The Many Meanings of Azadi

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It is a great irony that azadi –a word with so many positive associations, including India’s freedom struggle, should evoke such fearful images among our political establishment and a large section of the intelligentsia in India when uttered by Kashmiris. It was Lokmanya Tilak who gave us the slogan: “Freedom is my birthright”. (azadi mera janmasiddh adhikar hai). Gandhi went a step further and defined “Swaraj” or self rule, as opposed to mere ousting of the British, as the raison d’etre of our anti colonial movement.

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that when Kashmiris come on streets demanding azadi, they do so only at the behest of Pakistani agents. There is no denying that Pakistan has injected a lot of poison into the blood veins of Kashmiri politics and vitiated the culture and society by fomenting religious strife with a lethal dose of fundamentalist Islam. But we would do well to recognize that it is the irresponsible and mischievous deeds of our own politicians that provides a conducive environment for converting the urge for azadi into a pro Pak secessionist agenda and makes this minority acquire disproportionate clout in the political affairs of Kashmir.


Even in the rest of India people are extremely disgruntled at the lack of accountability of our system of governance which has made our democracy hostage to crime and corruption. Even in states that do not harbor secessionist forces, we witness daily outbursts of popular anger and discontent pour out on the streets on a range of issues—from absence of basic civic amenities, to forcible acquisition of people’s lands, human rights abuses, destruction of water sources and forests, extortion rackets patronized by police and politicians, to electoral frauds and deaths in police custody– the list of people’s grievances is endless.

We also witness simple agitations turn violent because of ham handed response of the police who often beat up even peaceful agitators. The lack of transparency and accountability of the governance machinery coupled with the absence of effective institutional mechanisms for grievance redressal has made India a land of ‘a million mutinies.”

When this happens in Meerut or Mumbai it is taken as a sign of disenchantment against the current ruling party and the state bureaucracy. But the same action in Kashmir is invariably interpreted as anti national, anti India activity. People will respond to this by saying that in other parts of India, people don’t start demanding azadi or secession from India when they come out to protest against their regional government. We forget that in most other parts of India protests against local governments are not crushed through the deployment of security forces using deadly weapons, as often happens in Kashmir. Wherever the guns of security forces are the main face of Indian democracy people can’t be blamed for demanding “azadi” from India.

What keeps our highly flawed democracy going is that we can take some of our constitutional rights for granted—such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement, right to protest and right to approach courts for seeking justice and right to free and fair elections. However, the “special status” of Kashmir has essentially meant that people in Kashmir cannot take many of these rights for granted. For example, a common complaint in Kashmir is that in the 60 year long history they have witnessed only two genuinely free elections in the Valley–one in 1977 and the second one in 2002. Elections to local bodies have remained suspended for decades.

In Kashmir, the lack of “azadi” is physically visible on every road, in every mohalla, every town and village of the Valley. As one enters the Valley whether by road or by air, one is confronted with the overwhelming presence of the Army and security forces. There are security pickets and bunkers every few yards. People going to work or children going to school or college are stopped as and when for search operations. Arbitrary arrests, crackdowns, custodial deaths from torture and disappearances are routine events. For example, this entire phase of violence erupted because people who came out to protest against the wanton killing by security forces of 17 year old Tuffail Mattoo returning home from tuition were met with bullets. That led to more protests, more injuries and more deaths. At such times cry for azadi is a cry for their legitimate democratic rights, including the right to protest. It is a desperate plea for a life of dignity and freedom from constant fear.

The Army or the security forces are not there of their own volition. Their numbers and their presence becomes oppressive only when the political regime is callous and incompetent and tries to deflect people’s anger against its political misdeeds by excessive use of security forces.

Those who have for decades lived under the all pervasive and oppressive presence of security forces as well as guns of militants cannot but yearn for freedom. They cannot go and protest against terrorists, much as they would want to. They can and should be able to demand freedom from constant fear of the guns of India’s security forces, especially when they are aimed at innocents. These guns should be there to provide a sense of security to our citizens, not to help corrupt and devious politicians crush the democratic rights of those who protest against their misrule. Kashmiris have shown their disapproval of Pak inspired terrorism by effectively defeating the secessionist militants. They also put faith in democracy by turning out in large numbers in the last two elections. But if that faith in democracy is betrayed by rigged elections and a corrupt and callous administration, we must respect their right to protest. By mistaking their hunger for azadi, their demand for democratic space to express their legitimate grievances and aspirations we only push them further away from Indian democracy.

Wahidur Rehman, a young journalist from Kashmir provided a valuable insight on the message Kashmiris try to deliver to Delhi by shouting “azadi” when they are angry with government policies. He said, from our childhood we have been taught by our elders that the only way to get New Delhi to wake up is to start shouting “azadi.” This is the most effective tool of black mailing the New Delhi establishment. They come to the dialogue table, start talking of all kinds of concessions only when we rend the air with slogans of azadi. Otherwise, our pleas fall on deaf ears.”

Mehbooba Mufti once told me that this word has become so all purpose that even when a group of women come to meet her with some local demands, if they find she is not available to listen to them they will start shouting “Hamein kya chahiye? Azadi! (What do we want? Azadi), when in fact they came to demand jobs or better civic amenities. At such times, the slogan for azadi is an assertion of their demand for responsive governance. This is not to belittle the deep urge for self rule, for a political space they can call their own, and having the power to call their politicians to account rather than being dependent on the mercy of Delhi Durbar.

The constituency for secession and/or “azadi” keeps shrinking or expanding depending on how well or poorly the central & state government tune in to people’s legitimate grievances and aspirations. Mr. Chidambaram recently remarked that the same young people who 2 years ago were demanding IITs and IIMs are today pelting stones, braving bullets to demand “azadi”.

During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister the constituency for secession shrunk dramatically because he not only ensured free and fair elections in 2002 but also engaged with the entire political spectrum of Kashmir giving them confidence that for him the final touchstone for a fair solution for Kashmir is “insaniyat ka daira”. No body in Kashmir took it to mean that he would go against the Indian constitution. They took it as an acknowledgement from Vajpayee that he would not let the blunders of past be repeated whereby the ruling establishments in both Delhi and Srinagar had often trampled on their human rights even while pretending to uphold India’s Constitution in Kashmir.

Vajpayee also gave the PDP led coalition unprecedented space and freedom to define the political agenda for the state rather than act as a puppet of Delhi durbar. This was done without keeping partisan interests in mind because the PDP had formed a coalition government with the Congress Party. With such simple statesman like gestures he became the most respected political figure for Kashmiris. Even today, most Kashmiris cutting across the political spectrum openly say that if Vajpayee was given another term he would have successfully brought together all stake holders to find a permanent solution to the vexed Kashmir problem.

Dr. Manmohan Singh’s repeated statements offering “dialogue” to all those who abjure violence and operate within the “constitutional framework” are in fact act ing as irritants, instead of giving people faith in the democratic process. Can the Prime Minister claim in all honesty that the Omar Abdullah led coalition government is operating within the Constitutional framework? Kashmiris are angry because the State government has trampled on their constitutional rights with unprecedented brutality with the approval and backing of the Central government. It is the PM’s duty to demonstrate that his government knows how to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens as promised by our Constitution before he expects people to owe allegiance to the Indian Constitution.
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This is the fuller, longer version of my article published in the Times of India of September 19, 2010. The author is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and founder editor, MANUSHI

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