Interview with Dr. Nyla Ali Khan on the situation in Kashmir

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Interview with Dr. Nyla Ali Khan on the situation in Kashmir

Muslim Press has conducted an interview with Dr. Nyla Ali Khan, the author of “Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan”. She discusses the situation in Kashmir and the role that Muslim women could play in it.

Here’s the full text of the interview:

MP: Dr. Khan, how do you see the situation in Kashmir? What do you think is the major force that led to these conflicts?

Nyla Ali Khan: The people of Kashmir have tried, time and again, to translate themselves from passive recipients of violence, legitimated by legislations of the physically and psychologically removed parliaments of India and Pakistan, into subjects who recognize that they can exercise agency and take control of their destinies. They march forward with a refusal to allow history to be imposed on them, and attempt to take charge of their own social and political destinies. The confluence of religious nationalism, secular nationalism and ethnic nationalism create the complexity of the Kashmir issue.

Over the years, successive Congress governments of the Indian Union may have made attempts to highlight the purported illegitimacy of Article 370, but they have taken no serious measures to revoke it from the Constitution of India. Surprisingly, even the Hindu right-wing BJP, when it assumed power in New Delhi in the late 90s, avoided succumbing to the pressure put on it by its more fanatical cohorts to eradicate the special status enjoyed by the Muslim-dominated state of J& K. Of course, the Narendra Modi-led BJP is a different story. India’s policy vis-à-vis Kashmir was influenced by other variables. Pakistan’s formal political alignment with the United States of America motivated the Soviet Union, in the 1950s, to overtly support the Indian stance towards Kashmir. The Soviet premier Khrushchev made explicit his government’s pro-India position on Kashmir in 1955, when he belligerently declared in Srinagar, the heartland of the Kashmir Valley:

The insurgency in J & K, which has extracted an enormous price from the people of the state, was generated by the systemic erosion of democratic and human rights, discrimination against the Muslims of the Valley, socioeconomic marginalization, relegation of the right to self-determination to the background, etc. While the rebellion may have been incited by India’s political, social and economic tactlessness, it has been sustained by military, political, and economic support from Pakistan. Proponents of the independence of the state of J & K are just as stridently opposed to Pakistan’s administration of “Azad” Kashmir as they are to India’s administration of J & K.

MP: How are the protests in Kashmir different from the previous years’ protests?

Nyla Ali Khan: The current protests in Kashmir are being led by a generation that has known only conflict, political turmoil, and politicoeconomic instability. There is a lot of anger and resentment in this generation because no serious attempt has been made by the Government of India to mitigate the conflict while recognizing the constitutional and legal rights of the people of Kashmir. The complacency of the federal government in times of relative calm is culpable. Given the militarization and rabid fragmentation of Kashmiri society, it is necessary for the Government of India necessary to evoke pluralism in the face of divisive politics, instead of pushing people to the wall by the imposition of a monolithic nationalism, defined by the Hindutva agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The unfinished business of the powers to be on both sides of the Line of Control (India and Pakistan) to ride roughshod over the history of Kashmiri nationalism and the evolution of a political consciousness in Kashmir, which began much before 1989, cannot continue unabated. It also becomes necessary for federal countries to reassess and reevaluate their policies vis-à-vis border states. The restoration of the autonomous status of J & K would be a viable beginning and would resuscitate rule of law and political self-determination.

Instead of deterring the growth of democracy and depoliticizing the people, the goal should be to empower the populace of Jammu and Kashmir sufficiently to induce satisfaction with the Kashmir constituency’s role within current geopolitical realities such that a dis-empowered populace does not succumb to ministrations of destructive political ideologies. In addition to addressing the political aspect of democracy, it is important to take cognizance of its economic aspect as well. I have brought up this idea in my presentation at a couple of conferences, and I reinforce that perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new regional order which would be capable of producing cross-economic, political, and cultural interests among the people of the region. I believe that people in civic associations and in government should lead the way toward a peaceful pluralistic democracy and support international negotiations for a sustainable peace in the region. All these opinions, by the way, were formed during the course of my research which, at times, entailed painful reappraisals.

MP: What’s your take on India’s crackdown on Kashmir Muslims?

Nyla Ali Khan: Instead of adopting a belligerent and militaristic approach, the current Narendra Modi-led government must recognize the legitimate political aspirations of the people of Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in India. The purportedly autonomous status of J & K has always provoked the ire of the Hindutva nationalist parties, which sought the unequivocal integration of the state into the Indian Union.

