Over the past decade, Mohamad Junaid has emerged as one of the most eloquent Kashmiri voices in support of self-determination. Born in 1981 in Islamabad—a city in the Kashmir Valley—he was eight years old the year mass protests began to gather steam, and he came of age alongside the resistance. In many ways, it was a traumatizing childhood, lived under the shadow of military checkpoints, stretched out of shape by arbitrary curfews, and permeated with violence. Yet it was also an inspiring, at times electrifying period in which to grow up, as the Kashmiri independence movement grew in strength.
Both these aspects of the Kashmiri experience come together fruitfully in Junaid’s scholarly writings. An anthropologist by training, he has written extensively about the military occupation, paying particular attention to its reconfiguration of time, space, and political subjectivity. Part of the power of his work lies in his ability to explore the human dimension of cold, fossilized concepts like “curfew,” “resistance,” and “counterinsurgency.” In a typical move, he will transition from a description the social dynamics of a stone-pelting protest to a reflection on the ethics of self-determination itself.
Junaid is a professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. We spoke over Zoom about the history of Kashmiri resistance, from the eighteenth century to today. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Ratik Asokan: It would be good to begin with some historical context. How did Kashmir come under Indian control?
Mohamad Junaid: India annexed Kashmir in 1947. This was part of a broader process by which several princely states on the subcontinent were divvied up between the two newly independent nations, India and Pakistan. As you may know, many princely rulers had no desire to join either country; they would have preferred to retain their independence. This is especially true of Hyderabad, Junagadh, and Kashmir, whose rulers were undecided at the time of the Partition. But they were put under enormous pressure to pick a side by the departing British empire as well as by Indian and Pakistani nationalist leaders.
Hyderabad and Junagarh states had a majority Hindu population but were ruled by Muslim kings. So India could not allow them to remain independent. In Hyderabad, India sent in its army, even though Indian history textbooks term this bloodied invasion a “police action.” In Junagadh, the Congress called for a plebiscite which favored India. In Kashmir, the situation was reversed: it was a Hindu dynasty that was ruling over mostly Muslim subjects.
RA: A historically oppressive ruler, correct?
MJ: Yes. It’s important to understand the relations between the ruling dynasty in Kashmir and their subjects. Too often, people discuss Kashmir as if its history began in 1947. But the story is a lot older. In 1846, as part of the Treaty of Amritsar, the British East India Company basically sold the Kashmir Valley for seven and a half million rupees to a mercenary chieftain from Jammu, Gulab Singh. Jammu was then a part of Sikh-ruled Punjab, and Gulab was a vassal. During a crucial battle between the Company forces and the Sikhs, Gulab switched his loyalties to the British, who rewarded him with control over Kashmir.
What needs to be underscored is that Indian control over Kashmir went against the long-held aspirations of the people of Kashmir, against the logic of Partition, and against all the norms of international legal principles.
Gulab laid the foundation of the feudal Dogra dynasty, which for the next hundred years ruled over Kashmiris with a fanatic vengeance, reducing its Muslims—almost 80 percent of the subject population—to a state of destitution. Despite occasional protests from European travelers and officials and protests from Kashmiris, the British government largely turned a blind eye to the Dogra tyranny because the Dogras were loyal and acted as a buffer state, first against Tsarist Russia and later against the Soviet Union. Essentially they served as a pawn in the Great Game.
Kashmiris were completely disenfranchised under Dogra rule. Crushing taxation, forced labor, and highly discriminatory laws had reduced Muslim life in Kashmir to a life of bondage. Dogras saw themselves as essentially Hindu; they established a feudal class system that closely corresponded with religious identity: Hindus as the privileged class of landlords and Muslims as dispossessed peasant subjects.
Ever since the Dogras stepped into Kashmir in 1846, they had faced resistance from Kashmiris. While much of the resistance was crushed or contained, by the 1930s it had taken the form of mass politics. Kashmiris mobilized initially for education and equal rights, and eventually for freedom from the monarchy. By 1947, the Dogras were facing a series of rebellions and protests across the country and could claim no legitimacy or consent of their subjects.
This is the backdrop against which we have to understand the Indian annexation. In India, the story of Kashmir’s annexation is told as a tale of Indian military arriving just in time to “save” Kashmir from Pakistani invaders. This not only erases the decades-old struggle of the Kashmiri people for emancipation from its ruling class; it also misrepresents the actual series of events that preceded the Indian military’s arrival.
