Understanding Kashmir

Radhika Gupta

Faculty of Humanities

Leiden University

December 2019

While colonial representations of Kashmir were fixated on it either as an idyllic paradise or an area that held significance in the shadows of the “Great Game,” postcolonial engagement was unable to escape methodological nationalism. Knowledge on the region has been suffocated by the over-abundance of geopolitical and security studies type of analyses. There is thus, until recently, a paucity of ethnography that lends textured insight into the complexities of life, love, food, labour, kinship, money and market. The sociology and anthropology of Kashmir have for decades suffered from the epistemological distortions and aporias wrought by violence, not least in the challenges posed to sustained fieldwork that is considered the hallmark of deep ethnography in the traditional sense of its meaning. In recent years scholarship has emerged from scholars of, and within Kashmir, exemplified by the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective that pushes against the boundaries of traditional ethnography.

August 5th, 2019 marked another turning point in the long history of the colonization of Kashmir, when India revoked the special status granted to Kashmir in the constitution under article 370, that had guaranteed it a form of limited autonomy since the partition of the subcontinent. Against the background of this long durée, critical Kashmir scholars are foregrounding the voices and experiences of people from Kashmir that have been expressed in different mediums and registers. We have an offering of a capacious ethnographic “field” and archive (novels, poetry, art, film, autobiography) that speaks to the silences and fabrications of scholarship tinted and tainted by majoritarian ideologies. Taking this to be ethnographic theory is more than an ethical gesture in this moment; it is the practice of a methodological approach that stands in line with decolonizing anthropology.

The readings included here go beyond the Kashmir Valley to include Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu, and Ladakh (Kargil and Leh). My own research among the predominantly Shi‘a Muslim population of Kargil taught me how these different regions are tied together, not just through shared cultural, religious and linguistic histories but also through the dynamics of militarization and occupation. Even if these regions are separated by political and governmental boundaries, the past will continue to bear down upon them puncturing the hubris of (post-) colonial nationalisms.  

A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir (2019), edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat

Kashmiri academics, poets, novelists and journalists excavate the history of Kashmir through their memories of growing up in occupied Kashmir as well as how time spent outside the Valley sharpened their identity and aspirations for azadi (freedom). We get a glimpse into the impact of critical events such as the Gaw Kadal massacre in 1990, on nascent political consciousness (Khurram Parvez), to the affective attachments to Pakistan expressed through mundane events such as cricket matches (Shahnaz Bashir). Besides lending insight into specific political phases and events in individual chapters (e.g. G. R Malik, Z. M Zareef), and erasures in official historiography, in the introduction the editors also offer a succinct overall account of the history of the conflict in Kashmir. Here, the long durée of colonial occupation and resistance are revealed through little known snippets. For instance, stone-throwing as a mode of protest, though termed the “Kashmiri Intifada” for its similarity to Palestinian protests, can be traced back to the 16th century when Kashmir was annexed by Mughal rulers (p. 17). Historiography intersects with searing, poignant auto-ethnography through these pages, elevating a mood of reflection to a particular mode of scholarship.

Munnu: A boy from Kashmir (2015), by Malik Sajad

This is a coming of age autobiographical graphic novel about a boy called Munnu growing up in the 1990s when the people of the Kashmir Valley were caught between the violence of the Indian state and the popular armed insurgency. It too tells the history of Kashmir from the perspective of Kashmiris. The banality of evil is revealed in the vocabulary of children’s dreams and games, and the daily routines of living under militarization. Munnu, through his cartoons, speaks truth to power. The tone moves back and forth between scathing sarcasm (ambassadors of the EU to Kashmir are referred to as “programmed mannequins”) and pathos (“Several People were gunned down carrying the corpse of their friend who was gunned down earlier, to the graveyard…The rest ran for their lives, so the army vented their anger on the unresponsive corpse” p. 330) to sardonic matter-of-factness (while on a trip to Delhi, Munnu, assures his worried mother: “See you were freaking out for no reason. People here think I’m from Iran” p. 295).

Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (2018), edited by Haley Duchinksy, Mona Bhan, Ather Zia, and Cynthia Mahmood    

How is the impact of the violence of late modern colonial occupation made sense of discursively and psychically? Combining political and cultural analysis, contributions in this volume can be situated within a wider comparative field. These range from the distinctiveness of a new phase of resistance seen in youth culture (e.g. hip hop), to witnessing and martyrdom (epitaphs on graves), to discursive constructions in psychotherapy (the uses of trauma). Policemen too are scarred. Gowhar Fazili’s piece analyses the complex subjectivity of a Kashmiri police officer, who simultaneously claims fidelity to his community and his policing duties, showing us how occupied people get implicated in both resistance and collaboration.

Khoon Diy Baarav (Blood leaves its Trail), a Film, by Iffat Fatima

It becomes impossible to think of military violence in Kashmir through any kind of abstraction after watching Iffat Fatima’s film that focuses on the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP); the mothers are its vanguard. They sing, cry, give speeches and stoically face the camera holding up the photos of their disappeared sons. We see how memory resists erasure. Modes of witnessing operate on multiple levels: the mothers, the filmmaker, and us, the audience.

“This is not a Performance!: Public Mourning and Visual Spectacle in Kashmir” (2014) by Deepti Misri in Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence and Representation in Postcolonial India.

