9/16 Author's Roundtable 1: Suvir Kaul, "Indian Empire and the Crisis of Kashmir" Responses from Antoinette Burton and Rajmohan Gandhi

Monday, September 19, 2011

[On Friday, September 16, the Unit for Criticism held the first of its Fall 2011 Author’s Roundtables. Suvir Kaul discussed his recent analysis of Kashmir and the Indian Empire. The below contributions are from the two respondents: Antoinette Burton and Rajmohan Gandhi. The event was the first of three celebrating the Unit for Criticism's thirtieth anniversary.]

Thoughts on "Indian Empire and the Crisis of Kashmir" (followed by Rajmohan Gandhi's piece below)
By Antoinette Burton (History)

It’s a tremendous pleasure and privilege to have this opportunity to reflect, however briefly, on both Suvir’s work and its linkages – immediate and remote – to his time at Illinois as a professor of literature and as director of IPRH. Given the energy of his partner, Ania Loomba, in both life and in the life of the mind, it’s rare for me to have the chance to think of him and his work on their own. Their time together in Illinois was so profoundly formative for me, as I know it was for many others, that it’s often not possible to think about them except as Ania and Suvir, Suvir and Ania: inseparable if distinct in the way they move about the world of ideas and its intersections with social, cultural and political worlds near and far.

It was of course that partnership which helped to generate the collaborative project that became the Postcolonial Studies and Beyond conference and ultimately the 2005 book, and which drew in myself, Jed Esty, and Matti Bunzl as co-editors. The nature of that collaboration is worth lingering on. For although it’s fashionable to praise such interdisciplinary effort as the sine qua non of humanistic endeavor, in fact, we talk and think very little about how such co-mingling can and does proceed. In our case, the conference was built from the ground up in Ania and Suvir’s Champaign living room.

We had conversations, debates, and arguments about what to call the conference, how to organize it, and, most of all, how to shape it so that it didn’t end up doing what we feared it might: that is, reify an already stultified notion of what postcolonial studies were and, as importantly, re-instantiate where postcolonial criticism might be said to be happening
or where, in geopolitical terms, its critical apparatus might be applied. The question of how, and whether, postcolonial critique was mobilehow portable it could be, in the face of new historical conditions - was paramount in those discussions. I remember some very heated conversations with Ania about how and whether the “global” might relate to our take on postcolonial studies. She took issue with the very category, and our thrashing out the relationships between globalization and postcolonial studies would go well into the night (and on long, hot walks in Meadowbrook). Given the maw of the global as an institutional category (and so much more) into which we have all been thrust in the interim, that moment seems a very long time ago now.

And a propos, if you will indulge me in just one more memory of the conference itself: there was a moment of heated debate in one of the sessions about the role of American military-imperial power shaping the new global and postcolonial realities after 9/11. Someone from the audience stood up and said, do you realize the Bush administration is thinking of invading Iraq? A convulsive hush
if such a thing is possible – engulfed the room, since most of us, then – even the news and political junkies among ushad no idea that notion was even being considered in the bowels of Cent Comm. As I recall several people openly scoffed at the very idea. That’s how long and short ago 2002 wasand a discussion of the invasion that ensued made its way (fiercely, sharply, pointedly) into our drafts of the introduction to the conference volume, helping to fuel and to nuance our discussions about the value-added – or notof postcolonial criticism in and for the fast-moving histories of the 21st century.

Suvir’s work on Kashmir can, I think, be seen as a piece of that project, though it’s not of course by any means co-terminous with it. The application of a colonial frame to that region, and its assimilation, in turn, to an imperial frame of analysis (as Suvir does so effectively in his EPW piece) feels at least in part like an extension of one of our aims in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond. That is, rather than continuing to rehearse the usual spaces and places of early postcolonial theorizing, we asked scholars in their respective fields to consider how postcolonial analysis applied, if it did, to their parts of the world or to their objects of inquiry.

