Book Review: Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris

In the burgeoning field of the Kashmir studies, Christopher Snedden, an Australian researcher and politico-strategic analyst, made a major contribution in 2012 with his “…most authoritative modern history” of Azad Kashmir: The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir (Hurst & Company, London). Based on a wide array of empirical sources, coupled with an insightful narrative, the book argued that the Kashmir dispute was instigated by the people of Poonch area of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir weeks before the infamous tribal invasion. Given the delicate sensitivities which the term ‘Azad Kashmir’ can cause among many Indian officials, the title of the book had to be tweaked when it was published in India, which often make people think Snedden has written three books on Kashmir.

UKAK

Whereas the previous book had a specific focus on Azad Kashmir, in Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris, the canvas has been widened to include not only all the regions of the erstwhile J&K but also the important historical background and context, which, Snedden claims, is often missing in many existing works on the subject. Thus, over sixty pages in the beginning, he sketches “Important Antecedents” of the Kashmir conflict, harking back to the “Great Game” (between Britain and Russia), the evolution of formidable Gulab Singh and his kinsmen in the Sikh Empire (1799-1849), the British support for the new Dogra state and the centrality of the Kashmir valley in it and reasons for its “endearing and enduring fame.”

Like all researchers, Snedden too faced the challenge of terminology, more so because the Indian side, he says, is “very sensitive and insistent” with terminologies. Certain terms used about Kashmir can certainly be politically-loaded (e.g., ‘Indian-held Kashmir’ or ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’), which is the reason why international media and academics usually prefer the more neutral terms like ‘Indian-administered’ or ‘Pakistan-controlled’. Apart from ‘conflict’, at least five other terms are also used regarding Kashmir: Issue, dispute, occupation, problem, and question. And, as rightly pointed out by Snedden, terminology confuses people about the geography of the region. For example, Kashmir is often used as an encompassing term for the entire J&K. So, eventually, he settles for ‘Indian J&K’ and ‘Azad Kashmir’, and while referring to the people of the entire (erstwhile) J&K, he uses the novel term ‘J&K-ites’.

As in his previous book, Snedden reiterates his empirically-backed argument: that it was J&K-ites who, because of their “three significant actions,” activated the dispute over the status of Jammu and Kashmir. But, Pakistan seem to have strangely acquiesced to the Indian narrative of tribal invasion, thus allowing the latter to garner diplomatic leverage on the Kashmir conflict. Snedden maintains that what precluded an independent J&K in 1947 was that the last Maharaja Hari Singh, like other rulers, “had not moved with the times by converting themselves into popular administrators running robust economies, empowering their subjects, and able to withstand losing the unequivocal, often uncritical, British support that had nurtured and protected their regimes” (p. 153). It was the lack of this political capital which presented itself as the “greatest problem” for Maharaja to take an assured decision on time; the state’s ethnic and religious heterogeneity meant differing political aspirations, which undercut the political unity, if any existed.

Snedden views things from a larger geo-strategic perspective. So while his book surely provides an informed understanding of the Kashmir conflict, it leaves out the important aspects about its central protagonists: Kashmiris. As a historian with a geo-strategic bent of mind, Snedden has a sharp eye for details, yet the native politics and political culture has escaped it, which makes the latter part of the book’s title—Kashmiris—seem not fully justified. If the stated objective of the book is to understand Kashmiris, then why isn’t there a detailed section on the social, economic and political aspects of the Kashmiri society and the structural determinants of its political culture? A nuanced discussion on the pro-Tehreek political formations and the post-2008 anti-India uprisings would have greatly enriched the narrative on the internal dynamics of the conflict, but it is missing. Such omissions may be due to Snedden’s statist perspective on the Kashmir conflict, a dominant approach in the Kashmir studies. It becomes evident when he echoes political scientists like Sumit Ganguly (1996) and Sumantra Bose (1997): “Coupled with the dilution of Indian J&K’s supposed autonomy under Article 370 and high unemployment among the well-educated Kashmiri youth, this ‘denial of democracy’ and the associated brutal repression of Kashmiris unwilling to accept the rigged polls [of 1987], were the final straw” (p.202).

As John Cockell (2000) argues, such analyses are problematic because they “employ precast statist parameters of inquiry,” i.e., though acknowledging the state wrongdoings and failure of institutions, they effectively deny the Kashmiri community “any autonomous political agency outside of that defined by these institutions, failed or otherwise.” Cockell calls for decentered perspective which considers historical pattern of alternative, extra-systemic political formations which manifest subaltern insurgent consciousness or socio-cultural identity. For example, National Conference (before 1947), Plebiscite Front (after 1955), JKLF and various protest groups (in 1970’s), MUF (1980’s), and Hurriyat (1990’s onwards).

