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Cultural Exchange, Interfaith Dialogue and Queer Rights in Kashmir

By Chintan Girish Modi



As activists, policymakers, and academics from all over the world express their horror about the human rights situation in Kashmir, it is important to hear the voices of those who have their ear to the ground.

Writer and activist Anish Gawande, Director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, has been working in the region — albeit quietly — by bringing together individuals across disciplines and backgrounds for immersive experiences that facilitate connections with local artists, craftspeople, writers, theatre practitioners, and students. These fellows develop projects in collaboration with people in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Gawande’s objective is to promote academic and cultural discourse that fosters interfaith dialogue. He studied Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University in New York, and now lives in Mumbai. He is preparing to leave for the UK as he recently won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil at the University of Oxford.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with him:

Question: How does the Dara Shikoh Fellowship relate with, learn from, and feed into civil resistance in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh?

Answer: That’s a tricky question to begin with! Personally, I would like to believe that the fellowship expands the idea of civil resistance as something that goes beyond political resistance. We are a month-long residency, an incubator for creative ideas. There is an emphasis on using culture as a process of translation, of introspection. We have fellows interrogating fabled syncretic spaces, questioning heteronormativity in trucker towns like Jammu, and presenting uncomfortable truths that might not always offer a rosy picture of the region. So, we are invested in expanding conversations, including those around politics, in a way that does not necessarily require us to insert ourselves into the conversation every time.

Think of the fellowship as a sounding board with an in-built feedback mechanism. We are constantly responding to ideas that fellows throw at us, discussing and debating the socio-political realities around us each year.

Question: Could you please tell us about the man this fellowship is named after? How does he inspire your work?

Answer: Dara Shikoh, the eldest brother of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, was known as a patron of the arts and as a symbol of interfaith harmony – until he was beheaded by his younger brother. Of course, his legacy is contested and often appropriated. He also has a Kashmir connection. Dara built the Pari Mahal in Srinagar, overlooking the Zabarwan mountain range as a personal library and residence. The fellowship’s primary funder, the Dara Shikoh Centre for the Arts — which runs the nearly decade-old Dara Shikoh Festival — is also named after him. For the fellowship, I think Dara Shikoh symbolizes the quiet work of cultural activism that seeks to bridge divides across region and religion.

Question: What does nonviolent resistance mean to the local artists, writers, and theatre practitioners you collaborate with?

Answer: Our fellows have consistently understood and engaged with the power of nonviolent resistance. Questioning patriarchal structures, economic formations, political entities, they have come from everywhere ranging from Kishtwar to Poonch and put forth perspectives that challenge dominant narratives. Today, more than ever, there is a need to engage critically with the idea of nonviolent resistance as going beyond the university, into daily life, into lived experiences and forms that innovatively tackle the challenges we face. The fellowship is one small step in that direction.

Question: How is the nature of this resistance changing as a result of rising religious extremism?

Answer: I am always hesitant to answer this question because of larger narratives of Islamophobia that it feeds into. There is also complicated positionality: I am not from Jammu and Kashmir, I am not Muslim. What right do I have to wade into a conversation around the role of religion in the region?

There are debates around the rise of religious extremism in the region. What is certain, though, is that this rise is fuelled by growing disputes such as Jammu versus Kashmir, the valley versus the plains. There is an urgent need to acknowledge and amplify voices from across the region—the Pir Pinjal belt to the Chenab Valley—that get lost in the din. They stand to lose the most with the growth of religious extremism, and deserve to be heard while discussing ways to tackle it.

Question: What are your thoughts on the communications blockade that was recently imposed in this region by the government of India?

Answer: In one word, it is inhuman. The sheer scale of the communications blockade makes it one of the most repressive in the world. In the Kashmir valley, there has been no Internet for more than 130 days. Phone connectivity was partially restored after 80 days of radio silence. This has hit incomes and livelihoods. Farmers cannot sell produce, e-commerce vendors cannot sell fabled Kashmiri shawls, businesses have come to a standstill. Till recently, even ambulances and fire engines had a hard time reaching homes.

Beyond the valley, too, the clampdown continues. In Jammu, there is no mobile internet. Given that the state, like many parts of South Asia, has entered the digital age mobile-first, there isn’t widespread broadband connectivity either. Spending a month there this year felt like being pushed back into the 1990s while the world around browsed at 4G LTE speeds.

Question: How did this political move impact the queer rights movement in India?

Answer: The move, to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution of India (which granted special status in terms of autonomy and state citizenship to residents of Jammu and Kashmir), hasn’t in and of itself impacted queer lives on the ground specifically. The Internet ban, however, has dealt a crushing blow to queer lives in the region. For queer folx, safe spaces exist predominantly online. Cutting them off means forcing thousands back into the closet.

What has been more worrying, however, is the use of this political move to promote a noxious breed of homonationalism across the country. Kashmir is being pinkwashed. Claiming that the removal of autonomy has led to the removal of anti-sodomy laws, right-wing activists have used the bogey of gay rights to support the government’s actions in the region. This is not only patently untrue but also dangerous. It has set the precedent for the queer rights movement in India to move in non-progressive ways, to be mobilised to support authoritarianism and suppression.

Question: As someone who is deeply invested in the queer rights movement, and in the future of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh, where do you place yourself in this conversation?

Answer: I don’t! I see myself as being a useful link, organisationally and administratively, in facilitating voices speaking up for queer rights from within the region. My job is to amplify the narratives of queer folx from Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. And to ensure that I use my position as someone who is vocal on queer rights to highlight their narratives whenever and wherever I get the chance to put forth my views.

(Note: Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working on peace education and queer rights. Email chintan.prajnya@gmail.com or tweet @chintan_connect to get in touch.)

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