So we had Daniel Boyarin on late antiquity, Rebecca Stein on Israel café culture, Florencia Mallon on Latin America and Tani Barlow on East Asia
each one pressing postcolonial theory and criticism up against its own geographical and even temporal limits, with some very interesting results. Suvir’s move to place Kashmir, an internal colony if not of India per se then a certain species of Indian nationalist thinking and ultimately of postcolonial policy is, I think, evocative of these moves.

For many Indians both in and outside postcolonialism’s interpolative ambit, this move might be considered an outrage: part of an unthinkable set of claims which places 20th century pre-independence heroes like Nehru and even Gandhi in uncomfortable proximity to promontory British views of the subcontinent and the “Indian” diaspora. It makes that space and those demographic flows available for carving up and re-segmenting into subimperial domains
through which “India” might be seen to be exercising para-colonial “power over” a variety of internal others. Such moves were part and parcel of Congress nationalist imaginaries of parts of South and especially East Africa at least from the 1920s onward, so it is not so surprising that Kashmir, despite being internal to Jai Hind, might be subject to the same operational apparatus. This is not entirely surprising given the kind of brahminical, caste-based subjectivities to which many (if not all) would-be leaders of postcolonial India implicitly or explicitly subscribed or given for that matter, the stakes that proof of sovereignty management locally and globallythat Indian postcolonial territorial security made clear. Indeed, if Kashmir is part of an Indian empire, it was also a Hindu-imperial formation supported by a long line of Maharaja Singhs going back into the 19th century. Although British plans for a subimperial Indian empire failed in official terms in Iraq in 1916, they appear to have succeeded in Kashmir in part because the postcolonial state shared and extended that colonial vision.

In light of these questions I wonder, Suvir, what the reaction has been to your claims; whether those reactions can be categorized in terms of contemporary political positions and/or geopolitical (left, right, Non-Resident Indian, etc); and how such reactions shape, if they do, your own thinking on the questions you raise? For I have to imagine that to some, these claims about an Indian empire in Kashmir are fighting words. Or perhaps not? Either way, what do reactions to your work tell us about the shifting state of public opinion on these issues on the ground, with what ramifications for postcolonial governmentality in and out of India? Have you presented your work in India, in what settings, and to what kinds of responses? What are the parameters of un/speakability, un/thinkability around these issues?

At the risk of exceeding my time, I want to ask just two more questions. First, can you talk more about how your own biography shapes both your investment in these issues and the historical ethnography you do in the Social Research piece? As with the ethnography of poetry you so beautifully produce, your own positionality as a Kashmiri man, a Kashmiri Non-Resident Indian of a certain generation, is relevant here; I am sure you have a lot to say about how that impacts your method and your own framing devices as well.

And, second but not unrelatedly, I think this work is crying out for express attention to gender, to the apparent homosociality of the Kashmiri intifada and to the cadences of adolescent-to-man tropes in the poetry, whether Kashmiriyat or rap
and, of course, to the question of women’s participationespecially in light of the militarization of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan, in her book Islam, Women and Violence in Kashmir (2009), argues that despite being the objects of rape and abuse, Kashmiri and Gujjar women “are able to negotiate in small spaces” as “repositories” of cultural traditions and values and as political and educational agentshttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif – though not, apparently “in the upper echelons of decision-making bodies." If Kashmiris have been “caught between terrorists and state terrorism,” women have arguably born the brunt of that cross-fire.

Interestingly, even in Khan’s book, which is ostensibly about women and gender, women themselves take up comparatively little space, which raises questions for me about the shared logic line of imperial, postcolonial and anti-imperial recovery methods: what they see clearly and unearth readily, and what remains interred – with interment serving as more than a metaphor here. Are there parallels with other postcolonial militarized zones to be drawn here? I am thinking of Nilofer De Mel’s book on militarization in Sri Lanka. She highlights militarization as a process through which ideologies of state violence are shaped in ways that make “militant solutions to conflict a part of institutional structures and ways of thought.” She “foregrounds militarization as activity and agency, capable of adaptation and transforming society in significant ways; and as a deeply gendered, contingent and shifting process.” And she, too, is interested in popular culture and its role in mediating the memory of armed conflict.