In August 1947, as Pakistan and India were born, the Dogra ruler signed a “standstill” agreement with Pakistan, which basically bought him a few extra months to make a decision on accession. He sent a similar agreement to India, which Nehru rejected. As his time began to run out, the Dogra ruler’s troops carried out a series of massacres of Muslims in Jammu between August and October 1947. In these killings, Dogra troops were aided by Hindu nationalist forces from India, especially jathas of the RSS. Indian leaders like Nehru did nothing to prevent these massacres, nor did they stop armed RSS cadres from crossing the border into Kashmir state. The historical consensus now is that as many as two hundred thirty-seven thousand Muslims were killed during that period, and over half a million were displaced from the region. Jammu, which used to be a Muslim-majority city, lost almost all of its Muslim population in a matter of weeks.
RA: This is an episode of Partition that is hardly discussed. On the contrary, Gandhi is supposed to have said that Kashmir was a “silver lining” during partition as there was little Hindu-Muslim violence there.
MJ: Well, there is some truth to his statement. The Jammu Massacre was an episode of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by the RSS and the Dogra royals. There was little spontaneous “communal” violence of the kind you saw in Punjab, Bengal, Delhi, and other places during that time. In fact, in the Kashmir Valley, where Muslims make up 95 percent of the population, there was no violence against the minority Hindu community.
Anyway, by late October, the Dogra ruler was beset by major internal rebellions, especially in the western districts of Poonch, where freedom fighters had liberated much of the territory. Around this time, Pashtun militias from the northwest frontier province of Pakistan also entered the state. It is likely that many of the militiamen had arrived to aid Kashmiri Muslims, especially after hearing the stories of the pogroms in Jammu that refugees had carried with them to Pakistan.
On October 26, 1947, as he was facing these multiple crises, Indian leaders offered the Dogra ruler help—but only on the condition that he sign a treaty of accession. Essentially, they blackmailed him, and he hastily agreed. In the event, the treaty did him no good, as the Dogra state effectively came to an end with Indian annexation. To pacify international opinion, Indian leaders claimed that the accession was temporary and that the people of Kashmir would be allowed self-determination in due time.
What needs to be underscored is that Indian control over Kashmir went against the long-held aspirations of the people of Kashmir, against the logic of Partition, and against all the norms of international legal principles. India had no justifiable political, legal, or ethical reason to take over Kashmir. I am not necessarily saying that Kashmiris wanted to join Pakistan. Kashmiris always had the sense of being a separate, independent people, with a historical and regional continuity that long preceded the formation of the Indian and Pakistani states. Even the geographical and communication links between India and Kashmir had to be invented where they had hardly ever existed. Because of the annexation, Kashmir was severed from its broader regional trade and cultural ties to the north, west and east, and turned into a hostage of Indian nationalism.
Soon after the ascension, in November 1947, India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir. There was a stalemate, and in 1948 India took the matter to the United Nations, which recognized Kashmir as a disputed territory and made three recommendations as part of Security Council Resolution 47. First, it called for an immediate ceasefire, temporarily freezing the boundaries wherever Indian and Pakistani troops stood. Second, it called on both countries to demilitarize Kashmir, with India maintaining a minimal presence until a plebiscite could be held. Third, and most important, it called for a plebiscite in Kashmir under international supervision. As is well known, Nehru kept postponing this promised plebiscite until he unilaterally took it off the table in 1953.
RA: At this point, what is Kashmir’s relation to the Indian state?
MJ: The instrument of accession held that India would be in charge of three aspects of Kashmiri governance: defense, external affairs, and communication. Everything else would be autonomously governed. Under this arrangement, Kashmir had its own flag, constitution, tax system, judiciary, and prime minister. This “special status” was enshrined in the Indian constitution, passed in 1950. Today, BJP leaders like to claim that these special provisions were temporary, but that’s simply not true. The only temporary feature of these provisions was that they were all to depend on the plebiscite. Of course, that never happened.
There were two key articles in the Indian constitution pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir state’s special status. One was Article 370, which limited the ability of the Indian parliament to enact laws for Jammu and Kashmir; the state’s own democratically elected assembly was to pass legislation. The other was Article 35A, which allowed this elected assembly to determine who could become a permanent resident of the state and thereby own land in Kashmir or apply for government jobs. These two articles were basically the gist of the terms of the accession.
RA: What was the domestic political situation in Kashmir like at that time?
MJ: At that time the main political party in Kashmir was the National Conference (NC), led by Sheikh Abdullah, who was a popular leader. He didn’t trust Pakistani leaders and wanted independence for Kashmir or at least a semi-independent status under Indian protection. He believed—wrongly, alas—that he could achieve this by negotiating with the Congress. He had assumed that the Congress would respect the call for the plebiscite and so forth. Instead, in 1953, Nehru had Sheikh Abdullah arbitrarily arrested. While India claimed Abdullah was conspiring with Western powers to free Kashmir, the actual reason was the pressure created by former Hindu landlords and royals of the state who vociferously opposed the land reforms—Land to the Tiller—that Abdullah had initiated, and also by the Hindu rightwing forces in India, who brooked no reference to autonomy. Abdullah would remain behind bars for twelve years. He was replaced by a hand-picked regime that allowed the Indian Congress to water down key elements of Article 370 and bring Kashmir more firmly under India’s grip.
