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Jinn, Floods, and Resistant Ecological Imaginaries in Kashmir

Mona Bhan ( is Otto L Sonder Jr Professor of Anthropology at DePauw University, Indiana. She is also the co-editor of HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.

How Kashmiri women experience and narrate questions of resource sovereignty and dispossession within the context of Kashmir’s long-drawn-out military occupation, and India’s investments in mega hydroelectric dams on Kashmir’s rivers have been discussed. The devastating floods in 2014 led Kashmiris to increasingly challenge perceptions of nature or natural disasters as apolitical. Dams are an integral part of border-making processes, and gender, space, and borders are continually co-produced through militarised infrastructures. Women’s resistant imaginaries, which combine political and ecological metaphors, and rely on conceptions of jinn and other non-human agency, offer a way to rethink Kashmir beyond its securitised geographies.

In a popular cartoon by the Kashmiri artist, Mir Suhail, the map of India is drenched in the golden hue of electricity, while Kashmir, hanging precariously on the map, is suffocated by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation’s (NHPC) noose, turning it ominously dark (Suhail 2015).

The NHPC is India’s premier hydropower generation corporation, which, Kashmiris assert, has been “stealing” Kashmiri resources to power the Indian economy for the past several decades (Bhan 2014). In April 2013, Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) National Conference (NC)-led state government asked New Delhi to pay Kashmir for its water resources and stop depriving Kashmiris of their most valuable resource and their prized economic asset (Parvaiz 2013). This was not the first time that Kashmiris had demanded ownership over their waterbodies, or recognised that the control of economic resources was key for India to maintain its political control over Kashmir (Hakeem 2014). In 2011, Taj Mohi-ud-din, a senior politician from the Congress party, had accused the NHPC of acting like an imperial power and thwarting local industry and entrepreneurship (Umar 2011). According to a Right to Information application filed in 2016, J&K was the “second largest buyer of electricity produced in its own territory” (Parvaiz 2016). Even as Kashmiris have frequently drawn meaningful connections between territorial and resource sovereignties, tropes of electricity theft, resource misuse, and hijacking of Kashmiri rivers gained even more traction after the floods of 2014, making questions of resource control and ownership critical components in the Kashmiri fight for azaadi (freedom) from the long-drawn out military occupation in Kashmir (Junaid 2013; Kaul 2013; Duschinski and Bhan 2017; Duschinski et al 2018; Suhail 2018).1

In the summer of 2012, I was in Gurez, the northernmost frontier tehsil in the Bandipora district, conducting the first segment of my ethnographic fieldwork on dam-related displacements in the villages of Badwan and Khopri.2 By 2016, the villages were expected to be submerged by India’s 330 megawatt (MW) dam on the Kishanganga river, a tributary of River Jhelum, which courses through Gurez, before it enters Pakistan, irrigating vast swathes of its prime agricultural land. Gurez, much like other border provinces in the state, got three hours of electricity daily through a diesel-powered generator, which was not connected to the northern grid that supplies electricity to nine Indian states, including India’s capital city, Delhi. The irony was not lost on Gurezis, who saw their rivers being repurposed to power the Indian nation while their villages remained relegated to the “dark ages,” with no immediate government plans to electrify them. In addition to lamenting the loss of their rivers, with no tangible benefits in sight, Gurezis were also worried about losing access to critical resources such as sand, wood, glaciers, animals, and highland pastures, because the dam and its related infrastructure now populated the landscape. The situation was worse for Gurezi women who no longer felt “free” to pursue their livelihoods or venture into the forests in search of medicinal herbs, vegetables, and mushrooms. For them, the dam had not just “stolen” their resources, but also their freedom and ability to move freely in a space already scarred by years of military control.

Gender, Space and Borders

In this paper, I discuss questions of resource sovereignty within the context of Kashmir’s prolonged military occupation, foregrounding how resource access and dispossessions are deeply gendered processes, and how the Kishanganga dam’s reconfiguration of space in Gurez imposed new immobilities on communities that were already hemmed in by the densely militarised line of control, which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan (Rocheleau et al 1996; Moeckli and Braun 2001; Peluso and Watt 2001; Gururani 2002). In doing so, I show how gender, space, and borders were continually co-produced through militarised infrastructure, and how, far from being inert, the dam established new mechanisms of social and spatial control, further reinforcing stricter regulations on women’s movements and their abilities to seek independent livelihoods. I build on feminist interventions that outline the centrality of space to gendered subjectivities, a mutually co-constitutive relationship in which space is not a fixed or “independent dimension,” but relies on and is “constructed out of social relations” (Massey 1994: 2, 3; Gururani 2014). As power courses through built infrastructure, it reproduces militarised geographies of domination and resistance, as well as a continued renegotiation of the meanings and materialities of space, place, and gender (Low 2009). In the end I discuss how, in a context where the military occupies vast tracts of prime agricultural land, and meadows, forests, and grasslands, women’s narratives, especially after the 2014 floods, combined political and ecological metaphors to reimagine Kashmir’s war-torn and lifeless landscapes as vibrant and alive, and, in the process, offered a way to rethink Kashmir beyond its securitised geographies.

