XQs XXVIII - A Conversation with Shahla Hussain

Posted by sepoy on September 06, 2021 · 43 mins read

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Suvaid Yaseen for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty seven XQs.

SH Book Cover

Shahla Hussain is an Assistant Professor of South Asian history at St. John’s University, New York. Her research interests include themes of decolonization, colonialism, identity, and migrations. She received her Ph.D. from Tufts University in 2014. Her book, Kashmir in the Aftermath of Partition, is published by Cambridge University Press (2021).

Q. The book primarily deals with post-1947 developments in Kashmiri history and politics, and you set up that theme in the first chapter where you talk about various expressions of freedom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under Dogra rule. How important were those expressions in setting up modern understandings of freedom for Kashmiri people across the twentieth century? When might we say that some kind of modernity began in Kashmir?

As I read the writings of Kashmiri poets, activists, and literati, I noticed a pattern. Certain terms and terminology–haq (rights), insaf (justice), and izzat (dignity)–are repeated over and over again to mobilize Kashmiris for freedom. We find the use of these terms in the writings of Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad-din-Fauq in 1920; the speeches of Sheikh Abdullah in the 1940s; the confiscated pamphlets of the 1950s; the Plebiscite Front Literature of the 1960s; the letters and speeches of Kashmiri freedom activist, Maqbool Butt; and the resistance literature of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.

To understand the significance of these terms, I contextualized and placed them in the historical context of a centuries-long pattern of repressive colonial dynasties—-Afghans, Sikhs, and finally the British-supported Dogra Raj-—all of whom prioritized exploitation and subjugation to retain their control over Kashmir. High taxation and the indifference of the ruling regimes to practice efficient governance reduced Kashmiris to extreme poverty. The narratives of these ‘others’ denigrated Kashmiris as ‘cowards’ or “worshippers of tyranny” (zulumparast), who lacked the will and courage to alter their deplorable situation. These pejorative labels remained embedded in Kashmiri popular memory and their deteriorating political and social environment significantly shaped Kashmiri imaginings of freedom, especially as Kashmir entered the ‘modern era’ in the early part of the twentieth century.

The opening of the Jhelum Valley Road in the 1890s linked the princely state with Punjab, increased interactions between the state and expatriate Kashmiris, and generated a wider sociopolitical awareness in the Valley. Specifically, a new generation of educated, politically-minded young Kashmiris, exposed to Western ideologies of nationalism, secularism, and socialism, adapted these concepts to fit the regional environment of the Valley. As Kashmiri activists articulated their imaginings of emancipation, they invoked Kashmiri subjugation at the hands of various empires, creating a shared sense of lost dignity. In the process, they expanded the meaning of freedom to include concepts like human dignity, economic equity, and social justice. Throughout the twentieth century, these terms dominated popular discourses on freedom as Kashmiris envisioned a society based on political ethics and accountability; equitable distribution of material resources; and respect for human dignity and individual self-worth.

However, these visions of freedom remained unfulfilled. Indian and Pakistani armies established their territorial control in the region with the help of local elites, disregarded Kashmiri aspirations, and suppressed free expression. India perceived Kashmiri self-determination as a threat to its territorial integrity and embarked on a policy of integration to bring Kashmir into its national fold. As Kashmiri feelings of political injustice and disempowerment crystallized, the ideals of freedom conceived by Kashmiris before accession to India became more prominent in the public. Since the 1950s Kashmiri voices of resistance have tapped into these concepts to define and mobilize Kashmiri Muslims to attain self-determination- a trend that continues even today.

Q. In your book, you consistently refer to “postcolonial Kashmir” or at times to “post-Independence Kashmir.” What does the term postcolonial imply in this? Does this mean the end of colonialism? I am asking this because you amply demonstrate in the book how after 1947 the Indian State used various regimes to secure its own contested and dubious legitimacy through political machinations and force and in the process continuously betrayed its own promises to the people of Kashmir. Do we understand postcolonial in a chronological sense of the end of British Raj and partition of the Indian subcontinent or do you also imply conceptual differences which might progress from the older, pre-1947 forms of institutions and politics? What is the efficacy of using the term postcolonial to delineate Kashmiri history?