What I remember most about the insurgency is the constant, disorienting presence of soldiers, and the threat and danger they posed.
This would set the tone for what was to follow. Hand-picking a local collaborator, clamping down on dissent, rigging elections, arresting opposition figures, forcing candidates to withdraw—all of these became part of how India governed Kashmir. In the following years, the National Conference mutated into a pro-India party. Likewise, other electoral parties realized they could only function if they gave up aspirations of independence, which alienated them from the Kashmiri masses.
There are now two major pro-India parties in Kashmir: the National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Over the years, both have tried to “negotiate” with the Indian government, but with little to show for their efforts. Because they haven’t taken an unambiguous stance on independence and often sided with the Indian state against the interest of Kashmiris, they have lost legitimacy over time. In the Indian media, the NC and PDP are often described as “mainstream parties.” But that’s not true. It’s better to think of them as “separatist” parties, as they have separated themselves from the Kashmiri people. The mainstream aspiration in Kashmir continues to be freedom from India.
RA: Abdullah’s arrest seems to mark a turning point. What was Indian rule in Kashmir like in the following decades?
MJ: Undoubtedly, Abdullah had been popular with the people—for his radical economic program rather than for his pro-India stance. Even during his arrest, he remained a kind of “ruler-in-exile” as people awaited his return. But by the time the Congress released him in 1975, he had bartered away his hopes of autonomy, instead settling for administrative power. This was a great betrayal, though it took several years for people to realize the impact of his actions. By the time of his death in the early 1980s, Abdullah was no longer a factor in Kashmiri politics. His son, Farooq Abdullah, took over the NC, continuing with the pattern of compromises, reducing a once-powerful political party into a mere client regime. Meanwhile, there were numerous other revolutionary and political parties emerging in Kashmir.
RA: The uprising begins around 1989. Can you speak about that time?
MJ: In some sense, the trigger for the uprising was the 1987 state elections, which were heavily rigged in favor of the NC by the Indian government. Accompanying this rigging was the widespread repression of an opposition party called the Muslim United Front, which was contesting elections for the first time. MUF activists were arrested and tortured. For many, it seemed to be the last straw. This was when several youth crossed the border into Pakistani administered region of Kashmir seeking arms and training, then returned to fight India. You also have to keep the international context in mind. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and Afghans had pushed the Soviets out. People thought perhaps this was our moment as well. There was this enormous upsurge of emotion and sense of possibility.
By late 1988–1989, there were a series of mass protests that shook Kashmir. Additionally, Kashmiris celebrated the appearance of young Kashmiri armed militants, who were still only a few dozen in number but enough to infuriate Indian authorities.
RA: What was the Indian state’s response?
MJ: The state’s response was heavy-handed; it was brutal. By January 1990, Indian forces were openly massacring Kashmiris on the streets—around 60 in Gawkadal, thirty-three in Tengpora, twenty-one in Handwara—and every new massacre intensified the protests. Kashmiri Hindus left Kashmir in fear during that winter, and pro-India politicians escaped, leaving Kashmiris to bear the brunt of the Indian assault. Instead of subduing Kashmiris, Indian repression led to thousands more joining the armed militant ranks.
By July 1990, there were close to three hundred fifty thousand Indian soldiers in Kashmir. That militarization grew at a staggering rate, and today—thirty years later—there are some seven hundred fifty thousand Indian soldiers in the state. As is often repeated, it’s the most militarized region in the world.
Until 1990, the soldiers were mostly living in garrisons and positioned along the border with Pakistan. But once the uprising began, they spread out. It wasn’t like the Indian government had prepared housing for them or anything. They just entered any field or property and building they liked and settled down there. Schools, hospitals, office buildings, private businesses were all occupied. In our neighborhood, Indian soldiers occupied a cinema hall. They removed the projector, stripped off the seating, set up beds, and suddenly we had hundreds of armed soldiers living a few streets away from us.
RA: You lived through this period. What was it like, personally?
MJ: I was eight years old when the protests began in 1989. My family lives in a town called Islamabad, which is also known as Anantnag. What I remember most about the time is the constant, disorienting presence of soldiers, and the threat and danger they posed. Military camps were springing up everywhere: on hills, in public gardens and squares, in telegraph offices and post offices, in cinema halls, as I mentioned. I remember an entire college near our neighborhood was occupied. I remember that soldiers were living in a local hospitals, and patients were frisked and had to show IDs before they could enter. A friend’s father owned a small factory; one day soldiers showed up and simply occupied two-thirds of the factory floor. For years, his employees worked in one-third of the factory while soldiers were camped beside them.
