THE SITUATION IN KASHMIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. SAIBA VARMA

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By Omkar Mahajan
Editor in Chief

On February 28, PROSPECT sat down with Dr. Saiba Varma to discuss the situation in Kashmir. Professor Varma is a medical and cultural anthropologist at UCSD researching on topics of psychiatry, violence, and politics as they pertain to Kashmir.

PROSPECT: Can you tell us how you became interested in Kashmir and what you think of what’s currently happening there?

Dr. Varma: Sure. So when I started graduate school when I went for my PhD in anthropology, I knew that I was really interested in studying some kind of conflict or something related to violence and the social, political, and psychological effects of violence and I started reading up about different conflicts in South Asia because that’s where my language proficiency and background was at. I began reading about Kashmir and I discovered that there was a lot written about Kashmir. There are libraries full of things that are written about Kashmir but most of it was written from a securities studies perspective or from the perspective of how do we resolve this conflict, so it is written either from the Indian nationalist perspective or a Pakistani nationalist perspective. There is very little information about what had actually happened during the conflict, how people in Kashmir were experiencing the conflict, and what does it mean to be at the crossroads of these different powers. Kashmir is the only region in the world that’s surrounded by three nuclear powers which are Pakistan, India, and China so it’s a very significant geopolitical region and yet I felt that we were getting such little information about how actually this conflict was playing out and how it was being experienced.

In 2007, I went to Kashmir to see if I could actually do my research there, if I could do a project there and live there, and if people would be welcoming and open to me. As an anthropologist, you search for anyone to speak to. Basically you have to rely on people to talk to you and so I tried to make as many appointments with people as I could. I ended up meeting these psychiatrists, who told me that what you really need to focus on is that there’s this epidemic of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder happening in Kashmir, this is a public health crisis, we’re completely under resourced, we do not have the capacity to deal with it, we have this deluge of people coming in with traumatic stress symptoms, and so I found that very interesting that not a lot of people were thinking about the social and psychological effects of violence and what does it mean, for example, to have an entire society that’s traumatized. So, I asked them if they would be willing to have me shadow them in the hospital and other sites of mental health care and so I spent 18 months doing field work at different sites of mental health care in Kashmir just to try to understand what the conflict was about, how people were experiencing it, how they were coping with it, how they were understanding it, what kinds of interventions were being put in place for them and were those interventions successful so that’s kind of how I became interested in it.

Your second question was about what’s happening right now in Kashmir. I was in Kashmir this past summer just during this whole Burhan Wani crisis. Basically what happened was that in early July, Indian security forces assassinated Burhan Wani who was a young charismatic militant leader who actually did not have a lot of experience fighting, or maybe no experience fighting. But, he had all of these social media posts and YouTube videos of himself dressed up in camouflage and posing with a gun and he had these very strong pro-independence postings and that made him very popular. When he was killed, there was a huge uproar in Kashmir about his death not because he was an experienced leader or that he had done anything great, but because he sort of represented this idea of independence, or azadi, which you know the majority of people in the Kashmir Valley feel very strongly that Kashmir should be independent. They do not want to be part of either India or Pakistan and so his killing sort of represented what they see as this perpetuation of this illegal military occupation on their land and it spurred many months of protests and killings. Basically, the idea is that they wanted both India and Pakistan to demilitarize the region and they want reunification.

Kashmir has been divided since 1949. That was the general sentiment and there have been many cycles of violence in Kashmir and so in 1989, you had the big killing of an arms struggle for independence that was also partly sponsored by Pakistan. The militant groups were fractured into what were pro-Pakistan militias and pro-independence militias. The pro-Independence militias lost out in the end. The Pro-Pakistan militias gained traction but that ended in 2002. Since then, you have these cycles of non-violence and non-violent protests erupting in Kashmir in 2008, 2009, 2010, and then again 2016 and its very difficult for the Indian government to deal with these nonviolent mass protests. What do you do when there are thousands of people on the street, thousands of people on strike? It’s not a riot. It’s not an armed operations. You can’t do counterinsurgency, although that’s what the military is there supposedly to do. So it creates this fundamental  problem and I think that’s what you’re seeing in these mass uprisings in Kashmir. You are seeing these sentiments for independence.

PROSPECT: You mentioned earlier that there’s a significant issue of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I believe that mental health is not something that’s particularly talked about in South Asia. Could you briefly elaborate on the issue of mental health in Kashmir?

