XQs XXXII - A Conversation with Hafsa Kanjwal

Posted by sepoy on January 20, 2024 · 30 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 thirty-one XQs.

HK Book Cover

Hafsa Kanjwal is an assistant professor of South Asian History in the Department of History at Lafayette College. Her first book Colonizing Kashmir: State-building Under Indian Occupation (Stanford University Press, 2023) examines how the Indian and Kashmir governments utilized state-building to entrench India’s colonial occupation of Kashmir in the aftermath of Partition. Kanjwal has written and spoken on her research for a variety of news outlets including The Washington Post, Al Jazeera English, and the BBC. She received her Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Q: The first thing that people will notice about your book is obviously its title — Colonizing Kashmir: State Building Under Indian Occupation. So, let us begin with that. Why do you frame the story of state-building in Kashmir in the post partition era, which on its face sounds like a positive aspiration, under the rubric of colonialism, which we can safely assume to be an unwelcome historical phenomenon everywhere. You also do not call it ‘like colonialism’ or ‘internal colonialism’ or other such terms which scholars have occasionally used, but colonialism proper. Is this an intellectual provocation or a considered reading of Kashmiri history?

It is in some ways both. It is a provocation because I am insisting on ‘colonialism’ proper in a ‘postcolonial’ context, as the two are seen as binaries, and also, postcolonial states that have been colonized by European powers are often not deemed as colonial themselves. Part of this is because power differentials within the global south are not seen within a colonial frame, especially when the two regions (like Kashmir and India) are geographically contiguous. It is also a critique of decades of scholarship on India that has taken its territorial boundaries as a given and subsumed Kashmir to categories like “secessionism” or “ethno-nationalist insurgency.” I argue that the exercise and expansion of Indian territorial sovereignty, especially in the case of Kashmir, was a fundamentally colonial exercise. This is not only because it was coercive, lacked a democratic basis, denied a people their self-determination, or was buttressed by a class of native elites or compradors, which in this case are Kashmir’s client regimes. But it is also because India’s colonial rule in Kashmir relied on civilizing tropes, historicizing mythologies, racialized othering, and machinations of control that we often associate with more ‘classical’ forms of colonialism from the global north to the global south.

The book is about a number of aspirations that have a ‘positive’ connotation including state-building, but also democracy, secularism, development, and empowerment. I show how these processes played a critical role in India’s colonial occupation of Kashmir, and how they worked in tandem to suppress Kashmiri demands for sovereignty or self-determination.

Q: Let me follow up on the above. You not only argue that India’s relationship with Kashmir post-1947 must be seen through a prism of colonialism, you also call it an occupation. Many scholars of Kashmiri history and politics use the term occupation to denote the militarized character of governance or everyday life in Kashmir after the start of the armed rebellion for self-determination in the late 1980’s. Your book makes the case that such description must go further back in time. Would you elaborate on why that must be so?

My book examines how colonialism, settler-colonialism, and occupation are all important analytics to understand India’s relationship with Kashmir. That is to say—India uses characteristics of each of these categories to cement its rule in Kashmir over time, and thus, it is difficult to say that it is just one or the other. This is important because it encourages us to not see these categories as being oppositional to one another, but rather working in tandem in different moments to achieve particular ends for the state or respond to local forms of resistance.

A number of scholars have used the term occupation to denote the militarized character of governance starting from the late 1980s and beyond. Traditionally, the term occupation is from international humanitarian law and refers to military control by a power over a territory that is outside of its sovereign jurisdiction. It is meant to be temporary, but scholars of occupation have noted how the temporary can become prolonged and can overlap with colonialism (through resource appropriation) and settler colonialism (through land grabs). In the post-Partition period, Kashmir was still militarized (although the militarization may have appeared different to what occurred after the 1980s) and was under a permanent state of emergency through draconian laws that undermined democratic processes and dissent. Legal scholars Haley Duschinski and Shrimoyee Ghosh have also argued how Article 370 of the Indian constitution can be see through the framework of “occupational constitutionalism,” whereby the law produces Indian ‘foreign’ dominance in Kashmir. Article 370 was meant to be temporary, and pave the way for a mechanism of self-determination for the people of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the context of a contested accession, war between India and Pakistan, and UN intervention. Of course, this never happened, leading to a more prolonged occupation in Kashmir.

