“The Kashmirization of India”: Comparison, Solidarity, and “Paranoid” Reading

By Nishita Trisal

This piece is part of APLA’s newest Speaking Justice to Power Series, which focuses on Kashmir and marks the one-year anniversary of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution (August 5, 2019). The Series page is available here

What happens when the state of emergency imposed on a nation state’s borderlands and its occupied territories “comes home”?[i] What kinds of solidarities might emerge from such moments? And how might attending to these solidarities as well as to their failures help us to think differently about political action and affect?[ii]

On December 4, 2019, the Indian parliament introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which offered citizenship status to all persecuted minorities from neighboring countries that had entered the country by 2014—except Muslims.[iii] Over the next several months, residents of the northeastern Indian state of Assam first and then mainland Indians came out onto the streets in large numbers against the bill, subsequently passed as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on December 11, 2019. The CAA would for the first time in India’s postcolonial history tie citizenship to religious affiliation, striking at the heart of Indians’ self-conceptions as members of a liberal constitutional democracy. The anti-CAB/CAA protests galvanized Indians across class, gender, and religion; although they came with different motivations and expectations, protestors shared a sense of violation and alarm at the country’s apparent free-fall into religious majoritarianism. Over the next two months, India would see some of the most robust and widespread protests since not only Prime Minister Modi’s rise to power in 2014 and his reelection in May 2019, but in its recent history.

In response to the protests, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the armed forces unleashed brutal force: in the coming weeks and months, they attacked students at universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University; imposed curfew-like restrictions on public gatherings across the country; blocked Internet services; and fired live ammunition at protestors and onlookers. More than a dozen civilians were killed and many more injured during the protests, the majority of whom were Muslims.

Protestors in Delhi. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis (Reuters).

As scenes of pitched battles across Indian cities flashed across television screens and circulated on social media, a curious discursive genre emerged, one that suggested that India was “beginning to look a lot like Kashmir.” Put otherwise, the world was now witnessing, to use political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s infelicitous phrase, the “Kashmirization of India.”[iv] Mehta had coined this phrase four months prior, in an August 2019 article published the day after the Indian parliament revoked Kashmir’s special constitutional status. In his article, Mehta prophesied an impending blowback to the BJP’s blustering policy toward Kashmir: “The BJP thinks it is going to Indianise Kashmir,” he wrote, “Instead, we will see, potentially, the Kashmirisation of India.” For Mehta, the ease with which the ruling party had made good on its election promise to strip Kashmir of its special constitutional status portended trouble for what else it was willing to do. As he suggested,

Kashmir is not just about Kashmir: In the context of the UAPA, NRC, communalisation, Ayodhya, it is one more node in a pattern hurtling the Indian state towards a denouement where all of us feel unsafe. Not just Kashmiris, not just minorities, but anyone standing up for constitutional liberty.

It is hard to deny the truth of Mehta’s observation that increasing populations have been made to feel unsafe under Modi’s regime—“not just Kashmiris, not just minorities,” and one might add, no longer just the poor. A poster from the anti-CAA protests put it aptly: “It’s so bad, even the privileged are here.

And yet the structure of Mehta’s comparison, mainly the rhetorical move that uses Kashmir to make a point about India and its decline, seemed to betray a self-serving end. As Hafsa Kanjwal has astutely observed:

…the critique of the Indian state is invariably couched in the language and imperative of ‘saving Indian democracy’ from itself, of preventing other parts of India from becoming Kashmir….This framing both instrumentalizes Kashmir in the service of rescuing India from its own majoritarian pitfalls, at the same time it shackles Kashmir to the project of ‘improving Indian democracy.’[v]

In Kanjwal’s assessment, these comparative discourses, instead of shedding light on Kashmiri political aspirations on their own terms, tend to convert India’s handling of Kashmir into a set of diagnostics indexing India’s political health.[vi] One can imagine, then, the lackluster response this might provoke among Kashmiris.

When the streets of India erupted in December 2019, Kashmiris were unsurprised but also ambivalent, even one could argue filled with momentary schadenfreude. They could relate to the experience of being fired upon during peaceful protests or being picked up by the police in the middle of the night for “suspected involvement” in public disorder, And yet certain questions hung in mid-air: what kind of solidarity did Indians—particularly upper caste or middle class—deserve? Were these events not of their own making, the blowback of the emergency powers to which they had consented for so long in Kashmir? And what would remain of solidarity after the protests in the Indian mainland died down but Kashmiri political aspiration continued to be muzzled?

Protest at India Gate, New Delhi, December 2016, 2019. The sign in the middle of the photo reads, “I am Jamia, I am AMU [Aligarh Muslim University], I am Kashmir, I am Muslim.” Credit: Nishita Trisal

This mix of schadenfreude and suspicion were present in conversations I had with friends in Delhi and Kashmir in December 2019 as well as on Kashmiri Facebook and Twitter. As soon the Indian government’s repression against the protests became apparent, public discourse almost immediately adopted the narrative of the “Kashmirization of India.” In turn, Kashmiris responded with disdain. As one friend tweeted, “When you say ‘they are turning India into Kashmir’ by imposing section 144 and shutting down the internet you are also implicitly saying that it’s alright for those things to happen in Kashmir.” Referring to the use of a colonial-era criminal statute that prevents public assemblies of five or more people, a law that is excessively deployed in Kashmir, the tweet implied that the comparison was not made in the spirit of solidarity but rather, once again, as a lament for India.

