“In the aftermath of 5 August, silence simply did not feel like an option”

The essays in Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? Narratives of Resistance and Resilience explore, among various themes, sexual violence and militarisation, and life in Kashmir in the aftermath of the effective abrogation of Article 370.

Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? Narratives of Resistance and Resilience is a new collection of essays by Kashmiri women, and edited by the writer and academic Nitasha Kaul and the anthropologist and poet Ather Zia. The essays explore, among various themes, the representation of women in Kashmiri literature; sexual violence and militarisation; India’s politicisation of the 2014  floods in Jammu and Kashmir, and arguments against hydroelectric dams in the region; women’s protests; and life in Kashmir in the aftermath of the effective abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019. 

This excerpt contains Kaul and Zia’s preface to the book, as well as the academic Nishita Trisal’s piece on her experiences while writing against the revocation of the state’s special status. Describing the vitriol she received, she writes, “Besides, many suggested that I had no right to speak as a Kashmiri Pandit, especially on such a prominent forum, if I did not speak on behalf of the Kashmiri Pandit majority opinion (which, in my understanding, rejects any stance on Kashmir that does not name the Pandit exodus a premeditated ethnic cleansing/genocide).”

In December 2018, we put together the first-ever collection of essays on women and Kashmir by Kashmiri women themselves. This milestone in scholarly work fostered the hope that we would begin the process of “Knowing in Our Own Ways,” which was also the title of our introduction to the historic special issue of the Economic & Political Weekly Review of Women’s Studies.

Barely a year later, an unprecedented set of events in Kashmir focussed world attention on the resounding enforced silencing of Kashmiris. In August 2019, after a second general-election victory earlier in the year, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government pushed through a key manifesto promise of the Hindu nationalist political formation: the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, via the abrogation of Article 370. In addition, the state was bifurcated and converted into a Union Territory, a move unprecedented in the history of independent India. All this was undertaken without any determination in, or by, the Kashmiri legislature or in consultation with the Kashmiri people themselves. It was also preceded by tens of thousands additional troops being flown into a region which was already very heavily militarised, followed by a complete communications lockdown. In subsequent months, some restrictions were lifted, but at the time of writing, Internet and post-paid cellphones remain shut, and mobility is periodically curtailed. Pro-India politicians who historically propped up the client governments have virtually all been detained and placed under house arrest. Resistance leaders, activists and civil-society members are also under detention.

The Indian government has argued that the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy was undertaken to pave the way for development and to root out nepotism and “terrorism.” However, among a host of other reasons that the BJP advanced for the revocation one stood out distinctly: that the annulment of special status would alleviate gender discrimination in Kashmir. The banner of saving Kashmiri women was advanced to maximum effect by the Indian government, walking in the footsteps of colonial powers which utilised such gendered pretexts for the annexation of indigenous lands. While women’s rights were much-hyped on the one hand, on the other, Indian politicians and the people at large had no hesitation in celebrating a manifestly patriarchal militaristic victory over Kashmir.

Against this backdrop, the question of gender and Kashmir continues to have unparalleled significance. It is also why the words and voices of Kashmiri women themselves deserve the most serious attention. 


This is (Not) a Betrayal

Notes from a Rogue Kashmiri Pandit

Nishita Trisal


When I speak of Tehran, I end up at the sea
When I speak of myself or of you,
When I speak of the sky, I end up at the sea.
When I distance myself from it, forgetting,
Starting afresh, I end up back at the sea.
Where is the leak in this sea
As all of my relationships turn tender?
Drenched, they end up at the sea.

—Roja Chamankar, “The Start.”


I had begun drafting this essay immediately prior to the 5 August2019 revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status. It began with two sentences: This essay is a betrayal. It is also a reckoning.

I had intended in the essay to write about the complexities of doing research in and on Kashmir as an academic, based in the United States, whose political views diverged radically from her Kashmiri Pandit family’s. In particular, I had planned to write about a recent experience during my dissertation fieldwork, when I felt singled out and humiliated by a male family member because of my Kashmir politics. I had hoped to use that fraught encounter—which occurred at my great-aunt’s funerary rites in Delhi in September 2016, not long after Burhan Wani’s assassination and the subsequent uprising in the Kashmir Valley—to think through the familial tensions that have animated my relationship to Kashmir. Although the essay risked betraying family privacy, which good daughters dare not do, I felt I needed to reckon with both the encounter in question and the larger matter of familial and community patriarchy that it represented. Little did I know that a more immediate reckoning was just around the corner.

