“What have you heard?” Secrecy, State, and Space in Kashmir
From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia
From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia
August 5, 2019. Around 9:30 in the morning, my friends and I sat on the concrete steps of a closed sweet shop, at the pend in Pampore, a small town near the capital city of Indian-controlled Kashmir. A trickle of civilian traffic moved on the otherwise busy Srinagar-Jammu highway that passes through the town. Rumors circulating over the past few days had come true. Authorities had indeed snapped the telecommunication network at midnight, leaving people restless and speculating. Visibly anxious Pampore residents watched the paramilitary men position themselves around the town. From the pend, our vantage point, we saw civilians reluctantly returning to their homes at the instruction of the local policeman. We too obliged when they waved their batons at us. As more paramilitary vehicles arrived, an eerie silence prevailed in the bazaar. Indian troops had now completely overtaken the town. The police announced the curfew on a megaphone. Within a few minutes, the bazaar was emptied of civilians. Everything was shrouded in secrecy.
At 11 a.m., huddled before a TV along with my family, I saw on the news that the president of India had assented to the bill forcibly annexing Jammu and Kashmir by revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution. No one, not even the opposition parties, seemed to have been alerted. Everything was done in great secrecy, from the drafting of the bill to the signatures of the president of India and the governor of J&K. It was a constitutional coup orchestrated by the Modi regime against the basic principles of democracy, in acute secrecy.
Secrecy is crucial to the reproduction of authoritarian regimes. The opacity around the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019 inaugurated a regime of secrecy that is more imposing than before. An unprecedented information blockade and state repression made mobilizing protests against the abrogation extremely difficult. Since 1947, New Delhi’s rule over Kashmir has been a combination of coercion and control (Duschinski and Ghosh 2017), where secrecy has played a role in manipulating local politics, inducing fear in the population, and controlling the flow of information. By leaving people only with little information, the state projects and signals its authoritarian power in its most subtle form.
In the aftermath of August 5, 2019, the sheer scale of secrecy altered the conditions of political engagement for people. At the pend, conversations and exchanges were punctuated by queries of “what have you heard?” (kya sa wanaan?) circumscribed by the state’s attempts to maintain secrecy through a communication blackout and concertina wires. At the pend, the power of the state to control information was challenged with the circulation of what have you heard, recalibrating the political field. In this essay, I examine the power and limitations of secrecy as a technique of authoritarianism from the vantage of the pend in an occupied landscape.
A pend is typically a neighborhood hangout spot, also a site of immense political value, a public sphere peculiar to Kashmir. It can be the concrete steps of any property, or a tight space inside a bakers’ shop; it is a gendered space, usually dominated by men. Whether privately or publicly owned, a pend is a socially shared space, providing an affective mode of experiencing and witnessing. It produces a distinctive sociality where Kashmiris often engage and develop meaning-making narratives to cope with the chronic crisis of Indian rule. It is also a waiting spot before joining a funerary procession of a fallen rebel. It is where young people bide time, observe, gather, and share news. It is a realm where the insurgent Kashmiri body confronts the state, making itself visible and vulnerable to varied actors of the vast occupational structure—police, paramilitary, army, intelligence, informers. State responses to pend-sitters are differentiated. While a gathering of older adults is seen as passive and usually tolerated by the state forces, a gathering of young men is always suspected of being potentially oppositional and defiant, thus discouraged and dispersed.
With restrictions on mobility eased a bit after August 10, I returned to my regular pend every morning. Even though the TV news channels were on air, the pend continued to be the main source of information especially due to the unprecedented communication lockdown and censorship. It emerged as an even more crucial site to know what was happening (what have you heard) in other neighborhoods and towns. A day after the abrogation and curfew were declared, my elder brother informed me that my friend, S., who lives in a neighborhood a mile away from mine, had been rounded up by the police. My brother was not sure why and there was no way to talk to my friend’s family since the mobile network, internet, fixed-lined telephone—all were dead. So, how had my brother come to know about my friend’s arrest? At the pend.
In Pampore, the town where I live, people were allowed to move through the military siege (imposed by nearly half a million security personnel) if they needed to visit the local hospital or to fetch medicine or milk. Sitting on a pend we greet visitors from the adjoining villages. They bring news (and carry some back; what have you heard?). I became the secondary source of information for the people at the pend when I shared my journalist cousin’s retelling of the state brutalities in South Kashmir, now published in a U.S.-based national daily.
The unprecedented nature of the event (August 5) had a paralyzing effect on the pend. In 2010, Pampore had erupted in spontaneous protests when the news of civilian killings reached the pends. In 2016, the pend (all over Kashmir) became the launch pad of anti-India street protests after the iconic rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed on July 8. But in August 2019, Kashmiris couldn’t do anything; they seemed to not know what to do with the fragmented information, which only added to their anxiety. At the pend, people seemed to be searching for clues and seeking their way out of the fog of the regime of secrecy by constantly asking each other—what have you heard? August 5 was transformative of the regime of secrecy in a spectacular way, it was feared that the shocking abrogation of 370 had demobilized people, accumulating the dread and uncertainty that secrecy evokes.
Yet, August 5 was also a unifying moment, as many Kashmiris (bystanders and those who had come to terms with the Indian rule) started making common cause with the dissidents. Trying to make sense of what happened, many people participated at the pend for the first time, seeking assurances by asking: “What have you heard?” This question could only be asked and answered (and acted upon) at the pend. But, the fact that people across the ideological spectrum unified and converged at the pend in the face of the state’s weaponization of secrecy shows the central importance of the pend as a site of the recalibration of a political field. While the great secrecy of August 5 indeed created a paralysis in Kashmir, it was not an enduring one. It was a paralysis of a moment, acutely felt in a particular time, with a heightened sense of immediacy.
Duschinski, Haley, and Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh. 2017. “Constituting the Occupation: Preventive Eetention and Permanent Emergency in Kashmir.” Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 49, no. 3: 314–37.