Musings on Absence: Planning, Policies, and Conflict in the Indian Administered Kashmir

By Francesca Recchia

Francesca Recchia is an independent researcher and writer based in Afghanistan. She is interested in the geopolitical dimension of cultural processes and in recent years has focused her research on heritage, urban transformations and creative practices in countries in conflict. 

She tweets at @kiccovich

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At the time of Partition between India and Pakistan, in 1947, the whole of Kashmir was divided between the two countries – a decision that has been disputed ever since. Kashmir is the only state in India with a majority Muslim population and its annexation to the country has been an object of contention since the inception. As early as 1947, the Indian Government promised Kashmir a plebiscite that would allow its people to determine their fate. To this day, the plebiscite has not taken place and India has enforced a tight military control over the region in order to preserve the integrity of its national territory – or, allegedly, to protect its people from Islamist insurgents and separatists alike. The infamous Line of Control (LoC) – the 2897-kilometer-long border between India and Pakistan – is tightly monitored to prevent civilian movements and militant infiltrations. Despite the fact that Kashmir is not “technically” a country at war, it is one of the most militarized areas of the world with a ratio of one armed forces personnel to every seventeen civilians – a ratio that is higher than that in both Afghanistan and Iraq at the peak of the US-led invasions. The repercussions of such figures on the ground are admittedly tremendous.

An analysis of the landscape and the built environment can provide important insights into the understanding of such repercussions.

The design of space is neither neutral nor innocent. The State or the military often utilize such an instrument to implement broader political plans. Beyond aesthetics and functionalism, urban planning and space design can be understood as devices for social engineering: they are often adopted as subtle tools to implement the larger scheme of shaping society. In contexts of open conflict, the control over landscape and natural resources, as well as the management of infrastructures, play a fundamental strategic role. The segregation of urban functions and the definition of movement patterns determine access and exclusion, shaping people’s decision-making and patterns of behavior. Continue reading “Musings on Absence: Planning, Policies, and Conflict in the Indian Administered Kashmir”

The Conditional World of the Refugee




[A guest post by Zirwat Chowdhury]

What would little Aylan have become if he had grown up? Riss’s recent cartoon in Charlie Hebdo does not hesitate to prognosticate about the future of this child. And yet it was the termination of this future, pithily captured in the photograph of Aylan’s lifeless, facedown body, washed up against the shore of a beach in Kos that haunted viewers for days. Days only, it seems. We learned his name, but never caught sight of his face. Named but faceless, Aylan could become an icon of the moral outrage of liberals. Lifeless but untarnished, his body foregrounded the tragedy of the loss of an innocent life but did not confront viewers with the forces responsible for it: the brutality of an authoritarian regime and its challenger, the manic power play orchestrated within global politics in alliance with and response to it, and the forced renunciation of a right to (meaningful) life that accompanies the refugee’s endless traversing of unwelcoming borders.

Since its publication, the cartoon has received predictably mixed responses. Some, embodying the moral outrage I mention above, have decried it with disgust. Others have suggested that it mocks not refugees but Marine Le Pen’s recent opinion piece about the alleged dangers that immigration poses to the achievements of Western feminism. Le Pen attributes the sexual assault of “hundreds” of women to immigration and, with a quick turn of phrase, criminalizes all migrants – suggesting that they hold Western laws, especially the rights of women, in contempt. She then declares her fear that women might once again be subject to barbarism. But Le Pen is not alone in positing this causality between immigration and sexual violence. News sources reporting the testimonies of the assaulted women were quick to invoke ethnicity – “North African or Arab in appearance”– in describing the perpetrators. My point here is not to challenge the ethnicity of the perpetrators, but rather to highlight the accounts’ use of ethnicity as a marker of criminality; something that the cartoon does not do, even though its caption refers to the “groping” mentioned repeatedly in the accounts. Indeed, far from challenging the rabid imagination of those who fear immigration, the cartoon trivializes the enduring hardship of the refugee and even makes him culpable for it.

