagers, one butchered on his way to the hospital in an ambulance. Another 11 year old killed as I write. The wider world, especially the west, is ‘careful’ in how it reports Kashmir, always stressing that the police were ‘provoked’, that the protestors were ‘anti-national’, see Far away from the raw fury of Kashmir, commentators in Delhi muse on twitter “NOT condoning death: but WHY wd parents allow 11yrolds to protest”. Why would parents allow a child to protest? I want to ask the stranger back – Have you ever been to a war zone? The rules of normal life are suspended in a place where brutality abounds. Middle-class parents in comfort zones ‘allow’ their kids action in line with what is good for them. In Kashmir where bullets zip past and people endure daily humiliation, children too (as in Palestine) become cannon fodder. By the time you read this, more will have died. What image does the Indian state have of these children and teenagers – child terrorists? child soldiers? Or, brutalized young people who only have the weapon of the defenceless, a stone?

Kashmiris are not allowed to protest, denied freedom of assembly, even as they are under occupation by a democracy. When they shout ‘enough’, they are shot by ‘security’ forces. The Indian state announces that it will create jobs, sends in more troops, announces a 100 million propaganda fund (, places political leaders under house arrests, mulls over ‘non-lethal ways of crowd control’ and intelligence gathering in local languages ( It does everything that confirms it as an occupying force – it will spend money, it will send moles, but it will not recognize the basic reason why people are fed-up to the extent of throwing stones: their need for freedom.

Of course, the people of Kashmir are economically deprived, there’s poor infrastructure, and the lack of even basic necessities like electricity (routine prolonged power cuts in severe winters). On this latter, the standard Indian answer is that there’s a lot of power-theft in J&K (, but as a poet humorously wrote, burning dinner is not incompetence but war, (, there are reasons why disenfranchised people don’t pay bills (for example, the lack of identification with the authorities, as in the case of apartheid South Africa).

But, the experts analyzing Kashmir in terms of the development critique forget that a prinked cage is still a cage. If a people have been alienated over decades and truly yearn for freedom, then they cannot be bought with promises of jobs.

By focusing on the stone in the hands of the Kashmiri protestors (for an exception, see, the Indian media manages to erase the brutality of the pointed gun in the hands of the soldiers who face them. The extreme methods of repression that India is trialling in Kashmir will gradually find their way into the standard procedures for dealing with protestors elsewhere too.

Moreover, the protestors of today have a way to document the atrocities perpetrated on them – youtube, twitter, facebook ( The world may not be twitter-trending #Kashmir at the moment, but someday it might. In the meantime, there are hundreds of videos and pictures online that show exactly the kind of attitude the Indian forces have towards the residents of Kashmir – charging at women, beating up children, damaging private property, and being very violent towards young men.

It is an irony of the ‘security situation’ in Kashmir today that the security forces who are supposed to ‘secure’ the people, stand barricaded behind razor wire rolls and camouflaged walls (adorned with slogans like ‘Help us to help you’) wearing body armour.

Who are these soldiers? The average face of Indian terror in Kashmir are uniformed men of the security forces who hail from poorer economic classes of towns and villages in the plains of India – they have to serve in the tough conditions of a Himalayan Valley where they are the face of the occupation. They live under rough barricaded conditions, feel hemmed in by the mountains; the food, climate, society is nearly entirely alien to them. They have little knowledge of Kashmir’s history, language, or culture (the wisdom of Indian defence seems to be that soldiers who are able to empathise with people in the areas in which they serve, cannot be effective). Many of them are devout Hindus (some posted at a temple in Kashmir complain they are pelted with stones, temple bells are unfastened, land is encroached). They are ill-informed about the objectives of the Indian state or the grievances of the Kashmiri people. Quite a few of them turn hostile to the local population under such circumstances.

On a recent visit to Srinagar, I was talking to an Indian CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) soldier at a prominent civic location in the city who lamented to me that: ‘Kashmiri people are dogs.  We do so much for them and they are ingrate curs’. I disagreed, later mentioning that I was Kashmiri myself. He was a young man, far from home, trapped by circumstances, who dreamt of a place called Italy. Periodically, in the middle of conversing, he or one of his colleagues would randomly shout at local Kashmiri passers-by; rudely, brusquely, asking them to stop, search them, call them names, shoo them away. The interaction was obviously power-laden and inhuman; the Kashmiris around him were nameless, faceless bodies.  Soon after I left, I read in the papers that there had been a blast at that site in which a soldier was also killed. I always wondered whether he had been the same man I had spoken to; the one who could not wait to get out of Kashmir.

