REHEARSING FOR THE REVOLUTION: AN OVERVIEW OF THEATER OF THE OPPRESSED

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By Liliana Torpey
Editor in Chief

This article was written after I attended a study abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro through UCLA’s Summer Travel Study Program. The World Arts and Culture/Dance: Theater of the Oppressed program in particular was created and taught by Marina Magalhães and Bobby Gordon. Some of the information below draws from my own experiences working with local Theater of the Oppressed groups and attending intensive training at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed.

In 1971, Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal was arrested and tortured by the Brazilian dictatorship for experimenting with subversive, activist theater. Years later, in exile in Argentina, Boal consolidated his experimental developments into a synthesized, liberatory methodology published under the name “Theater of the Oppressed.” While the book was first published in 1973, Boal continued to practice and develop his work throughout Europe, Latin America, and eventually back in Brazil. He believed that theater could lend itself to social transformation and be a precursor to direct social action. He called it “rehearsal for the revolution.”

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Augusto Boal speaking at the opening ceremony of Teia 2007

Theater of the Oppressed (TO) includes several different types of theater, including (but not limited to) invisible theater, where actors stage scenes disguised as real life in public spaces; newspaper theater, where mainstream news sources are critiqued and overlaid with alternative perspectives; and forum theater, which is most widely utilized. Forum theater was born in Boal’s mind when he discovered, suddenly, that a creative force in theater productions remained untapped: that of the spectator. The story goes that Boal staged a play based off of a woman’s anecdote about her cheating husband. Using a method called “simultaneous dramaturgy,” Boal’s actors acted out the scene and then changed their actions depending on spectators’ suggestions. After one woman became increasingly frustrated that her suggestion was not being implemented correctly, Boal, equally frustrated, invited her on stage to act the scene out herself. Thus, the spectator became the “spect-actor.”

TO has grown since then, but its basic principles have remained and gone on to inform TO groups all over the world. The following explains these principles.

Firstly, theater is for the people, and everybody is an actor. TO is participatory; it invites the spectator into the action, turning them into a spect-actor. There are various techniques used to facilitate this. Games are used in workshops to de-mechanize the body from the effects of oppressive routines, so that the participants may listen, feel and look more intentionally. Exercises are used in workshops to address oppression by using sound and movement rather than just words. In this way, people learn how oppression is held in their bodies and how their bodies may be used for liberation. In forum theater, a play is staged that portrays an oppression of some kind. In the first round of the play, the oppressed person must fight against the oppression and fail. In the subsequent rounds, members of the audience can propose an “intervention,” meaning they are invited on stage to do something differently, either as the oppressed person or an ally of the oppressed. The different techniques of TO wake up the spectator and urge them to take action, both on the stage and out in the world.

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International participants and UCLA Travel Study group playing games at Center for Theater of the Oppressed during TO training.

Secondly, TO is not neutral. When using TO, one always takes the side of the oppressed. Necessarily, TO is a methodology that can’t function in a vacuum. It’s utility comes from the fact that it addresses real-life oppressions as expressed by people who have actually experienced them. It isn’t meant to be adapted to any purpose besides healing and inspiring direct action in a given community. TO groups arise from the community and see it as an effective tool for social transformation. I had the honor of meeting and spect-acting with some of these groups in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2017.

The Center for Theater of the Oppressed in Rio partners with different organizations to train others in their methodology so that it may be “multiplied” across different communities and situations. They also assist local TO groups with their projects, and many of the Jokers (facilitators/difficultators of TO methodology) were themselves introduced to TO through these groups.

Some of these groups include Cor do Brasil , based in Rio de Janeiro, which focuses on tackling anti-Black racism in Brazil and worldwide. While in Brazil, I saw them perform a forum theater piece called “Suspect” which addresses the way Afro-Brazilians are racially profiled in various situations. Another group, Marémoto, is made up of youth from Maré, a favela in Rio. They explore themes of gender, race, young adulthood, and the stigma associated with living in a favela. Madalenas Rio is an all-women group focusing on feminism and women’s issues. I got to participate in their “Madalenas Laboratorio,” a workshop of TO games and exercises geared towards feminist topics. The group Coletivo Madalena-Anastácia addresses issues that specifically affect Black women in Brazil. Ma(g)dalenas has become an international organization with groups all over the world, including groups from Guatemala, Mosambique, and Berlin, Germany, where the most recent Festival of Ma(g)dalena International Network was held.

