Ather Zia, Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (University of Washington Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ather Zia (AZ): This book, even though it was almost a decade in making, is to me an urgent piece of writing. For the last seventy-two years, Kashmir in the world’s imagination as a dispute which involves people demanding their right to self-determination under the UN resolutions has increasingly been kept on the backburner. This is more often than not because the world perceives India as the largest democracy in South Asia and the home of Mahatma Gandhi, Yoga, and Ahimsa (non-violence). Little do people realize that India is a neo-imperial nation that repressed Kashmiris and ruled Kashmir as a colony within months after itself coming into being as a country in 1947. What India has been especially good at is selling symbols of democracy it has deployed in Kashmir; for example, electoral politics.

Electoral politics has been weaponized and used to tell the world that democracy exists in Kashmir; hence there is no dispute at all. The truth is that Kashmiris do not agree; the armed conflict of 1989 and the ongoing grassroots people’s resistance refute that. While direct and indirect violence has been Indian policy in Kashmir since 1947, human rights violations have increased gravely since 1989 and, as a result, more than 100,000 people—both combatants and non-combatants—have been killed, with more than 10,000 enforced disappearances of Kashmiri men effected by the Indian army. Enforced disappearances are symbolic of limitless trauma, as the kin of the disappeared persons are in a constant state of waiting and limbo without closure. This has been both the reality for many Kashmiris whose kin have disappeared, and a representative threat to others, a  warning against dissent.

In reality, there is absolutely no recourse to legal amenities. Most Kashmiris approach courts only to become part of a fruitless exercise that lasts years and years with no end in sight. People abandon their cases, even as others pursue them—but, largely, there is no recourse—the police in many past cases have not even registered the complaints from the families. In a basic sense, even the disappearance disappeared. In the early ‘90s, a movement grew around the disappeared men, spearheaded by mother Parveen Ahangar whose seventeen-year-old son disappeared in custody. This movement coalesced into the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).

For me, the cause and mission of the APDP is the epitome of the everyday resistance which Kashmir is practising; it challenges the Indian state and provides a window into the political tragedy of Kashmir. I wanted this book to amplify the message of Kashmiri people, to show how Indian state terrorism and military occupation make these disappearances possible and perpetuate impunity, making invisible the suffering of Kashmiris and their genuine UN-backed political demands.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AZ: The book can be categorized as a work of political anthropology, feminist anthropology, or anthropology of human rights and military occupation/militarization, as well. It is also a work of ethnographic poetry. The ethnography focuses on the Kashmiri Muslim women who are the APDP and are searching for the 10,000 + Kashmiri men who have been subjected to enforced disappearance by the Indian army.

The everyday gendered politics of mourning around the APDP mission emerge as what I term affective law, an agentive mode of challenging violence through everyday acts, cultural engagements, and non-traditional sites of confrontation. This book is an ethnographic account of militarism and feminist resistance in Kashmir, documenting how these activists mobilize demonstrations, pursue court cases, collect documentation, seek audiences with government officials, and scour prisons and morgues in search of the disappeared persons. As a feminist analysis, the book focuses on how Muslim women confront the Indian occupation and state terrorism, as well attend to the challenges of their social order.

As a political analysis, it centralizes the Kashmiri demand for self-determination and tells the story of how India has imposed a “politics of democracy” to camouflage its military occupation, which includes an endless rigmarole of client regimes that do India’s bidding inside Kashmir. It illustrates how Kashmiris practise everyday resistance against the Indian state. This is especially important to know because the Kashmir conflict is largely and stereotypically being treated as a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan, which effectively silences Kashmiri voices, demands, experiences, and narratives.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AZ: This book connects with most of the work I have done as an academic, which centers around Kashmir and also my former work as a journalist.  In 2011, I helped co-found the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, a group which seeks to understand the region of Kashmir and the dispute through the vantage of Kashmiris and not through the narratives of the contesting nations. This shift is important because, from the Kashmiri perspective, the struggle in Kashmir is a struggle for democratic sovereignty and has been as such since even before 1947, when India and Pakistan became two nations.

In that sense, this book is part of a continuum of scholarship which is emerging and solidifying the foundation of critical Kashmir studies. My other two works are relevant to mention here. Resisting Occupation is a volume I have co-edited that traces the historical and political contours of the Kashmir dispute, explaining the Indian occupation from interdisciplinary perspectives. A Desolation called Peace gives space to the voices of every Kashmiri people talking about the period from 1947 to 1989, showing a grassroots perspective of Kashmiri resistance to Indian rule and illustrating how it is inherently historical, indigenous, and homegrown. This book also speaks to my previous poetic work, since it includes some ethnographic poetry to help move the story forward.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AZ: I hope the book will be widely read in academia, which is the best place to contribute to the shifting narrative on Kashmir. I hope students, who are the future, will engage with the book and know that Kashmir is not a terrorism issue, it is not a proxy war, and it is not India’s internal dispute; it is rather a just struggle and a just movement that Kashmiris call the Tehreek (movement). I have written the book in very accessible form and in a storytelling manner, in the hope that everyday readers will read the book and see, through the eyes of the APDP activists, what the Kashmir dispute is about.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AZ: I am working on a collection of ethnographic poetry based on my work in Kashmir. It is tentatively titled Field-in-Verse: Writing under Occupation. The short poems in Resisting Disappearance foreshadow what is in progress for this forthcoming volume. I am also guest co-editing and working on a special issue in Identities which looks at the issue of Kashmir and Palestine side by side. A co-edited volume is coming out on Gender and Militarization in Kashmir, as well.

