A Matchbox from Kashmir

We have been staking our all on the Kashmir issue. Even then, I feel that we have been fighting on an unreal issue. … The real issue to my mind is not who is in the right, but who is right. Taking that to be the main question, my view has always been that the right solution is to partition Kashmir.

B.R. Ambedkar, in a statement on his resignation from Nehru’s cabinet, 1951

Integral and integration have become a part of the Indian nationalist vocabulary since the Nehruvian days. And Kashmir and its fate are integral to the Indian idea of integration. It literally means what is ‘necessary to make a whole complete’. But then what other territories are needed to make up Akhand Bharat? We surely are a long way from becoming wholly whole (akhand) like we once allegedly were. One dream, a million nightmares. One whole, a million fragments. A byproduct of such thinking is the mutant concept called ‘integral humanism’, an honourable term for Hindutva. In contrast, an integer is a whole number; something that is complete in itself. It also means ‘untainted’, ‘upright’, and literally ‘untouched’.

Today Kashmir is an integral part of Bharat that was India, thanks to the vainglorious and valiant leadership of Narendra Modi Ji and Amit Shah Ji. On 5 August 2019, the Indian government dismantled Kashmir’s special status under Article 370, setting in motion policies with far-reaching consequences. This was the latest in a long series of assaults on the Kashmiri sense of self—the desire to be an integer, to be free—and the reinforcement of military might in the Valley. At a time when decolonization has become more of a theoretical buzzword than urgent practice, Hafsa Kanjwal’s A Fate Written on Matchboxes offers a resounding counter to the triumphalist narratives of postcolonial India.

A Fate Written on Matchboxes is set in the aftermath of the Partition of 1947 and Kashmir’s disputed accession to India. After Sheikh Abdullah was put behind bars for being too ‘anti-India’, the last prime minister of Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, operated a client regime for the Indian state for a decade. After his tenure, the title ‘prime minister’ itself was revoked, yet another attempt to erase the promises of self-determination in the region. Bakshi was known as a practitioner of what the Israeli academic Neve Gordon calls the ‘politics of life,’ which means a biopolitical mode of governmentality that foregrounds the day-to-day concerns of employment, food, education, and provision of basic services, all of which normalized the occupation for multiple audiences. Bakshi would spot young boys on the street and if they happened to have passed the eighth grade, they were given jobs in the government, often through appointments written on matchboxes. (Here’s a vivid selection of images of Bakshi as prime minister.) Such politics of life played out in multiple spheres including cinema and international diplomacy. In the guise of promoting tourism, propaganda documentaries like Spring Comes to Kashmir (1965) and Bollywood features like Kashmir ki Kali (1964) were produced. These attempted to emotionally integrate Kashmiri Muslim sentiments in India’s favor, overriding the people’s wishes and a UN-mandated plebiscite that remains pending.

Kanjwal establishes at the onset that this isn’t a book about Kashmiri alienation or estrangement from India. Nor is it a book about India’s mistakes in attempting to ‘accommodate’ Kashmir within its union after accession. Rather, the book highlights the fallacies in such approaches. These include assumptions about Kashmiri sentimental attachment to the Indian nation-state and that the series of ‘conflicts’ in the Valley were a result of misguided center–state relations. What remains unacknowledged in this deceptive web of wish-fulfilment is India’s denial of self-determination to Kashmir.

And yet these fallacies dominate much of the historical and political scholarship on Kashmir to this day, etching and perpetuating themselves on the understandings of most Indian scholars of the region. Kanjwal’s book takes the onus of historicizing the Indian political approach through processes of integration and empowerment to highlight the new hierarchies of power that emerged in the aftermath of India’s lopsided decolonization. The enforced government policies backfired, thus provoking the very class they sought to ingratiate. This resistance became heightened in the late 1980s, manifesting in an armed uprising and a popular rebellion against Indian rule, that continues into the present.

Today, Kashmiris face imprisonment simply for cheering another team in a cricket match. They are prohibited from praying for occupied Palestine. Meanwhile, expansionist dreams spill across borders with ease, wreaking havoc on indigenous land. A Fate Written on Matchboxes pushes back against reductive understandings that view colonial powers and nation-states as being antithetical. It calls for the creation of a historiography of states that have not been allowed to exist, about peoples who have been denied the right to exercise their sovereignty. In doing so, it challenges the rigid binaries of ‘colonial’ and ‘postcolonial’—categories that have now become so fluid and blurred that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other