Building a Colonial-Settler State in Kashmir

The Myth of India’s “Secular” Façade

By Tariq Ahmed

Jan/Feb 2024

Kashmir and India have been in a state of political conflict for decades. The theater of the conflict has been — and remains — Kashmir. The stakes are high for both. For the Indians, the endgame is consummating the settler-colonial occupation. For the Kashmiris, the goal is to resist and uproot it. 

At stake are the lives of and nationhood for Kashmiris. India, a colonial power, has violently usurped this former princely state’s land against its Muslim-majority inhabitants’ wishes and tried every means conceivable in its “counterinsurgency” to contain and quell the Muslims’ resistance to its rule. The caravan of coloniality began around the time of colonial Britain’s 1947 partition of India and is now at its culminating point, for the next step is memoricide and erasure.

In contrast to appearances, there’s no letup in the state-sponsored repression or the Kashmiris’ ongoing struggle; their resistance is in suspended animation. How else can one explain the repetition and regurgitation of the same policy mistakes made by India in this century? 

A case in point: India’s continuing need for sociopolitical and militaristic machinations in Kashmir since its occupation in 1947 has not diminished, despite decades of political maneuvering and military repression or even after pouring in billions of rupees in developmental aid. Neither has India’s awe-inspiring rise to the status of an economic superpower made a dent in the resistance narrative. New Delhi has been able to subdue — but not to erase — it.

In this sense, then, not much has changed in Kashmir and its fraught and testy relationship with India since the settler-colonial project’s embryonic stage. Now, as then, the Machiavellian sociopolitical engineering has failed to cut it with the Kashmiris. The old game plans continue even today. Although the actors have changed, the script remains the same.

“Colonizing Kashmir: State-building Under Occupation”

This matter is a theme of Hafsa Kanjawal’s “Colonizing Kashmir: State-building Under Occupation” (Stanford University Press: 2023). Its microscopic insider-outsider account reflects India’s wheeling and dealing to keep its control of Kashmir. The author investigates the state’s formative years of settler-colonial occupation since India’s partition. This seminal and detailed work, based on meticulous and grueling years of research in Kashmir, challenges many myths about India’s settler-colonial enterprise that are unabashedly purveyed by Indian politicians, unsuspectingly accepted by ordinary Indian citizens, dishonestly unchallenged by the Indian or even international academe and problematically borne by the international community without scrutiny.

This is a must-read for anyone who cares to know how India’s decades of colonial-settler machinations have led to this dispute’s intractability and how some Kashmiri collaborators, the “integrationists,” have willfully contributed to and actualized the process of coloniality for their own personal glory and benefit. 

Kanjwal’s work is a piece of art as much as it is an expository treatise on the inside story of Kashmir’s potential erasure. The book artfully demonstrates how Nehru and his accomplices in Srinagar (Bakhshi et al.) pinned their hopes on the now-defunct thesis that the Kashmiris’ nationalist sentiment was not unwavering and could be modulated through sociopolitical, educational, cultural, economic and militaristic means. 

Together, they often invoked states of exception, crises and emergency, along with portraying Kashmiris as biddable and Pakistan as an opportunist enemy. This concoction of self-imagined factors then justified and led to an overwhelming response through both the “politics of life” as much as through a reign of state-sponsored terror. 

Meanwhile, Indian nationalists projected Kashmir as an exotic land whose integration with the Indian Union was essential or vital to India’s very being, a place of “national affect” and interest whose separation could unravel India and impede its progress. Therefore, they did everything in their power to eliminate and/or subordinate the Kashmiris’ nationalist sentiment to that of Indian nationalism. They attempted to de-emphasize the affective causes of the freedom sentiment and highlight the instrumentality of the interference of an external power trying to prevent a land grab — the irredentist neighbor, Pakistan.

The nationalists retaliated against Pakistan’s supposed interference by fetishizing and licensing repression against the latter’s so-called “Islamist” loyalists in Kashmir. This tactic simultaneously appeased the unsuspecting Indian citizens while calming any international voices that were less interested in interrogating the dark underbelly of India’s secular-democratic stance.

