The “Postcolonial” Colonization of Kashmir

In a new book, historian Hafsa Kanjwal charts India’s decades-long consolidation of power in the occupied region.

Deeksha Udupa
January 22, 2024

An Indian paramilitary soldier in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, January 2014.

Dar Yasin / AP Photo

In July 2019, short months after India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi began a second term in office, 10,000 Indian soldiers arrived in Kashmir—the Muslim-majority region that India has occupied since 1947. The deployment of additional troops was accompanied by the suspension of telecommunication and internet services, a stringent curfew, and mass arrests of Kashmiri Muslims, including prominent political leaders and human rights activists. This crackdown was the prelude to a watershed moment in Kashmiri history. On August 5th, Modi announced the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had afforded Kashmir a modicum of autonomy for decades. The shift, which unilaterally stripped Kashmir of statehood and nullified its constitution, was understood by critics as an act of annexation, with Amnesty International calling it “an aggressive gesture to deprive [Kashmiris] of their fundamental freedoms.” In the months and years that have followed, India’s repression of Kashmir has reached new heights, with frequent and arbitrary detention of critics, repeated raids on news organizations, sweeping travel bans, and a growing number of extrajudicial killings.

Many observers trace India’s oppressive policies in Kashmir to recent decades, when pro-independence and pro-Pakistan militant groups became active in the region. But in Colonizing Kashmir: State-Building Under Indian Occupation, Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of South Asian history at Lafayette College, argues that India has maintained an occupation in Kashmir since 1947. Often, Kanjwal writes, “‘the Kashmir issue’ is simply reduced to a ‘crisis of federalism,’ a ‘crisis of democracy,’ or ‘internal colonialism.’” But these interpretations end up “idealizing and valorizing the territorial boundaries of the nation-state . . . naturaliz[ing] the relationship between India and Kashmir, without critically analyzing how this relationship was constructed in the first place.” I spoke with Kanjwal about the way formerly colonized countries can also act as colonizers, the efforts of Hindu nationalists to erase Kashmir’s Muslim histories, and the parallels between the Palestinian and Kashmiri anti-colonial struggles. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Deeksha Udupa: India is often seen as a “colonized” country, but you argue that it has and continues to play the role of a colonizer in Kashmir. How does this reframing challenge conventional understandings of colonialism?

Hafsa Kanjwal: Our understanding of colonialism is determined by the European colonization of much of the world—which was largely an overseas colonization, and was distinctly racialized. In contrast, Kashmir and the Indian state are geographically contiguous with one another, and an outside observer would see the people of these regions as “racially” or “culturally” similar.

But these easy categorizations obscure a lot. In fact, after independence from European rule, a number of formerly colonized countries themselves engaged in colonialism in regions that—because of their distinct histories, demographics, or political aspirations—did not fit easily into the new national body. These states forcibly exercised their territorial sovereignty in the name of “nation-building,” labeling any resistance “secessionism” or “separatism.”

This is what India has done in Kashmir, mobilizing accounts of the region as a “Hindu land”—despite its multi-religious history, as well as its majority-Muslim population—to claim that it rightfully belongs to India. This is still a type of colonialism: one driven by a mythologized narrative of history as well as an anachronistic projection of India’s territorial boundaries into the past.

DU: India and its supporters often argue that Kashmir isn’t a colony because India has historically extended the region a great deal of autonomy. They note that under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, Kashmir was given special status which allowed it to have its own prime minister, flag, and constitution. But you argue that this appearance of autonomy has actually given India cover to keep a tighter grip on Kashmir. Can you elaborate?

HK: After Partition [the 1947 mass migration through which British India was dissolved into the independent states of India and Pakistan], the fate of Kashmir remained undecided. More than three-quarters of the state’s population was Muslim, and many would have preferred to join Pakistan or gain some sort of independence. But Kashmir’s princely ruler, the Dogra maharaja, was Hindu. When his Muslim subjects rose up against him after Partition—joined by Pathan Muslims from northwest Pakistan—the maharaja signed a contentious treaty of accession to India in return for the Indian government’s help quashing the revolt, which India did through a massacre of Muslims. India then placed Sheikh Abdullah, a Kashmiri client politician who had agreed to support accession if Kashmir were granted some autonomy, in power. Article 370 of the Indian constitution represented this “autonomy.”