I had friends who died in the crossfire as they were making their way to school. A local teenager, who I used watch play cricket in the neighborhood, was shot dead by an Indian snipper perched on a hill.
Often Kashmiris were forced to build bunkers and carry supplies for Indian soldiers—it was unpaid labor. But more grotesquely, these same soldiers would then assault our houses, destroy critical winter food stores, torture our elders, and assault women. They were not kind neighbors.
In my work, I have argued that the military occupation was not some kind of theoretical and abstract thing that requires proper legal terminology to characterize. Rather, it was a tangible, material atrocity that was unfolding at breakneck speed. A spatial reorganization of Kashmir was taking place. There were these two spaces that were being co-constructed simultaneously. One was the space of the military and security forces—highly surveilled; this was ramming through the other space, the Kashmiri sense of place, a familiar geography of everyday life. The occupation forced its way into this latter space, spreading into all its nooks and crannies.
As children, we were forced to reimagine Kashmir, to figure out what were safe spaces, to navigate our everyday landscape in an entirely new way than was previously familiar to us. Women became secluded, and men were terrified.
RA: What about school, college? Did “daily life” continue amidst the crackdown?
MJ: There wasn’t much school in the 1990s. There were so many attacks, so much shooting, literally every day I remember having to jump under tables and desks. Our teachers would be arrested and taken away, tortured. Torture was a major thing in Kashmir—not something you read in Indian newspapers. Even as kids, we were slapped around by the army. I was kind of frail and little, but I remember older kids in my school being beaten up by soldiers, taken away for torture sessions.
I had friends who died in the crossfire as they were making their way to school. A local teenager, who I used watch play cricket in the neighborhood, was shot dead by an Indian snipper perched on a hill. We couldn’t stay out after 6 p.m. or go anywhere without our IDs. It was a state of perpetual chaos. Our world was entirely turned upside down. All the spaces that you had imagined to be safe—orchards where we went apple-picking, fields where we played cricket or soccer—became unsafe, became fields of battle. No matter where you were going, even it was only to the grocer, you thought beforehand about your exit plan, you plotted in advance a “safe” return home. I discuss this in a recent essay titled “Countermaps of the Ordinary.” We learned to read signs, to read people’s gestures and faces, to understand what certain hand gestures meant. From a gesture we could tell if there was an army patrol approaching, or if there was some kind of violent incident ahead.
It wasn’t just public space that was taken over. The army regularly entered civilian homes under the pretext of “searching for terrorists.” Young as I was, I was forced to sit outside in the freezing cold with all the other neighborhood men as the armed forces searched our homes. Sometimes this would last from three in the morning through five in the evening. Women were regularly harassed during these raids, though as a child I somehow tuned that out. I somehow convinced myself that nothing bad was happening to them. I learned of the harassment and violence only much later.
The situation as so bad that our relatives from the countryside refused to even stay at our homes. They would eat dinner and then quickly return to their village; they were so sure that raids would occur at night. As the occupation grew, the countryside became even worse. In a village a few miles from our home, Indian soldiers hacked several civilians to death.
RA: The proliferating military checkpoints and garrisons are a reflection of how the Indian state organizes its power and terror spatially. But in your essay, you also discuss the manner in which the state destabilizes time in Kashmir. You write:
Even as they bring to bear and make visible the militarized spatial order, curfews acquire a surreal power of the society’s temporal order as well. They freeze and unfreeze time at will, weaving it into the striated spatiality of the occupation. Curfews in Kashmir are, thus, the clearest expression of the state’s repressive power as well as the purest felt experience of the occupation’s spatiotemporal logic.
Could you say something more about curfews?
MJ: Curfews are meant to retain absolute control over public space, but they also suspend time. On several occasions, the Indian government has imposed months-long curfews in Kashmir; yet at other times, the curfews last just a day or several days. It is a strange experience because you are forced to drop everything and wait. And wait. Or you don’t wait because you don’t know how long the curfews might last. As a result, you develop a fluid conception of time. Curfews begin early in the morning and end in the evening. It is a sort of reversal of time. There are typically “shoot-on-sight” orders during curfew. That is, if a soldier sees you out, they can shoot you.