In Delhi, earlier this year, a Kashmiri Hindu stood posted at the gates of the ‘Kashmir Expo’ (a handicrafts fair selling Kashmiri clothes) and confidentially whispered to me that he was there to ‘keep an eye’ on the Kashmiri Muslim sellers inside. Elsewhere, in Srinagar, in the midst of playing cricket, small Kashmiri boys belted out slogans about ‘azaadi’, reminding me of East Jerusalem or Ramallah. Daily workers at neglected archaeological monuments rued their fate about not being made permanent by the centre in their job for decades because of their religion as Muslims. An elderly craftsman uttered the precise and profound loss of the ‘Kalam’, the pen – writing, but also perhaps what it enables: story, art,  tradition.

Nostalgia for the Future

Kashmir is daily witnessing an attrition of its culture, literature, architecture, psychology. At the centre of Srinagar is Lal Chowk (mark the meaning, ‘Red Square’, renamed by Sheikh Abdullah), and at the centre of Lal Chowk is the ruin of the Palladium Cinema; the once thriving cultural buzz of Kashmir has been decimated in the wake of the last two decades of mindless violence and cultural repression (the last surviving cinema in I.O.K is under threat of closure, see This destruction of cultural objects in wars is continuous throughout the history of the world (see Robert Bevan’s ‘The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War’, On the first day of new year 2010, when the aeruginous near-full moon rose over the Zabarwan mountains at night, very few Kashmiris were out to see the copper-coloured miracle. There were no public celebrations at midnight. The city has been ghosted by oppression, violence, and terror perpetrated by the military/militants.

The Kashmiri Muslims being killed, raped, tortured, maimed in Kashmir are my fellow country people. The Kashmiri Hindus displaced in India are my fellow country people too (even as they classify me for my Kashmiri Pandit Hindu surname ‘Kaul’ and curse me for expressing the views I do).Other non-Kashmiri Indians insinuate treachery when I call myself ‘Kashmiri’ instead of Indian. Never mind. I am Kashmiri. I belong to Kashmir: my fatherland narrated to me by a father now dead. My ancestral home by a river is a carved wooden house with many floors and stairs leading up to an attic in a street named after a 15th century Sultan who could read Sanskrit, Persian, Tibetan. The meta-narratives of Big States have eaten up my history, my identity, my notion of a ‘home’. And it the same for every Kashmiri. I am alive, and for now, away. Those Kashmiris dehumanised and dying in the Valley do not have the luxury of reflection.

Indians should stop firing at those who pelt stones. Instead of the task force on crowd control, they might think about the meaning of the endlessly gathering crowds, the message in the parched heart of each stone. Any political movement always has multiple strands within it, multiple aspirations, which is where leadership comes in, no doubt partly manipulative. But the freedom of Kashmiri people to elect political representatives into power was the most dangerous thing to tamper with in a democracy. The ten percent turnout of the 1996 election goes back to 1987 and the lack of trust before that even. The elections in Kashmir in 2008 were interpreted in India as a conclusive vote in favour of development and India. Yet the design of the electoral mechanism might have been salient too; ‘staggered elections’ (such as the one in 2008) are recognized in the scholarly literature as being prone to ‘bandwagon effects’. Some believed that the violence in the Valley prior to these elections (June to August 2008) was deliberately engineered by Indian intelligence to ‘vent’ anger prior to the elections (in November 2008) and ‘test’ the strength of separatist sentiment in Kashmir. Messy political accommodation may delay, but will not cure, the raw fury of the Kashmiri people who, at the moment, face indoctrination or liquidation.

Every year in the middle of the month of August, on Independence Day, Indians repeat the momentous 1947 midnight freedom speech of Nehru – “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly, or in full measure, but very substantially…A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history… when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”. Let these magic words be true for the nation of Kashmir too. Redeem the pledges, if not wholly and in full measure, then very substantially.

