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Z for Zalim: Semiotics and the Occupation of Kashmir

December 26, 2011

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

A for Apple and Z for Zebra. Children are taught the alphabet with the help of images. And the association of images with sound. It helps them associate the sound of A with the sound of Apple, and associate that in turn with the image of an apple. The alphabet book depends on images that may be familiar to children. The word Apple is a signifier, and the apple itself is the signified. This is, most simply, what semiotics or the study of signs and sign processes.

In a future world, if there are no zebras, alphabet books may have to replace the last entry with something else. What could it be? Zebra crossing? Zimbabwe?

Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir Police registered a case of sedition, defamation and criminal conspiracy against six officials of BoSE, the government’s very own Board of School Education, for this:

This is a page from a book called Baharistaan-e-Urdu. This attempt to teach Kashmiri children the Urdu alphabet (note to self: this is what I need to learn Nastaliq!) makes them say, “Zoi se Zalim,” Z for Zalim, meaning cruel. That is only one of four examples. The other two are: zaroof (utensils), zahir (visible) and zarf (ornamental cup holder).

The maker of the textbook no doubt wanted to used such signifiers and signified images that Kashmiri children can relate to. So just as you could say P for Pheran and a child would know what that is, you could say Z for Zalim and refer to the security forces, because a child in Kashmir hears them be called that all the time. It is time for scholars of semiotics to study the Kashmir conflict, but it needs no scholar to tell you how this incident is illustrative of what the people of Kashmir, whom Indians say are fellow Indians, fell about the security forces Indians say provide security to the people of Kashmir.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the maker of this textbook was not being political, or that the political import of this act is unintentional. Such is the repression in Kashmir that everyone is deeply aware, and in fact over-cautious about acts of speech. Who should this be said to, how should I frame it, should I keep my counsel? No, no, I don’t want azadi. Come tomorrow and I’ll want it. 

The textbook image resembles a private security guard and not a policeman, but it is obvious that a “security” person is being used to stand-in for much more than, say, an ATM security guard. It is certainly not the image of a “hooligan” as the BoSE chairman would have us believe. That the textbook writer did not place a police, paramilitary or army person there is practical: the book wouldn’t have escaped attention on its way to the printing press. The clever toning down again suggests s/he was aware of how political his/her small act was. S/he knew it would go much farther in fostering dissent against the state than a post in a blog an op-ed in a newspaper.

The incident shows how easily, in the smallest of ways, the Indian state’s claims of Peace and Normalcy in Kashmir crumble! India and its Kashmir spokespersons and experts and defenders on Kashmir have been telling the whole world about how this was a Peaceful Year in Kashmir, because, well, the security forces were not asked to kill any stone-pelters by shooting into their skulls!

What a peaceful year it has been in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, indeed, a year so peaceful when a textbook published by the state was teaching Z for Zalim about people who provided this peace and security! What an ungrateful people indeed!

Such is the power of this act of dissent that it has led to a viral Facebook campaign of images like this one:

Writing in the Economic Times, Najeeb Mubarki is confused. He writes, “It is a truth often verified that school textbooks across south Asia are filled with hilarities and downright stupid mistakes. An exercise in seeking something to be offended by would probably throw up umpteen examples. That, in general, is a sad commentary on the primary school systems in the region.” And then he further writes: “…in its harsh suppression of dissent and opposition within Kashmir, in its seeking to blatantly —and, one might add, arguably illegally too — criminalise extant political realities in Kashmir, the administration often works and functions like a police state.” The state can’t possibly be crushing dissent and opposition here because according to Mubarki, there was no dissent in the textbook writer’s act, it was only a “downright stupid mistake,” a “hilarity” like the rest of her/his South Asian counterparts!

Mubarki wonders why the state police wastes time trawling through textbooks – but in fact, the book had been in circulation for a year. It could just have been that a police officer sat down to teach his child and was embarrassed to see this. (I wonder why Kashmiris sometimes try to suggest that state repression in Kashmir is mindless. See for instance this article by Burhan Qureshi that recollects memories of repression but not the revolt that the repression was responding to.)

Mubarki’s piece has an excellent title though: Where the state charges itself with sedition. It must be sad for the BoSE chief, Sheikh Bashir, to be accused of sedition. For those who don’t know, Bashir is one of the most patriotic Indians in Kashmir. Bashir is such an Indian nationalist that he even paid from his own pocket to be honoured with the Bharat Gaurav award. The award was ‘given’ by a certain NRI organisation called the India International Friendship Society. So happy was the BoSE Chairman about being called the Pride of India that he decided to use tax-payers’ money to issue advertisements in newspapers congratulating himself on being ‘awarded’ the Bharat Gaurav Award. Bashir is the sort of ‘Indian’ who is singled out in Kashmir for outsiders to be shown – look, he’s Kashmiri and a patriotic Indian! For all such patriots the Indian government should institute a special award so they don’t have to buy it any more.

