Enforced Disappearances and Everyday Life In Kashmir

Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir by Ather Zia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Ghazal Asif, Johns Hopkins University

A pink-cheeked young woman stands in front of a mirror, methodically reducing her beauty with dulling creams and dark fabrics to take on the demeanor appropriate to a half-widow in mourning for her disappeared husband. In a quiet moment, an aging mother caresses her belly as she wonders aloud when her adult son will return, her whole body at work to gestate his memory. On the eve of a wedding, women dance to funeral dirges for their dead or disappeared male kin. In Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir, Ather Zia shows how the force of Indian occupation permeates every aspect of life in the Kashmir Valley, transforming subjectivities and relationships. The Indian Army’s practice of enforced disappearance of those suspected to be pro-independence militants or sympathizers, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s (p. 221) has created a suspended sociality, with families destroyed in their search for those who are disappeared. There are no established rituals by which those left behind to mourn the disappearance of their kin can adequately acknowledge the loss of those who are neither dead nor alive.

The fate of Indian-occupied Kashmir entered a frightening new phase on August 5, 2019, when the government in New Delhi revoked the region’s special status in the federation. Amidst curfews and a renewed military crackdown, the Kashmir Valley has been subject to a total communications blockade, including internet and telephone services, that continues at the time of writing. Even amidst this darkness a few recent anthropological monographs shed new light on ordinary life in the Kashmir region on either side of the Line of Control, Resisting Disappearance among them. Importantly, this scholarship pushes back against the reductive geopolitical analysis that reifies the militaristic nationalisms of India and Pakistan while it erases Kashmiri perspectives.

Resisting Disappearance takes on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Indian-held Kashmir from the perspectives of the women who search for their disappeared male kin, in particular through the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Srinagar. Based on her long association with the APDP, Zia’s moving ethnography takes the readers into the homes and lives of families grappling with the unnamable loss of disappeared kin. Her central claim is that under conditions of a brutal occupation even quotidian actions such as treasuring old photographs (p. 215), or seeing glimpses of a loved one in the play of a child (p. 147), can become commemorative acts that form the backbone of resistance. Gendered practices of mourning the disappeared thus constitute sustained resistance to the Indian occupation, which insists that the disappeared do not exist. The members of APDP, for example, meet once a week in a park to publicly and ritually lament, weeping as they hold up placards of their loved ones, reminding those watching that they have not yet succumbed to the Army’s narrative (p. 68).

Each of the book’s seven chapters chapter focuses on one aspect of mourning and commemoration as it relates to life under occupation. Zia is careful to note that these are everyday actions, not always intended to be overtly political (p. 104). One early chapter, focusing on the historical antecedents of the current struggle for an independent Kashmir, traces a coherent arc from nineteenth-century popular resistance to the Dogra dynasty to the opposition to today’s occupation. The remaining chapters take the reader from the spectacle of embodied resistance; through the centrality of women as mourners who must also survive in a socially depleted, dangerous landscape; the creation of the “killable Kashmiri [male] body” (p. 50); and finally to the sustenance of counter-memory via the collection of everyday objects and documents in a context of relentless erasure. The final chapters, focusing on the traumatic process of searching for the disappeared by three different families, give space to the voice of Kashmiris themselves.

Everyday actions become resistance through a “transmutation” (p. 210) where subjectivities, along with the significance of some practices, shift as a consequence of the occupation so as to acknowledge a loss that cannot be marked or mourned. Kashmir constitutes what Zia refers to as a “psychic border” (p. 11), i.e., the site where the very legitimacy of the Indian state is enacted through military might, over and over again. This psychic border, as well as the absence of ritual acknowledgment for the event of disappearance, create the conditions of possibility for resistance to emerge as “affective law” (p. 33), i.e., a language and set of practices with which to commemorate the absent, who haunt the pages of Zia’s book as specters.

The richness of Zia’s ethnography led me to contemplate the intimate repertoires of memory that Kashmiri families shared with her as they sought to give language to unnamed loss. The narrative dwells evocatively upon the way that waiting transforms female bodies into hardened iron (p. 73); or how songs and poetry across genres transform the affective burden of occupation. Zia’s conceptualization of shifts in cultural repertoires further calls into question how older histories of the region are mobilized today. For example, what might be the religious contexts wherein Kashmiri women mobilize longstanding Shi’a repertoires of mourning and lamentation as they equate the injustice and horror of Karbala to their own lives (p. 211), or channel their grief into “the spectacle of the activist” (p. 68)?  It is through such contextualized movements that the life-cycles of half-widows and bereft mothers, as well as the dead, the disappeared, and the tortured, merge with history, cultural memory, and archival evidence to create a political repertoire of counter-memory.

Throughout, the ethnography pushes the reader to think more carefully about the power of voice in contexts where opposition can be brutally silenced, as well as how kin-work and the sustenance of relations acquire political charge. By focusing on the embodiment of kinship ties and mobilization of ritual that sustain those left behind, Resisting Disappearance sensitively shows how the political reality of ongoing occupation transforms everyday lives. Ather Zia’s compelling book will be of interest to students of militarization, occupation and colonization, gender politics and kinship, ritual, everyday life, and activism, at all levels.