Disobedient Bodies, Defiant Objects: Occupation, Necropolitics, and the Resistance in Kashmir



Similarly to many anti-colonial struggles, Kashmiri activists can count on a acute knowledge of their spatial environment to cope with the asymmetric dimension that characterizes their confrontations with the Indian occupation police and military. Mohamad Junaid helps us understand how.

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Young activists facing the Indian police/army after the funeral of Kashmiri resistant Syed Owais Shafi in Vailoo on March 12, 2018.

In 1992, Indian soldiers stationed inside a bunker in my hometown in Kashmir shot dead a teenage boy from my school. I did not witness the event, but I vividly remember how his death was described. Bilal was a year or two older to me and had been suffering from mental illness. His condition sometimes caused him visual hallucinations and other forms of sensory misperception, not to mention acute pain. During moments when his pain would become unbearable, he would run out of his parents’ home and wander the streets. The evening he was shot, Bilal had walked deliriously and come close to the perimeter of the bunker. Later that night, a few townspeople gathered and quietly carried his limp body back to his home. The next morning at school, we heard several accounts of the killing. People were angry with the callous way soldiers had shot Bilal, but beyond privately simmering in impotent rage, no one knew what to do. Many indirectly blamed Bilal’s grieving parents for not restraining him.

Culturally, seeing the mad or the mentally-ill wander the streets was neither unusual nor worrisome. In fact, the mad often evoked reverence and laughter in equal measure, with both built on a core feeling of empathy. But the streets had become perilous spaces. A couple of years previously, Indian soldiers had arrived in their hundreds of thousands to suppress the incipient Kashmiri independence movement. The soldiers housed themselves in hospitals, abandoned houses, and schools. They fanned out in apple orchards and positioned themselves on hilltops. They built sandbag bunkers that jutted out onto the streets and created roadblocks and checkpoints that brought public mobility to a grinding halt.

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Clashes in the narrow streets of Anantnag on June 8, 2018 . / Photos by Aasif Shafi.

This military occupation of public spaces established new rules of mobility, assembly, sociality, and, in general, everyday life, rules that were violently enforced. Under colonial-era laws that India passed, the military was granted “special powers” in Kashmir to kill or arrest people, punish views and opinions, or confiscate or destroy property if deemed as threats to the Indian claims of sovereignty over Kashmir. The “threats” could range from armed violence against Indian installations to disobeying the military’s rules of ordinary movement on the streets, and from poetry that extolled freedom from injustice to sketch-drawn maps that showed Kashmir out of India. In 1992, when Bilal was shot, Kashmiris had yet to become fully used to this new regime of control. Often, people didn’t know who or what to blame for deaths like Bilal’s. Some still believed that if Kashmiris hadn’t demanded freedom and rights, India would have allowed them to live in peace.

Bilal’s death on the street was not a happenstance or a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death was imminent, written into the spatial code of the military occupation. This code has now been in place for the last twenty-eight years, relentlessly and without signs of abating. What was ostensibly in the beginning a response to the independence movement, quickly became an autonomous military-political complex. The occupation grew gradually disconnected from the Indian political system. Indeed, Indian politics served as a nationalistic scaffolding for the occupation, publicly justifying its continuation, but the military occupation itself became immune from political changes within India. While different regimes came to power in New Delhi in the coming three decades, the nature of the occupation remained unchanged. The occupation on its part duly aided in keeping in place the veneer of civil administration and managing elections in Kashmir, but these were nothing more than the spatial manipulation of politics — “elections” were about international optics to deflect criticism over India’s human rights abuses, and for cultivating a class of native collaborators. Structurally built on a triad of spatial dominance over public space, military control of everyday life, and routinized administration of violence, the occupation in Kashmir operated as if its permanence was assured. Kashmir as a consequence became a veritable space of exception where life could continue only at the mercy of Indian soldiers and their perceptions of “threat.”

It is possible that all those years ago the soldiers had warned Bilal to turn away before they shot him. At least, that is how the military casually mentions these killings in their official statements on the counterinsurgency campaigns in Kashmir. In November 2018, when soldiers shot dead Rayees Wani, a mentally-ill man from Shopian in South Kashmir, who was apparently walking toward an army camp, the official representative explained that it was easy for soldiers to mistake Wani’s “intentions.” In February 2018, when they shot dead sixty-five-year-old Habibullah, also suffering from mental illness, who was barely clothed and walking barefoot toward an Indian air force station, the official said that Habibullah was warned before he was shot. The mentally-ill Kashmiris were getting killed mistakenly, the official argued, because they “just roam around.”

