Anthropologist Haley Duschinski studies how the Kashmiri people use nonviolent means to advocate for human rights and justice in an occupied state
October 13, 2010
In 2009, Ohio University anthropologist Haley Duschinski was attending a wedding in the troubled Kashmir Valley.
Keeping with the custom of the region’s predominantly Muslim population, the women of the assembly were segregated from the men before the nuptials. When guests from the village of Shopian arrived, the new female contingent was promptly drawn into conversation with the women already present.
They didn’t talk about the bride’s beauty or the groom’s prospects, however. Instead, the new arrivals were grilled for the latest news on the rape and murder of two women in their hometown—widely suspected as the work of Indian security forces occupying Kashmir.
In this most ceremonial, seemingly apolitical of settings, Duschinski recalls, the women launched into “this really heated, animated discussion” about the case, that “went on for a couple of hours.”
The debate didn’t happen in public. But, Duschinski suggests, it’s an example of how Kashmiris are trying to work out answers, day by day, to a pressing question: What do “justice” and “human rights” mean in practice—and how might they best be defended—in this land where hostile soldiers walk the streets?
Duschinski, an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, has studied the Kashmiris’ movement for political self-determination for more than a decade, with repeated trips to their beautiful, isolated valley.
“What I’m looking at most broadly are the ways in which people on the ground understand and interpret human rights and justice,” explains Duschinski, who’s affiliated with Ohio University’s new program in War and Peace and Center for Law, Justice, and Culture. “I’m trying to understand how people are struggling to establish accountability for state violence under conditions of occupation, when the state is the body that determines accountability.”
Since 1947, Kashmir, high in the Himalayas on India’s northwest border with Pakistan, has been the object of a fierce dispute between the two countries, including three all-out wars and many smaller conflicts.
With control of their homeland split among India, Pakistan, and China, the Kashmiri people struggle for self-determination. In the early 1990s some took up arms, but by around the end of that decade, the Indian military had crushed the insurrection. Hundreds of thousands of security forces remain stationed in the part of the region they control.
Since the failure of the uprising, Duschinski says, “a new, nonviolent resistance movement” has emerged, despite harsh repression that includes torture, rape, illegal detentions, killings and “disappearances.” The rise of the nonviolent movement was forced into full blossom by what she calls a “complicated crisis moment” in August 2008, when the Indian government tried to transfer land in Kashmir Valley to a Hindu religious board, triggering opposition by Muslims and in turn, a violent crackdown.
At some point, Duschinski says, Kashmiris realized no armed resistance could outgun the Indian forces; nonviolence was the only viable option. Through many of the most vocal proponents of this nonviolent “second revolution” are educated urban elites—including many younger people—it has widespread popular support, she says.
As an advocacy anthropologist, Duschinski doesn’t claim her scholarship is purely objective; she criticizes “the sheer brutality of state violence in the region,” and admits, “I basically feel people should have a right to determine their own political futures.”
As a scholar, though, what intrigues her is how a campaign for human rights plays out in a traditional, somewhat insular society. While the Kashmiri struggle resembles other human-rights efforts, it also has unique aspects, says Duschinski, who is working on a book based on this research.
One of Kashmir’s most important civil-society groups, for example, is the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Like groups that arose in Argentina after Pinochet, it’s made up mainly of mothers searching for “disappeared” children.
What makes Kashmir different is that it’s still an occupied country, where many violent acts by security forces are, on paper, legal. This means, Duschinski says, that the closest twin of the Kashmiri situation is probably found in Palestine. There, as in Kashmir, the human rights campaign must play out largely in the public arena, as people seek to express their feelings about the occupation and send a message to the world outside.
Groups from all corners of Kashmiri society have developed creative resistance strategies. Some show their anger by throwing stones at security forces. Others take part in public demonstrations, or stage “performance” events such as mock tribunals and people’s courts. The Indian legal system is brought into play, as activists seek redress for human rights abuses in the courts.
Remarkably, notes Duschinski, all this happens in a place where, despite elections, “there’s no trace of democracy in practice… Kashmir is very much an occupied state.”
When the struggle was armed, she notes, “the call was always for freedom.” Now that occupation is a fact of life, calls for freedom are matched with calls for justice, as Kashmiris seek state accountability for human rights violations, and legal redress for victims and their families.
“The younger generation that has grown up since 1990, only knowing violence, still hasn’t given up hope,” she marvels.
Resistance also has taken forms flowing from the rich artistic and literary traditions of Kashmiri society. Poetry, memoir, photography—all are pressed into service, as fuel for the endless debate that enlivens the movement.
There’s Malik Sajad, for example, who is writing his homeland’s first graphic novel, and whose biting political cartoons can be viewed at kashmirblackandwhite.com. “Everybody in Kashmir knows his cartoons,” Duschinski reports. “He sees his art as a form of protest.”
Duschinski uses the anthropologist’s most basic tool, the participant field study, in which she enters the community and interviews people in depth, from activists to wedding guests.
Kashmiri former journalist Ather Zia says Duschinski’s “deep involvement with her informants and the society at large” help her grasp the complexity of Kashmir’s condition, “which might not be evident to someone who does not know the people on the ground so well, or does not visit as frequently as she does.”
This level of immersion has let Duschinski witness how a sense of shared struggle can rise up out of Kashmiri daily life—or as an anthropologist might say, how abstractions of justice and human rights are “vernacularized” in a way that’s recognizably Kashmiri.
By Jim Phillips
This story will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.