Laughter and leaked memos: debating state violence at a Kashmiri baker’s shop

By: Mohamad Junaid

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

Photo supplied by author.

A few days before India imposed a curfew and a communication blockade in Kashmir on August 5, 2019,[1] I left the region with a sense of foreboding and a bunch of notes taken at a Kashmiri baker’s shop. The blockade was preceded by a flurry of “leaked” government memos that were shared widely over social media. The memos had caused intense speculation in Kashmir about the Indian government’s intentions, but also about their own veracity. The memos required government agencies to prepare for an “extended war-like situation,” yet local bureaucrats told Kashmiris not to believe any “rumors.” But when tens of thousands of additional Indian soldiers arrived in the region and Indian tourists were hurriedly evacuated, people knew something major was afoot. 

At a baker’s shop in South Kashmir where I would wait each morning to pick up fresh lavas, an unleavened flatbread typically eaten with the morning tea, the neighborhood residents appeared unperturbed. Interpreting the Indian government’s intentions has become part of the Kashmiri political culture. While the state deploys spies, surveillance, and surveys to gather information on Kashmiris,[2] or its military extracts such information out of Kashmiris in the vast archipelago of “interrogation centers” spread across the region,[3] Kashmiris have to rely on more imaginative ways—for instance, by reading linguistic shifts and tonal changes in the official verbiage to discern the Indian government’s motives. As a local store owner told me once: “As soon as you hear an Indian minister say the words ‘development’ or ‘progress,’ you can be certain they are planning to steal Kashmiri land or ransack our forests.” Or, several years earlier, when a less radical government in New Delhi had launched “Operation Goodwill” to “win hearts and minds,” I heard many Kashmiris call it “Operation goodil”—goodil in Kashmiri means “deception.” 

“India is planning to have an extended doareh (seizure),” I heard a waiting customer say to the good-natured baker a week before the blockade began. “You better store enough flour for at least three months of lavas!” 

“Extended seizure” was, of course, a pun on “extended war-like situation,” but it also referred to the episodic nature of India’s dramatic escalations of violence in Kashmir. The bitterness of the metaphor aside, the previous such episodes—in 2008, 2010, and 2016—had indeed lasted about three months each.

The last one, in the summer of 2016, began when India imposed a punishing curfew across the region to crush protests against the killing of a young rebel leader, Burhan Wani.[4] During those months of curfew, government forces shot dead dozens of Kashmiris, and injured and blinded thousands.[5] The public movement was proscribed. Schools, offices, and local markets were shut down. Many were pushed to the point of starvation. I was in Kashmir at the time and had barely managed to get out. My last memory of that summer was the image of a thick teargas haze hanging low over Srinagar as the plane left the city.

The leaked memos, the arrival of soldiers, the departure of tourists, and the prognostication I heard at the baker’s shop that we might have a repeat of the dreadful 2016 summer, all made me cut my visit short and leave Kashmir in a hurry again.

I grew up in Kashmir through the fierce years of military occupation, counterinsurgency wars, and armed resistance in the 1990s, and then returned as a researcher in the 2010s. Over the decades, the occupation had turned public spaces in Kashmir into spaces of fear and precarity.[6] No aspect of Kashmiri life had been left untouched. People spoke of the military occupation as a bala’y—a creature—with a vicious chokehold on their lives. The government violently suppressed political dissent in Kashmir and attempted to stamp out all signs of anti-occupation politics. They had also fine-tuned methods of affective manipulation, inducing fear and panic to preemptively impair Kashmiri protests. The “leaked” documents of the 2019 summer fit well into this pattern. “The government is leaking the orders to test the waters,” the customer at the baker’s shop had said, “They want to create confusion.”

In my memory, it had been momentary spaces of routine, sociality, and warmth—spaces like bakers’ shops—that somewhat mitigated the chaos of everyday life under the occupation. Not the school, streets, or mosques—the soldiers kept them under their constant gaze and regularly targeted such places. Perhaps bakers’ shops were too small, transient, and insipid-looking to surveil. People gathered in them for brief moments, but they weren’t seen as public spaces or as sites of political assembly. Yet, at a baker’s shop one could have a fleeting political conversation, or quickly analyze the Indian government’s most recent statements. And, as soon as the turn to receive lavas arrived, the spoken word would disappear, leaving no incriminating record behind. 

Bakers’ shops are everywhere in Kashmir; each neighborhood has one or two of them. Often, they are in the narrow alleys and not on main thoroughfares. In the morning, even before the call to prayer, a bluish smoke billows from them, as if to preemptively signal the start of the day. People can see the smoke from a distance to tell if the shop is open. Bakers’ shops rarely close, not unless the baker or his associate—each baker needs an associate—is getting married, is sick, or has died. The shops themselves are dingy and dark inside, and little effort is made to present baked goods aesthetically. (For the aesthetic presentation of baked goods, there are “bakeries” with glass displays, but bakeries typically don’t bake the prized lavas).

