Professor Hafsa Kanjwal on her Book “Colonizing Kashmir: Colonizing Kashmir: State-building Under Indian Occupation”

Hafsa Kanjwal is an assistant professor of South Asian History in the Department of History at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses on the history of the modern world, South Asian history, and Islam in the Modern World. As a historian of modern Kashmir, she is the author of Colonizing Kashmir: State-building Under Indian Occupation (Stanford University Press, 2023), which examines how the Indian and Kashmir governments utilized state-building to entrench India’s colonial occupation of Kashmir in the aftermath of Partition. Hafsa has written and spoken on her research for a variety of news outlets including The Washington Post, Al Jazeera English, and the BBC.
Enya Kamadolli '26 interviewed Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal on February 27, 2024.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal.

What inspired you to write Colonizing Kashmir? Was there a specific void in Kashmiri scholarship that you hoped to fill or frustrating trends that you wished to rebut?

During my undergraduate years, I studied general international relations. When I would come across books on Kashmir, I always felt that there was a discrepancy between what I was reading in those books and what I knew to be true about Kashmir from my and my family’s’ own lived experiences, given my Kashmiri background. When I went on to do my PhD, I was interested in doing two things. First, I aspired to challenge the ways in which Kashmir is only seen through the lens of the Indian nation state, or through the lens of an interstate dispute between India and Pakistan. Part of what I wanted to understand is how Kashmir was situated, and how you could tell the story of Kashmir from the perspective of the aspirations or the experiences of the people themselves, rather than a story of where Kashmir fits into the formation of the modern Indian nation. Second, I noticed that there was a gap in Kashmir scholarship – a temporal one. Much of the scholarship that I did read focused primarily on partition and what was happening in Kashmir around 1947, as well as the armed rebellion of the late 1980s and its aftermath. There was a lot of analysis, mostly from Indian scholars, on why Kashmiris took up arms. However, I was most interested in trying to understand this period in between the Partition and the late 1980s which was being portrayed as a period of “normalcy” in most popular and scholarly accounts.

In your book, you do indeed mostly focus on that period, more specifically, the era of the Bakshi government and its attempts to emotionally integrate the Kashmiri people into the Indian state – a sort of emotional integration as a mechanism of colonial domination. Beyond the fact that not many scholars were focusing on “the period of normalcy”, was there anything else that drove your choice to focus on this more specific period characterized by what you coin the “politics of life” rather than the more violent parts of India's domination?

When I went into the field to do my archival research, I thought that I would talk about the entire four decades in between the Partition and the late 1980s. However, as I got started on the initial oral interviews that grounded my research, I realized truly how much had happened during those 10 years. I interviewed several people who lived in Kashmir during that time, including many who were part of the state-making bureaucracy. Bakshi, the second prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was someone that is referenced in relation to two things. First, he is seen as a traitor for betraying his predecessor, Sheikh Abdullah, and for essentially finalizing Kashmir’s contested accession to India. To many locals, he is seen as incredibly corrupt. However, despite his negative qualities, he is also seen as someone who did what he could to uplift Kashmiri Muslims in particular, especially in terms of economic employment, education, etc. I was particularly intrigued by someone who was both characterized as a traitor and someone who was seen as having empowered Kashmiri Muslims in specific socioeconomic capacities. When I entered the archives, I quickly realized that there was a lot of content about the kinds of ways in which state-building was being used as a mechanism to entrench India's role in Kashmir at this time, which is what my book eventually focused on. In this decade, the Indian state truly did the most to try to integrate Kashmiris. Yet, in 1963 and 1964, there were massive demonstrations against the Indian state because of the Holy Relic Incident. As such, I was also interested in this question of what does it mean to attempt to emotionally integrate people through state-building projects, but then not have that succeed? What does it mean when a people start demanding self-determination or calling for a plebiscite?

What do you think went wrong over that decade-long period? Why was Bakshi’s client regime not able to fully succeed in emotional integration efforts? What conditions allowed for budding self-determination movements to build amongst the Kashmiri people?

