top of page

Ather Zia on Resisting Disappearances and Writing as a Kashmiri Ethnographer-poet

Interview by Kirti Goyal
Zia photo 2.jpg

Dr. Ather Zia

Dr. Ather Zia, a political anthropologist, poet, short-fiction writer and columnist, is the author of Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir. The book documents Kashmiri resistance against enforced disappearances – a tactic used by the Indian state to suppress tehreek, the Kashmiri resistance against the Indian rule. For Ather, the cause and mission of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) is an epitome of the everyday resistance that Kashmir has been practising. APDP was co-founded by Parveena Ahangar after her 17-year-old son disappeared from custody, spearheading a movement around the disappeared men.  

In this email interview, Ather Zia sheds light not only on APDP and their resistance but the micro-politics in which resistance must be contextualised within Kashmir. 


Kirti: What inspired you into writing Resisting Disappearance?


Ather: The book was almost a decade in the making. The inspiration was to narrate the Kashmiri story from a Kashmiri vantage point. The world perceives India as the largest democracy in South Asia, but it is time that people globally realised India is a neo-imperial nation. India has ruled Kashmir as a colony while selling symbols of democracy deployed in the region. For example, electoral politics which has been weaponised to tell the world democracy exists in Kashmir. 


While direct and indirect violence has been the Indian policy in Kashmir since 1947, human rights violations have increased since 1989. As a result, more than 1,00,000 people – both combatants and non-combatants – have been killed, and more than 10,000 Kashmiri men subjected to enforced disappearances by the Indian army. The enforced disappearances are symbolic of the limitless trauma the kin of the disappeared persons face as there is no closure. They are continually waiting and are in a state of constant limbo. I wanted the book to amplify how state-sponsored terrorism and military occupation makes these disappearances possible, perpetuating impunity, and invisiblising the suffering of Kashmiris and their genuine, UN-backed political demands. 


Laws like the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) give sweeping powers to the Indian military and paramilitary forces. They facilitate arbitrary arrest, detention, custodial/ extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, and otherwise inhuman, degrading treatment.


It is telling that 99% of the disappeared men in Kashmir have been civilian Muslim men, mostly bearded. The Kashmiri body – a Muslim, and by extension, a traitor – is portrayed as the “other”, as harmful enemies of the nation. This perception, reinforced in the public narrative, by the Indian media, enables the Indian government to carry out extrajudicial abuses. The Kashmiri body is doubly killable, because it is not only a Kashmiri body but also a Muslim body. 

The book opens with a very poignant image of Kashmiri Muslim women from APDP. Could you comment on the moment(s) it encapsulates in time? 


The everyday gendered politics of mourning of the APDP mission is what I term affective law, an agentive mode of challenging violence through everyday acts, cultural engagements and in non-traditional sites of confrontation. 


As a feminist analysis, the book focuses on how Muslim women confront the Indian occupation and state-sponsored terrorism as well as attend to the challenges of their social order. As political analysis, it centres the Kashmiri demand for self-determination and how India has imposed a “politics of democracy” to camouflage its military occupation which includes an endless rigmarole of client regimes that do India’s bidding inside Kashmir. 


The motif of performance is crucial for the politics of visibility. It is an important metaphor. It is through this that women’s activism intensifies and solidifies in the social and political realms. 


How do you think the occupation of certain sites by APDP activists to mourn their men’s enforced disappearance transforms the public sphere in Kashmir, keeping in mind how certain spaces and actions are categorised into the binaries of masculine and feminine?


There is forced and continuous mobility between public and private space due to the duress from the armed forces. The difference between public and private space has collapsed and diffused gendered social constraints. The home was traditionally a revered space – private and secure – which under military occupation has lost its sanctity. A home can become a makeshift interrogation center where men and women are tortured, killed, and raped. Soldiers walk into homes with impunity, in often-needless search operations, and rummage through household goods, breaking open ceilings and floorboards in their search for arms and militants. Kashmiris on the roads are frisked and beaten and lethal and disproportionate force is used against protestors. Any difference between the outside and the inside is lost. Not to glorify the circumstances of political violence which have pushed women into frontiers they were not present in before, but the cause and effect is a reality. This political violence has pushed women into arenas that were, for better or for worse, closed to them.


In the book, you note that gender politics in Kashmir is not limited to oppositional categories of domination and subordination, but is rather a phenomenon that unfolds in the daily individual modes of living which is “attuned to the cultural demands made on gendered behaviour”. Could you explain this?


In the lives of the APDP activists, the agency is more nuanced than just being openly confrontational. One must understand their activism keeping their religious, cultural and historical context in mind. It then tells us that they become agentive by working with the social and political constraints on their gendered roles.


In the book, I focused on daily transformations and what might emerge as gradual emancipatory processes instigated by a protracted war, where everyday life has become extremely political. The ethnography is an attempt to trace how the APDP activists have been mobilised primarily by female consciousness, in an urgent response to the destruction caused in their communities by the political violence and how female consciousness had led to public mobilisation and become an entryway into political consciousness and ultimately what is categorised as feminist consciousness.


I also did not want to pit my analysis as men against women, which is quite an unproductive lens. Instead, I chose to understand the gendered dynamics within the Kashmiri patriarchy, which has not been theoretically studied in the context of militarisation. Like in most societies, in Kashmir too, socioeconomic roles of men and women are predetermined by what I see as a “working-class patriarchy”. The common gender dynamics in Kashmir was predicated on complementary spheres of influence, which emerged from the patriarchal structure. The men dominated public life and the women were influential in the private sphere.


Even in the emergence of the APDP as a woman-dominated movement, gender dynamics was pivotal. As the search for the disappeared extended into years, several people dropped out. Fathers, for example, who were the primary breadwinners, had to drop out of the movement and return to day jobs. Slowly and doubly, the burden of activism, thus, fell upon women. I have observed that men work in the background, helping gather paperwork and engaging in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the army or in courts. 


Can parallels be drawn between the monthly APDP protests by Kashmiri women and the public demonstrations by Muslim women across India against the amended citizenship laws?


I must spell out the differences first. The Muslims across India are fighting the Indian state for their rights within the Constitution they uphold as Indian citizens. But Kashmiris – mostly Muslims in the resistance – are fighting against the tyranny of the Indian constitution and the Indian state. They are, as “state subjects” of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, seeking a resolution to Kashmir as per promises made, the international law and UN resolutions on self-determination. Kashmiris, except for a small number of collaborators and client politicians, do not consider themselves Indians and are viscerally anti-India – an ironclad sentiment especially after August 5, 2019. Even the worst of the Indian collaborators are having second thoughts after the Indian betrayal to promises made to them. The Indian passport, to a Kashmiri, is just a piece of document to help them be mobile just as a British passport for Mahatma Gandhi was a document that helped him travel abroad. Kashmiris consider themselves distinctly as Kashmiris. They are hugely nation-conscious people. 


The political context of the two fights, thus, is different even if both stand for restoration and sustaining rights of people, especially Muslims.


The anti-CAA and NRIC protests showed us the power of communities, especially how Muslim women are themselves pivotal to their political and cultural well-being. The ruling dispensation in India thrives on an anti-Muslim and anti-minority agenda. The protests across India challenged this legislation which has been compared to Nuremberg laws that laid the foundation of the Jewish Holocaust.  


With rising institutionalisation of discrimination against Muslims, Kashmiris fear that Indian settler colonialism and dispossession of indigenous people are becoming increasingly real inside the valley. All Indian governments have engineered a steady erosion of Kashmir’s autonomy with the aim of absorbing the region despite the Kashmiri demand for a plebiscite and independence from India. While the world was dealing with the pandemic, the Government of India amended the domicile lawwhen Kashmiris were doubly quarantined and unable to lodge protests of any kind. Kashmiris fear their loss of territorial sovereignty will pave the way for rampant exploitation of resources resulting in neo-colonial maldevelopment. 


