Barkha Dutt’s ‘feast talk’ and the outrage it caused

On April 16, well-known Indian journalist Barkha Dutt’s show became an instant online outrage in Kashmir. A local commentator’s piece as a response to the show went viral soon after. A fortnight later, a young Kashmiri woman pens down her take on Dutt’s talk show and the outrage it caused.

Many conversations remain pending in Kashmir.

With the hope of finding Azadi at the horizon, we’ve kept marching, sacrificing and dying with unflinching determination towards that dawn, where liberty awaits us.

But as we move forward incessantly, we need to take out time to pause and look around. We need to know who’s being left behind and we need to visualize the world on the other side of the horizon.

Whom will that world belong to and on what principles will it be built?

Certain men from the valley seem agitated at the ‘gross misrepresentation’ of Kashmiri women and the situation in Kashmir by Barkha Dutt’s recent show titled “We the Women of Kashmir: Female Perspectives on Polls in the Age of Machismo”.

They’re disappointed with the journalism of Dutt who not just chose only women, but women who ‘don’t represent their society’ to talk about something as ‘complex and important as election polls’.

This can be gauged by the article blithering with virtual smirks and sarcasm written by one Mudasir Nazar called ‘What is wrong with Barkha Dutt’s We the Women of Kashmir Show and the rousing reception it received.

In the author’s eyes, Dutt made this show on Kashmir look like an oriental comedy, a circus around a Traem, only to position herself as an insider in order to serve the agenda of the Indian State and attempt an unwanted integration.

Dutt’s show deserves criticism but not of the sort stemming from gendered mistrust, misogyny and not at the cost of invisibilizing the struggles of the Kashmiri women.

The nature of Nazar’s critique and the cause of his agitation unsettled me and made me ask a few questions and render a few observations, even as I agree with his criticism of Dutt’s show.

His critique is reflective of a behavioural pattern that has been internalized by most men of the valley due to years of normalized patriarchy, casual sexism and conventional gender role expectations.

This detracts from the genuine grievance with respect to Dutt’s show and her journalism, soft-pedaling Kashmiri women’s struggles against the Indian state agencies and shifting the narrative to the localised patriarchy that they experience, all in service to an integrationist cause she espouses.

The author’s opinions are reflective of the larger opinions men of the valley hold regarding women, especially when they occupy public spaces and platforms to make political statements in, and regarding, Kashmir.

When men from the valley take sarcastic digs at women speaking about the valley and claim a totalitarian and birthright-like say in deciding whether certain women should speak about the polls, whether women should speak at all, which women are ‘ideal Kashmiri women’ and who can represent ‘their’ state, ‘their’ women and ‘their’ politics, we as women from Kashmir nervously shift in our seats, anxious about our future in the valley.

He asks, referring to Saba Shafi’s comments on people questioning her religion because of her choice of career, if ‘it is not normal’ for people to express curiosity regarding her career choice in a society where women like to dress ‘decently’ and people are ‘religious-minded’.

The answer to this question is, Yes! It’s absolutely normal, as normal as casual sexism and slut-shaming.

The question, however, is whether such sexism should be acceptable. Is it not merely an instance of othering women as ‘cultural shocks’ because they do not conform to the conventions of their own society?

The author, time and again, raises the issue of the women in the show being not ‘well-informed’ enough to comment on the rocket science that is elections.

He points out that instead of making Nazir Ganaie play the Rubaab and disappear, he should’ve been asked for his opinion as well because as a journalist ( I think he really meant as a man) he would be better informed about the ground situation.

Even though his outright dismissal of Dutt and his pushing for Ganaie’s voice in the show can itself be seen in the light of gender partiality, his making such a comment reveals that he does not understand the significance of an all-women’s space in a time when women’s voices are being systematically stifled. He’s blinded from recognizing the very spirit of the show, or else he really believes that women of the valley cannot speak about politics without the sane and ‘well-informed’ intervention of men.

