Interview | Angana Chatterji, by David Barsamian
Interviewed by David Barsamian
San Francisco: Among the many issues plaguing South Asia none is as violent and deeply contested as Kashmir. The major unresolved issue of the disastrous British partition of India in 1947, Kashmir has been the site of wars and the threat of wars, and probably the world’s longest and most extensive military occupation. India brooks no international meditation to address the problem. What’s the problem? A lot of Kashmiris don’t want to be part of India. They didn’t in 1947 and they don’t, probably in even larger numbers, today. The U.S., champion of human rights elsewhere, is keen to access a major growing market, thus says nothing of what India is doing in Kashmir. Its silence is becoming harder to maintain as now the earth is revealing dark deep secrets of Indian rule in Kashmir. The thousands of dead and missing are making noise.
Angana Chatterji is a convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Kashmir. She has taught social and cultural anthropology for many years and has been working with social movements, local communities, and citizens groups in India and internationally. She is the author of “Violent Gods” and contributor to “Kashmir The Case for Freedom.”
In December of 2009 a report is issued entitled Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir. This report is issued by the International People’s Tribunal on Kashmir, of which you are a convener. What does Buried Evidence reveal?
In 2009, after three years of work that we had undertaken, we were able to uncover across Kashmir, just in three districts, actually—there are 20 districts in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, this was in three districts of Bandipora, Baramulla, and Kupwara—we were able to uncover over 2,900 bodies across 55 villages that were buried in 2,700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves in 62 sites across these villages. These graves, often we did not know who they belonged to. What we knew is that they had been placed there, often at night, dragged, some with torture marks, many defaced, by the military, paramilitary, and police in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. And local people were forced into digging the graves and burying them, at great risk and trauma to themselves.
We were able to get access to and investigate 49 bodies. Often the police would say these graves belonged to foreign terrorists that have come across the border from Pakistan to destabilize India. Of the 49 people who were marked as terrorists, as foreign militants, when we were able to look at them and we were able to uncover who they were, we found that all of them—all of them—were local people. Not one was a foreigner. And of the 49, 48 of them were ordinary civilians and one was a local militant.
So these bodies have been buried under false pretenses, to initiate into the international and national imagination the notion that the struggle for freedom in Kashmir is one that is constituted through foreign agency, through foreign memory and imagery, and that it is not local. What our report, Buried Evidence, did was to demystify, to unmask who the bodies were that had been buried there.
In King Lear, Kent asks, “Is this the promised end?” And Edgar responds, “Or image of that horror.” What about graves as a metaphor for something much larger?
What I have learned is that—and this was heartbreaking, because sometimes when I would be walking to document those graves, one would find oneself standing on one and I didn’t know that that was what it was. Sitting with local people to talk, what they said is that “These graves are our countermemory. They destabilize the official narrative of the state. These graves are our history. These graves tell the story of Kashmir. These graves contain the bodies of those that have died simply because they disobeyed what the state wanted them to become. Atta Mohammad is a gravedigger in his seventies. Quite amazing. He had dug 203 graves between 2002 and 2006. He said to me, “You know, the bodies I have buried, they appear and reappear in my dreams in graphic and gruesome detail.” And he said that until he could actually offer his testimony, in a sense to acknowledge that he had lived through this trauma, he had stopped dreaming. There are others who have testified and said they had stopped dreaming in Kashmiri. To be able to vocalize what had happened to them was in fact a way of actually saying, Look, this happened. “My memory,” Atta Mohammad tells me, “is my contribution.” And then he says, “I am so tired. I am so tired, because I’ve tried to remember all of this.”
In any context of intense subjugation, long, drawn-out oppression, one of the things that determines who is winning is whose memory is out there, whose memory is triumphant, so to speak. What I’ve learned through the work in Kashmir is that the Indian state has tried to do through its militarization is to suppress the memory of a people. To not acknowledge it, is to render it invalid, and to displace it with the memory of the Kashmiri as an enemy, the Kashmiri as not trustworthy, the Kashmiri as violent, the Kashmiri always as someone we need to be always suspicious of. If we are to be good citizen subjects, if we are to be patriots, we must understand. And, of course, who is the Kashmiri? The Kashmiri is the Muslim. The Kashmiri is India’s nemesis: the Other, the Muslim.
I notice in Buried Evidence that you have here “A Preliminary Report.” This was issued two years ago. Have you followed up on the documentation?
Yes. We would like to have respite from all the little roadblocks and checkpoints that our lives become embroiled in so we could do more of this work, but we’ve had people come to us with lists of graves, graveyards, names, details that have been sent to us to investigate. And we’ve been accumulating and collecting that information.
In July 2011 the state Human Rights Commission of the government of Jammu and Kashmir came out with its report that corroborated and authenticated the findings in Buried Evidence. This was huge in the sense that this is the first time that the government has acknowledged the existence of unknown, unmarked, and mass graves. We’ve given them some of this information to say that you should expand your investigation to include all 20 districts in Jammu and Kashmir, because it is our assumption that the number of graves would coincide with the number of people that have disappeared. There are over 8,000 people that are disappeared.
Buried Evidence mentions encounter killings. What are they?
