The Valley of Kashmir arouses a peculiar interest as a land of almost mythic and mysterious beauty and, since the end of colonialism in South Asia, as a space of violence. This imagination has taken further root since 1989 following the emergence of an insurgency and a movement for independence in Kashmir and from India and the drastic militarization of life by the Indian state. Regardless of one’s ideological location, Kashmir and Kashmiris have since then redefined notions of nation, state, belonging and ways of being in the world. Most important of all, since 1989 (or perhaps since the 1930s even) Kashmiris constantly force us to rethink a universal idea of freedom or azaadi. While there has been a great deal of writing on Kashmir across all genres over the past two decades, from academic texts to journalism (and increasingly fiction), there remains a question as to whether there is a conversation taking place between such texts. The book edited by the historian Chitralekha Zutshi is an attempt to bring different academic texts into a single volume that can facilitate such a conversation.
The book brings together contributions from history, anthropology, political science and area studies and is divided into three broad sections. The first, on history, includes contributions from the editor and other prominent scholars such as Mridu Rai, Andrew Whitehead and Shahla Hussein. Kashmir studies have been defined to a great extent by scholarship that engages with a sense of the past. Whether one reads Sanskrit or Persian chronicles or the writings of colonial observers, historians as purveyors of the past have played a critical role in shaping the agenda, especially when questions of origin emerge. Why is there a conflict in Kashmir? What happened in the past that has led to the forms of politics that dominate in the present? The contributors to the first section however go beyond approaches which have otherwise dominated much of the earlier scholarship in Kashmir with its emphasis on a cast of faceless, impersonal nation-states, big men and their conspiracies or as a salvage project. Rather, the contributors locate the roots of the present in spaces of everyday life in the past, as Zutshi depicts in her chapter on ‘Urban Public Culture’ and how the construction of knowledge and political ideologies in and about Kashmir were historically situated as Rai describes in the contestations over archaeology in Kashmir.
Whitehead and especially Hussein in their chapters take the reader to political ideas such as alternative national imaginations to see especially how the notion of azaadi has emerged over time. Most important of all, as scholars such as Zutshi and Rai have observed in the past, Kashmir has often been imagined as a land without people. These essays however place Kashmiris themselves centre stage in their own history and as agents and authors of that history. This also prevents a history of Kashmir from being strangled by the histories of the Indian and perhaps Pakistani nation-state, which otherwise remained a lacuna in earlier works, especially in texts that fall under the rubric of strategic studies.
The next section on politics is especially interesting and features contributions that demonstrate the diversity of fields which define Kashmiri politics. They include informative essays on Pakistani administered territories by Christopher Snedden on Azad Kashmir and Martin Sokefield on Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, and then moves to essays on other groups who have a difficult relationship with Kashmiri politics as seen in Haley Duschinski’s chapter on the Kashmiri Pandits. Mohita Bhatia’s and Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay’s contributions lay open the complexity of Kashmir further by showing how nationalist politics and publics are not a given but involve constant work riven by concerns of time. Bhatia’s paper on caste is especially important as it is a field relatively understudied in Kashmir. What is significant in this section is that the different contributors together enable a thick engagement with political diversity, whereby conversations on different fields can then be pushed. By its composition, the chapters in this section together question how the margins and the centre of Kashmiri politics can be revisited and understood.
The final section deals with representation. Beginning with Dean Accardi’s discussion of the work involved centuries in sustaining the importance of mystics such as Lal Ded and their connection to the land, the section moves on to essays on the production of Kashmir in craft work as shown by Vanessa Chishti, to contemporary fantasies about Kashmir in Bollywood and the work of Kashmiri poets, by Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Suvir Kaul respectively. The first two essays work well together as they show how representation and imagination involves labour and constant work and which is riven by power and time. The essays by Kabir and Kaul push the question of power further, in one case complicating how a region has been imagined as a fantasy by outsiders with its accompanying symbolic violence, while the final essay can be read as how Kashmiris themselves frame their own cultural response, in this case in poetry. Sometimes moving out of conventional political frameworks is especially important as something ‘cultural’ such as poetry has a longer history in complicating the meaning of azaadi than scholarship on Kashmir. What makes this section especially effective is that the contributors discuss how violence, its roots and effects, can also be found in the symbolic world apart from a physical world of action.
While each section leads to the next with a clear logic, the question that must be asked is whether, as the editor writes early on, this book offers a new direction, and if so, for whom? It questions a basic premise of Kashmir, namely as a zone of exception. As Zutshi writes,‘The predicament Kashmir finds itself in is not because it is distinct; it is the predicament that has produced narratives of distinctiveness…’(p.15). Rather the book emphasizes the importance of how knowledge is generated by both Kashmiris and outsiders (p.16) and whether this awareness can enable a rethinking of conventional ideas on Kashmir in academic spaces, perhaps among policy hacks and in popular culture.
Interdisciplinarity is a difficult act to pull off and it is wonderful to see a collection that achieves this so well. What I liked about this collection is that I can imagine reading and seeing links across different chapters. A reader could read a section in itself or thread across sections. One could move between say Rai’s contribution and then connect to Chishti, especially in framing fields of knowledge. One could compare cases presented by Duschinski to Sokefeld or begin with Zutshi’s essay and then move to the essays in the third section as they connect to theme of public culture. Hussein’s chapter can easily be read on its own as a transit point before proceeding through the rest of the collection.
While this book permits a reading that does not limit readers to see Kashmir with an ‘Indian’ lens for example, I think there can be some further work included on the idea of the state in Kashmir and its ability to reshape how everyday life has been lived in the Valley since 1947. In this regard one could look at the larger work of the various participants of the Critical Kashmir Studies collective. While the book is focused on Kashmir, I can see its relevance to scholars across disciplines who engage with areas and peoples affected by the violence of states and nations in other parts of the world and who are looking for points of comparison. This is an excellent contribution to the study of Kashmir and will provide new points of departure for future scholarship as it allows a sense of clarity with regard to known but misunderstood area and people.
Ankur Datta is in the Departmen of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi.