A response to “Kashmir is Feminist Issue” by Sonam Mittal: Tupur Chatterjee

Guest Post by Tupur Chatterjee

Sonam Mittal’s recent piece in Kafila, “Kashmir is Feminist Issue” draws upon an oft-cited gendered analogy to describe the Kashmir’s relationship with India and Pakistan. Though it makes a few pertinent points about the nexus of power and patriarchy and the urgent need for Indian feminist solidarity with the Kashmiri resistance, I found the analogy deeply problematic and strongly feel that it needs further unpacking to underline its worrying implications.

It is not new: Kashmir a beautiful, helpless woman stuck between the heteronormative power play of two strong men, India and Pakistan. In Sonam Mittal’s rendition, it goes like this: Kashmir is a woman, “gorgeous, graceful and delicate”, and of course, “in need of rescue.” A strong, resourceful man offers help, on the condition that she remain forever his, faithful in the ways he desires. But then there’s also her “friend”, with whom she has more in common, and he returns to claim her—the earlier “helpful” man gets angry, “quite obviously” and hence begins a long saga of violent abuse—a “beautiful love story” gone horribly wrong, digressed tragically into an “abusive relationship”—which reeks of misogyny and patriarchy, utterly reprehensible.

This does little justice to both feminism and the history of the Indian Occupation of Kashmir.

A woman, gorgeous, graceful and delicate is in need of rescue. A man, mighty, strong and resourceful, offers to help. His only condition is that she should be his and only his for now and forever. She agrees. It could have been the beginning of a beautiful love story if not for the underlying patriarchy and misogyny threatening to burst out.

Who, or what, is a gorgeous woman? How do we define beauty? What makes a woman delicate? Or graceful? Feminist thought since its inception has fought hard against the immediate and primary labeling of women as “gorgeous” or beautiful–stating repeatedly that such labels only lead to fetishization and objectification of women, marking them out as chattel, to be displayed and exploited. Sounds a lot like tourism? Sounds a lot like Indian tourists in Kashmir? Terms like “delicate” only perpetuate and justify unequal rights through heteropatriarchal control besides cementing notions of females as the weaker sex that need to be dominated, “protected” or “rescued”. To state the obvious, ideas of beauty, delicacy and grace are not innate or natural traits that only some women are born with. They are socially constructed just like the category of gender itself. Who makes these social constructs, whose worldview makes her beautiful? Whose fantasies is she embodying? In this case, let us safely assume it is India’s. If Kashmir is a “gorgeous, graceful and delicate” woman, then what part of the world may we rightly call ugly, ungraceful and crude? Who is an ugly woman?

What makes Kashmir so “gorgeous, graceful and delicate” for Indians? The obvious: our collective fixation for and with white, colour and culture. We loathe black. Blackness scares us like nothing else. This is why we strip, lynch and racially abuse Africans on our streets. Kashmiris are our very own “Europeans” to amuse ourselves with just like Kashmir is the “Switzerland of the east” for us to frolic in. Fair skin, snow and snow-clad mountains are stuff our dreams and societal orgasms are made of. This is why we want to consume and devour Kashmir. Is there anything fairer or lovelier than Kashmir? Is there anything more romantic? She is the “crown of India”, our pride and glory, the rose on the Indian bouquet—we can never let her go. India’s psychosexual desire for Kashmir stems from its ultimate tourist fantasy interchangeable with male gaze: prancing about in the snow, surrounded by fair-skinned, “beautiful and innocent” people, selling apples, while shikaras laden with colorful flowers us pass by. Rafi’s unforgettable classic showed us the quintessential Kashmir Ki Kali (ironically, played by a Bengali woman in Kashmiri costume)

Yeh chand sa roshan chehra, zulfon ka rang sunhera

Yeh jheel se neeli aakhen, koi raaz hai in mein gehra

Tareef karoon kya uski, jisne tumhe banaya

Jee baar ke zaara mein dekhoon, andaaz tera mastana

This “beauty” is always female, always white, always fair, always shy, always delicate, and always innocent. She is the epitome of heteronormative Indian standards of “gorgeous.” What does the analogy above really say? In seeing Kashmir as beautiful, we only make every single part of India ugly. We would do well to remember the Pashtun proverb: “Har chata khpal watan kashmir de”. Everybody’s home is her Kashmir.

