My parents always complained that my PhD took too long. In 2013, I was registered in Political Science in one of the central universities of Delhi, but my family constantly complained: "All your friends from school and college have a job but look at you. You are still studying." When I finally submitted my dissertation, it was under great stress; they weren't sure I would complete it.
I worked on the gendered contours of militarized control in Kashmir, the specific ways in which women face violence from armed soldiers, and multiple forms of their resistance embedded in the everyday. For me, this was a personal-political commitment. I am a Kashmiri woman born in 1989, the year when armed conflict with popular support erupted in the valley against Indian rule. To grow up in Kashmir is to be raised in a situation devoid of normalcy; extra-judicial killings and brutal repression were the 'norm'. The constant military gaze defined my movement on the streets of the place I called home. Every day was a struggle between memory, institutionalised forgetfulness seeking erasure of our particular history, and the demand for a right to self-determination.
Since 1947 when the subcontinent was partitioned, Kashmir has found itself subservient to the post-colonial nation-building processes in South Asia, so much so that the focus on territoriality has almost always subsumed the centrality of Kashmiris to the conflict. Post 1980s when an armed struggle against India’s military occupation took hold in Kashmir, the response was a brutal counter-insurgency operation where people’s very homes and bodies were converted into a battlefield. Human rights groups note that 70000 to 100,000 people were killed and over 8000 subjected to enforced disappearance. Home then has been a fragmented story of killings, torture, enforced disappearances, mass blinding and sexual violence, with people rejecting Indian State control over their territory, their spaces, and their bodies.
After submitting my PhD thesis, my parents eagerly awaited the thesis defence. At times, their constant enquiries made me ignore their calls for days together. It all took too long. Finally, when it was scheduled for August 6, the worst happened. Just the day before, India announced abrogation of Article 370 of its Constitution which gave ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir that had temporarily acceded to it in 1947 until a plebiscite could be held for people to determine their future. Article 370 had provided some semblance of legality to the relationship between the two. So, late night on 4 August, India's idea to bring Kashmir ino its mainstream saw curfew being declared, more troop deployment in addition to the seven hundred thousand already stationed there, and all forms of communication including landlines, mobile phones, and internet suspended. All of us outside Kashmir felt deeply concerned for everyone back home. With no news coming out from Kashmir, we feared the worst, as we have known armed soldiers who commit violence with impunity.
But on the morning I went to defend my thesis, I wasn’t at all nervous about that. I had worked on it for five years, hearing women's testimonies of violence and resilience. I knew those stories well enough. But I was in a state of severe anxiety due to the situation back home. Up till five minutes before I was to start, I called my mother. Repeatedly. It never did connect. The minute my viva ended and I was declared to have successfully defended my work, I called again. I wanted to scream in relief and say, "You always wondered when this would be done. Here it is." But who could I say it to? Then I wondered – for people subjected to such harsh everyday realities, why should they care?
On 8 August, news reports in the Indian media noted how the public discourse was full of references to 'white skinned Kashmiri women' and Indians' desire to marry them now that Article 370 was gone. This takes me back to my research, of how the gendered workings of a military structure seep into the societal fabric. The insecurity felt by Kashmiri women thanks to the presence of a million Indian soldiers on their streets, is now reflected in how Indian men discuss 'controlling' and 'owning' them.
India's attempts to ‘integrate’ Kashmir have deployed sexual violence as an important feature of coercion. Women, seen as the honour of the Kashmiri community in this patriarchal discourse, are attacked to break the collective will of a population seeking their right to self-determination. But despite such violent marking of their bodies, Kashmiri women have not been deterred, rather they have converted their response into militant marches against India's military occupation.
Ten days after the siege, I spoke to someone from family for the first time on the morning of 14 August. My brother called. This was the conversation:
Him: We all are fine here. How are you?
Me: I am okay. Where are you calling from?
Him: District Police Lines
Me: Don’t bother with going there again. We can stay without talking but you don’t have to seek their help.
With that, our 30 seconds of allotted time were over and the call got disconnected. All I could feel was rage. That the Indian state even controlled how we spoke to our families and for what duration, so intrinsic to its control of the territory is the need to regulate Kashmiri lives. How could one not feel absolutely outraged at such a show of power? I wanted to resist that sense of powerlessness. But I was close to a breakdown. It has been so overwhelming.
Then I am reminded of all the Kashmiri women who made my research possible, their stories of survival and resilience, of brutal hope amidst despair. They give me strength, and hope to believe that this too shall pass. That as we have done we all these decades, we will face a brutal military occupation that has relied on dehumanizing and dispossessing us of our basic rights to a dignified life – with dignity.