In the days following 5 August, it became abundantly and painfully clear that the Indian parliament’s decision to read down Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution would be experienced by Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims in diametrically opposed ways, with most Muslims mourning the decision while most Pandits celebrated. That day, through tears and panicked calls, I kept a silent watch on my phone, waiting to hear from my close family members who, I had felt certain, must have heard the news and were equally shocked. When, however, that call eventually came, from my mother, it was clear we were not going to agree. We ended with pitched voices and more tears. The two Kashmiri worlds to which I belonged—my Kashmiri Pandit family and my Kashmiri Muslim friends—were yet again in direct conflict, almost inhabiting separate realities. The disjuncture felt intolerable.

The only thing it seemed one could do in the face of this surreal and seismic moment was to record and to document. While in the past, I had self-censored for fear of both state and familial backlash, in the aftermath of 5 August silence simply did not feel like an option. Encouraged by a friend, I began to write about the Pandit-Muslim impasse. As I tried to find a place from which to begin the narrative, it became clear that this would be a deeply personal essay, one in which I would draw from the difficult work of belatedly processing my father’s death 22 years earlier in order to reckon with the Pandit community’s trauma. In the piece I would suggest that, like personal pain and trauma, intergenerational Pandit trauma needed to be engaged with directly, with compassion and understanding. There was simply no other way forward.

India Must Stop Weaponizing the Pain of Kashmiri Pandits

Washington Post

22 August 2019

This month, the Indian government unilaterally abrogated Kashmir’s special status, in a move that disregarded multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, which call for

a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kashmir dispute. With this sleight of hand, the government has resuscitated an old strategy of instrumentalising the pain and loss of Kashmiri Pandits to legitimise its violence against Kashmiri Muslims.

As a Kashmiri Pandit, and first and foremost a Kashmiri, I unequivocally oppose this position. Kashmiri Pandits are a minority Hindu community who fled Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region controlled by India, in the wake of the 1989 armed insurgency against the Indian state. Official accounts of the number of displaced Kashmiri Pandits vary greatly, from 150,000 to 300,000 individuals, but arguments over these calculations of suffering obfuscate the deeper truth: The events of 1989 and those that followed have radically altered Kashmiri Pandits’ self-understanding and their relationship to Kashmiri Muslims. They have created a trauma that refuses to be buried and a rage that it is time to address.

I grew up in a family where this rage and trauma were visceral. Though we lived in the United States, Kashmir remained ever-present in our lives—in the lotus root and kohlrabi we cooked with asafoetida; in the mellifluous Koshur language which bound us intimately, not only with one another but also with Kashmiri Muslims, of whom I had only heard; and in my family’s stories about a vibrant home in Srinagar, the capital city. 

That home was, however, no longer ours. In 1997, with no sign of being able to return to Kashmir, my maternal grandfather reluctantly sold the house he had built 40 years earlier,

windowpane by windowpane, with the help of my grandmother and local labourers. In a conflict in which so many countless lives have been taken and so many others disappeared, it might be difficult to understand the significance of a single house.

However, losing our family home, 25 Balgarden, symbolised the loss of so much more. It was the loss of an identity, a history, one my family saw as being deliberately taken from them. This sense of loss and erasure is precisely what Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, forces have capitalised on since 1989. Rather than treating Kashmir as a political matter, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies have turned it primarily into a communal and economic one. They have stoked Kashmiri Pandits’ felt experience of injustice by pitting Pandit and Muslim suffering against each other. Current Hindutva strategies of divide and rule in Kashmir  echo techniques of imperial conquest which far precede the rise of the religious right wing in India. Such strategies were present during the pre-colonial period as well as following Indian independence, as the Congress party—now part of India’s opposition—played its part in systematically eroding Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, rigging elections, and splintering the political field. 

The BJP has however managed to push us to a precipice: it is using the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, in addition to arguments about ‘development’, to justify an undemocratic, illegal annexation of Indian-controlled Jammu & Kashmir and to instate one of India’s most severe sieges.

Given this historical backdrop, it is no surprise that the circumstances of the Pandit exodus have never been properly investigated. Nor is it surprising that Pandits feel such rage and lack of acknowledgment, even as consecutive governments parade their cause. To break out of one’s pain and suffering is difficult when that trauma remains bodily and psychically unprocessed, as has been the case for many Kashmiri Pandit families. It becomes nearly impossible when that trauma is made to do the dirty work of governments intent on maintaining territorial sovereignty at the cost of human lives, political freedom, and reconciliation. However, the way to address intergenerational Kashmiri Pandit pain is not through the oppression of Kashmiri Muslims.

The work ahead for Kashmiris is to change the scripts we have inherited. For decades, the loss and suffering of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims has been treated as a zero-sum game. Now, more than ever, young Kashmiris need to chart a path toward reconciliation, solidarity, and allyship with one another. We can begin by actively seeking out one another’s truths and stories; resisting statist manipulations of our suffering; and reading deeply and widely into Kashmir’s complex history. We can do so by calling out bigotry and hate in our families; denouncing Indian atrocities in Kashmir; and imagining a Kashmiri political community which accommodates and celebrates difference without simply being reduced to competing identity claims. Reaching beyond oneself may feel like a betrayal to our respective communities but it is not. It is the only path to our collective healing and freedom.