RA: In the media, the occupation is presented as something that is necessary if unfortunate. We are told that the state has to show a “strong face” in order to bring an end to lawlessness and violence. However, in your essay, “Death and Life Under Occupation: Space, Violence, and Memory in Kashmir,” you argue that the Indian state’s goal is to maintain a permanent occupation in Kashmir. You write:
The daily reminder that military occupation engenders among the occupied of the difference from the occupiers is a difference shot through with acute inequalities of power and starkly contradicts integrationist iterations. Spatial control, then, seeks no other end than its own perpetuation. It is in a state of permanent temporariness: the logic occupation presents to continue its operations is generated by those same operations, and the means/end dichotomy produces itself into an endless chain. Occupation has no logical end, or closure, in its sight.
Can you say more about this?
MJ: What occupation does is it produces a sort of incremental disorder, an “ordered disorder.” When you completely militarize a region and give ordinary soldiers the ability to arrest, confiscate, torture, and kill at will, with impunity, you are also giving the occupied population further incentive to resist, to defy your occupation. In a sense, the occupation is like the ouroboros, the mythical creature that eats its own tail. In the name of suppressing resistance, it creates new resistance. In the name of suppressing violence, it behaves violently. For every Kashmiri the state kills, it creates four more who are ready to rise up and resist. And so, the cycle goes on.
After some time, causes and consequences get blurred. For what reason did all this violence begin? When did it begin? What is the cause of disorder? This blurring, this state of self-perpetuating danger and confusion, is what I mean when I say that the occupation is not a means to achieve an end, but a restless end it itself. Occupation can never end itself—it is a self-perpetuating system.
Let me speak from personal experience here. I can count at least sixty people from my neighborhood who were killed during the 1990s. Just in my neighborhood. And every single one was killed by the military. Of those sixty, probably twenty were armed militants. The rest were civilians. When I build the chain of association in my mind, I can practically map all those lost lives and show how each new person’s killing was a result of someone before them who had been killed. Each armed militant was a brother or son of a civilian the military had shot.
We grew up with layers and layers of such violence sedimenting into our traumatized memories. The young people who join the armed militants, they simply can’t take it anymore. They are barely trained, hardly possess any equipment, and they know they are unlikely to last a few weeks once they go underground. The Indian military is creating the conditions for their death even before they pick up weapons. That is the nature of “ordered disorder” in Kashmir.
RA: What are the Indian army’s counterinsurgency tactics like?
MJ: The Indian army used classic counterinsurgency tactics. They have openly boasted of using policies like “catch-and-kill” and “scorched earth.” Currently, there is an “Operation All Out” in place. These names can tell you something about the nature of Indian aggression in Kashmir. Like any classic colonial force, they have also set up counterinsurgency forces comprising of “turned” resistance fighters, known as the Ikhwanis.
August 5, 2019, marks the day when India’s control of Kashmir transitioned from military occupation to settler colonialism. That’s how most Kashmiris see it.
The Ikhwani units were set up in the early 1990s, after some insurgents changed sides in the wake of resistance group infighting. This was a turning point in the army operations. Until then, Kashmiris were facing an alien army. It was violent and ruthless, but it did not know Kashmiri society from the inside. The Ikhwanis, however, were one of us; and this gave them an awful “advantage” in the battle. Their violence was a lot more intimate. For instance, the first thing they usually did was attack the very families that had hosted them as fighters. The Ikhwanis were instrumental in crushing the armed movement in the mid-1990s. Once they were unleashed, I don’t think the armed movement ever recovered.
I’ve spent months on the ground doing research on Ikhwanis, even interviewing some of those who survived, for a forthcoming essay. Most of those I spoke to are full of guilt and regret. They feel they betrayed their own people. I remember one who told me, “I don’t know why I survived.” Some of them have even returned to their villages, where they were forgiven by their neighbors. But they are still racked with guilt.
Many unrepentant Ikhwanis were recruited into the police force, where they continue their ravages even now. The Kashmir police is a full-on counterinsurgency force. If you are a Kashmir police officer and are fighting crime, drugs, and so forth, your career will go nowhere. But suppose you harass a Kashmiri teenager and in despair they join an armed group, and then you get to kill them. If you do this, you will rise up the ranks fast.
RA: The Indian government has used similar tactics elsewhere. The Salwa Judum comes to mind.
MJ: Of course, they have. That’s what empires do. Before Kashmir they did it in Punjab, and before that in Nagaland. In the 2000s they did it in Chhattisgarh with the Salwa Judum. Recently, I met an ex-Ikhwani who was later recruited into India’s territorial army, which is kind of an associated military force, not the regular army. His first assignment was to travel to Chhattisgarh and fight the Maoists there. That’s what a colonial regime does, it pits one group against another, violently if possible.
RA: The resistance ended in the mid-1990s. How has the Indian government’s control morphed since then?
