- Interview by
- Chris Dite
The disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir regularly makes international headlines. Four years ago, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government revoked the region’s special autonomous status, flooded it with troops, and enforced a months-long lockdown. Modi has now embarked on a process of “patriotic industrialisation,” which Kashmiri residents have likened to a wave of colonization. Criticism of Indian policy toward the region is met with aggression: just a few days ago, government officials indicated their intent to charge author Arundhati Roy for her 2010 comments in support of Kashmiri autonomy.
Adding to the volatility of the region are a series of ongoing border disputes between India and its neighbors. India’s disagreements with Pakistan are relatively well known. But three years ago, the brutal clash between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley resulted in deaths on both sides and brought a new aspect of this regional instability to the world’s attention.
Despite the renewed global scrutiny, Kashmir is still very poorly understood by outsiders. Nuclear Flashpoint: The War Over Kashmir (Pluto Press) is an illuminating exploration of the fraught history of the region and a sharp exposé of the right-wing politics trying to erase this history. Jacobin spoke with author Farhan M. Chak about what most mainstream commentary gets wrong about Kashmir.
Many readers may know that Kashmir is a “disputed territory” but not know too much more. What is Kashmir?
When we talk about Kashmir two things should come to the foreground: a people with their own language and ways who do not identify as Indian, and a historic territory that is militarily occupied and controlled by the Indian state. “Jammu and Kashmir” has become a convenient but misleading shorthand for the five distinct regions of the 1947 princely states created by the British imperial authorities: the Valley of Kashmir, Jammu, Ladakh, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Today, the first three are administered by India and the final two by Pakistan. Altogether this is a population of twenty-one million people: five distinct areas, with at least five distinct languages. Each one of these regions has its own culture, though people move between them, and the difference between them is not always clear-cut. The people of Kashmir are a recognizable ethnic identity, a people with their own sense of self, purpose history, culture, civilization, mores, languages, food, and so on.
Nowadays the very word “Kashmir” has become contested. It has been deliberately complicated by larger, hegemonic powers so as to disenfranchise the primary religious and ethnic demographic — Kashmiri Muslims. The weaponization of identity is an instrument through which settler-colonialists erase, dilute, alter, or appropriate Kashmiri history, ethnicity, culture, and identity to make it indecipherable and attempt to possess it.
Your book argues that there are British fingerprints all over the crime scene of Kashmiri dispossession. Could you explain how the colonial era put Kashmir on its volatile trajectory?
The Afghan Durrani Empire ruled Kashmir from 1752 to 1819. During this period, the British were becoming more active players within South Asia at large and Anglo-Afghan tensions were rising. The British supported wealthy, feudal, landowning families, to attack the Durranis in Kashmir.
Despite failing in their initial attacks, the British ultimately managed to take advantage of divisions and weaknesses within the Durrani Empire. For a time, there was a free-for-all within Kashmir, until the British militarily intervened more directly. The Dogra family — large landowning Hindu Punjabis, not indigenous to the disputed territory — provided foot soldiers to Britain and were subsequently rewarded. The 1846 treaty of Amritsar between the British East India Company and the Dogras sold Kashmir — its lands, people, and resources — to this family. An entire nation was enslaved by the British.
Nuclear Flashpoint disputes the dominant narratives around Partition and its aftermath. What do these narratives get wrong about Partition?
People often assume that there was a “oneness” that was broken by partition. This is not only simplistic but the product of a false imaginary that obscures the massive diversity of the region. Anyone familiar with traveling through India and Pakistan will have been struck by the many different languages and cultures. All of that is erased by the Partition Industry. This industry believes that this massive geographical expanse of South Asia is a single cultural unit — “one country” — called India. Even well-meaning people believe this very pervasive idea. The reality is you have dozens of languages and cultures, but they have all been swept under a single hegemonic identity, led by Brahmanical supremacists.
The imaginary of a sacrosanct Mother India, which was violated by “partition” is central to understanding how the very term “partition” is weaponized to mock, exclude, demonize, or even dispossess others, especially in Kashmir. Kashmir has often been referred to as the “unfinished business of partition” — another misnomer. Anyone who disputes the Partition Industry’s false myth of oneness is called a separatist, an anti-national or a terrorist. In my book I try to bring forth the true dynamic.
Hindutvadi politicians, or Brahmanical supremacists as you refer to them, are fixated on Kashmir. Why is that, and what role have they played in Kashmiri oppression?
The Hindutvadis are trying to create a mythical past in which they are the rightful heirs to this land. In this myth, maniacal Muslims came from the north, then dispossessed and ruled over Hindus for a thousand years. Now, the Hindutvadis say, it’s time for revenge. This myth plays to the sentiment of a lot of people, but it’s really there to distract them from the great suffering, poverty, and dispossession within India that results in part from the caste system.
