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

The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism, A Review

Book: The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism (From The Cold War To The Present Day)

Author: Nandita Haksar

Print Length: xvi + 335

Genre: Non Fiction / Narrative

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2015

ISBN: 978-93-85288-18-0

Reviewer: Muhammad Tahir

book cover

The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism belongs to the narrative genre that has a long pedigree in the literature on Kashmir. This genre, in English language, was probably started in the late 19th century by the European orientalists like Walter Lawrence, Francis Younghusband, Tyndale Biscoe and others, who described Kashmir and Kashmiris from their subjective points of view — and oftentimes implied that Kashur was a mendacious character.

In the recent past, Humra Quraishi (Kashmir: The Untold Story, 2004), David Devadas (In Search of Future: The Story of Kashmir, 2007), and Justine Hardy (In the Valley of Mist, 2009), to name but a few have added to this corpus of narrative literature.

If Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (2008) provided a long overdue native perspective on Kashmir, the other works mentioned above, obviously, were an outsiders’ probing gaze on the natives. Since Haksar’s ancestors had long migrated out of Kashmir in the 19th century, and by her own admission she is an Indian by body and spirit, we can safely say that hers is a rather non-native or, as she would prefer, a liberal Indian’s perspective on Kashmir.

“I thought of it,” says Haksar in the book, “as a fight to defend Indian democracy, with the emphasis on Indian.” Here she is referring to Muhammad Afzal Guru’s case.

After Afzal was hanged in February 2013, Haksar and her colleague N D Pancholi — who also drafted Afzal’s mercy petition — had withdrawn as Guru family’s lawyers citing that their involvement had ruffled feathers of Indian nationalists and had invited “anti-national” label for them, and also their solidarity had been suspiciously perceived by some political groups in Kashmir. Therefore, in a way this book has provided Haksar a much-needed opportunity to salvage her image among those Indians who cast aspersions on her nationalistic credentials.

Throughout the book, Haskar emphasises that hers was essentially a political fight, because she wanted to “pave the way for another kind of politics” — open up more democratic space and won more friends for India among Kashmiris.

Sampat Prakash is the main protagonist in the book. He emerges as an audacious, passionate socialist who leads an influential labour organisation Low Paid Government Servants Federation, and through his tireless work he manages to get some important benefits for the working class people in both government and non-government sectors. Moreover, as an ardent believer of Kashmiriyat and Kashmiri nationalism, Sampat also briefly joined JKLF. Here he diligently accompanied Yasin Malik on his 2007 Safar-e-Azadi campaign and toured even “risky’ areas of Kashmir. Though, he considers this experience as a significant one, but a grudge remains: that his part in the campaign was not well acknowledged.

So, it is through Sampat’s recounting of his life-tale that Haksar tries to chart the history of the trade union movement in Jammu and Kashmir. This strategy pays off. Because Sampat has been a stupendously perceptive witness to many hitherto unknown events and intrigues in the political history of Kashmir, and he lays bare before the author perhaps the first historical account on trade unionism in Kashmir, providing interesting and insightful details about its major troughs and crests and its dramatis personae.

Afzal-Guru

Another prominent figure in the book is Muhammad Afzal Guru, whom Haksar knew very well, and to whose family she extended unconditional hospitality at her Delhi home. Naturally, she is privy to many episodes and events around Afzal and Syed Abdur Rehman Geelani (Prof SAR Geelani) which have an intriguing and controversial character to them.

So, what really make these two characters, Afzal and Sampat, to stick together and allow author to weave a coherent narrative? For Haksar, Sampat represents a secular spirit within Kashmiri nationalism that is better represented by the syncretic culture of Kashmiriyat. Oddly enough, Haksar seems sceptical about this term, but Sampat believes in it and cites his experiences in the labour movement as its reflection. Afzal, on the other hand, is story of a Kashmiri nationalist, who started off as a secular JKLF activist, but overwhelming circumstances and a long jail term made him reflect deeper on life and its meanings and eventually took him into an Islamist position. For Haksar, these two ideological strands represented by these two Kashmiris define facets of Kashmiri nationalism in the post-1947 period.

While the author demonstrates that she empathetically understands Kashmiri people and their issues and criticises, and rightly so, the Indian state for its brutalities and suppression within Kashmir and its persistent policy of militaristic approach to the Kashmir conflict, there are certain problems in her narrative, however, which I want to highlight — I am interested in discursive strategies employed in the book.

Seemingly, Haksar is an advocate of Kashmiri Self-Determination, but in this book she seems to falter on this position at the very beginning when she writes “Afzal was born as a citizen of independent India.” This is a problematic assumption on which Vishal Bhardhwaj also tripped up in his movie Haider when the film rolls with the words: “Srinagar, India”. But, the more problematic aspects are certain tropes and apocryphal stories and statements that abound her narrative. As a self-professed liberal she seems predisposed to dislike other ideologies, especially Islamist, and that naturally brings certain biases into her narrative.

For example, she claims, without referencing any empirical study or survey, that 16 percent of Muslims in J&K are Salafist, and as an evidence we should see new mosques in Kashmir that are built on “Saudi architectural style” . This is a spurious claim because Saudi architectural style is a vague term and even if we accept it for argument’s sake, then Dargah Hazratbal shrine would count as a classic case in Kashmir, because it is modelled on “Medina mosque”.  For me, Saudi architectural style actually conjures up Basharat Peer’s 2012 New Yorker article “Modern Mecca” which describes the bulldozed heritage in that country!

