The New Morning

In the cold night, stars talk in whispers and murmurs,

talk of wounded autumns, of youthful rebellious summers,

talk of silent deep winters and of elusive springs,

of those dreams of ours where freedom truly rings.


In February, the dawn didn’t see the light of the day;

The Moon had turned cold with melancholic thoughts,

her eyes dry like the sands of Baghdad,

Her face still as the ancient pillars of Cairo,

In her heart, stones burned hot like raging Gaza,

Her breath, a gasping Jhelum of Sopore,

Her possessions, all the blues of the Neelum,

Her dreams, deep and resilient as the Wullar’s heart.


And in that February dawn,

everything dissolves in one shared motion:

A numbing silent motion of wounded souls.


But then again, all the caravan goes on;

To live, ever aspiring to rift the densest fogs,

to find the choral mornings of Shiraz,

to tell wistful stars, cease streaming with grief,

and listen to the whispers at the gate of the new morning.





Pur-asraar Mohabatein

Aye, Jhelum, aye shahid-e-daryeena

Aye mourikh-e-behshit-e-gum-naseeb


Teri nazar se guzri hai har door ki fizayen

To bata ki dor-e-haazir ki kaifiyaat kya hai


Tere kinare dekhi hongay tumne

Jawano ki wo pur-asraar si toliyaan

Jo mehez sang-e-himayat ke aslah lekar

Ajnabi mujahidoon ke liye,

Aamad aate hai, purasrar safiino.n ki tarah

Un mujahidoon ke liye

Jo karvaan-e-justaju ke mehmaan bi hai,

Jo basar karte hai poshida safar-e-mukhtasar

Jinke nishan-e-hayat ahd-o-paimaan bi hai


Kya tumne bi sune hai un jawanoo

Ke larazte hasratoon ke bol

Harf-e-ah-o-gum ki mehfilain


Kya tumne bi dekhi hai

Un jawano ke sulagte dard ki chingariyan

Unki jurrat-e-aarizoo ki wusatein


Kya tumne bi kabhi mehsoos ki hai

Wafa se labreez unki mohabatein,

Wo mohabtein jo purasraar hai saari mohabatoon me.



10 December 2016

















Youth Protests in Kashmir

Since 2008, street protests in the Kashmir valley have become frequent. Over 250 protesters and bystanders, mostly young people, were killed in the last three civil uprisings—2008, 2010 and 2016. Many analysts argue that these post-2008 street protests in Kashmir mark a shift from the armed rebellion of the late 1980’s to youth-led civil agitations.  As Tariq Ali argued: “Now a new generation of Kashmiri youth is on the march. They fight like the Palestinians, with stones.

Many policy makers and journalists tend to view youth participation in anti-India protests as a symptom of the economic problem, such as high levels of unemployment. But by way of a counter-argument, it is also asked: why do school-going boys or girls take part in these protests? Or: why were 130 state employees listed by the police for participating in the 2016 summer protests, and twelve of them sacked?

Though India acknowledges the gravity of this unprecedented phenomenon of youth-led street protests, at the same time a certain policy of ‘denialism’ is adopted. The youth protests are projected as a manifestation of economic problems (like unemployment and underdevelopment) or Pakistan-sponsored agitations. Moreover, Kashmiri youth activists and protest participants are being portrayed, with the active help of compliant and sometimes frenzied electronic media, as “radicalised,” “misguided”, “alienated,” “agents of Pakistan,” “anti-nationals,” and “terrorists.” Through seemingly choreographed media performances on certain Indian news channels, these pejorative labels are repeated to discredit and criminalise the youth protests in Kashmir.

Some analysts and policymakers believe the Kashmiri youth are radicalised, and this is the cause of the protests. For example, in a May 2012 interview with the Indian newspaper Business Standard, the then Inspector General of Police (in Kashmir), Shiv Murari Sahai, said: “Our problem today is a radicalised youth bulge [in Kashmir]. Some 50 per cent of the population is between the ages of 13 and 25.”