But critical Kashmir studies scholars view Article 370 as a colonial treaty because it is evident that the Indian leadership never saw it as a permanent arrangement: It was a stopgap until things calmed down, with the eventual goal being for India to fully integrate Kashmir. By 1953, India had already begun violating the treaty and encroaching on Kashmir’s internal affairs, including its finances and judiciary. When Abdullah tried to resist this, India ousted him from office, putting the next client regime—led by Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad—in power.

DU: Your book zeroes in on the rule of Bakshi, which ran from 1953 until 1963. Why was it important for you to focus on this period in Kashmiri history?

HK: Most writing on Kashmir focuses either on the events of 1947, or on the Kashmiri armed uprisings and mass rebellions of the late 1980s and ’90s. In Indian popular and scholarly understandings, the decades in between are depicted as “normal” or uneventful, implying that it was only later on—when Pakistan sponsored an armed rebellion, or when India started to deny the people of Kashmir their “democratic rights” through rigged elections—that everything went wrong. But my research shows that it was in the several decades following Partition that India laid the groundwork for a full-fledged colonial project in Kashmir, a task it accomplished using seemingly benign tools like economic development and state-building.

DU: In your book, you discuss how India’s colonization of Kashmir was accomplished in part through the deliberate creation of economic dependency, which took place under the guise of economic development. Can you talk more about how this worked?

HK: Under Bakshi, India was able to infiltrate Kashmir primarily through fiscal, rather than military, means. In this period, Kashmir “financially integrated” with India, receiving significant grants and subsidies from the federal government—far more than those offered to Indian states. The result was a kind of “de-development,” which ensured that Kashmir would not be self-sufficient. Sara Roy, a scholar of Palestine, has argued that a similar dynamic exists in Gaza, where Israel has cultivated socioeconomic dependence and suppressed any attempt at economic autonomy. In both cases, this dependence has been part of entrenching colonial rule.

DU: Favorable media coverage was yet another tool with which the Indian colonial regime consolidated its power in Kashmir. How did this process work?

HK: The Indian press wanted to show that Indian rule was beneficial for Kashmiris. So under Bakshi’s client regime, Indian journalists would go to Kashmir and write glowing reports on the state’s economic development while sidestepping the immense political repression and denial of self-determination that Kashmiris were subject to. Kashmir’s client rulers buttressed these narratives in the hopes of keeping the Indian grants coming, even placing advertisements and press releases in Indian outlets to show that India’s financial investments in Kashmir were paying off.

This kind of favorable media coverage was particularly important for India at the time because in 1948, the United Nations had called for a plebiscite, or referendum, in Kashmir, whereby Kashmiris could decide whether to become part of India or Pakistan. That plebiscite never happened, but it was still a live possibility in the 1950s, and India’s failure to hold it led to criticism in the international press. The United Kingdom and the United States, for instance, understood the Kashmiri government as one installed by India.

But this critical press coverage waned starting in the mid-’50s, as international reporters who came to Kashmir were taken on a grand state tour. They were made to visit schools, tourism centers, and infrastructure projects, and were shown what was being done for women and peasants. At the end of such trips, many concluded that although Kashmiris were not fully on board with India, at least some level of development was underway. They went on to write positive accounts of their time in Kashmir for the international press. In this way, too, the narrative of progress contributed to the idea that India had won Kashmiris over through state-building.

DU: Settler-colonial regimes often justify their claims to the lands they are occupying using travel and tourism. You show that India has done this by exceptionalizing Kashmir as “a special place,” key to India’s national project. How was this achieved?

HK: In the 1950s and ’60s, Kashmir started being positioned as India’s most desirable tourist destination. But what does it mean for a colonized territory to be a tourist attraction? It means the colonial power is creating a desire for the place and its people while also defining the place on its own terms. In venues ranging from Indian tourism manuals to Bollywood cinema, Kashmir was shown as a getaway from metropolitan urban life in Delhi or Bombay, as a land of mountains, lakes, houseboats, and so on. Kashmir was where the heroine and the hero went to fall in love in the movies. The constant repetition of such depictions helped Indians identify strongly with and eventually claim Kashmir. It was one of the ways in which Kashmir became what the scholar Ananya Jahanara Kabir calls the “territory of desire.”

DU: You note that Kashmir has also become subject to another form of desire: that of the Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement, which sees the region as integral to its Brahminical (upper-caste) sacred geographies. Can you say more about the work of rendering Kashmir “Hindu”?