J: Can you say more about the role of ethnographic poetry in anthropological work?

AZ: Being a native anthropologist who also writes poetry, I sifted the Kashmiri stories through my intersubjective lens. Including poems in the book is reflection of my faith in the power of creative anthropology to offer multiple ways of understanding a situation. As an ethnographer poet, I did think about how valid my research would be if I allowed for a deeply subjective experience of poetry. Would it take away from or enrich my research? These are not my current misgivings, but they certainly were when I began my work as an anthropologist, when poetry continued to be one of the default modes for me to comprehend and process what I saw and heard. As a native anthropologist, the field unravels before me in all kinds of formulaic and non-formulaic ways where the line between the observer and the observed sometimes gets blurred. In my case, this blurriness becomes apparent in the poetry which I thought was meaningful to reveal to the readers.


Excerpt from the book 

In 1931 in the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir a key incident occurred when the Kashmiri Muslims revolted against the Hindu monarch Hari Singh of the Dogra dynasty. During a mass demonstration, the king’s police killed twenty-two Kashmiris. Today the historical martyrs’ graveyard dedicated to these men stands as a testament to Kashmir’s aspiration for an independent sovereign democracy. At the time of the massacre, almost a century had passed since 1846, when the British colonial government had sold the entire region of Kashmir to Hari Singh’s warlord ancestor Gulab Singh. The British colonizers had imposed territorial and administrative unity over the disparate geographical and cultural provinces— namely, Kashmir, Jammu, Ladakh, and allied regions—jointly referred to as the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. Gulab Singh bought the territory along with its people for seventy-five thousand Nanak Shahi rupees and an annual present of one horse, twelve shawl goats, and three pairs of the finest Kashmiri shawls to the British Crown. The hundred years of Hindu Dogra rule were ruthless for the majority of the Muslim Kashmiris who lived in de facto slavery. This period became generative of political and economic awakening in the Kashmiri people. In 1932 newly educated young Muslim men forged a political movement to fight for people’s rights and ultimately gain democratic sovereignty.

The dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan began with the 1947 Indo-Pak partition, which was predicated on religious difference. While nominally secular, India became a Hindu-majority nation, and Pakistan became a homeland for Muslims. Dominantly Muslim, Kashmir was largely expected to integrate with the newly formed Pakistan with which it had geographic contiguity, trade, and cultural links. The monarch of Kashmir was indecisive about acceding to either country and wanted to explore the option of independence. Meanwhile, he signed a “standstill” agreement with Pakistan to ensure that essential services—trade, travel, and communication— remain uninterrupted. Pakistan saw this as a forerunner to the accession and its indisputable claim to the region. The Indian leaders had started their diplomacy to acquire Kashmir long before 1947. The majority of Kashmiris at that time preferred to stay independent and not join either of the two countries.

From August 15, 1947, when India and Pakistan became two dominions, until October 27, 1947, when the Indian military landed by plane, Kashmir was an independent state. By then the Indo-Pak partition had descended into communal violence. In the region of Poonch in West Kashmir, an armed revolt was building under the name of Azad (Independent) Kashmir Regular Forces to create an independent state. The king suppressed the revolt brutally, but the rebels successfully liberated part of the region declaring the Azad (Independent) Kashmir provisional government on October 24, 1947. By this time the communal violence of the Indo-Pak partition spilled into Kashmir’s Jammu province. Approximately two hundred thousand Muslims were killed in an ethnic cleansing that the king endorsed.

In the Indian narrative what followed the Poonch revolt is called an “invasion by Pakistan” or pejoratively the “Qabaili raid,” referring to the ethnic clansmen who came to Kashmir’s aid from the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of the newly founded Pakistan to aid the Poonch revolutionaries. The ethnic clansmen had long-standing family, cultural, and trade ties with the people in Poonch, and they were impassioned to fight alongside their co-religionists against the impunity of the Hindu king. Fearing loss of territory, the king asked India for military support. The Indian government agreed with the precondition that the king accede to India and promised to hold a plebiscite to decide the region’s final fate. The king agreed to a treaty of accession for the entire Princely State, retaining control in all matters except defense, currency, and foreign affairs.

