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Becoming Kashmiri

As I write this personal narrative at a geographical and physical remove from my land of origin, the Valley of Kashmir, it is not halcyon time or idyllic days of my childhood that haunt my memory, but the disintegration of that world and the subsequent dispossession and dislocation for some, which has had a profound impact on my subjectivity. There are times, however, when I am wracked by nostalgia for a past when political repression, conscripted democratic spaces, jeopardized cultural emancipation, bigotry breeding intolerance, militarization stunting growth were not even specks on the horizon. Perhaps, I speak from a position of privilege, which I examine in my work, previous and current.

The history of Kashmir, similar to histories of other conflict zones, has never been sanitized. Also, although a class/ caste hierarchy does not enjoy religious legitimacy in predominantly Muslim Kashmir, socioeconomic class and caste divisions in Kashmir are as well-entrenched as they are in other South Asian societies. There is also a rigidly entrenched gender hierarchy in Kashmir, to deconstruct which some substantive attempts have been made. 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, religious identity in theorizing a woman’s identity; women’s agential roles or lack thereof are issues that can no longer be relegated to the background.

To better fathom my nostalgia, I quote from Leila Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage, here: “In the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, the classic master-poet of Sufism, the song of the reed is the metaphor for our human condition, haunted as we so often are by a vague sense of longing and of nostalgia, but nostalgia for we know not quite what. . . . We too live our lives haunted by loss, we too, says Rumi, remember a condition of completeness that we once knew but have forgotten that we ever knew. The song of the reed and the music that haunts our lives is the music of loss, of loss and of remembrance” (5). Is nostalgia a dangerous emotion? Removed from the economic depredations of my country of origin, will nostalgia lead me to romanticize a constructed Kashmiri past? Does physical distance from the ground realities of Kashmir cause the diasporic subject to see the narrative of Kashmir as either one of seamless normalcy or one of seamless atrocities and lamentations?

Through my previous and current work I attempt to recount a peregrination, which still continues, through the agency, volatility, turmoil, conflict, politics, and history of becoming Kashmiri. I will not deny that I am also trying to make sense of a “personal intellectual trajectory” (Pederson 125). An important part of this work, for me, is the imperative situating of the female subject. It would be remiss of me to posit a hegemonic, North American, white middle-class feminist agenda as the reference point to gauge the import of other feminist concerns. On the contrary, I emphasize a politics of identity that would allow for the recuperation of the heterogeneous Kashmiri subject, which would undermine any attempt at homogenization. Although I am wary of the construction of a monolithic “Kashmiri” female subject and well-aware of the restrictive politics of a homogenizing cultural nationalism, I do not wish to forestall the possibility of a unified subjectivity as the basis of nationalist politics. I acknowledge the political productivity of the construct of a unified subjectivity, while cautioning the reader against eliding specific, varied, and unique forms of agency deployed by Kashmiri women in times of relative calm, conflict, political turbulence, resurgence of nationalism, and internal critique not just of state-nationalism, but insurgent nationalism as well. Although every instance of the resurgence of nationalism in Kashmir has strategically employed the term “women” to further engender this category of subjects, I reiterate that there is no monolithic “Kashmiri woman.”

I trace my origin to the hegemonically defined “Third and First Worlds.” While I am filiated to the Valley of Kashmir in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, a unit in the Indian Union, I remain affiliated to the restoration of an autonomous Jammu and Kashmir. My move to the Mid-West complicated my already multilayered identity by adding one more layer to it: my affiliation with the South Asian diaspora in the US. This affiliation, however, empowers me with an agency to inhabit a space that slides both linguistically as well as geographically. I am positioned in relation to my own class and cultural reality; my own history, which is one among many ways of relating to the past; my sensitivity to the slippery terrain of cultural traditions and to the questions and conflicts within them; my own struggle not just with the complicated notions of citizenship, political subjectivity, regionalism, nationalism, but also with the effects of the homogenizing discourses of cultural nationalism; my diasporic position in the West; my position as a Hanifi Sunni Muslim woman; my concept of the political and sociocultural agency of Kashmiri women in contemporary society; and my political interests and ambitions, which are shaped by how I see my past.

