Niloofar Qureshi

The ‘Kantoreks’ of Kashmir

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In his famous novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ published in 1922, World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque brought out the horrors and futility of war through the harrowing and heartrending experiences of a group of young school boys who were goaded by their teacher named Kantorek to enlist themselves in the Great War. Even though he only plays a minor role in the novel’s plot, nevertheless Kantorek remains a key figure in the story since he represents that ubiquitous class of warmongers, who have been triggering off confrontation and conflict throughout history all over the world by propagating extreme views on patriotism and nationalism.

What attracted me to this book was the author’s disclaimer at the beginning which clarifies that “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure” – for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. “It will try simply to tell of a generation of men, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war by the war itself.”

While reading this book I was surprised to find that my mind had unconsciously started drawing parallels of the situation in Germany during World War I as painted by Remarque with that we find in our Kashmir today. And even though the novel is about trench warfare between the Germans and Anglo-Saxon armies, yet there are some striking similarities regarding the way schoolboys in wartime Germany and present day Kashmir end up trading their pens for the gun!

Paul Bäumer, the novel’s protagonist enlists for the war along with his classmates after being inspired by Kantorek’s stirring speech which ends on a high note with the school teacher telling his pupils, “Some of you may have ambitions… personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country! Here is a glorious beginning to your lives! The fields of honour calls you.” However, after his initial experience of combat, Bäumer laments, “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of work of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future…The idea of authority, which they (the warmongers) represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw, shattered this belief.”

Emotionally surcharged appeals and arguments presented by Kantorek like defending the righteousness of war, honour in fighting for the country and the glory of attaining martyrdom easily influence the young minds. He goes on to tell his pupils, “I know you have never desired the adulation of heroes. That has not been part of my teaching. We have sought to make ourselves worthy and let acclaim come when it would. But to be foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised. I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood embattled in a foreign land: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ (Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland)”!

Aware of the negative reaction to his asking young boys barely in their teens to leave school and pick up arms, Kantorek admits that “Perhaps, some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet, that you are too young, that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away.” However, by saying, “Are your fathers so forgetful of their Fatherland that they would let it perish rather than you? Are your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth?” He makes this apprehension appear to be something that’s both anti-national and sacrilegious, thereby by arousing ultra-nationalistic emotions and the quest for glory amongst his pupils, Kantorek succeeds in motivating Bäumer and his friends to leave school and enlist!

Kantorek also represents that section invariably present in every society which while goading others to willingly face bullets keep themselves and their loved ones at an arm’s length from the dangers of bodily harm. And this is clear when Bäumer says “We had to realize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness…We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”However, Bäumer also realizes that there was no escape since “there were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best – in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly.”

Remarque also brings out the absolute absurdity of conflict through Bäumer’s observation that “A word of command has made these silent figures, our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends.” He also exposes the harsh reality that “At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards.”

Coming back to Kashmir, one may say that there are no ‘Kantoreks’ here. However, can we deny that there are people amongst us who in their own way ‘celebrate’ schoolchildren abandoning their studies and picking up the gun? Doesn’t Kashmir have the people who take pride in penning down lengthy eulogies containing accounts of how oppression and humiliation ‘force’ young boys to pick up the gun in an attempt to justify militancy despite being fully aware that by romanticizing violence they are instigating others? Don’t we also have people who keep talking about the “blood of martyrs” and trying to convince us that the ‘armed struggle’ is making our case on Kashmir stronger? Lastly, just four months ago, hasn’t a militant group fighting in Kashmir echoed Kantorek’s “Are your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth?” jibe by saying “Our mothers are neither afraid of Indian threats nor will they call upon their sons to get back to their homes”!

Thus while we may deny it but the reality is that like every other place in the world, Kashmir too has “thousands of Kantoreks”, all of whom are convinced that they are acting for the best – in a way that costs them nothing – as they lure young boys to pick up the gun, and contrarily keep their own kith and kin out of harm’s way!

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