MJ: While the armed resistance diminished, the counterinsurgency apparatus continued to grow. Counterinsurgency became lucrative—it made careers and contractors made money. There is nothing more lucrative than “national security.” In the early 1990s, there were probably ten thousand armed militants and close to four hundred fifty thousand Indian soldiers in Kashmir. From 2010 onwards, there have generally been on average only two hundred militants operating, but the number of Indian soldiers has risen to seven hundred fifty thousand. The only explanation for this expansion is that the real objective of the military is to subdue the population, not so much to fight the militants.
Over the last decade, regular civilian protests in response to Indian suppression became widespread, but now even those protests have been crushed. Now the Indian military is just sitting there, on top of the people, harassing and intimidating them, expecting people to come out of their homes so they could be shot, hoping more young Kashmiris will join the militants so the counterinsurgency machine can roll on. Indian soldiers take videos when they blow up Kashmiri homes and share them with online communities in India. These are spectacles created to show they are doing something.
RA: This brings us to the current Modi government. It has been little over year since Article 370 was abrogated. For those who don’t know what happened, can you briefly recap?
MJ: In 2016, the PDP came to power in Kashmir in alliance with India’s ruling party, the BJP. But this coalition did not last. In 2018, the BJP withdrew its support, and the Indian federal government imposed presidential rule in the state before basically just dissolving the assembly. In late July 2019, there was a massive influx of troops into Kashmir—around one hundred eighty thousand additional soldiers arrived—which suggested that something dramatic was going to happen. The leaders of resistance parties and activists had already been jailed for months, but on August 4, even leaders of pro-Indian parties were detained, and a curfew was imposed all across the region that night.
On August 5, Home Minister Amit Shah presented a bill in the Parliament called the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, which was signed into law three days later—with practically no resistance from other Indian parties. As I said, Article 370 had been constantly watered down through the decades to the point that it was more or less an empty shell. With the new bill, that empty shell became even emptier. The BJP basically revoked all the token provisions for Kashmir’s autonomy. But they didn’t stop there. It tore up the historic state into two—Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh—and reduced each to a union territory status. This meant Kashmir and these other regions were going to be directly ruled by an agency in New Delhi, and people in these regions would have no democratic voice. What was most devastating was the removal of Article 35A. This opened the doors to Indians to settle in Kashmir, a longstanding demand of the Hindu right wing.
If I were to put these changes in one sentence: August 5, 2019, marks the day when India’s control of Kashmir transitioned from military occupation to settler colonialism. That’s how most Kashmiris see it.
RA: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by “settler colonialism” in this context?
MJ: Let us begin with the land, since that is the primary target of colonialism. For some time, there had been a small number of migrants—Dalits of the Valmiki community, refugees from other countries—living in Kashmir without permanent resident status. It is a very small number, less than a few thousand, and all these people could have been properly granted residence permits because they had been living in the region for long enough.
The Indian government has always maintained a very broad definition of who is imprisonable in Kashmir.
Under the pretext of granting residence to this tiny group of people, the Indian state has passed a domicile law that opens the doors for a much larger demographic to come and settle in Kashmir. Now, anyone who has worked in Kashmir for seven years or completed their high school examinations there, or is born to such a person, will be granted permanent residence. Just imagine the number of Indian bureaucrats or soldiers and other officials who have been running the military occupation who will now be able to settle down in Kashmir permanently and take over land. As people of India settle in Kashmir, it will create a hierarchical citizenship between the colonizers and the colonized. Already, the Indian military is in possession of an enormous amount of land in Kashmir.
The net effect of these policies is to “solve” Kashmir through forcible demographic change. Already tens of thousands of Indians have obtained their permits over the last few months. In just a few years, Kashmiris could become a minority in Kashmir.
At the same time, Kashmir has also been opened up for extraction. Kashmir has a very fragile ecosystem—but it’s also rich in minerals. The first contracts granted by the state after August 5, 2019, exclusively went to Indian mineral extraction companies. We know their record in places like Orissa and how indigenous communities there have been displaced and brutalized to make way for bauxite mining. The same thing will now happen in Kashmir. As the scholar Damien Short has argued, settler colonialism is also a form of ecocide. Our rivers and forests cannot survive this assault.
RA: What does the political system in Kashmir look like now?
MJ: At the legislative level, they have split the state into two union territories, Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh. In Kashmir, there will be a smaller legislative assembly and council of ministers with absolutely limited powers. A lieutenant governor has been appointed from the center, who acts like a viceroy. In Ladakh, there will be no legislators at all; it will be controlled directly from the center.