Encounters are peculiar to South Asia. An encounter killing—or they’re also known as fake encounter killings, what I would characterize as extrajudicial killings—is where people have usually, under false pretenses, been killed by the state forces and implicated as what they are not. So often innocent people or people who were involved in some other skirmish would be taken in, they would be held sometimes in custody. And they wouldn’t be killed right away either. There are some cases where they’ve been taken into custody, they’ve been abused, and then when they’re being transferred from one point to another point, they’ve been killed. And it’s been posed as, no, he was killed, that person died when he came at us with bombs, guns, etc. Mysteriously, there’s always this documentation of a little card on which is his name—why does the man not know his own name? Why is he carrying a card with a little nametag?—the name of his village, and then they say there’s currency that they’ve discovered. But fake encounters essentially are extrajudicial killings where state forces manufacture evidence to strengthen their story. In April 2010, there were three fake-encounter killings in Machil, which later were authenticated as killings of innocent civilians.
What was the response, first of all, to Buried Evidence from the Indian state, Indian civil society, and then the so-called international community and the United Nations? Start with the Indian state.
I think, predictably, sadly and predictably, to ignore it. We had a lot of people on our behalf, without even our asking, from parliamentarians to human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International, who raised this with the Indian government, saying, “Look, this has come out. What do you think?” I know that within some five days of the report coming out, these human rights organizations had gone to the home ministry saying, “Look, what about this?” And the response was nothing. Just nothing.
However, from what I have been given to understand, agencies of the state were quite perturbed by it. And I think that eventually led to the state Human Rights Commission and its investigations. I also know that there have been groups that have worked quite hard to disprove and discredit what we have done. And they haven’t been able to, which is excellent.
The response of Indian civil society—I’ve lost a lot of friends since working on the issue of Kashmir in India, which is heartbreaking. I think people’s latent nationalism, sadly, asserts itself. People are unable to distinguish between the gross violations of rights, the crimes against humanity, the human rights abuses that are put in place in order to continue the militarization, in order to hold Kashmir in bondage to India. People are unable to look at it from a distance as, This is happening to Kashmiris. How should we react? Rather than this is happening to something we think is integral to India. How should we react? I think that distinction often people are unable to make.
I was actually quite encouraged by civil-society responses in terms of leaders of communities, social movement leaders, even in terms of the press, hesitant at first. But I felt the report would be ignored and disregarded, and it wasn’t. So people that were very skeptical that I was working in Kashmir and treated me as a traitor, these were people who came around to say, “My God, so this must be really serious.” People didn’t know about this. That’s the other staggering part.
So I think in Indian society it helped demystify the assumption created by the dominant media and the state that Kashmiris are violent, and it’s to protect India and to protect Kashmiris from themselves, to protect Kashmiri women from Kashmiri men, for example, that the army and paramilitary, all 671,000 of them, have been put in place. At first when I started working on this in 2008, the Kashmiri police charged me with seditious actions. And the editor of the paper that published the article on the graves unfortunately lost his job in all of this mess.
Was that Greater Kashmir?
It was Etalaat, the Urdu paper. And this was the English version of it. It came out in both English and Urdu, and I published in English. The editor was Zahir Ud-Din who is also one of the conveners of the tribunal. And Parvez Imroz had a grenade thrown at his home. Khurram Parvez has been sort of relentlessly surveilled. And every time I go to India I have been detained at immigration.
These are all conveners of the International People’s Tribunal.
Yes. Khurram Parvez is its liaison. And then Gautam Navlakha, another convener and noted intellectual in Delhi, was barred from entering Kashmir earlier in 2011. He was allowed to go just recently again. I testified at the European parliament, the Subcommittee on Human Rights, in July of 2008. This is well before Buried Evidence, when we had preliminary investigations. They passed a resolution which made the Indian government livid. Then we had a motion introduced in the British parliament. We’ve had newspapers from The New York Times to The Guardian to papers in Africa, the Middle East, and in East Asia to almost every major paper in India, carry it. It’s been quite amazing. I think it bears testimony to the fact that maybe the world still can be disturbed.
Any official response from Washington or from the United Nations?
Then there is the United States. I want to talk briefly about that. I sent it to congresspersons, senators, and others. I addressed the all-party parliamentary group on Kashmir in the British parliament, and it was quite interesting to have people be completely unaware, and they were interested. And about 30 of them wrote a letter to President Obama when he came, citing this report, asking for a response. They didn’t get anything. As I said, I had sent in the report to Congress and various other agencies. Informally we’ve been told this is horrifying.
But one of the problematic things in the United States is that diasporic Hindu nationalist groups have quite a stronghold on Capitol Hill. Their rationale always is that to criticize India is anti-national and to criticize India is racist. As well, they have funded the coffers of congresspersons and senators. And the lobby, the right-wing Indian or Hindutwa, I would even say, Hindu nationalist lobby, on Capitol Hill is quite strong. That’s posed a problem in terms of getting attention to this.
The other problem is also the priorities of the U.S. When President Obama went to India in November 2010, I actually went there, because friends in Kashmir thought that we should get together, coalitions of civil society, and pass a resolution asking him to pay attention to this. We were told that the “K” word—like the “N” word in the United States, Kashmir is the “K” word—that his press corps had sort of been told, Please don’t bring it up. The same with David Cameron when he went there, the British prime minister.