If postcolonial thinking about Kashmir reveals the continuation of vertical hierarchies of global imperial postcolonial power, what comparisons across horizontal space inside South Asia or across the “the Third World” can we make, should we make, of the suppression of women’s experiences in intifada narratives? And how do we do so without simply seeking to restore women, but rather to redirect our analysis toward questions of embodied violence, embodied terror, and embodied “debris”? Thinking through another context of violence altogether, David Roediger calls for us to “fully bring gender and empire into the conceptualization of a study, not into its editing.” How best to do this methodologically is something I am still thinking through
and will be doing so aloud in my upcoming IPRH talk as wellbut I remained concerned that postcolonial studies has not been as dedicated to these questions as we might expect it to be.

And I hasten to say: I don’t mean to pose these latter questions as purely identitarian ones. I offer them, rather, in the spirit of a book like Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, as a provocation to the question of locative position, of orientation. Nor are these merely questions of visibility or recognition; they are questions of method and politics in their most material form.

Let me end quickly with what I hope is a germane anecdote: while at a conference in Durban, South Africa this summer, I heard a paper by a distinguished historian of South African women, gender and medicine, Catherine Burns. She told the audience that there are 350,000 nurses in South Africa
majority African, majority womenand they outstrip, in sheer demographic terms, any other professional category bar none, doctors included. Yet all histories of these women (who represent a tremendously powerful social, economic and biopolitical force) are consigned time and again to the history of nursing.

Histories of these women rarely if ever open up and out onto “bigger” conceptual terrains like the state, democracy or, in our case here, violence and war. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but I have some ideas about its possible redress. Mainly, I have real problems with what category of women shuts down analytically even as I want to see women’s experiences and bodies more routinely at the center of discussions like these. I want this not only because they are there, but because they should inform our critique at every turn, not as the sacral center of our investigations but as the secular, principled and anti-colonial, anti-neoliberal, anti-neoimperial ground of our assault on the global military complex as a given, despite its local particularities.

In the meantime, it’s predictable, disheartening and ultimately provocative, in the most heuristic sense, that even our most critically engaged and agonistic engagements with phenomena like Kashmir can end up in this cul-de-sac. I know Suvir will agree, and I look forward to thinking aloud about these questions with him.

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"Comment on Suvir Kaul’s texts on Kashmir"
By Rajmohan Gandhi (South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies/Center for Global Studies)

The picture offered in the two texts is strong, the logic hard to refute, the language clear, the facts painful and, to an Indian, embarrassing. But this particular Indian has long been aware of these facts, though he has rarely seen them presented before in the perspective that Suvir provides. So I thank Suvir.

Question: why have Indians with a history of pointing out suppressions elsewhere been silent about Kashmir? Answer: Double standards are the norm in international affairs. In recent years, however, New Delhi has come closer to consistency by going silent also on Palestine, in sharp contrast to India’s vocal support for an independent Palestine during the final four decades of the last century.

There are other contradictions. In June this year, when the Delhi police (not the army) forcibly dispersed, in the middle of the night, Baba Ramdev’s anti-corruption rally, a woman was critically injured. On subsequent days, India’s national media gave wide coverage to outcries from politicians, including a charge that Jallianwala Bagh had been repeated, a reference to the colonial government’s atrocities of April 1919. In Kashmir, forcible dispersions and firings by military and paramilitary forces (not just the police) have been routine occurrences. Many are killed and wounded. But killings in Kashmir do not invite the Indian media’s attention.

New Delhi’s confidence that Kashmir will not be allowed to become a major world issue rests on what Suvir has brought out, namely India’s current role as one of the US’s strategic allies and India’s potential role as an important partner in a project of empire.