Sahai is partially right. The youth bulge is a factor for political protests in Kashmir, given the region’s large youth population. As per the 2011 census, around 30 percent of the population of Kashmir was between 15-30 years of age. In the face of high unemployment, the youth bulge can potentially give rise to political violence. But unemployment alone is not enough to explain the protests. Regime type is also an important factor. Political violence can emerge among some cohorts of the youth in a situation where political repression is prevalent and democratic spaces are denied. Scholars like Henrik Urdal, however, argue that political violence is less likely in highly democratic and highly autocratic states than in semi-democratic or semi-autocratic ones.

Young people participate in activism or engage in political violence for many reasons. But generally, young people participate in larger numbers because they usually have fewer familial or professional responsibilities. American sociologist Douglas McAdam calls it “biographical availability” i.e., young people are unencumbered by obligations which adults usually face.

The above factors seem to coincide in Kashmir: a combination of a youth bulge and political repression. The state in the Kashmir Valley uses wide-ranging repressive methods to deal with anti-India dissent and protests, which includes pre-emptive detentions through laws such as the Public Safety Act, coercion, hard-policing, harassment, deliberate blinding of protestors and killings.  But despite the state using the coercive apparatus in good measure, protests haven’t died down. Kashmiri Muslim youths in the 1990’s were “angry but scared” but post-2008 they are “angry and fearless.” For example, despite the direct threat from the Indian army chief Bipin Rawat in Feb 2017 (and the subsequent fatal shootings at encounter sites), young Kashmiri protestors still helped armed rebels escape at least on 13 occasions by risking their lives.  This aspect of Kashmiri youth activism has baffled many analysts, most of whom see in it portents of a more worrying future.

As argued, the economic argument does not fully explain the political dissent in Kashmir nor does the radicalisation theory. One of the weaknesses of these arguments is that they do not seem to appreciate the political substance of the protests in Kashmir. By using the economic argument and the radicalisation theory as the sole determinants, they take the focus away from the political aspect of the Kashmir conflict.

Though economics does play a role in exacerbating the problem, we can better understand the youth protests in Kashmir by looking at political dimensions. In his 2013 article, academic Paul Staniland argues that the Indian policy in Kashmir suffers from what he calls paradox of normalcy: the Indian state desires to preserve the status quo in Kashmir and “articulates a goal of normalcy that it does not allow to come to fruition.” If the Indian state walks the talk on liberal democracy rhetoric in Kashmir, it would face the democratic challenges to the status quo from Kashmiris—the majority of whom prefer independence. Thus, India continues to manage and manipulate the existing political arrangements in Kashmir through a corrupt political elite and a large coercive machinery, which eventually leads to repression of popular aspirations through coercion and violence.

It is this paradoxical political environment in which youth participation in street protests must be located. The Kashmir youths’ dissent and protest have developed in response to the political culture that the state has maintained in Kashmir. And as long as the “paradox of normalcy” persists, political protests are likely to break out.

The question if this paradox can be resolved is a difficult one. The current dispensation in New Delhi looks at Kashmir through a particular ideological prism. The BJP is against Article 370, the only legal instrument which governs the relations between the Indian union and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This Article was negotiated by the Kashmiri leadership in the early 1950’s to ensure substantial autonomy for the state. Muslims, who form the majority, would like to strengthen the autonomy, though many of them would like to eventually have an independent state of their own. For the moment, what India wants in Kashmir and what Kashmiris want seem to be unbridgeable, a scenario described by John Cockell (2000) as ‘structural paralysis.’

Muhammad Tahir is a doctoral researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland. His articles have appeared in The Japan Times, The Caravan, The Express Tribune, Kindle Magazine, and in newspapers and magazines in Kashmir. He tweets @TahirFiraz. Image credit: CC by Kashmir Violence/ Flickr


First published on IAPS:

Avoid Mob Takeover

Back in the late 2000’s, I read an interesting book by William Ury The Third Side(1999). An anthropologist and a negotiation expert, Ury provides many real life examples to show practical ways of intervening between warring parties, be it in a family or outside. As he says, ‘it takes two sides to fight, but a third to stop.’

At that time, the book gave me a good feeling because, on many occasions, I had played that ‘third side’ role. But it also made me realise that our society, by and large, had this innate feature which instinctively activate itself on occasions like road side quarrels to diffuse a situation from turning nasty. You would see people intervening, saying things like “hey ladai ma’sa kariv…”, “hey laayuss ma…”, “hey ye chui gatchan galath…”, “hey thayivsa wan…”, “hey kehn chuina…”.

Basically, these words have a potential effect to cool down the tempers. These interventions do work, most of the times, especially if the words come from an elder or a respectable person.

I used to think that because in our society people often volunteer to play the ‘third side,’ that may explain why we see less nasty fights in Kashmir. Over the time, however, I did read many headlines which made me skeptical about my initial assessment. Just recently I read: “Man kills brother over land dispute in Tral.”

The conflict related deaths and violent incidents were always there, but it was difficult to conceive of a ‘third side’ in that volatile political dynamic, other than the ‘international community.’

However, I do remember, during the highly charged period of 2010 unrest, a policeman found himself cornered in our street. Before enraged young men could thrash him, someone wrapped arms around the cop and took him inside a residential house. He was given water and assured of safety. During the same time, one fine morning, I saw how a middle aged man intervened and save a cab driver from being thrashed by soldiers. This man literary came in between the charging army man and the driver, shouting: “What is his fault?” Sensing possible protest, troops let the driver go.

As Ury says, there are many reasons why fights break out. It could be anger or fear; people may believe they are firmly in the right, or they might think they are stronger and will prevail in the fight. But, what was the cause of the fight near Jamia Masjid on Lailat-ul-Qadr, which eventually led death of the police officer? And most importantly, why didn’t any one play the ‘third side’? Or if anyone did, why couldn’t it stop the fight, or at least why couldn’t policeman’s life be saved? These are the questions which only an independent, impartial investigation can answer.

Elders say it was unprecedented in Kashmir. It received wide condemnation. “Deeply disturbed and condemn the brutal act at Nowhatta. Mob violence and public lynching is outside the parameters of our values and religion,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq tweeted. “We cannot allow state brutality to snatch our humanity and values.”

But on social media, opinions were mixed. Some people threw accusations of ‘selective condemnation’ at those who showed outrage at this incident but “remained silent at the Kakapora killings” and many such cases? Some used this to blame the Azadi movement in general; Indian electronic media seized the moment to double-up its noise, painting whole Kashmiri society as barbaric, but conveniently ignoring the incidents of lynching which have been regularly happening in their own backyard.

Since this incident came on the heels of Kakapor encounter where three young Kashmiri rebels, Shakir (18), Irshad (17) and Majid (19), were killed and their bodies charred, a feeling of disgust, shock, and anger had already swept around.

But one thing should be made very clear: Ayub was beaten to death; it was barbaric, reprehensible and cannot be justified. A friend wrote on Facebook: “Even if he was an intelligence cop, he didn’t deserve a death like that.” It is not what we Kashmiris are known for, and this must never happen again.

I know like any good society Kashmiri community is also inherently generous and hospitable. We have demonstrated what is good in us time and again (e.g., 2014 floods) and many non-Kashmiris can vouch for that. We believe in helping each other, we believe in sharing things, celebrating and mourning together, and we believe in taking khabar of each other. These are our values and traditions and we cherish them.

Though details are still awaited, reports so far reveal that it was a mob which killed Ayub. This should alarm us. How come we let a mob kill somebody on an auspicious night? The circumstances in which Ayub was killed are complex. But we must be careful because given the tumultuous situation in Kashmir.

Social psychologists argue, in a crowd, people experience ‘deindividuation’ (i.e. loss of self-awareness). It happens in the highly excited state of being inside a crowd, and it leads to “anti-normative and dis-inhibited behaviour”, i.e. the normal restraint and inhibition weakens.

We need to reinforce our societal mechanism of ‘third side’ and not let ‘mob mentality’ get the better of us, whatever the circumstances. And, at the same time, we should not let others manipulate this incident to caricature us or diminish the justness of our political struggle.


First published in Kashmir Life on 19 July 2017:

Decoding Barkha Dutt’s Understanding of Azadi Movement in Kashmir

On 6 June 2017, influential newspaper The Washington Post published an Indian journalist Barkha Dutt’s article “Why the world no longer cares about Kashmir.” The article generated quite a discussion on social media platforms where Dutt’s arguments were discussed, evaluated, and criticised. Here, I seek to critically evaluate her article. But instead of looking at her arguments per se my aim is to examine the discursive strategies that Dutt has used to construct her arguments. Specifically, I will analyse the central components of her overall framing of the Kashmiri freedom struggle.

