Lawyer Nandita Haksar on her conversations with Sampat Prakash and Afzal Guru
Human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer Nandita Haksar’s book The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism portrays the lives of two Kashmiris: Sampat Prakash, a Kashmiri Pandit and a communist trade union leader, and Muhammad Afzal Guru, a former militant who was hanged in Tihar jail in 2013 for his alleged role in the 2001 Parliament attack. The twin account chronicles the trajectory of is the marker of Kashmiri nationalism which, Ms. Haksar says, is suppressed by the post-colonial states of India and Pakistan with international politics further complicating its prospects. In 2003, Ms. Haksar, a human rights lawyer, rescued another Parliament attack convict S.A.R. Geelani from the gallows. In her book, she places her narrative in the Cold War era, describing how communism instilled the feeling of nationalism among a significant number of Kashmiris and how it faded with the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving behind a few staunch supporters, including Mr. Prakash, who stayed devoted to the ideology. Ms. Haksar gradually veers to the post-9/11 world, examining Guru and his fight for independent Kashmir, which led to his hanging. Because of the “competing nationalisms” of India and Pakistan, she narrates, the freedom sentiment of Kashmiris was crushed. Mr. Prakash, however, continues to resist the Indian rule in Kashmir even though his manner is both rigid and resigned, fitted to a man who finds himself alone in a battle but never turns his back at the cause. Despite being a Kashmiri Pandit, a minority community that migrated in 1990 to different parts of India as the militants killed several hundreds of them, he didn’t leave his home. In Kashmir, he still mobilises traders and pensioners. Born in 1938, Ms. Prakash grew up around the time when the memory of Russian Revolution was fresh. And Guru came of age at the end of the Cold War when the U.S. backed Islamic militants defeated the “godless” Russians in Afghanistan. While Mr. Prakash’s nationalism is largely influenced by communism, Guru’s was motivated by Islam. Both stood firm on the idea of “inclusive Kashmir” where all faiths can live equally. Ms. Haksar, daughter of former diplomat P.N. Haksar, spoke to Mehboob Jeelani about how the book took shapeshaped up, and explains the process of understanding the nationalism of Mr. Prakash and Guru. Excerpts:
How did you end up choosing Sampat Prakash and Afzal Guru as your main characters?
I am a lawyer and I had taken up the case of S.A.R. Geelani, another Kashmiri who was an accused in the Parliament attack. As I got Mr. Geelani out of jail, I launched the “Save Afzal Guru” campaign. In that process, he (Guru) wrote a bunch of letters to me. I began to know him slowly and I believed he was not involved in the attack. I met Sampat Prakash during the same time. Their stories were extraordinary. There were two things which were not in any discourse. One, here was a Kashmiri Pandit, who’s deeply rooted in Pandit society. Despite that he decided to stay on in Kashmir and engage with the Kashmiris under an extremely difficult situation. And this is something new to me. When I go to Kashmir, I suddenly realise what it really means to be a minority. It is quite another thing to stay in India and show solidarity with the minority, which I often find patronising, however much you may try not to be. But if you are a minority yourself, it is hard to function. But Sampat was remarkable. He had no self-pity either on his behalf or on behalf of the community. He had no love for the Kashmiri Muslims. He is a Kashmiri nationalist and he is fighting for Kashmir. That struck me as a right tone. As an Indian, I found that was an important story to be told.
What about Afzal Guru?
Afzal Guru and I engaged in long conversations during the campaign and there was no hostility from him. He was always warm. He was in jail and still he sent me long, thoughtful letters. To me, it meant you can have a conversation with him. It meant if he was the enemy number one of India and I can still have a long conversation with him, then it is not only intelligence officers who have to have it [conversations with him]. We, as citizens of India, should have conversations with such people. Therefore, I wanted to publish this book, to break this myth that men like Afzal Guru are mad fanatical militants with whom you can’t have a conversation.
What did you learn from those conversations?
I learned that in India we don’t want to meet people who are dubbed anti-Indian. You’ll see Indian television anchors resorting to jingoism. You’ll see them raising their voices over whether the Indian government has helped Syed Sallahuddin’s son get admission in a college. Is that a topic for national TV? Do we know there are Kashmiris who were influenced by communism? Do we know how Islamic militancy came to Kashmir? Sheikh Abdullah names Lal Chowk after Red Square, which was in Moscow. Sampat Prakash was young back then and he was taken by that left-leaning symbolism. And Afzal’s generation is a generation which doesn’t see the Soviet Union as a liberator. They see it as a godless monster, as described by the West, and defeated by the Islamic militants. It’s the West which has shaped the present-day Islamic terrorist. It’s the West which destroyed alternate ideologies and alternate political frameworks, which were available, which could have been available now to be used, modified, and discussed. Now we are all stuck in a place we can’t get out of. That’s how from Sampat Prakash to Afzal Guru, we get from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
What’s Sampat’s response and what was Afzal’s response to the War on Terror?
Sampat doesn’t understand it. In his practice, he has always been against the state. He has been to jail a few times. He espouses Hindu-Muslim unity, believes in freedom of speech and expression. But his grievance is that he is left alone with a trade union because the communist parties have no vision of how to deal with religious nationalism. Whereas Afzal’s nationalism was suppressed by the Indian government and he was pushed to such an extreme that in the end he rejected the idea of nationalism and clung to political Islam.
You also mention that Sampat’s close relatives have joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Does that reference carry any symbolic weight?
I feel that there is no space for real conversation. Once a Kashmiri Muslim and his wife stayed at my house and he kept pestering me that I should interview Kashmiri Pandits and ask them why they don’t protest against the human rights violations carried by armed forces in Kashmir. I asked him why he wouldn’t go and talk to them. He said, “I can’t even walk up to them. They have become rigid.” Then this man met Sampat and they had very long conversations. I felt there weren’t those kind of real conversations between the two communities. There should be honest conversations between them in which they could say that they don’t like each other. They should question each other’s silence when things are bad, when they are suffering, yet unable to come together to face it. In the absence of that dialogue, the communities are turning to radical ideologies. They should talk and have it out in the open.
Since Afzal and Sampat never met, you think they would have had an honest conversation with each other?
I think both of them had a possibility of talking. I think both of them were open to talking. To me both are patriarchal. They had extreme views on women. On many occasions, Afzal said to me that he doesn’t like my views on women. And that had nothing to do with Islam or Islamic militancy. Patriarchy is patriarchy.
Where does India stand in this book?
Finally, we have to fight this battle within our own country. Who is really responsible for all this? It is not because of Jawaharlal Nehru that Sheikh Abdullah turned against India. It is because of Syama Prasad Mookerjee (a RSS ideologue) and the growing Praja Parishad movement that he was forced to think that this is not the India Kashmiris would want to go with. In my final analysis, it is not the Islamist radicals who are responsible for the Kashmir conflict. At one point in history, Kashmiris had said they want to be with India. It is the Hindu nationalists that messed with them at every point and turned them against India. Sheikh Abdullah’s disillusionment was a reaction to Hindu nationalism. This book is my conversation with India, primarily.