The LOC at wartime

India, Pakistan, and the Liberation of Kashmir

Nosheen Ali
Sep 16, 2019 · 15 min read

“What language do you speak?”, I asked the rickshaw-wala in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). “Gojri”, he replied.

When he uttered the first sentence in his tongue, I could not believe my ears. I understood what he said, and exclaimed, “This is like Sindhi!” He smiled wide, his heart visible on his face, laughingly nodding his head. “Ji baaji, I have lived in Sindh, it is like Sindhi.” Two sentences in, I realized I recognized fully what he was saying, without the need to translate in Urdu. This was not even Sindhi, it was closer home. Rajasthani-Gujarati, in the Marwari accent. I was elated, confused, in awe. All the way in Kashmir, I did not expect to hear what I thought was just “my” language. Gojri, Gujari, Gujar-ati.

The tribal, traditionally nomadic and pastoral community of Gujjars form the largest population in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), and the largest scheduled tribe in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on the other side of the LOC. The connected, goat-herding community of Bakarwals also live on both sides, and dominated the landscape on our brief safar through AJK. Several thousand animals were hurriedly being rushed from pastures in Astore to the plains in Sahiwal, as part of an annual migratory pattern that usually happened in October. “Halaat ki waja se jaldi nikalna par raha hai”, a Bakarwal told us as we stopped constantly to make way for the nomadic communities and their livestock.

The halaat he referred to was the Indian annihilation of Kashmiri rights, autonomy, land and identity on the other side, which had escalated tensions between India and Pakistan and already caused “casualties” and injuries through Indian shelling on this side. The Bakerwals were trying to get out early from the disputed zone, having suffered immense loss of livestock, livelihood and life in earlier moments of war. Over the years, many communities in the upper Neelum valley had massively reduced their livestock, to avoid losing them in Indian attacks.

“Eik larki woh samnay shaheed hui thi, bakriyon ke peechay ja rahi thi”, we were told in Arang Kel. Near Athmuqam, we heard, “20th August ko jab attack hua to insanon ke saath kaafi janwaron ka nuqsaan hua.” People remembered dates, times, locations of shaheeds as well as the number and nature of livestock lost. Keeping animals seemed to be a lethal profession at a border where pastures have been occupied by two, utterly corrupt states obsessed with their greed for Kashmir. “Hum azad ho ke bhi azad nahin hai, kabhi bhi gola asakta hai.” We are Azad, and yet, forever at risk of Indian shelling so cannot be truly free even on this side. Sometimes, the Indian golas (shells) were 12 kg, at other times 75 kg. Pakistan, claiming to honor the Kashmiri right to self-determination – and eventually seeking to win over Kashmiris – avoids attacking people in Muslim-majority Indian-occupied Kashmir in the way Hindu-fascist forces in India can attack people on both sides of Kashmir, so it tries to directly attack and bait their military and aircraft. Many in AJK attest loyalty and dependency on the Pakistani army for their security and survival, for this reason. Many others continue to fight for true sovereignty, aspiring for a state free from both oppressors.

“Our lawyer has become our claimant”, said one former activist and current hotel-owner about the Pakistan state in AJK. “Tell me, what will Pakistan gain from Kashmir’s freedom? How will Kashmir’s freedom benefit those who rule Pakistan? So it does drama, tamasha, photo-session solidarity. Everyone knows who controls the show. People here blindly follow whoever gets elected in the Pakistani government.”

I sensed an exhaustion, a monotone disenchantment with the manipulation, coercion, and toxic militarization that had gripped Kashmiri lives for seventy-plus years. All the time for them is a time of escalation. To be at war is the norm at the LOC, because the LOC is forever locked in a state of war. The hostility between India and Pakistan is lived through the breath and being of Kashmiris – they do not have the privilege of being and feeling safe. In the name of “national security”, the two states permanently render Kashmiris unsafe.

Lines of Flow

The Line of Control that divides Indian and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir is nature-land-river transformed into a zone of terror. I thought there would be barbed wires, gates, militaries facing each other with guns. That was there, of course, military installations hidden amongst the tallest peaks on both sides. But in essence, the line of control on the ground was the stunning river Neelum or Kishan-ganga as it was historically called. It flowed continuously, with people living zero km away from it. People lived on the LOC. The same people, the same houses.