Q: Among the key concepts that you work with is Neve Gordon’s ‘politics of life’ which is a phrase that Gordon employs to describe the relationship of Israeli State with Palestinians post 1967 in his book Israel’s Occupation. Could you elaborate on why you used this concept and also comparisons that you find relevant between the two contexts?

The politics of life is probably one of the most useful concepts to think with in terms of understanding Kashmir at this time, but also in understanding different modalities of control under colonialism, settler-colonialism, and occupation. Neve Gordon, in Israel’s Occupation, used the term to describe Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war, whereby Israel attempted to secure the existence and livelihood of the Palestinians there, through agricultural reform, for example, or the planting of trees.

I found this concept to be really useful to understand how the Indian government and Kashmir’s client regimes propagated development, empowerment, and progress to secure the well-being of Kashmir’s popula¬tion and to normalize the occupation for multiple audiences. This meant foreground¬ing the day-to-day concerns of employment, food, education, and the provision of basic services. At the same time, questions of self-determination and Kashmir’s political future were being suppressed. The government intended to ensure that with an improved standard of living and greater prosperity, Kashmiri Muslim sentiments would shift in favor of India, and Kashmiris would effectively be integrated. This is a very different mechanism of control than, say, a more necropolitical one, whereby the state manages death through killings, torture, and disappearances, instead of life. However, both the politics of life, and more necropolitical forms of governance have operated in Kashmir to different degrees, and often at the same time.

Israel, similarly, utilizes different mechanisms of control across historic Palestine, relying on tactics of settler-colonialism, colonialism, occupation, and apartheid. So the modes that Israel uses to deny Palestinian sovereignty change over time and across space—from 48 lands, to the West Bank, and Gaza. It is important to understand how these tactics may resonate or differ across these distinct regions—Kashmir and Palestine—to better understand how these modalities of control are all part of an overarching structure of (settler) colonial occupation.

Q: Let us turn to specifics. In the first chapter, which comes after an extensive conceptual introduction, you write about the state-building in 1950s and 1960s Kashmir under its Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad in terms of a longer genealogy. How do Kashmiri struggles against the Dogra rule from the mid-nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, inform what transpired in the region once India and Pakistan were created in 1947? Relatedly, why did you choose Bakshi for this study instead of a more well-known figure like Sheikh Abdullah, who both preceded and succeeded Bakshi in ruling positions of power?

Under Dogra rule, Kashmiri Muslims were, in particular, extremely marginalized socially and economically. Illiteracy was high, most did not own land or property, and they were forced to pay heavy taxes to the Dogra state. Popular mobilizations against Dogra rule called for greater economic, educational, and political rights, as well as the uplift of the state’s longsuffering communities. Bakshi himself was part of one of these movements—the National Conference, which was one of the main parties opposing Dogra rule; it’s charter, the Naya Kashmir manifesto, was influenced by prominent leftists in the subcontinent at the time and called for a socialist democratic future for the state. Bakshi’s state-building project in the 1950s and 1960s was in part drawn from the Naya Kashmir manifesto, but also departed from it because the political context and compulsions under Indian rule were different. The Indian government and Kashmir’s client regimes initially saw that the resolution to the ‘Kashmir issue’ would address the economic and social concerns that Kashmiris had raised during their struggle against the Dogras—so things like land reform, education, employment—the politics of life, so to speak. They believed that political aspirations could be kept at bay as long as those issues were given attention to. This is how state-building was drawing from a longer genealogy that went back to the struggles against the Dogras.