Bakers’ shops have no furniture. Generally, there is a tandoor to the side where the main baker stands, and there is a low and wide table where the baker’s associate sits cross-legged and kneads the dough. The associate also accepts money and puts it in a small tin or wooden box; but, since customers might not always pay right away, the associate also keeps an impeccable mental record of their credit. In older neighborhoods, bakers’ shops are known by the names of the bakers, and the bakers also know everyone in the neighborhood. It is this informal familiarity of Kashmiri bakers’ shops that renders them recognizable and welcoming to the neighborhood, but unremarkable and invisible to the outsiders.

The baker’s shop I would go to get lavas is a couple of hundred meters from where I lived that summer. I typically arrived at 6:30 am and there would already be a line of people waiting. It wasn’t really a line—for people sat or stood wherever they could find a spot—but everyone remembered their turn and who came when. If anyone jumped this notional line, it would cause a minor kerfuffle. The line-jumpers, unless they were women or a sick person, were gently taunted: “Hey khoja (Big Man) sit down, sit down,” until they quietly returned to their spot. Manna and Rafiq, the two brothers who ran the shop, also kept track of who arrived first. They refused lavas to Big-Man-line-jumpers. The brothers fired up their tandoor at 4 am and would bake lavas only till eight in the morning—after which they baked bagir-khanis, girdas, kulchas, and naan-e-khoshq, for which no lines were made or required. 

I always purchased just four or five lavas, yet it would consume a full hour of my time. I didn’t mind the wait; waiting let me listen to the lively political commentaries and to watch familiar faces come and leave, adding their voices and humor to the shop’s conviviality as they did so. Several times, I even offered someone else my spot just to be able to stay longer—eventually, it turned into a disadvantage, as other patrons started expecting that I would offer my turn to them if they just looked me in the eye long enough.

I usually found a spot close to where Rafiq kneaded and separated the dough into palm-sized mounds. First, he would roll them, one in each hand, and then flatten the mounds with the swift back and forth of the rolling pin. Manna, the elder brother, then slapped and stretched the flattened dough patties thin over a cloth bun. With the full force of his upper body and arms, he would plop the bun with a thud against the red-hot inside of his tandoor, leaving only the thin dough behind to rise into crispy lavas. The repetitive thuds would be punctuated by customers lampooning India’s rightwing politicians, ridiculing retired military generals who demand more repression in Kashmir, and laughing at nightly TV news anchors who silence their guests with nationalist rhetoric. 

Before the curfew and blockade of August 2019, I heard patrons of the shop animatedly comment about the lynchings of Muslims at the hands of India’s cow vigilantes, rising Hindu rightwing violence under Modi, and even Trump’s Twitter use. The commentaries usually grew somber when people mentioned acts of state violence—police sending young men to years in prison without trial under laws like Public Safety Act (PSA), soldiers blowing up houses during encounters with armed militants, or paramilitaries injuring and blinding protestors. 

Temis logukh PSA” (They got him under PSA).

Timan wedowukh makaane” (Their house was blown to bits).

Aechan chikh aamit pellet” (Their eyes were hit by pellets).  

“I don’t like to hear about this,” Manna said to me once, “I feel the walls grow dark and space shrinks, it is as if the walls are coming to eat me.”

People spoke affectionately about Kashmiri rebels, using their code names, or inventing their own terms of endearment for them. But when government forces killed the rebels, the usual gregariousness in the baker’s shop would fall silent.

Such somber moments were sometimes broken with a joke or light-hearted humor. Manna and Rafiq were usually the objects of this humor. Patrons waiting for lavas might talk about the brothers’ then-upcoming marriage. The two baker brothers were decidedly past the conventional age for marriage, but after years of searching, their family had found women to marry them. The patrons used this as the point of departure for their quips: 

“The brothers are breaking so many hearts!” 

“Once their wives arrive, Manna and Rafiq will leave this hard business of baking bread!” 

“Once their wives arrive, Manna and Rafiq won’t be able to get to work early enough to fire up the tandoor.” 

Laughter would erupt. Manna and Rafiq would laugh too. The walls would recede. 

On one of the last few mornings at the baker’s shop, I heard someone say that India was planning to revoke Article 370—a law in the Indian Constitution that had signified Kashmir’s autonomy since the early 1950s.

“Three hundred and seventy has been an illusion all along,” Khalil, an older man, had chuckled, “When was the last time any of you felt Kashmir had autonomy?” No one answered.[7]

“Maybe they are planning to invade Pakistan,” someone else had suggested.

