MB: Many congratulations on the publication of the book. What inspired you to pursue this project?
SH: Thank you for your congratulations. My interest in pursuing the post-1947 history of Kashmir flows directly from my personal experiences. I was born and raised in war-torn Kashmir and came of age at a time when the Kashmiri rebellion against India was at its height. I lived through endless curfews and crackdowns. These experiences inspired me to search for the historical roots of the present turmoil in Kashmir. As I started reading scholarly works on Kashmir, I observed that ideas of territoriality, state sovereignty, and national security have dominated the conversations on Kashmir while the thwarted aspirations of Kashmiris have been overlooked. My book fills this gap by bringing Kashmiris from the margins to the center of the historical debate. It engages with historical forces, political players, and social structures to reveal the myriad Kashmiri imaginings of freedom. My work examines how Kashmiris remained active participants instead of powerless spectators in the political drama unfolding in their homeland and actively constructed their own socio-political identities.
MB: The key argument of the book is that territorial nationalism and the unitary form of sovereignty adopted by the postcolonial states of India and Pakistan meant that the retention of Kashmir became indispensable to the national identities of both nation-states. What are the implications of adopting this form of framework for people within and outside of Kashmir?
SH: The concepts of territorialization, indivisible sovereignty, and the model of a centralized nation state that India and Pakistan embraced at the moment of decolonization have had massive repercussions not just in Kashmir, but also in Manipur, Punjab, Nagaland, Assam, Sind, Baluchistan, and so on. After decolonization, India and Pakistan’s nation-building project of assimilation and integration brought ‘peripheral’ regions, like Kashmir, into the larger national whole, while suppressing a range of voices that resist being stitched into the fabric of the nation-state. The production of territorial sovereignty was accompanied by politics of violence, and the nation-states used colonial coercive tools, that the British had once used against them to suppress linguistic aspirations, religiously informed cultural identities, and political dissent. The authoritarianism of the nation-states crushed people's aspirations and the social and economic inequities endured by these various regional, linguistic, and ethnic communities as a part of the centralized nation-state enhanced feelings of exclusion and marginalization.
In the case of India-administered Kashmir, its Muslim-majority character and its disputed status adds a layer of complexity. For Indian nationalists, territorialization in Kashmir is a sacred enterprise. The map of India is symbolic of the divine form of a Hindu mother goddess. In their perceptions, every inch of Indian territory is sacred, reinforcing territorialism and thus embedding“Kashmir” in the Indian nationalist imagination as an integral part of the nation-state’s representation, the core of their identity, and hence a non-negotiable issue. Kashmir is also wedded to the national pride of Pakistan which claims Kashmir on religious grounds. However, Kashmiri imaginings of freedom have not been limited by the borders sketched by the nation-states but have long spilled outside its territorial contours, challenging imposed notions of sovereignty. In the process, Kashmiri voices of resistance created their own perceptions of territoriality. My work emphasizes that to bring any semblance of stability in the region, it is imperative to dismantle all forms of nationalism—Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri—and take a novel approach, one that neither replicates the territorialization of the nation-states nor seeks to erase differences for the sake of sameness. It is time to reengage with the shared notions of sovereignty that existed before British colonization and come up with new political arrangements that align with the regional specificities of the subcontinent.
MB: In a way, writing histories of contested regions and excavating stories under the palimpsest of official narratives requires a redefinition of the archive itself. How did you overcome the challenge of encountering silences and occlusions in the archival record?
SH: One of the most challenging aspects of writing the post-partition history of Kashmir was the access to the Indian national or regional archives was limited due to Kashmir being considered a national security issue between India and Pakistan. Furthermore, archives are spaces of power and highlight certain narratives. To overcome these challenges, I reached out to Kashmiri literati, leaders, and activists across the India-Pakistan divide and in the larger Kashmiri diaspora to access their private archives and weave conflicting and contradictory voices into the narrative on Kashmir. Furthermore, in societies where political persecution is rampant, people do not express their views freely and openly. Thus, Kashmiri literary works including poetry, novels, and short stories became a powerful medium to grasp Kashmiri psyches. The conversations I had with the British Kashmiri diaspora made me differentiate between political and cultural understandings of Kashmiri identity. I read declassified files not just to get the state version of events, but as a repository of popular voices to understand how “Kashmir” is constructed and imagined in nationalist imaginations.