Here in Southern California, Hector Aristizabal directs ImaginAction, a non-profit that uses Theater of the Oppressed alongside other theater methods “for community building and reconciliation, strategizing, and individual healing and liberation.” Aristizabal himself grew up in Medellin, Colombia during a time of violence and discord brought on by armed conflict and the Drug War. Aristizabal fled Colombia in 1989 after being tortured by the U.S. funded Colombian military under false allegations of being affiliated with communist guerrilla groups. Since then, he has worked with groups in Los Angeles, Northern Ireland, Palestine and Colombia, among other places, to use theater as a tool for reconciliation and liberation.

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Hector Aristizabal performing “Nightwind,” which chronicles his experience being tortured by the Colombian military and his subsequent move to the U.S.

In the past year, Aristizabal has brought theater to Colombians affected by the 52 year long armed conflict between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Colombian government, and paramilitary groups. While the conflict has officially ended as a result of the peace deal passed through Colombia’s congress by President Juan Manuel Santos last year, implementation is still underway. Reintegration of guerrilla soldiers as well as reconciliation between different factions of Colombian society will be difficult to achieve. To these ends, Aristizabal has travelled to areas most affected by the conflict, bringing theater as a means to heal profound wounds. One project included “five civilians, five ex-paramilitaries, five guerrillas, and five military people,” groups whose disdain for each other runs deep and who in the past have committed extreme violence against one another. “We asked them, ‘What will it take to reconcile?’ It’s going to become a play,” Aristizabal says. He goes on to explain, “This is the kind of healing we need we need to engage in. The peace process cannot really be signed on a piece of paper in Havana between the guerrilla and the government. It has to be signed in the hearts of people.”

We may not typically imagine a war zone when we think of where theater happens, and we may not think of ex-combatants when we think of the actors who star in them. But Theater of the Oppressed seeks to democratize theater and convert it into a liberatory tool for exactly those whom the term “theater” usually excludes. When art is used in complicated real-life situations, it is delicate but not frivolous, idealistic but not etherial. Art is the dirty, painful work of growing real change by requiring us to look at ourselves and our relationship sincerely, with the intent to heal.

One of the post-trip reflection questions we had to respond to about working with activist groups in Brazil draws from the wise words of Indigenous artivist Lilla Watson. It asks, “How is their liberation tied up in our own?” The question is a difficult one for those of us who benefit from different kinds of oppression. As a citizen of a country that has benefited from the poverty and repression of Brazil and the rest of Latin America, it would be easy for me to believe my liberation is not bound with theirs, that it functions independently. But that would not be true. I could argue that my material wealth or sense of security are marks of my liberation. But that would not be true. As long as I am manipulated into accepting that it is necessary to oppress others so that I can be free, I am not free. As long as I am caught up in a system of power based on false concepts of entitlement, I am not free. As long as I am made to believe I am disconnected from the rest of humanity and nature, I am not free. And how do we become free? Perhaps arriving at the question is a step.

 

Images by:

Gabrielle Bonder (photos of UCLA group at CTO training)
Teia 2007
Alanna Lockward

THE FALSE NARRATIVE ON THE DALAI LAMA AND TIBET

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by Omkar Mahajan
Editor in Chief

Several weeks ago, it was announced that Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, would be the commencement speaker for UCSD’s graduation. Many celebrated this news and applauded such a decision since the Dalai Lama is seen as a beacon of hope and nonviolent struggle in addition to being a champion and defender of human rights. Gyatso even received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts against China in 1989. However, a large number of international students from China were angered by this decision and voiced their disapproval on Facebook and other forms of social media and claimed that it was disrespectful and culturally insensitive to select such a person. Some of these students even labeled the Dalai Lama as a rapist, a terrorist, and a separatist among other labels. Others claimed that slavery and tyranny were rampant in Tibet prior to the arrival of the Chinese. Regardless of how one looks at these claims, it is important to examine them in order to discover if there is any semblance of truth to these claims. In this essay, I will disprove all of these claims and show how China is unjustifiably occupying Tibet and is in violation of numerous human rights.

Who is the Dalai Lama?
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people and has been living in exile for more than 50 years in Dharmsala, India. His branch of Buddhism that he practices is Yellow Hat Buddhism, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism that combines elements of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. In the 1950s, China delivered military troops to occupy Tibet forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Since then, the Dalai Lama resisted Chinese occupation through nonviolent struggles and continued to advocate for awareness about the ongoing situation. In the 1960s, Robert Thurman, the first American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in Tibet and currently a professor at Columbia with a degree in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, introduced the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism to the west. Following this debut, Hollywood, politicians, the media and plentiful celebrities lionized the Dalai Lama bestowing upon him a cult-like following that only a few have. Despite the popular appeal and the positive connotation the Dalai Lama brings, there are many who do not have a sympathetic sentiment regarding him. The Chinese government views the Dalai Lama as a controversial figure.