Before getting started, here are brief, though limited, descriptions of some academic jargons which would be inevitably used for analytical purposes in this review:

Presupposition: shared or presupposed knowledge about something which is assumed to be true, known, or taken for granted. Ideologies are naturalised through presuppositions (for example, in the sentence “Our five thousand years old civilization has seen many turns,” it is presumed that the civilisation was really five thousand years old)

Predication:  ascribing attributes, qualities and features to people, phenomena or entities through use of adjectives, adverbs that modifies the subject (for example, the adjective/adverb radicalised in “radicalised young men are protesting”)

Mitigation and intensification: modification of language in a way that it either mitigates or intensifies illocutionary force of what is being said (for example, using vague expressions and euphemisms, or hyperboles and strong words, or quotations marks and indirect speech)

Argumentation: justifying or questioning a normative position or claims of truth (for example, “global warming has changed weather patterns and we need to tackle this problem”)

Nomination: linguistically naming or categorizing subjects, phenomena or entities (for example, “Bhaghat Singh, the terrorist who killed a British officer,” or “student protestors blocked the road”)

Taking these discursive strategies as a framework, now let’s see how Barkha Dutt frames the Azadi movement in Kashmir in her Washington Post article. Here, eight main sentences from her 800-word article are reproduced:

  1. “Schoolgirls in headscarves have joined male agitators on the street.” Here, Kashmiri women’s dress item ‘headscarves’ is emphasised and they are said to have “joined” male agitators, presuming Kashmiri women do not organise protests independently. When located in the current global context of increased Islamophobia, a following inference can be drawn from the statement: headscarves-wearing women are religiously-inclined which presupposes they have been radicalised, hence they are protesting. In other words, Dutt seems to convey that schoolgirls are protesting because they have been radicalised and the evidence of their being radicalised is that they wear headscarves.
  2. “India’s human rights record in the landlocked valley was subjected to constant international scrutiny; Indian diplomats had to contend with uncomfortable questions on Kashmir.” Here, mitigation strategy is used: euphemisms like ‘record’ and ‘uncomfortable questions’ underplay the serious issue of human rights abuses in Kashmir. No statistics or representative cases about human rights abuses are cited.
  3. “This is despite recent controversies such as the Indian Army’s use of a local civilian, Farooq Ahmad Dar, as a human shield on a military jeep.” Here again mitigation strategy is used through the use of euphemistic term ‘controversies,’ because what is being termed as controversy is actually a war crime. Also, there is seemingly a deliberate omission about what international law says about human shield issue and how the majority of Indian public celebrated this war crime.
  4. “The bottom line: Kashmir is no longer an issue that Pakistan can get the world to take notice of.” Here, Kashmir conflict is not seen as an issue of political demands coming from Kashmiris themselves but as an issue which Pakistan is pushing.
  5. “The creeping radicalization of many young men agitating on Kashmir’s streets has also kept the world at bay.” Presupposition, nomination, and intensification strategies are used here: Islamist bogey is subtly raised; ‘agitating young men’ are presupposed to be ‘radicalised’ and they are not seen as social actors with varied political subjectivities. It potentially draws this inference: While as a non-Muslim can be a radical in a non-religious way (Communist etc., like Che Guevara), but radicalisation is not legitimate in relation to Muslims because Muslims being radical necessarily means being Islamist.
  6. “The more the next generation of Kashmir’s protesters become part of a global Internet “ummah,” invoking religion ahead of rights, the less the world is likely to engage with them.”
    Again, presupposition strategy is used, because it is presumed that next generation Kashmiris are invoking religion ahead of rights. And also, Kashmiri protestors are essentialized i.e., all Kashmiri protestors think, act and behave the same way.
  7. “Of course, none of this lightens India’s moral burden to be accountable to our own standards of democracy and human rights in Kashmir.” Presupposition and predication strategies are used here: ascribing a positive identity to India (democracy) and effectively obfuscating its colonial project and militarised occupation in Kashmir. The use of “our own standards” seems a deliberate attempt to distinguish between “international standards” and “India’s standards,” with the latter seemingly trying to rule out any Scotland type referendum in Kashmir. A sentence like “none of this lightens India’s moral burden to be accountable to international standards of democracy and human rights in Kashmir” would be qualitatively different.
  8. “There is no military solution, and India will have to develop a dialogue mechanism to talk to rage-filled, disenchanted Kashmiris.” Once again predication and nomination strategies are employed: ascribing negative attributes to Kashmiris through use of adverb ‘rage-filled.’ Use of a vague term like ‘disenchanted Kashmiris’ seeks to obfuscate the real political demands of Azadi which majority of Kashmiris have been raising.



