We don’t have the luxury of navel-gazing: Kashmiri poet Ather Zia

"For any Kashmiri, to write about Kashmir is a risk; distance does create a sense of security, but it is not necessarily safe or without costs"

Local journalists in Srinagar record the moment as India announces the effective annulment of Article 370 and Article 35A on 5 August 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
Local journalists in Srinagar record the moment as India announces the effective annulment of Article 370 and Article 35A on 5 August 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)

Sampurna Chattarji

Political anthropologist, activist, poet Ather Zia teaches at the University of Northern Colorado. Founder-editor of Kashmir Lit, an online journal of Kashmiri and diasporic writing, she is also the co-founder of the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the Kashmir region. She is co-editor of A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir (HarperCollins 2019) and the author of Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (Zubaan 2021).

As the Supreme Court of India finally takes up (on August 2) a batch of petitions challenging the annulment of Article 370 in Kashmir, Zia talks to Sampurna Chattarji on the ‘sanctioned ignorance’ in India about Kashmir, on our tragically flawed understanding of what went wrong there—and what lies ahead.

Thanks, Ather, for sparing the time to speak with me. As you know, the petitions challenging the annulment of Article 370 are finally coming up for hearing in the Supreme Court of India. In the light of its recent history, how do you see the future of Kashmir?

The de-operationalisation of Article 370 is a re-annexation because Article 35A, which [protected] territorial sovereignty and permanent residency is gone. Kashmir is a ‘settler colonial’ situation, now on steroids. For a lot of Kashmiris, [Art.] 370 did not mean much because it was completely eroded.

The resistance leaders might have protested about how 370 was taken away militarily, unilaterally, but I don’t think they attached any further importance to it—because the real ideal for them is liberation. Yes, there was worry about 35A—because it gives India an open pathway to bring in settlers and it is doing so.

Among many other attempts, there is now a conversation about giving land to landless people. Kashmiris see this as a settler project to change the demography. The petitions that are being heard right now, most of the people who have been vociferous about them are pro-India client-politicians, like Mehbooba Mufti and Farooq Abdullah, who side with India. They have become extremely disposable for the current dispensation.

Does distance provide some sort of sanctuary, allowing you to be more vocal and visible in ways other Kashmiris cannot be?

I am part of American academia, where academic freedom of writing, research and speaking is a given, for the most part.

For any Kashmiri, to write about Kashmir is a risk; distance does create a sense of security, but it is not necessarily safe or without costs.

Engaged academics, both Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri, have worked hard over the past two decades, to establish critical studies on Kashmir, a sub-discipline that insists we prioritise history and the everyday resistance of Kashmiris; it determinedly resists the looming shadow of the Indian narrative on Kashmir within South Asian studies.

We don’t have the luxury of 
navel-gazing: Kashmiri poet Ather Zia

This critical research perspective, based on Kashmir’s history, cultural legacy and personal stories of Kashmiris, is key. They are the building blocks of a restorative narrative, adding to what Kashmiris inside Kashmir have written and spoken about over the past 70-plus years but has often been sidelined, both regionally and internationally.

Thinking about how you see activism as resistance to amnesia, I wanted to revisit the article on the enforced disappearance of Kashmiri writing, but ‘Error… not found’ is all I could find…

Kashmir Lit is a webzine I founded in 2008—it is used to being hacked. Many Kashmiri sites are often hacked, blocked or shadow-banned; Twitter accounts, including mine, are banned in India; my Facebook account was deleted, and Instagram shadow-banned.

This concerted effort to silence us and all dissenting narratives includes the persecution of journalists and human rights activists. Kashmir Lit is devoted to literature, poetry and art but, as we all know, most art is political. When we first spoke, you told me about the ‘not found’ error you encountered while looking for two articles on the disappearance of Kashmiri writing.

These were about how Kashmiri writing and Kashmiris who write are under attack. Kashmiri journalists have woken up to find their entire oeuvre ‘disappeared’ from the internet. These reports were mostly on the real ground situation in Kashmir.