When President Obama was visiting India, I went there. I arrived on the 1st November, morning. And my life partner, Richard Shapiro, who is an American academic, was denied entry. He’s been to India with me, maybe over 30 times since 1997, since we’ve been together. He had to return to the U.S. And you had that happen to you this past September. I went on to Kashmir and we wrote a memorandum and issued it. But there was absolutely no response from anyone in the Obama administration. And we know that the memo reached the right places.
Because the whole premise was that he had gone there to beg for jobs, and he had gone there to merge U.S. capital and Indian capital, the new nexus between what is being trumpeted as the world’s two largest democracies coming together. But the coming together is not on the salient points of democracies. The coming together is precisely to undermine the kind of dissidence, the kind of disobedience, the kind of attentiveness to human rights abuses that democracies should pay attention to. So I also think it’s the priorities of the Bush administration and, sadly, the Obama administration that have led to the Kashmir issue not getting any attention.
What about UN response?
Various UN special rapporteurs have taken this up. I was invited last year to speak to the UN on a couple of occasions during their meetings. They have raised Buried Evidence. They’ve also raised security concerns of members of the tribunal. But they’ve raised Buried Evidence with the government of India in letters of allegation and received no responses.
Obama’s hesitancy to talk about Kashmir was perhaps best revealed when he appointed Richard Holbrook as his special envoy to South Asia. Initially, Kashmir was part of his portfolio, but because of pressure from New Delhi, it was quickly removed. Do you have any information on that?
I’ve spoken with some people here who are connected in the State Department and in think tanks. Initially, you are right, Kashmir was going to be part of the portfolio. And Kashmir was going to be part of the portfolio not simply because peace between India, Pakistan, and Kashmir was a primary point, but also because of concerns between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Obama administration—this is what I assume—had understood that Kashmir was quite integral to security concerns in South Asia. What I’ve been given to understand from various conversations I’ve had is that the Indian state was quite livid and had brought to bear various forms of pressure, which led to Richard Holbrook’s portfolio being reorganized and Kashmir subsequently not being a part of it.
Washington also sees India as a new market, with its burgeoning middle class that Thomas Friedman never tires of praising, but also as a destination for weapons sales.
Not just weapons sales as in hard-core weapons but also software collaborations in terms of militarization. The Indian middle classes, who constitute a fraction of the over 1 billion people there. 760 million people live in poverty. Basic rights are denied. Incalculable gendered and sexualized violence are rampant across India. Forty-four million Adivasis, tribal peoples, have been displaced since 1947 in India. In central India, Maoists, who are designated as the latest national threat, there are people there struggling for land rights, since 1955. Maybe today we’re paying attention to them, but they’ve been struggling since 1955.
All of that remains forgotten or jettisoned or invisibilized as we talk about collaboration between the elite of the U.S., who, ironically, through these collaborations take jobs away from the U.S. in ways that are quite problematic, and jobs that are given to people in the global South for wages that are minimal. And we saw, for example, the Bhopal tragedy, where you saw no standards being applied and you saw after the event no accountability. So you’re taking away jobs from the U.S., where corporations were forced to give people minimum standards, etc., to the global South, without any standards. So it’s furthering that level of irresponsible corporatization as well. You are absolutely right that that is on the agenda. It is also on the agenda, I would say, not to stabilize the economy but for short-term electoral gains, both in terms of India and the U.S.
Bhopal being the site of the December 1984 Union Carbide chemical plant which exploded and resulted in the deaths of many thousands of people in that central Indian city.
There are rebellions in various parts of India. What is unique about the Kashmiri revolt, which began more than two decades ago?
And the Kashmiri struggle, which began in 1931. I want to start just referring to a point you had made earlier about militarization. Between 2002 and 2008, India procured $5 billion worth of arms from the Israeli state, supposedly to combat Islamic insurgents in India. This is in relation to Kashmir. This is in a country where 38% of the world’s poor reside.
What is unique about Kashmir is that the resistance refuses to die. What is unique about Kashmir is that, both historically and in the present, Kashmiris are understood as a people to be seditious for not conforming to India’s demands that they assimilate. And if they don’t assimilate, there is the other option of annihilation. Over 70,000 people have died in Kashmir since 1990. It is unique because the struggle refuses to die. We saw, for example, from 1990 to between 2004 and 2007 there was an armed struggle there. While various people and the Indian state understood that to be a terrorist insurgent campaign against the Indian state, many people understood that to be part of a freedom struggle. Violence is always problematic—when used and how used and what it produces in continued cycles of violence. As well, I think the Indian state needs to bear responsibility for what ensued in Kashmir in terms of the armed struggle.
Then the armed struggle abated between 2004 and 2007, and we saw this phase of unbelievable nonviolent dissent, where we could no longer say, You’ve gone across the border to train and get arms, where you could no longer say that it’s Pakistan that is mobilizing. In Pakistan look at its internal crisis, look at the wretchedness of the elite and what’s going on there. So you could no longer say that Pakistan is influencing your desire for this struggle.