Alongside such suspicion, however, was also a sense of obligation. As one Kashmiri put it in a series of tweets,

Dear fellow Kashmiris. I know how it feels when ur friends who used to tell you “it’s for ur own good”, “why do you protest all the time” are suddenly speaking ur language. We haven’t just been wronged as a people, we were also hurt by apathy….But we aren’t a vindictive people. We don’t play this kind of politics. So please resist from saying anything hurtful. We have fought against injustice & we always will.

Acknowledging the real effort required to move beyond past injuries, this individual invoked a broader ethic of justice—as well as an ethic of forgiveness—that could guide Kashmiris’ solidarity toward Indians in their moment of struggle and awakening.

We might think about these two distinct reactions—which I gloss as paranoid and reparative readings, following Eve Sedgwick—as competing ethical visions of solidarity work.[vii] The “paranoid” reading—given everything that has happened between us, why should I trust you?—reflects a historically sedimented, intuitive mistrust of Indians’ intentions and the failure to translate good intentions into action.[viii] Such failures haunt solidarity work between India and Kashmir, producing suspicion as the dominant relational stance toward Indian liberals and activists.[ix] Sedgwick offers by way of an alternate what she calls a “reparative” stance, one that is open-ended, “additive and accretive;” when extended to the context of this essay, reparative practices might be willing to extend solidarity as a wager, without a guaranteed return or reciprocity.[x] My argument is that neither stances, paranoid or reparative, should be elevated as more virtuous or desirable than the other; indeed, only when taken together might they lead to a more pragmatic vision of solidarity given histories of injury and repression.

As Heather Love points to in her critical reading of Sedgwick, “practicing reparative reading means leaving the door open to paranoid reading. There is risk in love, including the risk of antagonism, aggression, irritation, contempt, anger.”[xi] I take Love to mean that the negative affects that we might associate with paranoia, suspicion, ambivalence, and resentment—some of which I have described above as marking the Kashmiri response to the events in India—must be reckoned with in building projects of solidarity. Those negative affects cannot simply be rejected as bad politics, as misrecognition of the real forces of alienation (whether class or otherwise). Making room for paranoid stances is to respect historical experience; likewise, gesturing toward a reparative stance is not a denial of that historical experience.  

Since December 2019, the repression in India has only intensified—whether the coordinated killings of Muslims in northeast Delhi in February 2020, or the jailing of anti-CAA protestors, many of whom have recently tested positive for Covid-19. Meanwhile, in Kashmir, as the one-year anniversary of the August 5, 2019 abrogation approached, the pandemic has provided cover for the advancement of a settler colonial project of demographic change in the name of economic development. The convergence of these worlds is becoming increasingly apparent—practices first tested in the borderlands now unrelentingly deployed at home. It remains to be seen how Indians and Kashmiris alike will craft new visions of solidarity in spite of and perhaps even because of their many differences.

Nishita Trisal recently completed her Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her dissertation, Banking on Uncertainty: Debt, Default, and Violence in Indian-Administered Kashmir, examines the impact of political violence and volatility on lending and borrowing practices at the region’s largest retail bank. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Raiot, Scroll, Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots, and Critique of Anthropology.

[i] At the time of revising this essay, similar questions were being asked about the militarized federal response to protestors in Portland, one that drew comparisons to the country’s wars abroad. As Robin D. Kelly argues, many U.S. neighborhoods and cities have long resembled such sites of violence and war.

[ii] Ali et al. offer useful provocations about how “geographies and logics of occupation…travel inward toward the center” (2019: 574-575). Nosheen Ali et al., 2019, “Geographies of Occupation in South Asia,” Feminist Studies 45 (2-3), 574-580. Thanks to Saiba Varma for bringing this article to my attention.

[iii] The bill and subsequent act explicitly makes reference to the following religions: Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism.

[iv] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 2019, “The Story of Indian Democracy written in blood and betrayal,” The Indian Express, August 6. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/jammu-kashmir-article-370-scrapped-special-status-amit-shah-narendra-modi-bjp-5880797/.

[v] Hafsa Kanjwal, 2019, “The Violence on Kashmir is Epistemological as It Is Physical,” Jadaliyya, December 11, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/40341/The-Violence-on-Kashmir-is-Epistemological-as-it-is-Physical.

[vi] Also see Mudasir Amin and Samreen Mushtaq, 2020, “On Solidarity: Reading Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir,” Identities, 1-5.

[vii] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 2003, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So

Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 123–52.

[viii] On the notion of the “trust deficit” between Kashmiris and Indians, see Aditi Saraf, 2017, “The Trust Deficit: Truths, Lies, and Social Encryptions.” Paper presented at Market Languages Workshop, Shiv Nader University, New Delhi, March 7.

[ix] As Sedgwick clarifies, describing something as paranoid is not merely to pathologize it: “The main reasons for questioning paranoid practices are other than the possibility that…suspicions can be delusional or simply wrong.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 2003, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 130.

[x] As Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us, “Solidarity is not a market exchange.” See also Mohamad Junaid, 2016, “Azadi—Memoirs of a Slogan,” Raiot, March 6, http://www.raiot.in/azadi-when-it-travels-memoirs-of-a-slogan/.

[xi] Heather Love, 2010, “Truth and Consequences: On Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Criticism 52(2), 238.

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