Sitting far away in Massachusetts, I spend hours on Google Earth zooming in and out of Kashmir. I type names of Kashmiri places in the search box and watch the globe roll and the pin drop. I zoom in to locate villages and neighborhoods with recently bombed houses, or Kashmiri settlements along the border destroyed in artillery shelling. Google Earth satellite images aren’t recent—why else would Kashmir look sunny and green even during snowy winter months! Clearly, Google Earth has no sense of history or an understanding of the Kashmiri seasons. Yet, oddly enough, it satisfies some exilic and diasporic yearnings.
I compare images of destroyed houses—the ones that appear alongside news reports of deadly encounters between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri armed fighters—with the most probable satellite images of those houses when they were still standing. I don’t succeed often, but when I do, I linger, touch the screen, and mourn. Sometimes there are blurry human-shaped splotches near the houses. The residents, perhaps. Were any of them among the ones reported dead, I wonder.
I zoom out slowly. There is usually an Indian military camp within a five-mile radius. They are easy to locate; large compounds housing rectangular buildings with olive green roofs. Zoom in and you can see camouflage-painted armored personnel carriers parked in formation, ready to ferry Indian forces to dynamite some other Kashmiri neighborhood.
I sometimes glance over my mother’s house in South Kashmir. The images aren’t always clear, but I can recognize the roof of the house I grew up in. The lone pomegranate tree in our orchard is still there. There is the slender strip of pastureland across the stream behind the house that used to be our “picnic spot” during curfew days. It has shrunk. I can see Aijaz’s and Bilal’s houses right next door. Friends from my childhood. We used to play on the grounds of a nearby cinema before Indian paramilitary forces stripped down the seating, yanked out the projector, and occupied it. The paramilitaries are still there.
Then there is the military base a few miles away on a hill overlooking the town. There are bunkers and sniper nests along its edges. It has considerably expanded since the military took over the hill in 1990. New barracks keep emerging out of older ones, like malignant protuberances. I just zoom out and spin the Earth in anger.
In August 2019, when India passed new laws that opened the door for Indian settlers and altered the territorial configuration of Kashmir—diminishing the historic region that had been the State of Jammu and Kashmir for 173 years to two “Union Territories”—my first reaction was to launch Google Earth.
With years of research in the region behind me, I was aware of the militant Hindutva expansionist ideology that underpinned the Indian government’s decision. I was also familiar with the intense control the Indian military maintains in Kashmiri public spaces. Yet, was it possible that India could launch a full-steam settler-colonial project as its politicians and experts were openly calling for? Did they have the wherewithal to carry out the genocide of Kashmiris, as many sections of the Indian public were brazenly demanding on Twitter and Facebook? Did Kashmiris have any real physical defenses to thwart India? These were the questions that drove me to search for answers in aerial imagery.
From above, you see four topographies in Kashmir: jagged hills and snowy mountain-tops; verdant paddy fields and orchards; villages and urban neighborhoods laid out like a delicate neural web; and, the expansive geometry of the Indian military occupation.
I started using Google Earth to map the Indian occupation a few years before a major flood hit Kashmir in 2014. I was aware that since at least 2005, the Indian government had asked Google to blur images of military bases in Kashmir. However, the scale and architecture of the occupation is so vast that not all images could be easily scrubbed.
The 2014 floods had devastated dozens of neighborhoods along the Jhelum River. Indian military establishments along the banks were also inundated. Years later, when newer satellite images became available, the dust and grime from the floods appeared to have remained within the civilian spaces, making the houses look aged and feeble. By contrast, the military establishments had not only reemerged as lush spaces but had frenetically expanded. Civilian districts near these establishments looked crushed together like cans of sardines.
On Google Earth, you can start from the Badami Bagh military cantonment in Srinagar and scroll outward in any direction to trace the web of camps, air-bases, helipads, pickets, ammunition depots, torture centers, roads, and railways. Or, you can take the conventional route, starting from the Indian military’s “Northern Command” base in Udhampur in the southern Jammu province. Here you follow northward along the only road that connects India with Kashmir, National Highway 1, and watch the occupation slowly unfold, revealing where the half-million strong Indian forces controlling Kashmiris return to rest at night.
You could also languidly scroll over the low hills and mountain passes to locate the entrenched Indian bunkers and artillery positions, especially along the Line of Control, from where Kashmiri villages across the border are unremittingly assaulted. But if you get stuck at Badami Bagh in awe, you are not alone. It is a monstrous city within a city, perpetually creeping up into the mountains to the north and spilling toward the edge of the Jhelum to the south.
