Kashmiri pherans (a loose overgarment) appear to have become even more of a rage in India since the August 2019 re-annexation of Kashmir. This rage has been described by the Indian newspaper Deccan Herald as a celebration of ‘the rich heritage of Kashmir’, where social media influencers and designers weave ‘a narrative’ that ‘transcends borders’ and enables scaling up the sale of pherans to Indians and international buyers.
The iconic pheran was given a boost by the 2022 Miss World, Karolina Bielawski, in Srinagar in August 2023; she donned pherans and posed for cameras. Bielawski was there for a preliminary event leading up to the 71st Miss World beauty queen competition, hosted by India. The reigning Miss World gushed: “Kashmir has everything and it is the best place to host an event like Miss World.” This assertion was followed by another: “I am so grateful to see the beautiful place in India, the beautiful lakes here.” It was a somewhat odd assertion to have to make immediately as if the governmental narrative of ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ had to be sledgehammered in the context of the hosting of the event in Kashmir.
The pheran, of course, has also been historicized, even re-invented by Kashmiri designers. The concern here is not the sale of pherans as such for Indian or international markets, but for a repetitious, almost insecure, narrative that the current Indian government continues to disseminate by hosting the Miss World event in Kashmir— that India has brought ‘normalcy’, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ to Kashmir since Kashmir’s re-annexation in 2019. These and other ‘straw man’ justifications, such as, the alleviation of gender discrimination since 2019 have been debunked by Critical Kashmir Studies scholars. Yet, India disseminates these narratives to cloak its formalization of settler-colonialism in Kashmir since 2019.
Hafsa Kanjwal’s Colonizing Kashmir: State-Building Under Indian Occupation (Stanford University Press, 2023) gains significance in this context for historicising India’s continual justification for occupying Kashmir through benevolent discourses of development whilst stifling political dissent even as Kashmir is portrayed as ‘normal.’ Kanjwal takes as their focus of study the reign of Kashmir’s second Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad (August 1953 – 1963), whose state-building efforts earned him the description of ‘the architect of modern Kashmir.’
For Bakshi, the discourse of development became a key mantra through which, Kanjwal argues, the politics of life was presented as an enticement for Kashmiris to see themselves as part of India. Kanjwal’s meticulous study explores two paradoxes during Bakshi’s rule: that of demonstrating how India’s period of decolonization marked its emergence as a colonial power in Kashmir, and detailing how the discourse of development as an Indian colonial technique of power created Kashmir’s economic dependency on India.
As a historian, Kanjwal impressively draws on archival fieldwork (including bureaucratic and administrative documents, memoirs, guidebooks, and literary sources) as well as interviews with students and members of the bureaucracy of the time. The book elaborates on the forms of state-building and the enduring effects of Bakshi’s rule through discussions of local, Indian, and international legitimacy for Indian rule over Kashmir, the building of infrastructure and tourism, and the shaping of Kashmiri subjectivities.
The machinations of India’s early colonial occupation of Kashmir are evidenced by the 1953 coup, when Bakshi was installed as Kashmir’s Prime Minster by the then Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) led Congress government which had arrested Sheikh Abdullah (Kashmir’s first Prime Minister) on charges of conspiracy against the Indian state. Abdullah had begun to realize the Indian state’s intent on eroding Kashmir’s autonomy and had begun making moves toward the possibility of a plebiscite and independence for Kashmir. Exit Abdullah. To prison. Enter Bakshi. Bakshi’s appointment as Kashmir’s next Prime Minister was part of a Faustian bargain to ratify Article 370, India’s constitutional article spelling out the political relationship between India and Kashmir.
Article 370 ostensibly maintained Kashmir’s autonomous status, but in effect enabled its erosion – an occupation by constitution as Haley Duschinski and Shrimoyee Ghosh (2017) have noted. Indeed, in Colonizing Kashmir, Hafsa calls Article 370 – ‘a colonial arrangement legally differentiating the colony (Kashmir) from the colonial power (India)’ (2023, 55). Kashmir’s provisional accession negotiated by the newly-formed Indian government with Kashmir’s Dogra ruler had stipulated that the Indian state would have power over Kashmir’s defense, foreign affairs, and communications until that time when the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir could decide their political future. Ratification of Article 370 opened the door to an expansion of Indian sovereignty over several areas including trade, commerce, judiciary, finance & elections by treating these as part of defense and foreign affairs. A.G. Noorani’s Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, outlines the ways in which Article 370 was deemed a tunnel through which India could control and occupy Kashmir in political and economic terms.
The project of development in Kashmir simultaneously entailed the creation of Kashmir’s economic dependency on India. Kanjwal discusses Bakshi’s reasons for embarking on the route of economically integrating Kashmir with India, arguing that Bakshi’s political thinking was not ideological but pragmatic. Bakshi realized that India would not let Kashmir be autonomous, so decided to get the best deal by bartering political self-determination for economic prosperity. This economic plan included enabling a selective implementation of the National Conference’s manifesto of the 1940s, Naya Kashmir, a template for the building of a modern Kashmir state built on socialist and democratic principles.
Bakshi’s motive, as the book points out, was to economically improve the plight of Kashmiri Muslims greatly impoverished under harshly discriminatory Dogra rule pre-1947. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had also been cut off from centuries-long trade routes between Lahore and Kashmir due to Kashmir’s partition, an effect of the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1947. This concern for the economic plight of Kashmiri Muslims, however, was accompanied by brutal repression of those who expressed political dissent. As Kanjwal notes, the Department of Information, Police and Intelligence had a bigger budget compared to states in India given that Bakshi laid emphasis on ‘policing the narrative of development’ (2023, 153).
