This essay was originally published in Boston Review
In his introduction to Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, Edward Said writes, “Palestine, after all, is no ordinary place.” This could also be said about Kashmir. As one of the most militarized regions in the world, Kashmir is no ordinary place. Three generations of Kashmiris have now lived under a brutal Indian military presence. Tear gas, torture, indiscriminate shootings, checkpoints, cordon-and-search operations, and curfews have all been deployed against Kashmiris to punish them for their ongoing resistance against the Indian state.
The erasure of Kashmiri people is most apparent in art that takes Kashmir as its subject.
Kashmir has had a long history of oppression. The Mughal army marched into the valley in 1586, following which the Afghans, the Sikhs, and finally the Dogras ruled a defiant Kashmir. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir’s sovereignty has only been further eroded. The two countries both laid claim to the Kashmir valley, resulting in war and a military occupation that continues to this day. In the 1990s, militants staged an armed uprising against the Indian state in Indian-occupied Kashmir. In turn, India launched a counterinsurgency operation by introducing emergency laws, heralding an era marked by extrajudicial killings, torture chambers, massacres, and the suspension of civil liberties. While armed militancy has been on the decline since the 1990s, a strong people’s resistance has gathered momentum in its place. 2010 saw one of the largest anti-India protests, with Kashmiris taking to the streets in large numbers to demand freedom. Last summer, Kashmiris lived under more than 100 days of intermittent curfews and unrest for protesting the Indian army’s execution of the militant commander, Burhan Wani. The Indian state has responded with militaristic force, killing civilians and breaking up protests with pellet guns that left hundreds of Kashmiri youth blind.
The writing of history in Kashmir is controlled primarily by India. Nowhere else does the state expend as much energy in shaping the narrative in its own favor. This history, which casts India as the moral heir to Kashmir and Pakistan as the aggressor, is predicated on the silencing and erasure of the Kashmiri people and their struggle.
This erasure is perhaps most apparent in the long history of artistic representations of Kashmir. Whether in Mughal miniatures or European orientalist paintings, the focus has always been on depicting Kashmir’s natural beauty without any of its people. Mridu Rai writes in her 2004 book, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects, that Kashmiris have always been considered a “waste in paint.” Frequently described in colonial accounts as “despicable creatures,” Kashmiris have been rendered unworthy of their paradise, and moreover, unreliable narrators of their own history. Meanwhile, the excessive emphasis on Kashmir’s fabled beauty has erased the reality of oppression and tamed its history of resistance.
Addressing this representational vacuum, Witness: Kashmir 1986–2016/Nine Photographers, showcases the work of nine Kashmiri photographers—Meraj Ud Din, Javeed Shah, Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Showkat Nanda, Altaf Qadri, Syed Shahriyar, Sumit Dayal, and Azaan Shah—who document the Indian state’s relentless role in the obstruction of Kashmir’s self-determination. Curated by Sanjay Kak, the book comprises two hundred photographs and a thirty-year history of overwhelming Indian military presence in the Kashmir valley from 1986 to 2016. It arrives at a critical moment amidst the noise of Indian nationalism and increasing violence in the valley. Its two hundred images are an act of witness, placing emphasis on Kashmiris as interlocutors, chronicling the continued siege of their home through photographs.
How does memory work under militarization?
Kak returns to a familiar question, one that has occupied him since his documentary film, Jashn-e-Azadi(How We Celebrate Freedom) was released in 2007. He asks, “What does it mean to witness the continuing trauma of Kashmir, in a state of an insurgency of varying intensity since 1989 and with some 600,000 troops maintaining a regime of impunity, where truth is buried deep every day, and in ever more complicated ways?” One might add to that: how do you begin to record and retell these stories? How many stories, photographs, and voices do we need to narrate this trauma? How can multiple, contradictory, and irreconcilable emotions of loss be explained? In Witness, Kak turns to the biographies and the lived experiences of the men who are both children of and witness to the conflict.
Explaining how the book was conceived, Kak notes that the public memory of Kashmir in the 1990s is chimerical, often “diffused and disappear[ing] like smoke.” In the midst of an overwhelming military presence, how do Kashmiris tell their stories? How do they untangle their everyday existences under curfew from the larger calamities of history? How does memory work under militarization?
