An interview with Mona Bhan, the author of Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India


Nawaz Gul Qanungo (NGQ): India and Pakistan committed serious ceasefire violations along Kashmir’s Line of Control (LoC) in 2013. Given the paucity of media coverage and the absence of independent sources, you’ve continued to have doubts over what was really happening between the two armies and why. Having spent years near the LoC and witnessed such escalations first hand, what are your impressions, and how do you see the recent escalations?

Mona Bhan (MB): Violent skirmishes are one way borders are made. In Kargil, routinised, albeit theatrical, events both justify the military’s presence on the borders as well as transform spaces and places into national territory. In a region where borders are impossible to define – physically as well as socially and culturally – states resort to violence to ‘make’ borders. This can include shelling or even beheadings – both overt displays of state power and the ways states assert their sovereignty. So, while the brutality of such incidents is inexplicable, what is clear is the way statist media has used – and continues to use – these events to represent the ‘enemy nation’ as savage, barbaric and inhuman, characterisations that play a critical role in sustaining institutions of war and violence.

In Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India, instead of emphasising the geopolitical triggers behind cross-border ‘skirmishes’ (a word that I think trivialises the lived experience of cross-border violence), I talk about how village communities in Kargil view cross-border shelling: in their view, the intensive shelling during and after the Kargil war ‘brought the border closer’ since their access to highland pastures and other resources became severely limited. The border seemed closer in 1999 also because, unlike in previous wars in which technology wasn’t as developed, new and sophisticated weaponry had collapsed the distance between ‘home’ and ‘battlefront’. For many who seemed accustomed to such incidents, shelling was also seen as a way soldiers across the border announced their presence in order to prevent ‘cross-border infiltrations’. Sometimes, cross-border shelling was seen as a ‘play’ between men who were excited to use their weapons or were simply bored. In other words, contrary to media representations that use such incidents to shore up nationalist fervour and generate support for aggressive foreign policies, for people on the border, such incidents – to an extent – depict the banality, and the boredom, of serving on the LoC.

NGQ: What are the meeting points between people’s daily lives and the overwhelming levels of militarisation in Kargil and its surroundings that you talk about in the book? What kind of an interface are we looking at?

MB: There’s an intense militarisation of life on the border, which means the military has become part of people’s everyday life – from less organised activities like going to the army canteen to buy toothpaste or soap to more structured events in which the military organises bada khana for villagers to ‘hear out their grievances’. Soon after the war of 1999, the economy also shifted dramatically. The transformation of people from shepherds (pajlus) to porters has been noticeable, a shift that has disrupted the existing division of labour between men and women, and thereby transformed existing codes of masculinity. All of this has become even more pronounced within the context of the Indian Army’s Operation Sadhbhavna (Goodwill), a counterinsurgency strategy branded as ‘heart warfare’.

During the Kargil war, the Indian army recruited local men to fight. For many young men, fighting the war was a rite of passage into adulthood and many were hired under the false pretext that their wartime enlistment was permanent, the hoax being part of a wider corpus of military stratagems that allowed the systemic exploitation of Ladakhi bodies and landscapes, creating a sustained and permanent geography of sacrifice on the border.

Scholars who study war up close will tell you that the lines between war and peace are blurred; this is instantiated most clearly in Kargil where an economy geared toward war and war preparation has energised the military as an institution since the 1940s. There are villagers who are forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in safer areas. For instance, many folks from Kaksar live as refugees in Kargil. A villager once told me how being a border resident was even worse than being a beggar. Moreover, the intensification of conflict often also leads to the reinforcement of troops and weapons, transformation of local land for military use, and increased emphasis on defence and national security. These are all state imperatives that have disempowered democracy and rendered it profoundly ineffective. In Drass, for instance, people are yet to receive compensation for land that the military occupied in 1999. Likewise, Brogpas cannot access many of their highland pastures. Like many of their counterparts in Kargil they are still demanding compensation for their occupied land and resources.

NGQ: After the Kargil war, there has been a rigorous, concerted effort of what you describe as making the Kargilis ‘active stakeholders’ in the long-term peace, stability and development of the region. Prominent in this has been the creation of the Autonomous Hill Development Council with an aim to decentralise political power within the state. The state considers it ‘critical to integrate’ the population fully into the ‘national mainstream’. At the same time, there is the overwhelming anti-India and pro-Independence sentiment among Kashmiris who would imagine Kargilis as being on ‘their side’ – something that the Indian nationalist discourse never fails to challenge by attempting to project the Shia Muslims (in the majority in Kargil) as a community at loggerheads with the larger Sunni majority. How do you see this ‘integration into the national mainstream’ with regard to the demand of independence playing out in Kargil in the longer run?

MB: The Hill Council is ‘democratic’ only to the extent that it relies on formal procedures of democracy – elections, constituencies, campaigning, etc. – for its functioning and legitimacy. Indeed, any democracy that privileges the narrow statist agendas of ‘security’ and ‘integration’ can hardly bring about substantive and meaningful political transformation. And, unless the Kashmir issue is resolved in accordance with people’s aspirations, hill councils and other such initiatives in border areas will be less about extending democracy and more about disciplining populations through various political experiments. Unfortunately, the kind of democracy we have is one in which myopic security interests always trump healthy political alternatives or a robust political will. A case in point is the recent Aam Aadmi Party fiasco in which holding a referendum to reduce the military’s presence in Kashmir was immediately denounced by the party.

