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Critique of Statist Narrative of Women Empowerment in Kashmir

Samreen Mushtaq ( is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science and Syed Rabia Bukhari ( is a postgraduate student of English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

Operation Sadhbhavana, an initiative of the Indian state to “win hearts and minds” of the people of Kashmir, is an exercise in militarised humanitarianism which effectively enables increased interference of the military in civil governance. Such statist narratives of empowerment, providing women economic opportunities or funding under various governmental schemes, are insincere as people have no real control over their lives and spaces in the face of systematic state violence.

Over the last few decades, the hitherto dominant gender-blindness in academic works and policy initiatives has been countered by the stress on the need to fight gender inequalities and violence, and to ensure women’s empowerment for development. Prior to that, fundamental issues surrounding the lives of women and varied forms of gender-based abuse were not treated as violations of human rights, for women’s rights and human rights were seen as distinct (Bunch 1990). However, with the declaration of the United Nations (UN) Decade for Women (1975–85), the adoption of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, categorically stating that women’s rights are human rights, along with subsequent policy initiatives by governments across the world, gender has slowly but certainly marked its presence in the rights and development discourses. Even on the academic front, since the 1990s especially, the research on gender and feminism has become more institutionalised and recognised as a legitimate field of research. In 2005, Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, stated that

study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women ... no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after conflict has ended. (Australian Agency for International Development [2007: 4] cited in Porter [2013: 1])

Indeed, scholarly works, governmental policies and the UN frameworks have all contributed to “women’s empowerment” becoming a major component of the
human development paradigm today.

Yet, reductionist understandings of the concept have not gone unchallenged: one of them being the Western idea of empowerment forced on the non-Western “other” and another being how the one in power defines what empowerment means for the oppressed sections. Another site of contestation is in terms of how securitised states of the present-day use narratives of development and empowerment to further their militaristic interventions. Therefore, it becomes important to understand what empowerment actually entails and how specific contexts play a role in the understanding of the concept. Generally, empowerment has been used to include access to education, healthcare, and increased representation; however, it misses “the ways in which power politics constrain access for women” (Porter 2013: 3) in the sense of how
existing (unequal) gender relations work to subordinate women and determine their life choices. The empowerment of women, therefore, has to be seen

as a process in which the following elements will be considered: awareness/consciousness, choice/alternatives, resources, voice, agency, and participation. This dimension of women’s empowerment is linked to enhancing women’s ability to make choices over the areas in their lives that matter to them. (Charmes and Wieringa 2003: 423)

This article looks at the women’s empowerment narrative within the context of the Kashmir conflict to understand how the language of empowerment is put to use to “obscure exploitative relations” (Pease 2002: 136) in a situation where fundamental freedoms stand suspended and the very survival and dignity of the people is at stake.

Indian State in Kashmir

When the British departed from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) acceded to neither of the two newly independent dominions of India or
Pakistan but agreed to sign a standstill agreement with both—which Pakistan signed and India did not. However, an internal rebellion in the Pooch area of the princely state against the unpopular Dogra Maharaja, who ruled the Muslim majority state, gained increased momentum following partition and had a “definite pro-Pakistan character” (Bose 2003: 32). This led to the proclamation of the formation of a provisional Azad Kashmir government in Rawalpindi, even as the Maharaja’s forces used brutal measures to suppress the rebellion, resulting in the killing of 2,37,000 Muslims (Naqvi 2016). The subsequent “tribal invasion” from Pakistan had Maharaja Hari Singh appealing to India for help that came upon signing the Instrument of Accession1 as the Indian Army landed in Kashmir. Ever since, Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. The matter was raised at the UN, promises of plebiscite were made and occasional hostilities still continue between the two countries with India terming Kashmir an integral part of its territory and Pakistan referring to it as its jugular vein.

It is possible, even probable, that without Kashmir the destinies of India and Pakistan would have in any case diverged; but Kashmir accelerated the process and added to it a most unwelcome degree of violence. It can be argued that Kashmir has been the dominant force in shaping the foreign policies of both India and Pakistan, and there can be no doubt that it has infected every aspect of the internal political life of the two nations—to which, in 1971, was added a third, Bangladesh (Lamb 1991: 2).

However, there is more to the conflict than merely the “territorial dispute,” that of the human cost of prolonged conflict. In 1989, insurgent activities arose against the Indian control of Kashmir as a popular uprising took shape in the valley. The Indian state responded with military might as it denied the Kashmiri population “the right to determine their own political identity, a problem that continues to fester” (Kaul 2011: 70). Widespread abuse of human rights has been reported since then, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

So began a long spell of state repression in the form of cordon-and-search operations, and extended periods of blanket curfews in major towns (especially Srinagar) without any provision for essential food supplies, roadblock checks with beatings, intimidation, verbal abuse and humiliation, widespread torture, rape, arbitrary detention of scores of youth suspected of being militants, and shootings by the security forces at public processions and in crowded market areas, often in a panic response to militants’ fire (Behera 2002: 48).