When you zoom in from outer space, the protean map of Kashmir slowly comes into view. The solid white boundary lines (recognized international borders) gradually disappear, and a mangle of crisscrossing red lines (disputed borders) and broken white lines (claim lines) becomes visible—a festering trauma of post-colonial imperialism. These unrecognized borders are called the “Line of Control” (between Pakistan and India) and the “Line of Actual Control” (between India and China). The names are apt because they signify antediluvian territorial principles: “grab whatever you can,” and, “it’s yours if you can control it.”
If you are viewing from India, the map will favor India. Google has made a special concession to Indian sensibilities; the company allows Indians to see all of the historic state as under Indian control, further fueling Indian nationalism’s cartographic dissonance on Kashmir.
On the ground, the lines are clear as day. On the Indian side, villages have long been emptied and the border is mostly a wide band of near-emptiness, except for the military fortifications. On the Pakistani side, the settlements are thin and spread out, almost right up to the Line of Control. To the north, the lines disappear into a knot where Pakistani and Indian forces stare each other in the eye over a frozen glacier. Further to the east, a cold desertscape looms and looks placid on the surface. But occasionally the Indian and Chinese troops stationed at shouting distances from each other reenact bloody prehistoric battle scenes, throwing punches and stones at one another. In a recent such battle, soldiers from the two sides clubbed each other to death and flung the injured over the Ladakh Range’s craggy cliffs into the freezing waters of the Galwan river. 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese died; dozens were wounded.
On Google Earth, you mostly see things from above, a gaze from space. But lived geographies aren’t imagined in that scopic modality. There is also the entire critique of the gaze from above as a projection of imperial and colonial power. But what should the colonized do, if not return the gaze in the same mode, or repurpose the gaze from the above toward liberatory possibilities?
“We may not like it, but we will have to train ourselves in geopolitics,” Farooq, a Kashmiri activist told me once, “And, yet, not be paralyzed by what we might see.”
It is hard to avoid geopolitics; Kashmir is smack in the middle of three nuclear weapons states that field some of the largest standing armies in the world. Huge portions of those armies presently occupy Kashmir or maintain control over the volatile frontiers drawn in the region. For close to seventy years, the region has seen multiple wars and skirmishes. However, after all these decades the countries have only achieved a “stable instability,” which means clashes are the inevitable norm and not an aberration. War is always ready to break out. Maintaining peace here would take keeping in check nationalist hubris, but that, unfortunately, is the lifeblood of the regimes in all three states.
In all this, the people of Kashmir have the distinction of being powerless witnesses to the absurd geopolitics played over their country. This does not mean that they don’t have a view; in fact, it is the opposite. You will often find Kashmiris from different walks of life discussing geopolitics, even though it may not appear in the academic idiom.
Take my uncle, a schoolteacher in Kashmir, who called in the last week of May when the China-India boundary was heating up. While sharing mundane family news, he suddenly switched to the geopolitical mode:
“China is demolishing India’s two-front war doctrine. What do you think?”
“Two-front war doctrine? Indian generals saying on TV, you know? You know, how they were saying they are ready to fight China and Pakistan at the same time?”
“Ah, okay. Well, that is TV. The world isn’t like it is on Indian news channels.”
“But their generals and TV anchors want to conquer Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin.”
From the Kashmiri perspective, it is Indian irredentism that is mainly responsible for the cartographic mess and violence in Kashmir.
He continued talking about how the nationalist one-upmanship has led Indian leaders to persistently poke China and Pakistan with maps that are laced with threats, even though the maps do not correspond with any reality on the ground.
His insight is not a result of any special interest in international relations, or, for that matter, research into maps, but of shared bits of news exchanged in conversations and turned into a coherent understanding. The deep distrust of the Indian state—which comes from the historical experience of living under it—provides the affective and the analytical frames of such an understanding.
If geopolitics has become a somewhat default political subjectivity for many Kashmiris, so has the sarcasm that emerges from being powerless. Indian experts on TV provide enough nightly material—ranging from unsightly spectacles of nationalist bravado to computer-generated cartoonish war maps—for Kashmiris to make fun of the next day. Hence, my uncle’s emphasis on the word “conquer.”
“The geopolitical order around us appears so static, it is hard to imagine Kashmir can return to being an independent state again,” Farooq had said, “But, once in a while, we should reorient upward from the everyday brutality of the Indian occupation to realize how these boundaries are recent and shifting.”
