Sahba Husain’s brave and moving Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir joins the growing list of books and articles that have catalogued the death and destruction visited upon Kashmir and Kashmiris for the last three decades, while also emphasising their resistance to such organised political violence. Three relevant recent books bear mention here: Do You Remember Kunan Poshpura, edited by Essar Batool, Natasha Rather, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, and Samreena Mushtaq; Inshah Malik’s Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance Politics: The Case of Kashmir; and Ather Zia’s Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir.

There has also been a slew of reports documenting the effects of violence upon civilians by international organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders. More detailed analyses have been provided in reports generated by local civil rights organisations; I will flag some of these for your attention: Torture: Indian State’s Instrument of Control in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir (produced jointly with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons), Structures Of Violence: The Indian State In Jammu And Kashmir (The International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir and the APDP), Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir (also by the IPTK and APDP).

There have been for years now vivid and entirely disturbing accounts of Kashmiri suffering available, including in documentaries (for instance, Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi) and fiction (Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator). But most people succeeded in looking away, and for a variety of well-known reasons: India’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct; the demand for azaadi is not indigenous to Kashmir but the result of Pakistani machinations; and in any case, “what about the Kashmiri Pandits?”

Losing objectivity in the face of violence and trauma

Husain’s book reminds us of another powerful reason Kashmir has been such a challenge to the Indian progressive imagination: She tells us that this book took her a long time to write (even though she had done much of the research and some of the writing in reports years ago), precisely because to engage with Kashmir is to be changed forever. She went to Kashmir as a researcher for Oxfam, and then for the Aman Trust, and her brief, as she puts it, “was to examine, empirically, the psychological impact of violence on people’s daily lives in order to understand the various ways in which they coped with the immediacy and the aftermath of violence, both at the individual and collective levels”.

However, her first impression of Kashmir was that she had “entered an occupied state although the mainstream narrative was that it was an ‘integral part of India’”. She recognises immediately that some questions will follow her as she travels and talks to people: why should they trust her, she wonders, given their history with Indians? Her way to trust – however limited – is via empathy, and shared suffering: “I would like to speak of how I was impacted by coming so close to the violence,” she writes, “how the trauma entered my life too”.

Shared trauma leads to a loss of faith in earlier certainties:

The nature of the Indian state, and the nature of this conflict with its devastating implications for people were now unfolding before me. I knew I could not remain neutral or objective any more, although objectivity in research is much valued but here it was imperative for me to take a position – politically and emotionally – and it soon became clear to me where and on whose side I stood: by the side of the people and their struggle for justice.

Nuances that politicians miss

Husain realises that in all her years of fieldwork, she has never before worked “in an armed conflict zone.” “How was it,” she wonders, “that the country that claimed to be the largest democracy in the world, treated its ‘own people’ in this brutally oppressive manner?” in a question even closer to home, she asked why the “women’s movement, of which I have been a part for so many years, was oblivious to the reality of fellow women in Kashmir? Where was our spirit of enquiry, and our intervention? Where was our solidarity?

As Husain attests, engaging with Kashmir is demanding, isolating, misery-inducing – leaving her “both intellectually and emotionally shaken and vulnerable.” She knows she has much to unlearn, and much to gain from her immersion in the daily lives of Kashmiris, particularly Kashmiri women. She recognises too that her identity as an “Indian Muslim woman” gives her privileged access to domestic spaces, but also demands of her a particular kind of religion-based solidarity with which she is not entirely comfortable.

And in Jammu, where she goes to interview Kashmiri Pandits in their terrible camps, her being Muslim is no advantage. One of the noteworthy features of Husain’s narrative is that she puts all her doubts and uncertainties on display: not for her the fake dispassion and supposed neutrality of the researcher. Kashmir challenges her, changes her, and demands her writing, and that is the dynamic which produces Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir.

Husain writes of the miseries, disappointments, and polarised anger of displaced Kashmiri Pandits, but contrasts these affective and political positions to those articulated by Kashmiri Pandits who chose not to leave. We usually hear of the huge chasm that has opened up between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims, but she reveals to us this smaller crevasse: Pyare Lal Pandit of Pulwama tells her that

“Pandits in Jammu shouldn’t be resentful because we stayed back. We didn’t support militancy; we tried only to save our own lives just as they did by leaving Kashmir.”

These are the nuances of political difference that most political thinkers, and certainly politicians, miss when they speak of entrenched differences between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits. Pandits are no more united on major issues than Kashmiri Muslims are, and Husain’s conversations trace the contours of such differences.

No one is exempt

Most germane to our understanding today is that Husain’s book details the consequences of the violence suffered by Kashmiris at the hands of the militants, and, to a far greater extent, the security forces. Over the last thirty years, if there is any single phenomenon that has caused Kashmiris of different political persuasions to come together, it is that they are all survivors or, and witnesses to, illegal forms of violence performed by those who represent the might of the Indian state.

No one is exempt, for, as Husain notes, trauma is shared and multigenerational, continually confirmed by the experience of daily humiliation. Husain meets women whose men have disappeared: mourning mothers and wives – half-widows, as they are known – live lives suspended in hope, but with the gnawing awareness that the men taken away by security forces in the last three decades have rarely returned home.

But Husain also notes the myriad ways in which women have responded to the illegal actions of military and civil authorities. They have been forced out of their homes and on to the streets, to protest, to throw stones, and to protect their men. They have, reluctantly but determinedly, turned into a force for change, as they demand attention from civil and military offices, law-courts and NGOs. They gather in protest and refuse to disappear, and in their fightback can be seen the broader alliances between disparate Kashmiri communities that do not want to have anything to do with the Indian state and the Indian nation.

And increasingly, these women, and Kashmiris more generally, have made clear that they no longer need the parades of Indian “interlocutors,” NGOs, and well-wishers who have wandered through the valleys and mountains of Kashmir. In particular, after August 5, 2019, there is no middle ground left for Indians to tread – if you want to be of use to Kashmiris, you have to support their desire for political self-determination, and for the restoration of their human and judicial rights on their own terms. We have nothing more to offer them. But we have a great deal to learn from their struggle.

We chose to learn nothing from Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and our politics has been entirely vitiated by our refusal to think about the historical and political rights of sub-nationalities at the edges of the Indian nation. Kashmir is the latest, most stark, instance of a longer process of militarized centralisation, and of the rewriting of constitutional and legal arrangements to suit the dictates of an authoritarian nationalism.

To that extent, anyone who reads Sahba Husain’s Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir will learn about the necessity of empathy, and also recognise its political limits. Husain has done us a great service by writing this book; it is now for us to read it and amplify its concerns and values.

Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir

Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir, Sahba Husain, Zubaan.