Even as India continues to refer to the problem in Kashmir as one of law and order instigated by the neighbour or because of alienation due to unemployment and underdevelopment, Kashmiris have continued to march through the militarised streets over the years demanding azaadi (freedom). More than 70,000 people have been killed and 8,000 men have been subjected to enforced disappearance by the state (IPTK and APDP 2012: 7). With laws such as the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978 that allows for detention without trial for two years, and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990 which grants extraordinary powers to the armed forces, regimes of impunity are produced as “part and parcel of the logic of the state of law, even as they run counter to the nature and even possibility of law itself” (Duschinski 2009: 703). Thus, the entire structure, from state institutions and armed personnel to legislation and judiciary, works in tandem to subject people to violence.

The Façade of Development

The presence of military camps almost everywhere, regular checking and questioning, violations with impunity, and lack of accountability have made the Kashmiri people feel subservient in their own land for armed personnel continue to wield power over them as part of the oppressive state structure. In the name of national interests and security of the state, it is the people of J&K who have borne the brunt of militarised control over their lives, which goes beyond the military’s “constant presence or the way in which their actions have also been an assault on the memory of shared lives” (IPTK and APDP 2015: 15).

The Indian state has promoted the narrative that voter turnout in J&K elections bear the writ of the Kashmiri people favouring accession to India, even as its own “collaborators”2 have warned against promoting an election for bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water) as plebiscite (Ashiq 2015). The Indian state, even as violations of people’s basic rights continue, prompts its military to also run counter-insurgency welfare services like Operation Sadhbhavana (goodwill) so as to cover up for its failure in engendering nationhood in Kashmir and winning the compliance of Kashmiris. This was done especially because India’s counter-insurgency tactics in Kashmir had caused widespread damage as violence was used against insurgents, political prisoners and civilians alike, and it had done nothing to win India’s war in Kashmir. Thus, the discourse was shifted to winning the hearts and minds (WHAM) of the people. As Bhan (2014: 15) notes,

the only way the military could offset the impact of extensive “collateral damage” in insurgency-affected areas was by “extending its mandate” to meet people’s basic needs through “humane and people-friendly” operations.

She further emphasises how counter-insurgency manuals in India and the United States (US) are increasingly relying on militaristic humanitarianism as a potent tool to root out insurgent movements.

Keeping up with this manual, the Indian forces started spending extensively on civic services, facilitating close contact with the community life of people. This was also the state’s way of building legitimacy even as coercion continued. When the problem was highlighted to be unemployment and alienation, introducing welfare programmes and accompanying photo ops were meant to show the state’s attempts at “being soulful” as it tended to the needs of the people who were hurt and alienated (Bhan 2014: 6). Thus, it serves both the purposes, militarisation of people’s lives and spaces (people it sees as the “other”) as well as creating a righteous perception of itself among its “own” people fed constantly on jingoistic rhetoric.

The military structure has also been known to invest money in the political arena of the conflict-ridden valley, favouring pro-India politicians, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) placed to further the statist narrative of empowerment. Ritu Sarin (2013) first reported an army probe that found out that a unit set up by army’s retired general, V K Singh, had used secret funds in an attempt to topple the government in J&K. In an interview to the national daily Hindu (Dogra 2013), Singh admitted to the army having given money to such politicians and NGOs to counter “separatist influence” and to help bring “peace” in the valley. The report quoted him as admitting

[A] secret intelligence unit set up by him had paid ₹1.19 crore to Jammu and Kashmir Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir and several other politicians in the state to carry out “welfare programmes.”… The Technical Services Division had worked with politicians like Mir and some pro-India NGOs in Kashmir to blunt the “anti-India propaganda” of separatists from 2010. “It was all part of a larger game plan, and two major achievements of the TSD were the panchayat elections of 2011 and the sudden end to the stone-throwing agitation in Kashmir in 2010.” (Hindu 2013)

In addition to these “services,” the militarised control is such that it also restricts or determines people’s livelihood choices. As the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) (2015: 15) note, the armed forces encouraged particular types of businesses around their camps and made local businessmen enter into contracts with them, thus stamping their presence in the everyday economy of the region too. The report states, “such dominance allows them to exert a ‘soft’ though highly effective pressure to further their ends … In Jammu and Kashmir, business with—and for—the army is also a weapon of war” (p 15).