Witness opens by defining the Urdu word shaheed as both the witness and as the martyr. Reminiscent of Kashmir’s foremost modern poet, Agha Shahid Ali, whose poems narrate the death and destruction of the 90s through various characters, and placing himself, within the poem's narrative. His name Shahid means, “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.” Sanjay Kak begins to answer complex questions of history and memory by placing these photographers’ biography and their images at the heart of the narrative. The photographers, like Shahid Ali, become the witnesses, martyrs, and the beloved each of these roles connected by the act of remembering.Shaheed spread for BostonReview_with centre line (1)
Witness opens with the photographer Meraj Ud Din and closes with Azaan Shah. It does not follow a historical timeline; instead, as Kak says, the “photo-book is primarily a timeline of emotions or feelings than a timeline of history,” arranged in the order of the photographer’s age. The nine photographers are Kashmiris who have lived in the Kashmir valley for much of their lives, with the exception of Sumit Dayal, who left Kashmir as a child and calls his photographs a return home.
The images in the book demand that the viewer confront the realities of occupation—broken windows, broken bodies, burning fields, and boys as young as eight facing a powerful territorial army with only sticks and stones. There is an immense sadness that pervades the book, along with moments of anger, courage, and a hunger for freedom. The text itself, which functions as a pause or a breather, narrates how these men became photographers under extraordinary circumstances, and what it means to become a witness and then a storyteller under the purview of immense violence and loss. Altaf Qadri, now a photojournalist with the Associated Press and twice the winner of the World Press Photo Award, only became a photographer after the Indian Border Security Forces used him as a human shield. Qadri was barely twenty when the incident occurred in 1996. Narrating it almost twenty years later, he describes the fear, humiliation and helplessness that stayed with him. As he tells it, his images are an instrument of veracity, documenting the sheer scale of what Kashmiris experience in a state of perpetual war.
The book functions as an archive, a visual testimony, and an indictment of state brutality. It reads like a personal album made by excavating public memory. The organizing motif that runs through its images is one of disappearance. In a society remade by state violence, erasure happens at the very level of reality. In 2009, Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir, a report published by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK), reported that “Between 1989-2009, the actions of India’s military and paramilitary forces in Kashmir have resulted in 8,000+ enforced and involuntary disappearances and 70,000+ deaths, including through extrajudicial or fake encounter executions, custodial brutality, and other means. Lawyers have reportedly filed 15,000 petitions since 1990, inquiring, largely unsuccessfully, into the location and health of detainees and the charges against them.”
In Witness, both the image and text work together to tell elaborate stories. Sanjay Kak’s profile of the photographers goes beyond provoking momentary horror or the illusion of human resilience. Instead he places their images in the larger context of history. The text ventures into the ambiguities, it critiques the constant political demands placed on Kashmiris to justify their demands for freedom, and more crucially it confronts the problem of the political head on. Above all, it interrogates the meaning of bearing witness. It does not place the years of violence in the realm of the unspeakable. Rather, the stories are explicitly told through narrators with a voice and agency. It does not confer the images of suffering with mythical qualities of artifice. Instead its images act as a slice of memory and a part of history waiting to be footnoted.
Showkat Nanda, a photographer, featured in the book describes the moment when a twelve-year-old boy lay in his arms, wounded after violent clashes with the paramilitary forces at the cement bridge in Baramulla. Nanda narrates with excruciating agony as he helplessly witnessed the boy die before him, “his life slipping away one breath at a time.” As Nanda held the dead boy, he heard chants being raised around him proclaiming the boy as a martyr. Seeing another unnamed child robbed of life, he began to question the nature of photojournalism, and its claims to neutrality while bearing witness. Being paralyzed by fear, unable to move and amidst absolute powerlessness, he saw another young boy, a friend of the dead boy, running towards the soldiers alone, throwing stones at the armored vehicles without fear. Nanda writes, “In those moments I simultaneously witnessed the death of innocence and the birth of defiance.” When you turn the page after reading Nanda’s account, you see an iconic image of that little boy alone on the streets surrounded by debris, hurling a stone at a large armored vehicle. That image is a David and Goliath story, the story of Nanda, the dead boy and the boy throwing rocks.
Photographs and visual memory don’t exist in a vacuum. They are always mediated, and complicated by the existing power dynamic between the state and the people. Images become negotiations of power; they function not just to counter the state’s history, but to present a Kashmiri version of history.
In the last thirty years, Kashmiris have systematically destroyed their family albums. During the height of the insurgency of the 1990s, the first thing the Indian military did was to confiscate personal photographs and family albums as means of finding young men who had left for Pakistan. A picture of a young man wearing a Pakistani cricket cap or jersey could immediately mean indefinite detention, custodial interrogation, and sometimes forced disappearance and death. During this period, Kashmiris systematically destroyed their family albums out of fear that their photographs would be used against them.
In August 2014 I travelled to the border town of Uri while researching my upcoming book, Borderlands. After being detained at one of the checkpoints for over two hours, I made my way to one of the villages closest to the Line of Control. I had called the family I was supposed to interview two weeks earlier from Srinagar. Their initial willingness to speak had changed in person. The meeting lasted an hour, but the family refused to talk. They seemed anxious, afraid, and apologetic. When I concluded the interview, they asked me to stay a little longer for tea. As I sipped my tea, the family’s matriarch brought an old notebook that had been turned into a photo album. She had begun pasting photographs from the newspapers into this notebook in the 1990s. During the cordon-and-search operations of the insurgency, the military had raided their house and found photographs of her son with his friends. The military had accused him and his friends of being militants and dragged him away. After the incident the family had quietly collected all their photographs and albums and burned them.
Kashmiris have systematically destroyed their family albums out of fear that their photographs would be used against them. Now they make albums out of newspaper clippings.
Soon after, the matriarch began collecting clippings from newspapers. When I asked what had happened to her son, she winced and said, “He never came back.” When denied their family records, Kashmiris made albums out of photos from the newspapers. Since private lives were relentlessly surveilled, press images came to be owned by the entire community. They replaced memories that were systematically co-opted. Public images began to bear the weight of collective remembrance and grief. Unwittingly, these placeholders of memory were transformed into covert acts of resistance and sustenance.
Similarly in the 1990s, newspapers functioned as death telegrams. During the height of the insurgency, the local Kashmiri newspapers carried images of men and women, sometimes passport-sized images, and other times images of dead bodies. Families often found out about the deaths of their loves ones through these newspapers. The faces of the dead were printed side by side on a grid—either on the street, shot by the state, or in prisons and interrogation chambers. The photographs were tightly packed; there was no room for names or obituaries. Just page after page of black and white images, like a catacomb of photographs.
Sanjay Kak narrates how Syed Shahriyar, one of the younger contributors to Witness, became a photographer. His journey began with a scrapbook made up of hundreds of clippings from the local papers and organized into an oversized sketchpad. He began by collecting everything relating to the protests. When he was done, he realized that only pictures remained of the protests. He took his album as a sign. The next day, armed with a camera, he headed to photograph the Friday prayers that were followed by protests.
Kirsten Emiko McAllister writes about images recorded in Japanese Canadian internment camps during World War II. “Even though the government confiscated their cameras, internees illicitly took hundreds of photographs with smuggled camera.” Reviewing the book, Christina Schwenkel observes that images of the internment documented by the internees “differed considerably in both form and content from state-produced photographic records.” Schwenkel summarizes McAllister two important observations. First, the images produced at the behest of the state were used to “discursively construct and control ‘deviant subjects’ in modern populations”. Second, photography by the detainees “during internment demonstrates photographic practice as resistance and an expression of desire for social and familial continuity; it also reveals particular experiences of social death and alienation after enduring forced relocation and even family separation.”
The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) brings together families of those have gone missing as a result of enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Every month the families of the disappeared gather to mourn, protest, and commemorate the disappearances of their loved ones. APDP uses the photographs of the disappeared to mark their protests. The photographs of the disappeared are held by the family members and displayed. Deepti Misri, in her book Beyond Partition argues that, “Like the mothers of the Argentine movement against disappearance, APDP members use photographs as ‘a kind of proof’ in the face of the state’s denials.”
In Kashmir, photographs play a similar role. They function to affirm the existence of Kashmiri political selfhood. The self is often the first to get eroded under military occupation. The obsessive need to document the self comes from this affirmation of the political; it signals to the world that we exist and that we are the gatekeepers of our memory.
A photograph can possess many destinies. It can become an argument, a memory, a souvenir of resistance, an object of mourning, and sometimes the last challenge against an oppressive history. In Kashmir, it is evidence of the crimes of occupation and militarization, and of Kashmiris reaffirming their existence. Photographs here have no inherent grammar, except to confirm the history of struggle, dispossession, and the constant demand for freedom.