Kashmir History, Politics, Representation

  • Publish Date: Oct 22 2018 3:06AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 22 2018 3:06AM
Kashmir History, Politics, RepresentationRepresentational Pic

When a Jester plays the victim, lamenting the present

becomes political aesthetic of historicized tragedy.

Reviewing an edited volume is complex in many ways because it requires not only reading and reviewing multiple authorial voices but also finding a common ground between them. The edited volume also poses a challenge to review because the editor binds together contributions from diverse research contexts into a single cohesive volume. Writing an ‘Introduction’ primarily synthesizes the contents of the book while also providing the justification for the chapters selected. The editor pulls the contributions, carefully like pearls through a single thread, to produce a multifaceted and nuanced view of the discourse for the readers. 

The edited volume under review here, Kashmir: History, politics, Representation compiled by Chitralekha Zutshi, brings together fourteen well-researched articles on Kashmir by established scholars around the globe from different perspectives, to provide New Directions in the Study of Kashmir. Zutshi, acknowledges the publication of the book as coincidence with ‘the seventieth anniversary of Indian independence, partition and the creation of Pakistan’ – a moment to emphasize broadly ‘the failures of the postcolonial era’. Using the ‘coincidence’ as an occasion, the book discusses the three generations of Kashmiris on both sides of the border since 1947 to address the multilayered nature and diversity of experiences and ideas, interactions and resistance that continue shaping Kashmir and its people (ix). 

To engage with the diverse and significant arenas of conflict, the objective of the volume is therefore to decentralize the ‘metanarrative’ on Kashmir, exclusively probed from the ‘high politics of conflict’. It proposes a newness in the study of Kashmir — its history, society and people, by making a methodological shift from earlier writings on Kashmir. 

Zutshi, in the ‘Introduction’, asserts that the compilation is significant for future scholarship for not only Kashmir or South Asia but also other ‘disputed regions’ around the world such as Kurdistan and Palestine. She writes, ‘[T]his volume provides indispensable insights into the variety of nationalisms and forms of resistance; the complex relationships among state structures, nationalist movements and citizens; and the human experiences of conflict and violence on the ground in this region. These, in turn, provide a framework for better ascertaining the intricacies of political and social relationships in other disputed regions around the world’ (16). Although Zutshi generously intends to extend her methodological framework based on Kashmir conflict, it appears that she collapses the distinct contexts within which each of these political conflicts has emerged. The existing literatures and scholarly works done on Palestine and the Kurds can’t be ignored here. Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2017) and Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (2017); David Shulman’s Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel And Palestine (2007) and “Bulldozing the Peace Process in Israel”; filmography of Bahman Gobadi on Kurd identity; “Contesting borders? The formation of Iraqi Kurdistan's de facto state” by Johannes Jüde, International Affairs, Volume 93, Issue 4, 1 July 2017, 847–863; “Review Essay: Kurdish Scholarship Comes of Age” by Michael M. Gunter (https://www.mepc.org/review-essay-kurdish-scholarship-comes-age) amply demonstrate that recent Palestinian and Kurdish scholarship has come of an age, equally with intellectual sincerity and ethico-political commitment.

Having said this, the articles in this volume do discuss Kashmir conflict from broader perspectives ranging from rich archival studies to anthropological and ethnographic surveys, close textual analyses, cinema and cultural studies, which Zutshi anchors as a move toward decentring earlier historiography on Kashmir. Zutshi begins her critique of earlier studies on Kashmir conflict which interpret Kashmir’s current situation as an ‘inevitable teleology’, when in 1989 ‘[t]he insurgency in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir began’. (1) Thus, bringing on ethical responsibilities on the historians, Zutshi suggests ‘not to allow Kashmir’s history and politics to be hijacked by divisive forces and reduced to mere slogans’. (17) 

To redirect the scholarship on Kashmir, Zutshi begins with redefining ‘Kashmir’ by summarizing her long duree study of narratives beginning with 7th century Nilmata Purana and 12th century Rajatarangini, wherein Kashmir is taken as a sacred entity ‘created through divine intervention as the centre of a larger cosmological universe characterized by Shaivism’ (5). With the introduction of Islam, the Sufi hagiographical narratives written in Persian from the fourteenth century onwards incorporated the idea of Kashmir as a sacred space from Sanskrit narratives and redefined Kashmir as a paradise on earth’. Later textual sources defined Kashmir as mulk, territory and qaum until the early twentieth century where Kashmiri nationalism is defined as ‘perfectly aligned with the narrative of Indian nationalism’ (9).

The editor’s long-standing engagement with the idea of Kashmir as a ‘sacred’ geography becomes a central moment to study Kashmir’s past and contemporary politics of Kashmir. However, if it is not possible to abandon the search for the historical origins, how does one begin to foreground origin narratives without succumbing to teleology? Zutshi brackets earlier writings on the 1989-armed response of the people of Kashmir as an ‘outcome of an inevitable teleology’. It is equally significant here to state the implicit teleology in Zutshi’s narratives of foregrounding sacred narratives of Kashmir using the most prominent textual sources such as Nilmata Purana, Rajatarangini or Bagh-i-Sulaiman, written in ‘high’ languages of the times when the place had a multilingual tradition. 