I grew up in a world in which my parents, Suraiya and Mohammad Ali Matto, were fiercely proud of their cultural and linguistic heritage (despite the onslaught of an enlightenment modernity), and honored their Islamic heritage, faithfully observing religious practices, while maintaining unflagging conviction in a pluralistic polity. My parents, with their reserved dignity, integrity, unassuming pride, and unabated love for Kashmir, have been my role models. They have always explicitly cherished their heritage, while keeping themselves at a distinct distance from those who seek to impose a History on the landscape of Kashmir. Now that I look back with insight, I see that my parents, although well-educated and well-read professionals, did not internalize colonial beliefs about the superiority of European civilization or biased notions about the “degraded” status of Kashmiri Muslims, who had started to come out of the swamp of illiteracy, poverty, and bonded labor in the 1940s. Their unremitting loyalty to the land of their dreams and hopes, Kashmir, despite the post-1989 militarized ethos, rabidity of bigotry, and conscripted existences of those who did not jump on the bandwagon of either statism or ethno religious nationalism has validated my admiration for their integrity and open-mindedness.

Raised in Kashmir in the 1970s and the 1980s, I always knew that I, like my parents, would receive a substantial education and would have a professional life. I instinctively knew that they would protect me from the shackles of restrictive traditions and from the pigeonholes of modernity. My own wariness of statism, perhaps, stems from my Mother’s fraught childhood and youth. Her father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, reigned as Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948 to 1953.

Mother, perhaps unbeknownst to herself, had grown up with the fear of life’s tenuousness and an acceptance of the harsh demands of public life. It took her a while to realize that it is impossible to please everyone all the time, unless one willingly relinquishes one’s individuality. She has found, to her despair, unpalatable motives attributed to her parents and grotesque misinterpretations of their political, religious, and socioeconomic ideologies. So, she has learned that it is naive and detrimental to expect to have everyone comprehend what one says and attribute the right motives to one’s cause. But her faith in the “New Kashmir” that her father’s socialist agenda sought to fashion remains unshaken till date, despite the tribulations and upheavals that she has witnessed. She, like the rest of us, carries the burden of her own history. Although Mother maintains a tenacious bond with family, friends, and acquaintances, and laments the innocent loss of lives in Kashmir over the past two decades, the rhetoric of revolution spouted in the early 1990s had a different undercurrent for her. Connecting to this rhetoric, for her, entailed a much more complex negotiation than it did for most people in Kashmir at the time.

Father, an ardent believer in the vision of “New Kashmir” as well, has a clarity of thought that I esteem. He has had the satisfaction of knowing that he has lived his convictions. Although after the inception of armed insurgency and counterinsurgency in Kashmir in 1989 my parents were confronted with an uncertain future, in which the political fate of Kashmir was unknowable, they sustained their ideals through those difficult times. Father was raised in a large, traditional family that has always avowedly owed allegiance to my maternal grandfather’s vision of a democratic, progressive Kashmir. That formidable vision caused the dismantling of the safely guarded domain of privilege and power that had disenfranchised the Muslim majority and reinforced the seclusion of Kashmiri women. Father’s family, I observe, espouses an essentialist and unified subjectivity. One layer of my subjectivity is, therefore, constructed within the nexus of gender/ class relations. Father does, occasionally, think critically about my maternal grandfather’s legacy and the handling of that legacy by his successors, but more often than not my parents’ sense of filial duty and kinship ties makes them silent, albeit questioning, observers of a political system that still leaves much to be desired. A lot of the rhetoric around them, statist or reactionary, does not directly speak to their own political dilemmas. However, as I said, my parents have never lost faith in the sustainability of a pluralistic polity nor in the resilience of the Kashmiri people.

It is with a complicated legacy as the backdrop that my own sense of identity as a “diasporic Kashmiri,” an “Indian citizen,” an “American Resident,” and “South Asian” is entangled.  It is the politics of upheaval and disruption that frame the lives of those of my generation who grew up in the turbulent gusts of Kashmir. The physical distance hasn’t severed the umbilical cord that tenaciously binds me to the territory, the people, and the sociocultural ethos of Kashmir. Although I live and work in the diaspora, my passionate longing for Kashmir remains unabated; my prayers for a peaceful and conflict free Kashmir in which its people will lead lives of pride, dignity, and liberty remain fervent; my dream of a Kashmir to which my daughter, Iman, can return not with disdain but with a prideful identity, one layer of which is Kashmiri, leaves in me an ache and a pining.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Leila. A Border Passage: from Cairo to America—A Woman’s Journey. New York:

Penguin Books, 2000.

Pederson, Susan. “Comparative History and Women’s History: Explaining Convergence and

Divergence.” Comparative Women’s History: New Approaches.  Ed. Anne Cova. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006: 117-142.

More articles by:

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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