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Kashmir and Postcolonialism

The uncertainty about the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has loomed large since 1947. Is Jammu and Kashmir a postcolonial state? Postcolonialism refers to a historical phase undergone by many of the world’s countries after the decline of the European empires by the mid-twentieth century. Following the dismantling of the empires, the people of many Asian, African, and Caribbean states were left to assess the cultural, linguistic, legal, and economic effects of colonial rule, and create new governments and national identities.

As a phenomenon, nationalism often arises at times of conflict between nations, or between colonizers and colonized, and perhaps most commonly, in postcolonial periods. Over the years, tremendous political and social turmoil has been generated in the Jammu and Kashmir by the forces of religious fundamentalism and by an exclusionary nationalism that seeks to erode the cultural syncretism that is part of the ethos of Kashmir. These forces are responsible for the shutting down of dissenters who voice cultural critique, repression of women, political anarchy, economic deprivation, lack of infrastructure, and mass displacements that have been occasioned by these events.

A visitor to Kashmir is required to take in the unpleasant reality of India and Pakistan, which is full of redoubtable paramilitary troops, barbed wire, and invasive searches; marginalization of the Kashmiri populace; dispossessed youths trained in Pakistani training camps to unleash a reign of disorganized and misguided terror in the state; custodial killings in detention centers and mothers whose faces tell tales of woe waiting outside those gloomy detention centers to catch glimpses of their unfortunate sons (an exercise in futility); burqa-clad women afraid of the wrath of fundamentalist groups as well as of paramilitary forces bent on undercutting their self-respect. Such occurrences do not enable the visitor to glimpse an autonomous Kashmiri life, devoid of the pressures that Kashmiris have been subjected to since 1947.

Since the inception of the insurgency in 1989, Kashmiris have been systematically alienated in their own home by the dominant political and military culture and by state-sponsored agencies. It has become a pipe dream to lead a sovereign and dignified existence which is not invaded by the unruly presence of paramilitary troops and militant organizations. Not only have Kashmiris been deprived of their sovereignty in the purportedly democratic republic of India, but they are treated like nationless pariahs in other parts of the world as well. When I applied for the renewal of my passport at the Indian Consulate in New York City in the early 2000s, it was an ordeal for a Kashmiri to get her/his passport renewed at an Indian consulate in any part of the world. The regular procedure allows most Indian citizens to get their passports renewed at a consulate within a day; the rules were different for people of Kashmiri descent.  A person of Kashmiri descent was required to submit innumerable documents which were then sent to the government of Jammu and Kashmir for validation. This entire process takes a couple of months. During that nerve-wracking period, the individual was required to remain without her/his most important travel document in a foreign country where paranoia was a reality post 9/ 11. I was categorically told by an official at the consulate that the renewal of my passport would take a while because of my ethnicity.

This engenders a question that gnaws at me: which nation or nationality is the identity of the ordinary Kashmiri tied with? Is nationhood a myth which fails to represent the diversity of the actual national community and does it only represent and consolidate the interests of the dominant power groups within the Indian polity? Until these questions remain unanswered, Kashmir will remain a space in which the discursive forces of power operate on and through the people. Kashmir will be unable to legitimately claim the status of a postcolonial state.

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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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