By introducing bio-power politics in tandem with the necropolitical system of control, India forced not only the colonization of Kashmir’s territorial space, but also the colonization of its citizens’ biological spaces — their lives. The state’s overwhelming militarized intelligence apparatus sought a complete submission of those whom it could intimidate, humiliate or otherwise manipulate, and the death of those it could not. New Delhi instrumentalized the politics of life, surveillance and death to bring the citizens’ revolt against its rule under control and to legitimize its sovereignty over Kashmir. 

Simultaneously, in a carefully crafted strategy directed at denying them agency, India deployed cinematic soft power through Bollywood’s fantasy-filled pleasure machine, seeking to obliterate Kashmir’s identity and mixed cultural ethos and integrate it into the Indian (exclusively Hindu) union. By using Kashmir as an idyllic set for the Bollywood movies and insinuating politically motivated cinematic dialogs, they attempted to arouse the lust of an Indian tourist for its exotic land to be desired, eventually claimed and bolstered as part of the Indian nation. The objectives were to manipulate or erase its people’s identity and memory and subsume them within an Indian identity and memory.

Overtly, they successfully projected India’s secular facade while covertly, for the domestic audience, foregrounding Kashmir’s Hindu religious past and downplaying or outright erasing its Muslim heritage and influence. Kanjawal goes on to demonstrate that far from being a secular-democracy, “colonialism and domination were at the root of Indian state-formation.” These strategic measures were intended to justify, rationalize and routinize the Hinduvized settler-colonial occupation of Kashmir.

Has India’s overall strategy succeeded? 

New Delhi hoped that the psychological distance between India and Kashmir could be bridged via calibrated doses of tyranny and some perfunctory salutary means. Apparently, the calculus was that if Kashmiris were unwilling to change their hearts, they might be receptive or enticed to change their minds about Pakistan or independence.

Thus, Kashmir became a theater of settler-colonial tyranny as well as a case study in developmentalism (the cynical “politics of life”) that sought to distract the restive population from its political aspirations and focus more on the daily grind of life and living. The refrain was, as is the case in all colonial occupations, “we must develop them, with or without their consent” — a civilizing and redeeming intervention by the “well-meaning, cultured and progressive” Indians for the good of a “gullible, primitive and timid” Kashmiris.

To entrench its stranglehold, India — through devious economic strategies, sinister educational and cultural policies, cunning deployment of cinematic soft power, as well as the brutal silencing of dissent through both stern and “soft” repression — attempted to articulate subjectivities and configure and reconfigure political proclivities and aspirations in Kashmir. The sole aim was to legitimize and sustain Kashmir’s continued colonial occupation as a necessity without which Kashmiris could not survive. 

When the “development and progress” mantra lost its traction, New Delhi enhanced the militarized silencing of dissent. This tyrannical subjugation presented Kashmiris with the binary of complete submission or the inglorious life of the “living dead.” In this survival struggle, Kashmiris made a rational choice: They chose life, which inevitably led to the uneasy co-existence of the tyranny of breathing under a repressive and manipulative regime and the realities of daily living. 

Kanjawal notes, “Strategies such as the politics of life build, maintain and sustain colonial occupations. They enable political subjectivities that are paradoxical in their demands and aspirations, forcing individuals to reconcile their desire for political freedom with their desire to lead ‘normal’ economically stable lives.”

The Indian governments of the past and present have successfully manipulated and suppressed the resistance and immobilized the street protests. The nationalists have misinterpreted and conflated this as consent to its rule. The inconvenient truth is that instead of following an inverted U-trajectory, the resistance struggle has followed a W-trajectory, going up and down and back up again.

India will soon discover that the political resistance against settler-colonial occupation cannot be effectively eliminated by demobilizing street protests. As has been the case in other settler-colonial occupations, India has provided no breathing space for the expression of political dissent to render violent resistance superfluous, and in doing so, created the seeds of a future confrontation and strife.

The book’s premise applies to current and future times as much as it lays bare the past.

Tariq Ahmed is a Kashmiri-origin freelance writer. He grew up in the sixties in the strife torn region

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