HK: In the image of the goddess that Hindu nationalists impose upon the map of the territory that they define as “India,” Kashmir is the head. If you think about the role of the head in the body, it’s pretty critical. You can potentially survive without an arm or a leg, but you cannot survive without the head. So Hindutva supporters have always been unhappy with the autonomy that the Indian government has given to Kashmir; from day one, they’ve wanted Kashmir to be fully integrated into India.

To lay claim to all of Kashmir, Hindu nationalists have tried to depict the region’s Muslims as outsiders. These claims have a long history: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kashmiri Brahmins and British colonial officials would deploy Sanskrit mythological texts to advance the narrative of an indigenously Hindu Kashmir. But indigeneity is a slippery concept in a region with a history of multiple migrations, whose geography is not so easily distilled into contemporary borders. To even categorize those who lived in Kashmir in ancient times as “Hindu” is anachronistic—given how, as some scholars have argued, “Hinduism” itself was constructed as a “religion” much later. The depiction of Muslims as foreigners should also be challenged, since many Kashmiri Muslims were local to the region. This is the history that Hindutva followers have papered over in order to support their political project.

DU: You argue that underneath all these positive Indian narratives of Kashmir—narratives that emphasize the region’s autonomy and development, as well as its Hinduness and oneness with India—is the reality of constant repression. How did this repressive apparatus develop?

HK: In Kashmir, India and its client regimes have always done things that fundamentally undermined any semblance of democracy. In fact, many of the mechanisms fueling Kashmir’s present repression were established early on, well before any armed rebellion took place. So as early as 1947 itself, political dissidents who demanded a plebiscite or merger with Pakistan were silenced through preventive detention and torture—many were in jail for years. They were only let out if they agreed to sign a bond saying that they would not challenge India’s sovereignty or criticize the government, a practice that is still in place today. Yet other dissidents were exiled. Another present-day practice that developed in the decades after Partition was the manufacturing of disturbances, like riots, as justification for more repressive measures like clamping down on dissent or preventive detention.

DU: You’ve shown that well before the ascendance of the Hindutva movement, India had already established a robust settler-colonial system in Kashmir—one that worked through both positive vectors of development and desire, and repressive ones like arrests and detentions. With the 2019 reelection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this settler-colonial apparatus has now come firmly into the grasp of Hindu fundamentalists. How has this Hindutva regime acted to further entrench the colonization of Kashmir?

HK: One of the first things Modi did upon returning to office was to realize a demand Hindu nationalists have been making since the late 1940s: He abrogated Article 370, as well as a related article, 35A, which had given Kashmiris certain exclusive rights in the state—including the right to buy land and rights of employment. These moves have essentially negated Kashmir’s autonomy, which had already been undermined over the prior decades. With the protections of 35A gone, non-Kashmiris—people and corporations from India—are now able to come in and buy land and, crucially, mine sites in the mineral-rich state. The abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy has also made it much easier for the Indian army to take over land in the region.

All of this means that Kashmiri Muslims now stand to be dispossessed of their land and resources, in addition to facing the threat of being made into a demographic minority—a situation which would render their calls for self-determination obsolete. All of this is happening in a context of intense political repression, where all possible forces of dissent—from civil society to journalism to human rights organizations to pro-freedom political parties—have been completely decimated. And many fear the repressive situation will worsen further with another win for Modi in this year’s elections.

These developments appear in a particularly terrifying light when we look at them alongside other cases of settler colonialism. For instance, Israel’s settler-colonial project in Palestine has entered a new phase with the outright genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. Kashmiris and Palestinians have long seen parallels between their struggles; indeed, Indian officials are on the recordcalling for “Israeli-like” settlements in Kashmir. It has become all too evident that neither of these colonized peoples can rely on appeals to “international law,” “human rights,” or “the West” to end their violent subjugation. In that sense, they serve as symbolic and material manifestations of the failure of the Euro-American civilizational project in its entirety. Under these circumstances, I wonder if international solidarity means working not to appeal to the international liberal order, but to disrupt it altogether.

Deeksha Udupa is a journalist, researcher, and fact-checker who is passionate about investigative storytelling. She previously was a fact-checker at The Nation magazine, where Deeksha also reported on Hindu nationalism and its impact on American politics.