Departing from the dominant perspectives within the Kashmir studies, Cockell posits that the Kashmiri community’s sense of collective self-identity and group security collides with the post-colonial state’s institution-specific understanding of legitimacy of dissent. The irreconcilability between the two creates the structural paralysis, which “creates a vacuum in which coercion and oppression appear to be the only options open to the state ruling elite.” The Azadi movement’s confrontation with the structures of the state “is evidence not of pre-political or anti-democratic action but rather an effort to create decentered forms of autonomous political participation, and a popular repudiation of statist discourses claiming a monopoly on legitimate democratic process.”

However, since the dominant discourses of statist politics influence the content of the movement, it renders the latter “inevitably discontinuous and internally conflicted,” and within this dynamic condition, some political formations lose their legitimacy when they get compromised “by their engagement with the state and its dominant discourses” (e.g., the Plebiscite Front, the People’s Conference etc.). And, in this process of rupture in the subaltern political mobilization, disillusionment with non-violent methods develops among some sections, eventually giving rise to militancy.

Interestingly, when talking about the human rights violations in Kashmir, Snedden skirts the well-documented reports of Asia Watch, Amnesty International (1998, 2008, 2011), Physicians for Human Rights (1993) etc., and instead relies on a “semi-official Indian” source (pp.251, 253).

The aspirations of the people of Kashmir gets a mention, but how these aspirations manifest themselves politically haven’t been adequately dealt with. People are presumed to have political aspirations but without a political history, culture and organization.

While, overall, the narrative maintains a reasonable, impartial voice, yet at certain places bias against the Pakistani side props up: “aloof and arrogant leader of Muslim League”, “opportunistic”, “arrogant army”, “cocky, even truculent [army]”, “brash Foreign Minister”, “duplicitous”, “frustrated revisionist nation”, to name but a few.

Furthermore, certain assertions about Kashmir seem to overlook the nature of the conflict. For example, when Snedden says, “By about 1999-2000, many fatigued Kashmiris simply wanted peace and normalcy to return to their region” (p.250), he uncritically accepts the state narrative of “return to normalcy.” The pro-Tehreek Kashmiris would find such a statement problematic because in a politically-charged space like Kashmir, the terms like “peace”, “normalcy” and “return” have political connotations: it assumes that there was a period of normalcy before it was disturbed through the armed movement of 1990’s, and it also implies that in the pre-armed movement ‘normalcy’ period, the status quo was generally acceptable.

Like many authors, Snedden also provides his suggestions on how to resolve the Kashmir conflict. For him, the blame lies equally with India and Pakistan because they are intransigent states who are obsessed with Kashmir—though he cites fourteen events between1950-2005, which, he claims, “could have altered the…status quo.” The international powers have no compelling reasons to intervene either. So, the best way is to “Let the people decide,” which means let the J&K-ites, as the first party to the Kashmir dispute, discuss the issue among themselves and arrive at a solution; this approach is reasonable “simply because this dispute is about their state and their homelands.”

When proposing his “Let the people decide approach”, Snedden theoretically departs from Mathew Webb (2012) and Neera Chandhoke (2012), who argued about Kashmiris’ right to secede. Whereas Webb’s advocacy for right to “secede” is based on the “just cause” theory, Chandhoke opposes this right and advocates providing justice within the existing institutions. In contrast, Snedden does not seem to invoke the legal concept of ‘right’, rather his position is pragmatically oriented. It is based on the idea that because India and Pakistan seem unable to resolve the Kashmir conflict, “perhaps, J&K-ites can.”

One of the interesting sections in the book is its eight page long concluding chapter, where Snedden’s politico-strategic vision reveals itself forcefully. His “strategic ponderings” suggest that “nothing stays the same forever” and, considering this natural law, the status quo in the South Asian region, including Kashmir, will change, inevitably. And, “One thing seems certain: population growth and increasing water issues will plague the subcontinent in the years to come…”

In the final analysis, Snedden’s political narrative “for a more generalist audience,” is well-researched and lucidly written, and his analysis is incisive. The book provides rich historical details and deftly unravels the political and diplomatic intricacies involved in the Kashmir conflict.

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First published in the Kashmir Ink magazine on 9 May 2017: http://kashmirink.in/news/artliterature/understanding-kashmir-kashmiris/348.html

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Author: pasdarekashmir

A PhD candidate of Politics and International Relations in School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Research interests: national movements, nationalism, media, framing, and discourses. Regular column: Yours Satirically (Kindle Magazine)

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