India has maintained a strategic innocence and largely convinced the Western powers to accept its territorial claims on Kashmir as natural and inviolable. It frames the Kashmiri anti-occupation movement as “secessionist” or as a “proxy war,” and Western states, who would like to rely on India to contain China on at least one front, limit criticism to an occasional rap for human rights abuses. India has tried to make itself useful accordingly and joined the anti-China bulwark ring, but in the process, it has pushed China to turn its attention to Kashmir. This is not what India wanted. They wanted everyone, including Kashmiris, to forget about Kashmir.
“The West is far,” I was told by a Kashmiri academic recently. “China is right over the mountain.” He was slightly unimpressed by Kashmiri diasporic efforts to raise human rights awareness in the US. “The West wants things around here to remain as they are, while China wants to secure inland trade routes,” he said. “We have to think about all the possible scenarios ahead.”
“But if there is a conflagration, Kashmir might not survive to see the outcome,” I retorted. “We can’t abandon the importance of international visibility and the question of human rights if we have to protect our people.”
Yet, to the academic with the geopolitical insight, I wish to say “why not,” if he sees possibilities emerging for Kashmir from an India-China conflict. The Indian settler-colonial project is imminent. Kashmir may not survive either way. There is also some truth to Romain Rolland’s statement (attributed to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci): “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” If it wasn’t mad will, how else would one explain that Kashmiris have for decades even chosen to resist a colonizer 100 times in population? India has deployed 5,000 soldiers for every Kashmiri fighter in this war. The worst odds in the history of war!
Geopolitics is considered “high politics” conducted at the level of statesmen and executed by military generals and diplomats of imperial states. It shouldn’t be. For anti-occupation struggles and other global justice movements, situational awareness of their place in the world is important. How is a particular movement located in relation to ever-shifting power dynamics in its geographic vicinity, and what strategies and alliances might advance its goals?
India has extensively used the playbook tactics of counterinsurgency to keep Kashmir destabilized. You could call it an “ordered disorder,” a graduated application of chaos to prevent the occupied peoples from organizing their defenses.
In other words, contemporary popular resistance in Kashmir has often been forced to eschew a geopolitical perspective—which goes against the long history of precisely such a thought in Kashmir.
Surrounded by rising and falling empires and predatory states, Kashmir has often been a regular stopover for expeditionary forces along a busy invasion corridor. A sort of defensive realism became inevitable—neutrality, detachment, and even hiding. Persistence, waiting out, and wearing down the rulers allowed Kashmir to remain an entity of its own for most of its history.
The long stretches of loss of independence were also a result of groaning internal social conflicts. Kashmiri theory, for instance, is explicit about the interlacing of the class and the geo politics.
Abdul Rahman, an old and wise labor activist in Srinagar, told me in 2016: “Kashmir is under foreign rule because our privileged classes have always betrayed the rest of us.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, half knowing where he was going with his line of thought.
“You see, the upper classes, instead of seeking legitimacy for their power from the Kashmiri masses, were more inclined to seek the patronage of a neighboring power willing to preserve their privilege in lieu of control over Kashmir. We were forced to pay ransom to foreign rulers so that the upper class families could receive subsidized grain.”
“Yeah, isn’t that the story behind how Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs, and Dogras came to capture Kashmir?”
“And the Indians too—the upper classes traded Kashmir and its people for their class privileges. That is why instead of joining us in the freedom movement, they cavort with our colonizers.”
Many Kashmiris will agree with Abdul Rahman’s assessment of Kashmir’s political history.
Kashmiri geopolitical thought has often remained unarticulated. This is partly because the burden of defending Kashmir has always fallen on the backs of its masses who were simultaneously denied access to the privileged spheres of cultural recognition. This thought, however, has strongly metamorphosed into an insurgent cultural imaginary.
In the popular imagination, Kashmir is a series of interconnected valleys and hilly regions tied together by a shared experience of protest and rebellion, exile and refuge, and oppression and exploitation under autocratic dynasties and foreign occupiers, but also by polyphonic cultural traditions, commerce and interdependence, and ties of kinship and neighborliness. This “territorial” imagination is sometimes underpinned by affective ties expressed in poetic and ecological metaphors—mouj (mother), wa’er or bagh (garden)—but more often in the form of a lament: “Yath Kasheeri chu’na har tar’fe taawan!” (Our Kashmir is afflicted on all sides). The afflictions: greedy neighbors and privileged classes.
