In this article, Niharika Pandit, winner of the 2023 Michael Nicholson Thesis Prize, discusses the findings from her PhD thesis Life Under Military Occupation: An Anticolonial Feminist Analysis of Everyday Politics of Living in Kashmir. The thesis was described by the judges as “an insightful and compelling reading that takes seriously Kashmir not simply as an object of study, but as an epistemic location for understanding and perhaps resisting the global politics of militarisation”. The judges also said it “stands out for its originality and coherence, with its bottom-up epistemology that offers a significant contribution to the critical study of militarisation/militarism.”
There has been a sharp rise of right-wing authoritarianisms and magnification of state power globally with devastating consequences for religious, racialised, gendered and other minoritised communities. Much of the recent critical and interdisciplinary literature led by feminist, post and anticolonial thinkers has mapped these transformations to theorise contemporary (post)coloniality where many formerly colonised regions have embraced – and furthered – colonial tactics of violence, control and coercion in regions which refuse to accept statist sovereignty claims and demand self-determination. In August 2019, when the Indian state removed Jammu and Kashmir’s nominal autonomy by putting the region under siege, the Kashmir valley saw a resurge of militarised-colonial-state violence with arbitrary arrests and detentions, strict control over movement and assembly, lack of access to communication and internet for months, accelerated settler colonial governance and widespread muzzling of political dissent. My PhD thesis, Life Under Military Occupation: An Anticolonial Feminist Analysis of Everyday Politics of Living in Kashmir is a post-2019 feminist ethnographic archive that theorises the intersectional gendered processes, functions and effects of military occupation in the routine lives of Kashmiri Muslim subjects.
While much has been written about the routine ways in which state and other forms of dominant power take hold and shape ordinary lives, and considerable literature has been preoccupied with questions of resistance/submission or agency/victimhood, my thesis does not conceptualise the everyday as a self-evident or naturalistic site that awaits theoretical recovery. Instead, I draw on Ilana Feldman’s framing of ‘politics of living’ that destabilises binary and simplistic understandings about people living under abject conditions of dispossession, settler coloniality and occupation as either victims or exemplary resisters. With its focus on the in-between – that is, what happens between moments of crisis and fleeting ‘quiet’ – politics of living allows me to trace how structuring conditions of power produce subjects, spaces and politics in contingent and constraining ways. With ‘everyday politics of living’, I demonstrate how the statist-colonial project of occupation while relying on violence and oppression is not ‘finished’ but an ongoing project wherein people navigate spaces and devise practices of survival such as refusal, acquiescence and wilfulness that seek to chip away at occupational power and control. Gender and racialisation (of Kashmiri Muslims) are key analytical lenses through which I argue that military occupation – and coloniality that structures this militarised project – takes hold in social, spatial, embodied, affective, temporal and discursive ways. These complexities are regulated through social hierarchies of gender and racialisation that come to have distinct effects and modulate how differently placed Kashmiri Muslim subjects navigate, survive and contest occupation.
Neither understating statist-military control nor simply valorising different forms of resistance, I theorise the everyday politics of living also to breathe life into ephemeral and routine practices, often written out of conventional analyses, and account for them in the political realm. Examples include interviewees continually contesting statist ‘normalcy’ claims or occupation as a ‘normal security/law and order project’ or women mapping different walking routes to avoid military gaze and talking about their experiences not as passive acceptance of gendered vulnerabilities but to articulate a critique of occupation. These practices indicate both the hold of occupation as well as the intersectional gendered struggles that create a germane ground for anti-occupation imaginaries. As such, while my thesis queries the nature, processes and effects of occupation in Kashmir, the state is not the protagonist of this story. It is interviewees’ accounts, their experiences, grounded thinking and their epistemic-political potentialities that take centre-stage and drive my analysis. This endeavour is as much epistemic as it is methodological; and for this, I am indebted to transnational anti/de/postcolonial feminist theory, Black and Global South feminisms, Critical Kashmir studies and critical and feminist thinking on militarisation.
"while my thesis queries the nature, processes and effects of occupation in Kashmir, the state is not the protagonist of this story. It is interviewees’ accounts, their experiences, grounded thinking and their epistemic-political potentialities that take centre-stage and drive my analysis."
Methodologically, I think with faithful epistemic witnessing and politics of location. These ethical-praxical commitments necessitated that I pay attention to the stories and archives my interviewees were assembling and their conceptual potential in theorising the constitutive complexities of occupation. Much of this drew on anticolonial feminist scholarship’s insistence on undoing and redoing dominant knowledge productions in ways that counter coloniality while treating everyday thinking and being as valuable epistemic resources. And so, my ethnographic and archival attention to interviewees’ experiences did not treat their accounts and stories as ‘raw material’ but as eminently epistemic. And I rely on these understandings to conceptualise what even is understood as the everyday, what kind of experiences it pushes interviewees to recall as a way of showing how there is nothing ‘banal’ or ‘subtle’ about the everydayness of occupation, but rather it exacerbates mortal fear and uncertainty. I have developed some of this thinking through the concept of ‘re-membering’ in detail in my 2023 article in Feminist Theory journal.
In terms of epistemic redoing, I submit that dominant and even critical thinking on militarisation that is situated in and reinforces Global North/Eurocentric frameworks remains insufficient in explaining the conditions of occupation and its attendant process of militarisation. Instead, I ask: what different understandings of militarisation and occupation do we arrive at when thinking with marginal Global South geographies as epistemic sites? What kind of ethical commitments are required, if we are to not simply rehash global epistemic and political hierarchies, but rigorously centre marginal knowledges and life-worlds? Thus, rather than theorise occupation as ‘another form’ or ‘type’ of militarisation to prove the commensurability of dominant IR concepts produced in non-conflict and/or the Global North contexts in geographies of the Global South, I take seriously the question of coloniality and the complex ways in which it takes hold but is also challenged in contemporary times.
Dr Niharika Pandit is Lecturer in Sociology at Queen Mary, University of London. She is currently working on her book On the Politics of Living: Gender, Coloniality and Occupation in Kashmir based on her PhD research.