But the real changes have happened at the level of administration. Kashmir is under a colonial administration now. The Indian government has passed a barrage of orders effectively taking over the administrative service, the anti-corruption bureau, and the police. They have replaced Kashmiri government officials in higher positions with Indians from outside. Let me put it this way: earlier, the Indian state exercised control in Kashmir through a military occupation and a puppet legislature. Now they have taken over the bureaucracy too. In this system, all Kashmiris are supposed to be passive spectators. This is a dramatic reversal of even the basic elements of civil and political rights that had somehow survived the occupation so far.
RA: The abrogation of 370 was accompanied by a staggering number of arrests. The Indian government made little effort to even justify this mass incarceration. What kinds of people were imprisoned, and why?
MJ: The Indian government has always maintained a very broad definition of who is imprisonable in Kashmir. It’s useful to taxonomize here. One classic group of “arrestable” people are those who agitate for independence or call for Kashmir to merge with Pakistan. From the Indian state’s perspective, they are beyond the pale, they have to be put away. They spend months in jail under the so-called Public Safety Act. Many of them spend years in jail without trial. In 2019, close to ten thousand people were put in prison either under PSA or under other preventive detention laws. Currently, much of the pro-freedom leadership, including Yasin Malik, has been placed in jail. In late February 2019, the Indian state banned two groups, Jamaat Islami and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, placing all their leaders and many of their activists in jail.
The second class of “arrestable” people in Kashmir come from civil society: democracy activists, researchers, journalists, lawyers, those who investigate the state’s killings and torture. They face intimidation and the threats of arrest all the time. For instance, the photojournalist and writer Asif Sultan has been in jail for two years now on the trumped-up charges that he aided some militant. The South Kashmir journalist Qazi Shibli has been in and out of prison for years now, for no reason except that he reports from the ground. Photojournalist Masrat Zehra has been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for a picture she shared on social media. Journalist Kamran Yousuf was beaten up by Indian police for covering a protest. These are just a few examples of what is widespread abuse.
A third, somewhat new class of “arrestable” people is made up of politicians who have historically been pro-India. These include members of parties like NC, PDP, and People’s Conference. When 370 was abrogated, even they were put under preventive detention—not in jails, but in hotels or whatever. In exchange for their release, some have signed bonds promising to never publicly speak about August 5, 2019.
In short, Kashmir is a prison state. It is a big, open-air prison.
RA: The mass arrests were accompanied by an internet shutdown.
MJ: Well, India can proudly declare that it is a world leader in internet shutdowns—most of these take place in Kashmir. No other country deprives people of access to the internet as often. Starting in August 2019, they shut down the internet for four straight months in Kashmir. It was a complete blackout. After much international criticism, they finally restarted the internet, but only 2G. India likes to boast that it has a big thriving internet economy. But it has placed Kashmir in an internet Stone Age. The crude joke of this all is that Kashmiris have to pay for 4G services in order to access their 2G service.
RA: In your essay “Death and Life Under Occupation,” you contrast different mass protests that broke out in Kashmir, in 1990 and 2008 respectively, noting that it took the Indian state six years to “restore normality” after the former, but only a few months to crush the latter. Your point is that in the intervening years the state had militarized and fragmented society to an extent that greatly weakened the prospects of resistance. How would you contrast 2020 with 2008?
MJ: Well, over the past twelve years, the Indian state’s control has grown more intense and more complex. Because of surveillance technology, they are looking at everybody’s cell phones, scanning everybody’s social media, conducting constant surveys, monitoring movements with face recognition cameras and drones. Their control is no longer only spatial and temporal. It is also digital. They can use these new forms of data to effectively pre-empt Kashmiri expressions of protest. There is a “cyber cell” of the Indian police in Srinagar whose only role appears to be intimidating Kashmiris with social media accounts. They call in journalists to ask them about their reports or images.
RA: In regard to Kashmir, what is the difference between the Congress and BJP?
MJ: I have never understood India as a nation state. For me, it is an empire that has spent seven decades trying to transform itself into a nation state. India’s elite inherited their territories from the British and have since then been continuously at war with different peoples—the Indigenous communities in central India, the Indigenous people of the Northeast, the Khalistan movement in Punjab, and of course Kashmiris. They have also fought wars with China and Pakistan and meddled in Sri Lanka. All this in the name of preserving their empire.
Kashmiri society has historically had an egalitarian impulse which stood at odds with the caste-based society of India.
Hindutva is the purest expression of the imperial ideology behind this vision of India. It’s simply the most radical form of the ideology of India’s nationalist leaders, who were mostly upper-caste Hindus (and many of them actually had borrowed the idea of Indian territoriality from Hindu nationalists to begin with). From the Hindutva perspective, “Hindu power” can only exist by excluding non-Hindu minorities, especially Muslims.