Understand Kashmiris instead of attempting to ‘solve’ or ‘resolve’ Kashmir. Conventional strategists don’t always know best: Demilitarise Kashmir. Repeal the draconian laws. End the mistrust of the Kashmiri people. Work with Pakistan and China to open borders and make the nation of Kashmir a reality for Kashmiris. Freedom cannot be realised without the capacity to conceive of the freedom of others.

August 5, 2010

Sachs, GNH, and Bhutan

Sachs, GNH, and Bhutan

Jeffrey Sachs ( is a well known economist with decades of work behind him. Hearing him speak at the Royal Institute of Management (RIM) in Bhutan this week, I wondered why when I was doing my first degree way back in the mid 90s (economics honours with a fabulously in-depth undergraduate program), some of my best professors frowned at the mention of Sachs. Now here was this perfectly pleasing economist talking about development and happiness in Bhutan in a sane equable manner. Why was he reviled by the campus progressives in the 90s? Some clues to this can be found in the article ‘The long, strange career of Jeffrey Sachs’ ( Yes, there was, of course, the intoxicating rush in the west following on from the end of the cold war, and economists (like Sachs) were part of the resuscitation corps with their shock therapy approach to transition that ultimately failed in the long run (having travelled through parts of Russia, east europe and the baltic states recently, I don’t feel queasy about using the word ‘failed’; plus the social statistics talk for themselves). Whatever contribution he may (not) have made to the 90s fiasco in Russia and parts of Europe, the mature Sachs whom I encountered in Bhutan this week made a lot of sense. Artists have phases, why shouldn’t economists?

He spoke about GNH (Gross National Happiness) as a global challenge by addressing some specific issues – challenges and risks that Bhutan faces, and made some comparison with how poorly the US is doing. As an economist and philosopher (setting aside for a moment the novelist, traveller, poet) with experience of and expertise on Bhutan, here is my verdict on, and engagement with, his prescriptions for Bhutan:

First the points of agreement. I agree with him that Bhutan is a low income country and a certain amount of material advance is necessary for its links to health and education. We do need technological understanding and governance that taps deep values. Bhutan is, as I have also argued in my work repeatedly (see weblinks on the CV page at, an oasis of peaceful economic development in a complicated geopolitical neighbourhood. Sachs sees the need for a rural development policy and agricultural development policy, especially in the face of the poverty incidence figures (urban poverty is about 2% and rural nearly 30%).

It is for this reason that I’m a great fan of the 10th five year plan of Bhutan with its focus on poverty reduction. Rural povery can be a crushing blight and a source of constant misery in the form of unending rural-urban migration and associated impact on city infrastructure and social friction.

Sachs recommended that the hydropower sector (which he said is environmentally a benign sector) should be kept publicly owned and as a national industry, it can provide significant earnings from export that can be reinvested in health, education, poverty mitigation, infrastructure, and connectivity. He was clear that hydropower ought to be developed expeditiously and the bargaining terms for its export (primarily to India) ought to be scrutinised very carefully and supplemented by adjusting contracts terms for future inflation. A grant isn’t necessarily a good deal, he said.

Absolutely. Especially since grants aren’t what they used to be anyway. The old ratio in hydropower projects with India of 60:40 (60% grant, 40% loan) is now 70:30 (70% loan and 30% grant). I mentioned this to Sachs in my comment – hydropower development is necessary and it should not be privatised, but there are also crucial considerations in general about investment sources and environmental issues for hydropower. I gave the rather shocking example of Kárahnjúkar dam in Iceland where Europe’s largest hydropower project is located; it is detrimental and environmentally problematic (see the previous article ‘April is the cruellest month/I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ on this blog ‘Propaganda of the Reed’ where I probe beneath the Icelandic volcano). Further, I feel only partically able to agree on his recommendation that some of the earnings from hydropower could be used to gradually introduce a kind of old-age benefit system. Bhutan as a society is emotive about family ties and somehow I feel that something fundamental changes when care for the old passes away from the family to the state.

I think many of us dream of having a big canvas and an ability to move things around on it so that the best outcome results. Focus on connectivity, Sachs stressed, use of science and technology can improve lives. Make more roads, get more phones, more internet, more infrastructure, more connectivity.

