‘The Kashmir conflict is not a war of religions’

Shefali Saxena Tuesday 19th October 2021 17:08 EDT

Sumantra Bose is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Kashmir conflict. He is the author of eight books including Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus and Sri Lanka and the Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism. His mother Late Mrs Krishna Bose was the niece-in-law of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose’s latest book titled ‘Kashmir at the Crossroads - Inside a 21st-Century Conflict’ releases in November 2021. 

In an exclusive interview with Asian Voice, he spoke about the tale of Kashmir. 


Q - Do you think the beauty of Kashmir and its culture has faded amid its conflict-ridden and terrorised state?

Mostly, no. The Kashmir Valley in particular has a very distinctive cultural heritage and identity that evolved over many centuries. A centuries-old heritage is not easily erased by conflict and repression, even if protracted. As a way of life, it has survived amid all the trauma and tragedy. In the 21st century, that resilient heritage has even given birth to new, contemporary forms of ‘resistance’ music, art and literature. The Kashmiri culture and way of life have been under siege since 1990, and even more so since August 2019. But it has not been degraded and continues to thrive.


Q - Do you think the Kashmir conflict must be subjected to interpretation in cinema? 

 Since Roja (1992) and Mission Kashmir (2000), Indian cinema and especially Bollywood have consistently done a singular disservice to accurate and nuanced understanding in India of the conflict in Kashmir. The conflict has been portrayed through a crude propagandist lens, even by filmmakers of talent and stature who should have done better, much better. The formulaic Bollywood movie on Kashmir has two standard elements: Pakistan-bashing, and gross stereotyping of Kashmiri militants fighting Indian authority as bearded fanatics. The trend has simply got worse and worse over time. Indian cinema on Kashmir awaits the kind of Hollywood movies made on the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of American soldiers, as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).


Q - If you were to describe the life of a regular Kashmiri to a person outside the state, what would it be like?

The current reality of everyday existence in the Kashmir Valley, since August 2019, resembles life in a giant concentration camp. This is, I am sad to say, not a hyperbolic exaggeration of the reality. Just a few days ago, I received a message from an acquaintance who described her everyday life in the Valley as akin to being in ‘a slow-boiling gas chamber’. Everyday life in the other two regions—Jammu and Ladakh—is comparatively freer and more relaxed, but hardly ‘normal’ as people not condemned to live in a permanent war-zone would understand that term.


Q - What's the best way to educate people about the Kashmir conflict?  Could you recommend some literature or books?

 Well, you can certainly read my new book Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict, out in early November from Yale University Press. It is a comprehensive account of the Kashmir conflict from 1947 to 2021, with the pre-1947 historical background filled in. The book draws on my field experience in Jammu & Kashmir over the past three decades (1994-2020) and is written in an accessible rather than a dense academic style. For Kashmiri voices, I can recommend Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (2008) and Agha Shahid Ali’s book of poetry, The Country Without a Post Office, published in the second half of the 1990s. In popular cinema, I can recommend Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Haider (2014), which is an exception to the abysmal Bollywood productions with a Kashmir theme. This movie’s climax I found somewhat ‘over the top’, but the movie does capture the complex realities of Kashmir since 1990. Shahid Kapoor, Tabu and Kay Kay Menon are all outstanding in their roles and Irrfan Khan is excellent too, as is Shraddha Kapoor.


Q - Is the Kashmir conflict a religious battle? What is your opinion? 

The Kashmir conflict is not a war of religions, unlike the religious wars in medieval and early modern Europe. But it is overlain with religion-laden rhetoric, symbols and ideologies. This has three reasons. First, Pakistan, an expressly and avowedly Muslim state, is one of the parties to the Kashmir dispute and its claim is essentially based on the demographic Muslim majority in Jammu & Kashmir. Second, the aspiration of the Valley’s Kashmiri Muslims to ‘self-determination’ has always—for decades before 1990—been expressed in faith-suffused idioms and terminology. That’s because their modern political consciousness was shaped by their status as oppressed Muslim subjects of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (1846-1947), which had an overtly Hindu orthodox character, and the Valley’s Sufi Islamic traditions constituted both a refuge and an inspiration to resistance. Third, the official Indian position on Kashmir has moved more and more explicitly since 1990—and decisively since August 2019—in the direction of asserting Hindu nationalist supremacy over an insubordinate Muslim population.


Q - Very little is spoken of about Kashmiri Royals. Could you give us a sense of what they were like during the British Raj? Where are they now?

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (1846-1947) was a self-centred despotism in which the Muslim subjects—three-fourths of the population of four million in 1947—were treated as sub-human. There were repeated famines in the late nineteenth century, and until 1920 a death sentence was mandatory for cow slaughter. Like other princely rulers, the so-called ‘royal’ family of Jammu and Kashmir operated as loyal sub-contractors of the British Raj and came to own numerous palatial residences in the process. The last ruler, Hari Singh, faded into political oblivion after October 1947. He remained sadr-e-riyasat (titular head of state) until 1952 when he was succeeded in that role by his son Karan Singh, born in 1931 in a hotel in the town of Cannes on the French Riviera. Karan Singh held this ceremonial title until 1965 and has dabbled in Indian politics since then as a member of the Congress party, though he has also had links going back decades with Hindu nationalist groups. His two sons have also sporadically dabbled in Jammu & Kashmir politics as members of the Congress party, as marginal politicians.          

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