Azadi (آزادی - Āzādī)
Tracing the origins of the word, its evolution and political significance in Indian Kashmir
Three boys scavenge a usually-busy garment market in Srinagar but no buyer can be seen bargaining around. In fact, all the shops in the famous Goni Khan Market have been shut for over 20 days.
One of the boys is well-dressed in a clean, maroon checkered shirt and denim jeans. He looks like the youngest of the lot but turns out to be the eldest – a fourth grader. For over half an hour, the children labour hard, looking for stones big enough to block a street and small enough for them to carry. Breathless, with sweat trickling down their foreheads, they end up gathering over a dozen stones and three wooden boards made up of roughly nailed long wooden pieces. They line them up across the nearly four-metre-wide market street near its end-point, which opens up near the backyard of a maternity care hospital. Over 30 scooters travel across the 250-metre-long deserted market to reach the spot, only to be stopped by the children yelling, “Hey, turn back or we will break your bike.” Almost everyone they stop manages to convince them to let them across the barrier, but they don’t lose the will to remove and put back the stones and wooden board again and again.
The youngest boy picks up a small stone, turns around and targets it at a police bunker just near the hospital wall. “There is no one inside,” an onlooker says. But the boy picks up yet another stone and lobs it at the bunker with even greater force. After around half-an-hour, they leave the place without removing the barrier. Before leaving, though, they refuse to talk. “You will tell my mother, she will kill me,” one of them says. “Let’s go and pelt stones there now,” says another boy, the most outspoken of the lot, pointing his finger towards the other side of the market. They walk away, while one of them chants, “Hum kya chahte?” The other two respond, “Azadi”.
What does azadi mean?
‘Azadi’ is an over 3,000-year-old Persian word which means freedom, liberty, liberation and independence. This is specifically what the word means to Kashmir’s freedom movement as a whole, though its context and even perception keep changing and evolving over the years.
Children of the region, like the three boys mentioned above, may not necessarily grasp the meaning of azadi and the struggle for it, but the word resonates deeply with Kashmiris, and its chants have grown even louder since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian security forces on July 8.
The slogan of azadi echoes in the region every time there is a murder, a rape, a fake encounter, a mysterious disappearance, an insensitive statement or any human rights violation by the Indian forces stationed in the valley. In fact, any incident, small or big, linked to the Indian rule in Kashmir is enough to trigger a mass uprising, which in some cases has lasted for over four months.
In Indian Kashmir, there are several connotations of the word ‘azadi’, with the most dominant being freedom from Indian rule. People also seek freedom of speech and expression, freedom to practice religion freely, freedom from India but accession to Pakistan, and freedom in terms of complete independence of state, but again, with freedom to have trade and diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries.
The meaning of azadi cannot be generalised for the nearly seven million people who reside in Indian Kashmir, but an outline can be easily drawn. One of Kashmir’s veteran journalists Yusuf Jameel says, “[Azadi for me is] to become a master unto myself. No ghulami (slavery) of anyone. Man was born free, wasn’t he?” Azadi, he goes on to add, does not mean anyone is free to do anything “The two are not connected at all. God sent Adam here with certain rules and regulations to follow. You have to live as a free man wherever you are with certain principles to follow.”
The unwavering Kashmiri youth, too, have a solid understanding of the meaning behind the word. “Firstly, azadi for me is freedom from the unjustified Indian rule and, secondly, freedom to carry out the affairs of my land without the unwarranted interference of any other country,” says Danish*, a post-graduate student. An engineering student, Shahid, says freedom for him means “not seeing armed forces behave like beasts in civilian areas.” A high-school student, Basim, says, “Azadi for me is walking free on the streets of my town without fear that I would be caught up in a stone-pelting fight or some army man may feel suspicious of me and kill me in an encounter.” He adds, “Azadi for me is to not be under the shadow of a foreign force that is conspiring against my people or of my people conspiring against or with someone.” Hanan says, “To me it means an independent Kashmir, free from the control of any other country or ideology, a country which is exemplary in every way.”
Shahnaz Bashir is an academic and author of the book Half Mother. Bashir, having been close to many women whose sons mysteriously disappeared without a trace in the three-decade-long armed insurgency in Indian Kashmir, says, “The sense of azadi for these women is the same as that of others because the source of suffering and misery for all in Kashmir is the ‘unfreedom’ inflicted by the military occupation of the state.” These women, he adds, want “freedom from militarisation and India.”