Yes, connectivity is good. I agree. But, as I said to him, we must not miss out on the essential counterpart to connectivity, which is relationality.  Connectivity connects objects. Relationality connects people. We live, I feel, in an inalienably enchanted world (in Bhutan, we largely do, inspite of the disenchanting effects in the west of the european enlightenment that robbed the universe of its breath). We can live in a world where everything is accessible but that does not necessarily mean that we will be able to relate to the various aspects of our connectedness. There is Mechanism. And then there is Meaning. It is, I would argue, far more important to relate than to connect. Infrastructure may give us a phone or a road, but the real task is how we would speak or travel. It is not inconceivable that the more people are connected (such as in the most prosperous and infrastructurally enabled economies), the more they are alienated.

Another point where I would disagree with him is his focus on intensive agriculture. He stressed repeatedly, go for intensive agriculture – the yields in Bhutan are low, you can produce more. Give farmers subsidies. Use chemicals and fertilisers. Get high yield seed varieties. Grow more. The plant doesn’t care where it gets its Nitrogen from. The world can’t feed itself on organic farming. And so on.

Here’s what I think. One, the problem at a global level in relation to hunger is not a technical issue of production, it is an ethical issue about unfair trade practices and skewed terms of trade for countries that are producers of primary commodities. Two, even aside from cost burden, subsidies for intensive farming are not a good idea. The European example of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) suggests that it creates perverse incentives and farming lobbies and leads to overproduction which is then destroyed or dumped into other countries, thus ruining their domestic production. Three, while rapid advancement in yield production by using fertilisers, high yield crops and technology sounds good in theory, studies even from the well-known ‘Green Revolution’ show that (speaking in economese) the application of technology is not neutral to scale. In other words, the large producers benefit more, and this may lead to a trend towards large scale intensive farming for greater profits. This would certainly not help inequality in a small society like Bhutan. Four, intensive agriculture is generally bad for the environment; any detrimental effects would be worsened in a complex Himalayan ecology such as that of Bhutan. Five, the question is not one of productivity challenge to improve yield, but of whether there exist in Bhutan adequate facilities to test and monitor instances of ‘biomagnification’ from pesticide residue. Six, there is the fundamental question – why increase productivity? If the answer is not simply a mechanistic efficiency one that would like to see a better relation between inputs and outputs, then the answer must be – because we want to raise the standard of rural farmers and value agriculture better. Well, in this case, the focus must be on increasing the value of agricultural products and changing people’s attitudes and preferences towards agriculture (typically education means people don’t want to go back to farming). Organic farming, which can be a privileged preserve of big landowners in the English countryside (doesn’t have to be, but often is), is then a valuable alternative for the Bhutanese case. Thus, in general terms, instead of Sach’s grow big, grow more, I’d say go niche, grow better.

Do not privatise health and education, he said. For the Bhutanese context, I agree. However, in view of ongoing developments, I think both he and I might be disregarded. There are new systems of paid specialist medical consultations, and new institutions of learning. On the education scenario, I am inclined to think that privatisation of tertiary education is acceptable, but the privatisation of primary and early education is not a good sign. Learning resources get directed to where the monetary incentives are, and affluent children from the earliest ages are immersed in the advantageous environment created by price discrimination.

As far as the USA is concerned, it has lost its way – he said. Not just that, I feel, looking at the political scenario in large parts of the world, the entire world is losing its way alongwith it. The economic recession is just a tip of the iceberg, I maintain that the real crisis of value is a crisis of values. ‘Economic violence’ (my definition of this and views on it are best summarised in ‘economics of turning people into things’,, increases by the day. Krugman’s latest article ‘Defining prosperity down’ ( paints a depressing picture. I see that we accept more and more of what we should never have accepted in the first place. Worldwide, inequality continues to worsen and so does exploitation and repression.