Thus, Bakshi set about the task of ‘modernizing Kashmir’ through the framework of development. Simultaneously, Bakshi put in place a number of communicative strategies to Indians, to different international communities (Western and Muslim) in the context of the geopolitics of the time (Cold War politics), and to Kashmiris themselves, to indicate that Kashmiris were happy under Indian rule – and everything in Kashmir was ‘normal.’
Apart from the building of infrastructure such as the Banihal tunnel through which Kashmir became dependent on India for trade, Bakshi embarked on an emotional integration strategy. This strategy was a two-way street and also required creating an affective relationship between the Indian public and Kashmir. Economic resources became available for the development of tourism infrastructure, tourism brochures, guidebooks to Kashmir, and invitations to Bollywood filmmakers. Bollywood films of the time constructed Kashmir as Kanjwal notes— as India’s best tourist resort, rendering Kashmir as a pastoral non-modern landscape of romantic beckoning while Kashmiris themselves serviced the pleasure of Indian tourists. Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s (2009) discussion of Bollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s illustrates the making of Kashmir as a ‘territory of desire.’ Kanjwal notes that the creation of this desire was part of India’s settler/colonial logic, one which downplayed its Muslim history and foregrounded Kashmir’s ancient Hindu past in order to legitimate India’s claims over Kashmir.
At the geopolitical level, international delegations were invited to witness how Kashmiris were satisfied with Indian rule. As an example, Kanjwal narrates the story of the Soviet delegation who were initially skeptical of the accession. The delegation included the first secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Kruschev, and Premiere Nikolai Bulganin. Kashmiris across the countryside were invited by Bakshi to form the crowds with the promise of a free lunch and bus rides so that a message could be conveyed to the delegation that Kashmiris were happy with Indian rule.
One of Kanjwal’s interviewees recounts the story saying that they did not know who the foreign dignitaries were: ‘Bakshi manipulated the situation so that the cheering crowds were interpreted by the Soviets as our happiness being under India’ (2023, 91). Given this interpretation, Khrushchev declared Kashmir to be ‘India’s internal affair’ and subsequently Soviet support for India ensured that no further resolutions were drafted at the UN Security Council post-1957 for a plebiscite or demilitarisation. Bakshi’s charm and diplomatic skill worked to legitimate India’s claim over Kashmir.
The quest for legitimacy of Indian rule over Kashmir through the organization of international visits to Kashmir in the 1950s resonates with India’s quest for legitimacy regarding its 2019 annexation of Kashmir. On October 29, 2019, the Indian government invited 27 European MEPs to visit Kashmir given that some in the international community had expressed concern regarding the conditions of the brutal siege and communication lockdown through which Article 370 had been nullified. The October 2019 visit had been organized to show the Europeans and the world that everything was normal in Kashmir and that Kashmiris were happy. At the time, the visit as propaganda backfired: the right-wing European MEPs’ visit had been organized by an Indian NGO with shadowy credentials.
Four years on, however, legitimacy appears to have been bestowed by the US and other world powers. The Indian government hosted the G20 tourism working group meeting in Srinagar between May 24 – 26, 2023. This meeting was held to indicate ‘normalcy’ and the discourse of development was deployed to speak of more tourism and more Bollywood cinema production. The 71st Miss World event was, in effect, an outcome of the 2023 G20 summit.
In line with the book’s analysis of ‘emotional integration,’ the Indian Minister of State, Science and Technology remembered the films of the 1960s and how they had ‘used the natural beauty of Jammu and Kashmir to create many emotions in the movies of India.’ The creation of these ‘emotions’ are now an integral part of the Indian settler-colonial desire for Kashmir. Indian settler-colonial desire and logic of these earlier decades have been formalized in Indian legal infrastructure post-August 2019.
There are, of course, differences between the 1950s and the present. In 1953, Sheikh Abdullah who wanted to hold on to autonomy was arrested and Bakshi was made Prime Minister. In 2019, Kashmir’s pro-India leadership across the political spectrum was arrested, and elections are yet to be held. And if they might be held, delimitation exercises may ensure a win for the ruling Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party. This form of ‘normalcy’ is accompanied by techniques of settler colonialism where Kashmiri Muslims, in particular, face usurpation of their lands, livelihoods, and businesses rather than ‘the politics of life’ and state-building that Bakshi engaged in. Kashmiri ethnicity is on sale as Indian settlers are granted domicile certificates, an attempt to minoritize the Kashmir Valley’s Muslim majority.
Reading this book gave me the sensation of Kashmir’s present haunting the past as I kept hearing the words democracy and normalcy echoing across its pages. As Walter Benjamin once said, history is ‘time filled by the presence of the now.’ Colonizing Kashmir in this sense does the best that historical work can do— it is generative as an archive in offering an analysis of the so-called ‘politics of life’ of the 1950s (an extractive, productive, and repressive politics) that enables us to understand the foundations of contemporary India’s necropolitical settler colonial governmentality in Kashmir.
In the context of the ongoing dispossession of Kashmiri Muslim land, livelihood, and businesses documented by the Kashmir Law and Justice Project, the Narendra Modi-led Indian government’s surreal proclamations of development and normalcy make for an eerie soundtrack. The other soundtrack I invoke is Shirley Bassey’s throaty voice singing, ‘they say the next big thing is here’, but ‘it’s all a little bit of history repeating.’ Colonizing Kashmir enables us to understand the repetitious discourse of development and normalcy through a historicization that allows for understanding the present forms of India’s colonization of Kashmir as settler-colonial.