It has been argued that it will be increasingly hard for an India eager for global spotlights to turn off the lights on Kashmir. In other words, you cannot ask for a permanent UN Security Council seat and simultaneously evade questions regarding Kashmir.

How solid is this argument? Where China faces Tibet and Xinjiang, and Russia Chechnya, and the US, the UK and France are all keen on slices of the growing Indian market, especially the Indian market for armaments, why would any of the P5 bring up Kashmir? If the matter of new permanent members goes to the UN General Assembly, not many states would want to open up a discussion there on self-determination in "a part of a country," which is how India would describe Kashmir.

If Pakistan raises Kashmir in the United Nations General Assembly, India can speak of Balochistan, and many Balochis will march outside the UN in support of an independent Balochistan. Yet international respect, which ultimately is what India wants, is more than a matter of counter-punches in debate. It calls for openness and for the readiness to examine realities hitherto brushed aside.

Then there is the question of India’s natural wish to compete with China. India likes to present itself to the world as a democracy, contrasting in that respect with China. If world opinion asks India to show that its rule in Kashmir has the consent of the governed, that would be welcome pressure on the Indian state. But is today’s India genuinely interested in global public opinion? Is it not more concerned with commercial deals with states and corporations, including defense deals worth tens of billions of dollars involving fighter aircraft, rockets, drones and battleships?

Despite this depressing context, there have been some signs, weak but unmistakable, but sadly not irreversible, that the government in India wants a Kashmir solution. Authorized interlocutors have been meeting or trying to meet Kashmiri leaders of every persuasion. The Indian government has indicated that almost anything the Kashmiris want can be conceded, but what is ‘almost’ and what is ‘anything’? Signs of this sort have appeared before only to vanish until a new set of signs appear on the horizon, and again disappear.

However, what is perhaps new in today’s world is the power of social media. Faced with protests
whether in Kashmir or anywhere elsethe Indian government cannot act like, e.g., the Syrian government. It has to be more like the Tunisian or Egyptian authorities, who felt compelled to respond to national and world opinion. In the past the Indian government has indeed tried on occasion to ban the use of cell phones in Kashmir but has been forced to withdraw the ban.

It was many years ago that a top Indian general told Nirmala Deshpande, a Gandhian working for India-Pakistan reconciliation, that the Indian military was lucky because the Kashmiris were blind to a simple secret. If they just dropped the gun, they would get all they wanted. It was the gun that had alienated Indian and world opinion and enabled the Indian state to bring the huge weight of the Indian military to bear on Kashmir. A gun-free demand would become irresistible, he implied.

If a gun-free struggle would have been irresistible 20 years ago, today’s social media and even the anti-social or non-social media might make a nonviolent struggle in Kashmir very hard for the Indian state to suppress or discredit. A creatively-conceived nonviolent struggle in Kashmir might evoke widespread sympathy in different parts of India
and also the world.

Linked to this is the question of leadership in Kashmir. Suvir has touched on Kashmir’s complexities and also on the division among its numerous political leaders. The Indian state and the Pakistani state have both been wooing these leaders, at times with cash; and divide-and-rule is something that all empires and states are pretty good at.

- One is that Kashmiris firmly reject the gun.
- Two, they voice their demands with even fuller throats than they do today.
- Three, their leaders refuse to meet representatives of New Delhi or Islamabad until it becomes clear that those who send them are serious about finding a solution.
- Four, the Kashmiri leaders give up their ego clashes and large personal dreams, remain content with representing their people, and offer a united front.
- Five, representatives of the Kashmiri people draw up a simple, imaginative, clear, and escalating plan of nonviolent resistance -- one that causes minimum disruption to the daily life and livelihoods of the Kashmiri people.
- Six, they also present a clear picture of the new Kashmir they want and of the place in it for all of their people in all their diversity.
- And seven, through the social media they ask for the support of Indian and Pakistani citizens and people throughout the world.

An azadi front in Kashmir adopting this position and sticking to it is bound to influence public opinion in India, Pakistan and worldwide.

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