This vanishing of Kashmir’s newspaper archive has been engineered to establish the hegemony of the Indian narrative on Kashmir and to drown Kashmiri voices. As a Kashmiri journalist puts it, this is to “write off facts and the truth about the situation in Kashmir”.

I don’t know if I can fully restore the site or what happens next. It is 15 years’ worth of valuable content. Losing archives is not the bigger tragedy compared to life, but then archives are memory, and memory, for a people under siege, is everything.

In Resisting Disappearance, you write of the women who always keep their doors ajar in case the disappeared person returns—it feels like the door slammed shut in our faces. Things and people are being wilfully disappeared so that we forget.  How do we create a conversation that counters amnesia?

This won’t last—so much repression of so many people. Even our dwindling allies, even those who really want to be there for us can’t stick their necks out… they are under surveillance and detained. Allies who used to be vocal on Kashmir are quiet. We’ve got a dhakka… you on your side, me on mine.

How does it feel to talk to people who do not possess the full context of the stories you tell? Are you often talking across a void of incomprehension or outright hostility?

We have a very strong theme in asking people to think historically, to go back to history. You know the Spivakian term ‘sanctioned ignorance’, it fits this situation. There is a ‘sanctioned ignorance’ in India about Kashmir, which is why you feel that we are spoken for all the time and we do not speak…but the truth is that Kashmiris have spoken for so long…

Everyone in Kashmir knows this. Syed Ali Geelani wrote more than 40 books, including a three-volume memoir. Many Kashmiris like him have spoken and written about India as an imperial, neo-colonial power. That frame is enough to understand what is happening in Kashmir; even how democracy has been weaponized.

We have to think creatively about the Kashmir situation—it is not an intractable problem. It needs to be an ecologically sound solution and not succumb to a broad-sweep application of the Westphalian model, of which India itself is an example. Most Eurocentric democratic political orders stand on what Walter Benjamin called ‘founding violence’ or ‘law-making violence’, a process by which the elimination of native life enables the constitution of new legal, cultural, political norms.

At Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, Kashmiri women protest the enforced disappearance of their kin, who have remained untraceable for decades. (Photo: Getty Images)
At Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, Kashmiri women protest the enforced disappearance of their kin, who have remained untraceable for decades. (Photo: Getty Images)

A foundational violence forms the basis of democratic sovereignty, of ‘colonising democracies’, which camouflage settler-colonialism with the symbolism of democratic instruments like elections. The ‘democratic’ settler colonisation of Kashmir since the formation of India came to a head in 2019, after India militarily eliminated Kashmir’s autonomy and territorial sovereignty.

There is sanctioned ignorance around Kashmir—it’s sanctioned to misunderstand Kashmir, to have an ahistorical view of Kashmir, to say that Kashmir is a proxy war, to infantilise Kashmiris by saying we can be manipulated by Pakistan, and only by Pakistan, not by India…

There should be a historical engagement with Kashmir by the people of India. The reason I edited A Desolation Called Peace is that these stories had never been told this way. Mind you, much has been written inside Kashmir that has never reached the Indian masses, presumably because it didn’t suit the Indian narrative on Kashmir. As we speak today, there is news that Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry and Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night are being deleted from the English curriculum in Kashmir University. So, there we go…

We don’t have the luxury of 
navel-gazing: Kashmiri poet Ather Zia
How do we go beyond the caricatures that pass for knowledge even among those who think they know Kashmir?

Kashmir is presented in such an ahistoric manner, it’s almost as if it did not have a history prior to 1947.

Indians have to understand that India, as we know it today, was cobbled together by the British. I have an issue with the word ‘Partition’. I am not for a minute ignoring or undermining the huge tragedy, but when we say ‘Partition’, we also invisibilise what India, especially the current dispensation, has been doing—they draw this arc of a 5,000-year-old civilisation, as if everyone in the subcontinent was one country, one religion… even what is currently called Hinduism did not exist the way it is homogenised now, they forget that what was ‘partitioned’ was British India and the princely states.

The British Dominion was made up of 750+ princely states, some were vassals, some were independent. Kashmir was a separate entity, it was independent. I am not trying to come to the defence of a despot, but we have to understand that what the world is dealing with post-1947 is nation states, which is a very new concept.

