In this age of mindless populism, narrow nationalism, renewed misogyny and personality cults, we stand sharply divided across the political spectra. This also impacts the creation and appreciation of literature and scholarship in a deeply disturbing way. Even when art and literature — whether they fall in the category of ‘resistance’ or not — are supposed to blur political and sociological distinctions in theory, they don’t always do so in practice.

While dealing and engaging with matters concerning politics and power, war and peace, and territory and freedom, one can understand selectivity or the economy of truth in views expressed by people in positions of authority or by those who serve them. They have certain political and economic objectives, or their very profession has material foundations for their nationalist views. But how ironic it is when artists and writers fall in the same trap when exposed to these issues.

We often see a choice being made about themes — an insistence on articulating a certain human suffering or a seeming lack of concern about a similar or even graver suffering elsewhere. Resistance in the present day and age is contextualised within the local political reality. Where there is less political evolution in state structures and limited experience of democracy in society, people become more intolerant and categorical in their views about their opponents. On top of that, if a cause is just but also seen to be just by your political adversary, it may cease to remain just for you anymore.

The current situation and freedom movement in Kashmir is a unique example of this debate. In Pakistan, what one may find intriguing, but at the same time explainable, is the absence of a sensitive approach and serious artistic response to the suffering of people in Kashmir. This is true for most of the independent and resistance literature produced in Pakistan, irrespective of the language and region. The officially sponsored, but at the same time essentially low quality, propagandist writing continues to mention Kashmir. But our leading writers in Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Punjabi and Urdu largely, if not entirely, overlook Kashmir. There is an odd mix of doubt and disenchantment that overshadows their understanding of contemporary Kashmir and its political movement. You may find Kashmiri authors writing in English who represent a wide intellectual range — from Basharat Peer and Mirza Waheed to Siddhartha Gigoo and Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor — being read and discussed in Pakistan. But that remains limited to a relatively more open but tiny English-speaking audience.

This doubt and disenchantment about Kashmir among leading independent intellectuals and writers in Pakistani languages is no doubt a consequence of our state establishment championing the cause of Kashmir’s freedom. As ironic and unfortunate it may sound, that is how it has played out. There is a history of resistance to permanent institutions of the state in Pakistan, because of their omnipresence during both direct military rules and indirect military interventions. The wars with India, where Kashmir remained the apple of discord between the two neighbours, has also led to the development of a certain mindset among the ruling elites in Pakistan. The country was turned into a security-driven state that overemphasises unitary pursuits in a diverse country. Hence, the smaller federating units, their economic interests and their own cultural expression remain in constant tension with the centre, which supports the Kashmiri cause.

Literature, in most of our languages, has played a key role in articulating the aspirations and sentiments of the downtrodden and oppressed citizens of Pakistan. In their imagination, Kashmir does not exist as a just cause to be pursued, but as an alibi used to expropriate their own economic rights and cultural freedoms. It is saddening, to say the least. In this tug of war between states and their powerful political and military institutions, common people continue to endure physical brutality and psychological violence at the hands of the powerful. Indian officialdom does not like mention of its military high-handedness in turbulent regions under its control. Similarly, its Pakistani counterpart is equally irked by the mention of enforced disappearances of dissenters or about curbs on freedom of expression. But those who speak and write independently — whether they are creative writers or journalists — need to challenge all competing narratives without prejudice and find truths that are sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden.

A recent investigative work on Kashmir that caught my attention is journalist Zulfiqar Ali’s study of civilian deaths and casualties on our side of the Line of Control in the ongoing conflict. Ali has worked with various international news organisations, including the BBC World Service. In addition to other assignments he has carried out, he continues to report on Kashmir since the turbulent years of the 1990s. Ali has looked closely at the economic cost and emotional trauma inflicted on innocent civilians in the region. He has recorded stories of women, men and children who were killed by snipers of the Indian army from across the border. Ali has done meticulous research identifying civilian victims. Although those living along the ceasefire line have suffered heavily during skirmishes and full-scale battles between the two countries since 1947, sniper firing became more common after the 1989 uprising in the Valley.

Titled ‘Kashmir: India’s Sniper War Along the UN-Monitored Ceasefire Line’, Ali’s study includes both documentation and analyses of this much less talked about tragedy faced by civilian communities. Ali draws upon the United Nations’ commitments and mechanisms on ground as well as those that can be invoked to ensure the safety of civilians. The study concludes by saying that Jammu and Kashmir cannot be relegated and dehumanised, as it is now, to only being a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. It is about the right of self-determination of Kashmiris.

Saadat Hassan Manto’s classic short story, ‘Tetwal Ka Kutta’ [The Dog of Tetwal], never escapes my memory when reading or writing about the tragedy of Kashmir. For states at war, the common citizen is reduced to being a nameless dog.

The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse, No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 14th, 2019