India’s settler colonialism in Kashmir is not starting now, eliminating the natives is a process long underway

27 June 2020

Samreen Mushtaq is a research fellow at Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University. She tweets @SamreenMushtaq_

Mudasir Amin is a PhD candidate at Department of Social Work, Jamia Milia Islamia researching humanitarian aid and state-civil society contestations in Kashmir. He tweets @MudasirAmin_

From controlling space to regulating movement, from land holdings to resource extraction, from neoliberal policies converging with colonial aims to memory erasures and intensive surveillance, the Indian state has been at it for long. The recent developments are only a continuation of the historical dispossession and violence intrinsic to its control of Kashmir.


The practice of destroying homes has been especially common in the hinterlands. However, it is only in the recent years that news reports have covered this widespread punitive action. In picture, a Kashmiri woman stands on the rubble of her house, destroyed in police action during a gunfight with militants. File photo by ABID BHAT

Strange pictures emerged last month in Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir. Police personnel were seen distributing roses amongst doctors and paramedics. This was apparently a damage-control exercise after the department came under fire for harassing people, including the medical staff fighting at the frontlines of the pandemic response, during the Covid-19 lockdown announced by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. The images presented a sharp contrast of guns held tightly in one hand and roses in the other, much like India’s claims of development and empowerment in Kashmir amidst continued violence. Barely days after the guns-and-roses act, unsurprisingly, another doctor was ruthlessly beaten.

The images were reminiscent of the roses placed at checkpoints manned by Israeli forces in occupied Palestine. It is a constant reminder of pervasive control, of symbols of violence and love on display at the same time. A Palestinian trying to make sense of the symbolism of walking through mazes of concertina while a rose stares at you had this to say: “They put you in this misery and humiliating situation and then they confront you with this. It is not our hope—it is all that damages our hope.”

With all the changes India has instituted in Kashmir especially since 5 August last year, the Palestinian case is being taken up to draw parallels   to how this sounds like the beginning of settler colonialism. It isn’t. The recent developments that highlight this process are, on the contrary, a further deepening and expansion of a matrix of control characteristic of such a project, duly aided through laws, to ensure the eventual elimination of the native.

From controlling space to regulating movement, from land holdings to resource extraction, from neoliberal policies converging with colonial aims to memory erasures and intensive surveillance, the Indian state has been at it for far beyond the present moment. Thus aided by such processes of exploitation, violent dispossession, and a total annihilation of the Kashmiri other to ensure absolute control, the military occupation merely continues to network with contemporary modes of colonial power.

Eliminating native bodies, regulating space

India’s settler colonial project in Kashmir began way back in 1947 when the ruling Dogra establishment connived in overseeing the massacre of Muslims in Jammu as part of the elimination of the indigenous population and settling in of a predominantly Hindu population. From Maharaja Hari Singh, his Dogra forces and members of the RSS to Sheikh Abdullah for having failed as the emergency administrator, the responsibility has been shifted between multiple actors for their part in this genocidal violence. Around 200,000 Muslims were rendered untraceable. Many more were subsequently driven out.

The Jammu massacre was the first in a series of demographic changes that the Indian state eventually went on to carve out in the territory. The region otherwise had an out and out pro-Pakistan aspiration as the Poonch uprising demonstrates. As in the Palestinian case, this project is spaciocidal—one that seeks to target people’s land holdings and spaces of living. The Israeli regime undertaking house demolitions usually cites the lack of Israel-issued building permits for areas under the “control” of the Israeli planning authority. It thereby considers exclusively within its right to not allow Palestinian homes and properties to exist. Other reasons include the sheltering of “terrorists.” In most cases, there are no explanations that the Israeli state deems necessary to provide as it demolishes Palestinian homes. This has been linked to Israel’s decades old policy of appropriating occupied land and expanding the settlements. In Kashmir, you see the razing of houses carried out as part of “security operations.” The motive is to “break the will of the people .”

As recently as May this year, over fifteen houses were destroyed in downtown Srinagar during an encounter. The police called it a “good and clean operation” in which only one residential house caught fire. The practice of destroying homes has been especially common in the hinterlands. However, it is only in the recent years that news reports have covered this widespread punitive action. According to a report in IndiaSpend, a data journalism portal, 105 houses were destroyed only in the Pulwoem district (officially “Pulwama,” situated south of Srinagar) between 2015 and early 2018. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) notes that in the first quarter of 2019, there were at least 18 reported cases of destruction of civilian properties in Jammu and Kashmir. The restrictions on movement and communication post 5 August resulted in a lack of reporting of incidents of destruction and vandalism, especially during night raids by the Indian soldiers. “Where is the question of outrage? You are complicit,” a retired lieutenant general of the Indian army had remarked to a journalist in 2018 when asked about destruction of homes. It was to question the actions of the residents in sheltering militants and justifying the Indian forces’ conduct in not considering its impact on the civilian population.