A key part of this mythical past is the idea of eternal Hinduness — that everybody was Hindu until the foreign invaders came. But Kashmiris don’t believe this. Not only does Buddhism have a long history in the region, every indigenous Kashmiri family has heard the story that our origins are semitic, that we are descended from the lost tribes of Israel.
Within the Indian occupied portion of Kashmir, Hindutvadi politicians have gone to a great effort to erase this shared understanding. They’ve appropriated Buddhist temples, dishonestly described them as Hindu, and laid claim to them. They promote the Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage as ancient, when in fact it began after the Dogra takeover in the nineteenth century. They’ve mistranslated older Persian texts and changed references to Kashmiri language to “Sanskrit.” These are just some of the ways people promote the narrative that Kashmir belongs to India.
This all points to the question: Why? Of course, people can weaponize religious discourse for their own objectives, which may be worldly and geopolitical. But there is also in this region a popular idea of the people of Kashmir as a kind of “ideal type”: attractive, noble, civilized, producers of great art, hospitable, and generous.
Kashmiris are also perceived as lighter skinned, and the caste system perpetuates the idea that whiteness is superior. To possess all this is almost as if to say, “I am also like that, I own these attributes.” When I think of the Hindutvadi infatuation with Kashmir, I often think of the man in [Leo] Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat who wants to possess a beautiful but tenacious rose and destroys it in the process. The Brahmin supremacists see something they aspire to in this land.
You describe an ongoing process of settler-colonialism in the region. People might be familiar with this term, but not connect it with Kashmir. Could you elaborate on this connection?
I trace the occupation of Kashmir to 1846. Since then, the Indian state has changed the Kashmiri script, the names of landmarks, the denomination of temples, invented new “ancient” traditions, and tried to ban Kashmiri clothing and language.
There’s also deliberate demographic flooding. Because Kashmir is a disputed territory, there’s ongoing discussion of a plebiscite to decide its future. But who could vote in such a process? There were three or four classes of ethnic Kashmiris created in the Dogra times. For example, you were “Status One” if you could trace your origins to the mid-late nineteenth century. But this classification system has now been erased.
India now issues identity cards referring to people who have lived in Kashmir for three or four years as “Kashmiri,” and they are allowed to vote in the disputed territory. All of this is what settler colonialists do: try to replace the native with themselves or appropriate and claim them as their own.
Kashmir is playing an unenviable part in Sino-Indian border disputes and the growing tensions between the US and China. Why is this area that so few people know about so important geopolitically?
This wider conflict between the US and China is being played out not just in Ukraine and in the Middle East, but also in Kashmir — this quiet, mountainous region of the world. India is supporting the US in this wider rivalry and claiming Chinese territory. There’s some really outrageous language being used about fighting China and Pakistan at the same time. This isn’t just casual talk by some soldiers, this is the defense minister and generals in the army, talking recklessly about a war between three nuclear powers! This tripartite nuclear entanglement is so dangerous. None of the nineteen military-to-military meetings have produced any type of understanding, and the brutal Galwan Valley clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers has added a whole new element to the dynamic.
Within India some people have rightly questioned the intelligence of the BJP. Was it really necessary to lay claim to Chinese territory that has never historically been a part of even the Mughal Empire? And then to say they’ll reclaim the area of the disputed territory that Pakistan has in its possession — areas that culturally have nothing to do with India? This type of narrative emerges from the myth that this was one country, and we need to take it back from the foreigners who came and stole it.
You are descended from purged Kashmiri nobility, but you’re clearly not suggesting the Kashmiri freedom struggle should aim at aristocratic restoration. What are the nature and aims of the movement?
Legitimacy and authority cannot be based on family, tribe, or ethnicity. They must come from the people. The root of corruption lies in the special privileges that people assume — whether they’re caste, land, or family-based. Inequality should be shunned. The people of Kashmir are not now, nor have they historically been, prone to exclusionary attitudes.
Political stability stems from people representing themselves and working toward their best interests. People have a right to choose their leaders, and it is unethical to foist leadership on a people against their will. The 1948 UN resolutions on a plebiscite to determine the future of Kashmir will never be obsolete. But the Jammu of today is not the Jammu of 1947. The Valley of Kashmir, likewise, is now almost entirely Kashmiri-speaking Muslim. Perhaps, as some have suggested, the five distinct areas of Kashmir can be separated and each can have a plebiscite.
But whatever form a future plebiscite takes, right now the Kashmiri people are struggling for self-determination in the largest militarized zone in the world, occupied by upward of one million Indian soldiers. Their will is being crushed, and their rights, identity, language, and culture are being erased.