Dr. Varma: Sure. For the first decade of the conflict which was really during the 1990s, there was so much actual violence taking place that the real concern was about death. It was really about the incidents of physical violence happening. It was a very unsafe place at the time, but after the 90s, the levels of physical violence actually decreased significantly. The numbers of terrorist related violence steadily came down and what you then began seeing were the scars of that violence. You began seeing the marks of that decade of physical violence, living in a state of constant unrest, constant unease. You know, there’s a knock on your door at night and you don’t know who it is. Is it a militant? Is it the army? Is it someone else who’s going to come and raid your house? Are they going to pick up someone from the family and then you never see them again? These were things that were every day occurrences for Kashmiris, and what that does over a prolonged period of time is that it leaves deep scars in people suffering not just from trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder, but just all kinds of anxiety and depression.

There’s a rise in mental illness because you are living in a state of constant worry and that’s related to the political situation to the lack of any kind of resolution to the Kashmir conflict. “I don’t know about tomorrow. I don’t have any hope that tomorrow is going to be better than today.” That’s the reality that Kashmiris have been living in for 20 years, so if you don’t have any hope for the future, how can you possibly feel good today? All of these kinds of things play into mental illness. I think what’s interesting about mental illness is that one way to sort of understand it is through neurobiological phenomena and a western way of understanding it but in fact, we know that there are all these social, political, economic things that can play into someone’s mental health. Kashmir’s not even unique. There are many other places of long term conflict where there are these epidemics of mental illness that there is a direct correlation between the instability of the situation and the instability that people have within themselves 

PROSPECT: You mentioned Burhan Muzaffar Wani and how he was assassinated recently by Indian state police. How do think politicians such as Mehbooba Mufti are going to handle this crisis. 200,000 people showed up to Wani’s funeral.

Dr. Varma: We saw how Mehbooba Mufti handled the situation and she was really criticized by people in Kashmir for her handling of the situation which is that she issued a statement after the killing saying that she had not been notified that this was going to happen and that they were going to do this. This raises the question of why are you the Chief Minister of this state then if you don’t know what the security forces are doing. Either you’re on that side of the conversation which doesn’t care or you’re on the other side. One of things that’s become really clear in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death is that there is no more space in Kashmir for these mainstream pro-India political parties and that they have lost a lot of legitimacy because they came in, for example the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), which is Mehbooba Mufti’s party, with a very progressive platform that we care about the aspirations of the Kashmiri people, that we want to address human rights violations, that we want to correct all of these historical wrongs that have taken place. They took a very critical position against the Indian state but what we saw was once they came into power, they sort of lost any critical relationship and allies with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). That was seen by many Kashmiris to be a sort of betrayal of what the PDP represented  because the PDP’s relationship with Kashmir is very driven by nationalism and a particular kind of Hindu ideology. From the perspective of India, that is a tragedy that happens which is because people have been so corrupted in their political ideals, no one trusts these politicians anymore, and that space has been completely lost now. People have taken a really hard line position. The Burhan Wani protest was the first protest that wasn’t about any sort of issue like the Amarnath land grab which was in 2009, or wasn’t about the fake encounter killings which was 2010. This time it was just about independence. It was just about Azadi. That’s why people were striking so that tells you that there is no room for negotiation. There is no space. Kashmiris do not trust anyone who is going to pretend that they can sort of achieve some kind of compromise.

PROSPECT: Ok, to clarify to our readers who may not know, Azadi means freedom, correct?

Dr. Varma: Correct and it’s a very expansive term.  For Kashmiris, it can mean political self-determination. For many people, it can mean full independence, different economic azadi, spiritual azadi. It has many multiple meanings, but I think the important thing for us is this idea of self-determination. That’s what a lot of people want.

PROSPECT: So you mentioned that there are independence movements occurring in Kashmir? Do you think that Kashmir should be an independent state, or should it be part of India, or should it be part of Pakistan?

Dr. Varma: It’s an interesting question. I’m Indian and for me this came as a major shock to me because as an Indian, I had grown up with a certain kind of narrative that maybe you also have grown up with. There are certain kinds of stories about Kashmir and Kashmir hamarahai, or Kashmir is ours and it’s an integral part of India and it always has been about we can’t let it go to Pakistan. It was only by studying the conflict and looking at it closely, and living there, and really understanding what was happening there from a Kashmiri perspective that it really challenged me. As an Indian, it really challenged my ideas about what I think the Indian nation is and ultimately it sort of came down to this question for me which is that how can a country claiming to be the world’s largest democracy perpetrate military occupation for decades not just in Kashmir but in Manipur and other parts of the North East as well. How do we deal with that sort of inherent fundamental paradox? What does that say about Indian liberal secular democracy if you have to put your border region under military occupation and your entire population accepts that? So, for me the question was not about what should we do with Kashmir. For me, the question was what do Kashmiris want for themselves and my responsibility is to tell that story, to be as truthful as I can and in terms of what people’s aspirations for themselves are. That’s my job as an anthropologist. It’s not my job to say that’s right or wrong for you but instead to tell the truth of how people feel and what they want. 