This spaciocide is likely only to get more stringent with time. This is also seen in how the Indian army—which as per official records already occupies nearly 430,000 kanals, or 54,000 acres, of land within the territory of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir—is now seeking to purchase land. A letter titled “purchase of land by Indian army” written to a government department in the Varmul district (“Baramulla,” north of Srinagar) expressed the wish for 129 kanals (16 acres) of land to be sold to a unit already stationed there. Forms are being distributed amongst locals for agreeing to sell their land to the army. These practices bring forth the character of the settler population that one can expect to see in Kashmir. It would primarily be the Indian army already stationed there that would seek permanent residence.

As the report Structures of Violence puts it, the army in Kashmir “seems both everywhere and nowhere.” Two case studies of the Khanbal and Tapper army camps located to the south and north of Srinagar respectively in the report establish how by occupying large swathes of land, the army regiments the everyday while there is hardly any information available in the public domain about its infrastructure. In the south of Srinagar, the Islambād town and its surrounding villages are governed and controlled by a maze of army installations working under the command of the Khanbal sector headquarters that oversees eight army camps (many of them battalion headquarters), with the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Security Force (BSF) operating from fifteen more locations. These camps impact and regulate people’s mobility and subject the areas to constant patrolling. The armed forces ensure that particular kinds of businesses are allowed around these camps, making “businesses with and for the army a weapon of war.”

The railway infrastructure project that the Indian state initiated in 2002 runs through fields and orchards, a way for the state to legitimize its presence in the territory by undertaking developmental projects. The project, however, had more to do with Kashmir’s inaccessibility and India failing to send supplies and reinforcements in time during the Kargil war of 1999. For Kashmiris, the rail line is a manifestation of the penetration of the brutal occupation into their lands as a symbol of India’s power over the territory.

The strategy of spaciocide is now likely to be followed by re-zoning and strategic division of people depending on the “volatility” of particular areas. For example, something as basic as internet and calling facilities being restored in phasespoints to this imagination of “zones” where some people are seen as a non-threat by the state and, therefore, “rewarded” while others are deprived in the name of maintaining “law and order.” This is how settler colonialism pits one group or area against the other, creating divisions by grading people and removing commonalities. Changing the demographic character of Jammu back in 1947 and eventually using the divisions to delegitimize aspirations of freedom in the name of “separate demands” was what began this zoning and grading. In the current time the delimitation exercise, apparently for election purposes, would aid the process.

The control over space is simultaneously accompanied by an intensive regulation of bodies. Permissible movement is redefined, limiting people’s access to certain routes and deciding the roads and lanes they are allowed to take. Curbs on movement are imposed at will. This was especially reflected post 5 August, with the wide array of checkpoints and concertina that dotted roads and intersections across the valley. Writing about the Srinagar city, a journalist pointed out, “Amid the labyrinth whose entry and exit points are changed frequently, people find themselves disoriented in their own city, and struggle to memorize its frequently changing street map.” The “sophisticated blockade” with frequently changing exit and entry points makes people question their own sense of belongingness to the place as, like strangers, they are unable to find their way through it. Adding to this strategy, the Covid-19 lockdown saw certain areas being blocked off with concrete barricades, raising residents’ concerns on the very nature of such a response to a pandemic.

Invisibilization in and by law

A central feature of the settler colonial project is the eviction of the colonised people from law to render them invisible and further subjugate them. In Kashmir, these measures are not about the absence or suspension of law. Rather, as a lawyer and academic argues, it is about how the law determines “the terms of its own suspension, authorization and application.” Thus, lawlessness is institutionalised through the law itself.

Late last month, a bench of the Jammu and Kashmir high court upheld the detention of a senior Kashmiri lawyer on the grounds of ideology “nourished” in the past. It was left on the detainee to prove that he had “shunned separatist ideology” even as his lawyer argued that the detention mentioned no specific instances that could be a violation of law. Over the years, such use of law has ensured the criminalisation of Kashmiris, leaving them with no redressal mechanisms in a system itself accused of violations. The law put in place for ensuring rights and justice is the one that invisibilizes Kashmiris as rights holders and becomes a source of punitive containment while seeking to erect a facade of a functioning democratic system.