Today the BJP (and its parent organization, the RSS) has taken over the fundamental machinery of the Indian empire, and they are the ones guiding the Indian government’s policies in Kashmir. If you go to the RSS website, it clearly says that the problem in Kashmir is its “oppressive Muslim majority.” They want Kashmir to be “integrated” into India—and by that they mean Indians should be settled down there to dissolve Kashmiri political identity and aspirations. As demographic change happens, the “problem” of Kashmir will go away automatically. The only roadblock to this genocidal project is Kashmiri resistance.
RA: I’d like to turn now to Kashmiri culture. As you note, Indians like to imagine that Kashmir is the “head” of “mother India.” Anyone who disagrees is labelled a Pakistani loyalist. But you reject the binary altogether.
MJ: India and Pakistan are culturally closer to each other than Kashmiris are to either country. The thing is, Kashmir has never simply been a South Asian region. Historically, we have had more connections with Central Asia and West Asia than with South Asia. What the occupation of Kashmir has done is forcibly orient us toward the South, thereby cutting our cultural and trade ties with the rest. Even in this, India refuses to allow us to have our own identity, to control our own present and our future. Over time, our culture has become a culture of resistance. Our artists, poets, writers—they all, one way or the other, write about the occupation, about freedom. Our memories are commemorations of the dead, the martyrs, and of traumas of the occupation. Our history is just political history now.
I hold a pluralistic vision of Kashmir. For me, Kashmir has always hosted diverse cultures and peoples, many of whom came to Kashmir fleeing oppression in their own lands. But that plural vision of Kashmir cannot survive the onslaught of settler colonialism.
RA: You recently wrote a wonderful piece titled “We, the Water-Born,” which offers, in fable form, an account of Kashmiri culture from the ancient past to the modern day.
MJ: So many different ideologies have made a cultural claim on Kashmiri land, drawing on all kinds of myths and legends. The liberals, as you note, think Kashmir is somehow mystically “integral” to the Indian Union—a “crown of secular India.” Hindu nationalists go further to claim that Kashmiri Muslims are just squatters in the region and that the only “aboriginal” group there is the minority Hindu Pandit population. My essay was written in response to these bogus myths. I wanted to write an “origin story” that actually captured the spirit of the Kashmiri people but would also playfully engage the dominant Hindu nationalist origin story.
I was also inspired by an old essay by Arundhati Roy titled “How Deep Shall We Dig?” When the Hindu fundamentalists demolished the historic Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1991, they did it under the pretext that there was once—back in the 1500s—a Hindu temple on the site that was razed by the Mughals. That was never established by serious historians of course, but never mind. In her essay, Roy took this argument of “correcting historical wrongs” to its logical conclusion, pointing out that if such a temple ever existed, what would prevent someone else from saying that the temple had been built on top of the site of an older indigenous place of worship? That was her challenge to them: How deep should we dig?
I’m trying something similar in my piece. Not to dig, but to ask. The Hindu fundamentalists argue that Hindus were the original inhabitants of Kashmir and that Muslims came in later as invaders or settlers. Well, if you look around the subcontinent, most Muslims (and Buddhists and Christians and so forth) were simply under-caste Hindus who converted to escape the indignities of the caste system. I’m saying that Kashmiris were formerly under-caste communities who initially converted to Buddhism, then were reverted back to under-castes, and then, from the fourteenth century onwards, converted to Islam. The dynamic of hierarchy and egalitarianism, control and protest, hegemony and counterhegemony runs through this history. I wanted to capture the sociological fact that Kashmiri society has historically had an egalitarian impulse which stood at odds with the caste-based society of India.
Having said that, I’m not here to make essentialist arguments. No single community has an exclusive claim on Kashmiri indigeneity. Even Hinduism in Kashmir is not “Indian,” whatever the fundamentalists would have you believe. It is Kashmiri Hinduism. Just as Islam in Kashmir is shaped by its regional context and has become Kashmiri Islam. The regional specificity of religious identities has mattered a lot more than any “pure” religious identity.
RA: How might people from South Asia (and other parts of the world) usefully express solidarity with Kashmir?
MJ: I think the primary responsibility lies with the people of South Asia because it is in their names that the repression in Kashmir is being carried out. One thing that has disappointed me has been the silence from India’s civil society. I have always believed—despite the support that fascist groups like the RSS have had over the last seventy-odd years—that a large number of Indian people are reasonable, rational, and ethical. But I’ve been disappointed to see the space for dissent shrink. When it comes to Kashmir, people are afraid to speak out. And the more they remain silent, the more their own freedoms come to be curtailed by the fascist forces.
That said, we live in a connected world. There are so many communities—the Kurds, Rohingyas, Palestinians, indigenous people in Central and South America—facing threats of displacement and mass violence. We need to connect these struggles. Because the solution to them is one, and that is justice.