I have placed ‘Kashmir’ within the broader sociopolitical transformations taking place in the South Asian subcontinent at the moment of decolonization. Indeed, 1947 not only ushers an end to the British colonial domination, but it is a very significant moment for Jammu and Kashmir. The vacuum created by the British dispersal of power provides a space for the disgruntled Muslim subjects in the Poonch jagir to transform their agrarian revolt against the autocratic Dogra policies into the Azad Kashmir movement (Free Kashmir movement) to transfer power to the people. These developments set the stage for an end to almost a hundred years of monarchy and the birth of new institutions and politics. Local political parties like the National Conference and the Muslim Conference are important players in the political developments taking place in their homeland.

I use the term ‘postcolonial’ primarily to address the ramifications of decolonization on Jammu and Kashmir and to show how the new nation-states of India and Pakistan, even after gaining independence, utilized colonial structures in their nation-building projects of integration and assimilation. As the integrity of ‘borders’ and ‘national security’ took center stage, India and Pakistan retained the colonial construct of ‘territorial nationalism’ and prioritized territory over inhabitants in Jammu and Kashmir. Both countries imitated their former colonial masters and employed the same types of coercive instruments—the police, the army, and intelligence networks—to secure control over the now-divided princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and to suppress regional aspirations.

India also applied these ‘imperial’ strategies to the question of Kashmiri self-determination. Imperialists after the First World War pushed for the “limited applicability” of self-determination to non-European nations by creating mandates and propping up a new class of elites who lacked popular support, but the imperial powers interpreted their participation in governance as an expression of self-determination. Similarly, in postcolonial India, self-determination became a tool of hegemony and consent as the support of local elites allowed India to claim legitimacy, delay the United Nations-mandated plebiscite, and interpret a series of farcical and rigged elections as Kashmiri expressions of “self-determination.”

As Dogra princely state’s despotism morphed into ‘democratic authoritarianism’ in post-1947 Kashmir, with no space for dissent, ordinary Kashmiris felt freedom had eluded them and it seemed a new kind of imperialism had taken root. While Kashmiri political elites on both sides of the cease-fire line acted as mouthpieces of India and Pakistan, Kashmiri voices of resistance challenged the sovereignty of the nation-states and refused to accept the cease-fire line as a permanent border. However, most if not all minorities within Jammu and Kashmir do not see India’s territorial control as ‘colonialism’ and are happy to be a part of India. These myriad perspectives add complexity to the post-1947 history of Kashmir.

Q. Time and again in the text, you refer to poetry, plays, ladishahs, and short stories by Kashmiri writers to provide a sense of the situation in Kashmir as seen by the people. You mention writers such as Akhtar Mohiuddin and Amin Kamil, for example. How important are these creative expressions to understand Kashmir’s history? Is their significance primarily due to a lack of record of the people’s aspirations in the institutional archives or do you see them as important historical sources on their own beyond the regular records maintained by states? Also, if I may ask this, which is your favorite story?

Indeed, literary works are an important part of my book. I find literature to be a ready source of historical interpretation. Even if archival sources had been available in Kashmir, I would still have used poetry, short stories, and plays; these creative expressions provide deep insights into people’s attitudes, emotions, and states of mind. As Kashmiri society is steeped in violent political suppression, literary works provide an outlet for Kashmiris to express their views with relative freedom from persecution. Writers and poets like Mahjoor, Akhtar Mohiuddin, and Amin Kamil have their fingers on the pulse of the public, and they provide us an insight into the social-political realities of Kashmiris, something I would not have been able to access even in the print media.

My favorite literary piece is the novel by Akhtar Mohiuddin, Jahnamuk Panun Panun Naar (To Each According to His Own Hell), written in 1975. I was drawn to the novel after reading the author’s dedication to “the first young man who will pick up a gun to clean this mess.” This novel is formative in our understandings of Kashmiri Muslim fears, anxieties, and apprehensions after the state regimes (in collaboration with India) spread the “doctrine of secularism” in the hope of bringing Kashmiris culturally closer to India through accelerated political and financial integration. It critiques the new Kashmiri social groups created and nurtured by Indian money who, in their zeal to appear ‘secular’ and ‘modern,’ reviled religious values as obscurantist and considered wealth an index of respectability. The novel reveals how Kashmiris attributed what they saw as a moral decline in Kashmiri society to deliberate indoctrination of secular values for national integration, which many believed aimed to eliminate their religious identity. This novel provided me a deep insight into Kashmiri psyches and triggers that shaped their resistance.