Countries did not exist as they do now. We must understand how India was created, and also that the way it engages with Kashmir is a colonial aftermath.

Another important question Kashmir scholars have raised, thinking about the events in Kashmir in 1947, is the obsessive focus on the decisions of a fleeing Dogra despot (who went to Bombay) and not on those Kashmiris who fought for Azad Kashmir against the Indian army, and were helped by what was becoming and became Pakistan, and also by the people of the North-West Frontier Province—the qabailis.

‘Qabaili’ simply means kinsmen or clansmen. But in the Indian narrative, it is used derogatorily as ‘raiders’—a notion widely prevalent in India and also propagated by Indian client-politicians inside Kashmir. The ethnic clansmen had long-standing family, cultural and trade ties with the people in Poonch, and they were impassioned to fight alongside their people against the impunity of the Dogra king.

They had come to combat communal violence in Jammu, authorised by the despot monarch and aided by the RSS, no less. This is the Jammu massacre or the Holocaust of the east, which does not feature in the Indian narrative at all.

To understand Kashmir, the Indian masses have to engage with Kashmiris on the ground, with writers, scholars and activists who counter the dominant Indian discourse, which drowns Kashmir’s historical demand for a democratic sovereignty.

They need to seek out critical narratives that challenge the reductive, ahistorical portrayal of indigenous Kashmiri resistance as ‘a proxy war’, reducing it to the erroneous stereotype of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

In this pre-2019 photo, Kashmiris are seen protesting in Srinagar against the Indian government’s proposed move to revoke Articles 35A and 370 (Photo: Getty Images)
In this pre-2019 photo, Kashmiris are seen protesting in Srinagar against the Indian government’s proposed move to revoke Articles 35A and 370 (Photo: Getty Images)

You are an ethnographer, an editor, a poet... so many ways to inhabit the emotional landscape of your life. How can we process that landscape?

Poetry was a way of witnessing, but I was deliberately restrained in embedding my poems into my ethnographic work. When you are a native anthropologist, you work differently. I recall how my political consciousness was being shaped in the early 1990s, how I began thinking about neighbours and cousins who ‘disappeared’.

Enforced disappearances were rampant in the midst of other human rights abuses. There was this neighbour lady who used to sit on her porch and clean collard greens. She would always ask, “How are you doing?” Then suddenly, in the early 1990s, she would ask everyone who passed by if we had seen her son. I later realised he’d been taken by the army. She had lost her mental equilibrium.

People were losing family members, children, and the tragedy of enforced disappearances seeped into me. It’s unlike being killed, where there is a body. The lack of basic rights, civil and political, and the sheer magnitude of repression became a window on my homeland Kashmir, its history and politics and the long-standing struggle.

You call it ‘ethnographic poetry as evidence of ethical surfeit’…

For a native ethnographer, the line between the observer and the observed is hard to draw. In my case, this became apparent in poetry. What happens is a surfeit of witnessing in ways not only objective, the kind of witnessing that demands more than empathy.

By terming this surfeit ‘ethical’, I insisted that poetry too must be captured (which, in research, otherwise does not find acceptance). I argued that the ethnographic poem crafted from observation, in the context of an ethnographer-poet bearing evidence, becomes data.

How does one negotiate always having to make the best of what there is as a way of life?

I wish I were from a society where I could’ve written like Mary Oliver about life, about a cat doing wonderful things, or a flock of geese passing by, weaving light into it… I’ve written a lot about my life as a woman, about domesticity, patriarchy, motherhood, about inhabiting fraught intersectionalities—Kashmiri–brown–Muslims in America—and even those things are political.

But when I write to publish, I can’t pay attention to those poems, because as with many Kashmiri writers, inside and outside Kashmir, our main focus is to contribute to resistance literature—because it’s a need. So, art stops being a luxury, it becomes a need.

There was a period from the late 2008 onwards, which we call the second intifada in Kashmir, when we were heavily invested in creating art, films, graphic novels. So many things were happening, but after 2016, most of this expression has been curbed and is under severe threat. There is severe silencing, but people cannot be silenced for long.

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