An inset on the top left recalls the photograph of Aylan and repeats its facelessness. But it also does away with the reference to scale that crucially helps the viewer identify the body in the photograph as that of a child. Furthermore, unlike the soft curves of a child’s limbs that we see in the photograph, the stark lines of the inset denote an adult human body, albeit one in rigor mortis. Thus, even before we exit the inset, at the margin of which we find the accompanying caption enquiring about his future, we are confronted with Aylan in the conditional; that is, as an adult. The caption asks in the past conditional: Que serait devenu le petit Aylan s’il avait grandi [what would little Aylan have become if he had grown up]? Note that it asks what (que), not who (qui), Aylan would have become. Que here asks about Aylan’s professional future ­– Tripoteur de fesses (ass-groper) – and the accompanying image depicts his performing with gusto what the caption predicts. But the snout-nosed, bulging-eyed creature that we see in the image also invites a different reading of que. It makes one wonder if the caption asks what kind of animal little Aylan would have become in adulthood, and in so doing echoes the judgment of the likes of Le Pen, thereby leading defenders of the cartoon to assert that it is a caricature of the right-wing’s imagination of refugees. Going above and beyond the right-wing’s fear-mongering about rapist immigrants (note: not refugees), the cartoon shows snout-nosed creatures with outreached arms running in pursuit of an equine woman whose gaping mouth and bulging eyes suggest excitement about, rather than fear of, sexual violence. Riss’s cartoon visualizes not the fear of sexual violence but of racial miscegenation. Without the twinned prejudices of racism and misogyny, the white men of Charlie Hebdo would need to save no one from no one.

My ire against Riss’s cartoon is because of the way in which it deploys the past conditional; not, as liberals complain, for its toying with a future otherwise denied, or for its replacing the unseen face of a dead child with the caricature of a hybrid man-pig. Placed under the caption “migrants”, the sentence “Que serait…” seizes, transforms, and trivializes a grammatical tense and mood that, with its inherent sense of contingency and uncertainty, textures the day-to-day life of the refugee and highlights the discrete temporality of refugee life. On each boat, in each van, on the margin of every border, at each camp, over each meal, at each farewell to a loved one, at each reunion, at every instance of clinging to and handing over a document of identity, at every reminder of the lost home, against the gaze of every unwelcoming stranger, the life of the refugee necessitates the perpetual incantation of “what… if…” against the unknown that lies ahead and the violence that is routinely expected within it. Furthermore, “What… if…” spaces a painfully unbridgeable gap between refugee and migrant. Riss’s cartoon may caricature the right-wing imagination, but its caption fails to grasp, and even conceals, that the future projected onto refugees is the very source of their conditional present. Here a productive dissonance between caption and image arises. Placed in the indefinite blank space of the cartoon, the phantom Aylan chases after the object of his desire. However, like the refugee, he goes nowhere.

The phantom Aylan, the cartoon tells us, is a tripoteur de fesses. The noun is derived from the verb tripoter, ‘to grope’, or ‘to fiddle’. The noun in the caption affirms the realization of a desire that, however, remains unfulfilled in the accompanying image. Indeed, unlike the promise of its caption, the image shows us something else: outreached hands, not groping ones. As I noted above, the cartoon displaces the refugee’s experience of the conditional (the “what…if…”) onto the future that the right-wing predicts for it. Similarly, it also seizes the refugee’s gesture of plea and both misrepresents and mislabels it.

The word caricature, used in both French and English, derives from the Italian caricare (meaning ‘to charge, exaggerate, load’). The Italian root illuminates a critical aspect of the history of caricature in what is often heralded as its Golden Age in the 18th and 19th centuries: the caricaturist’s emphasis on the exaggerated or overloaded line. Thus, for example, Charles Philipon could, with a few strokes, simplify and distort the outline of the face of Louis-Philippe in 1831 into the shape of a pear in a caricature published for La Caricature. The transformation of line not only allowed the caricaturist to create new meaning out of old forms, but it also enabled him to reveal the meaning latent (indeed, concealed) in the original form. In this regard, the image’s dissonance with the caption was in some instances as formative of the caricature’s critique, as the consonance between the two was in others.

