Book review

Decomposing Kashmir: A collection of essays offers new ways of seeing the region and the dispute

Edited by Chitralekha Zutshi, these essays travel into terrains and stories that the battle of nationalisms will not admit.

The map of the Dogra state, which came into being in 1846, has governed our imagination of Kashmir for decades. This is the subject of Kashmiri nationalism as well as the territory over which Indian and Pakistani nationalisms compete. The territory of desire, to borrow a phrase from Ananya Jahanara Kabir. But Kashmir: History, Politics, Representation, a new book of essays edited by Chitralekha Zutshi, decomposes Kashmir into its constituent parts.

Zutshi has written elsewhere of the “battle of narratives” over Kashmir, and of the inadequacy of “nationalist and religious discourses” to fully tell the story of a place. Seven decades of conflict have hardened these narratives, making them intractable in the political truths they seek to convey. This collection of essays seems to return to her old preoccupation, to explore aspects of a place and a history that no nationalism will admit by breaking down these narratives. It aims to explore ideas as “ideas, not politics by another name”. It is a daring project.

Difficult terrains

The process of decomposition demands first that we reimagine the geography of Kashmir. In most texts and histories, Kashmir is elided with the Valley, which has been the epicentre of militancy since 1989. In reality, it is a composite territory, with each region characterised by a distinct politics. This book dwells on the Valley but also travels out to these lesser known parts.

Christopher Snedden’s essay explores Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, locally known as “Azad Kashmir”, pointing out that this was the territory which rose up in rebellion against the Dogra king and triggered the first border war. It traces the tug and pull between the region’s autonomy and its near integration with Pakistan.

Martin Sokefield goes to Gilgit-Baltistan, a region which had loose ties with the Dogra state to begin with, and which now strains against the map of the former kingdom. In Sokefield’s view, it is best described as “not part of Kashmir, but part of the Kashmir dispute”.

Jammu, which turned into a Hindu majority region almost overnight after Partition and settled comfortably into the Indian state, is also examined separately. The only region which seems to get short shrift is Ladakh, with its Buddhist traditions and its fraught frontier with China.

The book returns a complex picture of the Kashmir dispute, made up of these interlocking regions and their very separate demands, which do not fit into any dominant discourse.

Blurring the faultlines

Today, as older claims to secularism fade, the dispute is increasingly seen as a clash between two religious nationalisms that plays out at various levels: India versus Pakistan, Muslim-majority Kashmir versus Hindu-majority Jammu, Kashmiri Muslims versus Kashmiri Pandits. Yet each of these overheated discourses reveal layers and contradictions within.

Zutshi’s essay throws light on how Srinagar became a battleground between two religious power centres in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The battle over urban space segued into a contest between two kinds of religious worship. With both groups claiming leadership over the entire Kashmiri Muslim community, it evolved into a debate over what it meant to be a Kashmiri Muslim.

This would flow into debates in the 1930s and ’40s over what Kashmiri nationalism meant, whether it was to be a secular idea or hitched to religion. The Muslim Conference, formed in 1931, was renamed the National Conference as it drew closer, under Sheikh Abdullah, to the project of Indian nationalism. This prompted a faction to break away and reconstitute the Muslim Conference.

Andrew Whitehead’s essay traces how Sheikh Abdullah’s “Naya Kashmir”, a secular document modelled on the Soviet manifesto, developed in opposition to the old guard of the Muslim Conference, which increasingly favoured a merger with Pakistan. Shahla Hussain examines the shifting meanings of azadi, how it emphasised the principle of self-determination initially, how it was anchored for a while in aspirations for autonomy, how it turned into a demand for secession in 1989.

In Jammu, which staunchly opposed separatist politics, the conflict obscured the faultlines of caste and class. Mohita Bhatia explains how Hindu nationalist politics was led by the upper castes and while scheduled castes participated in it, they also had rituals and practices that made up an everyday Dalit assertion.

Meanwhile, as Kashmiri Pandits streamed out of the Valley in the 1990s, they were politically appropriated by the Hindu right. Projects for their return to Kashmir became a touchstone of patriotism and an indictment of the separatist movement. On the other side of the political divide, these were seen as a plot to change the demography of the Muslim-majority Valley, planting a saffron flag in it. Essays in this book offer a way to talk about the plight of the Pandits outside this communally charged debate.

Haley Duschinski’s essay goes beyond the political articulation of Pandit groups to probe individual yearnings, speaking of visits made by displaced Pandits to homes and friends left behind in the Valley. Suvir Kaul retrieves a poem where a Pandit writes to a Muslim neighbour back in his old village. It resembles a pastoral in its nostalgia for an idyllic past that perhaps never existed, in its longing for a home that may have disappeared, for a community that may no longer miss them. In both essays, the return of the Pandits is relocated in a personal sphere of hurt, longing and lost friendships.

Past and future

A recurring theme in Zutshi’s work also surfaces in this collection: the contestations over history and how it is told. Mridu Rai argues that the colonial archaeological project in the early 20th century opened up a space for Kashmiri Muslim assertion within the Dogra state. Dean Accardi, writing on the mystic poet Lal Ded and her Sufi disciple Nund Rishi, seems to echo Zutshi’s own view of traditional historiography in Kashmir.

History in the Valley, she argues, is written on a palimpsest. Each era absorbs the myths and beliefs that came before, writing it into a new history. So the Buddhist era passes into the Hindu and the sacred groves and ravines of Hinduism acquire significance in the Valley’s home brewed Sufism. It is this tradition of history, she suggests, that informs the syncretic culture of Kashmiriyat. This tradition was disrupted by the communal battles over history in the more recent past.

A collection that is so intensely self-aware and critical of received terms and ideas, however, does not question this rather romantic attachment to Kashmiriyat. In recent years, it has often been accused of papering over communal faultlines that always existed, or of becoming a lazy shorthand for secularism deployed by the Indian state to legitimise its presence in Kashmir. But none of the essays engages with these criticisms at length.

A fertile decay?

This seems to be an exception, for the Indian state’s narratives are usually pried open and examined critically. Rita Choudhary Tremblay makes the familiar argument that promises of good governance and economic development cannot answer deeper demands for justice and self-determination, that participation in elections can co-exist with a thriving, everyday resistance to the state. Seema Kazi argues that sexual violence has become an instrument of martial rule in the Kashmir Valley, where courts and civilian authority have receded. Ananya Jahanara Kabir looks at three films, Roja, Mission Kashmir and ...Yahaan, to explore how the Valley becomes a site where majoritarian anxieties about Indian Islam are played out, especially after militancy and 9/11.

Some of the most striking essays in this collection are about representations of Kashmir, both by Kashmiris and outsiders. The imperial imagination of Kashmir as an exceptional place, writes Vanessa Chishti, was fashioned by Kashmiri shawls that were sold as a luxury product in the West. Kaul explores how poetry written by Kashmiris becomes a bridge between individual trauma and the collective experience of it, which has been honed into a politics over the last few decades.

“The essays in this volume do not purport to offer a solution to the Kashmir conundrum,” writes Zutshi. But they do suggest new ways of seeing it, by breaking it down into the local and the particular. It is a fertile decay, which could help reconstitute our understanding of both the region and the dispute, offering a way out of the current impasse.

Kashmir: History, Politics, Representation, edited by Chitralekha Zutshi, Cambridge University Press.

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