In curtailing the rights of the natives over land, property, and jobs, the Indian state notified last month a domicile law (the Jammu and Kashmir Grant of Domicile Certificate (Procedure) Rules, 2020) to hasten the process of dispossession and demographic change. The reference to “permanent residents” (with exclusive rights over land ownership and government jobs) as replaced with “domiciles of the Union Territory [UT] of Jammu and Kashmir.” In the order, domicile is defined as anyone “who has resided for a period of 15 years in the UT of J&K or has studied for a period of seven years and appeared in Class 10th/12th examination in an educational institution located in the UT of J&K or who is registered as a migrant by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (Migrants).”

The new procedure rules have not just made it easy for non-permanent residents to be able to hold domicile certificates and thereby have access to owning land and applying for government jobs—a right thus far exclusive for the natives—but also created difficult paperwork for the natives to obtain the certificate. The “permanent resident certificate” would be rendered useless once domicile documents are issued. A recent analysis of the new domicile rules explains how it can significantly alter political topography. Building on census data, it argues that at least 1.74 million “outstate” migrants definitely satisfy the 15-year domicile rule and can earn the certificate. This would imply that were they to vote in elections, where the participation is already low and victory margins small, “the migrants-turned-domiciles will acquire an incredible political heft.” The elections—which have been militaristic exercises only to cover up for a political crisis and showcase a semblance of democracy—would further be “legitimised” through numbers and governments favouring the Indian state installed.

As a journalist argues, this mechanism will result in a continuous inflow of non-state subjects, helping India prepare for the eventuality of what currently seems like a remotely possible plebiscite. Over time, this process will result in being seen as naturalisation and lead to a total erasure of “the concept of original inhabitants or state subjects.” While this has been termed as the onset of settler colonialism and demographic changes being institutionalised, the Indian state has long used the tropes of integral part, internal matter, national security, and development to cover up for these actions.

The saviour complex

This project is accompanied by the coloniser projecting itself as a modern entity seeking to reform a primitive colonised people and bringing them onto its modernist development trajectory. From blaming Pakistan (and previous “corrupt” regimes) for inciting violence and the subsequent lack of development in Kashmir and portrayal of Kashmiri women as innocent, hapless victims of societal patriarchy to the multiple references to industry and investments, this has been a constant statist narrative over the years.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has also remarked how the isolation of Jammu and Kashmir had resulted in its youth being radicalised. Police statements over the years have also revealed how “misguided” Kashmiri youth are being counselled by the police to bring them back into the “national mainstream.” In September 2019, clerics were called to army camps for “counselling” and threatened with arrest if they delivered critical sermons. Also in 2019, the Indian army’s Kashmir-based 15 Corps(also called Chinar Corps) initiated the “operation” of approaching “maa” (mother) and invoking religious teachings from the Quran to help “deradicalize” youth. Sadhbhavana, the Indian army’s “winning hearts and minds” strategy, has been in operation for two decades with the apparent mandate to expose Kashmiri youthto India’s “development” and “secular character.”

This saviour complex was especially reflected post de-operationalisation of Articles 370 and 35A, which was then portrayed as a form of emancipation for Kashmiri women. There were public declarations about the new policy being a chance to marry fair-skinned, beautiful Kashmiri women. This reflects how gendered power relations are intrinsic to the ways in which settler colonial states formulate and enforce procedures with regard to removing or eliminating the indigenous while paving way for the settler population.

The absolute dehumanisation that the state seeks to impose over everyday Kashmiri lives, too, has taken multiple forms. At checkpoints, your “identity” is verified by foreign soldiers. During cordon-and-search operations, violence in your home is normalised and the private space is subjected to militaristic gaze. On the streets, guns stare at you, your movement subject to approval of the soldiers. These, in addition to killings, torture, rapes, mass blindings, enforced disappearances, all carried out with impunity, have sought to kill the sentiment of freedom in Kashmir. From militants at encounter sites, in what are flush-out operations, to civilians at checkpoints, inside homes, and through “sudden” explosions, the machinery thrives on the elimination of Kashmiris. Thus, the violence of colonial encounters marks the ever-present shadow of the occupying power over its subjects and its desire to eliminate or entirely subjugate the native.