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Activists facing the Indian police/army after the funeral of militant Commander Dawood Salafi in Anantnag on June 22, 2018. / Photo by Musaib Mushtag

It is unclear how “warnings” appear or sound to a mentally-ill person. They may or may not apprehend a warning, especially when Indian soldiers speak an alien language (Hindi) many in Kashmir do not fully understand.
Such errors in the reception of warnings, however, mean the difference between life and death. Of course, soldiers are trained to kill in a war, and the Indian forces in Kashmir are positioned as if they are in a war, even though no formal declaration of war has been made. Their impulse is to see Kashmiris as always potentially a threat, unless they, the Kashmiris themselves, can prove otherwise.

Some newspapers have reported that since 1990 about 15 mentally-ill people have been killed outside military installations in the region. These are fairly small numbers compared to the tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians overall who have been killed or remain missing in the conflict. However, in its Kashmir Mental Health Survey Report (2015) Medecins sans Frontieres found that nearly “1.8 million adults (45% of the adult population) in the Kashmir Valley are experiencing symptoms of mental distress.” The report further states that “on average, an adult living in the Kashmir Valley has witnessed or experienced 7.7 traumatic events during his/her lifetime,” with such violent experiences having a positive correlation with the explosion of mental illness in the region. It makes one wonder how many civilians killed by Indian soldiers for “flouting” the military’s rules of mobility in public spaces were cases of misperception, mishearing, or misunderstanding. Clearly, deaths by mistake are too much of a pattern to be ignored as mistakes. Like casual justifications for killing mentally-ill Kashmiris, Indian military treats Kashmiri deaths that it causes without any justification as minor aberrations, as if the occupation had momentarily malfunctioned. Most killings, however, are not even deemed as requiring justification — these are the dead whose political opinions and activities automatically ensure death under the “special powers.”

In my ethnographic research in the region between 2014 and 2016, I found that Kashmiris did not believe civilian deaths to be aberrations or mistakes. They saw deaths under occupation as arbitrary, automated, and requiring no plausible reason to occur. The military’s rules of mobility — where, how, and when to walk, or how to associate with others — were too elaborate and constantly shifting that Kashmiris were bound to break them at some point or the other. Mechanisms of control like curfews, cordon and search operations, checkpoint frisking, house searches, and others, frequently produced situations where rules would break, and violence occur. Most people I worked with had suffered or witnessed state violence on such occasions. Violence often took the form of beatings or other cruel bodily punishments. Many reported that they had, at several points in their lifetimes, barely escaped death at the hands of soldiers.

The occupation was, thus, not simply inflicting violence against those who didn’t or couldn’t follow its commands, it was actually producing a population, through persistent violence and shifting rules of public space, who would no longer be able to understand the commands. By exposing people to death in this way, the primary mode of communication between the occupation and its subjects had become “necropolitical.” The occupation subjugated life (as the political theorist Achille Mbembe describes necropolitics) to its power of death. The occupation’s material infrastructure exacerbated this precarity of life in Kashmir. The violence was often administered at points of contact composed of a dense architecture of stationary and mobile military establishments. Over time, even the public infrastructure-building began to align itself with the military’s spatial vision. Highways, bridges, roads, dams, and airports became “dual-purpose,” with priority often given to the military’s needs.

The spatiality of the occupation inevitably came into a direct conflict with Kashmiri senses of place. Places and paths Kashmiris had known and traversed through ages, sites they considered sacred and in which they worshiped, and valleys and meadows they imagined as spaces of enjoyment, were radically fragmented. The military’s “security” grid created no-go areas, restricted-entry spaces, counterinsurgency operational sectors, and special police zones, smothering underneath a sense of how Kashmiris knew their homeland. Even domestic spaces became the objects of military’s wrath. Every so often, houses and neighborhoods marked as rebel hideouts were blown up or burnt down in spectacular displays of animosity and firepower. The slow-moving but furious destruction of homes was explained as part of the re-establishment of “order.” The catalog of destruction included the overtly defiant objects and sites of resistance that commemorated the Kashmiri dead, like water taps named after “martyrs” in public places, which were demolished as soon as people built them.

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Clashes near the Jamia Masjid in Shopian on February 2, 2018. / Photo by Tawseef Nazir.