I chose Bakshi precisely because I found that there was so little written about him, or the decade that he was in power, even though it appeared to me from preliminary research that this was the time that so much of the financial, cultural, legal, and political contours of India’s colonial occupation were entrenched. I was also intrigued by some of the oral narratives about him and his time in power I came across in my initial interviews—for example, stories of immense corruption, but also genuine concern for Kashmir’s marginalized populations.

Q: In chapter two, you detail the official narratives coming out of Kashmir during Prime Minister Bakshi’s regime, and curiously so in the context of a peak in global decolonization movements in which India played a major role under its Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. These official narratives seemed to make a case for Kashmiri acceptance of the Indian sovereignty. In the third chapter, you talk about Indian cinema’s arrival in Kashmir during the same period. And, as you show, a number of Bollywood films coming out of India were set or shot in Kashmir, which was also employed as a proof of normalcy and development in the region. But you argue that, ultimately, all such state-led efforts were wanting. Why do you think such efforts on part of Kashmiri and Indian governments did not work out as planned?

When there is such a strong attempt to produce ‘normalcy,’ it usually means that something is askance, and we can see the parallels of this time period to the moment we are in today. The third chapter examines both film and tourism as playing a crucial role in the production of ‘normalcy.’ Development and the production of normalcy was occurring congruent to immense political suppression. Yet, as I argue, even though the Indian government and Kashmir’s client regimes may have been successful in legally, economically, and politically integrating Kashmir with the Indian union during this time, they did not succeed in emotionally integrating Kashmiris, who still did not see themselves as “Indians.” There were popular political aspirations in Kashmir that did not align with the Indian state. Fundamentally, Kashmiris had been denied their right to self-determination. And so, all of these attempts were mechanisms of control to manage that denial, and to transform Kashmiri subjectivities in favor of India, but such efforts were wanting. In fact, they led to an opposite effect, whereby mobilizations for self-determination were even more heightened after Bakshi’s decade in power.

At the same time, however, film and tourism did succeed in territorializing India’s colonial occupation, especially for Indian audiences. Both allowed the idea of Kashmir and the desire for Kashmir to be cemented in the Indian imaginary. And I show in this chapter how Kashmir was constructed not just as a site of desire for middle-class Indian tourists, but also a site of religious attachment for Indian Hindus and integral to Hindu sacred geographies—at the expense of Muslim ones.

Q:The fourth chapter deals with how financial integration of Kashmir with India was central to the efforts of the Bakshi regime. In fact, Bakshi established his legacy as a beneficent administrator in the region and created many opportunities for jobs and development, especially for Kashmiri Muslims. Yet you also examine these developments through the framework of developing dependency. What does that imply?

Bakshi was different from his predecessor, Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first prime minister, in that he saw financial integration as important for the state to implement its development aims. Bakshi was called the “architect of modern Kashmir.” Under his rule, Kashmir entered what was portrayed as a “golden age” of large-scale modernization, including agricultural reform, infrastructural growth, and increased employment opportunities. These developments resulted from a complete renegotiation of Kashmir’s financial relationship with the Government of India as the Kashmir government placed certain fiscal demands on the Indian state. The state received significant grants and agricultural subsidies. This enabled a dependency on the Indian state as the developmentalist strategy in Kashmir focused more on meeting short-term strategic interests rather than long-term economic growth. It meant that Kashmir was not able to be self-sufficient, which further entrenched India’s colonial occupation. It was also different from the strategy of the Indian government elsewhere. India was then able to rely on tropes that Kashmir ‘needed’ India in order to survive. By looking at economic development and the fiscal relations between India and Kashmir and how they transformed during Bakshi’s rule, I contend that India was able to infiltrate Kashmir by fiscal and not direct military means.

Q: In chapter five, you write about the construction and multiple failures of the Indian secular project in Kashmir. The sixth chapter further raises the question of state appropriation of Kashmiri culture. A key element of both these chapters seemed to me that even as the state-controlled narratives about secularism and cultivating a pro-state Kashmiri Muslim subjectivity, ultimately—much like the efforts of developing an international narrative, promoting tourism, or financial integration—these attempts were also fraught. What is even more interesting is that many writers and intellectuals that you mention actually ended up critiquing the state and often faced consequences for their actions. As such, it seems that even though the state sought to closely control the intellectual production, it could not establish its hegemony. Would that be a fair assessment?

Yes, absolutely. And I think Akhter Mohiuddin’s story is very instructive in this regard. Mohiuddin was a Kashmiri novelist and short story writer. He was affiliated with some of the progressive writers in Kashmir beginning in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of these writers would come to be coopted into the state bureaucracy under Bakshi. Kashmir’s cultural intelligentsia faced significant pressures to join the ranks of his administration—and Bakshi was also able to exploit their desire for a steady income. The JK Cultural Academy was established at this time, to basically consolidate what was considered Kashmiri culture, but also to reflect a syncretic Kashmiri culture that was able to align well with the Indian state. As his day job, Mohiuddin was basically working within these statist cultural institutions and even served as a secretary in the cultural academy—although I did find some sources on how he tried to push back in the archive. He received Indian literary awards like the Sahitya Akademi award for his published works. Yet, part of what Mohiuddin’s story also shows is how those very same Kashmiri artists that worked in the state bureaucracy found ways to subvert the state narrative, and so the states control over cultural production was not hegemonic. In the case of Akhtar Mohiuddin – he wrote novels and short stories which paint a very different picture of Kashmir at the time, from the image that the state wanted to project of development or progress. His stories serve as a counter narrative to the “politics of life.” He writes about people being pushed by greed, loneliness and helplessness and subsequently make questionable choices. He also writes about how people learned to live and function in a fractured society. His short stories cover a range of topics—relations between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, the ways in which elections in Kashmir were ruses to serve the ruling party, and the corruption that came with newfound wealth. Mohiuddin would eventually come to renounce awards given to him by the Indian state, in the wake of the armed movement of the 1990s, when both his son and son-in-law were killed in the violence. His trajectory—from being one of the artists incorporated into the government’s cultural intelligentsia, to later renouncing the awards he received—reflects the complex interplay between conformity and resistance in the context of a colonial occupation. And in many ways this was not just specific to the subjectivities of the cultural intelligentsia alone—but many others, as well.

Q: The final sixth chapter takes a turn to narrate the story of explicit resistance by groups such as the Plebiscite Front and the Political Conference, and consequently outright repression against them. Arguably, this was the result of failure on part of Indian and Kashmiri states to establish their political legitimacy, and as such they resorted to outright repression by detaining and persecuting individuals and groups which challenged the political status quo. What were the stakes of this confrontation? And in what ways might this have laid the foundations of a diverse Kashmiri political resistance in decades to come?

During this time, contestation primary revolved around the politics of the “plebiscite.” Activists from these organizations would mobilize the masses in protests, rallies, and strikes demanding that the Kashmir issue was not final, and that Kashmiris had a right to self-determination via a UN-backed plebiscite. In response, the state would rely on sheer force—using its various police forces and intelligence networks to torture, detain, surveil, and harass dissenters. Part of what this chapter argues is that there was a state of permanent emergency in Kashmir at this time, bolstering the framework of a colonial occupation. Preventive detention, in particular, was often used against members of opposition groups. As with today, the state denied Kashmiris any agency; all opposition was depicted as being sponsored by Pakistan.

At the same time, I argue that the range of political possibility at this time also enabled ambiguity around the aspirations for these political groups. If the politics of plebiscite entailed either India or Pakistan, did it mean that these groups and the populations they mobilized were agitating for merger with Pakistan, since it was clear they were in opposition to Indian control? I show how some leaders of the Plebiscite Front were using the politics of plebiscite to secure greater autonomy within the Indian Union. One of the primary reasons why the Plebiscite Front was unable to sustain itself is that a number of its leaders were operating within the same frame of reference and background as those who were officially in power. This made it easier for the organization to be co-opted by the state, leading to other, more revolutionary possibilities to emerge in subsequent decades.