The author’s problems with the women in the show and their specific issues seem to arise from the deviation that personalities and appearances of the new Kashmiri women, of the like who appeared in the said show, highlight from the caricature of an ‘ideal Kashmiri woman’, obviously a patriarchy approved role model for women, that conflicts his mind. Therefore, we see him constantly trying to measure the importance and worthiness of the issues and narratives that women in the show raised by falling back to the old metric of men’s understanding of women’s problems—problems that men created, approved as legitimate, gaslighted women into believing them to be the ‘real’ issues and then promised to solve for women.

Representational Picture

The author seems to want the Kashmiri women of the age to speak about their condition under the conflict, and besides it, in the way men think is most beneficial to the status quo vis-a-vis the tussle of our state with the Indian state and prioritize their issues based on how important they seem in the ‘man’s world of high politics and intellectual rigour’.

Blanketing the oppressions faced by the people of Kashmir under a single problem of the Indian occupation, he annihilates the various shades of gender, caste and class, that variegate the oppression that operates in confluence with military dominance and manifests in the lives of people in different ways, interacting with (or not) with the occupation.

The only problems worth talking about, and trying to mobilize people around, it seems, are the problems that the violent masculinity of the Indian state is inflicting upon women, specifically in terms of their bodies as visible (and hence, capitalizable for the conflict) oppression of the state.

That’s why, he thinks that the Bandipore rape case should be kept aside as an isolated incident ‘that can happen anywhere’ and attention should be reserved for the ‘problems specific to Kashmir’ like Kunanposhpora.

He fails to understand that even though the oppressors in both the cases are different, the underlying cause of such rampant sexual and emotional violence against women is the very patriarchal nature of institutions and systems that have made women’s bodies sites for the display of the worst of their power fantasies.

The author’s statements only add up to say that women of the valley should only talk about violence and discrimination if it can contribute to the case against the Indian state. For the rest of the problems, as long as all women are suffering in all parts of the world, no women should be considered to be suffering and his beloved Kashmiri society should not be demonized by such ‘insulting generalizations’.

Let it be known that it’s not ‘their women’ that the women on the show represented or ‘their’ politics or ‘their state’ that they were talking about.

Women’s voices are their own, their perspectives and struggles under the occupation are theirs, and Kashmir is as much theirs, to express opinions regarding, as it is of men.

Our Kashmiri identity is as important as our identity as women and we must not be expected to choose to talk about our struggles with respect to both the identities in a binary. We should not be othered in our own community by being forced to submit all other shades of our identity to the uni-dimensional identity of being a Kashmiri, at least till the time ‘Kashmiri’ as an identity frees itself of all its gendered connotations.

The author’s sharp criticism of the women, that forces him to catalogue them and deride their opinions on individual basis, was delivered in a way that disclosed his gendered mistrust in women’s ‘wisdom’ and ‘awareness’ (words he uses throughout his article). His non-recognition of the need to represent women, to talk about the daily struggles of Kashmiri women and the amalgamation of his critique with a particularly sexist strain of sarcasm and tone made his article come across as an amateur and misdirected ridiculing of women’s voices and the spaces they create for themselves.

The author says that the women did not talk at all about ‘how women will vote’ which he thought was what the show claimed to be about. When he asks such a question even when the women in the show were talking about the problems they face at an everyday level in an occupied patriarchal state, it seems to me that the author has assumed it necessary to de-prioritize women’s struggle against local patriarchy to prioritize the struggles of the Kashmiri people under the military domination without understanding that it need not be so.

By accepting that the Kashmiri society is a patriarchal society that discriminates and others women who do not conform to its conventions, the author seems to think that the society will automatically lose its claim to freedom and in a bid to retain a claim to freedom he resorts to a justification of misogyny and patriarchy.

Representational Picture

If we see ‘important politics’ as different from the politics of daily life, of narratives, of suffering and agony, then, of course the women, did not talk about ‘how the Kashmiri women will vote’. But the struggles that the women in the show pointed out are an aspect of the politics of our subjugated homeland.

And what Nazar sees as self-promotion on the part of Fiza Nazir can be seen as the larger problem faced by the Kashmiri sportswomen who are neither supported by the state nor by the society that sees femininity as disadvantageously vulnerable yet stresses on women strictly keeping to their feminine nature and duties.

What he saw as boasting on the part of Ridhwana Sanam can be seen as women expressing a desire, and taking steps in that regard, to get women politicians to take up the issues regarding women seriously.