In order to fully grasp the regional complexities in Jammu & Kashmir – without resorting to hegemonic tropes that use ideological and regional differences between Shias and Sunnis to undermine the struggle for self-determination – we need to consider the ways Kargilis have been fighting their own real battles, like the one related to the region’s connectivity, especially during winter months, or the battle for self-realisation via dignified work.

Apart from material grievances, I see the struggle of Kargilis as a fundamental quest for pride and dignity, an aspiration to restore their rights and make their voices count in a political context in which Kargil’s image is that of an unforgiving battlefield, a place devoid of people, culture, and civilisation, where the only sign of human life perhaps is the image of an Indian soldier tirelessly guarding the nation’s cold and rugged frontier.

Now, while these struggles might seem unrelated to the pursuit of azadi, Kargilis have suffered immensely because of nationalist agendas to carve out borders and divide families, friends and neighbours. Therefore, while Kargili struggles cannot be entirely reduced to Kashmiri aspirations of azadi, they are not entirely divorced from it. Any attempt to uncritically promote national integrationist agendas in Kargil often represent it as India’s backward and neglected periphery, a construction that deprives Kargilis of their very rich and complex history and undermines their ongoing struggles for reimagining territory and sovereignty.

Critical scholarship on the region has shown us how Kargil was not always ‘remote’ or ‘peripheral’. These are ideological labels that have become synonymous with Kargil and profoundly shape local struggles for dignity and self-respect. Until the 20th century, Kargil was often referred to as a ‘delightful oasis’ where travellers and traders experienced a welcome break from the tedium of an otherwise harsh landscape. Unlike the past, however, when Kargil was a centre of bustling trade connecting people and places, the only road that now connects Kargil with Kashmir is the National Highway 1, which was built predominantly to sustain the Indian military’s continued and easy access to an important and strategic border zone in the 1960s amid rising fears that China had already built roads to connect Xinjiang with Western Tibet.

From 1947 onwards, a spate of border wars between India and Pakistan over the status of Jammu & Kashmir militarised Kargil profoundly, contributing to Kargil’s image as a politically unstable periphery. Kargilis have long demanded the restoration of their connections with places, family and friends that the LoC so violently disrupted. For them, reclaiming past connections and histories that defy nationally scripted boundaries is a deeply felt aspiration, and Kargilis do this through music, poetry, memorialisation projects, and – when possible – travelling across borders to reconnect with people and places.

NGQ: You talk about India’s need to ‘secure the loyalties’ of people at the borders. One also understands from your book that there was no such need when there was no war. While you seem to doubt the ‘hegemonic narrative of India’s unequivocal victory in 1999’, is India today winning what it calls ‘heart warfare’ with populations at its borders and elsewhere? And how do you see the future of this warfare in Kashmir at large?

MB: The governance initiatives of the state and the military in Kargil are based on the fundamental assumption of disloyalty. As I said before, the pursuit of national security is deeply tied to securing, fixing and deepening people’s ‘loyalties’ to the nation state. Disloyalty does not always mean resorting to violent activities against the state (we don’t see any anti-state violence in Kargil). Disloyalty is a profoundly ideological term that can mean different things at different times and is therefore used to justify a range of governance/surveillance initiatives by the state. Disloyalty could also mean sharing affective, emotional ties with people across the border. It could mean asking for peace when national politics is hawkish and combative. It could also mean speaking the same language or performing the same rituals that your counterparts across the border speak or celebrate.

Many Kargilis in Gurgurdho, a border village in Kargil, told me how the Indian military thought the villagers were communicating with Pakistani villagers the night of Shab-e-Baraat when they lit up their homes to mark an important day on the lunar calendar. Likewise, the military officials I interviewed expressed concern about ‘latent’ but ‘deep’ religious and affective cross-border connections that could ignite into inflammatory anti-India politics if ‘adequate’ steps were not taken to ensure people’s ‘loyalties’. Of course, what they mean by ‘fixing loyalties’ is to ensure that people feel no cross-border allegiance and are willing to kill and die for the country. Indeed, a large emphasis in my book is on the category of ‘incipient terrorism’, a term that one Lt General Arjun Ray borrowed from the US’s counterinsurgency vocabulary to justify, and extend, the military’s reach into civilian life; it is a term that makes ‘latent disloyalties’ in people (however this is mapped and measured) a legitimate reason for military action. Calling threats in Ladakh incipient – compared to Kashmir where they were obviously full-blown – allowed the military to view their task in Ladakh as a moral mission to transform seditious or potentially seditious populations into law-abiding citizens who would unquestioningly subscribe to the imperatives of state security and nationalism. Widespread images of potential subversion have thus consistently been used by the military to legitimise its growing hegemony over minority bodies and landscapes, a power that ultimately threatens the projects of human rights, citizenship, and substantive democracy in the region

 -to be concluded

 -Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be followed on twitter @drqanungo

 –courtesy: the Himal Southasian