The protean nature of caricature thus prevents the neat demarcation of its politics. Indeed, published in the same years as Philipon’s roi-poire were caricatures that besmirched the working classes and sought to maintain the social order desired by the Parisian middle class (Cuno 1994). Riss’s cartoon may depict Le Pen’s predatory migrants in order to mock her opinion piece. But it also caricatures or “charges” the conditional world of the refugee. A gesture of plea that underlines the refugee’s submission to the conditionality of hospitality now becomes the source of his affirmed criminality. As such, just as Le Pen accuses refugees of criminality, so too does the cartoon charge them with the source of their own destitution. Now recall that Aylan is dead.



James Cuno, “Violence, Satire, and Social Types in the Graphic Art of the July Monarchy,” in Petra-Ten-Doesschate Chu and Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Popularization of Images: Visual Culture Under the July Monarchy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 10-36.

Many Deaths of Mullah Omar … and One for Mansoor



Joseph Goldstein’s first two sentences in a New York Times story on Mullah Omar’s death read: “The Taliban, it turns out, had been sending the world messages from a dead man. And the world kept answering him.”


Amir ul-Momineen Mullah Omar Mujahid of Emirate Islamia Afghanistan has not been seen since he made his escape on a Honda motor cycle from Helmand in 2002. Even before that he was only rarely seen outside his inner circles. His presence was made known, at first through his edicts that were often scribbled on silk paper cigarette wrappings, and then through the website of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the form of Eid greetings and other messages on commemorative days. The last of these greetings came on this Eid and contained overtures of peace towards the Afghan government, which President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan duly acknowledged and welcomed. But then the news broke through that Mullah Omar was in this world no more and hadn’t been so for a long while–by some reports, maybe little over two years. Rumors of his death had been circulating since late 2001 when he vanished from the scene. According to Goldstein, the last he was heard, by some of his commanders, was in 2008-09.

In any case, whenever and in whatever way he died, he is dead now; and that is the point all agree on ― a veritable death by consensus. It was confirmed by Hafiz Saeed offering a ghaibana namaz-e janaza (funeral prayer in absentia of a deceased body) in Lahore; a few days after the news of his death. By dint of it, they were to prove that the death was of recent date. Otherwise, a specter of lapsed prayer lurked over their exercise ― two years too late or maybe more. Whether it would have made any difference to the departed soul is entirely an inconsequential matter.


Commenting over Mullah Omar’s late official statements ― dead man sending messages ― a western diplomat said: “If you had never gotten confirmation that Mullah Omar had died, this would have gone on until he was 110.” Certainly, Mullah Omar’s death has some consequences, one of which is that his statements have ceased to be in circulation. But, by the same token one can affirm his death since those statements have not been forthcoming. That raises an interesting question: what does it take for Mullah Omar to be really dead? A corollary of this question is a prior question, for he must have been living prior to his death in order for us to ask: what was this living, or in what way was he living that in relation to it he is now dead? Continue reading “Many Deaths of Mullah Omar … and One for Mansoor”

In Plato’s Cave


The above image is taken from the second of the five videos released to showcase Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad by the US Department of Defense after the 2 May, 2011 operation of US Navy Seals that was to kill or capture him. It was told that the footage was found among the treasure trove of data collected from his compound. This is a remarkable image. The body, which is supposed to be terrorism personified (let’s call it terrorism-body, for more than being of a terrorist, it represents much that is terrorism and the War on Terror), is hidden from view by a blanket wrapped over it and a winter skull cap on the head. Its rear side view doesn’t reveal much; only a side glimpse of a face with a beard and a hand on remote control being its revelatory organs. For all that is hidden, this is its only manifestation: a terrorist Muslim’s body that has its hand on the trigger.
Continue reading “In Plato’s Cave”

No Healer of Glass

Fanon wrote about why the anti-colonial struggle targeted doctors and intellectuals. It did so, he surmised, because the colonial doctor or the colonial ethnographer were not mere healers and intellectuals. They were also critical participants in the daily life of the colony; they had property, employed colonized bodies; the healers were torturers and the ethnographers were erasers of native pasts. For Fanon, the native doctor and the organic intellectual were the hope for the freed nation– these figures who would carry the episteme of Europe through the burning colony, and assimilate the two. We now know that project to be just as flawed as the colonial one.