First published by WithKashmir on 9 June 2017:


The Conflict, The Crisis, and the Kashmiri Youth

As part of my research work, I had a brief email correspondence with two Kashmiri students last year. Their short replies, I think, afford a glimpse of sorts in understanding those sublime aspects and implications of political uprisings which tend to remain obscured, or be taken for granted. I know just two anecdotes cannot be basis for generalization, but they seem to point to a broader phenomena, which may allow us to understand some of the aspects of the youth activism in the Indian-controlled Kashmir. The messages are produced verbatim here:

…just before 2016 unrest, I was alien to all the dirty kitchen politics and their executors, the freedom movement, the history of my nation, article 370, AFSPA, and so on. It so happened in these few months that I underwent such a psychological transformation that I seem to be more interested in the movement rather than science. (A female postgrad science student from Srinagar)

I am a 17-year-old. Although I have not seen the militancy era of Kashmir during the 90s but I’ve been witness to events like 2008, 2010, and the recent turmoil in 2016 in Kashmir. Like most of other Kashmiri kids, I became interested in words like ‘Freedom’….’Azadi’… ‘Pakistan’ ‘conflict’…etc. from my childhood. I first started writing when I was about 13 years old.   (A male teenage student from Srinagar)

When I read the first email for the first time I thought: here is a young Kashmiri reflecting on and, succinctly articulating, the state of affairs in her homeland. But as I came back to the message later, I realized that it says more. It does not just merely express peculiarities of the Kashmiri politics from a particular individual’s point of view, but it also talks about “a psychological transformation.”

And this concept of psychological transformation is an important one in case of Kashmir. It provides a potential clue about how a person turns into an active participant from being a passive bystander. Of course, this ‘active’ here does not mean political action on the streets but becoming conscious about the conflict, relating with it, and ultimately taking and articulating a position vis-a-vis the conflict.

The second email manifests a conflict narrative, which has its distinct vocabulary and lexicon. This narrative derives as much from the lived experiences of the military occupation as from the culture which enables this narrative.

In the remaining part of this short essay, I will first briefly discuss the idea of passivity in a military occupation, and then I will talk about the narrative culture, which a generation produces in the unique circumstances of its traumatic experience.

Passivity in a Context

When the female student (quoted above) talked about her psychological transformation, we can assume that there was a period of her political passiveness (conscious, cultivated, unconscious?) prior to the 2016 uprising. This preceding period of passivity can be analysed by borrowing the concept of crisis as context from the political anthropologist, Henrik Vigh (2008), who states: “We need to depart from our regular understanding of crisis and trauma as momentary and particularized phenomena and move toward an understanding of critical states as pervasive contexts rather than singular events.”

When a difficult situation (e.g., war, military occupation) perpetuates and normalises itself in a place over a time, it tends to make people, who live under its shadows, adapt to it (some get co-opted). However, that does not mean resistance against such condition terminates itself indefinitely. Adaptation under hard and chronic conditions can be seen as a strategic and pragmatic response imposed by mundane necessities of human survival. Since the crisis state is chronic, such a world is not characterised by order and balance but chaos and disorder, which has come to become ordered.

