Silence sulks in my
doors and windows – open wide
Write a loud cry, a hushed
call for me.
The lament I heard
on every bough, every meadow
Write it in the sands of
every desert for me.
IN February, when the anti NRC –CAB issue was at its peak, I happened to be in Pune, and was witness to a few protests. Not only were processions taken out, but slogans shouted out against the state’s proposed legislations. One of the popular slogans that never failed to elicit a response was: Hum kya chahtay: Azaadi (What do we want? Liberty). Then the sloganeer would go on to list the various oppressive structures like poverty, and casteism from which the protests demanded liberty. This immediately got me thinking of my mother, who is fond of reciting an anecdote to anyone who will listen. As a toddler who could barely utter a few words, she says, when I was being breastfed, I would pause my act of sucking, and mutter ajaadi when the masjid loudspeaker rang out with the slogan: Hum kya chahtay?
I recollect this anecdote to underscore the fact that any study of cultures of dissent and resistance must take into account the immense importance and pervasiveness of slogans. Unlike poetry of resistance, which demands a sophisticated understanding of the operations of metaphor and familiarity with idiom; a slogan makes no demands on exclusivity. Rather, its existence relies on its iterability – its ability to be repeated, which presumes it must be easy to comprehend and memorize, and thus avoid every claim to complexity. The necessity of memorizing arises from the fact that unlike poetry, a slogan is seldom written (If it is written, it is usually post its recital), nor claimed to be the intellectual property of a particular person, rather exists in the collective memory as a common property of sorts. This naturally entails that the slogan must rely on brevity in order to be memorized and recalled by the collective.
A slogan is inherently a public act. Unlike my private act of resistance, it achieves meaning and power only when it is performed in a public place. A slogan is a way of indicating that the public space which is regulated by the state, will be reconfigured and reimagined as the protestors seek to reclaim control of the space. By participating in the slogan and answering to the slogan, the sloganeers recognize their capacity to appropriate space, and defy discipline imposed by the state. A slogan allows the protestors to modify the meanings of a public place.
A road, for example, becomes not a geography of conveyance but a space charged with emotional meanings, a place where competing and dissenting vectors of desire can exist in violation of the state will. The protestors’ actions prove that symbolic signs are tied to specific objects and geographies in arbitrary ways, not as facts, as the state would have them believe through regulation of spaces, mapping and closing of spaces. A slogan is attestation of the fact that human actions can variously alter the meanings and form of places, a possibility the state is perpetually wary of. It implies that the power to nominate and determine meaning and accessibility has transferred from the state to the people.
That the act of sloganeering is conducted in public, is an attestation of the fact that symbolic associations with public places especially conspicuous places like Ghanta ghar or Clock Tower or the UN office get built over time, and acquire a narrative infallibility that is impossible to erase. As Edelman notes, “The conspicuousness of public structures, together with their emptiness of explicit meaning, enables them to serve as symbolic reaffirmations of many levels of perceptions and beliefs.” A slogan is therefore at once an act of historicizing, an act of dissent, and an act of reclamation. It serves as an agent of translation where the collective dissent is translated into a renewal or familiarization with an integration into a particular ideological position (of being part of, or against a collective). While the state relies on increasing the distance between the subjects, if necessary, by use of coercion (a curfew or tear gas shelling is meant to scatter the protestors); sloganeering achieves the opposite effect by reducing the distance between the participants. It unites the protestors as voices are synchronized, order followed and replies coordinated impromptu; establishing them as a collective unit rather than a collection of disparate individuals.
Having established the dynamics of performativity of the slogan, it now follows that one must examine the operation of the slogan itself – why the slogan is what it is, and how does it work? I propose to illustrate this by taking up a case study of a slogan, and analyzing its working. The slogan I have selected for this analysis is Jis Kashmir ko Khoon say seencha/Woh Kashmir humara hai (The Kashmir you have watered with blood/ That Kashmir is ours). The slogan was conceived during the Plebiscite movement started by Afzal Beg – the trusted lieutenant of Sheikh Abdullah – the then Prime Minister of Kashmir who was summarily dismissed first for losing the confidence of his cabinet, and arrested on charges of conspiring against the country. The slogan sought to reiterate the heavy price Kashmir had to pay for opposing Dogra rule invoking the various massacres like the Zaldagar Massacre the horror of gilgit begaar (forcible labour to carry supplies to Gilgit cantonement that routinely left the coolies dead, disabled, or traumatized) and the partition horrors in Jammu against Muslims to press the demand that people of Kashmir must be allowed to decide their political destiny.
The operative word in the slogan first is the demonstrative ‘jis’ (That) implying therein that there are multiple Kashmirs. The plural evokes the multiple imaginations of Kashmir – as a paradisiacal bower, a war zone, an atoot ang and a shah-rag (Integral part for India, and the jugular vein for Pakistan), as well as the Maej Kasheer (Mother Kashmir) for its locals. The demonstrative ‘jis’ then evokes a Kashmir, which is the real Kashmir and not its fantastical representations. The slogan, however, works first due to the emotive force of the verb ‘seencha’, which can mean both plough and irrigate. ‘Plough’ evokes the pervasive violence that inscribes and unsettles the soft surface of the earth evoking the imaginaries of incision, engraving and etching into the flesh, a painful process and thereby an appropriate reminder of the pain of Kashmir. Visceral experiences are the primary and first experiences in an individual’s life, and therefore the evocation of a memory etched in flesh is a reminder of the permanence and severity of the trauma of Kashmir. Hence, one of the common ways to indicate severe grief, especially in Kashmir, is to suggest that it is inscribed on the heart (the heart being a repository of emotions). The land and people become fused, as the earth becomes a metaphor for the heart and flesh– the emotive collective and collective memory of Kashmir.
Moreover, since the land is ploughed by blood, the land and people are further fused as blood spilled leaves a trail of destruction and grief on the Kashmiri heart. However, it can be read in an another way too – blood as fertilizer and land as the fruit. The National Conference Flag and the flag of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was a red cloth with a white plough on it. This relic of Abdullah’s flirtation with Nehruvian socialism evoked the plough as a symbol of the disenfranchised tiller, invariably a Kashmiri Muslim, crushed under agrarian debt, and a hostile Hindu state. The colour red – both the colour of blood, and revolution indicated a ‘Naya Kashmir’ (New Kashmir) – one premised on equality and liberty. The verb ‘seencha’ thus evokes this whole paradigm of historical memory, and the hope of finally reclaiming the land. The assertion of ‘Woh Kashmir humara hai’ serves as a reminder that the process is yet incomplete. This tracing of the land through blood is a reminder of the imaginaries in which a nation is conceived – sacrifice and bloodshed. As the grandmother in Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines points out that the character Ila has no right to live in England. She says:
“She doesn’t belong there. It took these people a long time to build that country… years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned his right to be there with their blood: with their brother’s blood and their father’s blood and their son’s blood.”
The nation, therefore, is conceived through the rite of blood, and the slogan is a reminder of this rite. I leave it to the reader to reflect on how the slogan still stays as relevant in the post-370 context, as it was when it was conceived five decades ago – five decades of stagnation, and grief.
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