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Khan addresses issues facing Kashmir in interview

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Dr. Nyla Ali Khan.
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Dr. Nyla Ali Khan is a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma, a statewide public policy organization and former professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney  and granddaughter of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. She is the author of several books, including The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism and Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between Indian and Pakistan, and several articles that focus heavily on the political issues and strife of her homeland, Jammu and Kashmir. Currently, she is involved in the restoration of the State Archives in Kashmir, a project on which she is working in collaboration with senior administrators in Jammu and Kashmir. Here are some excerpts of her interaction with Kashmir Pen

 You are the first Kashmiri woman to be nominated and accepted as a member of the Advisory Council for the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women. What does the council serve?  How do you feel being a part of it ?

Dr. Nyla.          I have been motivated to imagine the possibility of different destinies for women in a world that is not governed by the aspirations and wishes of those women. As a member of the Advisory Council for the Oklahoma Commission on the      Status of Women, I act as a resource and provide expertise to the Commission. I provide research and information on societal violence and structural inequities that result from deep-rooted prejudices against women. I also act as an advisory entity on issues of equity to state agencies, communities, organizations, and business, and I provide research-based recommendations to improve the quality of education and life for Oklahoma women, children, and families.

What role can the Muslim women community play to fight discrimination and What has led to the seclusion of Kashmiri women, especially Muslim women?

Dr. Nyla           In Kashmir, inadequate attention has been paid to the gender dimension of the armed conflict in the Kashmir province of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J & K), which hinders even further the emergence of peace, political liberty, socioeconomic reconstruction, and egalitarian democratization. Although         women of Indian-administered Kashmir have been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counter insurgency in the region, they are largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels.

            I recognize the attention paid to gender-based violence in Kashmir by scholars, ethnographers, and NGOs, but not enough attention is given to the political, economic, and social fall-out of the armed conflict for women in Kashmir.

            We, as women, cannot afford to play havoc with the empowerment that critical intelligence gives us; the credibility that articulate expressions of our situation give us; the intelligence that we employed to create a national identity.

            There is an unwillingness in both Kashmir to recognize the separate niche of women’s narratives in the larger political context of both places, which is symptomatic of exclusionary patriarchy in both cultures, and which does not establish women’s activism as an actuality and an ideology.

            Not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri women of different political, religious, ideological, and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations.

            There is a serious lack of a feminist discourse in political/activist roles taken on by women in Kashmir, where the dominant perception still is that, politics and policy-making are linked to the powerful male realist rather than with the maternal, negotiating woman. As in other political scenarios in South Asia, women politicians in Kashmir are relegated to the “soft areas” of Social Welfare and Family affairs. Women’s rights and gender issues in both places are secondary to political power. Today in Kashmir, women legislators constitute a minority, increasing the pressures of high visibility, unease, stereotyping, inability to make substantial change, over-accommodation to the dominant male culture in order to avoid condemnation as “overly soft.”

            Educated women should fully participation in professional and political life in Kashmir, and not make a virtue of helplessness and destitution.

            Building on the earlier gains, a pluralistic government can now ensure further economic, social, and educational gains for women and marginalized groups. Here is what the next steps should aim to do:

            Women citizens should be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life – economic, cultural, political, and in government services. Women should have the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men. Women would be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance and job conditions, though the law should also give special protections to mothers and children.

·         In Kashmir, government scholarships for those in need should ensure full access to education, with instruction available in regional languages as well as English.

            Obviously, an important challenge is to create new openings for people women to discuss public issues and become active participants. To that end, Kashmir  need to revive and reinvigorate civil society institutions that could initiate groups to assemble freely and express shared interests, values, and purposes. As this happens, women citizens involved in civil society as well as government officials need to forge strategies for reconstruction and evolution of society. People must learn to work together across ethnic and ideological divides and insist that everyone be included in democratic decision-making and given full access to basic social services.

            Not just in Kashmir, but in other parts of the world as well, women can play an important role in establishing a more inclusive democracy and new forums for citizen cooperation. Female leaders can lead the way by offering new ideas, building broad-based political coalitions, and working to bridge organizational divides. Women active in politics must aim not just to improve the position of their particular organizations but also to forge connections between the group’s agendas for conflict resolution and reconstruction of society with the strategies and agendas of other groups in the population, who have also suffered from ongoing conflicts. In this way, women’s groups can thus pave the way for sustainable peace, universal human rights, and security from violent threats of all kinds.