The hypocritical moral veneer of ‘free society’ rhetoric is spread further and gets thinner. The latest (July 2010 end) issue of the Economist magazine focuses the huge problem of imprisoning people in the US. At the same time as domestically more and more people in America are locked up and their rights are trampled on, the American political leaders lecture overseas about free expression and tolerance of dissent. They praise specific countries (examples from central Asia come to mind) for their progress on economic reforms and urge them to be politically more tolerant – refusing to see the links between the two. Presidential type governments in central asian republics which create the economic consensus favoured by the West cannot then allow dissent in the political realm while maintaining the monopoly of thought on economic issues. If people question and express freely, they might also question the reasons for certain economic policies, contracts or incentives. The very reasons they are praised for their economics are also the same reasons they cannot be more liberal politically.

But, this is a digression. To return to Sachs on the USA – americans watch too much TV, there is too much noise in their lives, they are bombarded by propaganda day and night. Politics is ruled by corporate interests, campaign finance is problematic. I agree (see survey about american politics and societies quoted in my paper ‘democracy in the non-west: facts, fictions, and frictions’, e.g., on page 3, Politics is ruled by corporate interests, most of the people are lulled by mass entertainment, and the remaining few grow ever more cynical. In the vanishing space between stimuli and action, thought is constantly erased.

In his summing up, Sachs said that a ‘mindful economy’ would include (in this order): self, children, others, knowledge, nature, future, enemies and humanity. Realising this mindfulness is a real challenge in everyday life.  But one might ask how is this different from, say, Sayer’s concept of the ‘moral economy’ (I discuss some of these issues in my book Imagining Economics Otherwise, see for 2010 edition). And why just restrict this mindfulness to the ‘economy’ (that esoteric and often ill-understood construct)? Ultimately, however, my question to Sachs is: must the mindful economy also (like conventional patterns of thought) begin from the ‘self’ as his does?

I’d argue that the real challenge for mindful existence is to begin from the others and work towards the self.

April 20, 2010

April is the cruellest month / I will show you fear in a handful of dust (Eliot’s Wasteland)

The volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Eastern Iceland causes a near-complete closure of airspace over the continent of Europe for days in a row. Millions of people get stranded, sometimes in difficult circumstances at a high personal cost, at different locations worldwide. Airlines face bankrupcy, or at the very least, industry re-shaping, possibly greater monopolisation, as smaller rivals go under. The economic cost of the events is alongside the larger and multifaceted social costs.

The governmental advisories repeatedly consist of extending bans after each new consultation. In the UK, with the upcoming and much-contested general elections on 6 May (for which, good luck to the Liberal Democrats), the majority political class is more likely busy in their constituencies and probably short of time for ‘blue skies’ thinking on this unfolding dynamic scenario.

We, the people, receive news on new developments through the media, where the updates never fail to include the now-largely-accepted consensus that consists of some permutation of the elements: Iceland troublesome yet again (first their banks, then this!), volcanic ash clouds, risky for plane engines, some test flights no damages, situation uncertain, hope for the best, safety above everything.

The situation in Europe in these last few days reminds one of the movie Casablanca’s (1942) famous opening visuals of the people tracing their routes via Lisbon (ironically, one option in the present too) to get stuck in Casablanca where they ‘wait, and they wait’. Or, even of Albert Camus’ The Plague in its drawing of the human condition.

The reports from the stranded and the inconvenienced range the spectrum from the grim to the grotesque. Apart from passengers, there are stories of trouble for farmers exporting perishables to Europe from Africa, and a logjam in the diamond industry with Antwerp-India delink delaying shipments of diamond rings and necklaces.

There is need to look in greater detail at this. Here is some preliminary questioning.

First, what were the mechanisms in place to anticipate such a scenario and plan accordingly? Referring it back to ‘mother nature’ with a woebegone wringing of hands ‘nothing can really be done about this’ may be good for some believers, but begs many questions still.

The  FIFTH MEETING OF THE INTERNATIONAL AIRWAYS VOLCANO WATCH OPERATIONS GROUP (IAVWOPSG) was held in Lima, Peru, from 15 to 19 March 2010. The report of that meeting is online at The word ‘Iceland’ does not even figure in it! Yet there had been increased seismic activity in the region of the Icelandic volcano from the end of 2009 onwards.

