Between Democracy & Nation:
Gender and militarisation in Kashmir
by Seema Kazi
Women Unlimited, 2009
To date, each and every one of the political initiatives undertaken to resolve the Kashmir issue have come unstuck, the spectre of secession having prompted knee-jerk and iron-fisted responses from New Delhi. Even as the Indian state today acknowledges that there can be no military solution alone for Kashmir, the Valley remains one of the most militarised in the region. In her new work, Seema Kazi refers to Kashmir’s humanitarian tragedy, suggesting that militarisation has been unsuccessful, having failed to ensure security for either the Indian state or for the Kashmiris. She calls for “re-imagining Kashmir and India”, with both India and Pakistan envisioning “a future based on Kashmiri aspiration rather than territorial obsession”. With a “restored Kashmir”, Kazi writes, “India and Pakistan can emerge from their mutual abyss of violence” and “overcome the principal source of militarisation in South Asia.”
A work that began as the author’s doctoral thesis, Between Democracy & Nation contextualises the past two decades of militarisation in Jammu & Kashmir, exploring the involvement of both Kashmiri militants and Indian military forces. In addition, however, it also critically highlights the conflict’s largely overlooked gender dimensions. Kazi writes, “social relations of gender are a constituent rather than a consequence of militarization in Kashmir.” Building upon personal narratives of people she has met and interviewed, the author explores Kashmiri women’s political experience of militarisation, demonstrating how the struggle for azadi “centres on women’s conventional role as mothers, wives and sisters”, especially in the face of the “onslaught of the Indian state against Kashmiri men”.
Regardless of their continued centrality in the conflict, Kashmiri women of today remain politically marginalised. Kazi points out that this remains the situation both in the context of a conservative and patriarchal society as well as in the relationship “between Kashmiri women and the Kashmiri militant leadership”. While Kashmiri women actively participated in the movement for azadi through public protests and as couriers, supporters and nurses, while also providing other logistical and moral backup, there have been no women in the decision-making bodies of the separatist parties to date. Nor have these groups taken women’s issues and concerns into consideration. Meanwhile, militants have been known to engage in sexual and physical violence against women. Further, though Kazi does not include this point, militant groups are often reluctant to look after the welfare of the families of their foot-soldiers who have been killed.
Militarisation in and over Kashmir, Kazi points out, has produced a “landscape of missing or disappeared” young men, including extrajudicial killings. For their part, widows and half-widows live in conditions of extreme insecurity, amidst stress and sexual vulnerability, even while being subjected to greater social surveillance, policing and sexual abuse by the military. This went on to reinforce gender hierarchies already prevalent in Kashmiri society. In this “cultural politics of militarisation”, Kazi argues that women “pay an essentially political price for a military occupation centred on the humiliation and emasculation of Kashmiri men”, in turn subjecting them to “greater social policing and control and regressive versions of ‘Islamic’ identity.” Often frustrated by the failure to protect and unable to resist a powerful state/military, a besieged masculinity seeks redemption by exerting greater control over women. This is illustrated in groups such as the Allah Tigers and Lashkar-e-Jabbar demanding that women wear the burqa in public, while other militants issued diktats against family planning and contraceptives.
Wajahat Habibullah, a high-ranking bureaucrat in J&K during the early 1990s, writes:
The kingpins of the insurgency were also the women. They virtually led it as I personally saw it. However, at present they are the group that is highly discriminated against and marginalized. There is no role for them even though they are the strongest resource base for peace. The negative elements were kept under check only because of the women. All sections including the police have victimized them.
Militarisation in Kashmir and its attendant civilian tragedy, including to a certain extent its gender dimensions, has been the subject of engaging and thought-provoking works by, among others, Rita Manchanda and Humra Quraishi. A large part of the gender analyses of the conflict is conducted by challenging the dichotomy between the public and the private, and Kazi acknowledges that women do not constitute a singular, undifferentiated social group, meaning that the ‘women’s’ experience with armed conflict cannot be homogenous. Consequently, the experiences recorded in this work are those of a small group of Kashmiri women, which the author feels can provide a “larger understanding of gender vis-à-vis militarisation in Kashmir”. This caveat is important, since this narrative is certainly not that of all Kashmiri women.
While militarisation is usually projected as an essentially ‘male’ process carried out in the public space, it is a social process that often intrudes into ‘private’ domestic places, targeting a constituency that the military is legally bound to protect. The corollary is that of the transformation of social and cultural realities in ways that reinforce gender hierarchies. Thus arise the home search operations by military and paramilitary forces, and the use of rape of women by the army to inflict ‘collective dishonour’ and punishment on Kashmiri men. Further, while state violence against men is publicly acknowledged and challenged through legal and institutional means, no such recourse is available to Kashmiri women. Kazi notes reports of “pressure exerted by military authorities on the local police not to file a First Information Report on behalf of rape victims.” Because, in case of rape by state representatives, the “women have to report to the very authorities who have raped them,” coupled with the stigma of rape and violation of bodily integrity in Kashmiri society, women are often forced to suffer their trauma and humiliation in solitude. By placing women’s subjective experience of militarisation at the centre of the analytic framework, Kazi “seeks to establish the link between state military processes at a ‘national’ level and the gender transformations at a local/societal level.” A paradox is thus produced wherein “the nation-state itself has become a significant source of insecurity for its citizens.”
Kazi writes powerfully about how the state’s acquisition of security tools in Kashmir has not been an exclusive function of external defence. Instead, it is also been informed by ideas of national identity, power and the disjuncture between state and nation. India’s militarisation is thus the outcome of a centralised and militarised state’s attempts to forge a singular ‘nation’ out of its culturally and ethnically diverse citizenry. Hence, the militarisation of and within the Indian state is the story of producing ‘the nation’ and ‘national’ identity. Of course, this has been the routine narrative in most postcolonial societies, certainly in Southasia; yet in India, Kazi contends, militarisation was also driven by the state’s urge to acquire nuclear weapons. As such, this drive was not due to specific military concerns, but rather an attempt to recast a socially diverse and fragmented nation around the project of secular modernity and national (scientific) achievement. This, of course, is debatable, and Kazi seems to have downplayed the significance of hostile neighbours who embarked on a process of acquiring nuclear arms.
Where does political discontent end and notions of racial and cultural superiority begin? These are difficult questions, and Kazi has steered clear of them. Yet such ideas have also coloured the Kashmir narrative, with the author asserting that India has failed to craft ‘Indians’ out of Kashmiris. Implicit in this assertion is the point that Kashmiri Muslims have simultaneously been unable to develop close ties with Muslims in the rest of India, even as they seek integration and identification with the larger Islamic Ummah. The entire Kashmir problem is a creation of a combination of these factors and has as much to do with bad governance, the political hubris of Kashmir’s leaders and religious radicalisation as it does with high-handed attitudes in New Delhi.
India has indeed transitioned from a feudal country to a secular democracy, but one that remains hedged in by remnants of feudalism. Nevertheless, as a liberal democracy functioning within a federal structure, the Indian state has been largely accommodative of diverse ethnic, linguistic, regional and religious groups. But decentralisation of power remains a subject of significant debate. India has had considerable success in dealing with its various insurgencies, wielding both carrot and stick as the situations demand. The reorganisation of states along linguistic lines, for instance, assuaged the Tamil movement during the 1960s. Similarly, the Centre views its actions in the 1980s to quell the insurgency in Punjab state as having been a major success. The problem of Kashmir, however, is that of ‘competing nationalisms’, as highlighted in Kazi’s quoting of Veena and Sunita, two Pandit sisters from Pulwama. “If there is a choice between India and independent Kashmir,” they say, “we go with Kashmir.” In fact, such an opinion from Kashmiri Pandits is a rare one, as there is no empirical evidence to suggest that a majority of the Kashmiri Pandit population support any demand for azadi. On the contrary, their continued displacement over the last two decades has spawned movements such as Panun Kashmir, which demands a separate homeland for Kashmiri Pandits within the Indian Union.
Keeping this in mind, it is puzzling that the author did not conduct a single interview with Pandit women living in camps for the displaced in Jammu, where a major section of the Pandits from the Kashmir Valley now reside. Or why, for instance, the only Pandit assassination described in the book is that of the activist Hriday Nath Wanchoo, a killing that the author ultimately traces to the Indian state. With her focus on gender, it would have been more in line with the book’s thesis if Kazi had instead described the brutal rape and murder of Sarla Bhatt, a Pandit nurse from Srinagar on 14 April 1990, by Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militants.
Still, the idea of ‘competing nationalisms’ may not be quite as widespread as some suggest. Members of the Sikh community in J & K, for instance, in private conversations with this reviewer, have categorically denied having sympathies with Azad Kashmir. “We have seen what happened to Sikhs in Afghanistan,” said one Sikh journalist from the state, who asked to remain unnamed. “We have no illusions of what kind of a society an Azad Kashmir can be.” Militancy in Kashmir has also simultaneously produced an ethnically cleansed landscape, dotted with abandoned Pandit homes and lands, destroyed Hindu temples, and a large community of internally displaced people. Meanwhile, Kashmiri society is slowly, but ominously, turning into a culturally and religiously homogenous one, emptied of its earlier syncretism.
Nonetheless, the competing nationalisms that do exist for many Kashmiris, together with what academic Sumit Ganguly terms increased “political mobilization and institutional decay” and external support, have helped to turn political discontent into violent separatism in Kashmir. Interestingly, something similar did not happen earlier in states such as Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, which, with their distinctive cultural identities, also went through long process of Centre-state confrontations during the 1960s and 1970s. This is directly linked to the fact that these states, unlike Kashmir, did not feel competing nationalisms. Indeed, they are content with their sub-national identities; their struggle was a call for greater autonomy within the Indian Union, not secession.
In this narrative of competing nationalisms, which has seen armed insurgency break out in the Kashmir Valley, followed by a similarly ruthless counter-insurgency operation, women have been the greatest victims. Caught between the militant who first unleashed a culture of sexual violence with impunity in the Valley, and the Indian forces that continued it, Kashmir’s women have been doubly marginalised. Kazi’s book once again focuses the reader’s attention on the gender dimensions of Kashmir’s tragedy, and underlines the immediate need for intervention by civil society and for state accountability.