Despite the fact that the army invests in the working of the “civilian government in Kashmir, funds pro-state NGOs, determines people’s choices, and controls their spaces, the state promotes the narrative that everything is normal in Kashmir barring certain law and order issues that break out because of external funding of anti-national elements. The Indian state promotes the myth that the military apparatus is genuinely interested in empowering the people, including women, while it functions to disempower them.

Bio-militarised Bodies and Women’s Empowerment

Living in an atmosphere of constant military control where violence on bodies, psyches, and spaces is the norm, the bodies of Kashmiri women have become bio-militarised, a term we borrow from Mohanty (2011), who explains

A bio-militarised body is one that must survive under conditions of perpetual control and surveillance, is subject to the constant material and symbolic violence enacted by the state, and lives in constant fear of being arrested or incarcerated. A bio-militarised body lives under a constant state of dispossession and with a lack of basic civil rights evident in the dissolution of citizenship in occupied or securitised zones. (p 78)

This is not to say that Kashmiri women’s bodies are the only bio-militarised ones and that Kashmiri men’s bodies are not. However, owing to the intersection of gender and conflict, their dispossession becomes qualitatively different. Militarisation, as a process, manipulates and exploits the meaning and interpretation of sexual difference (Kazi 2009). In wars and armed conflicts, including in Kashmir, militarised masculinity uses violence to reinforce dominance.

The very ideas of masculinity and femininity are used to produce legitimate perpetrators and legitimate victims. Along these lines, ideas about men and women, about masculinity and femininity are products of wars and violence. They become the fuel that further feeds conflicts. (Gender Orientation On Development 2001: 3, emphasis in original)

When the distinction between home and the war-front is erased, women become victims of violence as their bodies turn into a symbolic battlefield. In the case of Kashmir, documentation on how the Indian forces have used rape as a weapon of war3 and witness accounts have often been rejected by the state as part of militants’ plans to defame the army. Thus, even as the state remains in denial, Kashmiri women’s bodies are bio-militarised and sexual violence is carried out systematically in an atmosphere of perpetual control over lives by the military.

The state, rather than punishing the guilty, has shown through its repeated silence or rejection of such incidents as false allegations, that such violence is a part of its policy. To cover up these violations and the question of legitimacy, it has, like colonial narratives, brought up the issue of empowerment of women—who, it would want us to believe, are otherwise disempowered in a patriarchal and conservative social set-up—as among its primary responsibilities.

The information and broadcasting ministry of India, in its official website, describes the role of Operation Sadhbhavana for women empowerment as follows,

In keeping with the ethos of Army’s commitment towards women empowerment and welfare activities, special emphasis has been laid to create vocational training centers where local women are taught traditional skills/crafts, made aware about personal health, birth control measures and bringing up their children. Interaction organized with bank and government officials about banking and loan procedures. Adult literacy classes are organized for illiterate women to teach them basic reading and writing. Skill development training like operating of computers, knitting, tailoring, candle making, bag making, carpets/basket weaving, jam and sauce production, horticulture, fashion designing etc are taught through local women themselves who are employed as guides. (Singh 2013)

A look at certain cases, however, makes the truth of their “empowerment” initiatives evident. The Indian state, through its military apparatus, is working on multiple levels in Kashmir to win the hearts and minds of the hostile population. One of the common trends over the past few years has been to focus on the youth and channelise their “violent sentiments” for freedom into “constructive activities” like sports, music and art. However, given the inherent oddity of their agenda in Kashmir, they could not bear it when the tables turned on them as one rapper Roushan Illahi, who goes by the name M C Kash, used the power of music to speak against the atrocities of the state. His office was raided and his shows hampered (BBC 2010). Contrary to this, “Pragaash,” the all-girls band that received condemnation from certain sections of the society after it had participated in an event organised by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) (Telegraph 2013), was fully supported by the state with the then chief minister coming out in open support of the band and providing security for it (India Today 2013). This is indicative of how the Indian state not only selectively gives space to various forms of art but also how it harps on the women empowerment rhetoric through such incidents. Selective and increased media focus on Kashmiri girls joining Bollywood and all-girl music bands against the norms of a “patriarchal conservative” society in the name of women’s empowerment, while in the same vein ransacking the office and hampering the shows of another artist displays the hypocritical and selective nature of state claims of empowerment. A state that is not ready to let people talk about the Kunan Poshpora mass rape for it might create a “law and order problem,” wants to promote itself as the protector of women’s rights.

