The Line of Control at Wartime: Fascist Masculinities and Kashmir

From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia

Photo by Mythri Jegathesan.

The Line of Control (LoC) that divides Indian and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir is nature-land-river transformed into a zone of terror. When I visited Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on the Pakistani side in September 2019, I thought there would be barbed wires, gates, and militaries facing one another with guns. That was there, of course, military installations hidden among the tallest peaks on both sides. But in essence, the line of control on the ground was the stunning river Neelum, or Kishen-ganga as it was historically called. It flowed continuously, with people living zero kilometers away from it. People lived on the LoC. The same people, the same houses monitored by rival armies.

Tithwal, Azad Kashmir. Photos by Nosheen Ali.

On Thursdays, at some specific locations, people could meet their relatives by crossing a bridge across the river. But that had stopped in February 2019, when Indo-Pak hostility had again peaked and both countries almost went to war, jeopardizing all of Kashmir, all of India, all of Pakistan. I remember we had stayed up sleepless in our Karachi homes, anxious as WhatsApp messages were exchanged about army and navy buildup at the borders, about planes being downed. A few days later, things had gone back to normal. There was no return-to-normal at the LoC.

Sitting at Tithwal, we gazed at Indian-occupied Kashmir. We saw a school bus, we saw goatherds, we even saw their soldiers. If there is idyllic horror, it is this. We walked on the road on our side, with trepidation, stunned at the madness of nations, trying to finish our cups of tea.

At Keran, the azaan crossed over from the other side, easily. The settlement on both sides is called Keran. We stopped at the river to hear the azaan, in a daze, as if it was a special blessing. The sounds from across tug at our hearts. We could barely keep track of which mountain is “ours,” which “theirs,” what village settlement is on this side, which on that. The LoC felt fluid, was literally fluid, unsettling and unsettled, defying division. We moved on it without staying at it, jittery at the thought of being observed and targeted by Indian shelling, as it had been on at least three points in the previous month.

At Kundal Shahi, a family showed us the tehkhana—underground shelter—which households living on the LoC have built to escape Indian shelling. The tehkhana symbolized a state of permanent war-preparedness. Neatly packed against the main wall were clothes, bedding, food items, and on the sides, fodder for the animals. Any second, Indian hostilities could start and people would leave everything and hide in this small room. They had done so three weeks ago. My fear and nervousness was visible. “So you see a shell coming and run toward the cellar?” I asked. “Yes,” Asadullah said, normally. Then in a wry tone, “It’s better than Karachi you know, where at any traffic signal you don’t know who will come from where and kill you with a gun. Here at least we know who the enemy is and the mountain from which the attack will come.”

Zan, Zar, Zameen (Women, Wealth, Land)

“Do bhai zameen par larai karte hain, eik inch chornay ke liye tayaar nahin hote. To phir ye to Kashmir hai” (Two brothers fight over a small piece of land, unwilling to give up even an inch of property. This is afterall Kashmir), explained the farmer Muhabbat Khan in Arang Kel.

For all the complex facets of the Kashmir conflict that one can delve into, this felt like the core truth. Muhabbat Khan helps us identify a feminist critique of the way the Kashmir conflict is dominantly framed as an India-Pakistan issue, a national issue, a security issue. By invoking everyday property battles that take place all over South Asia “between brothers,” Khan exposes the capitalist patriarchy at the core of the conflict. What patriarchy does to households is exactly what is happening at the borders—an ego-driven lust for property and power. An arrogant bro-fight over a place that does not even belong to them. A land grab.

It is this masculinist lust for Kashmir that has spiraled out of control into hyper-nationalist militarism and fascism in India and Pakistan, whereby both countries wish to hold on to the land and resources of Kashmir with scarce concern for the desires and rights of its inhabitants. At the LoC, I starkly felt this burden of fascist and militarized Indo-Pak masculinities on Kashmiri bodies in South Asia. At the highest peaks, in sensitive climatic zones, the idiots were facing each other with high-tech weapons, wanting to claim, possess, shoot, kill. It reminded me of men flashing their dicks. It also reminded me of the power-ridden thrill men get from a hunt. Latest weapons aimed at innocent birds and mammals for sport. Except here it is the necks of 1.2 billion people at stake. Are the world’s biggest militaries with sophisticated weaponry protecting us, or drowning us in a tehkhana of masculine hubris?

Demilitarization, demilitarization, demilitariazation—the constant, loud, and clear demand of people of Kashmir, on both sides. Demilitarization and the liberation of Kashmir is indeed the only way forward. Before another massive earthquake, before climate change, our man-made catastrophe will kill us. It has been killing, abducting, torturing, humiliating Kashmiris for too long. To enable the liberation of Kashmir, we must interrogate and liberate ourselves from the hate-centered masculinities that have turned India and Pakistan into brutal states. The refusal to hate the other is a priority, alongside calling out and interrogating delusional state-making in the name of “Kashmir” in both nations. Kashmir is the mirror to what we have become. We must reject notions of “patriotism” that sell war to us, while requiring us to impose our will on the people of Kashmir.

As feminists in particular, we need to see how the violence that is enabled in the name of patriarchal protection at home and the violence that is enabled in the name of patriotic protection in Kashmir are connected. The compulsive need for patriarchal proprietorship—and the horrific mentalities of competition, lust, and greed that undergird the conflict in Kashmir—is the truth that gets lost. Kashmir is under a devastating attack, and our struggle must join with theirs, our struggles are one and the same.