From spaciocide to ecocide and memoricide

Settler colonial projects are also built on ecocide—from destruction of the environment to resource extraction and expansion of illegal infrastructure to further impinge on the rights of the natives and their sense of belonging. A report in October 2019 noted that when Kashmir was under a stringent lockdown, the forest advisory committee issued record forest clearances. The commissioner secretary to the forest, environment and ecology department of the state refused to reveal details about how much of forestland was diverted or for what projects.

A more recent report highlighted how external firms, including companies from the Indian states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan took part in public auctions to win leases for extraction of coal, marble, and limestone reserves in Jammu and Kashmir. Outside businesses that were previously barred from renting or leasing the local mineral blocks now put locals at a disadvantage as they set up bids the locals could match. With Kashmir’s own businesses suffering due to continued lockdowns, this also makes it more subservient to the Indian state in terms of control over the economy. “Attracting” investment from the outsiders is now being done through the constitution of a committee tasked with formulating the Real Estate Policy 2020. Private players of “repute” are also sought to be roped in to set up educational institutes under The J&K Education Investment Policy 2020 to make it “the new axis for knowledge.” This continued reference to bringing in industries and strengthening the private sector in Kashmir is the obvious coming together of neoliberal policies with settler colonialism.

Perhaps the most significant of all aspects of social, economic, and political life that settler colonialism attacks is memory. The project of memoricide seeks to erase any traces of heritage and culture of the natives to appropriate the history, belongingness, and lineages of resistance. In Palestine, this was sought to be achieved by changing the names of places and sites resulting in a struggle with regard to social memory and rootedness in the land. Koshur words have long been pronounced (and these pronunciations sought to be made default) in faux Hindi and English. Calling Islambād (the district south of Srinagar) by its name instead of “Anantnag,” as the Indian state would have you call it, has subjected people to beatings and abuse.

Post de-operationalisation of Article 370, where Urdu used to be the official language there were suddenly concerns that it might not remain so. This belief was strengthened when the advisor to the governor said, “All special provisions have been thrown into the dustbin of history where they always belonged.” When Radio Kashmir was changed to All India Radio, Srinagar or when Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre dropped the reference to Sheikh Abdullah from the name, it did not evoke much public reaction. For institutions of the state itself or for a name seen to have sold Kashmir to India, it did not impact people to have these changes instituted.

Later, when Kashmir’s water supply department was officially renamed Jal Shakti Department, it became a joke in Kashmir. It felt too alien, impossible to relate to. Soon, the department of information and public relations of the government was seen posting a tweet in Hindi, which again invited ire from Kashmiris since most cannot read the language and do not identify with it. The department then explained that it was a message from the government of Gujarat to the stranded residents of Jammu and Kashmir. It was also announced that history textbooks (which would otherwise take years to update particular events) would be updated to incorporate chapters on the reorganisation of the former state into union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. This renaming of places and departments and further promotion of state-sponsored narratives in the long run has the potential to legitimise the claims of the Indian state of its historical “ownership” over Kashmir.

The erasure of Kashmiri narratives and promoting statist discourse is also a part of this exercise. A 2017 report of India’s interior ministry had noted that the control of mosques, madrasas, and the media was necessary for “perception management.” It went on to talk of pro-India and anti-India channels and newspapers and which ones should be promoted and which ones foment negative sentiments. Eid and congregational Friday prayers being disallowed in major mosques in the recent years, detaining clerics and summoning them is about monitoring these religious spaces and attempting to control the narratives that can emerge from there. Again, the new media policy that the administration recently approved is also a reflection of this matrix of control. It is said to be put in place for helping build a “sustainable narrative on the functioning of the government in media.” In outlining its aims, the policy seeks to create a mechanism that would help deal with attempts to “use media to vitiate public peace, sovereignty and integrity of the country.”

The secret burials that now accompany militant killings, although justified in the name of the Covid-19 lockdown, are also an attempt at this memoricide. Unmarked and mass graves too have been unearthed by civil society groups in the recent decades. In 1984 and 2013 respectively, two Kashmiris were hanged to death in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail and subsequently buried there. Empty graves in Kashmir await their return. This practice of secret burials and denying families the right to grieve is a continuation of memoricide on a larger scale. A sort of replication of the “cemeteries of numbers” in Palestine, made up of mass graves with no names but numbers, some dating back to the 1967 war.