The occupation sees Kashmiris as an insurgent population to be kept under total, non-negotiable control. To control them, Kashmir has to be under a perpetual state of ordered disorder, in which, by instilling chaos in everyday life, people’s sense of rootedness shall be gradually destroyed. Violence will be systematically administered yet maintained below the threshold of international visibility. In essence, the occupation is not a military strategy to achieve a political solution. It is a political strategy to achieve a military deadlock. Lacking legitimacy, the military occupation remains the only way India can hold on to Kashmir. Any possibility of a “political” outreach would mean contending with a people refusing to be ruled by India. Beneath the occupation, minor political set-ups operate. Yet, the political sphere remains delimited, extending only as far as the occupation allows it. Just as life in Kashmir remains in tension with the occupier state’s necropower, every space of politics runs against the violent void the occupation has created.

The occupation has not hidden itself. And Kashmiris see it precisely for what it is. The people I met or interviewed during my research had a clear and coherent picture of the occupation. They saw the occupation itself, as a totality rather than its singular agents, sites, or legalities, as the object of resistance. Kashmiri political subjectivity seemed no longer bound by traditional India-Pakistan national territorial claims — a staple since the 1947 partition of South Asia. Kashmiris evoked the international principle of the right to self-determination, but no longer viewed through the chequered history of India-Pakistan diplomacy or wars. While India and Pakistan continued to frame Kashmir as a territorial dispute between them, Kashmiris afforded no public credibility these claims.

Apprehending the occupation as an overarching system that had become a violent normality, rather than seeing it simply as an aftereffect of the national-territorial dispute that will go away if Pakistan and India spoke to each other, has been a long process. Nevertheless, it has changed the modes of protest. Acts of resistance are directed at the visible symbols and manifestations of the occupation. New resistance is more about symbolic defiance and capturing the imagination of the people, than an armed strategy of seeking control over territory. What Kashmiri rebels and activists appear to want is not so much to inflict battlefield defeat, which in any case may not be possible. They want to ensure a moral defeat of the occupation. Street battles between stone-throwing youths and fully-armed Indian soldiers have proliferated. These visually dramatic, if emotionally draining, violent events inevitably lead to bodily injuries and sometimes deaths of Kashmiris. The images of these battles circulate globally, however, as icons of the violence embedded within the occupation.

The armed militancy, which had since the late 1990s remained dormant, has also transformed. New Kashmiri rebels have emerged who depend less on their military skills — often they have no training and possess hardly any weapons — than their symbolic appeal. Each militant is popular and evokes tremendous support among the people. They survive among the sea of people around them. When rebels die in battle — many do as soon as they join — people spontaneously supply new recruits. Their self-taken images circulate widely among Kashmiri youths as objects of awe and reverence. “Encounters” between Kashmiri rebels and Indian soldiers become critical symbolic events. The encounters are grossly unequal, with one or two rebels facing hundreds of Indian soldiers, but the encounter sites become instant shrines to the resistance. People drape bodies of dead rebels in varied Kashmiri flags at the encounter sites and carry them around raising rhythmic slogans for freedom, while women shower them with candies and sing lullabies and wedding songs to mourn. Armed militancy is (perhaps by design) very limited. The government estimates that only a few hundred are active. Yet, the armed rebellion appears, because of its symbolic appeal and visual power, a larger-than-life part of the overall resistance.

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Locals inspect a house destroyed by the Indian army in Kuthipura on November 28, 2018. / Photo by Firdous Qadri.

While the occupation has shrunk non-violent physical and political spaces, newer Kashmiri resistance practices open up a wider space of protest, politics, and imagination. Kashmiris have been systematically boycotting the government-enforced elections. The boycotters do not concern themselves with individuals or parties, but instead with the occupation itself. Each boycott is presented as a collective and radical democratic defiance against the shallow “democracy” authorized from above. Persistently successful boycotts, despite military’s crackdowns against them, show that a meaningful democracy cannot live under or alongside the occupation.

More than ever, people try to ensure that each death counts. Each time the occupation kills a Kashmiri, the news spreads like wildfire across the region. To protest, people spontaneously shut down businesses and transportation, almost in a mimic inversion of the occupation’s diktats. These shutdowns have become cathartic as if people take pleasure in collectively standing up to the occupation’s desire to control Kashmiri lives. It is easier to deploy the military’s apparatus of control to bring everyday life to a halt as a punishment, than to use the same apparatus to prevent people from doing so on their own as a protest. One Kashmiri shopkeeper I spoke with last summer expressed the sentiment behind the shutdowns succinctly: “They can force me to stop going about my life, but they can’t prevent me from doing so on my own.”

