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Gendered Politics of Funerary Processions

Contesting Indian Sovereignty in Kashmir

Inshah Malik ( has a PhD in political theory and gender studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her monograph Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance Politics: The Case of Kashmir is forthcoming in 2018.

On 8 July 2016, Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani was killed by the Indian army, setting in motion unprecedented funerary processional grieving. Using accounts of funerals of militants and civilians, gendered funerary processions and the transformation of gendered cultures of grieving in Kashmir have been analysed. It is argued that women’s participation in the militant and civilian funerary processions is a feminist political formulation in the Kashmiri context. This is understood through a review of the politics of funeral attendance and two specific actions that women undertake: publicising grief by bringing the private out into the contested public realm, thus outdoing religious law, and resisting the state’s sovereignty by grieving for lives that the state deems “non-grievable.”

In 2016, several huge funeral processions were held for a 22-year-old Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani. Thousands of people walked several miles from different parts of Kashmir to the streets and alleyways of Tral (Wani’s hometown) leading to impromptu mass funeral processions (Qadri and Shah 2016). The mourners were fired upon by the Indian army, killing hundreds of funeral-goers, blinding thousands of mourners, and, in effect, criminalising public mourning (PTI 2016). The entire Kashmir Valley would be threatened by cyclical targeted violence for several months to come. The colossal moment of Wani’s death and many of these spectacle funeral processions that followed, raised questions about the nature, culture, and history of public mourning in Kashmir, and challenged the cogency of the Indian state’s sovereignty claim (Mathur 2016). Why were so many people willing to die just to be able to mourn someone whom the Indian authorities had declared a “terrorist?”

The answers that were offered by the Indian government were mostly inadequate. The national media kept circulating the state’s official stance of holding Pakistan responsible for a mourning that was essentially indigenous. The Indian media repeatedly informed us that Pakistan was implanting ideologies of terrorism, which created troubled and dangerous people like Wani and those who were grieving his death (Hindu 2016). The mourners were dubbed as misguided juveniles or deemed to be under the influence of foreign propaganda. However, these assertions were insufficient, because they offered no understanding of how such political figures were fashioned and why those grieving for them encountered fatal violence at the hands of Indian troops? Moreover, the complexity of the situation was visible when women too, in large numbers, attended these prohibited funerals. All this immediately pointed to the inadequacy of the official narratives.

The moment of Wani’s funeral brought to the fore the question of the Indian state’s sovereignty and a challenge levied against it by the Kashmiri people to the centre stage, yet again challenging the state narratives about Kashmir politics. Since then, Kashmir has witnessed a drastic increase in the young men taking to arms. The renewed politics of disagreement is shaping another armed resistance and funerals are increasingly becoming contested spaces of power, grief, and mourning. Earlier, in January 2016, when the then Chief Minister and the People’s Democratic Party patron, Mufti Saeed, passed away, his funeral attendance became a subject of a rigorous debate. The low turnout of mourners was seen as a symptom of waning political support for pro-India parties in Kashmir. On the other hand, huge funerary processions for both militants and civilians killed in police action have become a worrying point for the security establishment. Therefore, when mourning for Wani soared, the state declared it as a sign of rising support for “terrorists” among the masses. The government’s response to the funeral demonstrations was lethal and resulted in the killings and blinding of mourners. Ever since, targeted violence has become a normalised response to public grieving at such sites. The continued normalisation of the violent response to these funerary demonstrations points to a striking identitarian polarisation of public discourse through which the support of ordinary Indian citizenry is garnered by the Indian state. The question that arises is: How do the majority of people in India simply lap up these assertions about grieving Kashmiri people made by the state? What rationalisations are offered by the government about the nature of this grief and what were its justifications about civilian deaths and blinding of children?

In the Indian political culture, which is increasingly becoming defined by its religious identity politics, the question of Kashmir often evokes undifferentiated responses. The Hindu right-wing politicians claim that India’s sovereignty is in grave danger in Kashmir because of the strategic conspiracies hatched by neighbouring Pakistan to divide India. But, contrary to the Hindu nationalists, their liberal or left-wing opponents invoke the law to urge for respecting the human rights of the Kashmiri people. Nevertheless, these different political groups in varying degrees agree that Kashmir is an inalienable part of India. Those trying to hold the Indian state accountable in Kashmir through legalistic means demand that the human rights of the Kashmiri people be respected. But, this fails to recognise the exceptional nature of the military occupation in Kashmir. The unprecedented grief for Wani did not simply raise questions about the legitimacy of the present form of Indian governance, but presented a moment of moral challenge to India’s basic claim to sovereignty in the region.