Is the Dalai Lama a separatist?
First, a large number of the Chinese population view the Dalai Lama as a separatist. Chinese media sources claim that the spiritual leader intends to balkanize and fragment China into several smaller disunited regions. Most of these claims rest on the actions of Gyatso seeking Tibetan independence and demilitarization of Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the revisionist historical notion that Tibet was never demarcated from China. However, a brief glance at past events and an analysis of the Dalai Lama’s stance on Chinese militarization of the region reveal otherwise.

In 1950, at the age of 15, Gyatso assumed power and became the political head of Tibet after succeeding the regents before him. Prior to this, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party gained control of the government in China and proceeded to absorb Tibet into China. Chinese propaganda governmental sources claim that Tibet is an integral part of China and falls within its borders. Yet, for thousands of years, Tibet was an independent state. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Tibet was incorporated into the empire but was largely autonomous and de jure independent. In other words, China claimed Tibet was within its boundaries but in reality, Tibet was essentially autonomous and practically followed its own laws. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Tibet sought to maintain its autonomy and culture and continue its practices and laws. Gyatso himself was initially supportive of the idea of Tibet being a part of the new China but immediately balked out of the concession once he learned that his people might not have full rights and their practices and cultures might be encroached. Furthermore, Tibetan nationalists opposed the idea of Tibet incorporated in China and rebelled at this notion. The Dalai Lama’s refusal to hand over Tibet to China and the actions of zealous Tibetans led China to launch a full scale military invasion into Tibet.

The Chinese government claims that the Dalai Lama is a separatist because of his efforts to secure an independent Tibet. Since Gyatso is only resolving to return Tibet’s original autonomy rather than break apart China, it does not make much sense to call him a separatist. To further disprove the claim, Gyatso has changed his rhetoric since the 1990s from one of advocating complete independence for Tibet to a stance of just simply preaching the demilitarization of Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Possible links to terrorism?
Next, CCTV and other Chinese media outlets indoctrinate their citizens that the Dalai Lama is a terrorist. Many scholars postulate that the perception of how Americans view Osama bin Laden is comparable to how the Chinese view the Dalai Lama. While bin Laden is seen as the face of evil and did great harm to the United States, perhaps a better comparison would be how Americans view Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq. Indeed, many Americans hold a negative opinion of Hussein erroneously believing that he harbored weapons of mass destruction. Yet, many are ignorant that Hussein also protected religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and led a secular governmental administration in addition to killing terrorists who were against the United States. Of course, I am not endorsing nor praising Hussein. He was a dictator after all.

The Chinese government claims that the Dalai Lama sponsored a series of terrorist attacks on the Chinese causing mass disarray and ataxia. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the 1950s, Gyatso accepted help from the CIA to combat the Chinese. The program the CIA was implementing in Tibet was similar to other later CIA-funded missions that helped the Contras in Nicaragua and the Taliban in Afghanistan which complemented US efforts to fight the Soviets in a quest against Communism. The Tibetans accepted millions of dollars from the CIA and created CIA-trained guerrilla groups which the CIA continued to fund until 1970 when the Nixon administration decided to formally establish relations with China and therefore canceled the program in Tibet. Thus, China claims that these donations from the CIA led to the Tibetan rebels committing terrorist attacks on the Chinese. However, the activities these guerrilla groups committed were simply attacks on Chinese soldiers who already were part of the military occupying Tibet. Moreover, the Tibetan rebel groups also demolished telegraph and power lines in order to disrupt Chinese communications. Thus, claims that the Dalai Lama is a sponsor of terrorism and a murderer are unfounded.

Dictatorial Rule and Oppression in Tibet before Chinese involvement
Moreover, the Chinese government presents a narrative that the Dalai Lama was a dictator who ruled Tibet as a tyrant and that 95 percent of the Tibetans were slaves. China then elaborates that the people were beaten and that many young children were forcibly removed from their homes and tortured to serve monks and that some were even raped and sexually abused. The narrative that China presents includes notions that the people were oppressed and were tied to the land and that mutilations were common forms of punishment. Indeed, several scholars on Tibet classified the society in Tibet as a feudalistic serfdom. Thus, China presents a narrative of liberating the Tibetan people from the Dalai Lama. However, this narrative is false for several reasons.

First, the idea of Tibet as a literal oppressive state that China liberated is a viewpoint from China that is based on no legitimate evidence. In fact, as Robert Barnett, a professor at Columbia University and the founder of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia states, “China made no claims at the time of its invasion or liberation of Tibet to be freeing Tibetans from social injustice…the issue of freeing Tibetans from feudalism appeared in Chinese rhetoric only after around 1954 in eastern Tibet and 1959 in Central Tibet.” This begs the question of why the Chinese government explained their reasons for occupying Tibet after they invaded it.

Second, a quick search into sexual abuse allegations and rape from Tibetan monks leads one to this video discussion from Stephen Molyneux, an Irish-Canadian Conservative social critic who elaborates on numerous cases of maltreatment of young children in the monasteries. Despite sounding so glib and professional, it is shocking to realize that Molyneux is a leading individual in the alt-right movement and has stated such bold claims that Islam is against the west and that women should stay in the home rather than have careers. Molyneux also happens to espouse views that are considered white supremacist. But even if we were to discount Molyneux’s background and listen to the points he articulates, we realize that his arguments fall apart. For instance, he cites one particular example of Tenzin Osel Hita, the boy born to Spanish disciples of Tibetan Buddhism in Dharmsala who was later discovered to be the reincarnation of a lama, Thubten Yeshe, and raised in the monasteries. He lists Hita’s act of leaving the monastery and complaints of the lifestyle and distress as evidence of abuse taking place within the monasteries.

However, Hita elaborated in a later interview that his quotes had been taken out of context and that he is still supportive of Tibetan Buddhism. “That experience was really good and I so appreciate it. However, certain media find ways to sensationalize and exaggerate an unusual story. So I hope that what appears in news print is not read and taken too literally. Don’t believe everything that is written! Experience shows that however hard one tries in interviews to sincerely and honestly convey key information, the printed result can tend towards sensationalism to get the most attention. FPMT is doing a great job and Lama Zopa is an immensely special person – very inspiring and a great yogi. […] There is no separation between myself and FPMT,” Hita said. FPMT is a Buddhist Organization that is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.

Melvyn Goldstein
Molyneux does frequently cite Melvyn Goldstein throughout his video, which leads to a discussion of whether Tibet was a feudalistic serfdom society. Goldstein was one of the first Tibetan scholars to classify pre-Chinese occupation of Tibet as a feudalistic serfdom society with the majority of people having little rights and being forced to work for lords and landowners. He also argues that the people were tied to the land and unable to move and that the rich took advantage of the poor. His claim that Tibet was a serfdom society first appeared in his writings as early as 1968. However, since then, many academic scholars have now disputed his views stating that terms like serfdom and feudalism carry a Eurocentric bias and do not accurately describe the society in Tibet. Scandinavian anthropologist from the University of Oslo, Heidi Fjeld, argued against Goldstein’s views in the early 2000’s and claimed that instead of a feudalistic serfdom, a more accurate depiction of the society in Tibet would be a caste-like hierarchy similar to the one in Ancient India. Furthermore, numerous scholars and academics have discredited Goldstein’s views and have stated that it is an inaccurate reflection of the society of Tibet. The leading Buddhist scholar in the west and a professor at Columbia University, Thurman, pictured Tibet as “a mandala of the peaceful, perfected universe.” Additionally, Hugh Edward Richardson, the British Trade Envoy to Tibet and one of the last Europeans to know Tibet before the Chinese invasion, characterized Tibet as extremely poor and that differences between the rich and poor were largely nonexistent (Powers 22). Also, in a 1998 article, journalist Barbara Crossette articulated that “scholars of Tibet mostly agree that there has been no systematic serfdom in Tibet in centuries.” Thus, the number of scholars who argue against Goldstein casts doubt on his views.

From an academic viewpoint, many of Goldstein’s contentions fall apart when scrutinized. In a series of academic debates between anthropologist Beatrice Miller and Goldstein in the 1980s, Miller pointed out that Goldstein uses economic historian Stanley L. Engerman’s definition of serfdom which is that serfs lacked property rights and were bound to the land unable to move yet Goldstein admits that people were able to move and were not entirely tied to the land. Although Goldstein is quick to distance himself from Chinese narratives and doesn’t agree with the Chinese occupation of Tibet, his viewpoints and arguments fit the Chinese narrative.