I am reluctant to call it an Islamophobic streak but she does veer close to it on many occasions. For example, on page 240 she writes: “But the challenge before Sampat Prakash was not militant Islam, but the rise of militant Hinduism.” One is misled in believing that there will follow, perhaps for the sake of balance, a critical discussion on militant Hinduism. But that is not to be, and just some pages later, she comes back to write: “over unlimited kebabs and a few drinks at Barbeque Nation, he [Sampat] shared his concerns over the rise of Ahl-e-Hadith’s version of Islam [in Kashmir]”. Her focus again and again comes back to what she calls as “radical Islam”, but there is no actual discussion on “militant Hinduism” or Panun Kashmir’s fascist Hindutva.

That Kashmiris are cowardly and effeminate in nature is a peculiar trope to describe natives, a trope with a long pedigree that orientalist made quite use of till Edward Said ruined their party around 1978. But Haksar carries it all off with a blithe indifference and shows us how a “ferocious-looking militant” actually fainted at magician’s trick of slicing a women into two, and how this all seeming machismo and manliness of a bearded, Kalashnikov wielding young Kashmiri is nothing but pretension, because “Bismillah said before the insurgency Kashmiris used to faint at the sight of blood and would cry even if they saw an injured bird” (170).

Nandita Haksar with Afzal Guru Family

In uncritical terms, she describes Pandits as ingrained secular and scholarly people, while as Muslims as non-secular. This dichotomy is achieved through the character of Badruddin, who, we are told, was beaten up by a Muslim teacher because he couldn’t properly pronounce an Arabic word, but when Badruddin met a Kashmiri Pandit he “instilled in him a love of science”. Whereas kindhearted Pandit teacher emphasised on secular education, the Muslim teacher “introduced Badruddin to books by Maulana Maududi” (172). This dichotomous view perhaps explains why she is so sceptical about the notion of “Kashmiriyat” and seemingly negatively predisposed towards Kashmiri leaders.

Haksar also plays with the familiar boilerplate trope of proxy war, and for an effect she uses Kashmiri Muslim characters as channel for such articulation. Sample this: “The headmaster said the insurgency was revenge for the breaking up of Pakistan, and the creation of Bangladesh.” She also wrongly describes Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar as a “Pakistani militant”, ignoring the fact that he is a native of Downtown Srinagar where he is known as “Mushtaq Latram”. Moreover, while the book is supposedly about many facets of Kashmiri nationalism, yet the discussion on Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad runs disproportionately on more pages than the discussion about the emergence of the Kashmiri nationalist formations, which only gets passing mention. So, what purpose does a longer and recurrent discussion on Pakistan-based militant groups serve other than reinforcing the statist idea that the Kashmir armed struggle is a “proxy war”.

One of the problematics in her narrative is the strategy of false equivalency and false balance which comes to the fore in statements like these: ‘…thousands of Kashmiri were killed by militants and Indian security forces…’ (223). Notice the placement of militants before the Indian forces as an attempt to distort the fact that the Indian forces and the Kashmiri militants are not at parity — militarily; and while the former is essentially for systematically controlling and brutalising Kashmiris on behalf of the post-colonial state, the latter emerges from and acts on behalf of the occupied Kashmiris and receives the popular support.

One of the most preposterous statements in the book was perhaps this: “He [Kuka Parray] had returned a disappointed man as he felt that Pakistan was not helping Kashmir but destroying its ethos” (167). By this logic Kuka Parray must have been a man of ethics, principles, and compassion. But Haksar does not tell us on whose behalf he, in turn, started destroying the Kashmiri ethos by creating a brigade of brutal renegades who tortured and killed people with impunity, raped women, razed down houses, smuggled timber and did all the terrible things?

The most telling example of the gaps in her narrative, though, is her take on the uprisings since 2008. She frames the 2008 mass civil agitation as a clash of “religious fundamentalism”, conveniently ignoring that the 2008 mass protests had assumed a nationalist character, turning into one of the largest anti-India uprisings in the 21st century Kashmir; that many elite Indian newspapers had in fact taken notice and carried opinion pieces advocating independence for Kashmir; that 2008 was in fact a watershed moment for the Kashmiri nationalist movement as it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people who demanded end to the Indian militarised occupation in Kashmir; that the 2008 mass agitation also deflated the Indian statist, and predominant Indian civil society, discourse of ‘Pakistan’s proxy war’ and brought international focus on the Self-Determination movement of Kashmiris. And yet, curiously, the 2009 Asiya and Neelofar rape and murder case and the 2010 mass civil uprising is completely omitted in the book.

Her biases also reflect in the way she peddles unsubstantiated claims and takes political rhetoric for reality: “Kashmir treated Jammu like its colony”, or “while much money had been spent to develop tourism in Kashmir, nothing had been done for Jammu” (245). These terms “Colony” and “Nothing” are casually and uncritically thrown in the sentences.

In the Afterword, Haksar briefly dips into the holy waters of the conflict resolution and here she disappoints by taking the route of chimera called Insaniyat a la Prime Ministers of India when they pop in Kashmir to deliver their political homilies to arranged audiences every now and then, and leaving us with the nagging question as always: what does she really mean when she says I support Kashmiris right to decide their own future?

Post-script: When self-professed liberal Indians begin to describe Kashmiris, the experience dictates that the latter should always take their words with a large pinch of salt.

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First published in Kashmir Life on April 5, 2016: http://www.kashmirlife.net/the-many-faces-of-kashmiri-nationalism-a-review-101253/