Rejecting Fallacies

The commoners are not expected to understand the shrewdness behind the “humanitarian efforts” of the Indian Army and are expected to be an easy prey to the humane face of the Indian state and its strategies. This happens in tandem with the maze-like justice system keeping seekers of justice on their toes throughout their life without any result. However, there are women who have not only explored the flimsy options thrown at them by the Indian state but delved deep into the statist narrative of empowerment utilising its schemes and later exposing their intrinsic fallacies and rejecting them. One such case is that of an elderly lady in her 60s who, in search of her disappeared son taken by the Ikhwanis4 and handed over to the Indian army in a remote area of Baramulla district, ran from pillar to post meeting all army and police officials, filed a case in the State Human Rights Commission, and even fought panchayat (local self-government) elections and became a panch (elected member of the panchayat) only to hear from the officials, “Na logui athi, te na lagii athi” (you have not been able to find your son so far and you won’t be able to in future either). Aware of the fact that the entire justice delivery mechanism belongs to the occupier state, she has taken the fight for her son as a fight for her own dignity rather than for justice. She says,

As a woman, I have struggled so much. Whatever I had, I have used it to keep fighting the case. This fight isn’t for justice. What justice? I just want my son. If only I could even get his bones, I would just hold on to them and my heart would find rest. I even fought the panchayat election and became a panch. I thought it would empower me and help me to find my son; and in meetings with important people, I could raise the issue of my son. But then I resigned. It meant nothing. This is all their system. Let it go to hell. I am a Mujahid5 too. I am not afraid of anyone anymore. (Personal interview 2015)

Another case from a village in south Kashmir is a stark example of how the Indian state, after inflicting damage through its offensive tactics, tries to ameliorate the wounds by showing the humane face of its military apparatus to the victims and “defeating them into acceptable negotiations” (Rehman 2013). Maryam (name changed), a young girl in her early 20s, finds it uncomfortable to accept that her family has allowed the killer of her father into her home for so many years and not only accepted his sympathies but also entertained and warmed up to his suggestions on matters of livelihood and education. Maryam’s father, a local Hizbul-Mujahideen6 commander, was “martyred” in an encounter by a group of Indian Army soldiers when Maryam was a toddler. The army major leading that group had been visiting Maryam’s family beforehand, coaxing them into believing that he was a well-wisher of their family and wanted the lone breadwinner of the family to survive and thus, prompting them (family members) to persuade him (militant father) to surrender. The Hizb commander, however, did not surrender and eventually met his fate in the forest of the village where this army major had laid an ambush for him. Despite killing the son/husband/father of the family, the army major had created such a fertile ground for himself in the family that he was never denied entry either into the house or the lives of the family members. Recalling her childhood memories of the army major, Maryam says,

He used to buy small gifts like books for us and also used to give us Eidi on every Eid. He always wanted to see us excel academically as he was well aware of the struggle that our mother has undergone in bringing us up. The greatest thing that exhibits his humanism is that he never forgot us. (Personal interview 2016)

However, over the years, despite the tradition at home, Maryam has been able to convert her unquestionable acceptance of the contradictory beliefs and values of her life into a dilemma that has given her the courage to question the basic intentions of this mockery that the Indian state runs in Kashmir on the pretext of humanitarianism and empowerment. She acknowledges the inseparable conflict of her situation and tries to explain it,

I know that he has killed our father. I know that he is a representative of Indian state. But I don’t know whether his sympathy for us is a part of his strategy as an Indian soldier or it is his own individual humanity as a sensitive person that is allowing him to sympathise and help us. You see he gets no rewards for doing it, it is nowhere mentioned in news articles. But yes maybe it enriches his profile amongst his circle and it also helps the state in keeping tabs on us. I do not know. (Personal interview 2016)

Maryam’s case is symbolic in the sense that it provides an insight into the lives and mental struggles of womenfolk who have been direct victims of the conflict and is also indicative of how the state has made inroads into the homes of victims to an extent where the victim is rendered emotionally frustrated and helpless in deciding whether or not she should allow the killers of her own husband/father into her home.

Yet another paradox of this deliberate state of affairs created by India is the establishment and patronage of orphanages and army goodwill schools across the valley that admit children, with nearly free shelter and education, whose father or other family members have been killed by the very founders of these institutions or other members of the apparatus they belong to. In these institutions, the naive minds are tutored according to the ideology of the occupier state along with exposure to “normalcy” outside Kashmir (as they are sent for tours and expeditions under Operation Sadhbhavana). Then these very children are projected as symbolic images of “peace-loving Kashmiris” as against their “misguided, violent and radical” parents. Here again, the empowerment travesty of the state is ripped apart as no one in the household gets empowered enough to exercise their own choices; rather they are conditioned from the very
beginning so as to oblige to the choices already made for them by the state which ultimately serves the interest of the occupation. National-level sportsmen/women, Indian Administrative Services/National Defence Academy/CRPF recruits, Bollywood-joining youth are generally a product of this “catch them young” policy of the Indian Army.