Q. In the chapter on “Puppet Regimes,” you talk about the “political caste system” which affected even the elites in Kashmir. Would you speak more to the use of this concept? Relatedly, what were the structural conditions that enabled collaboration and shaped various forms and expressions of resistance in Kashmir? How did these differences come about in various regimes from Abdullah to Bakhsi to Sadiq and so on? How did such collaborative politics affect Kashmir’s politics, economics, and physical environment?

The chapter on “Puppet Regimes” focuses on the India-sponsored regimes that took liberal financial aid from India as a price for integration. The irony is that although they served Indian interests, the Indian government never fully trusted them. The term ‘political caste system’ mentioned in the writings of Kashmir intelligentsia provides us an insight into an imaginary hierarchical setup that impacted Kashmiri Muslims across the board. In this setup, access to political rewards and benefits depended on the extent to which a Kashmiri was willing to remain loyal to the political party holding power in Delhi. Kashmiri Muslims who embraced their regional identity or expressed dissent against integration or assimilation by embracing their religious identity were labeled ‘anti-nationalists or ‘traitors,’ while political opportunists willing to carry forward India’s agenda were considered ‘patriots.’

The general perception among Kashmiri Muslims was that the Indian government considered them “untouchables of the first degree” and that it cast shadows on their credibility and loyalty. Indeed, the Muslim-majority character of Jammu and Kashmir and its disputed nature created endless Indian doubts about Kashmiri Muslim loyalty. Many feared that in the event of a plebiscite, Kashmiri Muslims would vote for Pakistan. Kashmiri Muslims resented India throttling democracy by appointing and dismissing governments to maintain Indian influence.

The collaborative politics of Kashmiri mainstream leaders was driven by the desire to have political power, but the economics and the structural complications created by the cease-fire line added a layer of complexity. The First India Pakistan War of 1948, which led to the artificial division of the former princely state, dismantled the means of communication and collapsed the economic structures that sustained trade and commerce. After Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal from power, to gain legitimacy the India-sponsored administration of Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad tapped into these economic anxieties, promising development while accepting liberal financial aid as the price of integration. Before 1953, many political elites had abused their power but had cherished autonomy and resisted economic dependence on India. By contrast, the zeal of the collaborators after 1953 for political and financial integration limited Kashmir’s economic freedom and created a dependent mentality that destroyed Kashmiri initiative and self-reliance.

As India strengthened its grip on Kashmir’s territory after Abdullah’s dismissal, the patronage politics of the local regimes and the networks of corruption and nepotism that excluded vast majorities eroded people’s trust in their own leaders, leaving a negative impact on Kashmir’s political structures and economic institutions. Kashmiris equated democracy with authoritarianism, while corruption damaged Kashmir’s natural environment. Besides exploiting the forests for debt servicing, in the mid-1980s the National Conference chief ministers G. M. Shah and Farooq Abdullah initiated several projects that polluted Kashmir’s air, water, and soil. Despite the collaborative politics of Kashmir’s mainstream leaders, the excluded majority refused to accept India’s hegemony and articulated a resistance discourse that provided an alternative vision for Kashmir’s self-sufficient economic growth, through which the free movement of services, goods, capital, and labor across the artificial ceasefire line would restore economic prosperity and unify their former social and economic world.

Q. The fifth chapter maps in evocative detail the transnational imaginations of Kashmiri freedom among people not just across the Ceasefire Line but also among Kashmiri immigrants in the UK. What I found very interesting was how these economic immigrants trying to settle in the UK largely as workers combined their immediate concerns in a new place of residence to hopes of freedom at home (in Kashmir) while drawing upon and making connections with a wide range of struggles from Palestine to Algeria to the Irish struggle. How much of these ideas percolated to the ground in Kashmir on both sides of the Ceasefire Line? At the same time, there were vigorous debates in the UK about the importance and need for an armed liberation struggle in Kashmir or a choice between plebiscite politics or revolutionary politics or a combination thereof. How grounded were such debates considering the fact that diaspora always lives one step away from the consequences of such decisions? Also, could you speak more about the longer history of migrations of Kashmiri people to such sites?