PROSPECT: So what do the majority of Kashmiris feel? Do the majority of them feel that  they should belong to Pakistan or do the majority of them desire independence?

Dr. Varma: It’s interesting because there is a diaspora population of Kashmiris as well. A lot of Kashmiri Pandits left in the early days of the conflict and a lot of them feel very strongly that Kashmir should remain part of India because of that. But, because the majority of people in the Kashmir Valley are Muslims, there is a very different sense of what should happen in the Kashmir Valley which I would say in the valley there are very strong sentiments of independence. No one wants to be a part of Pakistan anymore. Everyone sees what is happening in Pakistan. It’s interesting because often you see images of Kashmiris holding up Pakistani flags or things like that and which on the face of it, seems like a Pro-Pakistani statement but when you ask them about it, they do that only to irk Indians. “We know that’s what they really don’t want to see so that’s why we hold it up, not that we want to be part of Pakistan.” So, I would say in the valley, people want independence but as you know, the state of  Kashmir itself is composed of three regions. You have Jammu which is probably siding with India. You have Ladakh which is an autonomous region but it’s also very divided with a Buddhist and Muslim population and then you have Kashmir and the Kashmir valley, which is pro-independence. The whole region is fragmented. It would be a contentious thing but at the Kashmir valley I worked at, it was clear the sentiments were of independence.

PROSPECT: There are also a number of militant organizations inside Kashmir and recently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, mentioned of how he wanted to recruit in Kashmir. Do you think that ISIS and other extremist militant organizations might try to do active recruiting in Kashmir with this ongoing conflict occurring?

Dr. Varma: It could happen. Kashmir has always been a region that foreign powers have toyed with in many different ways going back to the 19th century. You had British spies and Russian spies. Kashmir was important in the central Asian trade routes. You’ve always had this geopolitical significant region with foreign powers meddling and using the conflict, the region, and its people in different ways. I do think it would be challenging because the kind of Islam that is practiced in Kashmir is quite different from what ISIS and other organizations do. There has been a lot of effort to radicalize Kashmiris and some of that has happened. But on a large part, I would say Kashmiris practice a very different kind of Islam because religion always intersects with culture. It has been a more syncretic kind of practice so I’m sure they would try because ISIS is a global organization that wants to recruit Muslims everywhere but I think Kashmiris themselves are not that easily duped because I think what Kashmiris are interested in is their own political future and if it could secure that for them, it would be helpful but if not, then I don’t think they would be interested in it.

PROSPECT: There are many scholars who compare the conflict in Kashmir to Israel and Palestine. Do you think these comparisons are accurate and fair?

Dr. Varma: I think that the comparison with Palestine is a good comparison in some ways because Kashmiris themselves draw a lot of inspiration from the struggle in Palestine. They call the Kashmir struggle the intifada which is drawing on this idea of the Palestinian struggle of intifada and they have been really inspired by that struggle just like how Muslims in many parts of the world look at Palestine as this dramatic case against Muslims. It is a productive comparison to Kashmiris because Kashmiris draw inspiration from all sorts of colonial struggles. They’ve watched French Algeria. They’ve read Frantz Fanon. They’ve watched the Battle of Algiers. In fact, there’s a famous story of how in the early days of the conflict there was a screening of a Battle of Algiers in a movie theater in Srinagar. After watching that, people went out on the streets and started protesting because they felt their situation was very similar to what the Algerians were going through under the French. I think in terms of thinking of these two powerful states, Israel and India are very powerful, very militarily robust states holding a population under occupation. I think that’s a productive way to approach the issue. Both Israel and India think of themselves as democracies and they sell themselves to the world as democracies. That’s a big part of their narrative and the fact that they can do that simultaneously while holding populations in basically open air prisons, I think its productive to think through. I think that we know far less about Kashmir than we know about Palestine which raises the question of why.

Photo by Ole Holbech

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