The report (online at of the FOURTH MEETING OF THE INTERNATIONAL AIRWAYS VOLCANO WATCH OPERATIONS GROUP (IAVWOPSG) which was held in Paris, France, from 15 to 19 September 2008 is important, and specifically note the extract (from page 34, in italics below) and the agenda item relating to scientific decisions on ‘safe’ volcanic ash limits. There was a proposal made by the Iceland Metereological Office (IMO) to install a second Doppler weather radar in the eastern part of the Iceland to assist in monitoring the volcanic eruption activity in that area. In response, while it was understood that “such eruptions could have a major impact on aircraft operations over the NAT Regions since Icelandic volcanoes were situated close to important air routes”, nonetheless, it came to the following: “While the group agreed that such Doppler weather radars were useful tools for establishing the nature, height and extent of eruption columns and plumes, and agreed that an additional radar in Iceland seemed in principle useful, the information provided was not considered fully sufficient for the group to provide a definitive assessment of the proposal”.

Read more details in italics below, or download the report online. This was the situation in 2008.

Agenda Item 6: Development of the IAVW

6.2: Development of future satellite sensors and other systems to improve detection of volcanic eruptions and VA clouds

6.2.1 With regard to the definition of the lower limit on “safe” ash concentration, the group considered that with improving remote sensing techniques, progress on this long-standing issue could be expected, which could considerably contribute to the future operation of the IAVW. The group agreed that this issue should be progressed in parallel both by the IAVWOPSG and by WMO fora.  As it had proven difficult to get formal aviation representation at science-focused WMO workshops, the input of the aviation industry to this problem may have to be sought through IAVWOPSG . In this regard, the group endorsed the following conclusion:

Conclusion 4/24 —  Issue of “safe” concentration of volcanic ash


a) WMO be invited to further explore the issue of measuring the concentration of volcanic ash from the scientific viewpoint; and

b) the IAVWOPSG Members from IATA and IFALPA, explore the issues related to “safe” concentration of volcanic ash from an industry viewpoint, including the possibility to invite the manufacturers to IAVWOPSG meetings; and

c) the IAVWOPSG Members from IATA, IFALPA and WMO prepare reports in time for consideration by the IAVWOPSG/5 Meeting.

6.2.2 In connection with the use of remote sensing for detection volcanic ash, the group

considered a proposal by the Iceland Meteorological Office (IMO), which was responsible both for aeronautical meteorology and volcanological monitoring in Iceland. In particular, the opinion of the IAVWOPSG was sought on a proposal to install a second Doppler weather radar in the eastern part of the country to assist in monitoring the volcanic eruption activity in that area. The group considered that such an additional radar could have provided useful information related to the 2004 eruption of Grímsvötn,

located in the Eastern part of the country, if it had been operational then. Furthermore, a new Doppler radar in that area would be likely to optimise radar coverage over Iceland for volcanic cloud monitoring. The group noted that, according to the expert opinion of the IMO, Grímsvötn was expected to enter an active state with an estimated eruptive period of every two to seven years. Such eruptions could have a major impact on aircraft operations over the NAT Regions since Icelandic volcanoes were situated close to important air routes.

6.2.3 While the group agreed that such Doppler weather radars were useful tools for establishing the nature, height and extent of eruption columns and plumes, and agreed that an additional radar in Iceland seemed in principle useful, the information provided was not considered fully sufficient for the group to provide a definitive assessment of the proposal. Furthermore it was agreed that a detailed technical/scientific evaluation of the proposal would be outside the terms of reference of the group and that such an evaluation would have to be carried outside the IAVWOPSG, in close coordination with WMO and aviation user organizations.

One year later, at the Peru meeting in March 2010, the item relating to Volcanic Ash Advisory (VAAC) for London – looking at the VAAC responsibility map, VAAC London includes Iceland but not Europe – which states the following (page 16):

i) VAAC London

There had been no volcanic activity in the VAAC London area of responsibility, but volcanic ash advisories/volcanic ash graphic had been issued in support of three exercises in the EUR/NAT Region.  Coordination of volcanic ash exercises in the EUR/NAT Region had been carried out  by the Volcanic Ash Exercise Steering Group (VOLCEX/SG) chaired by VAAC London with the assistance of members from ENAV, Eurocontrol, ICAO, ISAVIA and VAAC Toulouse. Three volcanic ash related meetings had taken place during this period and a highly successful awareness workshop hosted by ENAV had been held in Sicily, Italy.

and again (on page 26):

6.1.3 The group noted an oral report from WMO and IATA members. In this regard, WMO was expecting to receive expert advice on these issues during the Fifth International Workshop on Volcanic Ash to be held in Santiago, Chile, during the week of 22 March 2010.  IATA informed the group about the strong efforts made in order to get representation from the industry at the workshop but unfortunately these efforts had not been successful to the disappointment of the group. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the group was of the opinion that the exploration of issues related to the concentration of volcanic ash in clouds from the scientific view point and “safe” concentration of volcanic ash should be further pursued since Conclusion 4/24 was still valid.