Although I had expected to encounter some inevitable criticism for my stance in the Op-ed, I did not expect the intensity of the reactions that emerged during the following weeks. In addition to the bots, trolls, and Facebook messages from strangers that simply said “shame on u,” one particular response in the Washington Post Comments section stayed with me:

This is clearly a case of a community child gone rogue. It is akin to a Jewish kid denying that holocaust [sic] ever happened. Perhaps a combination of psychological insecurities and low selfesteem drove this grown-up woman to desecrate the memory of her elders (Kashmiri Pandits) who were either killed, brutally savaged, or fled from the Islamic insurgency of 1989–1990 in Kashmir….Nishita, like the rest of us, will meet her Maker some day. I hope the ghosts of Pandit victims haunt her for the rest of her life.

Soon after seeing this comment I learnt the author’s identity, which he disclosed in an email written to the listserv of a US-based Kashmiri Pandit advocacy group. In the email, he encouraged other members of the group to “blitz” the Op-ed with reader responses before the Post closed the Comments section. It turned out his anger towards me was especially personal. A prominent elderly Kashmiri Pandit who lived in the United States, he had provided me with several important contacts in Kashmir for my maiden research trip to the region in 2006, as a college student. Thirteen years later, with no communication with each other in the interim, he expressed a sense of betrayal, “as if my own child has stabbed me in the back.”

Many Kashmiri Pandits who wrote to me conveyed this sense of betrayal—that my words had deeply hurt them, that I had minimised Kashmiri Pandit pain or suggested that Pandits should simply bury their trauma and move on. Besides, many suggested that I had no right to speak as a Kashmiri Pandit, especially on such a prominent forum, if I did not speak on behalf of the Kashmiri Pandit majority opinion (which, in my understanding, rejects any stance on Kashmir that does not name the Pandit exodus a premeditated ethnic cleansing/genocide). 

This anxiety to speak in one voice has meant that Kashmiri Pandits, especially female Kashmiri Pandits, who do not toe the community line are subject to vitriol, ad-hominem attacks, threats of “ex-communication,” and sometimes far worse. Importantly, these attacks are not only lodged by Hindutva trolls but also, as the small example above demonstrates, by Kashmiri Pandit men and women themselves.

It has given me no joy to observe the ways these vitriolic reactions have only confirmed one of the Op-ed’s principal arguments, that Kashmiri Pandit trauma is alive and well and must be grappled with. Crucially, however, my argument was not that such trauma can be neatly buried, nor that “burial” is necessarily the end goal or indeed desirable. If we know anything about trauma or about inter-community conflict, it is that repressing memories of violence and injury is never so simple. Rather, mine was a plea to find a way to one another again, to understand what we have lost, and what might yet remain for us to save.

The affective work required for this political and psychic healing—listening, empathising, and in the words of the scholar-translator, Sonam Kachru, à la Dina Nath Nadim, making human again does not sit well with the muscular nationalism that marks our contemporary political moment. However, the capacity to engage in this difficult work is surely within us.

Drawing on Nadim’s poetic invocation, “I’ve got to make humans of Hindus and Muslims again,” and his subsequent doubt, “Are even we human? Who says we are?” Kachru suggests that we think of being human as an “indefinite imperative, resisting the smug comforts of knowing or the despair of unknowing.” I see the work of healing and producing solidarity as lying in the interstices of this indefiniteness—of being willing to change our minds, of tolerating another’s repugnant viewpoint, of revising, and yes, betraying, our previous selves in the service of our shared humanity.

You’re fraught with words, better go sit in water;
For they swell with meaning and glow more in water.
Look for the heart in the chest and roast it on embers
Look for the blood in the liver and drink it in water.
Tomorrow Kashmir will stretch in the sun like a desert,
The day after Ladakh and Leh will float in water.
Under the hollow banks frightened waves take refuge;
Lord Jaldev is born with fire in water.
At midday, even the sun gets soaked in sweat;
At the end, even the moon catches fire in water.
Even in excitement, sometimes, people set towns on fire;
Even for fun, sometimes, people pour poison in water.
The lost cow is looking for the eleven-some, would someone
tell her?
Five drowned in dry land, six are aflame in water.
The peddler of ghazals, this Kamil, makes fiery calls
But the fate frost people are coldly sleeping in water.

—Amin Kamil, “In Water”


This is an edited excerpt from Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? Narratives of Resistance and Resilience, published with permission from Women Unlimited.