What are your observations on Kashmir conflict? What in your opinion is the major factor that led to these conflicts?

Dr. Nyla.          The role played by the nation-states of India and Pakistan in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir echoes the animosity created during the partition. The political and social upheaval that followed upon the creation of the two nation-states in 1947 has left legacies that continue to haunt the two countries. The partition enabled forces of violence and displacement to tear asunder the pre-existing cultural and social fabric so systematically that the process of repair has not even begun. I would argue that although the ‘third world’ intelligentsia unceasingly complains about the manipulations and shortsightedness of British imperial cartographers and administrators, the onus of the calamity engendered on 14 and 15 August 1947 does not lie entirely on the colonial power. The failed negotiations between Indian and Pakistani nationalists who belonged to           the Congress and the Muslim League, the blustering of those nationalists and the national jingoism it stimulated, and the unquenchable hatred on both sides contributed to the brutal events of 1947. In the words of historian Uma Kaura (1977: 170), “the mistakes made by the Congress leadership, the frustration and bitterness of the League leadership,     and the defensive diplomacy of a British Viceroy cumulatively resulted in the demand for Partition.” Ever since the inception, in 1885, of proindependence political activity in pre-partition India, the Muslim leadership insisted on the necessity for a distinct Muslim identity (ibid.: 164). Gutted homes, rivulets of blood, ravaged lands and meaningless loss of lives were the costs of this nation-building.        

            The borders that were brutally carved by the authorities at the time of partition have led to further brutality in the form of those riots, organized historical distortions and cultural depletions with which the histories of independent India and Pakistan are replete.          

            For India, Kashmir lends credibility to its secular nationalist image. For Pakistan, Kashmir represents the infeasibility of secular nationalism and underscores the need for an Islamic theocracy in the subcontinent. Once the Kashmir issue took an ideological turn, Mahatma Gandhi remarked, “Muslims all over the world are watching the experiment in Kashmir. . . . Kashmir is the real test of secularism in India.” In January 1948, India referred the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations (Hagerty 2005: 19). Subsequent to the declaration of the ceasefire between India and Pakistan on 1 January1949, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two portions. The part ofthe state comprising Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad, along with Gilgit and Baltistan, was incorporated into Pakistan, whereas the portion of the state comprising the Kashmir Valley, Ladakh and the large Jammu region was politically assimilated into India. Currently, a large part of Jammu and Kashmir is administered by India and a portion by Pakistan. China annexed a section of the land in 1962, through which it has built a road that links Tibet to Xiajiang (see Rahman 1996: 5–6).

            The strategic location of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) underscores its importance for both India and Pakistan. The state of J & K borders on China and Afghanistan. Out of a total land area of 2, 22, 236 square kilometers, 78,114 are under Pakistani administration, 5,180 square kilometers were handed over to China by Pakistan, 37,555 square kilometers are under Chinese administration in Leh district, and the remaining area is under Indian administration (Census of India, 1981: 156).

            In order to make their borders impregnable, it was essential for both India and Pakistan to control the state politically and militarily. Even as separatist movements have surfaced and resurfaced in J & K and parts of Pakistani-administered Kashmir since the accession of the state to India in 1947, the attempt to create a unitary cultural identity bolstered by nationalist politics has been subverted by regional political forces and the comprador class, backed by the governments of India and Pakistan. The culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse population of Indian and Pakistani-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been unable to reach a consensus on the future of the land and the heterogeneous peoples of the state. The revolutionary act of demanding the right of self-determination and autonomy for J & K has not been able to nurture unity amongst all socioeconomic classes (Rahman 1996: 148–49; Ganguly 1997: 78–79).

            Cultural notions of the people of Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir in image

and word have been reconstructed to emphasize the bias that reinforces the propagandist agenda of the hegemonic powers involved in the Kashmir dispute: India and Pakistan. In establishment Indian and Pakistani thought, Kashmiris are defined as different from the nationals of the two countries. The various communities in J & K – Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Pandits, Dogras and Ladakhis – have tried time and again to form a collective consciousness in order to name their cultural alterity through the nation. But due to the regional sentiments that are so entrenched in the psyche of the people, this attempt is still in a volatile stage. The symbols of nationhood in J & K, flag, anthem and constitution, have thus far been unable to forge the process of nationalist self-imagining.

