Turbulence in Kashmir and Reconceptualizing a New Regional Order

The turbulence and turmoil that has haunted Kashmir for the past twenty-three years holds all of us, as a people, accountable for the degeneration of our politics and society. While it is important for us to condemn, question, and seek redress for the human rights violations in Kashmir, it is also important for us to construct a politics that will enable the rebuilding of our pluralistic polity and society. The more we allow the depoliticization of Kashmiri society, the more subservient we become to forces that do not have Kashmir’s best interests at heart. Today, mainstream as well as separatist politicians in the state have been discredited. The alternative is not the dismantling of the state’s political structures and institutions of governance but the creation of a viable political structure, one is which, as my colleague, historian David Ludden points out, “a popular politics of mass mobilization is merged with institutional politics of governance promoting demilitarization and democracy.” Kashmir cannot afford to lose yet another generation!

A point that I have made in several forums, and most recently in my interview with Natana Delong-Bas for Oxford Islamic Studies Online is that the foundation of Kashmiri nationalism was laid in 1931, and this nationalism recognized the heterogeneity of the nation. It was not constructed around a common language, religion, culture, and an ethnically pure majority. This process of Kashmiri nationalist self-imagining is conveniently ignored in the statist versions of the histories of India and Pakistan. Here, I also point out that there are some purportedly “subaltern” versions of the history of Kashmir which, in their ardent attempts to be deconstructionist, insidiously obliterate the process of nation-building in Kashmir in the early to mid-decades of the twentieth century, inadvertently feeding off statist and oftentimes right-wing versions of history. In romanticizing militant resistance in Kashmir, such versions fail to take into account the tremendously difficult task of restoring the selfhood of a degraded people, and also the harsh fact that a political movement which does not highlight the issues of governance, social welfare, and the resuscitation of democratic institutions ends up becoming obscurantist. In trying to espouse anti-establishment positions, some of us tend to ignore the dangers of obscurantism and the growth of a conflict economy, in which some state and well as non-state actors are heavily invested.

It would be relevant to mention that the partition of India in 1947 into the dominions of India and Pakistan along religious lines enabled divisive forces of violence and brutality to rip the common anti-colonial, cultural legacy to pieces.[1] At the time, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah harbored the mirage of an independent Jammu and Kashmir. But he believed, in the interests of expediency, that provisional accession to India was a better option than unconditional accession to Pakistan. He felt that the political voice and socioeconomic interests of Kashmiris would be greatly threatened and diminished by the plutocracy of Pakistan, which was predominantly feudal. The successful implementation of the land to the tiller program by the Sheikh Abdullah-led state government in Jammu and Kashmir would have been a pipe dream in a country like Pakistan, which was ruled by the feudal aristocracy.

The “defining moment in Jammu and Kashmir’s post-Indian independence history” came in 1950 when disenfranchised peasants “were freed from the shackles of landlords through a law that gave them ownership rights on the land they tilled. . . . The sweeping land reforms under the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act passed on July 13, 1950, changed the complexion of Kashmiri society. The historical image of the emaciated local farmer in tatters, with sunken faces and listless eyes, toiling to fill the granaries of landlords changed overnight into one of a landowner who expected to benefit from the labor he had put in for generations” (Ahmed, F.). This program emphasized the necessity of abolishing exploitative landlordism without compensation and enfranchising tillers by granting them the lands they worked on. Many policy makers in the Indian subcontinent, political scientists, and economists have acknowledged the effectiveness and rigor of land reforms in Jammu and Kashmir.

Before I proceed any further, it would be pertinent to briefly digress on the pluralistic polity of Jammu and Kashmir. The various ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups in Jammu & Kashmir, Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Pandits, Dogra Hindus, Ladakhi Buddhists and Shi’ite Muslims, comprise the pluralistic population of the state. According to the Census of India, 2001, Muslims constitute the predominant religious group of the state at 67.0%, Hindus at 29.6%, Sikhs at 2.23%, Buddhists at 1.16%, Christians at 0.14 %, and others form the remaining part. The reality of Kashmir was vacillating even in 1947, because Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah tried to create unity where none existed.  The disparate groups have been unable to nurture a shared cultural and historical legacy that would enable them to fashion a cultural alterity to that of the Indian or Pakistani nationalist ones. But due to the regional sentiments that are becoming increasingly religionized, the ideology and rhetoric of a shared cultural and historical past have been unable to garner public support and mobilization for reconstruction and nation-building. The signifiers of nationhood in Jammu and Kashmir, flag, anthem, and constitution, have thus far not been able to move beyond a nebulous nationalist self-imagining. Now more than ever, the three regions of the state are at daggers drawn about the future political configuration of the state. This doleful truth was forcefully brought home to me at several conferences held in India and the United States.

A group of Kashmiri Pandits, for example, advocates the creation of a separate homeland for its community within the Kashmir Valley. The predominantly Hindu province of Jammu sees its unbreachable assimilation into the Indian Union as the only way to safeguard its future. However, of the original six districts of Jammu, the three predominantly Muslim ones, Poonch, Rajouri, and Doda, would, in all likelihood, align themselves with the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley. In the Ladakh region of the state, predominantly Buddhist Leh, which has always been critical of the perceived discrimination against it, has zealously been demanding its political severance from the rest of the state and pushing its demand for Union Territory status within the Indian Union. Where-as the predominantly Shi’ite Kargil district in the Ladakh region does not perceive a jeopardized cultural and linguistic identity and advocates retention of its political alignment with the rest of the state.

In 1989 several armed separatist groups that owed allegiance to Pakistan surfaced in the Kashmir Valley as well, and for them Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s political ideology was anathema, which they sought to raze to the ground. There remains, however, a contingent in Kashmir that continues to believe in the efficacy of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s policies and apotheosizes him as the symbol of Kashmiri nationalism. It is pertinent to mention that as a consequence of India’s greatly fortified counter insurgency operation in Jammu and Kashmir, the state is a highly militarized zone.

I firmly believe that in order to address wider political, socioeconomic, and democratic issues in the Kashmir at this critical juncture requires rethinking decision-making between India and Pakistan, state and non-state actors as well as between between state and society.

Perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new regional order which would be capable of producing cross-economic, political, and cultural interests among the people of the region. Women in civic associations and in government can lead the way toward a peaceful pluralistic democracy and support international negotiations for a sustainable peace in the region.


[1] India and Pakistan retained dominion status until they adopted constitutions of their own. India became a democratic and socialist republic in 1950, where-as Pakistan became an Islamic republic in 1956.



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.