Part of it has to do with historical memory, because even at the time of partition, there were communities across the state of Jammu and Kashmir who would have preferred that Kashmir joined Pakistan. In fact, many expected that it would, given that Kashmir was a Muslim majority state. Some of that historical memory continues to operate, and the state attempted to manage that by showing the Kashmiri people that India was a better option. But while the Indian state tried to economically empower people, or educate people, it didn’t necessarily mean that the intentions behind the policies would translate into results. For example, the state worked hard to build several schools to empower Kashmiri Muslims, particularly women. However, once you start to get educated, you become a lot more aware of the different kinds of rights that you ought to have – this includes political rights. This burgeoning desire for political rights came into immediate conflict with the Bakshi government’s attempts to cull political dissent. A large part of why this project fails is that the Indian government didn't really understand that the Kashmir issue, from its onset, was not an issue that could be resolved by economic development. Rather, it was a question of political sovereignty and self-determination. It is very hard to mollify those desires by bringing in economic development, especially when that economic development itself further constricts self-sufficiency and increases inequalities within Kashmir. I think that was the root of the failure.

You make in your book’s conclusion that there is a tendency in current public thought to see India as previously secular and democratic, and believe that the rise of the BJP is what pushed India towards an ethno-nationalist state that is experiencing democratic backsliding. You point out that even very early during India’s dominion over Kashmir, we saw clearly repressive policies, suggesting that there was an anti-democratic component that was hugely influential in the early development of the Indian state. Could you speak more on how India’s history in Kashmir contests that dominant narrative?

Central to my book is the idea that it is very important to analyze India’s foundational moment, and what defines that foundational moment. In many ways, India's occupation of Kashmir defined its foundational moment. India's claim to secularism in particular –the fact that it was a secular state, unlike Pakistan, which was depicted as being a theocratic or religious state– was based on the idea that because Kashmir was a Muslim majority region that had “chosen to join India,” its claim to a secular identity was legitimate. Yet, secularism itself was used in a way to deny Kashmiris their sovereignty, because Kashmiri Muslim aspirations and political imaginaries were being criminalized and seen as illegitimate. Kashmir is also an example of a democratic contradiction. India was supposed to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir, as called for by a United Nations resolution. India and Kashmir’s client regimes tried to use local elections and local electoral politics as a mechanism to fulfill that plebiscite. Kashmiris, as well as the international community, would argue that this did not actually adequately fulfill the plebiscite, as the only local parties that were allowed to run were the parties that agreed with Kashmir’s accession to India. Democratic processes were also weaponized in Kashmir – elections were certainly happening in Kashmir, but they were not truly free and fair elections. One of the things that I hope readers take away from the book is that processes like secularism and democracy that often have positive connotations, especially in that kind of liberal, Western thought, can operate to entrench a colonial occupation.

Another similar example of a typically positive process that served to entrench colonial occupation in Kashmir is economic development. Could you elaborate on how Indian developmental policy served to create Kashmiri dependency on the Indian state? Through your research, did you discover an intentional policy agenda to produce that dependency as a control mechanism? How can Kashmir, going forwards, attempt to wean off that dependency?

I argue in the book that it was the Bakshi government that sought greater financial integration with India. Unlike his predecessor, Sheikh Abdullah, Bakshi realized the projects he wanted to implement would require a lot of capital, whether it was for building infrastructure, schools, etc. During his era, there was a lot of Indian money flowing into Kashmir, but mostly towards an elite, bureaucratic, corrupt class of people. In many ways, this group served as a comprador class for the Indian government in Kashmir. Initially, the Indian government had rejected financial integration because it argued against giving the Kashmir government large sums of money. Bakshi leveraged the fact that Kashmir was still a disputed territory to argue that Kashmiri Muslims could still be swayed by Pakistan, in order to gain greater concessions from the Indian government. India then realized it could use this greater financial integration to paint Kashmir as India’s dependent. Soon, Kashmir was presented as a begging bowl in Indian discourse, bolstering arguments against sovereignty. That is a narrative that you continue to hear today in India, when the question of Kashmiri sovereignty arises. Today, Kashmir’s economy is inextricably linked to India, as most Kashmiri exports must go through it and most imports come from India. Kashmiris have not had economic sovereignty. For example, because of the particular ways in which India has manipulated the agricultural sector in Kashmir, Kashmiris must rely on food that comes from India, even for staples like rice. India has institutionalized a lack of Kashmiri self-sufficiency.