And you had in 2008, 2009, 2010 over and over and over again people repeatedly take to the streets, hundreds of thousands of people, with the rallying cry of “Azadi.” “Freedom.” What is unique is people’s refusal to be incorporated into something that is dominant where they have to forget what their dreams are. I’ve talked to so many of these people, people who identify as stone pelters, for example. I’ve asked them, “You’re pelting stones. It’s hurting things. It’s clearly not the way to go. What are you doing? What do you think?” They have said, “When the state leaves us with no other forms of dissent, when we speak and no one hears us, in fact, they cut out our tongues, figuratively, it leads to a context where we feel suffocated. And, yes, we’ve taken up stones.” And they themselves have said, “Yes, it’s not right to be pelting stones. We would like not to be pelting stones. But for us to stop pelting stones, the guns have to not be pointed at our faces. We will stop pelting stones. Take the guns away.”
This resistance has been quite intense, led by youth spontaneously across Kashmir, who have grown up only witnessing militarization. In fact, they’ve told me that sometimes they’ve gone to places in India, or even to Jammu, and they’ve said, “Oh, my God, why does it look so different? I don’t recognize it. Where is the army? How am I supposed to feel?” So it’s a generation of youth that have only grown up knowing the military—barbed wire, bullet holes, the incessant sort of paraphernalia of militarization that organizes their very lives. I asked them, “So what would it mean, freedom?” They said, “We don’t know, but we know it’s not this.”
I think just that. They know it’s not what the present conditions of their lives are. they know it something different. But that moment of respite in a conflict, where it’s not resolved but it’s ceased, where people can stop to deliberate what the future means. You need to breathe. Kashmir is an internment camp. You can’t in an internment camp imagine what it can mean to be free. That respite I think is what this struggle is for.
Parvaiz Bukhari, an independent Kashmiri journalist, compared Kashmir to a jail. Khurram Parvez, who worked on Buried Evidence and is the chair of the Coalition of Civil Society, has commented on the sectarian nature of the occupation forces in Kashmir. I saw this for myself on my trips to Kashmir. You see images of Hindu gods and temples. These are at army checkpoints and camps. You see Hindu religious slogans such as “Jai Bhavani.” India officially is a secular country. Nevertheless, its military forces in Kashmir have also introduced this sectarian component. That must grate on Kashmiris. Obviously, the occupation, but just having that in their faces all the time must be very annoying, to say the least.
The slogan of the Central Reserve Police Force, the paramilitary wing of the Indian armed forces, is about India as a nation state, Mother India, “Hail to Mother India” sort of thing. It’s quite intense. The Indian military and paramilitary in Kashmir are prevalently aligned with Hindu majoritiarian, Hindu nationalist ideological interests. The Indian armed forces in Kashmir have openly collaborated with Hindu nationalist groups.
For example, in development enterprises there’s this thing called Operation Sadbhavana. It’s a campaign that was started in the late 1990s that allowed for military encroachment through development into civil society matters. They set up these things called the village defense committees. These village defense committees were constituted in Jammu as civilian self-defense militias against infiltrations that were sanctioned by the security forces. And who were chosen? Men of Hindu and Sikh descent and, as they said, some “trustworthy” Muslims. So the agenda, I think, of the army has been both to sort of nationalize—and by nationalize I mean Hindu nationalize—the terrain there, as well as, I think, to assist the collaborator class in Kashmir in maintaining their freedoms, their properties, and furthering their privilege, so to speak, with which to undermine the grass-roots-based movement.
Clearly, Kashmir has an outsized space in the Hindu nationalist imagination. It’s referred to as atut ang, an integral part of India, a limb that cannot be separated. This again gives it a special characteristic that isn’t apparent when the Indian state is dealing with rebellions in Jharkhand, Manipur, Nagaland or Orissa.
Two things I want to say about this. When I was working in Orissa on Hindu nationalism documenting things there, this was during the Amarnath struggle in 2008. In Orissa there were people saying, “We are going to send solidarity and bricks and money to Kashmir.” These are village people in Orissa, Hindu nationalist cadres. I talked to some people and I said, “Why? What does Kashmir mean to you? Do you know where Kashmir is? Have you seen a map? Have you been there? Do you know what it is?” “No, no, no.” So I said then, “So why? Why take away from what you need to do here to organize the Hindu Indian state,” as they identified it? “Why do you not do this? Instead you are focusing on Kashmir.” And they said, “Oh, but you do not understand. Kashmir is the head of India. It is figuratively the head, it is symbolically the head. It is integral. How can we have India if its head is cut off. So therefore we have to mobilize.” So you have the whole nation, so to speak, mobilize in order to support this nationalism; that the Indian forces are in Kashmir not subjugating people but protecting the nation. That is quite intense.
In your essay “The Militarized Zone” in the book Kashmir The Case for Freedom, you write about a Kashmiri boy named Bebaak, who is 19 years old. What did you learn from him?
That was an incredibly evocative encounter. Bebaak means outspoken in Urdu. He calls himself that because he says, “I need to speak, I need to not be silenced.” And I want to tell you just a fragment of what he said to me. This was on 9 January 2011. He said, “The police said I would be arrested unless I stopped going to rallies. Then the police filed a First Information Report against me because I protest. What are the charges? That I refuse subjugation?” Just that. And then he was beaten in custody violently, he was denied medical treatment. Others around him were waterboarded, some were threatened with sodomy, their clothes were taken off. They were also verbally abused. They were told, “Your race is deranged, you are criminals, your mother is a whore, your sister will be raped by your people, who are crazed. You will never see azadi.”