Misri analyzes the visual strategies of the APDP. Drawing on bell hooks’ argument of the “oppositional gaze”, she shows us that these mothers are “not simply icons of grief”, but help us re-orient our gaze to really see, not like the state. See also the recently published, Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (2019), by Ather Zia.

“Love in the time of Occupation: Reveries, longing, and intoxication in Kashmir” (in American Ethnologist, Vol 43, Issue 12016), by Saiba Varma

Military governance extends its tentacles into spaces of care. Saiba Varma’s ethnography in a state-run Drug De-addiction Centre (DDC) for young men in Srinagar contrasts their “public recovery narrative performances” (p. 55) with personal reveries of love to illustrate the phenomenology of defiance. Through reveries the patients, she argues, reclaim intoxication through Sufi understandings of love as “nasha”. Their addiction has often been triggered by the experience of love that does not conform to social conventions alongside the debilitation wrought by living in a militarized society. While the clinic takes a complete break from the past to be a sign of recovery in its attempts to produce amnesiac “reformed” subjects of the state, the patients resist this without direct confrontation.

Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India: From Warfare to Welfare (2014), by Mona Bhan

Turning the gaze away from the Kashmir Valley, while drawing upon its experience analytically, this book critically analyses the Indian military’s counterinsurgency operations in Ladakh. It is an intimate ethnography of the impact of militarization on the everyday life of Brogpas, a “quasi-Buddhist” ethnic minority living along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in the Muslim-majority Kargil district. Through appropriation of villagers’ labour, we learn how border dwellers are incorporated into the state’s security regime. They in turn mobilize the language of duty, loyalty and service to the nation as idioms of inclusion within a regional field of ethic and religious identity politics. Bhan tracks how the Indian army combines ideologically incompatible state-security and human-security perspectives in Ladakh to further their counterinsurgency agenda without resort to exceptional violence.

On Uncertain Ground: Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir (2017), by Ankur Datta

Not all Kashmiri Pandits are celebrating the alleged “integration of Kashmir into India” since the revocation of its special status in the Indian Constitution. Without diminishing the trauma of their displacement from the Valley in 1989-1990, many feel that their pain is being weaponized by the Indian state (see Trisal, Washington Post, August 22, 2019).  Datta’s book provides a nuanced analysis of the predicaments of displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu. Despite nostalgia for their lost homeland and the painful memories of displacement, many do not seek to return even as they seek “roots in a safe and secure place” (p. 35). They are caught between “loss of prior status” and “discontent with the present” (p. 22); there has been no easy “integration” with their fellow Hindus in Jammu. Their politics of recognition as victims is also caught between making claims on the state based on the uniqueness of their experience and asserting kinship with other communities who have been through a similar experience of conflict-induced internal displacement. This is perhaps the only full-fledged ethnography of Kashmiri Pandits after their exodus from the Valley. It also takes us inside camps for “migrants” set up by the Indian state, in this case those deemed citizens.

Body of Victim, Body of Warrior: Refugee Families and the Making of Kashmiri Jihadists (2013), by Cabeiri DeBergh Robinson

Is the distinction between “victims” and “perpetrators” of violence always clear-cut? Robinson’s ethnography among displaced Kashmiri refugees who were living along the LoC and have found refuge in Azad Jammu and Kashmir destabilizes these categories. She tracks the shifts in regional political culture from the value accorded to hijarat as a kind of “protective migration” to become mujahirs (refugees) in the early years to the value of becoming mujahids (warriors) who engage in jihad (armed struggle) as a way to possibly return to their homes in the 1990s. The social and political devaluation of “refuge-seeking” gives way to jihad as a form of self-defense of the Kashmiri body against torture and sexual violence rather than territory. Young men are drawn to armed struggle not through indoctrination in mosques but family and personal networks. An analysis of the “social production of jihad” is set against a background of the south Asian refugee regime. Robinson also examines the ethical debates, cultural aesthetics and aspirations that constitute the practices of jihad, of which visible violence is only a small part.

Delusional States: Feeling Rule and Development in Pakistan’s Northern Frontier (2019), by Nosheen Ali

In contrast to the Kashmir Valley, the Shia Muslims of Kargil have historically performed and expressed loyalty to India. Their “yearning for recognition and inclusion” (p. 2) is mirrored on the other side of the LoC in the Pakistani-administered region of Gilgit-Baltistan. Ali narrates the dynamics of seemingly contradictory emotions such as love and betrayal that imbue political subjectivity in this Shia-dominated region of Pakistan to show us how “the Kashmir conflict is affectively structured and experienced on the ground” (ibid.). The book is not merely about “local” sentiments. Its argument about the delusional nature of the modern nation-state seen in its anxieties and grand posturing in regions like Gilgit-Baltistan reveal the paranoia of military states everywhere. Fear is produced and sustained and subjects enlisted in the state-security project by the Pakistani state by stoking sectarian differences. Delusional states thrive by “producing a state of disorder” (p. 10), including those at the heart of empire. Ali’s scholarship is also a testimony to resisting deeply racialized and gendered anxieties that underline academic gatekeeping at the centers of empire (p. 24). The “local”, by which her work was sought to be circumscribed, cannot be understood outside the imperial context of the Cold War and the war on terror.

For a comprehensive list of readings on Kashmir, see the bibliography produced by the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective on their Facebook page. Most of the readings have been made available online.