In continuation of reviewing earlier works on Kashmir, Zutshi points out how in the beginning ‘scholarship on Kashmir was flawed and how works such as those of Zutshi (2003) and Rai (2004), informed and influenced by South Asian historiography’, opened new avenues for research into Kashmir’s past and present (3). With claims such as these, Zutshi approaches Kashmir studies along orientalist (colonial) lines from her vantage point as a historian trained in South Asian historiographical trends. Does such claim reflect biases for historiography uninfluenced by modern South Asian historiography?

The Introduction attempts to argue how Kashmiri identity is ‘under fierce attack in the context of the contemporary conflict, especially between India and Kashmir, as Kashmiris seek to distance themselves from India and claim a greater identification of Kashmir with the Islamic world, defined increasingly in West Asian, rather than South Asian, terms’. (7) It would be worth referring here to the section ‘The Politics of Knowledge’ from Nicholas Dirks’s Autobiography of An Archive: A Scholar’s Passage to India, in what Dirks provides details of the origins of South Asian Studies that emerged in the 1950s-60s ‘as an academic-governmental term of American coinage designating a spatial area of concern for American strategy and foreign policy — a typical external term by which outsiders designated a territory for purposes significant to them, but devoid of any affective significance for its inhabitant.’ [2015: 265-90]. Further, Sudipta Kaviraj’s “A Strange Love of the Land: Identity, Poetry and Politics in the (un)Making of South Asia” (2014) explores ‘why and how the idea of space in what is called ‘South Asia’ today got reconfigured by modernity and how South Asia is still not a space that can be conceived as a space of belonging.’ By creating a dichotomy of identification between West Asian and South Asian spaces solely along religious lines, Zutshi proposes the methodology that does not adequately address the gulf between affect for pre-modern identification and modern nationalist geography among the people of Kashmir. 

The ‘Introduction’ powerfully exemplifies the diversity of scholarships through scholarly articles, divided into three sections: History, Politics and Representation. The section on ‘History’ begins by clubbing together four articles arguing that the formation of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846 becomes a reference point for studying ‘modern’ history in Kashmir. The section argues a powerful interconnection between the past and present in the context of Kashmir to contest the contemporary discourse for self-determination as a teleological conclusion from historical wrongs of 1846 or 1931. Using these essays to push her argument, Zutshi concludes that Kashmiri nationalism, under the Dogra regime, which was perfectly aligned with the narrative of Indian nationalism, now seems irreconcilable with it resulting in the historical bonds among groups of people, entities and ideas being separated by an unbridgeable gulf in the present (9). 

The second section of the book ‘Politics’ is the largest section of the volume, clubbing together six essays. In it, Zutshi argues for the need to decentralize Kashmir dispute by foregrounding different players significant in the politics of conflict (12). It is claimed that this compilation is unique in that it also brings narratives from ‘the regions of Kashmir on Pakistan side of the 1949 ceasefire line’, unravelling the ‘entangled histories and complex politics of these areas’. The articles by Christopher Snedden and Martin Sokefeld re-centre ‘Azad Kashmir’, delving on how an entity such as ‘Azad Kashmir’, which lacks political integrity, and the nationalist voices in Gilgit-Baltistan identify with Kashmir dispute but without being a part of Kashmir, illustrating the multiple contestations over identity, belonging, nationalism and citizenship across borders which according to Zutshi is the most significant feature of Kashmir conflict. Using Seema Kazi’s study as a case, Zutshi alludes to ‘institutional injustices’ and ‘insecurity’ when categories like ‘injustice’ perpetrated through the state completely deflects addressing the question of violence, therefore generating a middle ground where the promise to deliver justice is trafficked in but the question of state violence is side-lined. Articles on Dalit politics in Jammu region; on governance and identity politics; or questioning centre-staging the conflict exclusively to the Kashmir valley in this section exemplify various facets of conflicts in sub-regions across the borders and bring to fore the complexity in defining ‘the people of Kashmir’, which Zutshi claims cannot be understood as a homogenous whole. Her attempt to foreground ‘a more inclusive and collaborative relationship’ is significant to imagine ‘peace process’ in the region (12) and is a step toward setting a new direction in addressing conflict in Kashmir. 

The section of articles under ‘Representation’ illustrates that ‘the representations of Kashmir — as pastoral paradise, home of a unique Islamic culture and fine crafts and lately center of violence and conflict are not essential to the place and have rather been generated in a context and for specific purposes’ (14). As Dean Accardi’s article suggests, despite the perpetual appropriations and representations of Kashmir, Kashmir’s syncretic and spiritual landscape — that of Lala and Noor-ud-Din — has continued to be critical to Kashmiri identity while Vanessa Chishti’s article argues how the shifting shawl economy changed the symbolic place of Kashmir in the global imagination. These arguments provide the reader a perception that ‘spiritual syncretism’ remained critical to Kashmiri identity whereas shawls changed the representation of Kashmir, possibly because spirituality could not be commodified or didn’t make itself available, unlike the shawl industry, to a changing global context. Zutshi reduces unjustly Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s broader discursive argument into a representational presence in the compilation to suggest how the portrayal of Kashmiris as Muslims, in particular through their relationship to local and global Islam, help Indian cinema ideologically co-opt the Kashmir conflict. 

