Demystifying Kashmir

STANFORD: “This may be charged, it may be difficult; this is a controversial and emotional issue for many people, but our intention is to have a civil discussion. I hope you will all approach it with that amount of civility,” said Thomas Blom Hansen, Director of the Center for South Asia as he opened a two-day symposium that attempted to demystify the most militarised place in the world; “Grounding Kashmir” brought South Asian scholars from around the globe to Stanford University.

“Our aim is to go beyond the narrow confines of (Indian and Pakistani) nationalistic discourse,” said Nosheen Ali one of the organisers of the event. “There is a physical line of control, but there is also an intellectual line of control.”

The panel of speakers was dominated by Indian academics, who collectively portrayed a scathing critique of “fraudulent uneasy peace,” “humanitarianism used to subjugate,” and, “heavy militarisation” by the Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir.

Author of Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir, Dr. Mridu Rai’s paper on “Folding Kashmir into Indian Imagination” attempted to take on the prevalence of “one narrative” in Indian society, a narrative dominated by the state line. Rai argued, “Kashmir should not be claimed through maps.”

Pakistani Historian Ayesha Jalal also echoed Rai’s assertion. “It is not about religion, it has been made about religion by Pakistan and India.” Dr Jalal, who is currently a visiting professor at Tufts University, outlined her fascinating research that traces back the Kashmir and Punjab nexus, from 1931 to present-day. She showed how opinions have transformed in Punjab from wanting Kashmir to be a part of Pakistan, to wanting Kashmiris to decide their own fate.

Ironically, tensions that were foreseen in the opening speech did not breakout between Pakistanis and Indians on the stage or in the crowd, but between members of the audience from the Hindu-Pundit Diaspora who seemed very upset by the work of the speakers. After Dr. Suvir Kaul, from the University of Pennsylvania, finished answering a question about his paper– which outlined what he called, “fraudulent, uneasy peace” and how the Indian state continues to colonise the Kashmiri people – one man shouted from the back, “300 rupees they pay those boys to throw stones.” The speakers were accused of being “separatists” and under-representing the cause of the Hindu-Pundits. “I myself am a Pundit!” replied Kaul. “You want a tolerant India, I want a tolerant India; a search for that tolerant Indian space will begin and end in Kashmir”

The temperature of the room cooled down when Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer took centre stage. “By acknowledging people’s pain, we are not erasing our own pain, we are not competing here; human tragedy can co-exist. Everyone’s pain should be acknowledged.” Peer read haunting tales of anguish and torture from his book, Curfewed Nights, a front-line account of life and love in war-torn Kashmir.

In the Q and A, Peer spoke about two specific laws that the Kashmiri people were trying to overturn, both laws enabled Indian soldiers and policemen to operate with impunity in their region. “Last summer, Sameer Rah, an eight-year-old protestor was beaten to death by Indian soldiers.” Peer argued that Rah could not get justice under the current laws in the region.

“This summers’ protests was completely a youth movement,” said Peer talking about the intifada-style demonstrations that left over a hundred unarmed protesters dead. “The Hurriyat is doing nothing. The biggest mistake the Indian government made was that they set up the Hurriyat, then they knocked them down.”

Filmmaker Sanjay Kak showed us a rare documented glimpse into the life of the Kashmiri people, in Jashn-e-Azadi- How we celebrate Freedom.

“For someone who really follows events in Kashmir I was shocked at what I saw when I went there,” said Kak whose family once lived in Srinagar. “A personal humiliation got me started on this film, how ignorant, how ridiculous I felt.”

Jashn-e-Azadi starts with the camera taking the audience to Dal Lake in Srinagar; from the point of view of someone sitting on a boat you see iconic shots of the misty Kashmir valley artistically interspersed with a montage of war images.

“Any conversation about Kashmir is about Pakistan, Islamic Jihad and Pundits,” said the Indian filmmaker. But Jashn-e-Azadi jumped over these charged topics and went straight into what it is like for the Kashmiri people to be living under the barrel of a gun for the last two decades. Kak takes us to the “Martyrs Graveyard,” where hundreds of local fighters are buried; and to a village where a local theatre group put up a colourful play depicting how foreign forces have subjugated the Kashmiri people for centuries. Kak also showed how throughout the violence in the valley, the Indian state continues to promote the area as the ultimate tourism destination, building hotels and an extravagant golf course. Jashn-e-Azadi was released in 2007 and Kak has shown the film across India and at some international Film Festivals; he also hopes to show it in Pakistan one day.

The conference wrapped with an eloquent young and female panel from both sides of the line of control. Dr Mona Bhan, an anthropologist from Srinagar presented her latest research, which documents how the “Save Dal Lake” campaign around her hometown has become a way to subjugate the local population. Bhan argued that while Indian conservationists target lake dwellers around Dal, evidence suggests most of the pollution comes from the dozens of new hotels that dump their sewage into the lake. “Besides tourism, environmentalism has become a counterinsurgency strategy in Kashmir,” said Dr Bhan who currently teaches at DePauw University in Indiana, “in fact the US is looking to India, because it has led the charge in counterinsurgency strategy for years.”

Bhan also talked about some of her earlier post-conflict field work in Kargil, Ladakh. Her study of the trials and tribulations of the Ladakhis, who live on the Indian side of the line of control, was reflected in Dr. Nosheen Ali’s research about the people living on the Pakistani side of the line of control. “It is not grotesque violence, but suspicion that haunts the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.” Ali who received her PhD from Cornell University in Sociology and did her research in Gilgit-Baltistan, argues that the area may be miles away from the Kashmir conflict, but its people live under heavy militarisation and are ruled by the Pakistani state through emotional regulation by producing suspicion and loyalty. “Every third person there is a potential spy,” asserted Ali. “Despite the colonial treatment by the Pakistan state, most people in Gilgit-Baltistan remain intensely patriotic. The region is the only territory in Pakistan that actually fought a war to become part of Pakistan, and hundreds of soldiers from the region have since sacrificed their lives while serving in the Pakistani Army.”

Both Bhan and Ali’s research focused on the affects the conflict has had on the lives of communities within and around the Kashmir valley. As the two read out excerpts from interviews they conducted in Indian and Pakistani Kashmir respectively, it became clear that this very under-studied area desperately needs to be bought to the fore-front, because in the words of Sanjay Kak, “domination does not mean victory.”

Sahar Habib Ghazi blogs at and has been selected as a 2010-2011 Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University.