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The Parchment of Kashmir

There is a plethora of opinions on the political future of the conglomerate of Jammu and Kashmir. Is Jammu and Kashmir a principality? An autonomous unit within the Indian Union? An integral part of India? A subversive unit with the Indian Union? A bilateral issue between the nation-states of India and Pakistan? Is the mainstream Indian understanding and interpretation of the Kashmir conflict the only credible one? Is the mainstream Pakistani under- standing and interpretation of the Kashmir issue the only credible one? Do the people of Kashmir have a voice in the matter? Is there a space within Kashmiri society in which the democratic aspirations of the populace of Kashmir could be nurtured? Is there a critical dis- course on Kashmir that foregrounds the views of scholars and lay people from the state, even if that discourse is in opposition to the mainstream one? These questions have been causing irrepressible angst in me for a while now. Can we break the silence? Can we bring the instability to an end, for our generation and the generations yet to be born?

A large majority of the populace Jammu and Kashmir is troubled, dispossessed and mocked by the processes of democracy, by United Nations resolutions, by armed insurgency, by counter-insurgency, by militarization, and by revisionist histories. The people of the state are yearning for the right to dignity; the right to live decent existences devoid of bestial militarism; the right to work and enable their families to enjoy the basic necessities of life; the right to hold opinions of which others take cognizance; and the right to an existence in which brutalization, demoralization, trauma, and rage are a thing of the past. In addition to the denizens of Jammu and Kashmir, diasporic Kashmiris also suffer from the indelible scars of having lost their homeland, and mourn a lost innocence.

After reviewing the first edition of my book Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan, published in June 2009, several Kashmiri academics pointed out to me that autonomy was an inadequate solution to the Kashmir conflict. The intractability of the Kashmir conflict has made advocates of conflict resolution rather wary of applying a seemingly workable but facile solution to the complex political conflict. Mainstream media, intellectuals housed in academic institutions, formulators of public policy, and think-tanks are quick to point out that regardless of the bloody and seemingly infinite nature of a political, ethnic, or racial conflict, a viable solution can always be found to dilute the fierceness of a conflictual situation. But one is cautioned against glibly advocating a kitsch solution to the Kashmir conundrum by the complexity of the Kashmir conflict, which embodies the brutalities of nation building devoid of myth or self-infatuation.

Although the idea of self-determination collides with military oppression on the contentious site of nationalism, political accommodation can lead a war-weary people out of the prison of duplicitous rhetoric, political domination, and forceful imposition. The debate among political thinkers, scholars, and policy makers about finding viable ways to do justice to marginalized ethnic minorities in Jammu and Kashmir has seemed infinite. Which is the most viable solution to the Kashmir conflict?

Several questions were asked by the students in my Senior Seminar on World Literature at the University of Oklahoma in spring 2010 during the class discussion on translations of Kashmiri short stories at the Senior Seminar on Muslim Women’s Memoirs, in fall 2011, while discussing women in conflict zones. “What is the political status of Kashmir?” “Can Kashmir exist as an autonomous enclave, the security of which is guaranteed by India and Pakistan?” “This might be a dumb question, but does Kashmir have credible politicians?” “If Kashmir is a nuclear flashpoint, why are most Americans unaware of the complexity of the Kashmir issue?” “Does Kashmir have fields of gold and mountains of silver?” “Are you familiar with the Led Zeppelin song, ‘Kashmir’?” “Are any women in positions of decision making in that part of the world?” “Is the exotic description of Kashmir in novels, poems, and travelogues an attempt to dehistoricize and decontextualize the region and its people?” “How is the reductive portrayal of Kashmir as a romantic and exotic locale going to make the primarily Western readership of, for example, some short stories on Kashmir and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories3 aware of the political upheaval in the region?” “Why are we talking about political allegory?” “Is there an inextricable link between pedagogy and politics?” “Why can’t the intelligentsia in Kashmir and diasporic Kashmiri intellectuals forge a coalition to come up with feasible solutions to the conundrum?”

I have always enjoyed teaching translations of Kashmiri short stories because some of the stories represent the mythical beauty of Kashmir, on the one hand, and the stultifying atmosphere created by murky politics, on the other. Before getting my students to do a close reading of the stories, I explained the historical backdrop of the Kashmir conflict; the political situations and maneuvers orchestrated by the two nation-states of India and Pakistan; the onset of the armed insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989; the simmering resentment, rage, and alienation of the people of Kashmir that added fuel to the insurgency; the unpopularity of formerly populist leaders whom the masses no longer deemed genuine representatives; the nostalgia of expatriate Kashmiris who had been uprooted, dislocated, and dispossessed; the trauma generated by the loss of innocence in a militarized culture; the exclusionary discourse of Indian nationalism, which over the years has subsumed the discourse of Kashmiriyat or a unitary Kashmiri nationalist identity within it; and the erosion of cultural myths, legends, and folklore upon which the edifice of Kashmiri society is built.

My students had been unaware of the political swamp in Kashmir prior to our discussion; therefore, it was encouraging to hear them make intelligent comments about world views other than Western-centric ones: about issues of sovereignty, legitimacy of state- hood, representative nature of democracy or lack thereof, discourse of human rights and the bounden duty of international powers to protect fundamental rights in politically conflictual environments, pluralism as an antidote to the orthodoxy of ethnocentric politics, the construction of identity politics, and the implosion of the boundary between state and religion.