Kashmir has a long history of migrations. Poverty and political oppression in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir forced its inhabitants to search for better economic opportunities in different parts of India, especially Punjab. Kashmiri migrants also moved to the port city of Bombay and served as lascars on the British merchant fleets, where they worked as stokers in coal rooms. During the Second World War, the British army recruited a large number of soldiers from its colonies, including the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir; many of them ended up in Britain when the war ended. These early Kashmiri migrants pioneered the chain of migration to Britain that increased after decolonization, especially from the eastern part of the old Jammu province, which later came under the control of Pakistan.

As these economic migrants settled in the host country, they retained an emotional connection to Kashmir and maintained close familial ties with the homeland. In due course, Kashmiri migrants were exposed to new ideas and shaped their political claims and strategies in the image of worldwide movements for self-determination. A strand of British Kashmiri activists was inspired by Marxist internationalism and this might have had a limited political influence in the homeland, but the ideas they put forward were actively debated among independence-minded Kashmiris in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Britain. Additionally, the resistance literature published in Britain has circulated in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and has inspired Kashmiri political activists from the Valley (such as Maqbool Butt who had kept a copy of Dr. Abdul Basit’s Kashmir’s War for Freedom in his jail cell). At the same time, another strand of Kashmiri resistance, the exiles who had taken refuge in Britain after the Ganga Hijacking case of the 1970s, formed a transnational organization called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) that articulated the idea of independence. This organization played a significant role in inspiring disenchanted Kashmiri Muslims from India-administered Kashmir in initiating an armed rebellion in the Valley in the late 1980s.

Although the strategies of armed resistance were actively debated in Britain, the idea of armed struggle to achieve Kashmir’s freedom did not originate in the diaspora. On the home front, Kashmiri activists and groups like Al-Fatah and Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front (JKNLF) were radicalized by the continuous suppression of rights and liberty and India’s and Pakistan’s complete indifference to resolving the Kashmir issue. They perceived armed struggle as a reassertion of autonomous will and as evidence of a determination to pursue an independent course. However, British Kashmiris wanted to provide a blueprint of protracted guerrilla warfare based on other international revolutionary struggles. The internationalist dimension of Kashmiri resistance went a step ahead to shun the slogan of the plebiscite and considered it critical for Kashmiris to end their psychological dependence on Pakistan. Indeed, some of the ideas of the diasporic activists might have sounded impractical to Kashmiri voices of resistance in the South Asian subcontinent, but significantly, these pro-independence revolutionaries far from the homeland did not fear political intimidation, and this provided them a space to free themselves from the binaries of India and Pakistan and chart a new route for Kashmir’s liberation. The salience of the British Kashmiri activists to the development of events in Pakistan- and India-administered Kashmir lay in their ability to articulate and embody a coherent Kashmiri political identity, as they sought to convince the international community that what was at issue in Kashmir was not a territorial dispute between two nuclear powers but a struggle between those powers and a people worthy of rights and freedom.

Q. The book also talks about the various “Islamist” imaginations of Kashmiri resistance by groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. From my reading, these emerge as reactions to some sort of ‘mainstream politics.’ But your work also speaks about how various political groups and individual intellectuals employed religion and religious ideals to articulate their politics throughout the twentieth century. What was the difference between the two strands? And therefore, how might we conceptualize the longer history of thinking about Islam and politics in Kashmir. I am asking this because groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami did not just emerge in a moment but came from a longer history of engagement with ideas and visions of Muslim anti-colonial politics in South Asia before 1947 and well before ‘Islamic’ expressions of politics were seen as ‘communal’ in post-1947 India. Relatedly, you refer, based on secondary sources, to how these groups were behind the imposition of foreign and Wahabbi understanding of Islam in Kashmir, and here the text seems to take for granted such distinctions between Sufi and Wahhabi strands of Islam and to ascribe a reactionary tenor to the latter. Are these distinctions really central to our understanding of the role of Islam in Kashmiri politics?

Although the primary focus of my book is tracing the complex ways religion intertwined with politics in shaping Kashmiri resistance in the decades after the 1970s, I have also addressed the tensions between secularly oriented nationalism and religiously informed universalism to understand how Kashmiris defined and negotiated the multiple meanings of religion and secularism prevalent in Kashmir. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, religion and religious affiliation have been key components of Kashmiri Muslim identity. When we shift the lens to the postcolonial period, religious identity has remained an important identity marker for Kashmiri Muslims, especially as independent India embraced ‘secular nationalism’ both to define itself and to manage diversity and difference within the country. Kashmiri Muslims embraced their religious identity or expressed extraterritorial affiliations to reject India’s centralization policy. As India conflated secularism with nationalism, Kashmiri Muslims saw integration and the top-down imposition of the “doctrine of secularism” as a threat to their religiously informed cultural identity. Their fears were heightened due to the presence in Jammu of Hindu right groups that endorsed the idea of Hindu superiority and promoted “nationalizing the Muslims.” The fear of homogenization and centralization crystallized Kashmiri Muslims’ fears that their religious identity is under threat in Hindu India, making religious symbols and slogans an important part of their protests.