Bebaak asked to talk to me. So he let a friend know that “I would like to talk and tell my story.” We sit in a little room, and Bebaak actually starts by reading me a poem that he’s written. This is heartbreaking. He starts by saying, “Thank you for your solidarity.” I’m taken aback. I ask, “Why?” He said, “I think that the graves that you have documented are the cement, the foundation of not forgetting on which I’m laying my story.” I thought that was really beautiful.
I asked him various questions about what it means to grow up in Kashmir as a 19-year-old right now. He said that if he didn’t participate in principled civil disobedience, he would take up arms. He said he needs an outlet, youth need an outlet. They feel this rage and injustice that they are living with. Where you walk through the streets and see windows of homes broken. They put up bars. They stopped putting in glass because it just gets broken over and over again. School days. Sometimes half the school year is lost because the schools are closed. When students enter their schools or colleges, they are frisked. When they go to India they can be picked up on any charges simply because they happen to be Kashmiri.
Just this notion of being the Other, being disobedient, being something that is not all right to be. How do you live with this? I cannot imagine it. Can you? So I asked Bebaak, “How do you live with this?” He said, “This is it, sister. To live with it, we have to find ways of articulating our pain. And the articulation of our pain is our resistance. That’s why we take to the streets. We don’t take to the streets to make trouble for the army, we don’t take to the streets to break things, we don’t take to the streets so businesses have to shut down. We take to the streets because we need to give voice to our pain. Just that. Because if we didn’t, we would be crazier than we already are.”
That’s another thing that connects to what you asked me earlier about why Kashmir is unique. Kashmir is also unique because everywhere else in India where there has been this kind of subjugation, in central India, in the Naramada Valley, or in the northeast or in south India, before in east India, in Gujarat, there isn’t the sense that the people who are being subjugated are not one’s own. But in Kashmir the relationship between the state and its forces and Kashmiris fundamentally is one where the state understands Kashmiris to not be their own people. That’s another incredible difference. And at the same time they are punished for saying, “Yes, we are not your people. We are not of you.” So that the premise of subjugation is they are not our people. Their articulation that they are not our people is precisely what earns them punishment.
The intersection of memory, as you’ve documented in Buried Evidence and what you’ve been talking about today, evokes the quote from Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of humankind against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
History, truth, and memory are volatile topographies in Kashmir. History, truth, and memory. The tribunal’s work, what we’ve tried to do in very small ways is to function as a truth commission, to look into the spaces that have been distorted through the maneuvering of truth and to collect these stories to undo the fiction of what official history has become, to put forward a different history that is a counter memory of a people.
What’s happening internal to the Kashmiri resistance when it morphs from armed resistance to nonviolence? You said around mid-2005-2006 the struggle becomes nonviolent. And then you have this incredible demonstration at the Eidgah right outside of Srinagar, the capital, of almost a million people. There was a Tahrir Square before Tahrir Square. And nobody heard about it here. It literally went under the radar. Why did that go under the radar? And what was the evolution moving from armed resistance to nonviolent civil disobedience?
There are a couple of things. One is, just to comment on the internal situation in Kashmir, I think it’s incredibly fragmented. And I think that one of the reasons we saw the summer of 2011 be quiet, that people did not take to the streets, was this: the profusion of courage which in 2008, 2009, and 2010 saw people taking to the streets led nowhere. The leadership has not utilized what the youth and civil society, women and men of Kashmir, boys and girls of Kashmir have given the Kashmiri leadership. The leadership was unable to utilize it. A coterie of powerful, privileged people in Srinagar control a lot, especially in terms of the relations between Kashmiris and the government of India. Kashmiris feel betrayed by them. And I think as well in terms of the theocracy in Kashmir, their inability to reach out to youth and to use—it’s been political. Their decisions have become political rather than being ethical in terms of what is in the best interest of their own people. That’s been quite intense to witness in Kashmir.
You saw the transition from armed struggle to civil disobedience had, I think, at its root this new body of civil society leadership, youth leadership, of people wanting to be principled in relation to their dissent, of people being frayed and fatigued by what had gone on, of people also looking to make atonement within their own communities, between their own communities and themselves. And you saw a different commitment emerge, saying armed resistance was necessary for us to be taken seriously, but now we are in a different phase where we want nonviolence to be at the center of it. And various people that are actually extremely critical of violence, that want nonviolence to be the way in which they approach their resolution. You saw all of that happen. You saw mosques, for example, be used historically to store grains and then in modern times, as you said, in the Eidgah, for spaces of dissent, for spaces of people coming together to think. But at the same time, there are class and ideological divisions in society and the capitulation of privileged classes to the government of India. The Indian state is concerned with creating a collaborator class, creating a coterie that act in its interest, that’s been quite intense for the movement to contend with. Again, when I say “the movement,” there isn’t a coherent singular movement; it’s various fragments struggling to think together.