            Although Pakistan distinctly expresses its recognition of the status of J & K as disputed territory, it dithers from doing so in areas of the state under Pakistani control. Pakistan arbitrarily maintains its de facto government in Azad Kashmir. South Asia affairs analyst Victoria Schofield (2001) astutely observes: “There is no question . . . of Pakistan ever agreeing to relinquish control of the area, either to form part of an independent state of Jammu and Kashmir or as an independent state in its own right.” Gilgit and Hunza are strategically important to Pakistan because of the access they provide to China through the Khunjerab pass. Therefore, advocating self-determination for the entire former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir would irreparably damage Pakistan’s political and military interests

            The once paradisiacal region coveted by kings and mystics alike, albeit for different reasons, where snow-covered peaks majestically tower over flowing rivers and streams bordered by lilies gently swaying to the cadences of the gentle breeze, by a quirk of fate, has become a valley of guns and unmarked graves.

Since you belong to a family which has been an essential part of Kashmir’s History. How you have been able to keep yourself away from your background in leading with objectives.

Dr. Nyla I cannot escape my background, and some people will always have distorted notions of my work and my politics because of my lineage. That is a reality that I’ve learned to live with. Getting to know oneself is a work in progress. It is my constant attempt to understand and communicate my dreams, aspirations, and the realities that either facilitate or impede those ambitions. I have been a full-fledged academic for the past fifteen years and have devoted myself to carving a niche within the American academy as well as delving into the complex world of South Asian politics. Ironically, it was in the United States – a country that prides itself on the potence of its military-industrial complex – that I cultivated the drive to study the South Asian politico-cultural matrix, particularly the intractable Kashmir conflict. My unflinching commitment to pedagogy and scholarship as well as my unrelenting faith in the critical focus that education can provide are the reasons I have been able to create an autonomous space for myself.

Please give a brief account of your books  published and what motivated you to pen down the book Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

Dr. Nyla .         I was motivated to write Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir because, my goal was to engage in reflective action as an educator working with diverse cultural and social groups. I was challenged to examine my own locations of privilege and seek emotional empowerment in order to understand the systems that have generated the culture of silence. This culture generates problematic stereotypes, alliances and biases within and outside the community. I seek in the collision of modernity and communal memory a horizontal relationship producing intersectional ties between different cultural spaces, times, and ways of knowing the self in relation to the family, society and the larger cultural landscape. Acknowledging our complicity in oppression, reconceptualizing paradigmatic structures and mobilizing cultural and political coalitions is riddled with conflict, but it is the need of the day for us to engage in these processes.

            I start from the premise that the syncretic ethos of Kashmir has been violated by the outburst of religious nationalism, secular nationalism and ethno-nationalism that have facilitated political and social structural violence. The well-crafted theoretical fiction of a syncretic culture by the advocates of a Kashmiri polity empowered them in a circumscribed fashion to choose an idiom within which they could arbitrarily remove the distinction between religion and politics. I consider the shape of women’s empowerment or lack thereof in the syncretic ethos of Kashmir, and the new languages of resistance, negotiation and empowerment it adopts in the cacophonous social and political situation created by various nationalist discourses. I draw from the cultural and ideological spaces I was raised in; the cherished verses of the Sufi poetess Lalla-Ded, in whose immortal poetry the legendary beauty of Kashmir endures pain and strife but lives on; conversations with my maternal grandmother that are etched in my memory; informative and enlightening discussions with my parents, who have continued to live in the strife-torn Valley through years of unbearable hostility and the psychological trauma of armed conflict with an unparalleled stoicism; informal conversations with friends and acquaintances who are victims of the politics of dispossession; the extensive reading that I have done over the years on the conflictual history and politics of J & K. I also draw from the field work conducted during my annual trips to Kashmir in July 2005, 2006 and 2007 among predominantly agricultural communities in areas bordering the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. Against the backdrop of the politically tumultuous situation in J & K which has led to an increase in gender-based violence, I attempt to show that the muted voices of marginalized laypeople, particularly women, have not been raised loud enough against the atrocities to which they are subjected by Indian paramilitary forces, Pakistan-sponsored insurgents, counter-insurgency forces and religious fundamentalists. I also emphasize the necessity of foregrounding women’s perspectives in issues of nationalist ideologies, religious freedom, democratic participation, militarization, intellectual freedom, judicial and legal structures, in a milieu that does not co-opt them into mainstream political and cultural discourses or first-world feminist agendas.

