On 11 January, 2020, Davinder Singh, a high-ranking officer of the Jammu & Kashmir Police, was arrested along with two militants, while the three were on their way to Jammu from Srinagar. Two days before this arrest, Deputy Superintendent Singh was part of the team which received a delegation of foreign diplomats in Kashmir, including the United States’ ambassador to India. The diplomats were visiting Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which had stripped the region of its statehood. Curiously, Singh was also the officer whom Afzal Guru, who was executed for the 2001 parliamentary attacks, had named in his testimony and implicated in the incident.
So, who is Davinder Singh? An honest, brave officer who risks his life for the protection, integrity and sovereignty of India? Or is he someone who in the name of the dreaded ‘counter-insurgency’ fills his own pockets and basks in the glory of unbridled power, in one of the world’s largest military-industrial complex? The question might appear confusing and nauseating, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The reality in Kashmir, unfortunately, is much more complex. But complexity does not mean that the issue is impervious to inquiry.
This is what the 70-year-old tensions and the three-decade-long counter-insurgency have done to Jammu & Kashmir. What this violence does, apart from terrorising the local population, is to make binaries difficult, where the boundaries between resistance and collaboration, oppressed and oppressor, can appear blurred, and yet essential. This is where Resisting Occupation in Kashmir, a recent collection of essays edited by Haley Duschinski, Mona Bhan, Ather Zia and Cynthia Mahmoodbook, charts new territory.
For a long time, the issue of Jammu & Kashmir has been seen as an unfinished agenda of Partition, and the root of the conflict between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile, scholarship on Jammu and Kashmir remained focused on the elite local leadership, often ignoring the local population and their everyday lives amidst all the violence and political turbulence. Studies of the region have largely examined ‘major events’ and characters important for India or Pakistan. Interestingly, despite the voluminous amount of anthropological work done on Southasia, there was hardly a single volume of anthropological work dedicated to Jammu and Kashmir. The authors of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir have, therefore, produced for the first time a full volume of anthropological writings, which makes its way into the dense narratives of violence and resistance in Kashmir. With every new chapter, the book presents a compelling account of the region, and does so without denying the complexity and difficulty of understanding Kashmir.
State of exception
Jammu and Kashmir is one of the most militarised areas in the world, with roughly one soldier for every 17 Kashmiris, according to the book. And among the results of the ensuing violence are not only brutalised bodies, but also battered societies, wrecked political systems and what political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has called an ‘executive-minded’ judicial system. This aspect of India’s judicial system was on full display when Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013 on the strength of circumstantial evidence, with the Supreme Court arguing that this would satisfy the “collective conscience of society”. In her chapter on Guru and his popular representation, anthropologist Ather Zia details “the creation of the spectacular ‘killable’ Kashmiri body” by focusing on Guru, showing how right from the day of the parliament attack on 13 December 2001, the incident became a “totalizing and extraordinary event” capturing the full attention of Indian masses.
The reality in Kashmir, unfortunately, is much more complex. But complexity does not mean that the issue is impervious to inquiry.
The attack was televised live on various news channels and a media trial began as soon as Guru was arrested. For many weeks the channels kept running the live press conference where he had confessed his role in the attack, even though he later clarified that he had been forced to make the confession. But, by then, the media had already created the image of a bearded, keffiyah-wearing Kashmiri. Bringing the body to the centre of the narrative, Zia suggests that in “contexts of violence and war, the personal body becomes a public artifact.” Guru wearing the kaffiyeh could have meant anything from symbolic support of the Palestinian struggle, to a transition towards religiosity; or perhaps the keffiyah was the only dress that Guru possessed to cover his head in the bitter cold of Delhi. Similarly, keeping a long beard could have meant anything from religiosity to resistance, or was simply a result of being in jail. But such consideration has hardly any place within the idioms of populist perceptions. For many in India, the media-manufactured image fitted well with the stereotypical image of a ‘terrorist’.