Are Kashmiris “gorgeous, graceful and delicate” or is it their territory? Is a woman’s identity determined by her physical beauty? A woman’s identity comes from what she does, and not how she looks. What do Kashmiris do? If we are to believe our ever-popular Bombay films, then they were forever ensconced in an idyllic utopia, lost in their own innocence, beauty and charm, living a “simple life”—till suddenly one day and then repeatedly, a bunch of men trained across the border swooped in and made “paradise burn.”As Hrithik Roshan and Priety Zinta playing a Kashmiri couple in Mission Kashmir, lost in their typical “Kashmiri domesticity” (made of snow, shikaras, lakes, waterfalls, children, and candy floss) told us

Chota sa jheelon ka sheher tha

Usme hamara ek ghar tha

Hum the, tum the, na yeh gham the

Kya tha, kya se kya se kya ho gaya

She needs rescue; she needs protection. After all, she is so “delicate.” Who else, but India, must do this for his “gorgeous, graceful and delicate” woman? My point here is that the repeated usage of such adjectives for Kashmir portrays the territory as beautiful, desirable and aspirational, and the population as weak and imbecile, incapable of handling their own political matters. Just like the use of these adjectives for women perpetuates their subjugation.

Was she really “in need of rescue”? Under what terms did this woman “agree” to the offer of help from the mighty man? If consent is attained under duress—does it count at all?

There was a flourishing movement for democracy and ending the Dogra autocracy in Jammu and Kashmir which started way back in 1931. The nation of J&K had prepared a roadmap/constitution for itself in the form of the Naya Kashmir document which was released in 1944. It had a robust modern political movement. If it was a woman, it was one who knew how to make in the world on her own, and needed nobody to tell her that she is beautiful or intelligent.

Political Scientist Christopher Snedden has thrown light on the events in Jammu and Kashmir in the interim period between 15th August 1947 and 26th October 1947 (when Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession to India). These are very significant and often forgotten. Here’s a quick summary: a) the Muslims in Jammu’s Poonch district staged a massive pro-Pakistan, anti-Maharaja uprising that liberated a large chunk of the territory from Hari Singh’s control b) inter-religious conflict that led to a massacre of Jammu’s Muslims, this was fuelled by the influx of refugees along the Sialkot-Jammu-Pathankot corridor and c) the declaration of a Provisional Free (Azad) Government in those areas ‘freed’ by the Poonch Uprising.

These events, that caused large scale deaths, migrations and dislocations, happened within ten weeks and were mostly initiated by the local state subjects, the people of Jammu and Kashmir, or those who had rights on this princely state. The Dogra Maharaja’s had never really enjoyed support among the vast majority of people in Kashmir and ruled through a coercive and divisive mechanism. In any case, Dogras had been made rulers of J&K by the British. It is a well known fact of law that when a contract is terminated, the sub-contractors also lose their locus standi. After the British left the sub-continent on the 14th and 15th of August, 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh, sub-contractor of the British dominion, also lost his legal right to rule. How could he sign an instrument of accession?

Sheikh Abdullah and a majority of the leaders of the National Conference were jailed after the Quit Kashmir movement of 1946. The sovereignty of Kashmir was already under disputed before it was ‘given’ to India.

It is also well known that Hari Singh wanted an independent Jammu and Kashmir.

The dominant view that it was Pakistan’s involvement in the Poonch uprisings in J& K that led Hari Singh to ask India for help is also questionable. There is little evidence to support these claims.

In Sonam Mittal’s rendition, “Her culture, her values and various elements that added to her charm were influenced by this friend.” Kashmir is an ancient civilization. Territorially, it attained its modern shape in 1846. Pakistan was formed in 1947. How can one say Kashmir’s culture, values and various elements that add to her charm (perhaps Sonam is referring to the speaking of Urdu and Muslim culture of adab and adaab as “charm”, since that is a serious Indian fetishized affliction, but most people of J&K do not fit that bill) be influenced by Pakistan? Why can’t it be sharing of values instead of being influenced? Because Kashmir is a woman. Of course, she can only be influenced. How can she have her own culture, values and charm?

Anyways, Pakistan was completely occupied with economic, administrative and emotional effects of Partition to be concerned with indigenous people’s uprisings in Poonch. As Snedden says in Kashmir: The Written History,

Rather, Punjabi or NWFP Muslims, with whom Jammu Muslims had close ethnic, familial, cultural, geographical and economic links, would have provided support on that basis. For example, some ‘sudhans’ from Poonch considered themselves to be ‘sudhozai Pathans’ (Pukhtoons), which, for them, explained why ‘the Pathans lost no time’ coming to help J&K Muslims. Furthermore—and importantly—Poonch Muslims had the capability, given their military abilities and experiences, and the intent, given their anti-Maharaja grievances, to foment and sustain anti-Maharaja actions themselves. They did not need any Pakistani encouragement or assistance.