Thus, in the broader Indian political culture, a Kashmiri has come to signify one who is in a complicated relationship with the state’s sovereignty, to whom the rule of law does not apply and whose political action is labelled as misguided or constituting terrorism (Noorani 2011). Simultaneously, a Kashmiri can be killed but cannot be sacrificed (Zia 2018). A Kashmiri signifies something primitive; a body sans capacities to think and reflect on her political condition. Someone full of vengeance but not patriotic, a body that can be corrupted but not trusted. In the case of Kashmiri militant bodies, the state is taking decisions about who can live and what the political meanings of a liveable life are. When the state makes such a decision about the dispensability of people for strengthening its political claims, it assigns “grievability” to such bodies (Butler 2010). Thus, the media and political class in defence of the state create the distinction between who is to be grieved (soldiers) and who we must not grieve for (in this case, Wani).

The Indian state through regimens and technologies of power creates acceptable forms of citizenship and the Kashmiri bodies—militant or not—are consistently struggling to reject these imposed political frames. The public mourning envisages grief as a political possibility to register a protest against the order of sovereignty in its current form. Thus, the politics of mourning is a reclamation that signifies a contest for political power, where people who attempt to ascertain their rights demand to share or overtake that sovereignty. The public mourning at funeral sites brings us to acknowledge the deep aspiration for Kashmiri sovereignty and rejection of the Indian state.

Funerals as Affective Sites of Feminist Politics

At the traditional funeral sites, the gendered division of labour is visible. Women perform obituaries and eulogise the dead in the inner familial circles. They testify if the deceased performed their gendered role to the satisfaction of their kith or kin. This is a political dimension of gendered roles of grief, and it operates in the constituencies of establishing and producing cohesive social bonds or animosities, while keeping ranks and files of a social community in place. The final pronouncement of application of “grievability” is in the hands of women and comes in direct conflict with the state’s claim of sovereignty.

The collective grieving in Kashmir is traditionally assigned to women, but lived culture shows that exceptions to this rule are available. Throughout several decades of strained political conditions, mourning men have become emblems of helplessness signalling emasculation. Grief is redistributed in society by the unprecedented political turmoil engulfing Kashmiri society since the early 1980s. The gendered culture of grieving in Kashmir restricts women to their complementary role as grievers. The Islamic law, as it is applied in Kashmir, is made to prohibit women from attending final funeral prayers at the cemeteries and even forbids the public or prolonged display of grief. Additionally, the state attempts to monopolise women’s gendered traditional role that involves the application of grievability, which translates into determining who deserves to be mourned. The unprecedented deaths under the continued military occupation show the precarious nature of life in general, curtailment of political expression and limitations on women’s agential role. Women work under these limitations and script their own political action in a way that can embolden their voice. The traditional culture of mourning, by itself, limits women’s agency and cannot respond to the realities of a military occupation and does not have a language in which it can process a response to the everyday violence. The localised phrases and idioms of lament remain within the ambit of reflecting upon the gendered roles of the deceased.

When an event like Wani’s death happened, it brought into the open the crises of traditional mourning culture, and people responded by improvising the culture itself. At Wani’s funeral, a widespread redistribution of grief occurred and people, irrespective of their gender, felt overburdened by sorrow. We saw women in large numbers transform the traditional grieving culture into a potent funerary processional grieving for slain militants and civilians. The improvisation of the traditional cultures of mourning involved bringing women’s grief into the public sphere (that was prohibited by the tradition) and then by women grieving bodies (that the state prohibits grieving for). In doing so, they provided a new political cohesion to their Kashmiri political community, while creating a more progressive role for themselves.

However, other than providing political cohesion, women, as they actively work in public redistribution of grief, also attempt to transform gendered meanings of these political actions. In the requiems and laments, the mourners’ invocation of the gendered masculinity of boi (brother) in order to refer to Wani reconfigured meanings of familial relationships. How could people call someone whom they do not know in person and had never met, their brother? In doing so, they attempted to transform Burhan Wani from an inaccessible internet icon into an emblem of identifiable masculinity. He was a brother, like any other, who would protect or fight against injustice meted to his vulnerable siblings. He was a brother who fought for and lost his life defending his homeland. When people identified with these qualities of Wani they sought to make him relatable. His extraordinariness was thus scripted in the ordinary idiom of a personal relationship of a brother to make him immediately identifiable. The slogan reverberated in Tral on 9 July 2016, “Tera bhai mera bhai, Burhan bhai, Burhan bhai” (Burhan is your brother and my brother) symbolises this transformation. Without placing Wani in the context of the history of repression in Kashmir, the meaning of this invocation of a “brother” is inaccessible. There is a long history of persecution of young people and, over the years, most Kashmiris have experienced the violent death of relatives, friends or acquaintances. The sudden and unfair nature of political deaths makes Kashmiris recognise the precarious nature of life in Kashmir. It is this affective potential of Wani’s body that helps it transcend the masculine meaning of a “brother” in people’s slogans and provides symbolic representation to a collective suffering.

