It was dusk when I sat on the deck outside with Julie and Laurent. We spoke by candlelight until the evening became dark. Julie and Laurent were from France, though they had recently visited Nepal where they met Tibetan people in exile. “The Tibetan’s have a salty tea like this too. The women beat butter into it with a long wooden cylinder.” Julie moved her arms to illustrate the rhythm of beating butter into tea. Then she showed me a book. “I brought this book, Close to Heaven. It’s about Buddhism in the Himalayas. I thought it might be relevant.” There was a map inside that we used to locate Kashmir. We spoke our way through the history of the region, from early times on the Silk Route to the partitions of the twentieth century. We discussed the Summer of 2010—the Machil fake encounter, the death of Tufail, the protests that followed and the state violence.
Immediately Julie and Laurent connected the situation in Kashmir to a wider political and historical milieu that drew in Tibet, Palestine, and other smaller countries along the Himalayan region bordering both India and China, including Nepal. “Do India and Pakistan want Kashmir because of resources?” Julie asked. Of course Kashmir’s resources played a part in the conflict, but there were also more enduring and complicated interests that were rooted in national egos, the ownership of territory, and the formation of identities.
“Eventually,” Laurent said, “these things move beyond ‘resources’ to a point where no one wants to let go, regardless of the consequences. Did you know China exports out-dated cans of food to Nepal? They just don’t care.”
Julie and Laurent drew parallels between China’s occupation of Tibet and Israel’s occupation of Palestine; both have encouraged their citizens to ‘settle’ onto land in order to claim it as their own. Julie expected that India must be trying to settle Kashmir in a similar kind of way. Despite the legal state of lawlessness that characterises the state of affairs in Kashmir, Article 370 forbids the Indian parliament from making any law in contravention to the state subject laws of J&K instituted by the Dogra rulers during the 1920s. This prohibits people from outside Kashmir owning property in Kashmir, and despite the military occupying large areas of Kashmir with their barracks, at the level of civilians Kashmir is still very much inhabited by Kashmiris.
In 2010, India recalled all world maps produced in China because they had depicted Kashmir as an autonomous region. (In 2016, the Indian parliament passed a law slapping a huge fine and imprisonment on anybody whose depiction of the map of India in any medium deviated from the official version.) “I lived in the United Arab Emirates when I was a kid.” Laurent said, “All my family’s maps had any mention of Israel blotted out with a white mark by government officials. Our encyclopaedias had every mention of Israel cut out, page by page.” It is amazing what lengths anxious and obsessive nation states will go to. Imagine a room filled with fragments of Israel—words, pictures, titles, indexes, essays, and maps. Or a warehouse filled with thousands of Chinese manufactured globes hoarded on the outskirts of an Indian city. I wonder what the Nazis did to Jewish histories, and what Israel does to Palestinian histories in their books today?
Kashmir has suffered immensely from the twentieth century project of nation-making. Through this violence Kashmir captures the imagination of so many because it presents the opportunity, or rather it demands, that we start thinking beyond the nation-state into new possibilities of political self-determination. Kashmir presents the possibility of hope turning real, an ideal of freedom in the making.