In a 2017 essay, Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon drew upon the phrase “politics of life” to define the contradictions inherent in the modalities of Israeli control over Palestine. After grabbing more territory following the Six Day War, Israel pushed for development-oriented policies in Gaza to normalise its takeover of the strife-ridden land, even as it suppressed the broader calls for political resolution; it improved agriculture, permitted Palestinians to build colleges, and even boasted of having raised the calorie intake among Gazans.

But this model imploded with the eruption of the First Intifada as Palestinians came to terms with the realities of “politics of life”, and how it became a stepping stone for forfeiture of their political rights.

Kashmiri scholar Hafsa Kanjwal’s A Fate Written on Matchboxes builds on Gordon’s cerebral formulation to shed new light on the complicated ways in which the Indian government consolidated its sovereign control over Jammu and Kashmir after the accession in 1947. And far from harmonising the two entities into one national whole, the contradictions intrinsic to this model only succeeded in catalysing more political unrest.

Kanjwal takes a noticeable departure from the traditional historiography concerning Kashmir where much scholarly attention has been lavished on Sheikh Abdullah. Instead, she foregrounds the ten-year rule of Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, the former premier of Kashmir who was nudged by Jawaharlal Nehru to take Abdullah’s place after his removal from power.

Evading the UN

Making a bid to legitimise Jammu and Kashmir’s provisional accession to India which came on the heels of bloodshed and political turmoil, Nehru promised a UN-overseen plebiscite in 1947. But a diplomatic deadlock with Pakistan led India to drag its feet. What further steeled its intransigence was Islamabad’s proximity to Western powers, while New Delhi spiralled straight into Russia’s embrace. Moscow reciprocated India’s friendly gestures with a permanent veto on Kashmir-related resolutions at the UN.

Having sidestepped the spectre of UN mediation, the Nehru government scrambled to cement India’s authority over the volatile region.

In enacting India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi relied almost exclusively on the “politics of life” that entailed convincing multiple audiences of the necessity of Jammu and Kashmir’s integration with India, and the higher economic dividends this was to accrue. But as Kanjwal demonstrates, such forms of persuasion relied on indicators that were situated at the intersection of multiple ethical and moral breaches.

Bakshi’s unleashing of “developmentalism” as a means to secure political legitimacy in an otherwise refractory state echoed Nehru’s refrain that “India would bind Kashmir in golden chains.” The Nehru government threw open its coffers for Bakshi on the condition that accession was to be ratified, ironically, in an Assembly where the elections were anything but free and fair.

Between 1957 and 1963, the per capita grant-in-aid for Jammu and Kashmir was seven times the other Indian states’ average. Far from fostering self-sufficiency as enshrined in his party’s “Naya Kashmir” manifesto, Bakshi created a culture of dependency on the Centre. Rice subsidies shot up from Rs 19 lakh under Abdullah to Rs 1.5 crore under Bakshi. As Kanjwal observes, the over-reliance on the Centre’s pork-barrel funding – although it engendered a class of nouveau riche Kashmiris – disincentivised the state from making serious long-term investments in agriculture; kept revenue rate and per capita productivity abysmally low.

Bakshi also whittled away at Jammu and Kashmir’s special status from time to time at the Centre’s behest.

Orwellian control over media

To tide over any criticism, Bakshi set into motion an extensive perception engineering apparatus that belched enormous government propaganda with a view to reframe the “question of Kashmir from political one of sovereignty to one of governance.”

This happened under the auspices of Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Information (DIB), which launched publications like Kashmir Today, Tameer, and Yojana to portray normalcy even as the government narrowed spaces for an independent press to thrive. The DIB functionaries paid overzealous attention not to allow facts to mortify them. In one instance, a DIB official, JN Zutshi, wrote to a contributor to remove references to massacres of Muslim civilians in the Jammu region in which ruling members of the Dogra regime were implicated. Zutshi also monitored the foreign media’s reporting on Kashmir and flagged critical commentaries (including those by UN members such as Josef Korbel) to the Centre’s Information Ministry for action.