Alleged mutilation and torture
Next, there is also the idea of Tibetan mutilation, torture and abuse. Liberal political scholar Michael Parenti elaborates on this issue in his book Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth where he describes torture and mutilation as commonplace prior to Chinese arrival. Parenti also describes Tibet as a feudalistic society with serfs who had little to no rights and were bound to their land lords. This argument is illogical. First, the predecessor to the 14th Dalai Lama, the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso, outlawed mutilation in the early 1900s and Tibet was one of the first countries to outlaw the death penalty. In 1925, there was a case of mutilation and the officials who carried out the punishment were quickly admonished (Barnett 83). In 1934, there was a case of eye gouging which is exceptional for its time since no one would know how to administrate it (Barnett 83). It is important to remember that these are anecdotal examples that happened before the current Dalai Lama was born. But, even if mutilation occurred in large numbers as Parenti claims, it contradicts the idea that people were bound to the land as forced laborers serving their lords. This would be against the interests of the serfs since if the people were tortured and mutilated, then their ability to produce goods for their lord would be either reduced or removed. Goldstein even states that “extreme maltreatment [of serfs] was unlikely since it would have been against the interests of landowners, who needed peasants to provide labor” (Barnett 83).

Human Rights Abuses Committed by China
Finally, the idea of Tibet under a feudalistic serfdom society with people living in slave-like conditions pales in comparison to the current human rights abuses enacted by China on Tibet. For instance, there are over hundreds of reports of Tibetans being tortured and held as prisoners by the Chinese government as well as over 90 suspicious deaths of Tibetan political activists at the hands of the government since the 1990s that have yet to be investigated (Barnett 83). There is also the significant number of Tibetans who were murdered by the Chinese government since the 1950s. The Committee to Support Tibet, a Madrid-based group fighting for the Tibetan independence, claims that over 1.2 million Tibetan people have been murdered by China in an act of genocide. However, British historian Patrick French disputes these numbers and claims that it is actually around 500,000 Tibetan people that perished from Chinese occupation since the 1950s, which is still a large number. Finally, John Oliver, a political talk show host, claimed that the number of Tibetans who have died from Chinese occupying forces is closer to around 100,000. Regardless of what the actual number is, one cannot deny that a large number of Tibetans were massacred by the Chinese government. While many Tibetan groups claim that China’s actions constitute genocide, the International Commission of Jurists argued in 1960 that there is no “sufficient proof of the destruction of Tibetans as a race, nation or ethnic group as such by methods that can be regarded as genocide in international law.” However, the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide found sufficient evidence to claim that China was committing genocide in Tibet.

In addition to the large number of Tibetans being killed, there are a variety of human rights abuses committed in Tibet ranging from arbitrary arrest, denial of freedom of speech, censorship, disappearances, torture, denial of a fair trial, poor prison conditions, religious repression, sterilization, infanticide, and even deprivation of life. A leaked document from the People’s Liberation Army of China revealed that there were around 87,000 deaths of Tibetans in Lhasa from 1959 to 1960. Choekyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, even voiced his outrage at the Chinese atrocities being committed in Tibet and stated that “[i]f there was a film made on all the atrocities perpetrated in Qinghai Province, it would shock the viewers. In Golok area, many people were killed and their dead bodies rolled down the hill into a big ditch. The soldiers told the family members and relatives of the dead people that they should celebrate since the rebels have been wiped out. They were forced to dance on the dead bodies. Soon after, they were also massacred with machine guns…In Amdo and Kham, people were subjected to unspeakable atrocities. People were shot in groups of ten or twenty… Such actions have left deep wounds in the minds of the people.” There are also documented cases of extreme torture and brutality involving electric shock and cattle prodding on Tibetans. Several thousand Tibetans have already disappeared in the past few years. Moreover, there are even infringements on the religion of Tibetan Buddhism itself with bans on public prayers for the Dalai Lama. The Chinese state authorities later promoted active efforts to not only suppress the religion, but also coerce Tibetan Buddhists into adopting a religious doctrine that fits government policies and positions. Finally, Chinese government officials kidnapped the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, in 1995 when he was only 6 years old and he hasn’t been seen since. In a further bizarre twist of events, China appointed their own person as the Panchen Lama to fit their version of events and propaganda.

Conclusion
After a careful review of these factors, it is clear that the Chinese occupation of Tibet is unjustified. Tibet was always de jure independent being largely autonomous. China wrongfully invaded Tibet in the 1950s with the intent to incorporate it into its own territory. It was only after this series of events that the Chinese media illustrated a narrative of oppression and torture being commonplace in Tibet and painting the Dalai Lama as a terrorist and separatist to justify their own invasion. Moreover, portraying the Dalai Lama as a figure of notoriety and Tibet as a literal netherworld serves another agenda: it distracts viewers from the ongoing human rights abuses that China currently practices in Tibet that have happened since the 1950s. Not only are there contradictions in this false narrative of serfdom and oppression that China portrays, but most scholars have soundly rejected it and are moving away from this idea. It is only a matter of time until China will have to reevaluate its role as a geopolitical spoiler and regional hegemon in Tibet. After all, the growing attention surrounding these events only smears the Chinese government with a greater negative image.