Tithwal, Azad Kashmir

On Thursdays, at some specific locations, people could meet their relatives by crossing a bridge across the river. But that had stopped in February, earlier this year when Indo-Pak hostility had again peaked, 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 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 goat-herders, 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 pahar 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, as it had been on atleast three points in the previous month.

At night, the brighest moon I had ever seen emerged from the mountain on the Indian side, alongside its military searchlights. On this side, stationed on the road with us, were hundreds of goats, sitting up, facing the “enemy”. All anyone wanted was rest. There is starkness, and agitation, amidst the powerful glory of nature in the region. In the silence of the valleys, I wondered if animals on both land and sky had also beeen suppressed by routinized shellings at the LOC.

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, beddings, food items, and on the sides, chara 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 towards 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.” Ouch. I smiled at this reality dose and sighed. “Darna nahin hai”, he continued. “Abhi Kashmir bhi to un se lena hai”, the Azad Kashmiri reminded.

An undeterred, undeceived, straight-up sense of the truth, I felt amongst many people living for seventy-two years in the most militarized zone of the world. In others, a jaded lethargy, and in yet others, a nervous anxiety about what loomed ahead.

A Hindu-Fascist Occupation

On August 5th, 2019, India annexed Kashmir through a combination of extraordinary military, demographic, and communication violence. A continuation of the “incremental genocide” already underway in Indian-occupied Kashmir, the current seige has seen a million troops on the ground carrying out over 2000 arrests and widespread torture, a total phone and internet blockade that still continues, the continuation of lethal and illegal use of pellets as a means of mass blinding and maiming, the dispossession of Kashmiris from their historical right to be sole land-owners in the state of J&K, and a gleeful Indian public celebrating the availability of “Kashmiri brides” and prime property. Indian media has shamelessly glorified Prime Minister Modi’s act, in a context where Hindu-fascist forces backed by Modi have simultaneously rendered 1.9 million citizens stateless in Assam and thrown them in detention centers. This brand of Hindutva ideology – fascist, annihilatory, and hypermasculinized – is older than partition, older than the Kashmir “problem.” It is India’s biggest nightmare, it is India’s undoing.

When I was writing about Gilgit-Baltistan, a few Indian scholars routinely and surreptitiously mistrusted my accounts. Surely, there were more gruesome acts of terror I was hiding? Surely, Pakistan – long seen in the Indian imagination solely through the caricature of a failed, backward, religio-military state – also had half a million troops on its side of Kashmir and was engaged in routinized, brutal torture? The simple fact that Pakistan was on the Kashmiri side, even if hypocritically, and recognized it as an international dispute awaiting self-determination, was lost to my Indian interlocutors. Pakistan surveilled, regulated, oppressed, but it was also contained by the “special”, UN-observed status of the region and served as a patron to the Kashmiri cause for self-determination. It supported the militancy there financially, militarily and morally. In the name of the “Kashmir cause”, both countries had been using Kashmir to not only perpetuate hostilities towards each other, but also to deny sovereignty and justice within their own polities. In the name of the “Kashmir cause”, they annihilate Kashmiri will and self-annihilate too, with regional proxy wars in Afghanistan and Balochistan alongside Kashmir. The most damning consequences of these policies has caused internal instability in Pakistan itself.

For most Indians, the Kashmir issue is reductively understood as one entirely about “enemy” Pakistan supporting militancy, not about the problematic toxic nationalisms that both countries enact on Kashmiri soil and soul – and on each other’s land —and especially not about the Kashmiri aspirations for sovereignty which pre-date the creation of India and Pakistan. When one points out the devastating nightmare of militarism in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Indian commentators ask, “what about Balochistan?” – as if horrific Pakistani abuses and state-led disappearances in Balochistan make it fine for India to commit atrocities in Kashmir.

The fallacy of “India-is-becoming-Pakistan”

Many Indians – and some my own close friends – have had trouble seeing India as a religio-fascist state. For long, they have been drunk on the idea that India is democractic, secular, shining, and somehow, the opposite of Pakistan. Indian politicians and secularists in the past few months have often made sense of the contemporary crisis in India by catastrophizing, “We are becoming like Pakistan!” This misrecognizes, evades, and denies the annihilatory politics of Indian nationalism itself, both Hindu-nationalist and secular varieties, that has caused havoc in Punjab, in the Northeast, in Chhattisgarh, in Gujrat, in Kashmir. Still in India, people do not want to see, hear, or feel what Kashmiris themselves desire, the U.N. mandated right to a plebescite be damned, the Kashmiri’s fierce demand for autonomy be damned.