In 1948, after the first full-scale war broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, India took the issue to the United Nations, where it repeated its commitment to a plebiscite. The UN brokered a 485-mile-long ceasefire line that split the region in two. One-third of the territory, including the far northern and western areas along with Gilgit-Baltistan, ended as a semiautonomous entity administered by Pakistan, known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) The remaining two-thirds of the region, including the valley of Kashmir and the provinces of Jammu and Ladakh, came under Indian control. The promised plebiscite was never held.

The Indian narrative since 1947 has dominated explanations of the Kashmir dispute in which violence by the militia from the NWFP is made hypervisible and a vested silence is maintained on the barbarity of its own military. Revisionist scholars have challenged India’s arguments, especially those that obfuscate Kashmir’s historical demand for a democratic sovereignty by varyingly presenting the Kashmir issue as Pakistan’s proxy war, or reducing it to the erroneous stereotype of “Islamic terrorism” and relegating it to a domestic law-and-order situation. Exhaustive analysis of events surrounding the Indo-Pak partition, when borders were in flux and people’s loyalties had not concretized, has established that India was no less an aggressor; there is a discrepancy in the signing of the treaty of accession with India and the Poonch uprising was a revolt, not an invasion. In light of the liberation of the Azad Kashmir region, questions are even being raised on the validity of the king acceding the entire Princely State to India.



India has historically propagated the notion that the 1951 and successive elections are proof of Kashmiri endorsement of the accession treaty, thereby negating the need for a plebiscite. This narrative conveniently obfuscates the analysis that calls its electoral democracy “subverted and permanently retarded” and “flawed”, which has only been successful through rigging to prop up predetermined candidates who favor Indian accession. India intended to rule Kashmir as a party state, and those perceived in any measure adverse to expanding Indian constitutional jurisdiction have been disqualified for insubstantial reasons or harassed or imprisoned. The elections held in 1962, 1967, and 1972 were also brazenly rigged and ultimately completely sidelined the movement for a plebiscite. In 1964, India further eroded Kashmir’s special status to bring it to par with its other states. Kashmiri people responded with angry protests, which the government put down with brutal force. The 1960s saw the rise of the Al-Fatah armed movement for the independence of Kashmir, which the Indian government repressed in under a decade. By the 1970s the incarceration of the local leadership and coercive politics ensured that opposition to Indian expansion policies was severely undermined.

The year 1987 was a watershed moment. Many notable Kashmiris, who wanted to raise the question of political dispute of Kashmir under the UN mandate, decided to stand for elections under the banner of the Muslim United Front (MUF). Despite popular support, the MUF lost after massive and concerted rigging by a party that unsurprisingly favored India. In the protests that ensued, government forces killed four people and arrested the MUF cadre. Some analysts propagate the idea that the Kashmiris resorted to arms because India did not allow democracy to flourish in Kashmir. However, my interviews with former MUF supporters indicate that the electoral loss only shifted their policy of participatory politics. Their primary intention had not been governance but to gain control of the assembly and revive the Kashmiri demand for self-determination and independence. Thus the seeds of the Tehreek (the resistance movement against Indian rule) were sown long before but “did not come to fruition until 1988–89”.

Since 1947, the right to dissent in Kashmir has been curbed. People cannot network and organize to pursue their ideals of self-determination and independence in a lawful manner. The only political parties that have permission and patronage from the government are pro-India. Currently, most of the leaders of the Tehreek, who are part of the Hurriyet (Freedom) Conference (a conglomerate of twenty-eight political resistance parties formed in 1991), are often incarcerated, harassed, and placed under restrictions. Recent years have seen increased attacks on the media through censorship, and journalists are often beaten or harassed. Full-fledged gagging of the local media, the Internet, and mobile phones is recurrent. The undemocratic foundation of the Indian government in Kashmir is evident at no less a time than during elections—a mega-spectacle of its military power over the region. For the initial six years of the armed movement, Kashmir was governed through direct rule from New Delhi, locally called “Governor Raj.” In 1996 elections were held that were unsurprisingly fixed, rigged, and coercive, with a massive presence of government troops. Subsequent elections have been irregular, tedious, and complex, and the presence of government troops is disproportionate and impedes public movement through patrols and curfews. In the 2014 elections, in addition to the existing military force, an additional 56,500 troops from India were sought to control the election process. The army and police are often accused of placing restrictions on people and forcing them to vote.

The elections are systematically boycotted by Muslim Kashmiris, partly due to a ban by resistance leaders and militant outfits but also because rigged voting is seen as weak compensation for self-determination. The documented turnout in Srinagar has been as low as 10 percent. In 2017, following an uprising, voter turnout went down to a mere 7 percent and 2 percent in the elections. Most of my research partners had never voted, and those who did said that they voted for “bijli, sadak, pani [electricity, roads, and water]”. The Kashmiri opinion leaders I interviewed all agreed that two distinct categories of politics exist in Kashmir: one pertains to day-to-day governance, and another to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Thus people vote for civil governance. It is not an indication of giving up their demands for self-determination and certainly is not an endorsement of the accession to India.