MB: In Chapter 1, you provide a genealogy of the idea of freedom in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, and how it evolves over time and is in dialogue with global developments like communism. How does this global lens add to our understanding of intellectual and political history in the age of decolonization?
SH: In the age of decolonization, the local adaptations of international ideologies of communism and socialism are critical in understanding the political positions of Kashmiri leaders and how they envisioned ‘freedom.’ In the 1940s, Kashmiri leaders, intellectuals, and poets weaved socialist and communist ideas into their discourses on economic emancipation, presenting a vision of a free and prosperous Kashmir, which mesmerized the ordinary peasantry. The communist influence, most visible in the Naya Kashmir (New Kashmir) manifesto of the populist National Conference provided a blueprint for a free Kashmir, which would erase the feudal structures, especially land grants. It promised that land would be taken away from landlords without compensation and distributed among peasants. Community gatherings around shrines or religious fairs became an important medium for making economic freedom a part of the public dialogue. Literary discourse in Kashmir centered on economic disparities and social discontent, imploring Kashmiris to end the feudal hierarchies that separated the rich from the poor. This vision of economic emancipation increased the popularity of Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference among the peasantry, as compared to the Muslim Conference which stood for protecting Muslim communitarian interests.
The communist influence not only shaped Kashmiri's ideas of freedom but also defined the political postures of Kashmiri leaders in the critical months leading to 1947. A strand of Kashmiri nationalists, inspired by the communists also adopted a position of neutrality towards the Congress and the Muslim League. They championed the popular regional urges and emphasized the importance of the right to self-determination for all nationalities inhabiting India. However, once it became inevitable that the subcontinent would be partitioned, and the events that followed the tribal invasion, Kashmiri nationalists like Abdullah decided to support Kashmir’s provisional accession to India. Even this decision of Kashmiri nationalists was primarily driven by the hope that Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist India would provide a space for the revolutionary ideas embedded in the Naya Kashmir manifesto to become a reality. These international ideas significantly shaped Kashmiri visions of freedom before the decolonization of the subcontinent.
MB: The notion of “Kashmiriyat” has been a common invocation in public discourse. You offer a new interpretation of Kashmiriyat by incorporating the history of diasporic Kashmiris into your account. Could you tell us more about the process of reconstructing these diasporic networks and their relationship with leadership in Kashmir?
SH: Scholarship on post-1947 Kashmir has primarily focused on the region from within the territorial contours of the South Asian subcontinent. Kashmiriness (Kashmiriyat) is defined in cultural terms and is associated with only those who speak Koshur and are based in the Valley. As I started engaging with Kashmiri voices who have shaped Kashmiri resistance, both during the Dogra Raj and in post-partition Kashmir, I observed that the concept of Kashmiriyat was not monolithic. To begin with, “Kashmiri-ness,” crucially, was never restricted to inhabitants of the Valley but included expatriates who retained an emotional attachment to Kashmir and called themselves Kashmiris. The association of Kashmiri Muslims based in Lahore in shaping Kashmiri mobilization during the Dogra Raj cannot be underestimated. Once we shift our attention to post-1947 Kashmir, the voices of resistance on both sides of the cease-fire line are critical in shaping Kashmiri imaginings of freedom.