There’s one more thing. There’s also the role of neoliberal capital. If you recall, in Srinagar, the shops, even malls that are coming up, there is the understanding that through integrating development into the lives of the people, we can bypass sort of people being in the streets to what the future needs to be and we can bypass the tougher questions through perhaps an infusion of capital and the market economy in Kashmir.
Why was there no attention paid to that huge nonviolent demonstration at the Eidgah in the international press?
Two things. I think a crisis in the international press is sort of the soup of the day: Are you in, are you out? And maybe you’re not in today. But I also think part of the reason that it was not taken seriously is because the Kashmir issue is still one between India and Pakistan. For India and international imagery it is something between India and Pakistan; it’s not something where the Kashmiri people really figure. The Kashmiri people figure when something sensational happens. And when something sensational happens, that, ironically, conforms to the stereotype in the international imagery. And thanks to Islamophobia, that stereotype post 9/11 is of Muslims being violent. So there are various things that happen that are nonviolent that are principled that are profuse and beautiful in Kashmir that escape attention in the international press.
Do you see any parallel between the way the Indian state responds to any criticism about Kashmir and the way China responds to any criticism about Tibet?
Indeed. And there’s another parallel which makes me reflective, as I think about it. Look what happened in Tibet. In Tibet today the majority are not Tibetans. The ways in which dissent was silenced, the ways in which people were assimilated, those tactics are also being deployed by the Indian state vis-à-vis Kashmir.
One of the central tropes of the Indian state’s justification for its actions and ongoing occupation in Kashmir is the plight of the Hindu Pandits, that is to say, the indigenous Hindu community in Kashmir, which numbered in the several hundred thousands. How has that evolved, and how has the Indian government been so successful in using that as a kind of cudgel to silence dissent about Kashmir?
Kashmiri Pandits and various minority groups in Kashmir, a lot of them have been displaced, over 200,000 people. And Kashmiri Pandits of Kashmiri descent, between 209 and I think a very high figure of about 765 have been killed. I’ve spoken to many Kashmiri Pandits who are group civil society leaders there who are actually working in collaboration with their Muslim counterparts for a peaceful conflict resolution in Kashmir. One of the things that I’ve understood through talking to them is that the Indian state has precisely attempted also to nationalize Kashmiri Pandits who understand themselves to be Kashmiris far before they understand themselves to be anything else, and to use that to divide them in relation to Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Muslim demand for self-determination as precisely a strategy to have religion remain central to this issue.
You have in Delhi and, actually, in the diaspora, in the U.S., problematic and irresponsible groups around the Kashmiri Pandit issue talk about this, where the facts are extremely distorted, where what has happened is extremely distorted, where the response of the Indian state is actually not acknowledged in terms of what the Indian state has done vis-à-vis Kashmiri Pandits, and where the voices of Kashmiri Pandit leaders and scholars, were actually pointing to this issue, that, “Look, don’t divide us from Kashmiri Muslims. We need to live here. We want to live here. We haven’t left.” One of the things these leaders keep telling me, and scholars, Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir, is, “Why is it that people don’t ask us what we think? You’re always asking the Pandits who have left, who are perhaps aligned with the Indian state. Ask us what we think and what is necessary to move forward and how bridging the divide between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits is critical to this issue.
Given the level of opposition to Indian rule in Kashmir, what keeps the Indian state there? Obviously, there’s a huge price to pay in this occupation force. Is it water resources? Is it hydroelectric power? Or is it just the idea, as you suggest in your essay, that “Kashmir represents India’s coming of age as a power”?
I think all of those things. India’s coming of age as a power is also its ability to prove itself militaristically. That’s how colonial powers functioned, right? And the post-colony, sadly, has been too quick to emulate the colonizer. I think that it’s certainly geostrategic. There’s China, there’s Pakistan, there’s Kashmir. Kashmir is the buffer between New Delhi and China and Pakistan and Afghanistan. So geostrategically it is a very important location. Ecologically and in terms of economic resources and water resources, we are well aware that one of the crises, or wars, if you will, of the 21st century will be around water, water wars. The Siachen Glacier and controlling it is extremely important to India’s national interest. Then there is also sort of revisionist history and the nationalism of Kashmir being central as the figurehead or the headspring of India, that it needs to control it. So I think it’s geostrategic, and therefore political, it’s militaristic, it’s economic, and it’s nationalistic.
What about the other components of the state, Jammu, which is Hindu majority, and Ladakh, which is Buddhist?
There has been some conversation about civil society leaders from Kashmir wanting to approach people in Jammu and people in Ladakh—especially in Ladakh, where it’s been quite problematically vitiated, the relationship between Buddhists in Ladakh—and Muslims in Kashmir to make amends, to restore, to heal, to sit together, to think together. I think the undertaking of that will be extremely important to the future of Kashmir. I also think that Jammu is a hotbed of Hindu nationalism. Historically it has been and continues to be. Jammu, therefore, is quite complicated in terms of its own relation to Kashmir, its own relation to the nation. Ladakh is different, Ladakh and Kashmir and their relationship. Jammu and Kashmir and their relationship. They are very much influenced by the histories that these places have lived and therefore the ideological movements that today occupy them.
