Book Review: A Desolation Called Peace

In her review of a just-released collection of essays titled A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir [edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat] Sohini Chatterjee argues that the book, by foregrounding the lived realities of Kashmiris who came of age from 1947 to 1989, challenges the mainstream history of the Valley told through the narrow lens of the dispute between India and Pakistan. 

Cover Page of the Book

Edited by political anthropologist Ather Zia and literary scholar Javaid Iqbal Bhat, A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir is an ethnographic intervention aimed at challenging the mainstream history of the Valley from 1947 to 1989, by way of foregrounding the lived realities of Kashmiris who came of age during this period. Existing scholarship on Kashmir views this phase through the narrow lens of the dispute between India and Pakistan, by focusing attention on oppositional politics of the two states and the origin and evolution of the discord. However, trying to understand the political without interrogating the personal is not only insufficient but also largely a dehumanizing practice of reading conflicts or pre-conflict situations. Hence, extolling virtues of “the personal is political”, the resounding second wave feminist refrain, this volume—with twelve personal essays by Kashmiri journalists, writers, scholars, and activists—attempts to create a counter-memory of the Valley before the beginning of armed struggles to understand, among other things, its popular motivations along with what it meant to grow up as a Kashmiri and inhabit a Kashmiri identity, the question of “Raai Shumari” or self-determination, and how India, Pakistan and the question of occupation figured in Kashmiri life during the decades preceding the 1990s.

One of the vital contributions of the book is that it debunks the myth of “peace” before 1989—advocated by the dominant narrative in mainland India—which has rendered invisible and insignificant “the Kashmiri aspiration for Azadi as an indigenous and historical demand”, and the cost borne by Kashmiris for dreaming and demanding it.  

State Violence and Kashmiri Resistance

Mona Bhan narrates the story of her maternal grandfather: a Kashmiri Pandit who was a vocal dissenter of Kashmir’s accession to India. He was incarcerated in 1953. Bhan writes, “Before its torture trails became visible and hard to ignore after 1989, the Indian state had long exercised its brazen will over Kashmiri bodies inside the putrefied and anguished emptiness of prison cells.” The Indian state had started muzzling dissenting voices far back in the 1950s—four decades before it started becoming visible. Those who resisted state suppression were either put in solitary confinement or banished to Pakistan. Those opposed to the National Conference were primary targets—they languished in prisons without access to not only justice but also the reason behind their imprisonment.

As state repression grew, so did resistance. The author recounts how as a young school girl in the 1990s she and her classmates would participate in freedom rallies defying authority. The classroom door bolted from the inside by the teacher was never an insurmountable impediment—despite admonishments, students would respond fervently to calls for azadi and take to the streets in large numbers.

Bhan writes that the veil became a viable weapon in the arsenal of young girls during demonstrations, offering “courage but also anonymity”. It reveals how women and girls, owing to their marginalized location in conflict zones like Kashmir, enter sites of protest and how they navigate it.

Resistance for them was of critical importance. They marched to protest against the indignities of the Indian army who while conducting searches would wink at them or question them relentlessly on what they carried in their bags. The clarion call for independence was gendered as much as it was geopolitical for them. 

Bhan’s essay also reveals how resistance occurred in different ways and from different quarters in Kashmir. Those who wrote searing indictments against state violence and marched down the streets against the suspension of rights in Kashmir were not the only ones resisting violence and disorder. Resistance was also offered by those shopkeepers who “would routinely keep their shutters half-open and close them immediately after students sought shelter from the military during student-led protests.”

However, the building of an affective political community was often marred as, the author notes, Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits were pitted against each other and many were made “surrogates of the state”.

In the Voice of a Former Militant

The narrator was eighteen years old in 1987 when the Muslim United Front (MUF) was formed with the ambition of resolving the Kashmir dispute, through democratic means, by obtaining a majority in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. However, he recognizes that getting into the assembly was not the sole aim of the MUF whose ultimate objective was to dissolve it. “…the MUF wanted to pass a resolution in the assembly saying that India was an occupational force in Kashmir. The assembly would then have been dissolved and the international community would be asked to intervene in the matter. The Kashmir issue would have been highlighted. This would be a non-violent, democratic process.”      

However, not only were the assembly elections rigged but students who supported the MUF were also blacklisted and jailed. The narrator leading a peaceful rally of a thousand college students while campaigning for it was one of the many activists incarcerated.  

The erosion of the special status of Kashmir under Art 370 and the unfulfilled promise of Jawaharlal Nehru that Kashmir would be allowed to decide its own fate, also revolted young Kashmiris who had by the time lost faith in India owing to its political machinations in the Valley, despite the state’s ostentatious reverence towards democratic procedures.

“The control over our mineral resources, our water resources, our forests, our agricultural land–all of it was taken from us.” He further adds, “Look at our fertile lands, which are occupied by the Indian forces. People’s land has remained under occupation for generations and the owners have no say against it.” Many in the Valley, including the narrator, held Sheikh Abdullah responsible for letting the Indian army make inroads into India as well as most of the ruling parties in India that were pro-India. This narration helps us interrogate the statist narrative of conflict on Kashmir which insists rebellion began without provocation and was vapid belligerence.  

A Kashmiri in India

In one of the most sharp, critical and poignant essays in the book, ‘How I became a Kashmiri Rebel in India’, Syed Zafar Mehdi narrates the plight of the author as a young boy who, at the age of twelve, was sent away to a boarding school in Aligarh, far away from Kashmir. “The journey from Kashmir to India, from occupied territory to occupying state, transformed my life and stirred my political consciousness in a way I had never imagined.”

Like every child growing up in the conflict-ravaged Valley, Mehdi was politically aware beyond his years. However, it was in mainland India that his political consciousness grew as he began to understand the significance of a Kashmiri identity through his quotidian negotiations in Aligarh.

From being viewed with suspicion and hence Othered, Mehdi performed small acts of resistance against the ongoing state violence in Kashmir by refusing to sing the national anthem along with his peers during an assembly at school or by walking away from a march in honour of the Indian tricolour as violence intensified in the Valley. A young Mehdi had the onerous responsibility of defending Kashmiris and explaining the history of Kashmir, of narrating the enormity of violence that was being perpetrated routinely on Kashmiris, of making the case for self-determination—all of which was deemed “seditious”—and made him realise how stubborn jingoistic nationalism was and how it contributed to the Othering of Kashmiris. He observes, “Having to constantly defend my position and being the Kashmiri ‘other’, I understood what I was and what I stood for.”

The book contains rich ethnographic details in the voice of Kashmiris—who have been routinely cast out by hegemonic narratives in the mainland dominated by exclusionary nationalism, exaggerated national security concerns and violent integration narratives, especially in India’s current political climate, bolstered by far-right parties. By privileging voices of those whose claims are frequently disputed and dismissed, the book does the job of humanizing their experiences without depoliticizing it—and it does the job well. There is not much in the book on differentiated gendered lived realities, except for passing references, or neither on how Kashmiris coming from various socio-economic locations experience the conflict differently. But it successfully serves its stated purpose of centering the experiences of Kashmiris—“a much-sidelined icon in the dispute”—and paves the way for continued conversations on Kashmiri life, politics and their relationship with the unceasing conflict.♦

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