Over the last seven decades, Kashmir has been transformed from an “international” issue of grave concern to the world, to a “bilateral” issue convenient for the military-centered discourses in both countries, to an “internal” issue of India in which Kashmiris have been entirely silenced. Indian academia has been puzzling to me, in its obsequience to a hollowed-out, Indian nationalism. If there is Indian guilt over Kashmir, many could not face it, and chose to resort to an “it’s all Pakistan’s fault” approach to the issue, wanting to wish away their guilt by highlighting what a disaster Pakistan is, and how surely it must always be worse. The absence of a grounded discourse on Kashmir in subaltern studies, postcolonial studies, partition studies, and all hit studies of decolonizing feminisms remains astounding. You would be a traitor, a Pakistani agent, if you talked openly on Kashmir in India so nobody did. Nobody dared to understand, either. The truth of the matter is, nobody cared to reconsider the supremacist notions of Indian colonization in Kashmir, and how the foundational myths of Indian nationalism and secularlism have been centrally produced through a particular reading of Pakistan and Kashmir. In the name of defeating enemy Pakistan, everything was justified. Indo-Pak relations themselves were little understood. Kashmir as a beautiful paradise, Kashmir as a prize, Kashmir as conquest, are the unconscious ground of Indian identity and domination. The racist, castiest, and irredentist fabric of Indian society is invisible in a secular-on-top-savarna-underneath national discourse in which Muslims are the problem populace, and Kashmir, to be subdued at all cost.

The invisibility and utter lack of knowledge of Kashmir is linked to this deep-rooted disdain for Muslims in India in general. Islamophobia is a light word for what I have seen even amongst so-called radical poets, academics and journalists, at times. After hours of discussing shared poetic histories, a “radical” Indian poet once asked me, “How come you don’t hate Islam? Isn’t it the worst religion?” When I have presented on love and egalitarianism in Muslim Sufi thought, Indian academics have been shocked because, “like, Islam is creeping everywhere, and isn’t it the problem?” These are budding scholars of bhakti thought, and hate is the only lens through which they can apprehend Muslim lifeworlds. The irony is catastrophic. Because this is the population one would have hope from. Supposedly secular and independent-thinking academics sometimes do not realize how totally BJP they become when it comes to Islam or the Kashmir question.

More widely, cheap secularism in India has only served to project and protect a Brahmin-centered worldview in which the majority of Indians are supposedly getting “developed” and all is fine. Muslims were alright, barring a few lynchings. They ought to conform, or shut up. Look Hindus are being oppressed in Pakistan too, so well, we are even, aren’t we? Kashmiri scholars have been screaming, bleeding, arguing, engaging. The listeners have become fewer and fewer. My Sindhi Muslim friend from Pakistan tells me that some of her Sindhi Hindu friends from India have gone the BJP route, and proudly write “ex-secular” and “ex-Marxist” on their facebook bios now.

Militarized fascism in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the illusion of democracy has not been possible due to sustained military domination, with a vast segment of the population suffering directly at the hands of an intelligence-driven establishment. AJK, of course, is especially surveilled. Daily in Pakistan, we highlight Indian atrocities and claim solidarity with Kashmiris, yet daily we proclaim, “Kashmir banega Pakistan.” Pakistan recently shut down the internet in AJK, alongside blocking protesting civilians from showing solidarity with the other side. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

My research on Gilgit-Baltistan had earlier revealed to me how inhabitants felt connections between the actions of a militarized, Punjabi-zed Pakistani state in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan. It was similar in AJK.

“Why don’t we talk about Bajaur? How is the Pakistan state going to be in Kashmir given what it does to its own?”, argued a Kashmiri activist in Kel. “Khud-mukhtari hamara haq hai.” Self-determination is our right. “Yes!”, I replied.