It is hard to see how this self-inflicted pain helps the resistance — some Kashmiris indeed argue against shutdowns as self-destructive — yet defiance under the occupation takes unexpected, existential forms. Resistance, some Kashmiri activists argue, is not about “winning,” at least not in the short run. The dominant metaphor of resistance is not winning; it is “sacrifice.” Sacrifice is not a meaningless loss. These are losses that gather symbolic force in the face of seeming hopelessness. Kashmiri youths fighting street battles with government forces challenge and invite them to shoot or attack them. One can misread this as a death-wish, but in fact these are instances of life itself as the final frontier ranged defiantly against the necropolitical occupation.

Kashmiri youth activists realize that the occupation sees itself as a permanent formation backed fully by a hardened nationalism in India. Within the Indian mainstream media and in Indian social media spaces, supporters of the occupation ask Kashmiris to “go to Pakistan,” live subordinate lives under India or be ready to die. Among some Kashmiri youth, there is despair as a result. For others, the occupation will end when it turns around to traumatize India’s own citizens, who normally receive sanitized, nationalistic versions of what India is doing in Kashmir. The images of the occupation’s violence, the activists argue, can no longer be contained within Kashmir. They spill out occasionally, and sometimes even flood the Indian public sphere itself, inflicting a psychological wound back onto the Indian polity. While Kashmiris may not defeat the occupation militarily, is it inconceivable that they might stir enough of India’s own citizenry into eventually rolling back the occupation?

Aside from resistance within Kashmir, Kashmiri activists and writers are visibilizing the occupation within the Indian and the international political consciousness. Kashmir, they argue, is a crucial link within interconnected global justice struggles. One can’t express solidarity with the Palestinian struggle but support the Indian occupation in Kashmir; or oppose casteist violence in India but remain silent on the state violence against Kashmiris. On social media platforms, Kashmiri activists file, frame, and filter their experiences under the occupation in ways that disrupt Indian nationalist media’s accounts. Since 2008, Kashmiri writings have found a large readership both in and outside India. A flurry of fiction, memoir, poetry, and non-fiction genres of writing in English-language have found willing publishers. New works of literature, most recently Feroz Rather’s superb collection of stories The Night of Broken Glass (2018), disrupt parochial Indian nationalist imaginaries. Against a smorgasbord of stereotypical images of the Kashmiri in the Indian imagination — from the cinematic character as an impassive element of Kashmir’s beautiful natural landscape who can be benignly ignored to the deadly anti-national figure lurking as a threat to India’s body-politic who must be remorselessly eliminated — Kashmiris have emerged in resistance as a people with full personhood, a deep sense of belonging to Kashmir, and as agents in their own history-making.

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Students strike in the village asking for the release of their teacher on May 4, 2017. / Photo by Monontour.

But will any of this cut ice in the present? Kashmiri activists are aware that all of this is happening at a particularly cruel historical juncture for small nations and minority groups around the world. The intensified necropolitics of the occupation might even be a result of the global rise of routinized “brutality,” which the sociologist Saskia Sassen has described as an everyday savage and cruel attitude toward those considered “losers.” Yet, as historical evidence shows, peoples’ fates are interconnected, especially in the present era. Several years ago, an Indian expert polemically asked “Will Kashmir Stop India’s Rise?” in an essay of the same title in the Foreign Affairs magazine (Sumit Ganguly, 2006). He dismissively claimed Kashmir will not stop the rise, if anything it will be a minor distraction. Such triumphalism has proven premature.

As national governments in dominant states are becoming harder, viciously territorial, and disdainful of human rights, nationalist demagogues have risen who use real or imagined threats to curtail rights of their own citizens. In India, the Hindu nationalist regime led by Narendra Modi has used the rhetoric of “threats” emerging from a Kashmiri-Muslim-Pakistan associational chain to infect Indian polity with fear. His right-wing cronies have taken control of key aspects of India’s social-political life (media, universities, cultural institutions). Historical narratives are no longer shaped by scholars, but by political hacks who mutate them to fuel a false sense of Hindu victimhood and a virulent desire for Hindu supremacy. Anti-minority and casteist violence within India have burgeoned, even as hundreds of millions remain helplessly stuck in poverty. Religious zealots assemble street power and a sense of political impunity to dictate what the national priorities should be.

As the country slides further into fascism, the return to a civil discourse appears remote. Many conscientious Indians increasingly realize that the movement toward a secular, pluralistic polity in India would essentially require politically addressing the Kashmir question. India’s freedom from the crony, casteist Hindu fascism is intrinsically linked to Kashmir’s freedom from the military occupation. As famous Indian writer Arundhati Roy once argued: “India needs azadi (freedom) from Kashmir just as much as (if not more than) Kashmir needs azadi from India.”