Origin and evolution of ‘Azadi’
The struggle for freedom against Indian rule started soon after the then monarch, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed the Instrument of Accession with then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in October 1947, only two months after British India split into two independent countries – Pakistan and India. The Maharaja was Hindu while the majority of his subjects were Muslim. The two countries were formed on religious grounds and the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had the option to join any of the two countries. The Maharaja first decided to stay independent in order to avoid the dilemma of Hindu-Muslim interests in the region, but the monarch eventually acceded to India after the country agreed to provide military support against the Pakistani tribal invaders in the state. This is when the Kashmir conflict, recognised internationally, erupted. This led to the onset of Indian Kashmir’s freedom movement, which was initially a pro-plebiscite movement and later saw pro-Pakistan and pro-independence sentiments.
The fight against foreign rule, occupation forces and state-sponsored atrocities is not new to Kashmir. Famous poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef says the “fire of freedom” first erupted when Mughal emperor Akbar took over the princely state in 16th Century, ending the indigenous Chak dynasty, with its last emperor being Yousuf Shah Chak. Sectarian tension between Shia and Sunni Muslims took place during the Chak dynasty, which made people welcome the Mughal ruler, who earlier tried to capture the state twice without success. “As the Mughal ruler came, we lost our crown, our own kingdom,” says Zareef. “Before that, Kashmir was a kingdom, a civilisation, a nationality.”
“Then when we became slaves, the first thing Akbar did was take away our centuries-old treasure,” says Zareef. “That was the time when the voice of freedom started in Kashmir.” Zareef says young adults used to hammer nails into one end of long wooden dowels and slammed them into horses of Mughal forces on patrol duty. “The Mughal forces stayed here like any aggressive or attacking nation, similarly like the Indian forces.” During nights, he says, the youth would climb onto roofs and raise slogans against the Mughal rulers while women would sing anti-Mughal lyrics in folk songs, especially wanwun (traditional Kashmiri music). “Our ancestors used to call these young men dilawar (brave or courageous), the mujahids (Muslim fighters) of that time,” says Zareef.
It is widely believed that the slogan “Hum kya chahte? Azadi” (What do we want? Freedom) was first uttered in Indian Kashmir against the Indian occupation. However, Zareef says the same slogan used to be raised in Persian language against Mughal rulers. “The people would chant, ‘Maa azaadi mekhwaahaem, Maa azaadi mekhwaahaem (We want freedom, we want freedom’.”
Veteran journalist Raashid Maqbool also says the sense of the word ‘azadi’ was there since Mughal rule in the 1500s. The first instance of Kashmir’s resistance to foreign rule can be traced to the armed resistance movement led by the brother of the last Chak emperor. “He used to go towards Kishtwar, mobilise men to join his movement and they would [attack] the Mughal establishments,” says Maqbool.
Resistance against the Mughal rule conceptualised because earlier the natives of Kashmir ruled the land themselves and they did not easily accept foreign rule. “The concept of local Muslim rule started in Kashmir since Shah Mir ruled here and was considered indigenous,” says Maqbool. Later, the Chak rulers took over. “Although they were not aboriginal Kashmiris they came from outside, most probably from further north, settled down here and became localised.”
Zareef agrees. “People never accept anything that is forced on them. There is a difference between forcing something on someone and accepting something voluntarily. For example, Kashmiris have voluntarily accepted three religions one after another – Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam – but we have never accepted any forced rule,” he says and adds that Kashmiris have been resisting foreign rule since the Mughal period, and the Indian rule is just another case.
Independence as a political idea was introduced in the 20th Century, when people rose in rebellion against the ‘atrocious’ Dogra regime. “The movement in 1931 was essentially for Muslim rights, but we trace the roots of the present situation to July 1931, which in a sense is right because it was the first time when Muslim leadership openly rose in unity against a monarch,” says Maqbool.
Pertinently, on July 13, 1931, a large number of civilians assembled outside Central Jail in Srinagar in solidarity with Abdul Qadeer Khan who was arrested for delivering an audacious speech against Maharaja Hari Singh less than a month back. The Dogra forces fired on them, killing 22 civilians. July 13 is officially observed as Martyrs’ Day in Jammu and Kashmir. The elected rulers pay tributes at the martyrs’ graveyard in old city Srinagar, while separatist leaders are detained to prevent them from visiting the graveyard. The separatists define the day as “the foundation for Kashmir’s resistance movement.”
Senior journalist and author, Zahir-ud-Din, writes in his book Flash Back – Kashmir story since 1846, “July 13 is considered a turning point in the State’s history.” He narrates the massacre and its background story in a two-page-long chapter titled ‘Drama that changed Kashmir’.