Shrine of Pir Chinasi, and moments, Azad Kashmir

I wondered, silently, how Pakistanis from Sindh to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were themselves resisting state control, and dealing with gruesome realities of a militarized politics and militarized Islam, economic apartheid, and gendered oppression. Pakistanis themselves are battling it out for the soul of the country, for self-determination, for freedom. In free Pakistan with its “Muslim homeland”, Muslims are unsafe from fellow Muslims, Christians and Hindus routinely attacked and vicitimized. Shared religious spaces like Udero Lal in Sindh which till three years ago were thriving, are now securitized and threatened. There is a “gherao” from Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore to that of Laal Qalandar in Sehwan, either because of direct militant attacks or through tacit support for fundamentalist interpretations that preach no shrines, no music, no dance, no movement, no women, no sound.

“High-rated gabru” and “Sandli sandli” were the preferred sounds on this trip by our local drivers, alongside “puranay ganay” which always means the grand Urdu poetry of old Bollywood, ghazals, nohas, unknown 90s Bollywood more melancholic than nohas, and the everlasting treasure of Nusrat qawwalis – at least one new always to be discovered on such road trips. “Sitamgar” – the Gilgiti hit song from last year was being played from his mobile phone by a resident, during the walking trek to Arang Kel. Folk songs in Pahari – the most widely spoken language in Azad Kashmir – were acquired and played on my insistence on our jeep drive.

Our jeep driver, Nimat Jan, said to us, “We here are mostly Barelvi. But the Deobandis tell us, don’t recite zikar after namaz. Don’t go to shrines. Don’t say Ya Muhammad, because Muhammad is bashar (human).” I had not known this – that “Ya Muhammad” had also now been declared shirk. Nimat went on, “Hum unhein kehtain hai, namaz main to Muhammad par durood bhejtay hain. To kia namaaz bhi galat hai?”

I was reminded of Mumtaz Qadri, of Aasiya Bibi, of Tehrik-e-Labaik. A perverse form of Islam has become the norm, where everyone is ready to declare others wrong, even kill in the name of the Prophet. Barelvis and Deobandis have increasingly asserted themselves politically, and militantly defended far-right positions.

I wondered if qawwalis were ok. “Naat bhi apnay matlab ki promote karte hain”, remarked our Muzaffarabadi friend Aslam who was also traveling with us. Nimat proceeded to justify the power of saints, how what they had achieved through ibadat we could never achieve, how we needed them to bless our journeys.

Azad Jammu and Kashmir is a land dotted with shrines, as is Pakistan, as is all of South Asia. Often seen as deviance, “Hindu-influenced”, or kufar by many city-dwellers, it remains the essence of Islam for the masses. The organized containment of shrines is an anti-people, anti-poor move, against a vibrant, intercultural, pluralistic Islam, and towards one that has heightened sectarian prejudices. It is a result of long-nurtured, sponsored, religious bigotry and extremism in Pakistan. Both the Cold War and the war on terror have played a major role in creating this situation.

“And what is this flag?” I asked, observing a third one alongside the usual Pakistani and Kashmiri ones at a dhaba near Athmuqaam. “It is the flag of khatam-e-nabuwat”, Aslam replied, and then proudly pointed to himself as part of the anti-Ahmadi movement. I stayed silent. At two other locations, I saw posters for khatam-e-nabuwat conferences.

Later on, in the journey, Aslam referred to Shias as “khatmals.” I again stayed silent. A stalwart Kashmiri activist for self-determination, Jamal, talked amazingly about the rights of Hindus and Sikhs in riyasat-e-Kashmir, and argued that the two-nation theory which people in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir use violates such a pluralist vision of Kashmir that had existed historically. I asked about Ahmadis, and his face changed, followed by rabid anti-Ahmadi comments. I challenged him and we ended the conversation on a sour note.

Zan, zar, zameen.

“Do bhai zameen par larai karte hain, eik inch chornay ke liye tayaar nahin hote. To phir ye to Kashmir hai”, 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. What patriarchy does to homes 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.

At the LOC, I felt starkly the burden of 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 the 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. The world’s biggest militaries with sophisticated weaponry are 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, humilating 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 in masculinist narratives of “key players”, “war games”, and “narrative control.” Kashmir is under a devastating attack, and our struggle must join with theirs, our struggles are one and the same.


  1. For background on Kashmir, see
  2. Present-day anti-Ahmadi attitudes in Azad Kashmir are shaped by the longer history of Jama’at-i Ahmadiyya’s involvement in Kashmiri politics in the 1930s, and the formation of the All-India Kashmir Committee by its then leader Mirza Bashir al-Din Mahmud.

Nosheen Ali


I study and re-write the social, poetic, and ecological histories of South Asia

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