News of this funny incident has been reported all over the world, thus once again giving away the bad planning of the Indian version of How to Have an Occupation and Pretend it Ain’t One. Perhaps the Home Ministry’s Kashmir Division should learn from the Kashmiris themselves; for instance, from this comment by a Kashmiri on Facebook:

The emperor hereby orders deletion of the letter zoi of the alphabet from Urdu, Kashmiri, Gojri, Pahari, Sheena and Balti languages of his colony. Thus words like zaalim and zulm naturally stand obliterated from the lexicon.

The subjects are hereby directed to unlearn zoi and any word beginning with zoi. In addition, by the same decree, mazloom is also designated as a forbidden word from these languages unless used by the authorities in their official pursuits.

Anybody found using zoi or its derivatives will be punishable with minimum 14 years of imprisonment by the newly promulgated Indic Alphabetica Act.

The order is implemented with immediate effect.

Update: The BoSE chairperson has shifted the blame on the DTP operator, who has been arrested, in Srinagar, capital of the police state of Jammu and Kashmir.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Alok Shukla permalink
    December 26, 2011 7:20 AM

    As much as warped humour of the textbook and the handling of the situation, the undercurrent of a religiously backed hatred is visible. Yes, you might want to articulate the Indian troop presence as occupying and some would say it is legitimate to say so, however it pales against the level of hatred against the other religion and inability to cope with the fellow south Asians is not less. It is this occupation in minds of a sizeable population of Kashmiris and also a Indians is the one which is a bigger challenge. And yes, it predates this uprising, this is the way any muslim state uprising has been defined by its ruling or leading elite, freedom from others, and the ensuing cycle of visicious hatred wrapped in a freedom movement. If we are secular this kind of hatred is just unacceptable.

  2. Mali permalink
    December 26, 2011 8:32 AM

    Excellent…brilliant reflection !!!!!!

  3. shama zaidi permalink
    December 26, 2011 11:01 AM

    all muslim ghettos including kashmir are occupied zones. let’s not pretend otherwise

  4. Khumair permalink
    December 26, 2011 12:21 PM

    THis is all a Pakistani conspiracy… see, if there was no Pakistan, India wouldnt have to pretend to allow/support the promulgation of Urdu, and wouldve replaced it with Hindi and as Hiindi doesnt have a ‘z’ alphabet…problem solved! Na rahay ga ‘zoi’ na rahay ga ‘Zulm’

    • kashmiri kid permalink
      December 26, 2011 7:05 PM

      its dsnt all get down to the existence of urdu.. if we learnt hindi thn we myt hv had to teach kids ‘j’ for ‘jaalim’ like u wud most probably say it. or may be u wud like to line up the kids who hv learnt it in school n jus shoot them as it happnd 18months back.

    • December 27, 2011 4:03 AM

      Khumair, My friend from Pakistan, Urdu is the official state language of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in India with Urdu as the state language. Do note the ironies: Urdu connects Kashmiris with Jammu Muslims as well as with Pakistanis, not to speak of Indians. Kashmiri nationalists are aware of this and speak only sparingly about the Kashmiri language and its marginalisation by Urdu, a language they see as a symbol of what outsiders, foreign occupying powers (the Mughals) brought. And while we are on the subject, you do realise that when the Urdu language helped create Bangladesh, the people of Kashmir hadn’t turned their radio sets off.

  5. Ritambhara permalink
    December 26, 2011 3:29 PM

    I am not sure about how to articulate my comment or describe what I am feeling right now but I won’t let that stop me from commenting on this article.

    I was in Srinagar for slightly less than a month this September and was ‘surprised’ to see how ‘normal’ things were albeit security check-posts all over the city and ‘India Go Back’ graffiti on most buildings. This is what I have been telling my friends and family. I say normal because there were no incidents of violence while I was there, no curfew, no stone pelting and the families I stayed with in villages closer to the main city said certain things which implied that situation is def. getting a lot better than what it was before.To be honest, I am hardly naive in my understanding of such things.

    After reading this piece I felt a little ashamed (again not sure if this is the correct word to use here) because my understanding of the conflict does go a little more deeper than listening to the news on TV or reading mainstream newspapers. Still.

    Perhaps, I am that ‘Indian’ who refers/wants to refer to the Kashmiris as ‘fellow Indians’.

    • Sajad Malik permalink
      December 26, 2011 11:30 PM

      Do not do such a mistake Ritambhara, for this mistake of yours will always keep you at bay with reality..Truth is that Kashmir is not India and a Kashmiri was/is and will never be an Indian..your “mainstream” is what goes “downstream” in Kashmir…streams that are feeding you are polluted.we hail from extreme North. Remember. Drink from our streams hereon.

    • December 31, 2011 5:56 PM

      i have similar impressions as ritambhara and i think we should just ignore people with a mentality like that of shuja malik. i know many muslims who would join me in this

  6. December 26, 2011 11:11 PM

    Does anyone remember why the government had to send in troops that spend their lives as much at risk from the very people they are protecting as from extremists and terrorists who belong to no one!? Does any one who has read and commented on this article remember that there are umpteen occasions that have seen decisions taken in favor of the state where no other state would have been taken into account? we are still trying to stand by the promises made at the time of accession though circumstances and situations have changed a million times over.
    I too have had occasion to be in Kashmir even during the so called ‘peak’ militancy period and found the majority of the people to only want peace and an enabling environment for their children to grow and live in, their Kashmiriyat defined more by the culture and the values people sported than by the religion and statehood or country of origin! Under normal circumstances one would avoid the unnecessary invitation of attention to such a piece of bigotry, but I just could not let it go by uncommented upon.
    No body who wishes for true peace and cessation of hostility could wish to promote such blatant hatred, or push the fragile strand of hope further away-fanning flames of hatred is the easiest thing to do. Holding on to hope, putting aside bias and learning to sift through the bad that exists everywhere to reach the good that does so too and finding within ourselves the strength not to tar everyone with the same brush is a much tougher task-a test of our own capacity for humanity sans borders,
    This pains me, as I am sure it does a large number of people, as it should pain every person who truly wishes for a better world for our children to live in, a better chance at peace, a better chance to live among people whom we may freely entrust with our friendship and neighbourhood, a better chance for a world that values humanity-removed from the colors of caste creed and religion.

  7. December 27, 2011 3:14 AM

    Shuja Malik has this to offer:

    A Azaadi, Armed Struggle, Akhter Mohiudin
    B Bijbehara, Black day
    C Curfew, Crackdown,Collateral Damage, Curfewed Night, Collaborator
    D Downtown
    E Enforced Disappearance, Eidgah, Encounter
    F Fractured limb, Fake encounter
    G Gawkadal, Graveyard
    H Half Widow, Hartal, Human Rights Violations
    I Identity Card, Interrogation, (((Ikhwani)))
    J Jaleel Andrabi,Jashn-e-Azaadi
    K Kananposhpura
    L Lolab
    M Maqbool Bhat, Massacre, Migration, Mass graves,Mutilated, MC Kash.
    N NRK (Non-resident Kashmiri)
    O Orphan, Occupation, Oppressor
    P Palhalan, Parveena Ahanger, Protest, Plebiscite,Papa II, PSA, Pepper Gun,Protest
    Q Qaabiz mulk
    R Rape, Restrictions, Rai-Shumaari
    S Sopore, Stone-pelter, Shaheed, Sameer Rah, Summer 2010, Sedition,((Sadhbhavna)))
    T Tufail Mattoo, Teargas, TRC (Tourist Reception Centre), Treaty of Amritsar,Tehreek
    U UNO (or UFO), Unmarked Graves, Unidentifed Graves,
    V Victory (Insha-Allah)
    W War till Victory
    Y Yeh Mulk Hamara Hai,
    Z “Zoi” “Zaalim”

  8. December 27, 2011 3:19 AM

    A friend sends me this correction, “In your piece on “Zoi”, one of the words you mentioned as zareef is actually Zarf. Zarf means an ornamental cup holder for a hot cup of beverage.” I have updated the post accordingly.

  9. December 27, 2011 3:28 AM

    The BoSE chairman has shifted blame on the DTP operator, who has been arrested: So it’s not safe to be printing even school textbooks in Kashmir, you could be arrested for no fault of yours!

  10. arun ohri permalink
    January 15, 2013 5:48 PM

    I thought you taught young children by showing showing pictures of words they could relate to?????? That is why you have “a for apple” and “b for bat” and “c for cat”
    I am certain that DTP operator must have won freedom as the fault was of the person who gave a difficult job to picturise a difficult subject. However picture should be changed with that of Changej khan (the mangol) about who being “zalim” one should not have a doubt


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