Taken together, Kashmir for Kashmiris is like a house. Home, of course, but also a house. Kashmiris narrate their travel from one place in Kashmir to another as if they were going from one room of a house to another. The boundaries between inside and outside are more or less always clear. This was the case even before a new cartographic consciousness was imposed on Kashmiris by the events of 1947.
For instance, when India invaded in that year and forced the division of the state of Kashmir into two sides along the Line of Control, so it could absorb one side and let Pakistan keep the other, Kashmiris saw it as a momentary crisis. After all, Kashmir did not necessarily have any significant geographical or historical ties to the landmass that became the Indian state. The rivers flowed westward to Pakistani Punjab and the roads mostly led to West and Central Asia. India will have to leave sooner or later, Kashmiris thought; the geography dictated it.
Kashmiris refused to accept Indian rule even though India presented it as a fait accompli. India has remained the ne’bar (the outside) and Pakistani-administered Kashmir remains ap’or (the next room). This house form of the Kashmiri geo-imaginary makes the concept of “occupation” not only significant in international legal terms, but also as a form of cultural trauma.
Geopolitical theorists have been arguing over the last few years that the post-Cold War “liberal world order” of global governance, human rights, and norms is ending. In its place comes a return of “old-fashioned geopolitics,” and “revisionist powers” jostling to assert state power and territoriality. For places like Kashmir, it is hard to discern the impact of such shifts because Indian control was never “liberal” even during the supposedly liberal era. Yet, one can sense that the US-led imperial order is unraveling in several key regions, and “frozen conflicts” are alive.
If it is true that geopolitics is back again, can there be critical geopolitical theories of emancipation and liberation? Can there be theories that apprehend the fault lines within the global order of domination, and show the occupied and the colonized how to create a new world where the domination of the defenseless is not the norm? Can there be theories that will not repeat the mistakes of the previous anti-colonial movements that reproduced imperial state structures once the Europeans had left (India being a prominent example)?
“Kashmir’s anti-occupation struggle will have to develop a double vision—keeping an eye on the shifting geopolitics while reasserting our struggle based on the principles of shared humanity,” Farooq, the Kashmiri activist had said, “You see, with geopolitics, the right to self-determination also becomes imperative.”
I like Farooq’s idea of “double vision.” To me, it would involve persistently building hope for a radically different future from within the despondency of the present. To create something new and unexpected from that which we have been handed. To dream of the utopia while keeping a firm eye on the realistic ways to achieve it.
On Google Earth, I am drawn back and forth from the tense borders of Kashmir where alien armies have assembled to defend or take what is not theirs to the fragile web of Kashmir’s cities and countryside. I imagine Indian strategists in search of a so-called final solution for Kashmir are also on Google Earth, planning colonial settlements. I wonder if it excites them to look from the above and plot the genocide. Will they try to root us out right away, or will they pretend to be our neighbors for a while before the drama begins?
“Soon we will be taken to Indian courts by Indian settlers where the Indian judge will ask us to prove according to Indian law that we have the rights to the land under our own homes,” a friend from Kashmir told me last November after India had partially lifted the communication blockade imposed in August 2019. “Then the bulldozers will arrive.”
We grew up with the idea that we should hold onto all the documents that prove our identity at all times. This didn’t protect us from Indian soldiers who would randomly demand to see our IDs on the streets and then proceed to attack us anyway. As a Kashmiri resistance leader used to say a decade ago: “We should be asking these soldiers, ‘Pray, where have you come from, and why are you here?’ We shouldn’t have to prove our identity in our own country.”
We have reached a precipice even since those days, a danger of a higher magnitude.
“If something major doesn’t shift soon enough for us, Indian law will prove we don’t exist,” my friend said. “It is really do or die, and a war will not be the worst thing to happen.”
The war is already taking place, a colonial war against Kashmiris. In his words, I hear a desperate search for hope.
For the occupiers, the history of violent conquests is sanitized and celebrated. It is perhaps a blessing that Google Earth shows older pictures, which carry with them the unquiet residue of the past. But will these images of Kashmir remain in the archive, or will they be scrubbed too? Or, will these images help build a new consciousness, reinforce our sense of place in the world, and strengthen our will to not let the trap of our geography become our destiny?
“For seventy years, India kept telling us: your resistance is futile; now it is telling us: your existence is futile,” my friend said to me as the line faltered. “But everything is clear now. Our desire to live is stronger than their desire to dominate.”