Works Cited
Barnett, Robert. “Human Rights in Tibet before 1959.” Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions. Ed. Anne-Marie Blondeau, Katia Buffetrille, and Donald S. Lopez. Berkeley: U of California, 2008. N. pag. 81-84 Print.

Powers, John. History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Photo by দেবর্ষি রায়

THE SITUATION IN KASHMIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. SAIBA VARMA

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By Omkar Mahajan
Editor in Chief

On February 28, PROSPECT sat down with Dr. Saiba Varma to discuss the situation in Kashmir. Professor Varma is a medical and cultural anthropologist at UCSD researching on topics of psychiatry, violence, and politics as they pertain to Kashmir.

PROSPECT: Can you tell us how you became interested in Kashmir and what you think of what’s currently happening there?

Dr. Varma: Sure. So when I started graduate school when I went for my PhD in anthropology, I knew that I was really interested in studying some kind of conflict or something related to violence and the social, political, and psychological effects of violence and I started reading up about different conflicts in South Asia because that’s where my language proficiency and background was at. I began reading about Kashmir and I discovered that there was a lot written about Kashmir. There are libraries full of things that are written about Kashmir but most of it was written from a securities studies perspective or from the perspective of how do we resolve this conflict, so it is written either from the Indian nationalist perspective or a Pakistani nationalist perspective. There is very little information about what had actually happened during the conflict, how people in Kashmir were experiencing the conflict, and what does it mean to be at the crossroads of these different powers. Kashmir is the only region in the world that’s surrounded by three nuclear powers which are Pakistan, India, and China so it’s a very significant geopolitical region and yet I felt that we were getting such little information about how actually this conflict was playing out and how it was being experienced.

In 2007, I went to Kashmir to see if I could actually do my research there, if I could do a project there and live there, and if people would be welcoming and open to me. As an anthropologist, you search for anyone to speak to. Basically you have to rely on people to talk to you and so I tried to make as many appointments with people as I could. I ended up meeting these psychiatrists, who told me that what you really need to focus on is that there’s this epidemic of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder happening in Kashmir, this is a public health crisis, we’re completely under resourced, we do not have the capacity to deal with it, we have this deluge of people coming in with traumatic stress symptoms, and so I found that very interesting that not a lot of people were thinking about the social and psychological effects of violence and what does it mean, for example, to have an entire society that’s traumatized. So, I asked them if they would be willing to have me shadow them in the hospital and other sites of mental health care and so I spent 18 months doing field work at different sites of mental health care in Kashmir just to try to understand what the conflict was about, how people were experiencing it, how they were coping with it, how they were understanding it, what kinds of interventions were being put in place for them and were those interventions successful so that’s kind of how I became interested in it.

Your second question was about what’s happening right now in Kashmir. I was in Kashmir this past summer just during this whole Burhan Wani crisis. Basically what happened was that in early July, Indian security forces assassinated Burhan Wani who was a young charismatic militant leader who actually did not have a lot of experience fighting, or maybe no experience fighting. But, he had all of these social media posts and YouTube videos of himself dressed up in camouflage and posing with a gun and he had these very strong pro-independence postings and that made him very popular. When he was killed, there was a huge uproar in Kashmir about his death not because he was an experienced leader or that he had done anything great, but because he sort of represented this idea of independence, or azadi, which you know the majority of people in the Kashmir Valley feel very strongly that Kashmir should be independent. They do not want to be part of either India or Pakistan and so his killing sort of represented what they see as this perpetuation of this illegal military occupation on their land and it spurred many months of protests and killings. Basically, the idea is that they wanted both India and Pakistan to demilitarize the region and they want reunification.

Kashmir has been divided since 1949. That was the general sentiment and there have been many cycles of violence in Kashmir and so in 1989, you had the big killing of an arms struggle for independence that was also partly sponsored by Pakistan. The militant groups were fractured into what were pro-Pakistan militias and pro-independence militias. The pro-Independence militias lost out in the end. The Pro-Pakistan militias gained traction but that ended in 2002. Since then, you have these cycles of non-violence and non-violent protests erupting in Kashmir in 2008, 2009, 2010, and then again 2016 and its very difficult for the Indian government to deal with these nonviolent mass protests. What do you do when there are thousands of people on the street, thousands of people on strike? It’s not a riot. It’s not an armed operations. You can’t do counterinsurgency, although that’s what the military is there supposedly to do. So it creates this fundamental  problem and I think that’s what you’re seeing in these mass uprisings in Kashmir. You are seeing these sentiments for independence.

PROSPECT: You mentioned earlier that there’s a significant issue of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I believe that mental health is not something that’s particularly talked about in South Asia. Could you briefly elaborate on the issue of mental health in Kashmir?

Dr. Varma: Sure. For the first decade of the conflict which was really during the 1990s, there was so much actual violence taking place that the real concern was about death. It was really about the incidents of physical violence happening. It was a very unsafe place at the time, but after the 90s, the levels of physical violence actually decreased significantly. The numbers of terrorist related violence steadily came down and what you then began seeing were the scars of that violence. You began seeing the marks of that decade of physical violence, living in a state of constant unrest, constant unease. You know, there’s a knock on your door at night and you don’t know who it is. Is it a militant? Is it the army? Is it someone else who’s going to come and raid your house? Are they going to pick up someone from the family and then you never see them again? These were things that were every day occurrences for Kashmiris, and what that does over a prolonged period of time is that it leaves deep scars in people suffering not just from trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder, but just all kinds of anxiety and depression.

There’s a rise in mental illness because you are living in a state of constant worry and that’s related to the political situation to the lack of any kind of resolution to the Kashmir conflict. “I don’t know about tomorrow. I don’t have any hope that tomorrow is going to be better than today.” That’s the reality that Kashmiris have been living in for 20 years, so if you don’t have any hope for the future, how can you possibly feel good today? All of these kinds of things play into mental illness. I think what’s interesting about mental illness is that one way to sort of understand it is through neurobiological phenomena and a western way of understanding it but in fact, we know that there are all these social, political, economic things that can play into someone’s mental health. Kashmir’s not even unique. There are many other places of long term conflict where there are these epidemics of mental illness that there is a direct correlation between the instability of the situation and the instability that people have within themselves 

PROSPECT: You mentioned Burhan Muzaffar Wani and how he was assassinated recently by Indian state police. How do think politicians such as Mehbooba Mufti are going to handle this crisis. 200,000 people showed up to Wani’s funeral.

Dr. Varma: We saw how Mehbooba Mufti handled the situation and she was really criticized by people in Kashmir for her handling of the situation which is that she issued a statement after the killing saying that she had not been notified that this was going to happen and that they were going to do this. This raises the question of why are you the Chief Minister of this state then if you don’t know what the security forces are doing. Either you’re on that side of the conversation which doesn’t care or you’re on the other side. One of things that’s become really clear in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death is that there is no more space in Kashmir for these mainstream pro-India political parties and that they have lost a lot of legitimacy because they came in, for example the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), which is Mehbooba Mufti’s party, with a very progressive platform that we care about the aspirations of the Kashmiri people, that we want to address human rights violations, that we want to correct all of these historical wrongs that have taken place. They took a very critical position against the Indian state but what we saw was once they came into power, they sort of lost any critical relationship and allies with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). That was seen by many Kashmiris to be a sort of betrayal of what the PDP represented  because the PDP’s relationship with Kashmir is very driven by nationalism and a particular kind of Hindu ideology. From the perspective of India, that is a tragedy that happens which is because people have been so corrupted in their political ideals, no one trusts these politicians anymore, and that space has been completely lost now. People have taken a really hard line position. The Burhan Wani protest was the first protest that wasn’t about any sort of issue like the Amarnath land grab which was in 2009, or wasn’t about the fake encounter killings which was 2010. This time it was just about independence. It was just about Azadi. That’s why people were striking so that tells you that there is no room for negotiation. There is no space. Kashmiris do not trust anyone who is going to pretend that they can sort of achieve some kind of compromise.

PROSPECT: Ok, to clarify to our readers who may not know, Azadi means freedom, correct?

Dr. Varma: Correct and it’s a very expansive term.  For Kashmiris, it can mean political self-determination. For many people, it can mean full independence, different economic azadi, spiritual azadi. It has many multiple meanings, but I think the important thing for us is this idea of self-determination. That’s what a lot of people want.

PROSPECT: So you mentioned that there are independence movements occurring in Kashmir? Do you think that Kashmir should be an independent state, or should it be part of India, or should it be part of Pakistan?

Dr. Varma: It’s an interesting question. I’m Indian and for me this came as a major shock to me because as an Indian, I had grown up with a certain kind of narrative that maybe you also have grown up with. There are certain kinds of stories about Kashmir and Kashmir hamarahai, or Kashmir is ours and it’s an integral part of India and it always has been about we can’t let it go to Pakistan. It was only by studying the conflict and looking at it closely, and living there, and really understanding what was happening there from a Kashmiri perspective that it really challenged me. As an Indian, it really challenged my ideas about what I think the Indian nation is and ultimately it sort of came down to this question for me which is that how can a country claiming to be the world’s largest democracy perpetrate military occupation for decades not just in Kashmir but in Manipur and other parts of the North East as well. How do we deal with that sort of inherent fundamental paradox? What does that say about Indian liberal secular democracy if you have to put your border region under military occupation and your entire population accepts that? So, for me the question was not about what should we do with Kashmir. For me, the question was what do Kashmiris want for themselves and my responsibility is to tell that story, to be as truthful as I can and in terms of what people’s aspirations for themselves are. That’s my job as an anthropologist. It’s not my job to say that’s right or wrong for you but instead to tell the truth of how people feel and what they want. 

PROSPECT: So what do the majority of Kashmiris feel? Do the majority of them feel that  they should belong to Pakistan or do the majority of them desire independence?

Dr. Varma: It’s interesting because there is a diaspora population of Kashmiris as well. A lot of Kashmiri Pandits left in the early days of the conflict and a lot of them feel very strongly that Kashmir should remain part of India because of that. But, because the majority of people in the Kashmir Valley are Muslims, there is a very different sense of what should happen in the Kashmir Valley which I would say in the valley there are very strong sentiments of independence. No one wants to be a part of Pakistan anymore. Everyone sees what is happening in Pakistan. It’s interesting because often you see images of Kashmiris holding up Pakistani flags or things like that and which on the face of it, seems like a Pro-Pakistani statement but when you ask them about it, they do that only to irk Indians. “We know that’s what they really don’t want to see so that’s why we hold it up, not that we want to be part of Pakistan.” So, I would say in the valley, people want independence but as you know, the state of  Kashmir itself is composed of three regions. You have Jammu which is probably siding with India. You have Ladakh which is an autonomous region but it’s also very divided with a Buddhist and Muslim population and then you have Kashmir and the Kashmir valley, which is pro-independence. The whole region is fragmented. It would be a contentious thing but at the Kashmir valley I worked at, it was clear the sentiments were of independence.

PROSPECT: There are also a number of militant organizations inside Kashmir and recently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, mentioned of how he wanted to recruit in Kashmir. Do you think that ISIS and other extremist militant organizations might try to do active recruiting in Kashmir with this ongoing conflict occurring?

Dr. Varma: It could happen. Kashmir has always been a region that foreign powers have toyed with in many different ways going back to the 19th century. You had British spies and Russian spies. Kashmir was important in the central Asian trade routes. You’ve always had this geopolitical significant region with foreign powers meddling and using the conflict, the region, and its people in different ways. I do think it would be challenging because the kind of Islam that is practiced in Kashmir is quite different from what ISIS and other organizations do. There has been a lot of effort to radicalize Kashmiris and some of that has happened. But on a large part, I would say Kashmiris practice a very different kind of Islam because religion always intersects with culture. It has been a more syncretic kind of practice so I’m sure they would try because ISIS is a global organization that wants to recruit Muslims everywhere but I think Kashmiris themselves are not that easily duped because I think what Kashmiris are interested in is their own political future and if it could secure that for them, it would be helpful but if not, then I don’t think they would be interested in it.

PROSPECT: There are many scholars who compare the conflict in Kashmir to Israel and Palestine. Do you think these comparisons are accurate and fair?

Dr. Varma: I think that the comparison with Palestine is a good comparison in some ways because Kashmiris themselves draw a lot of inspiration from the struggle in Palestine. They call the Kashmir struggle the intifada which is drawing on this idea of the Palestinian struggle of intifada and they have been really inspired by that struggle just like how Muslims in many parts of the world look at Palestine as this dramatic case against Muslims. It is a productive comparison to Kashmiris because Kashmiris draw inspiration from all sorts of colonial struggles. They’ve watched French Algeria. They’ve read Frantz Fanon. They’ve watched the Battle of Algiers. In fact, there’s a famous story of how in the early days of the conflict there was a screening of a Battle of Algiers in a movie theater in Srinagar. After watching that, people went out on the streets and started protesting because they felt their situation was very similar to what the Algerians were going through under the French. I think in terms of thinking of these two powerful states, Israel and India are very powerful, very militarily robust states holding a population under occupation. I think that’s a productive way to approach the issue. Both Israel and India think of themselves as democracies and they sell themselves to the world as democracies. That’s a big part of their narrative and the fact that they can do that simultaneously while holding populations in basically open air prisons, I think its productive to think through. I think that we know far less about Kashmir than we know about Palestine which raises the question of why.

Photo by Ole Holbech