Interview: Kashmiri historian Hafsa Kanjwal accuses India of memoricide, repression

Mar 27, 2024 | Demographic Engineering

Maktoob Media
Human rights groups and United Nations experts have repeatedly warned against India’s crackdown on the civil liberties of people in Kashmir. The concerns have grown since India removed the special status of the Muslim-majority bordering region and downgraded the state to a Union Territory in 2019.

Even with a very turbulent history, this is the longest-ever period that J&K has gone without assembly elections. Journalists, politicians and human rights advocates are jailed under politically motivated charges, civic groups allege.

A contested region since its annexation to India in 1947, Kashmir was promised the right to self-determination which has become obsolete under Indian administration, says historian Hafsa Kanjwal. The author of “A Fate Written on Matchboxes: State-Building in Kashmir Under India” told Maktoob that India after 2019 is a test case example of how a country can completely subjugate a people to the point of immense self-censorship.

She accused India of memoricide of the Kashmiri cause. Kanjwal, an assistant professor of history at Lafayette College, US, spoke to Maktoob about the present and future of the Kashmiri struggle. Read the excerpts:

What is the root of the Kashmiri cause and what is happening now?

Hafsa Kanjwal: Whenever the Kashmir issue is talked about, it’s discussed as a conflict or territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. The Kashmir struggle has been a freedom or liberation struggle, an anti-colonial resistance, and an anti-monarchical resistance: First against Kashmir’s princely rulers, whom Kashmir was sold to by the Dogras, and then subsequently against the contested accession of Kashmir to India by that very ruler. So I see it as a prolonged liberation struggle.

After the first India-Pakistan war, India took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations and the UN had a resolution at the time. This is when the issue became internationalised. In this context, the liberation struggle came within the framework of international law as a self-determination struggle, whereby Kashmiris were granted the right to determine their future via a plebiscite.

At that time, the only two options in the plebiscite were Pakistan or India. Later on, there were movements within Kashmir calling for complete independence of the Jammu and Kashmir states. But, in many ways, the struggle boils down to the idea that for decades India has been denying Kashmiris the right to determine their future. For decades, Kashmiris have been demanding that right to be fulfilled, whether for the first 40 years of their struggle, seeking largely peaceful means to do so through popular mass mobilizations. And then, of course, in the late 1980s and 1990s, taking on armed resistance.

India has always tried to domesticate what was always an international issue, meaning that something that was one of the leading issues in the United Nations, along with Palestine, turned first into a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan, after the Simla Agreement of 1972. After that, India would always say that this has nothing to do with the international community. It’s only between us and Pakistan. Subsequently, even before the BJP government, that bilateral dispute became completely domesticated as Indian leaders would say that this is an issue of cross-border terrorism and we’ll deal with it in our way as an “internal” law and order issue.

I think the BJP then put that into its most acute form. It has tried to destroy any vestige of dissent or resistance in Kashmir. It’s completely rewriting that entire history, engaging in something that Kashmiri scholars have called memoricide.

Today, to suggest that there is a conflict that there is an occupation or that there is a dispute or that there are human rights violations, even to say that in Kashmir and even outside, has become criminalised.

And of course, with the abrogation of Article 370, it is easier for Indian settlers to move to Kashmir, buy land and property, and change the demographics of this region, which has been a Muslim-majority region.

How do you place the Abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir’s history? Why is it important to have this special status?

HK: The Kashmir cause was not tied to Article 370. Most Kashmiris do see that as a colonial treaty. It entrenched India’s occupation in Kashmir. It provided this farce of autonomy because the Indian government had already figured out ways to move beyond the restricted mandate that Article 370 called for. And so it was already not operational, even though it was there on paper. But what was significant and at stake now is that a related Article 35 had allowed the rights of permanent residency to be restricted to Kashmiri permanent residents.

And so with that designation gone, people and corporations from India are coming in, buying land and mining resources. And it’s also made it easier now with these changes in the land laws for the Indian army to simply just take over the land as well.

So Kashmiri Muslims face an immense dispossession of their land and their resources and the demographic threat now of being made into a minority. And once that happens, then the calls that Kashmiris have been making for all of these decades for self-determination will be rendered obsolete. Because then the Indian government can say, look, this is 55% Hindu now, or 52% Hindu now. Already the Indian government uses those kinds of sinister logic when it comes to Jammu and its population, when it comes to Ladakh and its population. And so this is an attempt to render that movement obsolete completely.

Do you feel that the international community is concerned about what is happening in Kashmir right now? After 2019, there has been a violent crackdown on people, civil society, journalists, activists and politicians.

HK: After 2019, there was some outcry led by the Kashmiri diaspora in different countries in the U.S., the UK, parts of Europe, Australia, and so on. There were protests, and attempts to engage with the media, with different local political powers. But it just became so evident that the Indian state was able to use different means of transnational repression to suppress that movement. Also, it mobilises the Indian diaspora in these countries, many of whom are now increasingly radicalised into more of a Hindutva mindset to lobby their governments, disrupt events, organise their mobilisations and so forth.