Resisting Disappearance is located at the intersection of an embodied politics and affective research. What would you say about its wider vision and the chosen method of tehreek, the Kashmiri resistance movement against the Indian rule, against the mainstream discourse on Kashmir? 


The book is a story of people’s resistance. I chose ethnography for this research, with adherence to a decolonial feminist praxis owing to its use of people’s stories rooted in culture as analysis. I also recognised ethnography’s troubled history of developing in an ethos that initially was geared to propagate the Western colonial project. The European missionaries, colonial administrators and travellers, who doubled as ethnologists (as ethnographers were called then), have produced numerous detailed, sometimes well-meaning but mostly questionable works on Kashmir and its “natives”. The early biases of Eurocentric ethnography that manifest in eminent works, is the figure of the native Kashmiri, full of cowardice, laziness, dishonesty, and greed. By the way, this is a hallmark of colonial treatises across the globe, where locals have always been shown as “sub-humans” requiring the colonial masters to civilise them. This type of colonial ethnocentrism has taken on a new life in the Indian narrative, where Kashmiris are stereotyped as traitorous, ungrateful and deviant terrorists.


My analysis also shows how the “killability” of the Kashmiri body is justified in the Indian policy and mass imagination. The “killable” Kashmiri body – one that can be killed without remorse or accountability – is the turf on which the spectacle of power is staged by the Indian nation-state. And in that, since the 1990s, the enforced disappearances have become part of a tacitly approved repertoire of punishments used to suppress tehreek.


Different modes of resistance manifest in the actions of mourning, witnessing, and writing this book. Could you speak a little about each in turn?


I propose the analytical lens of affective law, to refer to the deeply emotional and haunting politics of mourning for the disappeared. The theoretical heart of APDP’s mission beats with what in Foucauldian genealogy is called counter-memory. These are the practices of remembering and forgetting that become crucial for resisting oppression and oppressive-dominant ideologies. They are “subjugated knowledge”, produced by the marginalised often hidden behind dominant statist versions. The APDP activists produce such knowledge, which appears in both archival and performative modes – often seen as naïve, informal, and inferior – to combat the government’s official versions which deny the state’s role in effecting the disappearances. 


APDP’s activism becomes a resistant memory against amnesia forced by a repressive military regime. The ethnographer does the witnessing, and the ethnography (the archive) becomes the witness. As a native ethnographer, I belonged to both the individual and cultural category. I grappled with questions of positionality as a Kashmiri studying the field professionally. The differences between my privileged professional and family background and my research partners were stark at an individual level. I had to remove myself and yet remain embedded as an anthropologist – like filtering tea leaves (self) in a sieve while pouring tea (observations) into a cup. There is of course no tea without the leaves, but the technique lies in filtering them without burdening the flavour of the tea.

You identify yourself as an “ethnographer-poet” in the book. What did it mean for you to do poetry to ethnography?


I explore poetry and its use for allowing me to capture the field and its experiences as a mode of contemporary ethnopoetics and strengthening the move for antropoesia in anthropological discipline. Participant observation as a methodology demands visceral empathy with the field, which, if not for the poetic process would have been impossible for me to achieve. Poetry written during the ethnographic research was as a moment of surfeit for me.


I feel the ethnographer-poet is doubly prone to experience and articulates the experience of witnessing in the realm of the imaginary, despite being grounded in fact. 


It is as efficient as any other genre of the written word and depends on the reader and receiver – what is seen as most generative or what appeals to them the most. The poem becomes a witness that intertwines the ethnographer as a professional and a visceral human. It allows writing to be more insightful, nuanced and yields a heartfelt ethnography.

Kirti Goyal is a postgraduate in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests are interdisciplinary in nature and located at the intersection of postcolonialism, gender, and literary studies.

bottom of page