I first map out how the devastating flooding of River Jhelum in 2014 made questions of resource sovereignty central to questions of azaadi. As mentioned earlier, misgivings about the NHPC’s imperial control over Kashmir’s rivers were widespread even in the 1990s, with a few strident voices cautioning against the central government’s increasing control over hydropower projects as a means to erode Kashmir’s “capacity for self-reliance” (DN 1991: 1959; Hakeem 2014). But, until 2014, questions of resource control and access featured sparingly in public conversations about Kashmir’s economic future and its viability as an independent entity. The 2014 flood changed this substantially. Several civil-society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Kashmir began asking if the Kishanganga river was another “disaster waiting to happen,” since the NHPC was diverting the waters from the Kishanganga river to the Wular Lake, raising its water level, and reducing its future capacity to soak surging waters from River Jhelum. Kashmiris increasingly situated “natural” disasters within their larger political fields, in order to extend Kashmiri resistance to environmental issues (and not just territorial ones) and, at the same time, dislocate perceptions of nature as apolitical. Dams were increasingly seen as critical instruments for maintaining the Indian state’s control over Kashmir’s water resources. They were, as Bonnemaison and Macy (2003) claim, “statements” or “ideologies” in concrete, which revealed the intersections between gendered dislocations and India’s masculine infrastructure (which included both men and equipment) in the context of Kashmir’s military occupation.

In order to trace these connections, I turn to the floods of 2014, which played a critical part in alerting Kashmiris to the ways in which resource disenfranchisement and “natural disasters” were deeply political events, with consequences for how they transformed the logistics and experiences of occupation and resistance in Kashmir.

A Fight for Identity

Long seen as a source of life and livelihood in Kashmir and its “cultural symbol,” the Jhelum, into which the Kishanganga merges, is both seen as a witness to the ongoing brutality suffered by Kashmiris, and also its direct victim (Ahmad 2012: 66). For instance, a famous Sufi rock song, entitled “Jehlumas” by the band Alif, which became popular in the post-flood years, foregrounds the loss of love and certainty, pangs of terror and solitude, and the horrors of violence that the Jhelum has witnessed and documented through time. A refrain from the song goes thus: “Is anyone listening? Who can I tell? My river is on fire! And I fear I shall slip into its waters.” Despite being burdened with decades of despair—much like the men and women of Kashmir who have lost their dear ones, their kith and kin, to military camps, extrajudicial killings, detention facilities, and unknown mass graves—the crossing of the river carries the message of a hopeful reunion (Chatterji et al 2009). Kashmiri poets have often relied on using Jhelum as a “symbol of motion and change,” deriving from it “profounder lessons of life like consciousness and continuity of Kashmiri identity” (Ahmad 2012: 92, 93). In the aftermath of the massive floods of 2014 thus, the Jhelum became a metaphor for the resilience of Kashmiris as they drew strength from its defiant flow while also fearing its fury.

The floods of 2014 that killed at least 557 people and submerged 2,600 villages across many districts in J&K was one of the worst floods to hit the state in over 100 years (Pandey 2014). It was the result of torrential rains, unchecked urbanisation, mismanaged floodplains, and, Kashmir’s extensive and prolonged militarisation (Kanth and Ghosh 2015b). In a human rights report released by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society in April 2015, Kanth and Ghosh (2015a: 43) write that “while poor regulation and bad planning certainly had a role in this destructive pattern of growth, what is rendered invisible in this map of land use is the pervasive military occupation of the city’s hill sides and the Karewas,” and its waterbodies, glaciers, and forests. At the same time, the Jhelum did not just carry copious amounts of silt and mud but also the tortured and mutilated bodies of Kashmiris (Mathur 2016: 61). A witness to the past three decades in which the Indian military has used brutal counter-insurgency tactics to squash widespread dissent, a flooded Jhelum was a grim reminder of the accumulated violence on Kashmir’s body politic that had not spared the Jhelum either. Amidst Kashmir’s violent turmoil, the complete mismanagement of the river by a series of puppet governments had wreaked environmental havoc. Layers and mounds of silt and mud, and massive constructions on critical wetlands in and around the river or on its critical tributaries had suffocated the river. The government, Kashmiris claimed, had purposefully choked the river. The fight for Kashmir’s rivers, particularly for River Jhelum, considered to be Kashmir’s lifeline, was a fight for Kashmir’s identity (vajud). In the years following the flood, questions about Kashmir’s rivers and their centrality for Kashmir’s azaadi assumed centre stage. Kashmiris demanded that River Jhelum be properly dredged. They challenged the state of Kashmir’s rivers and their ecological vulnerabilities in the context of intense militarisation of their land and rivers and the commodification of their water resources.