The issues that my students came up with can be summarized in the following way: the intricate relationship between the political and cultural power that emanates from metropolitan centers and the peripheral territories in which it manifests itself requires the formation of cultural practices that sustain the persistent disparity in power between the center and the “peripheral world.” This observation helps answer persistent questions. Is the effective political sovereignty of India over Kashmir achieved by force, by political collaboration, or by economic, social, or cultural dependence? Does the political sovereignty of India over Kashmir exist in its most potent manifestation in ideological and cultural practices?

After delving into the role of discourse in constructions of identities and subjectivities for a long time, I have found that dominant political powers use “discourse”— political, militaristic, gender, religious, and cultural—to disseminate the values that mold the ethnic and cultural identities of the dominated as well as the dominator. The strategy of fortifying domination with structures of knowledge creates an unbridgeable gulf between the “center” and the “margin.” Let me generalize using the language of postcolonial theory. The totalizing form of the discourse of the center, and its overpowering impulse to exclude, repress, and incorporate threatening forces, generate a dichotomy between the center and its peripheries.

The legacy of this polarization is a strongly bounded area of social and cultural knowledge that produces veneration for the monolithic center and obedience of the “margins” to it. The practice of political domination is ratified by the authority of academics, institutions, and governments that formulate a methodology, “surrounding it with greater prestige than its practical successes warrant.” The ideology propounded by the dominant order reflects and produces its interests. The representatives of the privileged center of the discourse of power (political, academic, cultural, religious, and institutional) silence the voices that are on the fringes of society. In order to achieve this outcome, the hegemonic order creates structures that cater to its unquestioned authority.

The rhetoric employed by mainstream Indian and Pakistani rhetoricians, politicians, academics, and policy makers has become the authoritative discourse of officialdom that separates itself from the realm of the Kashmiri people. It is a dogmatic discourse that has been used to assert its ascendancy among other verbal and ideological points of view. Meanwhile, the cultural identity of the Kashmiri people is damaged by the erosion of their autonomous institutions, by traumas and terrors generated by insurgency and counter insurgency. Still, the cruel politics of these neighboring nation-states has not obliterated the legacy of a rich heritage.

Frantz Fanon, in particular, espoused the attempt to refurbish social and political consciousness in order to undermine racist, ethnic stereotypes. Although Fanon’s theories were specifically geared to the Algerian national struggle, his characterization of culture as the contentious site where psychological and spiritual emancipation might be achieved is relevant to the Kashmiri context as well. In the case of Kashmir, the pervasiveness of prejudicial notions, particularly after 1989, undermined the self-representation and self-construction of the Kashmiri people. The struggle for autonomy and, some would argue, the legitimate right of self-determination in Kashmir quickly forged discourses in order to oppose the discourse of discrimination that had created a sense of marginalization in the populace.

Fanon famously propounds an anticolonial nationalism as a therapeutic device to cure the psychological and historical torture inflicted by the dichotomies of the culture of dominance. According to Fanon, the fallacy of the racial and culture privileging of the dominant power is confounded when the natives refuse to follow the trajectory charted out for them by the discursive practices of colonialism.

Cultural nationalism challenges and overthrows the hierarchy of ruling ideologies by enhancing a unity among all socioeconomic classes of an occupied area, which it has failed to do in the Kashmir context. This revolutionary stance can eliminate the petty feuds that exist in an area and can replace them with a sanctified notion of nation. History is no longer imposed on them; now they are able to wield memory as a powerful tool. In this process of nationalist self-imagining, the deployment of allegory, as some Kashmiri short story writers have done in their works, can be used to re-create and preserve a jeopardized way of life. Such narratives rewrite history and create symbols of nationhood. They impart resolvability to a disharmonious history.

Instead of a contemptuous dismissal of the power of myth and fetishes, writers explore these as repositories of culture. This process of recuperation makes the hitherto lost voices of the margin audible. A multiplicity of voices and perspectives, as in Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polity, shuns simple decoding.

The concept of Kashmiriyat is not only cultural but political as well, which can be revitalized by the resuscitation of cultural institutions and the redressal of political grievances. Kashmiri society, like other South Asian societies, is by no means egalitarian or unpatriarchal. A rigidly entrenched gender hierarchy also exists in Kashmir; some substantive attempts have been made to deconstruct such a hierarchy. The role of women in a conflict zone; the reconceptualization of a woman’s identity in a politically militarized zone; intersectionalities of class, education, ethnicity, and religious identity in theorizing a woman’s identity; and women’s agential roles or lack thereof are issues that can no longer be relegated to the background. Any attempt to homogenize Kashmiri society or the politico-cultural discourse on Kashmir would be a dangerously flawed exercise. People on the margins of society lack the same access to political, religious, cultural, and economic discourses and institutions as those in positions of privilege and power.

The tradition of Rishiism is not dead and buried in the Valley: it continues to bolster a cultural and religious identity that the militarization of Kashmir has not been able to do away with. To that end, the vaakhs of Lal-Ded and the shrukhs of Nur-ud-din Wali form a very important part of the vernacular of semi-literate and illiterate people in Kashmir. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I emphasize that any unitary discourse that claims to encompass the reality of Kashmir would be lop-sided and suspect.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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