In your essay “The Militarized Zone,” you write, “A culture of grief hangs like a shroud over Kashmir.” What is it like to live in a place where you’re under constant surveillance or you face the threat of being stopped, of being searched? Just even the possibility of that must exact a huge psychological toll on the population. You’ve been in and out of Kashmir multiple times doing your research. What is it like there for the people living in that situation?
I’ve been there 16 times since July of 2006. One of the things that comes to my mind—and this is a somewhat visual image—is a limestone wall. If you run your fingers through it, you know how the limestone gets in between your nails and you can’t get it out? It’s like that. In between your nails, under your skin. Grief, suffocation, claustrophobia, and a certain amazing beauty and pride and richness of culture on the one hand, and the futility, just supposed futility when I talk to people. “How do you remain here, and what is it like?” Before I even say what they say, just to go in and out of it is hard, just to go in and out of it. What it has done to my own life is hard. I cannot imagine what it is for Atta Mohammad. I cannot imagine what it is for my colleagues. I think the best solidarity as a citizen of India, someone of Hindu descent, that I can offer them is to not forget. I cannot forget. What they tell me is that that limestone under your nails, how you live with it is by playing with it, by taking it seriously, by not giving up on it, by not pretending it isn’t there. Because one of the things we tend to do when we’re traumatized is either only live in the trauma or pretend that the trauma isn’t there—not to actually befriend the trauma. And to befriend the trauma requires seasoned, multiple ways of addressing what your life is.
But to address what your life is requires that you address the saturation of Kashmiri society, polity, economy, environment, psyche with the reality of militarized governance. That I think is what my friends and the people that I have collected testimonies from, hundreds and hundreds of them, tell me. They tell me that every other home in Kashmir has a history of suffering. Every other square is witness to sacrifice, to rape, to torture, to death, to enforced disappearances and suppression as weapons of war. Within that, how you choose to live is the decision you take that keeps you somewhere in between the livable and the unbearable.
Does the resistance in Kashmir constitute a flat-out independence movement?
No. It’s complicated. Because there are some people, when I ask them “What does self-determination mean? What is it?” they say, “We don’t know. We know it’s not this. We don’t know what it is.” Then there’s the belief that Kashmir either has to stay with Pakistan or India. That’s only in the self-interest of Pakistan and India. That’s not what a majority of Kashmiris believe. There’s a vast number of Kashmiris who believe that self-determination will mean independence from both—to be a third alternative, something different. There are various others who are equally skeptical of any notion of a state. They say, “If we have is a state, we’re going to be like every other state and we’re going to be abusive and horrible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a state. But we have to be aware of it as we think about the future.” There are those that think that heightened autonomy is the maximum that people can achieve and what that will look like. They are quite disgusted that that has never been any part of any of the conflict resolution or peace talks with New Delhi. But largely on the streets “Azadi!” is freedom: it is not to be subjugated by the Indian military, by the Indian state. And it is freedom from that to determine a future, the space to determine a future. But is everyone reconciled on that matter? Absolutely not. How could they be?
Is the Kashmiri demand for self-determination unambiguous?
Do the Kashmiris have a right to self-determination?
I think everybody, every people has the right to self-determination. That is how it is defined by the international community. Every people has the right to self-determination.
What would constitute, in your view, justice or, if I can even use the plural, justices for the Kashmiris?
I think justice—and I like that you brought it up, because justice is arduous, justice is complicated, justice is not easy, justice is not rhetorical—justice would have to be variegated, have to be in so many different layers and levels. Justice would mean atonement and reparation for communities, not just for individuals who have suffered, a family where a son has been disappeared or a daughter has been raped. Not just for them, what restitution means for that individual family, but for the community that has lived with that. There are villages where 15%, 20%, 30% of its people have been tortured. What does it mean, reparation? What is psychosocial healing? What are the parameters of psychosocial healing? What does it mean that the Kashmir police, that have brutalized their own people—and Kashmir police, most of them are from Kashmir; they’re Kashmiri Muslims as well—what does it mean to live with them under relationships that would be differently constituted? What would that work of alliance building, healing, confrontation of actually truth and reconciliation through justice—not truth and reconciliation where there is a confessional moment and we forgive but where actually atonement happens—what would that look like? That is the sort of daily, day-to-day addressing of 20 years of repression.
Then there is the issue of the graves. How are they protected? We’re extremely concerned that if they are not protected, all the evidence that lies within them still buried will go. So what does it mean to have these graves in Kashmir? What does that justice look like? What does it look like in terms of documenting them, in terms of writing about them, in terms of finding the families, in terms of doing that work seriously? We’re talking about decades of work. We’re not talking about tomorrow, today, yesterday, one day, one year’s worth of work.
Then there is the economic disenfranchisement of people’s whose lands have been occupied. So much of land is occupied by the Indian military and paramilitary there, hundreds and thousands of kanals of land that have been occupied there. What does it mean for people? Not the owners of the apple orchards, who sometimes have been able to work out some compromise with the army so that they can actually get some money. But what about the people who are working there? What about the small farmers who had little plots of land that have been taken away, or even if they haven’t been taken away, they are no longer free to actually work them? What about people who have to give up their water resources because the army has demanded that? What does that reparation look like?
What about a decade of people who haven’t been able to go to the school every day, with the freedom to learn? Have you looked at syllabi at Kashmir University? They’re not allowed to work on some of these issues. The syllabi are, for the large part, outdated. They don’t have the right books with which to think about the future. What would that reparation look like? What would the undoing of that absence of freedom look like?
Then there is the political issue of the future of the place. What does that look like in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Jammu, and in between all of them and then vis-à-vis New Delhi or Islamabad?
A kanal is a parcel of land. How big is it?
Eight kanals is one acre.
In most militarized zones women are particular targets, gender violence is particularly acute. Is Kashmir any different?
May I refer to the earlier point for a second? There are 671 security camps located on 1,054,721 canals of land. And the structure of this militarization, gender is the violence. The placement of the camps is right next to villages. In the village, if you want to go from your home to go shopping, you have to go through them. This creates regularized, forced encounters between women and the military and the paramilitary, which leads to a context, obviously, of increased risk for gendered and sexualized violences.
In Kashmir there is this sad category of people, half-widows, whose husbands are missing. They are maltreated. You have a society where so many aspects of it, as in all over South Asia, are patriarchal. And you have men—largely it is men that have died—absent from these households. So you have women in vulnerable positions, to have to head their households under circumstances that both socially, but particularly militaristically, are extremely problematic.
You have seen rapes. In May of 2009, in Shopian, before Buried Evidence came out, Asiya Jan and Neelofar Jan were raped. I went there during curfew with two colleagues to sit and talk to the family, the 2-year-old son and the man whose sister and wife had been raped and then murdered. The military was culpable. And the entire investigation focused on covering up what actually happened. It was not about securing justice or arresting the perpetrators, but it was simply about scuttling the blame. That’s it. That’s all it did. In 1991 in Kunan Poshpora between 23 and 100 women—we will never know for certain the actual number—were raped. In 1997 seven women were raped in Wavoosa.
The other thing that has been extremely intense is the psychological health of these communities. Children going to school, young women going to colleges who have told me they stopped going. I asked them why, and they said every day they are frisked by the army. And it borders from being sexually violent to being extremely unpleasant at its mildest. They’ve just elected not to go. So the condition in which women are forced to live and what it does to them, the incalculable sexualized and gendered violence and the use of violence against women to control a culture. This has happened before as well in various conflicts we have seen across the world. We’ve seen that in Srebrenica, we’ve seen it in Israel and Palestine, we’ve seen it in Ireland, where women become the cultural signifiers on whose bodies violence is perpetrated.
Arundhati Roy told me to imagine the situation of a woman who has lost her husband or a father or a son or a brother, going and inquiring to state officials, to these army camps, to these watchtowers and interrogation centers as to where is their loved one, and the kind of vulnerability they face.
Yes, yes, absolutely. To give you an example that is different, after the grenade was thrown in Parvez Imroz’s home, we wanted to file a First Information Report with the police. We consider ourselves to be fairly well-known, we consider ourselves to be taken seriously. So we showed up at the police station, and we could not get that to be filed. After Richard was banned from India, I went to inquire into what actually did he do, what are they charging him with? I have not been successful. We are people with resources, with connections, with abilities, with far less fear than a Kashmiri woman struggling in Kashmir. And we have not been successful.
So imagine being alone. There is this woman who texts me from time to time. She will say, “Remember, I am” this. She doesn’t introduce herself by name but rather by the name of the case of her family members that are missing. She says, “That’s who I’ve become. I’ve gone everywhere, to every place, to everyone who will listen to me and not listen to me. And then when I take my children with me, they are at risk, because now they will not get jobs, they will not get scholarships, something will be done to them. If my family is seen with me, supporting me, something might happen to them.” So it’s not simply that they need to have the courage to go and pursue their particular case. Every time they do, they are actually rendering themselves more and more vulnerable.
A woman said to me, really beautifully—she’s a mother and her son was disappeared—that “The rivers of Kashmir and across its lands are the graveyards of our dead.” She said her role as a mother, as a woman, as a Kashmiri woman, has been simply, as she wanders the streets of Kashmir looking for justice, to look through the graveyards to find the bodies and not forget them and not give up on them.
If people want to learn more about Kashmir, what would you suggest?
A lot of things. I think to read newspaper accounts, to read Kashmiri papers, to read Kashmiri journalists and writers, to look at human rights organizations. And also, to start with, Buried Evidence would be good to read. We have a website of the tribunal. It’s kashmirprocess.org. To go there, to start looking and to connect to organizations that are working on Kashmir. To write in. Even in the United States, to write in to senators and congresspersons as citizens to say, “This is going on. The U.S. is implicated. What are we doing about it?” That’s a start.
Part of what is most palpable to Kashmiris is how isolated they are. How their issue is not an issue. Seventy thousand dead, 671,000 military and paramilitary, clubbed endlessly as the most dangerous place on earth. But where are they in the imagination of the world? And I think for Americans to lend solidarity, to remember what’s going on. Students on college campuses, hold an event. Invite someone to come and educate you on what’s going on in Kashmir. Write to Kashmiris. Befriend them on Facebook. Facebook resistance has been big, by the way. People who have been working on Facebook, these youth, to get out information, have been termed cyber terrorists. Befriend them. Show solidarity. Show alliance.