Book Review: What Is Peace in Kashmir?

A poignant anthology on Kashmir reveals the turmoil at the heart of the land.

“We shall meet again in Srinagar,
By the gates of the Villa of Peace
Our hands blossoming into fists
Till the soldiers return the keys
And disappear.”

Edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat, A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir is an anthology of essays that traces the period between 1947 and 1989 and tries to understand the demand for azadi as a deep-rooted, historical demand for political freedom of Kashmir from the Indian state.

Invoking Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri-American poet in its title, the anthology aims to explore the years between the partition of India – which was also the year of the accession of Kashmir to India by Hari Singh – and the emergence of militancy in the valley for what they were; not as a time of “relative peace” as often represented in Bollywood and the Indian mainstream media, but as the metaphorical lull before the storm. What unfurls is a visualisation of the indigenous roots of the call for azadi in all its variation and complexity. As the editors rightly observe:

A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir, Edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat, HarperCollins, 2019

“Kashmiris continue to demand that sovereignty be added as an option to reflect their desire for nationhood, a struggle they insist is older than India or Pakistan.”

Essays like ‘Fragments from a Diary’, ‘Rooms of Resistance’ and ‘From the Torture Chambers and Back’ articulate the trans-generational nature of trauma in Kashmir as a result of the massive presence of the Indian military that the book likens to occupation. As Zahir U Din suggests in his essay, post traumatic stress disorder is perhaps the most common disease in the Valley. Its source remains hidden in the everyday realities of Kashmiris, its terrain marked by an increasing number of martyrs’ graveyards, enforced disappearances, brutalised youth and violation of women. 

In an autobiographical account in the anthology edited by Sanjay Kak, titled ‘Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir’, a young stone-pelter sombrely confesses that a stone falls inadequate when faced with an army tank, but he also points out the urgency of the act which, he argues, should be understood as a step towards resisting the idea of occupation, as rejecting repression, and breaking the routine of pain and hopelessness. 

A similar spontaneous act of rebellion is exemplified in Mona Bhan’s essay. She recounts an incident from her schooldays when her class was asked by its teacher to write an essay on azadi so that the young women could be prevented from joining the rally outside. Bhan writes:

“Hundreds of girls, ranging from 13 to 18, stared her [the teacher] in the face. In that moment of deep certainty, as we readied to march on the streets, the veil became a symbol of resistance, offering us courage but also anonymity. Like my peers, I covered my face with a long scarf, revealing only my eyes. And I got up to muster enough courage and respond: ‘We will write an essay on azadi when we get it’.”

In just a few sentences, Bhan weaves many ideas together. Her refusal to bow down to the teacher becomes symbolic of the greater resistance at work and it is this refusal that also brings out the importance of the immediacy of a physical act (marching) as opposed to the safer, more sheltered act of writing an essay.

Her reclamation of the veil as a “symbol of resistance” is also a significant challenge to the western feminist notion of the veil as regressive and repressive. Bhan’s story, therefore, potentially destabilises established ideas about militarisation, youth activism and feminist politics.

Also read: Un-veiling the Politics of the Veil

Out of the several questions that this anthology seeks to address, there are two fundamental issues that demand immediate attention – the humanitarian cost, and the legitimacy of occupation. The latter is the more intimidating for those complicit, either morally or politically, in the conflict.

It is repeatedly asserted in the essays, both implicitly and explicitly, that the conflict in Kashmir should not be regarded as a territorial problem.

Tracing the history of the movement in Kashmir right from Dogra rule to the present time, the essays document the horrors of human rights violations in Kashmir, and treat the accession signed by Hari Singh in 1947 as purely provisional – a treaty that “included the sale of not only the land but also its people”. The promise of plebiscite by the Jawaharlal Nehru has conveniently been transformed into a Godot-like narrative. It never seemed to arrive. 

Mirza Waheed’s reminiscence, ‘In Memory Lake’ poignantly shows how an almost idyllic childhood retrogrades into a nightmare as troops keep descending on the valley with more and more ferocity, and how this perennial state of militarisation has generated a certain kind of forced nonchalance to violence. As violence grows more banal, it becomes less susceptible to challenge. Waheed observes:

“How do we arrive at a situation when we see corpses a few feet away but we cannot do anything about it? In that banalised act, I witnessed how a military power devises a system of identification, detention and punishment so elaborate, so methodical, that you begin to accept it as inevitable, as normative.”

This observation haunts those of us territorially located on the oppressor’s side, and, more often than not, morally complicit in the violence perpetrated on Kashmiris in the name of national security, national unity and integrity. With the most recent development of a forceful integration of Kashmir into the Indian mainland as a result of the unilateral decision of reading down Article 370, these few lines rightfully attack our conscience.

Also read | ‘Even My Call to Almighty Could be Interpreted as Subversion’: Kashmiri Scholar

For a critical and introspective reader keen to understand Kashmir’s demand for total independence from India, this anthology is a poignantly written primer to go by. It historicises the struggle for azadi, drawing out the various courses and forms it has taken till now, articulating the dream of a free Kashmir in all its plurality. The editors record in the introduction: “This anthology does not claim to offer final answers, but presents a range of individual experiences at best, which are the beginnings of what we hope will be a long reflective period.”

As I finish writing this review, the people in Kashmir are going through one of their worst ordeals. All forms of communication have been shut down in a state-imposed curfew, news of pellet-victims and the death of a 17-year old do the rounds. As poet Agha Shahid Ali noted in his poem, Farewell, we make a desolation and we call it peace.

Sahana Mukherjee is an MPhil research scholar at the department of English, Jadavpur University.