The unitary concept of nationalism that the BJP and the RSS subscribe to challenge the basic principle that the nation was founded on, namely, democracy. In such a nationalist project, one of the forms that the nullification of past and present histories takes is the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state buttressed by nostalgia of a “glorious past.” The unequivocal aim of the supporters of the integration of J & K into the Indian Union was to expunge the political autonomy endowed on the state by India’s constitutional provisions. According to the unitary discourse of sovereignty disseminated by Hindutva nationalists, J & K was not entitled to the signifiers of statehood – a prime minister, flag and constitution. The concept of nationalism constructed by the BJP and the RSS breeds relentless violence and the delusions of militant nationalisms. The militarization of the region, ecological and economic plunder, negation of legal procedures, and lack of infrastructure has fuelled the hitherto restrained resentment and anger in the state. The use of pellet guns to disperse dissident crowds is particularly condemnable, especially when innocent civilians get caught in the line of fire.

The atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust is exacerbated by the frightening attempts of Hindu fundamentalist groups to rewrite Indian history and the recasting of Pakistani history by Islamist organizations: efforts to radically redefine Indian and Pakistani societies in the light of ritualistic Hinduism and Islam, respectively. Writing about this anti-historical attitude, Kai Friese reported in the New York Times that in November 2002, the National Council of  Education Research and Training, which is the central government organization in India that finalizes the national curriculum and supervises education of high school students, circulated a new textbook for the social sciences and history. The textbook conveniently overlooks the embarrassing fact that the architect of Indian independence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in 1948, a year after the proclamation of independence. Friese also points out that Indian history has been embellished with some interesting fabrications, one of which is the erasure of the Indus Valley civilization and the conjuring up of a mythical “Indus–Saraswati” civilization in its stead. This is a strategic maneuver to transform a historical civilization into a mythical one. The chapter on the Vedic civilization in the history textbook lacks important dates and is inundated with uncorroborated “facts,” such as: “India itself was the original home of the Aryans. The Aryans were an indigenous race and the creators of the Vedas” (Friese 2002). Similarly, mainstream Pakistani history portrays the movement for the creation of the nation-state of Pakistan as a movement for an Islamic state, the carving out of which became a historic inevitability with the first Muslim invasion of the subcontinent. This version of Pakistani history establishes the Islamic clergy as the protagonists of the movement for the creation of a theocratic state (Hoodbhoy and Nayyar 1985: 164–77). Such propaganda to further narrow agendas makes it impossible to hold informed debates on issues of political and religious import. Jingoistic textbooks and biased interpretations negate the possibility of reaching a national consensus regarding Kashmir.

MP: What role can the Muslim community play to fight discrimination?

Nyla Ali Khan: The educated people in our community must develop and provide research-based policy supporting democratic ideals creating stability and sustaining free elections and principles, so we have adequate representation in legislative assemblies, councils, parliaments and have a greater degree of success in questioning and correcting structural inequities and violence. It is important for the Muslim community to work on creating a constructive pluralism, which is possible within the framework of Islam and to shun a monolithic version of Islam.

We can educate our young people that Islam provides women with social, political and economic rights, however invisible those rights are in our society. It was instilled in me that Islam gives women: property rights; the right to hold political office; the right to assert their agency in matters of social and political import; and the right to lead a dignified existence in which they can voice their opinions and desires so as to “act upon the boundaries that constrain and enable social action by, for example, changing their shape or direction” (Hayward 1998: 271).

Culture inscribes a wide range of experiences which centralizing institutions attempt to render invisible and homogeneous. But women in India and Pakistan, as in other postcolonial countries, are positioned in relation to their own class and cultural realities; their own histories; their sensitivity to the diversity of cultural traditions and to the questions and conflicts within them; the legacies of Sufi Islam; their own struggles not just with the devastating effects of Indian occupation and Pakistani infiltration, but also with the discourses of cultural nationalism and religious fundamentalism; their own relations to the west; their interpretations of religious law; their beliefs in the different schools of Islamic and Hindu thought; and their concepts of the role of women in contemporary societies.

In order to fight discrimination, the Muslim community needs to highlight the groundbreaking work accomplished by local agencies, cadres and social networks in Muslim societies, the distinction between traditional praxes that conscript the role of women and progressive roles prescribed for women within Islamic norms needs to be underscored by responsible scholarship and social work.

MP: What has led to the seclusion of Kashmiri women, especially Muslim women?

Nyla Ali Khan: As I explain in my Preface and Introduction to Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan, I wanted to emphasize women’s perspectives on issues of nationalist ideologies, religious freedom, democratic participation, militarization, intellectual freedom, judicial and legal structures in a milieu that does not co-opt them into mainstream political and cultural discourses or First-World feminist agendas. So, I employed, particularly in chapters 2 and 5 of my book, self-reflexive and historicized forms, drew on my heritage and kinship in Kashmir in order to explore the construction and employment of gender in secular nationalist, religious nationalist, and ethnonationalist discourses in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

I underlined, at the outset, that the focus in my monograph on Kashmir was on the gendered activism of the women of the Kashmir province in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J & K). The battlefield of armed insurgency and counter insurgency has been the Valley of Kashmir, and the political, economic, and sociocultural dimensions of the conflict have rendered asunder the fabric of that province of J & K, more than the other two parts of the state, which are Jammu and Ladakh. Also, considering my analysis of gendered violence and gendered activism in Kashmir is interwoven with my own personal and intellectual trajectory, I attempted to explore the struggles of a particular ethnic group, Kashmiri Muslim, in the most conflict-ridden part of the State.