At an individual level, religion as faith gave people the strength to endure political injustices, rampant corruption, nepotism, and most significantly what they perceived as threats to their religiously informed cultural identity. At a communal level, political groups made use of religion as a political identity to appropriate ‘self-determination’ and build support for their visions for Kashmir. If we look at the long history of the intertwining of religion with politics, Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference, which had dominated politics since the 1940s, made instrumental use of Sufi shrines and mosques to build support for nationalism and socialism. To appeal to his base, Abdullah drew from the older Kashmiri mystic religious traditions popular among large (and especially, rural) sections of Kashmiri society to spread his message. He portrayed himself to his political base as a protector of Kashmiri Muslim interests, but he did not articulate the need to establish an Islamic state or create a society based on Islamic norms.

I have argued in my book that in the 1970s, Abdullah’s political outlook faced a challenge from religio-political groups like the Jamaat-i-Islami that had emerged in the Valley in the early part of the 20th century. This group rejected the idea of nationalism while claiming that absolute sovereignty resides with God. Jamaat had a very limited social and political base in the Valley until the early 1970s. My work shows how the social transformations unleashed in Kashmir by financial integration made the ideas of the Jamaat appealing to the excluded Muslim middle class, while the party gained political visibility due to Kashmiri Muslim disenchantment with Sheikh Abdullah’s compromise politics after the Indira-Abdullah accord. The writings of Jamaati activists like Ashiq Kashmiri provide deep insight into their struggles to establish their presence in the Valley, remold Kashmiri society as per their Islamic vision, and mobilize Kashmiris to embrace politics as an inseparable part of the Islamic faith. In the 1980s, the global resurgence of political Islam assisted them in establishing a ubiquitous presence and in forcefully articulating their religious-political vision for Kashmir.

In the aftermath of the armed rebellion in the 1990s, the Jamaat joined hands with Pakistan in opposition to the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s (JKLF) nationalism, which was an anathema to Jamaat activists, who believed that sovereignty resided with God rather than with any nation. Party literature insisted on adopting an Islamist vision as a prerequisite for attaining true freedom, in contrast to the JKLF’s political agenda of creating an independent but not necessarily a society and a state based on Islamic principles.

I use the word ‘foreign’ to specify the jihadi groups from the battlefields of Afghanistan that Pakistan sent to Kashmir in the mid-1990s. These groups even sidelined the armed wing of the local Jamaat, and reinterpreted the Kashmiri struggle in global Islamist terms, rather than a struggle for political justice, economic equity, and human dignity. India, which had accused Pakistan of cross-border terrorism for quite a while, was now able to convincingly package Kashmiri resistance as “Islamist terrorism.” In a world threatened by radical Islamist groups and wary of any kind of resistance (whether civilian, military, or political) stemming from Muslim communities or Muslim-majority areas of the world, branding Kashmiri resistance as “Islamist” became a powerful tool for fending off international criticism of India’s response.

Q. The book is based on wide-ranging sources from not just archives and institutional collections in Kashmir, India, Pakistan, and the UK, but also personal collections in each of these places. How easy or challenging was this process? Relatedly, could you speak about the state of the archives in and about Kashmir, something which you also refer to in the book’s introduction? What suggestions might you have for students conducting research on Kashmiri history who are based not just in the universities in Europe or America, but also at local institutions in Kashmir or at the universities in India or Pakistan, especially because the latter do not always have enough time or institutional resources to conduct archival work?

The most challenging aspect of writing Kashmir in the Aftermath of Partition was that most official documents in the Indian national archives regarding post-1947 Kashmir remain restricted, as Kashmir continues, from the point of view of the Indian state, to be a major national security issue. However, I had no problem accessing the declassified files. The Ministry of State Files that contained intercepted letters written by families or friends separated by the ceasefire line, intelligence reports, and confiscated pamphlets were extremely valuable, and I approached them as a repository of popular voices rather than ‘subversive’ literature.