Further, Saba’s experience of being questioned regarding her twin conflicting identities as a Muslim and as a Makeup artist and Shehryaar talking about the plight of public transport and property rights issues that women face are issues that are not personal and hence irrelevant to the Kashmir Problem.

They’re all issues that women of Kashmir want to be taken up by the candidates who stand up for election.

To answer the author’s question in direct words, the Kashmiri women will vote for the politicians who promise to be the allies of women in their struggle against the double-oppression of State and society and that does not mean that women are compromising on the call for Azadi.

This only means that women want to widen the definition of occupation and not sacrifice some struggles for ‘more important’ struggles. The tendency to religionize the freedom struggle and in the process conceal the oppression of women at the hands of a conservative society is what has kept pushing women further away from the sphere of ‘masculine politics’ of liberation.

The answers by Fiza Nazir and Saba Shafi where they pretended a dissociation from politics and tried to portray themselves as ‘far from politics’, however disappointing, must be seen in the same context and understood as symptomatic of a systemic problem. Women are always made to believe that Politics is not what their nature aligns with. As ‘peaceful, soft and vulnerable’ members of the societies (often clubbed together with people with special needs and senior citizens on banners and sign boards), they’re made to pick up the hints from their surroundings and believe that politics is too confrontational for them.

If women like Fiza and Saba, who have been successful women with careers, and can be assumed as comparatively more emancipated than other women, still see their existence as separate and far away from politics, it is as much their individual shortcoming, their class and other privileges, as much as it is indicative of how wide a gulf has been created between women and politics, how removed it is from their concerns to make them feel like politics lives in a world parallel to theirs and does not intercept their lives.

But as much as Fiza and Saba believe to be un-participating in politics, they’re deeply enmeshed in the politics of Kashmir as women who’ve decided to choose alternative careers and if not in any other way, at least symbolically, challenging the normative idea of a domestic, docile Kashmiri woman for whom only a few society-approved career options are made available.

But what about Barkha Dutt?

Dutt, even as she speaks as a pioneer of the cause of Kashmiri women, seems to be deliberately avoiding a conversation that would have the women speaking about Azadi. To the extent that the show, rather than bridging the gulf between the untrue narrative of ‘Kashmiri women having no opinions on Azadi’, seems to widen the gulf of separation between the dimensions of gender, patriarchy and occupation.

Dutt attributes no importance to the patriarchy and harassment that Kashmiri women face at the hands of the State and Dutt’s beloved army. She makes no attempts to highlight the mass participation of women in the freedom struggle.

It seems to me that both Nazar and Dutt use the narratives of gendered oppression for their own political projects, the former more bluntly and overtly than the latter. While Nazar points out, though poorly and on the basis of a wrong foundation, that the Muslim problem of patriarchy is being used by Dutt to silence the demands of secession and ending the Indian state violence, Dutt uses women’s rights as a rhetorical device to try to slyly justify subjugation, dominance and imperialism and portray Kashmiri women as silent sufferers in a masculine war for Azadi that is not theirs, which is a shameful and unethical distortion of the ground reality of Kashmir.

Dutt’s repeated appeal to the other journalists to learn from her and follow her example to ‘come out of their debate rooms and visit Kashmir to find alternate voices’ to speak the concerns of people comes across as an attempt at self-validation rather than a genuine concern regarding the misrepresentation of Kashmiri issues. It seemed to be more about competitive journalism for her where she as a self-declared ‘insider’ (an honorary citizen, as she says) of the community (only because she has visited Kashmir some over 20 times?) was trying to portray herself as the only ‘bridge’ between Indian media and the ground reality of Kashmir- a true pioneer of the cause of Kashmir and its women.

Firstly, Barkha Dutt who does not support Kashmir’s secessionist movement but only an integration of Kashmir into mainstream India, cannot claim to be an insider only because she has spoken against the othering of Kashmiris. As a self-declared empathizer, she must take cognizance of her position as an Indian who by trying to appropriate her way into being ‘almost Kashmiri’ is only serving to be another pawn in the grand scheme of India’s agenda of bringing Kashmir under its unopposed governance.

