In the earliest penitentiaries, in Northern America, black slaves were imprisoned for the first time, in solitude and silence. They were carried in carts to the prisons, and before they saw the building their eyes were covered. Then, they would be taken to the centre of the prison, to a cell and their blindfold would be taken of. What would follow is an imprisonment through silence.
The prisoners would have a small light source in their cell (which would be covered if they were known to behave improperly), through which they could keep a track of day and night, winter and summer but by cutting them off from any kind of sound, the system would ensure that they lose sense of space if not of time.
Prisoners would not know which part of the prison they were in, they would not hear anyone across the walls and they were barred from speaking aloud to themselves.
People are known to have sat in the centre and not be able to walk, in the presence of this silence for we know now that sound is required to arrange ourselves in space.
What we also know, through multiple experiments around the world, is that in an anechoic chamber, where sound is completely cut off (including one’s own echo) one’s body becomes the sound. People begin to hear two sounds most distinctly. Their heart beat at a low pitch and the sound of their own blood rushing through the body at a high pitch.
As this happens, paradoxically, the most silent place becomes the loudest because when there is no sound to receive, the subject becomes the sound. What drives people to insanity often , in fact is not the silence but the noise.
It is also worth noticing here, that the earliest penitentiaries were all ideas of civilizing punishments. In 1773, when the Walnut Street Prison was opened in Pennsylvania, it was meant to be moving criminal justice from punishment to reformation. Prisoners were not thrown to the gallows but subjected to silence , as theologically speaking, their souls were to speak to them in silence.
What, for obvious reasons, the Walnut Street Prison completely did not foresee of course is that in time there would be enough reason to show that ‘silence’ was historically going to be termed as the next harshest punishment to capital punishment and solitary silence for long terms would prove to be even harsher than death. The religious logic of the soul, completely overlooked the notion that a black slave imprisoned for stealing bread from a landowner, had in fact less soul searching to do than to the system that compelled someone called a ‘slave’ in the first place to have to steal bread from someone who had exceptionally higher privileges and concurrently the moral validation of a god to exploit others. This not surprisingly, is also the period when the first ideas of Nation State were being formed and within a decade of the Walnut Street Prison, as Eric Hobsbawm argues,
In India, we are witnessing the psychopathological connection between the prison and the nation state in its entirety at the moment, in the context of both the Kashmir Valley and the creation of our latest architectural wonder, the detention center in Assam.
As a nation, we are being bound on principles of these two, I would argue, architecturally similar ideas , of silencing a space and of containing a people (within a space).
These are both detention centers except in the case of Assam the detention is within and in Kashmir the detention is ’without’. The subject in Kashmir is detained in the condition of necessarily being ‘an integral part’ of a nation by necessarily not having the rights of a subject of the nation state . If the rights were provided, paradoxically the subject would no longer consider being part of the nation as a favourable rational choice to make, in their basket of choices provided by the nation.
This paradox is another symmetry between the nation state and the silent penitentiary. The more silent the person is , the louder their experience of that silence.
In the last 6 months , the current government in India, has delivered its promise of the penitentiary with utmost care. It is in fact a government that cannot be questioned for not delivering its real promises. The Indian People, who arguably are yet to be found in the Indian nation state are in vast majority one would argue deeply satisfied with the Kashmir crisis and the NRC in Assam, primarily because the pathological needs of a condition called the nation are being fulfilled, finally beyond doubt. We should at this point of time, remind ourselves that although in the rest of the country, we are talking about the silence in Kashmir, it is actually the silence ‘ from Kashmir’ that we are referring to and not the silence ‘in Kashmir’.
A few months ago, three boys were picked up in a village and beaten up all night in a police station and their voices were played out to the entire village through loudspeakers attached to the top of the police station. This has been reported and verified through multiple sources including some leading publications.
The above incident, is one of many instances where Kashmiri youth are in fact being made to scream. Their resilient silence is being corporally beaten out of them and is being played through the several forms of silence that permeate a valley which by and large is several decibel levels lower than any Indian State of similar size.
It is often stated that this measure of the blackout was made so that people outside would not get to know what is happening in Kashmir as anti national elements would use means of communication to spread rumours to discredit an otherwise peaceful measure which as the home minister has said, was an essential step for ‘Akhand Bharat‘ (The all encompassing united India would be the rough translation of this term which etymologically would have a far more complex meaning than what the RSS has given it). We should note here that the desire for this all encompassing Akhand Bharat (whose map as propagated by the RSS includes parts of Afghanistan) is an electoral card for a group that was against the Quit India movement. The constitution that they have changed, is one that its chief architect Baba Saheb Ambedkar had to distance himself from due to its eventual refusal to drop its Hindu upper caste overtones.
We should remember, while scrutinizing the silence from Kashmir, that when this nation was formed, the RSS was opposed to that freedom and on the other side, during the making of the Republic, in 1951, the first president Dr Rajendra Prasad washed the feet of 201 Brahmins in Varanasi and drank the water. However, since the nation is not an anechoic chamber, and in fact since every idea does have its echo, it is not surprising that looking at Kashmir and Assam today, it seems like Mohammad Ali Jinnah was in fact the only true oracle of that moment, while Mohandas Gandhi as a true romantic and someone deeply embroiled in his own version of upper caste apologist position on ‘Varna’ as being integral to ‘Dharma’ and other such freudian slips in an otherwise glorious achievement of the last century, was silent in a strife torn Bengal on the eve of independence and did not make a speech.
It is not surprising that the current silence from Kashmir is an echo of what can be done with a largely upper caste Hindu male Constitution.
It is not surprising that the nation is in fact at the moment in the chamber of silence;
in the penitentiary where it no longer knows where is it oriented except in its true neo liberalist nightmare, it is also akin to celebrating its own sentence. This is the paradox of modern silence. The paradox of the modern nation state. This time around the person in the penitentiary not only does not know its space in the scheme of things, this time , even the light source is shut and the prisoner is celebrating the darkness.
We cannot tell space and we cannot even tell time. Like people bereaved of history we are celebrating a medieval execution. We are witnessing our own nationhood being deprived of framing any concept of personhood. We are witnessing those who opposed decolonization, turn us into even harder colonists , continuing the tradition from those, who delivered speeches of equality without compromising on their viscerally exploitative caste positions of privilege in the book itself.
Kashmir if anything is teeming with noise. With protests, cries, wails, gunshots, and beatings on loudspeakers. The experience of silence is purely ours, in the rest of India. In the rest of the world.
In time to come , we will hear again and again that India has taken a strong step to solving the Kashmir problem .
The question that will become the fixture of our times is ‘How will Kashmir solve the India problem’. For from here on, Kashmir will even more clearly hear its own heartbeat and its blood running up through its nerves. One in a low pitch and one in a high.