By contrast, many Kashmiri individuals wishing to start independent publications were denied permission on account of their ideological convictions. In one case, the application of one Ghulam Durrani was rejected because “he was a zealous Muslim Leaguer.” To influence international coverage, Bakshi instituted special funds called the Entertainment of Press Correspondents, offering free lodging and conveyance to foreign reporters.

A territory of desire

The diplomatic shindigs where foreign envoys were regaled also played a role in enabling these projections of normalcy. An important visit by a Soviet delegation led by Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev is credited with having earned India a Russian endorsement on Kashmir.

To stage-manage a festive spirit during the visit, the administration bussed in scores of villagers from all over the valley to the banks of Dal Lake. One Abdul Khaliq recalls his bitterness at the administration for marooning him in the city, and not driving him back home as promised. A very important part of the book deals with how Bollywood, during the 1950s and 1960s, transformed into a mimetic vessel, trafficking in the Orientalised reconstructions of Kashmir into what Ananya Jahanara Kabir calls a “territory of desire.” Dozens of Indian film-making crews rushed to shoot amidst the scenic climes of the Valley.

Although the letters seeking permission to film promised to steer clear of political propaganda, the content in most of these movies was geared towards project Kashmir as coexisting “within the imaginaries of the Indian nation,” such as in the 1965 picture Jab Jab Phool Khile. The tourist propaganda material published during this period also appears to draw on the gendered characterisations of the place. Nehru once spoke of Kashmir as a “supremely beautiful woman, whose beauty is almost impersonal.”

The tourism booklets and movies produced by the Film Division of India disseminated Orientalised portrayals of fair-skinned rustic women out in the lush green meadows. Epistles penned by Kashmiris during this time, such as by one bureaucrat Mr Mohi-ud-Din on the community protest against the participation of school girls in these productions, suggest that Kashmiris were far from comfortable with these racialised gendered representations, and turned them into the sites of contestations.

Additionally, with the setting up of institutions such as Lalla Rookh, Cultural Academy, and Radio Kashmir, the government was able to bring a vast amount of cultural production within its fold, with a view of assimilating “the cultural intelligentsia into the state-building project…and enable complicity.” At the Jashn-e-Kashmir festival in 1956, which was to become a “vehicle of contact” between Jammu and Kashmir and India, the poetry recited to the audience eulogised Bakshi.

Kanjwal offers rich insight into how the vulnerabilities of artists were exploited to absorb them into the patronage system. In one case, writer and poet Ghulam Nabi Khayal, who was jailed for two years for taking part in protests, was rehabilitated with a job, and it was the government that published his translations of Omar Khayyam’s poetry into a book. This appropriation was extended over to the indigenous folk forms like the satire-performing bhaands. As bhaands came under State patronage, they lost their former independence as well as their creative wit of being subversive about the authorities.

But this extensive state monopolisation of culture also saw a vibrant literary counter-mobilisation. Kashmiri artists found workarounds by turning to neutral outlets such as the publisher Ali Muhammad & Sons. Writers such as Rahman Rahi, Akhtar Mohiuddin and Amin Kamil wrote trenchant critiques of mass surveillance, election fraud, and “politics of life” that resonated with the wider public.

No lessons learned

Eventually, Bakshi’s heavy-handed measures caused embarrassment to the Nehru government. He also resisted attempts to further break up Article 370, especially the title of Prime Minister, which the Union government wanted to be done with. In 1963, Bakshi was instructed to demit office. But it didn’t take long for the “politics of life” to implode, and in 1964, the disappearance of the Holy Relic from Hazratbal shrine sparked a big political uprising which stunned the Indian government.

A Fate Written on Matchboxes is a compulsory read because it reminds us that the present authoritarian lurch in Kashmir is hardly a novel phenomenon, and that it has already been tried and tested to the hilt. But rather than make such strong-arm tactics seem desirable as is the discursive trend currently, the book demonstrates that the “politics of life” doesn’t end as well as it’s planned.

A Fate Written on Matchboxes: State-Building in Kashmir Under India, Hafsa Kanjwal, Navayana Publishing.