For at least last two generations of Kashmiris, the massively militarised space around them with around half a million Indian troops stationed in Kashmir in thousands of camps is symptomatic of a pervasive context of crisis, where the state inflicts violence on Kashmiri body and psyche on almost daily basis. For young Kashmiris, who grew up in a condition of chronic crisis, the killings, the shootings, the arbitrary detentions, the humiliations, the protests may not seem a disruption of ‘order’ rather an order itself; these may not be aberrant shocking events in an otherwise smooth flow of things. In other words, these events represent, in Vigh’s terms, “…not a short-term explosive situation but a much more durable and persistent circumstance.” In a similar vein, Walter Benjamin writes in his essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1950): “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

From the perspective of the Kashmiri youth, their context looks like as one of constant war – because of the seeming irresolution of the Kashmir conflict and the enduring military occupation – and their own condition a state of helplessness to balance and control the exterior forces that influence and affect their possibilities and choices. This exterior force, from their perspective, manifests itself in the form of the militarized spaces, the securitised administration and policies, and the denial of autonomous politics. And, therefore, “[a]s people have to work regaining their possibilities and positions within their social environments,” two crises interact here: societal crisis and the personal crisis. This phenomenon may explain why there is a mental health crisis in the Kashmir valley, with nearly 93% percent people having “experienced conflict-related trauma.”

Moments of Clarity

While some societies may take a long time to externalise their resistance, resistance does find ways to nurture itself through underground and other activities. For example, the Clandestine Press in the Vichy France of the early 1940s. James Scott calls it infrapolitics, which entails concealed, strategic forms of resistance. And in some cases, after a period of latency, resistance manifests itself, when the ‘normalised situation’ is consciously and forcefully disturbed through direct action and the essential nature of the relationship between the occupied and the occupier made evident, thereby revealing the ‘moment of clarity’. During these moments, adaptively pragmatic attitude to the ‘normalised situation’ (of military occupation) is replaced, en masse, by a more proactive resistant assertiveness.  The summer uprisings of 2008, 2010, and 2016 in the Indian-controlled Kashmir can be regarded as those moments of clarity in which the essentially forced relationship between India and Kashmir manifested itself.

The generation that experiences the moments of clarity potentially also produces a unique culture because many of them might internalise the consciousness related to the traumatic event. In Edmunds and Turner’s (2002) conceptualisation, “a generation can be defined in terms of a collective response to a traumatic event or catastrophe that unites a particular cohort of individuals into a self-conscious age stratum.”[1] It is traumatic events (wars, conflicts, economic downturns, etc.) that produce a profound effect on a generation’s consciousness and self-identity. The experiences of trauma are internalized and get sublimated into a unique set of values, interests, and political activities, separating one generation from another generation’s past and becoming “the basis of a collective ideology and a set of integrating rituals.”[2]

Here one can find echoes of Pennebaker and Banasik (1997), who argued that not all historical events register themselves in collective memory of people but only those events that significantly impact the course of people’s lives in long term and bring major institutional changes. They also postulated that national events of significance have much more impact on people of a certain age group (between 12 and 25). But in temporal proximity of the event, the affected generation tends to keep a distance from commemorating it, because coming to terms with the event itself takes away much of time and energy, and also lack of resources (financial, social, and political) does not allow it. I think in the present age, this latter aspect (of commemoration) has changed as social media has become part of the social fabric affording easy and cheaper ways to document and remember.

Though significant traumatic events like uprisings do not occur frequently, but political resistance through formal and informal networks, general strikes – in the last 27 years, from 1990 to 2016, hartal [general strike] has been observed over 2000 times against many events and incidents – curfews, state-imposed restrictions and other aspects of the military occupation, in general, effects a persistent traumatic condition in which not only this narrative culture reinforces itself but also the self-identity of the youth which gets shaped in the process. Though identities (ethnic, gender, class, vocational, etc.) are fluid which can potentially revise over time among the young adults, traumatic events or moments of clarity may accentuate a core identity.

Ultimately, what I tried to point at with the aid of two illustrative quotes above is that pervasive context of crisis affects the possibilities and choices of the youth and their expectations, convictions, desires, anxieties and fears, reflected not only in the political action (like street protests and stone pelting) but also in the narratives and accounts that they produce in response to this context of chronic crisis, which also shapes their self-identity. In the event of a significant political tumult (like uprisings), pragmatic adaptation to the conflict and the concomitant psychological detachment from its politics seem to get ruptured among some passive bystanders, who eventually become manifestly political.

[1] Edmunds and Turner, Generations, Culture and Society (2002), p. 13.

[2] Ibid, p. 13-14.

First published on Cafe Dissensus Magazine, 20 Feb 2017:

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.


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.


First published in the Kashmir Ink magazine on 9 May 2017: