Heritage and Politics in Kashmir

Amarnath-Yatra

This text was originally published on Kashmir Reader on the 6th of May 2016

Indian-occupied Kashmir is one of the most densely militarised corners of the world even though it is not officially a country at war. With over half a million troops stationed within its boundaries, the ratio between Indian armed forces and Kashmiri civilians is even higher than that between foreign military and civilian population at the peak of the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the promise of a plebiscite, the region has been denied the right of self-determination and has seen the criminalisation of organised forms of dissent. Movement is regulated and the right to public space curbed under the pretence of maintaining law and order. In such a climate, the struggle over the control and definition of territory assumes a fundamental role. Within this context, therefore, the management and articulation of heritage assume a loaded political meaning. Whose history is preserved and promoted? By whom and through which political allegiances? What messages and agendas are championed through heritage? What are the meanings and reasons for reclaiming cultural roots through fabricated notions of tradition?
After the 2008 and 2010 uprisings, the Indian government has associated systematic repressive violence with a renewed public discourse on the beauty of Kashmir – a pristine landscape devoid of people. To strengthen its propagandistic effectiveness, the central government started providing financial incentives to tourism and pilgrimages as devices to normalise the conflict. This whole political apparatus is mostly articulated in religious terms with an emphasis on the indivisible sacrality of Indian land since ancient pre-Islamic times. The same strategy is adopted in relation to the border, where Hindu shrines are installed within the premises or in the vicinity of Army check-posts. These newly established religious sites, which become collective yet segregated places of worship, indirectly sanction the Army’s presence as well as the quintessentially Hindu nature of India as a country.
In the decades that followed Partition, India and Pakistan sat at the negotiating table several times to try and solve, among other things, their disagreement over the management of Kashmir. These talks did not achieve much, but sanctioned the “question of Kashmir” as aterritorial dispute – an empty land on a map where the issue was how – rather than if – it should be divided.Almost seventy years and several UN resolutions later, the situation has not changed. The articulation of the discourse is still framed in bilateral terms and continues to exclude the political voice of Kashmiris. Through a narrative that reinforces the idea that the “solution” for Kashmir has to come from India and Pakistan, Kashmiris themselves are sidelined and not acknowledged as equal, let alone indispensable, interlocutors. It is the fate of the land that is at stake, not the fate of those who belong to it. This unchanged perspective perpetuates the legitimacy of a “mystical” tone whereby Kashmir has come to symbolise the unquestionable wholeness of India as a country.
The first months of 2016 have seen open and rampant tensions around the oneness of India. The central government and its supporters are undeterred in their attempt to promote such unity and reinstate the intrinsically religious nature of Indian nationalist loyalty founded on the centrality of the myth of Bharat Mata. The reinforcement of the identification of the Indian land with the body of the mother collapses political and religious categories, turns the nationalist struggle into a religious duty and charges political claims for self-determination with an almost blasphemous and hence seditious connotation. Incidentally, by reciting the Bharat Mata ki Jai, the Indian Army finds a religious justification to their brutality: their mission is to protect the integrity of the land thus turning into the uncontested custodians of a dominant interpretation of belonging and heritage.
In order to be able to grasp the complexity of the notion of heritage and the intertwining between the sacralisation of the land and a sense of belonging in Kashmir, it is fundamental to grasp the relevance of the events of the 1990s and the displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits. Much of their pledge has been in fact appropriated by a chauvinist nationalist agenda and their desire to return to their homeland has been manipulated to reinforce the Hindu nature of the wholeness of India.
The recent revival of the Amarnath Yatra is an important example of how people’s mobilisation around cultural memorialisation can be used to interpret the political implications of the promotion of immaterial heritage. Located 140 kilometres North East of Srinagar, at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters, the cave of Amarnath, with its ice stalagmite, has been for centuries the site of religious pilgrimages. At the end of a steep climb in a pristine forest, the cave is blocked by snow for most of the year and it is only accessible for a short period of time during which pilgrims challenge altitude and asperities to pay their respect to the god. Legend has it that this is the secluded place that Lord Shiva chose to reveal to Parvati the secrets of immortality and of the creation of the Universe without being heard by any other living being. The cave is therefore revered and considered among the most important religious sites for Hindus. To corroborate its sacrality, it is believed that the ice stalagmite, which is thought to be waxing and waning in accordance to the moon cycles, is an embodiment of the Lingam, the phallic representation of Lord Shiva himself.
After being forgotten for centuries, the cave was “miraculously” rediscovered around the 1850s by Buta Malik, a wandering shepherd during the reign of Gulab Singh, the first Dogra ruler of Kashmir. The Maharaja was all too happy to encourage pilgrims to visit the site. Since its modern inception, the Yatra was a relatively small event that lasted no longer than fifteen days and included twenty to thirty thousand local Kashmiri Pandits. Between 1991 and 1995, the pilgrimage was suspended because of political instability; it was then resumed in 1996 after assurances by the militants that they would not harm the pilgrims. That year, however, a sudden change of weather and unexpected snowfall caused the death of more than 250 people. In response to this tragedy, the government decided to impose stricter regulations and set up the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB).
The institutionalisation of the pilgrimage and the definition of the religious pre-requisites for the eligibility for the SASB represent a momentous turning point in the significance, promotion and political connotation that the Amarnath Yatra has acquired. It is after this transition, in fact, that the Sangh Parivar has shown a proactive interest in the pilgrimage, radically changing the narrative around it, thus escalating the politicisation of the initiative and hence its divisive nature.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines the process of the invention of tradition as an intentional way of using material from the past to serve novel purposes. This perspective resonates with an interpretation of heritage as a contemporary cultural use of the past, thus highlighting its political dimension. Hobsbawm’s definition of “invented traditions” can provide a useful framework for the understanding of the shift in meaning and political significance of the Amarnath Yatra. Even though there is no academic analysis of the Yatra, the debate around it is quite heated at the level of civil society. Positions are deeply polarised and mostly see a split between the government bodies, militant Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus from mainland India on one side, and moderate Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri civil society organisations on the other.
Over the course of several interviews with Kashmiri Pandits living both in the Valley and outside it, it emerged that there was a shared agreement around the preposterous notion of “reclamation of Kashmir” utilised to justify the scale of mobilisation around the Amarnath Yatra. In a phone interview, S. – who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he feared that his positions would upset the community – told me: “Amarnath has no relation whatsoever with Kashmiri Pandits, we as a community have nothing to do with the shrine. Those who will tell you that the tradition is ours and Muslims are trying to destroy it, hold false and biased views that are fuelled by their anger at the displacement they underwent. This reactionary narrative is not inherent to Kashmir, it is the result of Indianisation and the media are contributing to exacerbating a narrative that is more important to Indians than it is to us.”
Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit social activist, who decided not to leave his native Srinagar during the 1989 exodus and has lived in the Valley his entire life, highlighted the deep religious connection with nature in Kashmir that characterises the Pandits’ religiosity and framed the relation with the Amarnath Yatra in the same terms. He also expressed his discontent towards the fact that the pilgrimage was taken over “by those who claim to be the real custodians of Hinduism”. While dissenting from the interpretations of the Yatra as a form of political oppression, Tickoo criticised the composition of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board where currently only one member, Bhajan Sopori, is a Kashmiri Pandit. He told me that this detail can be indicative of the politicisation of the pilgrimage and its disconnection from the Pandit community. Even though he did not seem too preoccupied with the implications of such adevelopment, his main concern had to do with the terrible environmental consequences the massive expansion of the Amarnath Yatra has caused over the years. He was highly critical of the great numbers and of the extension of the pilgrimage time from fifteen days to almost two months.
The effect that hundreds of thousands of people can have on a fragile mountainous environment is a general reason of concern. For many civil society activists, however, the ecological preoccupation is framed in broader political terms. Khurram Parvez, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), lamented the detrimental effects that the Amarnath Yatra has on Kashmiri culture in terms of “its impact on our natural resources, its absolute lack of sustainability and the fact that it has become an alibi for an even further militarisation” Parvez was adamant in calling the Amarnath Yatra as a “military project run under the patronage of the State” and accused the SASB of being complicit with the State-sponsored narrative of reclaiming Kashmir.
As the BJP, RSS and other extreme right-wing Hindutva organisations appropriated the narrative around the Yatra, they started aggressive fundraising campaigns gathering large sums of money from diaspora Hindus across the world so as to be able to sponsor increasingly larger numbers of pilgrims entirely free of cost. This process changed dramatically the demography of the pilgrims who for the most joined the Yatra for opportunistic or ideological reasons. This tension is further heightened by the fact that pilgrims consider the Army to be there to protect them from aggressions by locals and terrorists alike, whereas for Kashmiris the military presence is an obvious disruption of their own lives.
Moreover, as the number of pilgrims grew exponentially, Kashmiri civil society organisations started denouncing the visible deterioration of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem around the cave. Scientific research shows the increase of waterborne diseases and water shortage in villages in South Kashmir during and in the immediate aftermaths of the pilgrimage. Yatris neither show any respect for the natural environment, by throwing all sorts of waste in the Lidder River and by defecating in the open, nor are they provided with the necessary facilities for a more considerate behaviour, despite it being one of the main tasks assigned to the SASB.
The tension between civil society organisations and the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board reached a peak in May-August 2008 after the state government granted the transfer of 40 acres of forest land to the SASB for the construction of temporary structures for the accommodation of pilgrims. The announcement that this would represent a permanent transfer created public outrage as Kashmiris saw the transaction as a blatant violation of article 370 of the Indian Constitution. One of the provisions of such article is that only citizens of the state can purchase and own land in the Valley. Khurram Parvez defined the land transfer and the plan to build on forest land permanent structures to host pilgrims as “an ecological disaster and yet other manifestation of the Indian occupation.” Street protests erupted across Kashmir and clashes between civilians and Indian Army determined the withdrawal of the transfer. This in turn triggered a wave of unrest in Jammu – where the majority of the population is Hindu – with Hindutva parties and organisations were up in arms calling for a comprehensive agitation to fight and take back the land of Kashmir defined as “the paternal property of Hindus”.
The 2015 Amarnath Yatra counted more than 350 thousand participants and several deaths. The 2016 edition is scheduled to begin on the 2nd of July and will last for 48 days. In an ostentatious attempt to regulate the Yatra, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board announced that it will “only” allow 7,500 people per day on each of the two routes, therefore bringing the estimated attendance to 720,000 people. Violence and unrest are ebbing again in Kashmir following various episodes of brutal military responses to critical voices that dared questioning the indiscriminate acceptance of the oneness of India. In this climate, the forthcoming Amarnath Yatra may acquire further ideological connotations and be instrumentally used to serve chauvinistic Hindu nationalistic agendas. Leveraging on sentiments of belonging and the right to reclaim their own land through the construction of a well orchestrated invented tradition, the Amarnath Yatra is an important, if little known, example of the ways in which heritage movements can serve political purposes. Heritage activism in this particular case shows a dark and antagonistic side where the promotion of a carefully fabricated continuity to a selective sense of the past serves the Indian hegemonic discourse and indirectly legitimises both the presence of the Army and their deeds as custodians of the sacred unity of Bharat Mata.

On the table – Thoughts about Kashmir

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Two weeks ago I was making dinner: pasta with lamb as in the tradition of the part of Italy I come from and doon chettin, a walnut chutney typical of Kashmir. I wanted on our table the rough but heartwarming flavours of both his mountains and mine.

That evening, after dinner, we got to know that Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human right advocate who has been working for decades to denounce the brutality that his people has been subjected to, had been arrested (with accusations devoid of any legal justification). The day before his arrest, he was disallowed to board on a plane to Geneva where he was meant to speak at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

I can’t stop thinking about the flavour of that dinner, about the comfort that comes from the food from home. I also can’t stop thinking about Khurram Parvez’s wife, who does not know when she’ll share a meal with him again, and about all those women in Kashmir who are crying while preparing the favourite dish for their sons who have been killed in the past three months.

After 84 days of crackdown in Kashmir, winds of war blow between India and Pakistan. On both sides, armchair strategists invoke the power of a nuclear attack. Inebriated by nationalistic fascism, they do not consider that the border that separates them is only a fictional line traced on paper and that the possible consequences won’t stop at the frontier to ask for permission to cross.

Newspaper headlines and the occasional international attention, have used this chance to concentrate on the abstract dimension of the conflict sweeping aside what this actually means for the people. Yet again Kashmir is discussed as an expanse of land on either side of a line drawn on a map rather than as a land that belongs to a people who has been fighting for decades for the right to decide for themselves and their future. The abstract geopolitical discussion becomes the excuse to ignore that the armed forces destroyed the yearly apple harvest and burnt the cultivated fields; to look away from the seized ambulances, the night raids and the undiscriminated arrests.