Zutshi has extended this Indian cinematic portrayal along lines similar to visual portrayal by choosing a particular photograph, clicked by herself, as a cover photo for this compilation. The dialectic between Indian cinematic portrayal and visual portrayal generates an image of architecture to dislodge Conflict and allows her to give a tacit spin to the conflict in particular, what she calls ‘New Directions in the Study of Kashmir’. To understand this, one must evaluate the image/cover photo:

The image becomes significant for its semiotics to understand the discursive context for future scholarship on Kashmir conflict. I end this review by putting in a context the image chosen for the book while being careful not to oversimplify my reading of the photograph. For the onlooker uninformed about the location shown, the image at first foregrounds the architecture, which can easily be mistaken as remnants of Islamicate architecture, created in recent decades. When the onlooker draws closer, the mighty mountain range drawn in a single flat blue stroke intensifies the geometric details of architecture, partitions the view into layers of horizons and throws vast skies onto a monotonous backdrop. It is a panoramic view which continues to the back cover of the book, only to be interrupted, if not distracted, by two most important details: the publishers on the right and the image description confirming it is the ‘Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar’ on the left. 

The image on the front cover has the syntax of human presence preserved, ensuring that to the seer the space is neither isolated nor dehumanized. The presence of out-of-focus human figures is quite compelling too, not because it is hardly possible to acknowledge and identify their human form but because the image when observed closely reveals distinct lines cutting across corporeal, spiritual and territorial context, antithetical to one another. A descent when the onlooker approaches from the right to the left, an ascension when gazed from the left to the right, and a horizontal line in concrete that compliments the vertical structure. The image creates a visual evidence to contextualize the historically disputed imagination of geography, which it is argued is motivated ideologically and politically on radical Islamic fault lines in contemporary discourse on conflict in Kashmir. The ‘meta-narrative of political conflict’ in Kashmir is stretched in imagination from shrine publics to pan-Islamic extremists. 

Framing the future discourse on studying Kashmir’s past and present deserves deeper and more nuanced analysis. However, the reader of Kashmir: History, Politics, Representation falls short in understanding how this compilation is not an outcome of an implicit teleology and ideologically-driven direction in studying nuances of Kashmir conflict. While the volume does suggest a nuanced reading of various ‘agents’ with a stake in the conflict, it does not put in perspective the military institution, which has emerged as one of the most powerful stake-holders in the contemporary global politics as also in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Including perspectives from these contexts would allow a more comprehensive reading of the politics of Conflict and could generate fresh epistemes to grasp the complexity of territorial imaginary in political conflicts in and beyond South Asia in the postcolonial era. There is a need to fully integrate ‘Kashmiri Pandit’ narratives and their stakes in the conflict, more deeply and discursively than simply examining the experience of ‘Displacement’ and ‘involuntary migration’ which Zutshi foregrounds in the Introduction by referring to Haley Duschinski’s article. Neither the nature of Conflict nor the contested narratives of Kashmir’s past and embattled present can be ‘dislodged’ without analysing political categories such as ‘homeland’, ‘sacred geography’, ‘outsiders/insiders’, ‘belonging’, ‘community’ which have become endemic, especially in the post-1989 Kashmir. Zutshi attempts to bring a fresh methodology to study the region on the one hand and on the other hand reinstates contested categories such as ‘insurgency’, ‘secessionist politics’, ‘South Asian Historiography’, ‘Inclusion’, ‘Peace process’, ‘Intractable issue’, ‘Islamization’ and ‘Indianization/Hinduization’. Employing these categories to deflate the metanarrative of political conflict and frame a new direction in the contemporary discourse on Kashmir is not only redundant and timeworn but equally ideology-driven perspective. 

Coming back once more to the cover photograph, using John Berger’s term ‘optic emigration’ would suggest how the gaze of the onlooker descends from grey skies and a mountainous horizon, and settles leisurely on the magnanimity of the architecture transformed into a monument. This image is a precursor to a discourse, which impinges upon the seer to become aware of the greater identification of the metanarrative of the Conflict in Kashmir with global pan-Islamism. In this sense, the cover image becomes a discursive moment to begin studying history of Kashmir, which is what Chitralekha Zutshi aims at. Finally, Zutshi ends with lines from Rahi’s ‘Sad Jester’ that call our attention to address the complex historical encounters with more challenging readings that are not predetermined by reductive categories, as Zutshi inflects the direction to study Kashmir conflict primarily in civilizational polarities.


I would like to acknowledge Faheem Amin for going through an earlier draft of the review. However, all arguments, views and conclusions in this review are mine alone and no one bears any responsibility for those.