Dividing Lines: The story of Kashmir, in pellets and stones

The stone presents the anger of the individual body against the body politic.

There’s an old Chinese quotation that quietly claims one picture is worth a thousand words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a cartoon is sometimes worth more. It stimulates reflection, triggers thought and allows for a variety of interpretations. Two recent pieces Kashmir provided this opposition between picture and text. One was a statement by Rajnath Singh. The home minister proclaimed: “We should try to convince those who pick up stones to leave it… Teenagers and youngsters should have computers, pens and books instead of stones in their hands.” This innocuous cliché must be contrasted with a recent cartoonscape. A slightly greyer Narendra Modi sits in his office brooding over J&K. There is a bulletproof glass wall around him. On the other side of the wall, evoking an animated David to his brooding Goliath, is a figure holding a catapult with stones littered around him. The catapult has become the symbol of childlike, desperate resistance to authoritarianism. Mr Modi, leaning on his desk, muses grimly. The cartoon bubble claims “talks would be alternative to both pellets and stones”.

There is a symbolic difference in the very tangibility of the two objects. The stone as material object has a reassurance of its own. Subaltern narratives mention the stone as inaugurating the ritual of protest. The stone represents the favourite weapon of a crowd, that has not yet become a mob. A crowd provides an initial gathering of people, beginnings of solidarity of protest. A stone is a handy weapon for a crowd whose protests fall on deaf ears. There is something local and spontaneous about it. A protester carrying a stone is not an armed terrorist or insurgent. There is a vulnerability about the stone-thrower. A stone as a protest, as a message, is a reminder to a government that it has forgotten to listen, signalling a desperate need for a hearing and conversation. It is a material articulation that mere silence is read as indifference, weakness or passivity. A stone becomes an attempt to correct, redress an error in communication and to remind New Delhi of the failures of governance.
This desperation is misread by Delhi as it inflates the threat from a message of defiance and desperation into a threat to national security. A stone isn’t just an evocation of protest, but a symbol of desire, new aspirations and dreams that can wait no longer. In that sense, that humble stone in a human hand is a reminder that the basic sense of governance has been forgotten. Protest has a tangibility, a vulnerability. It smells honest. A pellet is a different kind of product. It is supposed to spring from the humanitarian impulse of authority. It promises not to kill, but merely injure and dissuade. It was not supposed to create fatalities in Kashmir, merely enable crowd control. Debates over pellets have also become a substitute for a general discussion on Kashmir policy. Mr Singh promises to withdraw pellets but actually complains of the lethal nature of stones, the damage they have done to Army personnel. The pellets are lethal, if not fatal. They destroy vision and disintegrate inside the body to create a separate field of devastation.

The two notions of the body relate to two ideas of the body politic around the pellet and controversial stone. It represents the vulnerability of the individual, the citizen’s helplessness before state brutality. The stone presents the anger of the individual body against the body politic. Yet the stone’s message is denied as Mehbooba Mufti, who claims: “No solution can be found by pelting of stones.” The pellet reflects a new drama, where citizens injured by pellets are hunted by the Army in searches. Kashmiris with pellet injuries are arrested to delay medical care. To explain this as the problem of untrained personnel is to add insult to grievous injury. It’s almost as if a blinded state wants to create blinded people. It’s the pellet guns that provides one of the great spoofs that has caught international attention. Protesters realised complaining of blindness due to pellets on an anonymous people generates little response. They created Photoshop images of VIP faces to bring home the scandal. Photoshop pictures show Aishwarya Rai, Shah Rukh Khan, Narendra Modi, Virat Kohli, Amitabh Bachchan, Mark Zuckerberg, etc with pellet-scarred faces.

The comic icing in the cake is a Photoshop image of the PM with eyes bandaged. For a moment, it isn’t clear if it’s the pellets or the metaphorical blindness of Delhi. Mr Modi virtually looks clueless and grim as if he’s at the receiving end of a game of blind man’s bluff. Along with the spoof is a letter from a doctor to the PM, saying while they had performed the initial surgery, the pellets were still lodged in the eyes. These little spoofs explode like pellets across the cultural space, driving home the idea that the pellet is a symptom of the State’s authoritarianism and indifference, while the stone represents the agency and vulnerability of a people. The effect is surreal, as if French playwright-actor Artaud and Mad magazine had decided to collaborate on a J&K campaign. Stone verses pellets becomes a fable of the varieties of misunderstanding between Kashmir and Delhi. I linked the story of Kashmir in terms of pellets and stones to convey a sense of symbolism of the problem, the power of language and the meaning of words. To emphasise pellets and stones as habitats of the concrete and tangible hide the multitude of silences hidden in every crevice and memory.

Between them stands the many worlds of silence which no one has mapped for Kashmir. I am listing to them. The silence of a mother searching for her child, a boy waiting for his sister… Mourning, grief or protest opens up this silence for a while till it collapses again. Many have talked of the unrest, violence, noise of terror, mourning of crowds when an innocent child is shot. Kashmir as it stands is an ode to silence, to waiting, to hope, to all the layers of patience and expectations that a people expect from democracy. The silence still demands and provides an entire ecology between the poetry of the stone and the pathos of the pellet. A society subject to 50 years of internal violence is a tired one. A state that has subjected its people to five decades of brutality is mindless. One needs the poetry, the voice, the Sufiness of Kashmir to come alive so a different story of Kashmir can begin. All the storyteller and commentator can do is wait.

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