So the Kashmiri community is smaller in number and terms of financial resources than the Indian diaspora. As people became vocal and active, their family members in Kashmir were being targeted. The level of repression is such that the Indian state can manage what happens outside by targeting people’s families back home. This makes people very nervous to be active.

There were different human rights organisations like Amnesty International, which represents freedom of the press like the Committee to Protect Journalists and so on, that have issued statements. The UN Special Rapporteurs have issued several statements, especially around the arrests of human rights defenders and the kind of clampdown on the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and other organisations.

This outcry has happened, but it’s not been able to be taken forward. And I think, as we can tell from what’s happening in Gaza today, this thing called the international community in many ways further subjugates occupied peoples instead of doing anything substantial. And that’s because there has to be some sort of political will for India to be held accountable, not just for its actions in Kashmir, but also against Indian Muslim communities.

And there is no real will right now. It doesn’t exist in the West because the West wants to use India as a political and economic bulwark against China. It doesn’t exist in any other parts of the world, including in most Muslim-majority countries that see India as an important economic and trade power. So we are kind of held hostage by the international community and unable to think about ways beyond what we see now with what people are doing for Gaza in terms of popular mobilisations and disruptions. It has been inspirational to see how people have been trying to stop this genocide and that has been on the back of a Palestine solidarity movement which has been active for decades. Nothing like that exists right now for India and so it’s hard to see what exactly can make India accountable.

Indian administration is targeting all forms of stakeholders that try to hold it accountable. Human rights defenders, journalists, and even politicians are jailed without proper trial. Can you explain how it is working and changing the people in Kashmir?

HK: If you want to look at a test case example of how a country can completely subjugate a people to the point of immense self-censorship, you can see India after 2019 and what it’s done in Kashmir.

For many years, popular protests, like actually mobilising on the streets were not allowed or had been criminalised or were shot upon. Young people were hit with pellets. So the online space was where Kashmiris could share their stories, remember what their struggle is about, and talk to each other. Now even these online spaces are almost nonexistent. It’s non-existent because the Indian government has immense surveillance technologies that can figure out or track who you are, even if you’re writing from anonymous accounts. So even anonymous accounts don’t operate because somehow the local police or intelligence can figure out who these young people are.

And to be honest, sometimes someone will share a speech of a Kashmiri freedom leader or a protest and I’ll be shocked. Because in four or five years we have very rarely seen some of those things, sometimes you forget that these used to happen.

So this is an active project, especially for the young generation now that’s growing up that maybe, of course, would not have been there for the nineties, maybe was too young in 2010 to 2016 when there were immense protests and mobilisations. And now this generation– what are they seeing?

They’re seeing all these fundamental changes happening in Kashmir. The fact that there are so many Indian flags everywhere, the fact that there are so many tourists that come in. So their understanding and what they will experience is going to be fundamentally different as well.

Most people feel from what I can understand, a sense of hopelessness and they also feel that given that the people there who had been at the helm of affairs, from a resistance perspective, have either been killed or arrested, where is the leadership that can carry this forward or provide guidance. So in many ways, there is a little bit of that hopelessness.

But again, I try not to be fatalistic because the period that I studied in my book was the 1950s and 1960s. If you were looking at Kashmir from the outside at that time, you would also think that India has managed this. Like this is theirs now, nothing is going to happen.

But right after the period that I studied ended, there were huge protests because of the Holy Relic incident in 1963, and early 1964, which then later also mobilised into protests for self-determination again. And, of course, it only continued in subsequent decades.

So it’s hard to say what will happen, what people will do. But for sure, this is like a period of quiet, perhaps reflection. When there are these structures that are so oppressive, the structures themselves enable some kind of resistance, whether it will happen now, or it will happen five years from now. We don’t necessarily know. But it’s very hard for people to keep up with this level of oppression.

There’s a lot of literature coming out about Kashmir. What do you make of it? Is it the way forward for the Kashmiri struggle?

HK: The fact that even that is being done is a big deal. Because the level of self-censorship is so much so anything that kind of dispels this myth of normalcy or the myth of integration, that the Indian government has been pushing along, I think it is important, whether it is literature, whether it’s music, arts, film, or scholarship.

I didn’t necessarily give it too much importance except in this period because all of that has to be buttressed with actual political mobilisations and sacrifices that people make on the ground as well. But when I think about how Palestinian scholars, artists, writers, etc. have been writing and creating for decades. People are turning to those books and working to understand what has happened in the past 75 years. They’re reading that literature. It’s helping humanise Palestinians. However strange and absurd that sounds.