The army’s claim of women empowerment collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. First of all, the schemes launched by the state under this operation are few and have had little to no implementation on the ground. More than these schemes, it is the local NGOs that come forward to help ordinary women and link them to these schemes. In a personal interview, Essar Batool, a social worker and co-author of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? (2016), lays bare the hollow statist narrative of women empowerment while explaining the anomalies of the situation in a conflict region,

As is the case with Kashmir, none of their (aggrieved women’s) complaints against the state actors have ever been taken up and they don’t expect them to be taken up as well. So yes, I would say that the whole discourse about government being keen on women empowerment is just rubbish. They might give out freebies like scooties to young girls and call it empowerment and at the same time, deny the role their armed forces have in threatening the safety of women. (Personal interview 2016)

The shallow idea that the Indian state flaunts in the name of women empowerment while launching a few schemes does not even fit the basic definition of “empowerment” which in essence includes not just the economic independence but the right to take control of one’s life and choices. Bawa (2016) argues,

[...] a conception of empowerment hinged on making women reap economic benefits in the current economic environment that does not question the ways in which such benefits reinforce the very systems of oppression and marginalisation does little to advance the sustainable progressive systemic change necessary for consolidating women’s empowerment and empowered identities. (p 132)

Launching of schemes for women empowerment by the army, who is itself responsible for disempowering women by limiting their choices in and outside their homes through their very presence speaks volumes about the hollowness of the empowerment narrative of the Indian state in Kashmir. Apart from this, these empowerment schemes also provide a mental distraction to the womenfolk who have been integral to the resistance movement in not only defying state oppression by being on the frontlines but also as defenders of collective memory. By giving the women a false sense of engagement and empowerment, the occupier state is actually trying to effect institutionalised amnesia while attempting to alter the history of the occupied territory. Batool further highlights the contradiction within the statist projection of women empowerment,

The state cannot think of women empowerment when it has targeted women time and again and used them to push forth its own ideas of development in the garb of women-friendly schemes that on ground are really not working. As someone who has worked on ground, I know that empowerment doesn’t come from announcing a scheme and then sitting back and being part of the misogynist system that the state is, it comes from a holistic attitude towards inclusion of women in every aspect of life and structures that men have access to. (Personal interview 2016)


“The violence, obfuscation and impunity at every step illuminates the system at work” (IPTK and APDP 2015: 5) and makes it clear that a system that uses mass violence to suppress a people’s right to self-determination and whose existence is based on a military occupation, cannot be expected to deliver justice. An important ethical question, then, is: how can the same state that employs violence, denies justice, kills, blinds, and rapes with impunity, claim to be empowering people in general and women in particular?

The larger development discourse and the specific empowerment narrative are merely attempts by the state to hide its legitimacy crisis and claim to be a welfare state at the same time. It does not have the will to empower people in the real sense of the word or it would have, at the very least, recognised the Kashmir conundrum for what it is, rather than overlooking the “abnormality” that its very presence in Kashmir is. However, people have in their varied ways, through different forms of resistance, rejected this statist idea of the abnormal as normal. It is not hollow schemes that empower; it is resistance against such an oppressive system that has produced “collective experience of being under siege, subjected to a military occupation of home and homeland” (Duschinski 2009: 705), by reclaiming the occupied spaces, that empowerment finds its real meaning—that of taking control of one’s life.


1 The conditions leading to and the act of signing of the Instrument of Accession as well as its very legitimacy have been a matter of contestation, detailing which here is beyond the scope of this paper. For more on this, see Lamb (1991) and Snedden (2012).

2 A term that Kaul (2011: 66) notes is used for “members of the elected state government …and stooges of the central government.”

3 For more, see Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights (1993); Kazi (2009); Batool et al (2016).

4 Ikhwanis refer to ex-militants who were hired by the state and who let loose a reign of terror in Kashmir, inflicting brutal damage both to militant structures as well as torturing and killing civilians.

5 The word mujahid is an Arabic term for the one who fights the holy war (jihad) for the sake of Allah. The term is used by Kashmiris for those fighting the Indian state.

6 Hizbul-Mujahideen is one of the militant groups involved in the armed struggle against the Indian state in Kashmir.


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Updated On : 18th Jan, 2018


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