Militant funerals have been a referendum of their own in Kashmir. The martyrs’ graveyards have been places of great reverence. To take them away from the public eye (since each locality has one) and to bury militants at far off places not only is the state claiming its control over Kashmir’s dead but also ensuring that these sites of burials remain in the margins, away from public visibility. A sort of forgetfulness is imposed through leaving these graves unmarked, unknown, and denying families and the collective the right to mourn, to hold the final rites of their loved ones, and to a dignified existence.

Surveillance and the politics of control

This overall matrix of control is further entrenched through an invasive mechanism of surveillance. Institutions such as the Research and Analysis Wing, Intelligence Bureau, and police are further aided by different levels of intelligence agencies including the Counter-Intelligence Surveillance Unit that works with all infantry divisions. The surveillance and intelligence units, well equipped with a large number of personnel and vehicles, are known to possess “huge unaccounted funds” for buying information and running agents and bringing a wide range of people under surveillance. In late 2019, India’s ministry of defence was reported to have started procuring 550 robotics surveillance units to deal with counter-insurgency operations in the valley and help provide real-time intelligence inputs in residential and commercial areas.

Extending the surveillance network and policing digital spaces, recent years have also witnessed frequent snapping of the internet or throttling its speeds (in the current phase for close to a year now). This is the state’s attempt at countering Kashmiris control their narratives and memorialisation practices. The digital space is subjected to such control that anyone who expresses views that are not in favour of the Indian state is subjected to punitive action thereby criminalising such views and seeking to induce fear and censorship. In January a judgment of the supreme court of India hearing the case of a newspaper editor petitioning that curbs on the internet were affecting their journalistic duties, the court maintained the impermissibility of a complete internet blackout. However, the judgment stopped short of declaring internet clampdown in Kashmir as unconstitutional. The logic of settler colonialism thus pervades the surveillance and policing of everyday resistance.

In the recent months especially, the cyber cell of the Jammu and Kashmir police has been quite active in tweeting how “fake news, rumour mongers and handles promoting terrorism are under watch.” That this watch eventually extended to journalists being booked under India’s anti-terror law comes as no surprise. What is also interesting is the strategy the cyber cell has adopted. People are seen posting that they are under surveillance of the cyber cell and vow to never upload unlawful content again. These posts are then endorsed by the cyber cell. For the administration, this is “purification.” However, it is akin to the “cleansing” exercise of the tyrants of past brought onto the digital space in the current technological era. This surveillance, both human and technological, is not simply about seeing, recording, and punishing thoughts, expressions, and actions but also about ensuring the “not seeing” of the actions of the settler state itself.

Institutionalised genocide

While Palestine and Kashmir are historically and politically two different contexts with the former having seen a near total annihilation and illegal control over land, it is important to understand from its case the trajectory of a similar project in Kashmir. The colonisation of Kashmir, like Palestine, is not just the influx of a settler population that would derive multiple economic and political benefits at the cost of the natives. It is to be the “crown” of a Hindutva project that wants to make itself the only legitimate sovereign of a people that refuse its control over them. It is to ensure resident status for its forces stationed in Kashmir, to permanently have them deployed and further suppress the freedom sentiment. It is to remove, relocate, eliminate, dispossess, and dehumanise Kashmiris as the coloniser deems fit.

The due institutionalisation of this project, carrying out an incremental genocide over the decades, has now in the recent times witnessed a frequency in the number of encounters and the killing of militants. This moment might mark the onset of a decisive shift in the strategy of militants too in terms of dealing with the settlers as a “reaction” to the influx and demographic change. However, it is also important to note that the Indian state undertaking frequent military operations could be a way to keep the pressure on militants, ensure constantly low numbers, since they probably also foresee some change in the dynamics of militancy. The Indian state knows that resistance is here to stay, and would be foolish to envision its elimination; but it would not want to cede control to the probability of a shifting militant strategy either.

In Palestine, Edward Said reminds us that the success of Israel’s settler colonial project was the coming to fruition of a detailed policy where every single thing was “surveyed down to the last millimeter, settled on, planned for, built on, and so forth, in detail.” These details, as we see them in motion in Kashmir, must leave no doubt about the already entrenched practice of settler colonialism of the Indian state over the decades and its hastening in recent times. The recent developments are a continuation of the historical dispossession and violence intrinsic to India’s control of Kashmir. These intersecting forms of violence and control form a structure that has been continually upgrading itself, deepening its hold over territory and people—both in life and in death.


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