Talking to women from different walks of life and different ideological positions, it struck me that although women of Kashmir have been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counter insurgency in the region, they are largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels. I am painfully aware of the fact that although substantive ethnographic work has been done by local and diasporic scholars on the brunt borne by Kashmiri women during the armed conflict as well as on the atrocities inflicted on women by Indian paramilitary forces, the local police, and some militant organizations, Kashmiri women continue to be near absent at the formal level. It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to this gaping lacuna. In my conversations with several women, I recognized the attention paid to gender-based violence in Kashmir by scholars, ethnographers, and NGOs, but not enough attention is given to the political, economic, and social fall-out of the armed conflict for women. Some of my interviewees pointed out that not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri women of different political, religious, ideological, and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations.

In my interactions with women from Kashmir, I realized that there is a serious lack of a feminist discourse in political/activist roles taken on by women in Kashmir, where the dominant perception still is that, politics and policy-making are the job of the pragmatic, powerful male, not the archetypal malleable, maternal, accommodating woman. As in other political scenarios in South Asia, women politicians are relegated to the “soft areas” of Social Welfare and Family affairs. Although political parties in Kashmir, either mainstream or separatists, have not relinquished paternalistic attitudes toward women, women’s rights and gender issues are secondary to political power. Today in J & K, women constitute a minority, increasing the pressures of high visibility, unease, stereotyping, inability to make substantial change, over-accommodation to the dominant male culture in order to avoid condemnation as “overly soft.” And I’m not sure how effective sloganeering and street protests by women in the recent past have been. That kind of activism has a role to play, but unless it is integrated with institutional mechanisms, it doesn’t have as much impact as it could.

I realized, as did some of my interviewees, that women have not been able to form broad-based coalitions to bring about structural changes that would lead to a simmering and eventual dousing of the violence. Women, unfortunately, have not had a great degree of success in influencing branches of state government responsible for women’s issues and humanitarian assistance. And this is something that those who either glorify the state or romanticize militant resistance don’t talk about.

I have been emphasizing over and over again and have brought this up at various forums, after developing an academic interest in transitional justice mechanisms, that it is absolutely imperative that women actors in collaboration with other civil society actors focus on the rebuilding of a greatly polarized and fragmented social fabric to ensure the redressal of inadequate political participation, insistence on accountability for human rights violations through transitional justice mechanisms, reconstruction of the infrastructure and productive capacity of Kashmir, and resumption of access to basic social services.

My research enabled me to realize that despite being unable to understand or overturn the structural determinants of their oppression, these Kashmiri and Gujjar women are able to negotiate in small spaces. The importance of context must be understood and used to identify items within each boundary appropriate to local circumstances. None of them had qualms about functioning as the main socializing agents for their children, and considered the constitution of the mother–son relationship as the nexus of every social relationship in their culture. With their faces turned away from the camera and controlling their shy laughter after being berated by their mother-in-law, the feisty Haneefa Begum, Hafeeza Begum, Fareeda Akhtar and Rifat Ara sang a medley of folk songs for me in the intimacy of their hut. The songs, which were translated for me by Shabeer Ahmad, a Gujjar lawyer, were a doleful rendition of the self-abnegation and loneliness of a young bride who is severed from everything familiar to her and finds herself being ruthlessly molded to fit a new environment. The most articulate of the group was Shabeer’s mother, who was content to understand historical and social events within the explanatory frameworks of religious and filial obligation. Her stance vis-à-vis the contexts that formed her identity displayed a capacity to act upon the social boundaries that “define fields of action for all actors” (Hayward 1998: 27). The ostensibly compliant attitude of these women seems to be a strategy of survival in a social setting in which relationships are hierarchically structured, maintaining social and political stasis. The notion of uncompassionate in-laws is a part of their folklore. But it might be easier to imagine the survival strategies that women deploy in that environment if we think of power “not as instruments powerful agents use to prevent the powerless from acting freely, but rather as social boundaries that, together, define fields of action for all actors” (ibid.).

Subsequent to the dismantling of the feudal economic and social structure in Kashmir in the early 1950s, feudal clans and the emasculated nobility clung to their decadent traditions with unparalleled ferocity.

Dr. Nyla Ali Khan is a Visiting Professor at the University of Oklahoma and former professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. She is the author of two books, including The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism and Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between Indian and Pakistan, and several articles that focus heavily on the political issues and strife of her homeland, Jammu and Kashmir. Despite being the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, Nyla Khan prefers not simply to live in his shadow but to “stand up for myself and be taken seriously … express my anger without being labeled an ‘Islamic militant’ … [and] legitimately question things I don’t understand”, as she stated in a 2010 interview related to the release of her second book.

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