            Using self-reflexive and historicized forms, drawing on my heritage and kinship in Kashmir, I explore the construction and employment of the Kashmiri political and cultural landscape, and gender, in secular nationalist, religious nationalist and ethno-nationalist discourses in J & K. I question the exclusivity of cultural nationalism, the erosion of cultural syncretism, the ever-increasing dominance of religious fundamentalism, the irrational resistance to cultural and linguistic differences. I also question the victimization and subjugation of women selectively enshrined in the prevalent regressive social discourse and the uncritically rendered folklore of traditional Kashmiri Islamic and Hindu cultures, such as limited educational and professional opportunities; the right of a husband to prevent his wife from making strides in the material world; the kudos given to a hapless wife who agrees to live in a polygamous relationship; the bounden duty of the woman to bear heirs; the unquestioned right of a husband to divorce his barren wife; confinement of the woman to her home where she is subjected to material and emotional brutality; the hallowed status of a woman who conforms to such cultural dogmas; the social ostracization of a woman who defies them; the status of woman as a fiefdom facilitating political and feudal alliances.

            The upsurge of gender-based violence has circumscribed the mobility of women who are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. I, for one, would not have been able to conduct my field research without the armed bodyguard my parents provided for me. As a woman, it would have been difficult and dangerous for me to venture into secluded rural areas which are cordoned by paramilitary troops. The ethnographic field research that I undertook was a method of seeking reconnection sans condescension by simultaneously belonging to, and resisting, the discursive community of traditional Muslim Kashmiri and Gujjar rural women. I was further motivated by the desire to critically observe the sociopolitical discourse in Kashmir through an oblique focus from the margins instead of from an elitist centre.

            My first book, The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, focuses on the representation of South Asian life in works by four Anglophone writers: V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, AmitavGhosh, and Anita Desai. Concentrating on the intertwined topics of nationalism, transnationalism, and fundamentalism, the book addresses the dislocation associated with these phenomena, offering a critical dialogue between these works and contemporary history, using history to interrogate fiction and fiction to think through historical issues.

            Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polityis an editedvolume of interdisciplinary chapters that address various aspects ofpolitical, cultural, and socioeconomic life in Kashmir. What sets thiswork apart from other works on Kashmir is that the authors of thechapters are all themselves academics based in the state of Jammuand Kashmir and are well known, well established, and well respectedwithin Kashmiri society, but they haven’t had much opportunity toreach an audience outside of Kashmir and outside of South Asia.

            In this way, the project does the highly significant work of creatinga space for subaltern scholars to project their voices, understandings,and interpretations to a larger audience. This is an especially criticalproject in the context of Kashmir.

            This book provides a forum for scholars from Jammu and Kashmirto voice their opinions and articulate their arguments vis-à-vis thelabyrinthine Kashmir issue. Voices from Srinagar, Kashmir, and Jammuarticulate opinions that deconstruct the dominant perspective.

            In this anthology, my attempt is not to propound a particularistic political and cultural ideology, but to highlight the nuanced opinions of indigenousscholars. It is my sincere hope that readers of the book will takethis opportunity to engage with the subjectivities, historical understandings, political opinions, and traditions of scholars from the“fringe.”

            In The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, which is an auto/ biography, my attempt is to steer clear of delimiting and conscripting narratives about my maternal grandmother, Akbar Jehan Abdullah. The reason I am so interested in studying her life and work is because, to my mind, there is a historical value in revisiting and challenging the historical narratives about the political personages of pre-and post-1947 Jammu and Kashmir and the movement for an independent Kashmir. My attempt to highlight the history of a region in a particular era is not to localize it. I think it is important to reshape historical memory so that it includes the humanitarian and pluralistic endeavors of leaders of the movement at that critical juncture post-1948.

            And although she was a woman, I do not celebrate her only as an event in the life of a famous man. I do not dwell either on Akbar Jehan’s sanctification, or the backlash, which veered toward vilification, or to her resuscitation by some sections of Kashmiri society. I present to the reader a woman of iron-clad determination, persevering, articulate, politically savvy; a vulnerable mother and grandmother, who, at times, turned a blind eye to the faults of her children; a believer in traditional kinship structures; a dedicated social activist, fiercely proud of her heritage, and just as fiercely keen on preserving it; an independent woman whose life redefined the stereotypical feminist notion of “emancipation,” because her desire for emancipation was mediated by a sense of responsibility to her community.

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