Q: Colonizing Kashmir brings to light many new sources which hitherto had not seen the light of the day, in addition to oral histories from interviews that you managed to conduct over the years. Could you elaborate on what your research process was like, especially considering the fact that it is not easy or straightforward to conduct research in Kashmir, which you yourself mention in the book. What is curious to me is how can we, as scholars, still strive to write meticulously researched histories when at a general level we understand and know that access to archival sources is restricted in Kashmir?

Doing research in Kashmir is complicated. For all scholars, especially those who do not have the benefit of being associated with the state, getting access is challenging, as is questions of safety and security. And yet, at the same time, one’s experience can be different based on your positionality, or even your discipline. During the time that I was conducting my archival fieldwork for my dissertation, the Srinagar State Archives was accessible, and was a huge resource for me. On the other hand, the National Archives of India in New Delhi, was not very accessible. Most of the material I requested regarding Kashmir came back “non-transferrable.” This changed a bit in subsequent field visits, and I was able to access a few important documents, including correspondence between the Indian government and Bakshi’s government regarding agricultural and rice subsidies, which really helped bolster my argument for my economic development chapter.

I was also able to get access in Kashmir to a number of private collections and additional libraries and archives. So much of this was linked to building trust with people, but also the privilege that I have being based in the US academy and being of Kashmiri background myself. This also came into play with the oral interviews that I conducted as part of my research, which really helped me understand the period better, its legacies, and also gave me “clues” as to what types of additional sources I should be looking out for. I am very grateful to many people in Kashmir who shared books and archival material with me.

Ultimately, I think the research process is a mixture of sheer luck, perseverance, and creativity. As researchers, and specifically those who are historians, we live with the fear that perhaps we didn’t incorporate everything that existed that could have buttressed our argument, or even worse, would have perhaps negated our argument. I still wish I could have come across sources that gave me more insight into Bakshi’s own political thinking or experiences. So, I am not sure if it is possible to write the most meticulously researched histories about a certain time period, but we can be meticulous with the sources we engage with, and those sources also ultimately shape the kinds of questions we ask.

Q: This is your first book based on your dissertation at the University of Michigan. Could you speak about the challenges in your intellectual journey: How did you navigate the dissertation writing process? And what did transforming it into the book look like? And finally, maybe some advice for people who might be working on their dissertations or first book manuscripts?

Writing a book on Kashmir that challenges normative frameworks isn’t easy. But, I am grateful that I was trying to publish this book at a time when there have been a number of monographs and edited volumes on Kashmir that challenge statist perspectives and move beyond the normal tropes in South Asian studies. And yet, at the same time, for me as a historian of South Asia, trying to build an argument about India’s rule in Kashmir as a colonial one in the time period that I examine, I had to push myself to think beyond South Asian history and area studies frameworks. The biggest intellectual transformation from the dissertation to the book was inspired by a friend who encouraged me to read widely across comparative regions—like Palestine, Tibet, Hawaii—and more theoretical works on settler-colonialism, colonialism, and occupation. This is what ultimately allowed me to fine-tune my arguments and interventions.

One often thinks that this whole process of writing a book is an individual one, but it is not. For me, it was important to build my own communities of support, especially other scholars of Kashmir, and those who are trying to ask similar questions in different contexts. So many people helped me in different ways from the dissertation to the book—by reading drafts, sharing additional sources, sharing their book proposals, doing co-writing sessions, and so on. My primary advice for those working on their first books based on the dissertation is to get other eyes on your work. They don’t even have to be people who know the region/topic that well; in fact, it might be better if they are not. Some incredibly helpful feedback for me has come from colleagues and friends whose work ranges from black feminist writings of the Caribbean to the racial and theological logics of the American security state. Building intellectual communities of support is the primary way that I was able to finish and publish this book.


Suvaid Yaseen is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.