The mis-titled ‘post-colonial’ nation that emerged in 1947 bent its will to dominate Kalat, Kashmir, Swat, Bengal, Sind, Baluchistan. At each, they erased the organic intellectuals, the healers, those who could offer a narrative counter to their enlightened nationalism. Fanon’s organic intellectuals were targeted and killed by the post-colonial state in 1971 in East Pakistan, in the 1970s in Karachi. The healers are being killed across Pakistan right now.

Today, as I sit and think about Sabeen Mahmud, my mind keeps going back to the state-sanctioned killing of intellectuals in 1971. Why kill Abul Khair and Munier Chowdhury? They wrote. They taught. In the perverse logic of the nation-state, their ideas, their capacity to have a dialogue, were the very reasons for their eradication. There is only one idea, only one conversation, only one speaker.

I started to talk about Baluchistan here when the insurgency started in 2005. Ten years later, the state has assassinated a number of leaders and over 3,000 have ‘disappeared’. The Baluchi men, women and children walked over 2,000 km to see if someone can answer them. No one did. One of those marchers, Mama Qadeer, was the participant at the talk held in T2F, organized by Sabeen Mahmud. She was killed after the event. She was killed because she provided a forum for a conversation that cannot be held in Pakistan. It is a conversation that pits the dreams of a Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor against local resistance. Just days before the T2F conversation, the State forced LUMS University in Lahore to cancel their talk on Baluchistan. It is this re-scheduled talk that led to the death of Sabeen Mahmud.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Baluch cause will be crushed. Whether economic nationalism triumphs or the sacral one, does not really matter in the end. The corridors will be built over the hidden mass graves and the charred dreams of self-autonomy. With the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, there is the end of decade old space for dialogue in Karachi. That space is not coming back. No one is going to step forward and create such spaces anew. The killing of Sabeen Mahmud is the shattering of T2F. We can now cry and hold these broken shards as much as we like. But, to quote Faiz, there are no healers of glass.

موتی ہو کہ شیشہ، جام کہ دُر / be it pearl or glass, uncorked or full
جو ٹوٹ گیا، سو ٹوٹ گیا / is broken is broken
کب اشکوں سے جڑ سکتا ہے / when can tears mend?
جو ٹوٹ گیا ، سو چھوٹ گیا / is broken is gone

تم ناحق ٹکڑے چن چن کر / for nothing, are you picking these shards
دامن میں چھپائے بیٹھے ہو / storing them in your lap
شیشوں کا مسیحا کوئی نہیں / there is no healer of glass
کیا آس لگائے بیٹھے ہو / what hope do you have?

The Lies of American Sniper

A guest post by @historianess.


I have a very vivid memory of when I first heard the Adhan‘s call, on an early July day in 2012. I was in a car in Lahore with two friends; their father was driving. It was twilight, a moment in which the buildings around Liberty Market were cast in shades of rose and violet, and the air shimmered with sunset colors. At that moment, mosques around the area starting broadcasting the evening Adhan. The sounds of the Takbir (Allahu Akbar, or, God is Great) echoed with the fading light. For a moment, traffic stopped, and the attention of all seemed to be focused on the evening prayer. This didn’t feel foreign to me; it felt, on the contrary, rather familiar. I remembered the passage in Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages about the sound of bells in the late medieval European city. “But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinnabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells. The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation.”1

The Adhan, I immediately understood, was like the sound of bells in a European city. The effect of hearing the call to prayer was not one of alienation for me. Instead it reminded me of a commonality between Islam and Christianity–the use of sound to govern the liturgical day and to foster community.

In the film American Sniper, the Adhan serves the opposite purpose. The film opens with the Adhan and a panoramic shot of a city with many minarets. It is meant to be Fallujah, and it is meant to evoke a feeling of strangeness and foreignness in the moviegoer. The viewer experiences a frisson of fear–the muezzin calling Allahu Akbar is a threat, a representative of a civilization that our hero Chris Kyle (most confirmed kills of any American sniper! Ever!) will repeatedly call “evil” and “savage.” The Adhan is a symbol of barbarism. This is the film’s first lie.
Continue reading “The Lies of American Sniper”

  1. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2. []

Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet’:

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.
Continue reading “Whence Muhammad?”

  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []