JNU Studens’ Union vice-president Shehla Rashid Shora came to the limelight when her fellow student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was imprisoned on sedition charges in February. In his absence, Shora, a firebrand orator, led protests for his release and represented the Union on various national forums. In an interaction with HT, Shora, who hails from Habba Kadal, a centre of Kashmir’s political unrest, shares her views on the Indian government’s handling of the current round of crisis, media coverage of the issue and how is it like being a Kashmiri in Delhi.
Q. In one of your recent Facebook posts, you wrote, “Dear media, will you publicise Shah Faesal’s statement the way you raked up Umar Khalid’s statement?” It is apparent from the post that are upset with the way media has been covering the Kashmir unrest.
A. I am disappointed to see that the entire media’s focus is on what a person says about the issue and not what the issue is. This is unethical. This is a diversionary tactic. We should focus on why people in Kashmir are out on the streets. There is no discussion on that. What we have is shrill media propaganda. Wherever I travelled recently, everyone had only one question for me, “What did Umar Khalid say about Burhan Wani?” This is not by accident. This is systematic. It is being pushed from somewhere. All this is happening when we are told the difference between good and bad Kashmiri.
Q. You believe in ‘good Kashmiri, bad Kashmiri’ theory?
A. No no…people differ in aspirations. Today it has become a very controversial issue. At one time the Indian government was party to the agreement that there would be a plebiscite. People’s political aspirations are not fulfilled. Many people are pro India, pro Pakistan and for a secular Jammu and Kashmir. There are aspirations which have to be politically resolved.
Q. In another post online, you expressed that you were unhappy with the silence Left parties have shown on the issue.
A. The Left has displayed a disappointing silence on the issue. We all know this is a controversial issue. Civilians are dying. There is use of disproportionate force. There is media clampdown. Lethal weapons like pellet guns are in use. How can you not condemn this? When JNU comes under attack, everyone comes together. But the real test of unity has to be in situations like this one. I am not asking any Left party to support Burhan Wani. But when it comes to criticising the killings of innocent civilians, I don’t think we need any elaborate discussion on this.
Watch: JNUSU vice president Shehla Rashi Shora talks about the Kashmir crisis
Q. Given the way the Indian government has responded to Kashmir issue on previous occasions, does its current reaction surprise you?
A. No. This is repetitive. This is a cycle. Even if right now it is suppressed by military might, it will rise again in three-four years. I have said time and again what the Indian government often portrays as peace and normalcy is a very fragile kind of peace. Unless the underlined political issue is addressed, the situation will remain fragile.
What the Indian government does as a pattern is to brand any people’s leader as a terrorist. Forget Burhan Wani…he took up arms. Take the example of Sheikh Abdullah. He was a mass leader. Even when he came out of prison, sealed the Indira Sheikh accord, he was a mass leader. But what happened? He was sent to jail for 15-16 years for sedition charges. This is the pattern. India has repeatedly gone back on its promises on Kashmir.
Q. You think the response to the issue change depending on which government is at the Centre?
A. No, it does not matter. Congress is as blind to the Kashmir issue as the BJP.
Q. While growing up in Srinagar, did you witness violence of the scale we are seeing currently?
A. It was only 2010 when more than 100 people died during unrest in the Valley. Till 2010, we were taught, indoctrinated and brought up in a manner any middle class Kashmiri family would bring up their children…to think that everything is normal. But 2010 was the turning point. That was the first time I realised that something was wrong.
But the way thousands of people attended Burhan Wani’s funeral is something I had never seen before in my lifetime. It was unprecedented.
Q. What does the huge number of people attending Burhan Wani’s funeral indicate?
A. During anti-gangrape protests in Delhi in December 2013, people were not agitated only about that particular case in which the young girl died. They were expressing their anger on gender injustice. In Kashmir, people demonstrating on the streets does not necessarily means that each protester supports Burhan. It means there is anger over continued human rights abuse, use of guns and militarisation. People, right from Kashmir to New Delhi, are irritated with this talking through the gun approach of the Indian government.
Q. You said in your growing-up years, your family would make you believe that everything was normal. Tell us more about that.
A. I grew up in the Habba Kadal area which is the hub of insurgency. I saw everything including firing, family members getting injured, people being frisked. I realised that censorship had become integral part of people’s lives in the Valley in the sense that no one talked about it. In our homes we don’t talk about it. Militancy and related topics were not discussed. We could see only Doordarshan which would broadcast the government version. Only elite families could afford cable television.
My family would travel across India. I learnt the Indian national anthem by heart. I used to draw the Indian flag in my diary. In 2010, things changed.
Gradually, I realised the power of Indian propaganda in Kashmir. Even if something wrong is happening right in front of your eyes, you are supposed to believe that everything is right. This approach doesn’t work. We Kashmiris are stakeholders here. We should be empowered to talk about the issue. Our voices should be considered. We should be given the right to self determination.
Q. You are living here when back home, people would be criticising New Delhi for mishandling the situation. How does it feel?
A. If you talk to most of the Kashmiris, they would say you have to travel for purposes of work an education. And Kashmiris have always been very cosmopolitan society. Even the tour guides know various languages. Kashmir was never an enclosed thing and people were never inward looking. This whole branding of the problem as an Islamist problem is totally wrong. Kashmir was never an Islamist issue.
If we trace the roots of the movement from the 1930s, it was a workers’ movement. People were organised on socialist lines. There were land reforms and education reforms which resulted in emancipation of people. The kind of inequality you saw in rest of the sub continent was not there in Kashmir. It was only when people were suppressed that they took up arms. I am talking about the phase when even the secular insurgency, the JKLF faction was suppressed and Hizbul Mujahideen was allowed to function. It is only when you don’t leave people with any choice that they turn to God. That is when the Islamisation started. And this suits the Indian government. The Indian government does not want people’s movements to prosper in the Valley. We know what happened to Sheikh Abdullah, plebiscite front, Muslim United Front, JKLF.
Indian government always suppress the progressive and secular elements and allows the regressive elements because it helps India to align itself with the global war on terror.
Q. Do you talk to family members back home every day?
A. Not daily. I remain very little in contact with them due to my work. Right now it is all the more difficult because mobile phones are jammed. In some places landlines, internet, media, everything is jammed.
Q. The reasoning is that it is done to stop the flow misinformation…
A. If you wish to stop rumour mongering, you got to put out as much information as you can. You should ensure that the government version also goes out. This censorship only fuels misinformation.
Q. What gives you hope?
A. In India you have a huge population which does not want killings and pogroms in its name. What has been my experience after coming out of Kashmir is that the Indian government has created Kashmirs everywhere in this country. It is not at war with China but with its own people. It is with these oppressed people where my hope lies. But currently, the government is vitiating that atmosphere.
Q. How does the current round of violence in the Valley affect you?
A. It is happening at a time when I am here in JNU as a student and active in student politics. Left politics allows you to raise questions beyond your identity. You learn to identify with other kinds of oppression and talk about them.
Q. Can one talk about the Kashmir issue freely in your campus now considering the government’s clampdown which saw JNU students getting arrested on sedition charges because they were allegedly conducted a program to mark Afzal Guru’s death anniversary?
A. I agree with you. Kashmir was never a controversial issue but people were forced into censorship during the JNU movement. It became a topic which would not be discussed. That happened. But you know, it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the national security or the nation. If people just talk, bombs are not going to explode. Censorship is harmful.
Q. When you express your disappointment with the union government’s handling of the Kashmir unrest, many people criticise you and say that if you do agree with the Indian government’s approach, why are you living in Delhi? Do such comments upset you or have become immune to them?
A. Kind of immune, you can say. We know where these comments are coming from. RSS has very systematic machinery. They have people whose job is to post these comments. There is a video in which I am talking about JNU issues and no other topic. The comments are like…send her to Pakistan and all that. It is ridiculous. We have to recognise where there things are coming from. These are deliberate comments to create discord in the society.
If you see someone with a picture of a Hindu deity hurling abuses to women, an ordinary person would think, oh my God, Hindus are violent. But this is something you need to recognise that these are not ordinary Hindus. These are Internet Hindus as they are called. They are RSS people who want to fuel discord.
Q. You are anyway remain busy with JNUSU activities. Do you remain all the more preoccupied due to the tense situation in Kashmir?
A. It is a constant source of worry. More so, because we cannot intervene in a meaningful way. The Indian government has allowed the situation to go so bad that any intervention looks out of sight right now.