Kashmir, Assam, Manipur – the death worlds in India’s borderlands

On Monday, India celebrated its 70th year of freedom with pomp and gaiety. The Independence Day is, more than anything else, a celebration of a national identity that was supposedly forged during India’s long walk to freedom from colonial rule. The Prime Minister addressed the nation from the ancient ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi and as always, grandiose pledges were made. Against the blue skies of the national capital, a cheerful battle of kites unfolded, in keeping with an old tradition.On the same day, far away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi, five bombs went off in Assam, fortunately without killing anyone. It served as a reminder to some of us of the Assam that we grew up in, where the Indian Independence Day was rarely an occasion of joy. For me, 2004 is a year that stands out, just because of the visuals that appeared on local television.
That year, Prag News, the first private news channel of the region, showed footages of petrified children, adults and policemen running amok in Dhemaji, the easternmost town on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra. At 9 o’ clock, on the morning of August 15, a blast triggered by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) had killed thirteen people, 10 children and three women – all of whom had assembled at the Dhemaji College ground for the Independence Day parade.
Then, a few hours later, we saw a haunting image from a town called Bishenpur in Manipur. This was on the newly-launched NETV. A young man, in flames, ran down a street, before being stopped by the police who doused the fire on his person. On the same morning, 28-year-old Pebam Chittaranjan of the Manipuri Students’ Federation joined the people’s protest demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from the entire state of Manipur. In a note that he passed around, Chittaranjan wrote, “It is better to self-immolate than die at the hands of security forces under this Act. With this conviction I am marching ahead of the people as a human torch.” Then, he set himself on fire. Chittaranjan would not survive.
In retrospect, these spectacularly tragic displays, carefully planned for August 15, served as a searing reminder to many of us that the state of freedom in India’s troubled borderlands is one characterised by absence. If freedom meant life with its liberty and security, what occurred on this Independence Day was its complete negation.
Achille Mbembe, a leading African philosopher, argues that the “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death profoundly reconfigures the relations among resistance, sacrifice, and terror”. The various ways in which life gets subjugated to death is what marks the politics of our times – what he calls “necropolitics”, or the politics of death.
Politics of death it is, because exceptional state violence has replaced democracy in many parts of India’s frontiers. What we have in place is a “durable disorder”, to use Sanjib Baruah’s memorable phrase.
On the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, it is no ordinary disorder. Look at what is happening in Kashmir. A violent sovereignty and its militant resistance have reached its zenith while the death toll continues to rise. Mbembe uses the expression “death-worlds” to describe this unique form of social existence in which the condition of vast populations resembles the status of “living dead”.
“Zinda laash” – living dead – is exactly how young men who are out on the streets in Kashmir describe their state of being. The recent two-part documentary from Chase, titled Inside a Friday Protest, was notably shot before the killing of the Hizbul militant Burhan Wani. It takes us to the heart of downtown Srinagar where every Friday, after afternoon prayers, a ritual of stone pelting unfolds leading to a violent clash between mobs and the security forces.
The youths in the mob have a clear sense of how their lives have been permanently destroyed in this circle of violence that began more than a generation ago and was revived again since 2008. Barely out of their teens, the have already been identified as troublemakers and are a step away from being labelled “terrorists”, thanks to the dizzying range of cases slapped on them. They bristle with exceptional rage. “While pelting stones, my motive is to kill someone. We get injured, so why shouldn’t they, the forces?” says one stone pelter. When another is asked if he is scared of death, he says, “My dream is to be a martyr. There is no better death than shahadat (martyrdom).”
A will to death has indeed become the new language of political protest, and not just in India. The story is the similar across geographies. Think of the massive wave of self-immolations since 2009, by Tibetan monks and nuns protesting against Chinese sovereignty. In Pakistan-occupied territories, the traditional hijarat (protective migration) as the moral practice of displaced Kashmiri Muslims has now given way to jihad (armed struggle).
In defence of such violence, the explanation often offered is that when all channels of democratic politics are blocked, death is the only agency available. It is in death that life seems to find a new meaning.
Yet the wounds of war also test the limits of explanation. The history of the last half a century is proof enough to how wars fought over identity have always been at the expense of other identities. The two most influential political figures of twentieth century South Asia had placed the fight for human liberation above projects of identity or nationalism. Opposed they might have been to each other, but they were united them by the powerful critique of violence as a means of political action.
For MK Gandhi, it was in courageously standing up to violence lay the possibility of its overcoming.Through a bold new reading of Gandhi’s writings, the historian Faisal Devji shows that “his response to suffering was not in the first instance to ameliorate it but instead to make sure that those who had been wronged behaved like moral agents and not victims, thus allowing them to enter into a political relationship with their persecutors”.
While for Dr BR Ambedkar, the most important struggle was in the fight towards annihilation of the “age-long tyranny and oppression by orthodox Hindus”. Social equality among all was a precondition to any national imagination. In that, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues, “Ambedkar’s belief in constitutional methods in the face of the experience of injustice was at least as much if not a more radical expression of non- violence than Gandhi could ever imagine. It takes an immense and different kind of courage to not convert the deepest kind of oppression into a call for cathartic violence”.
On the face of great atrocities, it takes stupendous courage to imagine a radical nonviolence to fight tyranny. Yet, two remarkable scenes from the last few days are worth considering.

One is from Manipur, where Irom Chanu Sharmila has broken her 16-year-long fast and has decided to fight the AFSPA by entering politics. She has evidently withdrawn herself from a frozen martyrdom and has expressed her will to live. Perhaps she wants to give a new meaning to the illustrious feminist tradition of meira paibi (“torch bearing woman” in Manipuri), in the hope that no one else would have to suffer Chittaranjan’s tragic fate of ending as a burning “human torch”.
The second one is from Gujarat, where thousands of Dalit men and women fought against all odds to march together in the wake of brutal Hindutva violence. Gathering in villages and towns that were often taken aback, Dalits assembled and took oaths that rejected a long tradition of humiliating and degrading conventional occupations.
In both these acts, those who were wronged chose to abandon a passive victimhood. They have chosen to become new moral agents by entering into a different, political relationship with their persecutors. We can only hope that this is a spectacular window to a future that allows us to turn our backs to death-worlds.

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