As I started following the footprints of Kashmiri voices of resistance, I noticed that such voices are not limited to the valley or Pakistan-administered Kashmir, but extended to the industrial towns of Birmingham, Luton, and Bradford in Britain. Here I came across the diaspora who had migrated from Pakistan-administered Kashmir and spoke Pahari. They proudly called themselves Kashmiris and expressed deep attachment to the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Their transnational interactions with the homeland complicate the category of Kashmiriyat. For expatriates, the significance of belonging to Kashmir and being Kashmiri transcends prevalent cultural and territorial definitions of identity and refers primarily to an emotive attachment to a homeland. These diasporic groups provided visibility to Kashmir in the international arena. Some like the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front formed in Birmingham in 1977 with transnational links with the homeland, initiated the armed resistance in the valley, while the internationalist Marxist dimension of Kashmir resistance redefined self-determination and situated Kashmir’s freedom with global issues such as racism and the anti-colonial struggles embedded in the power dynamics of capitalism and imperialism. In expanding the definition of Kashmiriness to the diasporic space my work emphasizes that in the post-1947 era, “Kashmir” has not been just a territorial space but a political imaginary, a vision that grounds Kashmiris in their negotiations for rights not only in India and Pakistan but also in global cultural and political spaces.
MB: In the chapter ‘Puppet Regimes, you address very crucial themes of a state-led modernization project which results in massive changes in social structure and leads to new cleavages in Kashmiri society, including general disdain for ‘secularism’ and ‘modernity’. How does this inform ideas of political belonging in this period? Also, what do we know about the impact of these modernizing projects on the environment of Kashmir?
SH: The chapter on “Puppet Regimes” provides critical insights into how the imposition of a New Delhi–sponsored regime in the early 1950s to integrate Kashmir transformed Kashmir’s political economy and drove the cultural transformation of urban Kashmir. Because the pliant regime put in power by India in 1953 required legitimization, the central government stepped up economic development in the region to demonstrate the benefits of a close relationship with India. The new class of collaborators accepted liberal financial aid as the price of integration; generous grants and subsidies provided by India while seemingly endless, became concentrated in the hands of few, while ordinary Kashmiris felt the brunt of income inequality and social segregation. The state-sponspored regimes created a broad support base using new machinery of political and economic rewards to gain administrative acceptability. To further integrate, Kashmiri collaborators, spread the doctrine of secularism in the hope of bringing Kashmiris culturally closer to India through accelerated political and financial integration. Thus, in Kashmir, the secularism of the modern nation-state was a closed ideology imposed from above to bring Kashmiris into the national mainstream.
Kashmiri society responded in different ways to this political moment. A new class of nouveau riche that had emerged in urban Srinagar, benefitted from closer political and economic ties with India, embraced “secularism” and showed disdain for religious beliefs, values, and ethics, that had sustained Kashmiri society. These Kashmiri collaborators remained loyal to Indian policies in Kashmir and protected the puppet regime against popular condemnation. However, the excluded Muslim majority denied a share in patronage networks equated secularism and modernity propagated by the ruling elites with a culture of urban degradation and considered secularism a threat to their religiously informed cultural identity.
Kashmiri voices of resistance suffered beatings and arrests in their struggle for Kashmiri self-determination. Many Kashmiri literati and thinkers considered the moral compromise of the Kashmiri collaborators as the psychological moment of their defeat by a system deliberately set in motion to destroy their Muslim identity. Fierce internal debates broke out among the Muslim community over definitions of modernity and secularism. Rural elite and lower middle classes both in urban and rural Kashmir who had felt economically excluded and socially deprived embraced an Islamist ideology that brought them closer to political Islam. They were convinced that an Islamist alternative was most viable. Indeed, the state-led modernization project not only shaped the question of political belonging but also left a negative impact on Kashmir’s environment. Corruption damaged Kashmir’s natural resources. Forests were exploited for debt servicing, while many development projects polluted Kashmir’s air, water, and soil.
MB: Might we know what your next project is?
SH: I am working on two new projects. For one project I am writing about the broader themes of land laws, property, and displacement in Kashmir, while the other is an oral history project, supported by the Russell Sage Foundation. This second project is about the South Asian low-wage immigrants in New York. I am creating an oral history archive and documenting the experiences of first-generation Nepali, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi immigrants who contribute to the service sector economy of the United States.
Shahla Hussain is an Associate Professor of South Asian History at St. John’s University. Her research interests include themes of colonialism, decolonization, diaspora studies, and migrations. Her book Kashmir in the Aftermath of Partition (Cambridge University Press, 2021) has been awarded the John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History by the American Historical Association and the Berkshires Women Historians Book Prize.