As I finished writing up most of this blog, another report also appeared online (19/4/10 GMT evening, this is the report (just-in, it seems, with ‘DRAFT’ stamped all over it) of the 5th INTERNATIONAL WORKSHOP ON VOLCANIC ASH that was held in Santiago, Chile 22-26 March 2010. This report (on page 44) mentions a paper which uses a model (NAME III) to simulate the dispersion of an ash cloud from a “typical Icelandic volcano” Hekla. It finds that the rapid spread of volcanic ash to countries in Europe is possible within 24 hours of an eruption.

The first eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was on 20th March 2010.

Second, what are the environmental goings-on in Eastern Iceland in general, and in the vicinity of the volcanoes in particular?

Eastern Iceland is the site of large geothermal and hydro projects, controversial mining -especially aluminium, bauxite – with stakes from the biggest heavy mining firms around the world.

Consider the following:

An article in the Independent from 2007 (online at describes steel pipes “as high as the Empire State Building” across a pool of oily water deep inside a mountain, connected to enormous turbines, and 40 kms away, the release of waters of a 57sq km reservoir. This is only one part of the construction projects in eastern Iceland, “designed to provide electricity for an aluminium smelter operated by the American multinational, Alcoa”.

Alcoa’s state-of-the-art smelter. The raw materials will arrive by sea – the processed alumina powder coming all the way from Australia. The metal is produced in 336 large vats or pots, as they’re called, working at 900C with each requiring a staggering 180 000 amps of electricity. It’s the reason the dam has to be so big. The first pot starts production next month and by the end of the year the plant will be producing some 346,000 tonnes of aluminium per year. More than a tonne for every Icelander.

The Kárahnjúkar dam is the largest hydroelectric project in Europe, it was attempted since 1970s, but got the go-ahead in 2002. (have a quick read about it here, then explore further,árahnjúkar_Hydropower_Project). The 2009 Icelandic documentary film Dreamland (Draumalandið) details the huge scale of the controversial project, and the opposition to it. A review of the film is at Here is the link between these project loans, Iceland economy, and the recent economic crash, it deserves more attention:

The project was on such a humongous scale for this little nation that the government found it necessary to jack up interest rates to around 15 percent in order to stop the economy from overheating, as a result of the inflow of foreign capital [read: loans awarded to the Icelandic state to finance the construction of the power plant]. Now, 3-4 years later, we see that these high interest rates played a major part in creating the bubble that eventually sank our economy last fall. [All to do with the so-called carry trade, plus it prompted Icelanders to start taking loans in foreign currencies to escape the high interest rates at home.]

John Perkins, author of the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man: The Shocking Story of How America Really Took Over the World, is quoted by the reviewer as saying that in the way that ‘economic hit men’ work, “In the past it was mostly third-world and developing countries that were targeted”, but “Iceland is the first Western country to be hit”.

The hit men go in, convince the authorities that whatever large project they have in mind is absolutely essential to the economy, offer to provide a huge loan to fund that project, and when the loan cannot be repaid, demand control over the resources. In Iceland’s case, this would be the cheap natural energy.

Not surprising, then, to find a statement being made by George W. Bush about Iceland in the opening scenes of Dreamland (see youtube trailer at Or, to read that the Landsvirkjun [The National Power Company] refused to make public the price at which Alcoa was sold the electricity for the smelter.

The hunch is that Alcoa is being sold energy at one-third of the price that it would have to pay elsewhere in Europe, which is lower than the cost it takes to produce it…The former mayor of Reyðarfjörður [replies that he is now] the project manager for Alcoa.