When you were researching Colonizing Kashmir, were there any parallel case studies of colonial domination that you considered using for a comparative analysis?

There are a lot of regions of the world that have a politically liminal status, or they're being actively colonized by different nation states. I really tried to situate Kashmir in the broader processes of nation state formation across the world, not just in South Asia. In that vein, I was able to see a lot of similarities between Kashmir and Hawaii, especially in terms of this idea of creating a paradisiacal site that is this space of desire, exoticism, pleasure, and leisure. Kashmir is depicted very similarly for the Indian gaze. I also looked at Puerto Rico, Palestine, and Tibet, as I tried to better understand how nation states deal with these liminal spaces that lack legitimacy where they are actively colonizing the local community. Many similar mechanisms have been used across different spaces.

What is one takeaway that readers of your book ought to have about how colonialism manifests in states that were previously colonized, like India under the British Raj?

The conversation about decolonization in the Global South is often linked to the idea that many of these countries were throwing off the yoke of European colonial rule. However, they did not throw off the yoke of what territorial sovereignty looks like or deconstruct common ideas of how a nation and the state come together. They drew upon a lot of similar ideas about territory and integrity of territory as the Western powers that once colonized them, including matters of territorial sovereignty and expanding their rule within their respective contexts. How are we to understand territorial sovereignty in this moment of decolonization? Why is it that this moment was seen as liberatory, when in fact it has not really challenged some of the underlying assumptions of European modernity? There are several different ways that colonialism has operated in post-independence India. Initially, India's rule in Kashmir relied on the politics of life and development, and discourses of development. Later, their rule becomes a lot more about the politics of death. You see so much more violence –torture and extrajudicial killings– once Kashmiris take up arms against the Indian state. After 2019, Kashmir’s resources are now accessible to Indians, which has brought fears that this new phase of colonialism will be defined by Indian settlers coming in and taking land and resources, especially mineral resources. We are in kind of a distinct moment now. Ultimately, I think what unifies all these moments is that there has been a denial of sovereignty and an attempt to change Kashmir to serve the needs of the Indian state at that particular time.

What would you say have been the most lasting ramifications of Indian control on Kashmiri social fabric?

The creation of the comprador class is a big deal, because part of how colonial rule has always operated is that it has attempted to find those within the native population who will further their rule. Article 370 itself, as myself and other Kashmiri scholars have argued, was really a colonial treaty; it was a way to make Kashmir and the Kashmiri client regimes agree to accede to India with a false promise of autonomy. Yet, when Article 370 was revoked in 2019, people started to fear that this will now result in the takeover of Kashmiri land and resources. There was an attempt by these client regimes to shift the goalpost from liberation from India to now simply wanting to restore Article 370 or statehood, so that those initial protections can be set back into place. This is one of the many ways in which the Indian state can push the political conversation to restrict the actual calls for liberation, and it makes people complicit in some ways in their own colonization, where people end up being somewhere on a spectrum between resistance and either cooperation or collaboration.

What moment in time would you consider to be the peak of Kashmiri self-determination and liberation discourse?

For a long time, Kashmiris tried to work and operate within a kind of constitutional nonviolent means of resistance, just demanding a plebiscite. However, in the 1980s, there was this massive armed movement for liberation that had a lot of popular support, and people would say that freedom was just around the corner. That was what it felt like at the time, because you would see millions of people on the street, marching and calling for Azadi, or freedom Of course, this brought a military response from India. However, yet again between the years of 2008 to 2016, there were more massive protests calling for azadi in Kashmir. Recent history has been defined by ebbs and flows. The Indian state will use repressive techniques to suppress the armed movement and popular dissent, but then a few years will pass, and a singular incident will erupt. In the past five years, things have been very difficult in Kashmir with a complete clampdown on all forms of dissent. While it remains kind of unclear where things will go at this stage, if we consult history, it is hard to keep people suppressed for so long.

Enya Kamadolli '26Student Journalist

KennyOMG, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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