What all of this goes to show is that, before the official date of the Pukhtoon invasion from Pakistan (28th Oct 1947), the people of J&K had already begun to militantly assert their rights. All anti-Dogra activity in these parts were blamed on “raiders” who were considered to be elements from outside the J&K. This argument too, is unsustainable.

Nevertheless, on 28 October, The Times, while referring to the anti-Indian ‘raiding forces’, was still able to identify four elements among the 3,000 or so ‘Muslim rebels and tribesmen’ in J&K: (1) ‘Muslim League agents and agitators from Pakistan’; (2) ‘villagers who have raised the Pakistan flag and attacked Kashmir officials’; (3) ‘Pathan [Pukhtoon] tribesmen’; (4) ‘Muslim deserters from Kashmir State forces who have taken their arms with them’.

Given that the Muslim League had no branch in J&K, the first element may have been local pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference politicians and members. The second element certainly comprised people who were J&K state subjects, as almost certainly were members of the fourth element. These residents of J&K had every right to be in the (disintegrating) princely state, unlike the first and third elements. These state subjects also had commenced their anti-ruler activities well before the Pukhtoons invaded Kashmir Province on 22 October 1947.

The Maharaja sought help from India to save his own ass against a popular anti-autocracy uprising. The Indian ruling establishment, Nehru, Patel et al, knew that he would go to any extent to salvage whatever he could for himself. So they told him, slyly, that they could not help him if he did not sign the instrument of accession. This was, of course, not true. Under international law of the time (and of our times), every country has a right to help any other country in case of aggression by a third country. Now, assuming that the Maharaja was fighting Pakistan, India could help him without him signing an instrument of accession. And if the Maharaja was fighting his own people, then the instrument of accession loses its meaning.

So, in our feminist rendering, are we going to reduce this complex but clear history to the woman “agreeing” that she wants to be “his and only his for now and forever”? (Quick question, can a woman ever “agree” to such eternal terms? Janam janam kay liye and stuff?) Only in the universe of the Khap Panchayat can a conditional relationship formed under duress be called the beginning of a beautiful love story.

See, this woman had an acquaintance, a friend, with whom she had shared a part of her life. One fine day, this friend returned to lay claim on her. The man got angry, quite obviously.

The man’s anger was justified, obviously, because the woman is a fickle bitch. Like most women, she does not know her mind, does not know what she wants. First she asks for his protection, and then claims she wants another man! The question still remains: when exactly did the Kashmiri people give their consent to be part of India? The analogy also seems to suggest that the woman occasionally made some noises about her abuse and that after suffering silently, she had “slowly started protesting.” The Kashmiris have been fighting against Indian occupation since 1947. The tallest leader of Kashmiris and Nehru’s “good friend”, Sheikh Abdullah, was jailed in 1953—the honeymoon period of the relationship—for 17 years for “conspiracy”—espousing the cause of an independent Kashmir? (It is also well known that there was no love lost between Pakistan and Sheikh Abdullah, so here, it becomes a bit difficult to blame the acquaintance/friend for stirring trouble in this relationship.) If a honeymoon results in one partner being jailed for expressing a desire to end the relationship, is that the beginning of a wonderful relationship? When was Kashmir’s desire for self-determination weak? Should the periods that are termed as ‘normal’ or ‘peaceful’ by the Indian state in the life of the state be seen as times when her desire for freedom is somewhat on the ebb—especially the myth about the pre-1989 decades? This was apparently a time when Kashmiris had reconciled to being a part of India and all went bust when the men and boys from JKLF upset everything with their Pakistani brainwashing. Clearly, the pre-1989 decades are a case of imagined consent. Terrified of losing Kashmir, India tried to control the thoughts of the people, but failed. The Indian state employed khoftan fakirs in Kashmir in the 1950s—who would lean on people’s sit-in kitchens and if anyone were found listening to BBC or Radio Pakistan in the privacy of their homes, they would be arrested. The Plebsicite Front was formed in 1953. The Al-Fata in early 1960s. The JKLF in late 1970s. All espousing the cause of azadi and self-determination. The Indian state rigged every election in Kashmir so that pro-freedom groups did not obtain a majority in the assembly and pass a resolution for azadi, complicating matters for India, at the very least resulting in international ridicule and pressure. Maqbool Bhat, a visionary Kashmiri revolutionary, was hanged in 1984. And we all know what has transpired since 1989.