How many more empty places at the dinner table, how many more meals full of absence are going to be needed before we recognise that the right to self-determination is inviolable and sacrosanct? How many more mothers will have to cry for the loss of their sons before we understand that violence and brutality will not eradicate the quest for freedom?

A tavola – Pensando al Kashmir

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Due settimane fa preparavo la cena: pasta col sugo d’agnello come da tradizione abruzzese e doon chettin, una salsa di noci tipica del Kashmir. Volevo che a tavola ci fosse tanto il sapore delle sue montagne che delle mie: sapori ruvidi che scaldano il cuore.

Quella sera, dopo cena, siamo venuti a sapere che avevano arrestato (con accuse prive di giustificazione legale) Khurram Parvez, un attivista per la difesa dei diritti umani che da anni lavora per denunciare la brutalità di cui è vittima inascoltata la gente del Kashmir. Il giorno prima di essere arrestato, gli era stato impedito di imbarcarsi sull’aereo per Ginevra dove avrebbe dovuto partecipare alla riunione della Commissione per i Diritti Umani delle Nazioni Unite.

E’ da quella sera che continuo a pensare al sapore di quella cena, al conforto del cibo di casa, ma anche alla moglie di Khurram Parvez che non sa quando potrà condividere di nuovo un pasto con lui e a tutte quelle donne che in Kashmir in questi giorni piangono mentre preparano il piatto preferito dei propri figli che sono stati uccisi in questi tre mesi.

Dopo 84 giorni di scontri ininterrotti in Kashmir, tra India e Pakistan tirano venti di guerra. Da entrambe le parti, gli strateghi da salotto cantano le lodi di un attacco nucleare. Inebriati di nazionalismo fascista sembrano non considerare che il confine che li divide è una linea immaginaria tracciata sulla carta e che le possibili conseguenze non si fermano a chiedere il permesso di varcare la frontiera.

I titoli dei giornali e la poca attenzione internazionale hanno raccolto al volo l’occasione per concentrarsi sulla dimensione astratta del conflitto lasciando passare in secondo piano quello che questo scontro significa per la gente. Ancora una volta il Kashmir ritorna ad essere discusso come uno spazio conteso al di qua e al di là di una linea sulla mappa invece che come il luogo di appartenenza di un popolo che da decenni lotta per il diritto a decidere per sé e per il proprio futuro. La discussione geopolitica diventa la scusa per distogliere lo sguardo dai raccolti di mele distrutti e dai campi coltivati bruciati dall’esercito, dalle ambulanze sequestrate, dai raid notturni e dagli arresti indiscriminati.

Quanti altri posti vuoti a tavola, quante cene piene di assenza ci vorranno prima che ci si renda conto che il diritto all’autodeterminazione è inviolabile e sacrosanto? Quante altre madri dovranno piangere i propri figli prima che ci si accorga che la violenza e la brutalità non riusciranno a sradicare il desiderio di libertà?

The broken city – Political observations on the built environment

This article was first published in Domus, no. 967 (2013): 114-123.

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From the vantage point of a ramshackle tea stall on the south side of Hari Parbat Hill, the view over Srinagar— the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India—is breathtaking: eagles flying above the skyline, snowcapped mountains on the horizon and an endless sequence of sloping tin roofs, interrupted only by the towering spires of the many mosques.

Hari Parbat is in itself a remarkable summary of the city’s complexity. On top of the hill stands a majestic fort, whose construction was first conceived and initiated by Emperor Akbar in the 1590s, and then completed in the 18th century by the Afghan governor of Kashmir. Just below the fort is the Makhdoom Sahib Dargah, the tomb and shrine of the eponymous Sufi saint and one of the holiest places in the valley, revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Indeed, Hindus consider the hill to be especially sacred due to the presence of the Sharika Devi Temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti, an embodiment of the goddess Durga, who is both a maternal figure and a bearer of destructive male energy. On the way up to the hill there is also the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid, an abandoned mosque dating from the Mughal era. As well as having domes instead of spires, it is also one of the very few mosques that were historically built in stone rather than the vernacular wooden structure. People say that the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid has hardly ever been used for worship, and there are two versions of this story: some say it was because the place was possessed by the djinns—naughty or angry genies—while others claim that it was an act of resistance against the foreign Mughal domination.

Hari Parbat Hill is a microcosmic representation of the complex nature of the city of Srinagar and of the whole Valley of Kashmir. It is a palimpsest of layers: multiple narratives and times across religions, identities and dominations. It holds both the power of the popular imagination of Kashmir as a site of pristine natural beauty (which, as historian Mridu Rai argues, is often rhetorically constructed as emptied of people) and the controversial meanings of the idea of Kashmiriyat (or Kashmiri-ness, an essential notion of what it means to be Kashmiri) beyond religious or sectarian belonging. The physical stratification of architectural styles, religious rituals and historical sites triggers questions on how the built environment can be interpreted in order to understand intricate stories that have several, and often contrasting versions. When asked how we can link the current situation of simmering political tensions with a parallel narrative of cherished cultural cohabitation and mutual influence, Professor M.H. Zafar, the former director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at the University of Kashmir, told us that interrogating architecture is a good way to begin to understand. “Architecture does not wear its meaning on its sleeves,” he said. “It is a subtle matter that requires observation in order to understand the multiplicity of stories that it tells.” This multiplicity encompasses tales of subversion and experimentation, as well as conservative strategies of preservation.

Heritage and historical architecture, in fact, can also be appropriated and used to produce a pacified vision of controversial presents. In Kashmir, the discourse around its long-standing syncretic tradition is exemplary in this respect: contrasting parties have adopted this notion in ways that are instrumental to either communal political agendas or to comfortably preserving the precariously balanced status quo. Syncretic architecture is introduced in the discussion as physical evidence of a harmonious past in which all religions lived in peace, and it is only due to the radicalisation of their opponent—alternatively Muslims or Hindus, depending on who is speaking—that this harmony has now become compromised or even lost.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 9.53.07 AMThis recollection of an ideal past is easily translated into an invitation to forget the stone (pelters) of the present and concentrate on the architecturally meaningful stones of the past. In political terms, this attitude shifts the emphasis to tourism, on the natural beauty of the Valley of Kashmir, on the richness of its cultural and culinary traditions, and becomes a clever instrument used by the Indian government to distract both visitors and detractors from the fact that Kashmir is actually one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world.

This is quite a striking detail if we consider that Kashmir is officially not a war zone.

The built environment in situations of conflict is often neglected as a possible exegetic source—it is treated as a victim, accounted for as one of the many casualties, but hardly ever addressed as a witness or a repository of memories and testimonies. This is, however, an incapacitating intellectual position that overlooks the fact that the built environment does not lie, but instead preserves the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to efface. Following the omnipresent global argument of security, and its localised version of protection of cultural minorities and their heritage, the Indian army has appropriated temples and cultural centres across Kashmir, wrapped them in razor wire and practically transformed them into military bases. It is visually revealing to take a walk through Lal Chowk—the heart of Srinagar, a busy bazaar-like commercial hub and one of the places that has historically hosted both official political events and opposition demonstrations—and from there to the Old City. The signs of military appropriation of the civil urban space do not use a subtle language and are part of the visual landscape of Srinagar’s present and recent past. By the scenic Amira Kadal Bridge, where Kashmiri women have kept the fishmonger’s trade alive despite decades of political unrest, lies the Hanuman Mandir, a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god. Nowadays, the temple is manned by a Kalashnikov-wielding sentry. Surrounded by barbed wire, it houses the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), who protect it from potential Islamist attacks and use the spires of its domes to stretch out washing lines to dry their uniforms. Not too far away, in downtown Srinagar, Firdous Cinema Hall tells a more hopeful story: after being occupied by the army for more than 20 years, and being turned into a security camp in 2005, the CRPF returned it to the civilian population in December 2011. Eight other cinemas, however, are still used for military and paramilitary purposes, as are a further seventy-nine hotels. According to KashmirWatch, a branch of the Europe based Kashmir International Research Centre (KIRC), in the past 8 years the army in its various capacities has cleared out of about 1,300 private and public buildings, but, as of early April 2012, 1,800 are still under their control.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), the poet who more than anyone else managed to express the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley of Kashmir, wrote extensively about Srinagar. Through decades and centuries, the city’s built environment has incorporated the landmarks of cohabitation, syncretism, anger, defeat and resistance. It tells stories of communal harmony as well as tales of struggle and dissent. It carries the wounds and scars of the savage military occupation of civil public space. It echoes the words of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem A Pastoral 196:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.

This article is dedicated to Parvaiz Bukhari