However, Zahir writes the freedom movement was formally launched in May 1930 at the Reading Room, established in a rented room in Srinagar’s old city to originally provide a platform for conscious Kashmiris to vent their feelings. “It (Reading Room) started from a discussion between Munshi Naseer Ahmad (Editor of Al Barq) and his cousin Moulvi Bashir Ahmad,” he writes. On May 8, last rites of a local girl were hosted by the duo who invited around 200 people, including Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who did not attend though. “The duo apprised the invitees of the need for launching an organised movement. The people were told to keep the meeting a secret,” writes Zahir. Three young men immediately joined the Reading Room party and the team decided to awaken people in every nook and corner of the valley, he writes.
Again, even after the monarchy ended and Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the ‘democratic’ Indian Union in October 1947, the fight for freedom continues, now with even greater vigour. The struggle, in its initial stage, was in favour of holding a free and fair plebiscite, as suggested by the United Nations Security Council in its 47th resolution. The struggle continues even today, but with a larger demand for complete independence, rather than accession to either India or Pakistan. In 1947, Maqbool says, “An overwhelming majority wanted to go to Pakistan, because that was the Muslim country coming up in their neighbourhood, so naturally there was no other choice.”
In the 1960s, Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri separatist who was hanged in India’s Tihar Jail in 1984, met a few people in Pakistan and deliberated on the idea of an independent Kashmir. “Maqbool Bhat was of the opinion that the international community would neither support India nor Pakistan; they would prefer to be neutral,” says Maqbool. “So they started propounding this idea of an independent Kashmir in the 1960s.” Meanwhile, the Plebiscite Front, led by some National Conference leaders, continued to demand a plebiscite for resolving the Kashmir conflict. “It was the first strong political movement for a plebiscite,” says Maqbool.
It is widely believed that the armed insurgency took off in Kashmir valley in 1989. However, its traces could be found decades back. “Those who believe militancy was introduced in 1989 are mistaken,” writes Zahir. “Kashmiris started getting arms training immediately after the Partition of the sub-continent. In 1948, a militant outfit, Hyderi Column, was launched. Jehangir Khan of Bagh-i-Mehtab was one of the founders of this outfit. Very few people know about the role of this valiant soldier of Kashmir.”
The struggle for azadi continues even today, nearly seven decades after Partition. “The word azadi was most openly and clearly used in the 1990s (and later). Before that the slogans were mostly in favour of plebiscite and self-determination,” says Maqbool.
Influence of Islam
There have been attempts to give a communal colour to the freedom struggle of Kashmir, mostly since the minority Hindu community migrated out of the valley in early 1990s as the intensity of the anti-India armed insurgency grew. Although the movement still continues to be political, it saw some aspects of Islamisation after the 1990s. According to Maqbool, it was the first time people defined the word ‘azadi’ from a religious aspect, with the slogan, “Azadi ka matlab kya? La ilaha illallah” (What does azadi mean? There is no God but Allah).
Maqbool explains, “There are three movements responsible for Kashmir, or South Asia, getting involved in the Islamic movement. One was Jamaat-i-Islami, which has spoken about an Islamic state in the subcontinent since 1945. Then in 1979, there was a revolution in Iran which had a ripple affect across South Asia. And the third was the Afghan war, which brought fervour [to Kashmir]. So, by the 1990s, when Afghans dismembered the Soviet Union, there was renewed hope here that if the Afghan could defeat a superpower, so could we.”
“And because Kashmir was a Muslim majority region, there were religious elements already here since 1931. Because it was a political movement of Muslims, it naturally had an Islamic hue since the beginning,” says Maqbool. “Even the Muslim United Front (which contested Assembly elections in 1987) was an amalgamation of Muslim political parties, whose mandate was drawn from Islam. They would speak of the Holy Quran and Sunnah in their rallies.”
“Then the slogan between the amalgam of independence and Pakistan was raised: “Hum kya chahte? Azadi, and azadi ka matlab kya?” says Maqbool.
Meanwhile, Zareef believes one cannot separate the Kashmir conflict from Islam and Pakistan. “The basic thing is that half of Kashmir is with Pakistan. We cannot cut-off our relations with it. Sister is there, brother is here; mother is here, father is there; husband is there, wife is here. The body is divided into two. So we are directly and indirectly in association with Pakistan,” he says. “And the slogan of that time (1990s) was also [in favour of Pakistan] because Pakistan used to help us, sympathise with us. The religious scholars there used to talk about the Kashmir struggle in their sermons,” says Zareef. However, he adds that ‘Islamisation’ of the freedom movement did not mean the land is only for Muslims or that other religious communities cannot stay in Kashmir. “There is no such thing, because consciousness does not allow it. Anyone who is a native of this land has right over it and has right to reside here,” he says. “This is a kingdom for those who are heirs of this land.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa is a Kashmir-based journalist and founder/editor of news website jandknow.com