Despite such examples of miscarriage of justice, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have little option but to engage and seek justice with the same judicial process they distrust. Haley Duschinski and Bruce Hoffaman highlight this in their chapter on Mahjlis-e-Mushawarat – a Shopian-based organisation founded after the alleged rape and murder of Asiya and Nilofer, two Shopian women, on the night of 29 May 2009. Mahjlis was formed as a spontaneous reaction of the people of the town after the local police denied even registering a first-information report (FIR) of the crime. Mahjlis started as an apolitical organisation, with the sole aim of seeking legal redress for the bereaved families. But its faith in the Indian judiciary was a short-lived affair. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) suggested in its report that the deaths were a simple case of drowning, rather than of rape and murder.
Duschinski and Hoffaman highlight the way Mahjlis soon shifted its stand from seeking justice from the courts to addressing the international community and exposing the flaws of the Indian judicial system. This shift, authors suggest, is not a foregrounded conclusion, but rather an ambivalence which the social actors face in achieving justice under a brutal military occupation. There are no straight answers on how to achieve justice, but such efforts can often not only rebuff the state but also its claims of justice and rule of law. The Mahjlis was not able to secure legal justice, but in the words of Srinagar-based human-rights lawyer Parvez Imroz, the chairman of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), it probably unwittingly approached “the institutions to expose them.”
The alleged rape and murder of the two Shopian women is not a one-off example of crimes committed by deviant, insensitive military personnel. Seema Kazi rather suggests that sexual violence, particularly rape, “is a frequent, widespread, and persistent practice across Kashmir”. Qazi adds that rape is hardly a “privately motivated form of abuse”, but rather an act of subjugation of an alien population. It is a weapon of war in Kashmir, an absolute abuse of “public power and responsibility”. Through the examples of mass rape in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora on 23 February 1991, and the Shopian rape and murder of May 2009, Qazi establishes how the entire state apparatus acts in unison to cover up these acts of violence.
This recurring violence and the eventual cover-up is not the end of the story. Rather, in a bizarre Roshomonian act, the all-powerful and all-pervasive state keeps advertising new and often fabricated stories and justifications, leaving the victims of its violence nursing their open wounds. These wounds often refuse to heal and lead to never-ending mental illness. As Saiba Varma shows in her chapter on the blurring of military and humanitarian efforts, things get more inexplicable when the state machinery starts talking about mental illness and PTSD without the politics attached to it. She notes how in the name of humanitarian concern, existing hierarchies are often flattened, as is seen when with the help of ‘trauma studies’ the distinction between the victims and the perpetrators of violence is often blurred.
This logic, Varma argues, where “the stone pelters can be psychologically rehabilitated or that Indian soldiers are ‘traumatized’” ends up denying “the political nature of the conflict and… the profound inequality that exists between victims and perpetrators.” Also, the language of various reports/discourses by the state and its various actors and collaborators often end up rendering trauma studies useless for the ‘subject population’. For example, Varma notes that a 2001 pilot project run jointly by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Government Medical College in Srinagar avoided words like ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’, “instead choosing to describe the region as mired in “long term social upheaval.” Trauma studies then become another tool to ‘normalise’ the situation and avoid getting into the murky waters of violence, conflict and occupation.
Mahjlis started as an apolitical organisation, with the sole aim of seeking legal redress for the bereaved families. But its faith in the Indian judiciary was a short-lived affair.
But the necessary distinction between the perpetrators and victims is not always easily achieved. The multiple identities and locations of an individual within a society do offer her/him the luxury or bane of multiple subjectivities as well. In her essay, Gowhar Fazili opens an interesting chapter in the long history of militarisation and conflict: the role of the local police. In a long conversation with a young Kashmiri police officer, Fazili highlights the different subjectivities of the local police – from being “aligned with the agitating population as well as the state apparatus.” The policeman, Fazili interviews is born and brought up in the political grammar of the valley – its historicity and marginality – and thus he cannot completely elude being part of the ‘oppressed’ population. But his association with Jammu and Kashmir Police – which not only regulates law and order, but is also involved in counter-insurgency operations – makes his position difficult. The interviewed officer, for instance, says that he is abused and undermined by the Central Reserve Police Force despite being a police officer, to suggest a distinction between the centre’s security forces and the local police. When Fazili questions him about the violence perpetuated in the area by the Jammu and Kashmir Police itself, he suggests it was the handiwork of those living across the Banihal Tunnel – Kashmir’s Gujjars and Dogras, ethnic communities whom he appeared to characterise as non-Kashmiris.