Culture of Mourning and the Grieving Mother

The realignment of the culture of mourning has seen a transformation in traditional symbolic icons of Kashmir’s Muslim nationalist movement. The mourning mother as a passive symbol of patriarchal nationalism has long been a contentious subject in feminist theory. Rita Manchanda has noted how the figures of grieving mother and the martyr’s mother have become iconic in the Kashmiri nationalist imagination, the public grief of mothers becoming a powerful aesthetic resource of the nationalist conception of azaadi (freedom) (Misri 2014). However, in the transformative culture of mourning in Kashmir, mothers make private this very public grief. This was very much visible in the subsequent funeral of Sabzar Bhat, another militant affiliated with Wani’s outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen. Sabzar was popular in his village, Rathsun, for his bravery and will to fight against injustice (Naqash 2017). He was killed in an encounter in a nearby village along with 16-year-old Faizan Bhat, a young boy who had dropped out of school in May 2017 and who became part of the group after having successfully snatched a rifle from a Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Tral. In an account, “A Militant’s Mother” published in a local newspaper, Kashmir Life, Shams Irfan recounts the scene when Sabzar’s body arrived at his home, noting about his mother, “She didn’t react at all” amidst thousands of mourners who had gathered in her house. Furthermore, she took away her son’s body into her private quarters and grieved by his side, away from the public gaze and in the morning she plainly informed her husband that the time to bury their son had come (Irfan 2017). This account challenges what is taken for granted about mother’s grief amidst self-determination movements. Through emphasising the different modes of a mother–son relationship, women’s connections to their political community under these political conditions offer them spaces for self-articulation and a chance to demand more freedoms. The account of Sabzar’s mother is not a secluded case; there is a pattern visible in many mothers’ response to their militant sons’ death. The image of a grieving mother is further complicated by the disturbing silence about women as casualties. In 2017, two women, 22-year-old Mysra Bano from Kopwour and 24-year-old Beauty Jan from Shopian both died from gunshot wounds leaving behind their toddler daughters. The iconic images of toddlers left behind engendered the normative ways in which the ethnonationalism of military occupation is understood (Muhammad 2017).

In a compelling interview with Wani’s mother, Maimoona, we see a woman who does not publicly display her pain (Amin 2017). She uses discretion, talking intermittently about the recognisable humanity of her two sons, both killed by the Indian army. Similarly, the mother of Faizan Bhat hides her trauma. She tells the journalists that they took a collective decision to donate her son’s books and school uniform much before his death, since she was convinced that her son would not return (Ahmad 2017). In the media accounts, militant mothers move away from their traditional victim image to depictions as more robust petitioners. They ask tougher questions about the political conditions prevailing in Kashmir and link their children’s lives to the political issues in myriad ways (Nabi 2017). With the shift in the gendered practices of political mourning, between privatising public grief and publicising what tradition asks to keep private, Kashmiri women are piecing together a radical framework that makes possible an even bolder entry for younger women. The contemporary gendered politics of mourning is nestled within a long history of women’s resistance in Kashmir.

In April 2017, women from prominent Srinagar colleges came out to break the hegemonic dominance of men in the pro-freedom protests. The violent protests against the Indian state in Kashmir that remained largely a monopoly of young boys, found a rejoinder. Girls donning their school uniforms, headscarves and sometimes long robes thronged Srinagar city roads, armed with stones, taking aim at Indian soldier bunkers and armoured vehicles. They were undeterred by the tear gas canisters and PAVA [Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide] shells that are routinely used to disperse public protests in Kashmir (Ashiq 2017). One of the young militants from Hizbul Mujahideen, Zakir Musa, admonished them for retorting to violence saying “abandon stone pelting; your brothers are alive” (Kashmir Watch 2017). These girls made it clear that they were representing their own selves when, despite these warnings, they continued unafraid, fighting Indian forces at various nooks and corners of Srinagar city (Krishnan 2017). In a photo that surfaced over the internet on 5 March 2018, two women were seen alongside men offering funeral prayers for a young militant. It was a scene that further confirmed a silent feminist revolution that is enabling women to fight both the cultural patriarchy and the military occupation of Kashmir. The photo was not an anomalous event, but the product of a long history of women’s political action in Kashmir (Outlook 2018).


The case of women’s participation in the militant and civilian funerary processions is a feminist political formulation in the Kashmiri context. This can be easily understood when we review the politics of funeral attendance in two actions that women carry out. They publicise grief by bringing out the private into the contested public realm, outdo the religious law, and simultaneously resist the state’s sovereignty through grieving for lives that the state has designated as “non-grievable.”

The expression of public grief in Kashmir shows fractures in Kashmir’s relationship with India and brings to the fore a long history of aspiration for Kashmiri sovereignty. Moreover, gendered grieving becomes central to the cultures of public protest, as Kashmiris attempt to uphold a demand for self-determination in the form of a civilian protest against the Indian state. The gendered culture of grieving itself undergoes a transformation to bring out a more robust pro-women politics within the resistance movement. In fact, women understand their complex subjectivity and find ways to contest with different patriarchal forces for political power. They contest the state over their traditional role to grieve for those bodies that the state prohibits and also contest cultural patriarchy over public spaces. The politics of women’s mourning symbolises people’s moral right to self-determination and women’s right to the public realm.


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Updated On : 8th Dec, 2018


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