“Why will they bring in the CRPF for that?” asked Khalil. Indeed, thousands of the newly deployed troops were mostly from the CRPF, which is an Indian paramilitary force involved in counterinsurgency operations but also used to crush protests in Kashmir.

But that was the extent to which people seemed willing to decipher the memos. It felt as if people had just taken it for granted that whatever India was planning was going to be bad for Kashmiris, and that there was no point talking about it. Many conversations were about kharaebi—evil, corruption—with people subtly hinting at their wealthier neighbors’ unaccounted-for new money, or about the deteriorating impact of the social media on social relations. Others listened silently or furnished examples and illustrations to others’ commentaries. There were also unending analyses of the international cricket games being played that summer, with customers mimicking famous cricket commentators on the TV. Despite the alarming memos, the conversations remained genial. If a discussion appeared to heat up, there was always a joke ready to de-escalate the situation. Wit was still appreciated.  

I listened, nodded my head, laughed, sorrowed, and took mental notes. They knew me, even though I had spent years away. In a place like Kashmir, where silence had come to be preferred over speech and where counterinsurgency wars had eroded social trust among people, the baker’s shop felt like an uncanny space of expression and sociality. It was as if someone had smudged these tiny places from military planners’ maps. Before the blockade went into effect on August 5, and before I lost touch with the people there for the next 3 months, the baker’s shop commentaries indicated that Kashmiris had sensed what was coming. The metaphor of “seizure” was as much a comment about the opaqueness and scarcity of information, as about the absurdity of the occupation and the arbitrary nature of its violence. It was just that there was nothing that could be done.

In the end, everyone was mentally preparing to wait out the siege. Despite government officials asking people to not believe “rumors” of an extended curfew, Kashmiris relied on their own past experience of the occupation and their interpretation of the Indian government’s intentions. Some tried to stock up. Others made jokes about people stocking up. The taxi driver who drove me to the airport watched with amusement a long line of cars waiting at a gas station: “If it is a curfew, why do they need their gas tanks full? Where will they go?” Yet, even if they wanted to, not everyone could stock up or be fully prepared for such a long period.

When India finally started opening some phone lines in late November, I heard stories of desperation, stories of near-starvation, stories of people dying prematurely of preventable causes, stories of people unable to reach hospitals or receive essential care, and stories of close relatives not knowing their kin had passed away. The baker’s shop had remained shut. Manna’s and Rafiq’s wedding, which was supposed to happen simultaneously, had been indefinitely postponed. Though they had bought enough flour from the wholesale market just before the curfew, the brothers had been unable to bake lavas. The curfew had squashed even the last, hidden spaces of conversation and gathering.

Bio

Mohamad Junaid is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, CUNY, with research on violence, youth activists and political subjectivity in Kashmir. His work on military occupation, history writing, space, and memory has appeared in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and Middle East, Identities, The Funambulist, and several edited volumes and anthologies.


[1] For a quick overview of the events of August 5, 2019, see Article 370: India strips disputed Kashmir of special status.

[2] For more on how surveillance has led to everyday precarity in Kashmir, see Falak (2015).

[3] To get an in-depth understanding of the infrastructure of state violence in Kashmir, see Structures of Violence: Indian State in Kashmir (2015).

[4] See Qazi (2016) for an up-close and daily account of the 2016 curfews.

[5] To get a sense of the devastation caused by state forces on Kashmiri bodies, see Waheed (2016).

[6] For a deeper understanding of how military occupation turned space into the primary modality of power, control, and violence in Kashmir, see Junaid (2020).

[7] For a fuller understanding of Article 370 and its historical erosion under various Indian governments see, Noorani (2011).

References:

Article 370: India strips disputed Kashmir of special status, BBC, August 5, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-49231619

Falak, Uzma. 2015. “How Indian Surveillance Disrupts Ordinary Life and Lives in Kashmir,” The Caravan, June 15. https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/how-indian-surveillance-disrupts-ordinary-life-and-lives-kashmir.

Junaid, Mohamad. 2020. “Counter-maps of the ordinary: occupation, subjectivity, and walking under curfew in Kashmir.” Identities 27, no. 3, 302-320.  DOI 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1633115   

Noorani, A.G. 2011. Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Qazi, Fozia S. 2016. “Curfew Diary—Kashmir, 2016.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 46, no. 3: 237-260. doi:10.1353/wsq.2018.0045.

Structures of Violence: Indian State in Kashmir. Report by International Peoples Tribunal on Kashmir and Association of Parents of the Disappeared Persons, 2015.

Waheed, Mirza. 2016. “India’s crackdown in Kashmir: is this the world’s first mass blinding?” The Guardian, November 8. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/08/india-crackdown-in-kashmir-is-this-worlds-first-mass-blinding

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