Like so many other professional groups, classes and individuals in Kashmir, the police officer seems to be vacillating between often contradictory positions. Almost simultaneously, he locates himself as a part of the subject population (as an oppressed Kashmiri) as well as part of the Indian state apparatus in Kashmir (a local policeman who is involved in counter-insurgency operations). Fazili concludes by suggesting that, “occupied subjects are constrained by circumstances to exist somewhere on the spectrum defined by resistance and collaboration and marked by a bit of both.”
From songs to graveyards
If violence is an everyday affair in Kashmir, so is resistance. From cartoons to songs to graveyards, Farrukh Faheem and Mohmad Junaid document this working of memory and resistance in the everyday lives of Kashmiris. In his chapter, Faheem highlights various political events from the 1930s to 1990s, by interrogating the everyday and showing that resistance is often seen in mundane everyday reality. He explores an important but often ignored period of Kashmir history, between 1975-1990, and suggests the reader not only to look for political grammar in the formal speeches and conversations, but also in rumours, jokes and cartoons. By looking at cultural artefacts from the movie Omar Mukhtar to the Urdu novel Yeh Kiska Lahu Ye Kaun Mara (Whose Blood Is This Who Died), he explains how ‘betrayal’ became one of the motifs of the resistance movement in Kashmir. Rather than looking at the 1990s as a break from the past, Faheem offers the reader a critical lens of “patterns of promises, pledges and betrayals” which according to him “prepared the ground for the azadi movement in the early 1990s”.
Given the various forms of state control over information and knowledge, scholars must look beyond traditional archives and revisit their idea of sources. Mohammad Junaid in his chapter on graveyards and epitaphs does precisely that. But everything excluded from the dominant history does not become counter history. Rather one has to go through the architecture of memory making and see how people give meaning to certain events and times, while excluding many others. This space/time conundrum is what Junaid brings forth through his study of martyrdom, graveyards and by examining the particularity of certain events. As he argues, the definition of shahid (martyr/witness) as well as the shahdat (martyrdom) in the case of Kashmir depends less on the intention of the individual fighter who dies in a battle than the larger political context.
This explains why many civilians who died in Kashmir are designated as shahid by the public. These civilians might have been going through their normal everyday routine when a bullet from the state forces killed them. Along with martyrdom, the event of death itself becomes an event that people preserve as counter-memory. The reason why the Indian state denied the handover of the mortal remains of Maqbool Bhat (founding member of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) and Afzal Guru might be found by looking at burials as more than just part of the funeral. Rather they become events which highlight zulm (oppression) and death becomes not an end but a reiteration of witnessing and fighting this zulm. The open graves of Bhat and Guru then become not only the sites of ‘absence’ of physical bodies but also an absence of justice. A walk across the martyrs’ graveyard becomes a reiteration of the fact of enormous sacrifices which Kashmiris have made over years for the sake of azadi (freedom). “It is there [martyrs’ graveyard] that they [Kashmiris] become politically conscious”, argues Junaid. For him, that is why the events of 1931, when several Kashmiri Muslims were killed following protests, and the later militancy of 1990s, hold greater importance in the memory of many Kashmiris compared to the events of 1947. Junaid concludes by arguing that, “Martyrs’ graveyards thus invest new political subjectivities in the living, as they bring the dead alive symbolically.”
While the book itself is predominantly about the Kashmir Valley, the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is not and cannot be reduced to the valley alone. Probably anticipating this limitation (unfortunately in an offhand way) the book also contains two chapters on Ladakh and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, also known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir. In an essay on the Brogpas – “a small ethnic minority community from the province of Ladakh” – Mona Bhan demonstrates how the Hindu right has made inroads into the region by instrumentalising the already orientalist idea of ‘pure Aryan’ Brogpas. The largely Buddhist community, according to Bhan, “foreground their marginality and persecution, first at the hands of rulers in Gilgit who forced them to flee to Ladakh and later by Tibetan and Ladakhi kings who coerced them to conform and assimilate to dominant labor regimes”. She shows how this fetish with Aryan origins is not just a colonial fantasy, but how it fits well “within India’s contemporary politics of race, religion, and territory of Kashmir.” Hindu nationalist organisations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been pushing a discourse in which Brogpas represent an uncorrupted Hindu past, argues Bhan, which they do by popularising a particular historiography through various seminars and conferences involving young Brogpas.
In places like Chenab Valley, this problem of definition increases manifold, because here one finds the population divided along ‘occupied’, ‘proudly part of India’ and ‘we don’t care’ camps.
In another essay focused outside the valley, Ershad Mahmud highlights the impact of the conflict on the development of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), with the everyday shelling across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan making life precarious for those living close to it. Mahmud highlights the issues of governance in AJK, where despite the nominal government, the political, economic and administrative control of the region is with Islamabad.
Despite offering important insights into Ladakh and Azad Kashmir, these chapters, however, do not appear to fit within the overall narrative of the book. If the question is one of ‘occupation’ then perhaps only Kashmir Valley fits the bill. This is because while the other regions of erstwhile J & K – Ladakh, Jammu, and Azad Kashmir – might have issues with central governments or the nationalist projects of India and Pakistan, and they might even demand autonomy or self-rule, yet the majority in these regions do not think of themselves as being ‘occupied’.
This raises the important question of how we define ‘occupation’. If it refers to large and protracted military presence, then most of erstwhile J & K can definitely be seen as ‘occupied’. But if it is the will and the perception of the people, then military presence alone might not be enough. In places like Chenab Valley, this problem of definition increases manifold, because here one finds the population divided along ‘occupied’, ‘proudly part of India’ and ‘we don’t care’ camps. In places like these, the locals have seen both the brutal face of the Indian Army as well the Islamist militancy. Taking sides and seeking neat definitions is not a possibility, and today many do not feel the need to do either.
Trauma studies then become another tool to ‘normalise’ the situation and avoid getting into the murky waters of violence, conflict and occupation.
At the same time, the various regions of the former princely state need to be understood and analysed through their own histories. One may then seek convergences between these spaces – wherever they exist. However, taking the valley as a signifier for the whole state might not only be inaccurate, but unethical and alienating. Neither a serious academician, nor an academic activist can afford to do that. For example, in classifying Ladakh as part of India-occupied Kashmir, the book overlooks the specificity of the region and its history, ignoring the fact that the conflict has shaped its politics differently from that of Jammu and the valley. Ladakh is not Kashmir or vice versa, and it will be great misjudgment to think otherwise.
Just as this book explored multiple narratives and modes of resistance within Kashmir Valley, it is possible that different corners of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir speak different grammars of politics and express different visions of the future. It is, therefore, time that we give the entirety of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir the same diverse treatment. Otherwise we would be treating certain regions, particularly the valley, as a placeholder ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ and ignoring or marginalising the rest. The rise of Hindu rightwing groups in both Ladakh and Jammu definitely point to the divergent future of politics in these areas as compared to the Kashmir Valley. Understanding this new politics requires clarity about differences in contemporary affairs as well as the history of Jammu and Ladakh, so that these regions are not rounded off as ‘occupied Kashmir’.
Despite this criticism, this book charts a new territory in scholarship on J & K. Away from the high towers of political discourse, official history writing and colonial/military ethnography, every author in the book penetrates the blind alleys of everyday politics and repositories of resistance. What comes out are vignettes of knowledge and nuance which might not be ‘solution-oriented’ (which has become the obsession with research on the region) but remain essential and indispensable in understanding Kashmir.