This will be familiar for anyone who has managed to see Michael Moore’s new movie ‘Capitalism: a love story’ (and not many may have — as bigger cinemas did not pick it up even though the business was decent when I was able to catch the last show at an independent theatre in London, here’s a snip

Reports (unverifiable at the moment, since they are accessible only on a google cache, the actual page of as it appeared last on 12 April 2010) online include:


August 2009

Chinalco, China’s biggest aluminium producer, has shown interest in buying a 32% share in Þeistareykir ehf., a geothermal energy company from the north of Iceland, owned equally by three companies; Landsvirkun (Iceland’s national energy company), Norðurorka and Orkuveita Húsavíkur (O.H. – Húsavík Energy). Norðuorka has shown interest in selling its share and according to information from the Chinesee Embassy in Iceland a committee from Chinalco will go north to Húsavík soon to discuss with those who the purchase concerns. Alcoa and H.S. Orka, which has been bought by the Canadian H.S. Orka, have also shown interest in buying a share in Þeistareykir ehf. Chinalco owns 10% shares in Rio Tinto-Alcan, which owns an aluminium smelter in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland. Chinalco has been focusing on buying up companies in different metal industries and e.g. recently bought copper mines in Latin America from Ross Beaty, the director of Magma Energy, a Canadian geothermal energy company that is in the process of buying big shares in an Icelandic energy company, H.S. Orka and has mentioned the possibility of buying shares in Geysir Green Energy, the major owner of H.S. Orka.The coming 1st of October, the memorandum of understanding between Alcoa, the government and Norðurþing county, expires. Norðurþing has announced their interest in renewing their contract with Alcoa, which is still looking for ways to use the geothermal energy from Þeistareykir.


March 2009

A parliamentary committee for redrafting of the Icelandic constitution consulted representatives from three foreign aluminium companies – Rio Tinto-Alcan, Alcoa and Century Aluminium – to give comments about the constitution. The chairman of the committee is the former minister of industry, Valgerður Sverrisdóttir – the ‘aluminium lady’. A regulation about the national property of natural resources is in a draft of law that recently has been heavily debated in the parliament. The committee asked for comment from various directions, e.g. the aluminium and energy companies. All the three aluminium companies are owned by foreign investors and their holding companies are all registered abroad.

Energy drives the world. It did a century ago (Proust observed this in his acute dissection of moneyed social classes, “nothing can alter the antiquity of blood and the world will always need oil”), and it does now.

Smaller countries with resources like hydropower that cannot easily be transported overseas are faced with increased pressure for growth alternatives. In Iceland’s case, the geography makes it a greater challenge, say, compared to a country like Bhutan, which has so far chosen a cautious use of clean energy (a recent small project – Dagachhu – even became the first cross-border project of its kind to be approved under UN’s CDM, Clean Development Mechanism), and managed people’s economic expectations by tempering them with a holistic philosophy like GNH (Gross National Happiness). Still, smaller countries, in this respect, share the problems of resource-rich minority-populated areas within larger countries – that are often energy surplus in production, subsidise energy for export to other areas, and have to cope with variable economic and environmental scenarios.

Looking at the Volcanic Ash consultation meeting reports, the recent closure of sky traffic due to the volcano may have been inevitable, but it need not have been as unanticipated as it seemed. More and more, national governments are caught on the backfoot when it comes to larger issues of network externalities – be it the financial crisis or the ash cloud.  While innovation in businesses (straightforward incentive-based thinking) is able to utilise the positive aspects of such interconnectedness, the negative aspects (negative network externalities) as they affect public policy across borders are insufficiently understood. Every new crisis of our times (add SARS and international terrorism to the financial crisis and the ash cloud) raises continuing unanswered questions of risk assessment (revisit the Knightian distinction between risk and uncertainty), learning, responsibility, information flows and communication systems in a time of crisis.

We have lived through centuries of a certain kind of ‘grounded’ modernity – with classifiable, separable, unitarily identifiable entities. But, this ‘land-based thinking’ (if one uses this term as a short-hand for a nation-statist bureaucratised governmentality, perhaps reality will force on our imaginations a new meaning for the terms ‘airy thinking or ‘head in the clouds’) is not enough to visualise or bear the futures we face, futures of the seamless seas and skies where the very content of standard sovereignty will undergo mutations.

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