Unfortunately, my research trip to the Srinagar archives was not productive, but I was able to access some pre-and post-1947 files at the Jammu archives. As I have mentioned in my book, due to the ongoing conflict in the Valley there is not much attention paid to preserving the state heritage. A substantial number of the state archive’s relevant records have been left unprocessed; its dilapidated buildings leave rare documents and manuscripts immersed in dust and pigeon droppings, making access almost impossible. This was a very frustrating experience for me as a researcher.

To overcome the challenges posed by government archives in the subcontinent, I reached out to several members of the Kashmiri intelligentsia on both sides of India–Pakistan divides as well as in the larger Kashmiri transnational community to seek access to their private archives. This proved to be an easier venture due to my links with individuals who were very generous with me. Most shared their unpublished memoirs, letters, and diaries, which became an alternative vernacular archive for reconstructing Kashmiri consciousness.

My book is also informed by extensive interviews that I conducted with Kashmiris of various political orientations, which contributed significantly to my understanding of the issues of belonging, citizenship, and identity formation. My interactions with the Kashmiri transnational community in Britain changed my perceptions of how I defined “Kashmir” and made me re-examine the relationship between Kashmiri cultural identity and Kashmiri political identity. My advice to students researching Kashmir is to tap into these private archives of Kashmiri community leaders or literati and utilize oral history research methodology to gain a deeper understanding of the personal experiences of Kashmiris during historically significant events.

Q. What was the process of converting your dissertation into a book like? What were the various joys and challenges of this process? Based on your successful experience, what advice might you give to Ph.D. students and early-career scholars in the field?

After I completed my dissertation, I took more than a year off to reflect on my research and think deeply about its broader significance, rather than just focusing on a specific question. I also used this time to reevaluate the primary sources that I had collected during my fieldwork and strengthen my analysis. I wanted to reframe and revise my dissertation with the intent of reaching a broader audience and making my work accessible not only to scholars but also to general readers, so during the writing process, I avoided academic jargon and wrote in an accessible style.

I restructured my dissertation by adding and expanding on the themes of diasporic mobilization and the role of Islam in Kashmir resistance. I also brought my research into the present to include the ramifications of the August 2019 political decision by India to unilaterally alter Kashmir’s autonomous status, the basis of Kashmir’s provisional accession to India. I shared some of my chapters with scholars in my field and their constructive feedback helped immensely.

The entire process of writing took time as I was also teaching new courses at St. John’s University. However, my department was very supportive and reduced my teaching load so that I could dedicate my time to the completion of my book. My advice to Ph.D. students is to write the dissertation as a book as much as possible, to begin with, even if it is time-consuming. It will be a much easier process later as early-career scholars might not have adequate time at their disposal due to teaching and other academic responsibilities.

Q. Could you delineate your personal and intellectual journey which culminated into a dissertation at Tufts and eventually the publication of Kashmir in the Aftermath of Partition? As someone who grew up in Kashmir, how do you view your experience and your voice in writing about Kashmiri history? Additionally, how do you place your work within the historiography on modern Kashmiri history and what are the various scholarly currents that this text engages with? Maybe, adhering to the format of the Q&A here, you could mention five books that this work engages with?

My interest in pursuing the troubled modern history of Kashmir flows directly from my personal experiences. I was raised in Kashmir and came of age at a time when the insurgency in the Valley had taken the form of a mass rebellion, and cries of Aazadi (“freedom”) were heard from every nook and cranny. I lived through the turmoil endured by ordinary Kashmiris. These experiences developed in me an interest to understand the significance of the slogan “Freedom!” for Kashmiris and to unravel the historical roots of the deepening estrangement between Kashmiri Muslims and the Indian state.

My time at Tufts was very productive, and my adviser Professor Ayesha Jalal was intellectually stimulating and pushed me to think in new directions. Most significantly, Tufts provided me a space to gain critical distance from my subject. I was able to ‘step back,’ take a holistic view of Kashmir, and bring sub-regional and minority perspectives into my analysis to better understand the complexities of Jammu and Kashmir.