Secondly, she must, as a senior journalist, introspect the lasting implications that the show might produce. While providing women with a platform to voice their concerns against the patriarchy of the society, she should have avoided at all costs, coming across as an ‘Indian reformer freeing Kashmiri women from the men of their own society’, slyly implying that reconciliation with India is the only option for women who want to live dignified lives. She must be careful of pitting one section of the valley against the other in the name of their own conflicts. Some conversations have to be left for Kashmiris to conduct internally.

Barkha Dutt.

But there’re more questions that require attention.

If Barkha claimed to represent alternate voices, what motivated her choice of the women she invited? What was the significance of setting this discussion against the background that she chose to set it against? Answers to these questions immediately reduce the impact and value of the show.

It was surprising that her panel of women did not include any woman from the religious minorities of Kashmir or the working class. The common school-going girls that are suffering at the hands of an education system marred by conflict, the school teacher, the domestic help, the woman who stays at home and cooks and cleans and nurtures her family with her emotional and unpaid labour do not find a representation in her show set in the elite Mughal Darbar. There were no women from the villages who work in the fields and suffer emotional abuse by the family, whose labour is shamelessly exploited. There were no women from the border areas that run the highest risk of harassment by the Indian forces.

It was also disappointing to witness women who were representing women taking gendered digs at other women. Fiza and Saba seemed to be unaware of playing as agents of patriarchy when they expressed their agreement with the oldest running proverb of patriarchy – ‘women are women’s biggest enemies’. It was saddening to see Ridhwana paint Mehbooba Mufti, even if she does not agree with her politics, as an ‘unpopular woman’ who needs to be replaced by a more honest, young woman.

This attitude is indicative of a culture where women are conditioned into believing in the existence of an internal competition, a race to please patriarchy so as to appear acceptable and desirable. As compared to other ‘uncontrollable’ women that patriarchy disapproves of, women are made to look for power by serving as agents of patriarchy.

The show started with traditional Kashmiri music and spent a good part of itself in capturing the traditional feast that was served in the ‘spirit of the culture’. The debate room was oozing Kashmiri aesthetic and was lined with Kashmiri musical instruments, ornaments and brassware of all sorts. This instead of promoting the culture of Kashmir and making the ‘real Kashmir’ visible to the non-resident audiences of the show, came across as reductive racial and cultural fetishization and a shallow attempt at trying to superficially embed the show in the culture of Kashmir to feign as an insider.

Replacing the English tea besides the newsroom table with a Samovar, noon-chai and Wazwaan does not make one more of an insider and more faithful to Kashmir as compared to other journalists and only serves to reduce a culture to the sum-total of a few cultural artifacts. Besides, the show was railing at the edge of reducing itself to the like of a dinner table conversation regarding the plight of Kashmiri women.

It must disturb us when the discourses around oppression and suffering become so normalized that we find our journalists and representatives talking about gut wrenching topics like rape, occupation and Human Rights violation while casually indulging in the festivities of a feast, relishing morsels of kebabs and tabakmaaz.

Besides, the visual politics of the show- the enclosed indoor home-like space loaded with delicacies and traditional mementos- situate the women, yet again, within the domestic and reinforce rather than cut through the idea that women and politics will always share an informal relationship.

Barkha Dutt’s political position prevents her from accessing and talking about stories of mass sexual abuse by the Indian State and in doing that she is as culpable as some Kashmiri men who mask Kashmiri women’s local struggles against gendered oppression in their fight against the Indian State.

On the other hand, Mudasir Nazar’s loyalties prevent him from recognizing the double jeopardy in which Kashmiri women live their lives, simultaneously dealing with the patriarchy of the local society and the State.

Kashmiri women should be suspicious of the pitfalls of both positions. The viscerality and scale of Indian State’s violence can hardly be used to silence voices against conservatism and patriarchy within Kashmiri society. But neither can a society’s conservatism be used as a political tool to deny it the right to determine its own future and resist the military dominance. Women in Kashmir must reject the binaries we are bracketed into and claim the Azadi to define Azadi for ourselves.


Juvaria Syed is pursuing Masters in English from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. 

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counterviews on the debate are welcome at [email protected].


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