Should a woman who is being raped everyday cry 24/7. In the periods that she is quiet, is she confused? Is she a little less unhappy because she is not screaming? If she eats food and takes the occasional bath, has she reconciled to a life of rape? Most importantly, had the strong man not started physically abusing her and emotionally controlling her, would this constitute a consensual, happy relationship? Does Kashmir want freedom from India because of human rights abuses it has suffered since 1989? Are 70,000 killings a sufficient number for a relationship to have “overtones” of abuse?

I offer an alternative gendered analogy for the India-Kashmir conflict: A man kidnaps a woman and keeps her locked for 70 years. In the initial period, he occasionally promises to release her, in case she so desires. But he never really has that conversation; it’s all words, and no real action. As time goes by, this topic is not broached at all. Like all abusive men, he is insecure and tries to hide his insecurity by inflicting violence on her, sometimes telling her he would let her go if she promises not to marry his rival, sometimes telling her that he will drink every last drop of her blood and bite off every last morsel of her flesh before he thinks of letting her leave him. She fights back, but he is strong. His abuses take all kinds of grotesque forms, from emotional and physical torture to multiple rapes and everything else imaginable. When she is not crying, he pats her head and tells her that she is the most beautiful creation in the whole world, so “gorgeous and graceful”, and he feels lucky that he has her. But now that she has “been with him” for 70 years, and so he continuously claims, she is his without a doubt. How could another way be possible?

Indian liberals and “feminists” share more or less the same relationship with Kashmir as Alia Bhatt shares with one of her kidnapers in the recent controversial release Udta Punjab. This particular kidnapper, Sonu by name, rapes her fewer times than the rest of his companions, in fact rapes her “gently”, claims to others that she will not bite when they rape her because he has “trained her well”, beats her a little less when she tries to run away, in fact shields her when the others in his gang beat her up, gives her heroin to numb the pain and to make her an addict, then tries to make her understand that she can’t live on her own in the big, bad world without him to provide the heroin and the protection—because, after all, “Sonu loves you na baby.”

Tupur Chatterjee is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Radio, Television and Film, University of Texas at Austin

3 thoughts on “A response to “Kashmir is Feminist Issue” by Sonam Mittal: Tupur Chatterjee

  1. Both Sonam Mittal and Tupur Chatterjee have presented a graphic picture of such a complicated issue in a praise-worthy artistic style.I am sure they never mean to doit in a lighter vein.They seem to be very serious and deeply concerned about the miserable plight of the people and the valley of Kashmir.But is anybody listening to what has been so beautifully narrated in the two narrations.Anybody who has the slightest sensitivity would want that the sufferings of the people must be brought to an end.Right to self-determination is the inalienable right of all the people.But the question is as to how should it be exercised?Through whom it should be done?Plebiscite formula appears to have died its unnatural death.How to ascertain the opinion of each and everybody involved in it?It is not that efforts have not been made to come out of this imbroglio. Rather much more than needed has been done by different governments and agencies. Terrorism whether indigenous or exported is certainly not the answer.as the barbaric repression through armed forces would only worsen the situation.And also there is no dearth of wise men all around.It is never too late to return to saner elements to seek for a solution.

  2. K SHESHU BABU

    The simile of ‘ women’ as ‘ gorgeous and beautiful’ is one part of character : it should be changed as ‘ the good, bad and ugly’ . Just as there are black women, less than ‘ beautifully’ faced women, women not smart, …. Kashmir also has two sides – beautiful lakes, trees, mountains, landscapes,and, stinking Gulley’s, streets, encroached buildings, polluted water, polluted air….
    Human beings have good and bad depending on the way you look at … women too are human beings… and so is Kashmir … it has good people, bad people, struggling people, revolutionary people…
    Historically, Kashmir has suffered domination just like women ( irrespective of its ‘ beauty’)
    The comparison must end there…

  3. Abraham

    Well argued. Living in India, I have experienced how Indians are the most racist people in the world. This piece made me realize they are male chauvinist too, and dominate nations like the colonial powers of yore.

    However, it would have been nice if the two periods of 1931-47 and 1953-89 were explored more to give a meatier historical perspective.

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