As I immersed myself in the historiography of modern Kashmir, I noticed that the post-partition history of Kashmir is submerged in the larger national narratives of India and Pakistan to justify the claims of both nation-states over Kashmir. The focus is primarily on the concepts of “territoriality,” “state sovereignty,” and “national security,” while Kashmiris’ thwarted aspirations, built over decades of oppression under multiple empires, are of little importance. I fill this gap by bringing Kashmir and Kashmiris from the margins to the center of the historical debate. Specifically, I hope to show that Kashmiris were not passive spectators in the face of Indian and Pakistani power plays but were, and are, active agents in the construction of their own sociopolitical identities. My work engages with the historical forces, political players, and social structures on both sides of divided Kashmir and the wider Kashmiri diaspora. I aim to broaden the contours of Kashmir’s resistance history, complicate the meaning of ‘Kashmir’ and Kashmiri identity, and reveal Kashmiris’ myriad imaginings of freedom.

Some of the broad conceptual themes that inform my research include questions of identity, self-determination, secularism, political Islam, and transnationalism. I have used a wide variety of scholarly works to build and expand on these concepts. Ayesha Jalal’s Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia and the Partisans of Allah significantly inform my understandings of the concepts of religious identity, secularism, secular nationalism, and sovereignty. Chitralekha Zutshi’s Languages of Belonging and Mridu Rai’s Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects have helped me grasp the complexities of religious, class-based, and political identities in the early twentieth-century history of Kashmiri Muslim mobilization. I also build on Cabeiri Robinson’s Body of Victim, Body of Warrior that focuses on the political strand of Kashmiri identity to examine the category of Kashmiri refugees. I expand this category to include different linguistic and cultural communities across the line of control and in the wider diaspora united in shared belonging with the undivided territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Lastly, Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and Ideological Origins of the United Nations, and Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, provided critical insights into the concept of self-determination that I was able to apply to conflict-ridden Kashmir.

Q. Finally, you speak about the developments in contemporary Kashmir since the removal of Article 370 and Article 35A in August 2019, which is when you also were completing the book. How profound do you think these developments will be for Kashmiri politics in the immediate and long-term future? What modes of resistance or newer meanings and strategies of freedom struggle might emerge in Kashmir from here on?

In the summer of 2019, as I was completing the book, the far-right Bhartiya Janata Party (B.J.P) aggressively exercised its power in the name of territorial nationalism and assimilation to unilaterally abolish Kashmir’s autonomous status, the basis of Kashmir’s provisional accession to India. Behind the “integration” argument lay the larger agenda of abolishing Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which authorizes the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to define its permanent residents and provide them special rights and privileges, like reserving state employment and property ownership for them. The abrogation of Article 35A has been a long-standing Hindu nationalist policy goal aimed at bringing about a final settlement by shifting the demography of Kashmir to a Hindu-majority region. At present, India has removed Kashmiris from any political conversation and has replaced the Permanent Residency Law with the Domicile Law, which allows anyone who has lived in the state for fifteen years to receive domicile status. Such actions have reignited Kashmiri Muslim primal fears, particularly the systematic annihilation of their majority status and the conversion of their homeland into Hindu settlements that resemble something like Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The change in Kashmir’s legal status will reduce Kashmiri Muslims to a disenfranchised minority and circumvent their political aspirations.

Kashmiris are struggling to adapt to their new reality. They are reeling from lockdowns and the policy of intimidation exercised against human rights activists, journalists, politicians, and civilians who question India’s Kashmir policy. It might seem that India has been successful in reducing rebellious Kashmiri Muslims into submission, but an analysis of Kashmir’s history reveals the indomitable resilience and adaptability of Kashmiris to their deteriorating political and social circumstances. No doubt, India will search for political legitimacy and reach out to local political players seeking collaboration, promising power, and economic prosperity, just as they did in 1953. Then, India poured large amounts of money into Kashmir, thinking the state’s modernization and development would make Kashmiris politically quiescent. But this did not cause Kashmiri Muslim feelings about political injustices or the denial of human dignity to abate. Kashmiri resistance will continue. It is difficult to predict what form it will exactly take, but one thing is clear, India’s decision will make Kashmiri Muslims more aware of their regional and religiously informed cultural identity and will only reinvigorate the spirit of Aazadi that I have traced in my book.

Suvaid Yaseen is a PhD Candidate in History at Brown University and a 2021 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. He is currently writing his dissertation “Islamic Intersections: Religion and Politics in Kashmir in the Long Twentieth Century.”