But that is the work that in some ways provides a narrative. And I think that narrative building is really important. And if that is what Kashmiris can focus on, for now, to counter some of these logics of the Indian state’s narratives, I think that it is good.

There’s such an intense effort right now to situate Kashmir’s history as being exclusively Hindu. This is not to say that it doesn’t have a Hindu history. It’s not to say that texts weren’t written in Sanskrit. But to use that as the official history of a place is quite problematic. And that’s happening in India. It’s important to study that period that is often completely misrepresented and to study the other texts that existed everywhere in circulation, in different languages and to show what else can we learn about Kashmir’s history, that poke at the kinds of narratives about exclusive religious mythologies that that we’re dealing with now.

So all of that work is important because it at least puts a dent into the “credibility” of these right-wing fascist narratives. But much more needs to be done beyond that as well.

For many decades, there have been people who were comparing Zionism with Hindutva, the form of militarisation that has happened in the West Bank. How does that work?

HK: I think what many of us have been trying to argue is that there is or we will more likely see some sort of West Bank-ification of Kashmir with Indian settlers, whether they’re business people, soldiers or families of soldiers now with the Senik colonies that the government is building. Labourers will be moved into settlements being created for them and increased military infrastructure around different settlements.

We already know that India and Israel work together. They closely learn from each other, and they have for decades, not just since Modi. And so there’s a lot of similarities about how they use certain things like religious mythologies, about belonging to a place, how they completely rewrite history, how they are at the helm of fundamentally Islamophobic projects, also how they position themselves as the victims, especially with antisemitism being weaponised and now increasingly Hinduphobia is being weaponised.

So these are all tactics that they have borrowed and learned from each other, both in the regions, but then also in the diaspora where they work closely together as well. India buys the most arms from Israel and a lot of this includes the most up-to-date technology for surveillance and warfare and suppressing these kinds of popular mobilisations.

The death of Geelani, the events that happened in and around his demise. How do you define that episode?

HK: That moment was very difficult for a lot of people for several reasons. One is the way that Geelani himself as well as his family and his loved ones were treated. The fact that he was just buried in the middle of the night, his family members not even able to participate, just the utter humiliation that his body faced. But it is to be expected from the state. But then in addition to that, the fact that there was no outpour of grief, of funeral marches or people coming out into the streets to grieve, to mourn, to protest, etc given the level of repression. I think in some ways, it was the most emblematic incident in these past four to five years about what India has been able to accomplish after 2019, for itself. There were so few people talking about it, that there was no moment to reflect on the person, the leader, the legacy, or any of that.

A lot of people now are worried about Yasin Malik and what’s going to happen to him given the complete impunity that the state has now. He made peace with the Indian government. He made his party put down arms. They were promised a political process that never happened. Now he’s even being further punished.

Just like what happened with Afzal Guru, the Indian government can do these things and just get away with it. But at the time of Guru, there were actual protests. Even in India, there were protests.

So the state is enforcing itself so much that people are kind of frozen and they’re using that to show that things are fine. Like Kashmiris have let go of that mentality or that ideology (for freedom). And so the absence of protests, although there is immense repression, is now being touted as a victory.

These are all different types of psychological warfare that the state plays on people. All of the people who would have organised a protest in their neighbourhoods, they’ve all been arrested or they’re all been threatened or killed. Now the absence of protests is seen as a victory and taken to mean that Kashmiris no longer have that sentiment.

But that’s not the case. Unfortunately, I think more of this will most likely be happening. And so many Kashmiri political prisoners remain in Indian jails and nobody talks about them as well. It’s a long list of different things that are happening that are not getting much attention at all.

Indian Muslims also face severe hostility under the Hindutva regime. Do you think Indian communities are ready to fight alongside the Kashmiri diaspora? Do you see a convergence of these two movements?

HK: On some level, there is a kind of recognition or there has been some mobilisation in the diaspora on anti-Hindutva efforts by Kashmiri Muslims, Indian Muslims and other communities that have been impacted have been involved. But I do think that there is a bit of a disconnect. Because for Kashmir, it’s not just about Hindutva, it’s about India and the idea of India and the Indian state overall, whether it’s the Congress or the BJP in power. In the past, there hasn’t been much solidarity towards the Kashmir issue from Muslim leadership in India.

That has to do with the fact that Muslims have had to prove their loyalty to the Indian state consistently. I’m hoping that Muslims in India can recognize the Kashmir struggle on its terms and not just be restricted to human rights issues or whatnot.

And I do think that people can be in solidarity with each other despite their goals maybe not being the same or the ends that they’re seeking, not being the same. At the same time, though, both groups now face an existential threat as Muslims. And so there has to be a recognition of that and perhaps more of a shared solidarity.

And so it’ll be kind of interesting to see what emerges from further communication and organising and meetings and things like that between the two communities. I don’t think it exists much given this complicated history, but I do think that there is scope for it to be furthered.