The flood of 2014 was, thus, a turning point in many ways, both in terms of how civil society groups envisioned the relationship between environmental and territorial sovereignty, and how Kashmir’s struggle for azaadi became tied, even if loosely, to the reclamation of its rivers and waterbodies. Even before the flood, Kashmiris had repeatedly argued that the numerous hydroelectric dams in the region had contributed to the inundation of Kashmir’s most fertile rice-growing regions. Kashmir’s agricultural sector, they claimed, was deliberately being weakened so that regional food sovereignty could be undermined and Kashmir could once again be turned into a spectacle for tourism. Indeed, in a prescient commentary, only several months before the devastating flood, a senior engineer said to me while sitting on the banks of River Jhelum:

We can clearly see the distinction between land and water right now. But if and when the flood comes, this whole area will be submerged. Now if you build a barrage to contain water, you are creating a flood artificially, which will obviously submerge the areas it spans.3


The unstable distinctions between land and water, especially in Kashmir that owes its origins to a “lake” (Paray 2016), were obvious to people who view dams as “artificial floods” rather than as facilitators of development and self-sufficiency. Indeed, for many Kashmiris, the “artificial flooding” of their land caused by massive hydroelectric projects on the Jhelum, Chenab and their tributaries, was a purposeful move to ensure Kashmir’s continued reliance on India. According to the Chairman of the Kashmir Economic Alliance, a consortium of various traders’ bodies,

The Government of India does not allow us to grow on any front, economically. Be it power, tourism, or any other sector of the economy. If we need a rupee to survive, they will only give us 75 paisas. There were times when we relied on our milk, eggs, and chicken. Everything that India does here is a conspiracy against Kashmiris. Why shouldn’t I think like that? We were a haven for small industries. And, now we don’t produce anything. Our water sources have been colonised and exploited.

Politicising the Flood

After the floods, the Indian news and government agencies worked even harder to present Kashmiris as objects of Indian largesse. The mainstream news channels celebrated the Indian military’s benevolence during the floods even as Kashmiris were left stranded in their flooded homes with little to no help from the military (Kanth and Ghosh 2015b). Indeed, as a Kashmiri reporter remarked at the time, “everything is political in Kashmir. Even a flood” (Mubarki 2014). In the post-flood narratives that I collected from several Kashmiri men and women, it was clear that the floods of 2014 had collapsed familiar ethical, moral, and ecological worlds, while laying bare the relationship between politics and ecology.

In the next section, I present stories from my interviews with women from Srinagar, a year after the flood had destroyed their homes and added yet another layer of fear and anxiety to their already precarious lives. By no means were these stories limited to women, nor do I claim to offer a gendered perspective that is divorced from differences of class and location. Despite these differences, my conversations with women across Kashmir foregrounded the gendered nature of Kashmir’s military occupation and the state’s masculine infrastructure that has occupied its roads, alleyways, mountains, lakes, and buildings. India’s military interventions in Kashmir have for the most part included defence installations such as roads, bridges, railway lines, and more quotidian forms of control and surveillance in the form of bunkers and checkpoints, which have implications for how men and women can go about their everyday routines or access certain spaces and places. Stringent forms of militarised control are also routinely imposed through legal provisions, such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFPSA) and Public Safety Act (PSA), that grant the Indian military impunity against war crimes in Kashmir, which include enforced disappearances, extra juridical killings, rape, sexual violence, and torture (Duschinski and Hoffman 2011; Mathur 2012).

In a geography heavily structured by the logics of militarism, the flood, too, according to many Kashmiris, was an extension of a military state, a silent instrument of death and destruction that had weaponised nature. Kashmiris remained deeply wary of India’s selective rescue missions and its rejection of international humanitarian help under the pretext that India was sufficiently equipped to rescue its citizens. Within this context, Kashmiri women volunteers came out on the flooded streets and alleyways, along with their male counterparts, to rescue their neighbours and take on the task of saving, rehabilitating, and rebuilding community in the post-flood period (Reshi 2014). Contrary to mainstream portrayals of Kashmiri women as victims, recent scholarship has documented their active role in the politics of Kashmiri resistance (Kaul 2013; Malik 2015; Ghosh 2016; Zia 2017). Kashmiri women have resisted the military occupation in Kashmir as mothers and wives whose sons or husbands were killed or disappeared in the three-decade long brutal counter-insurgency war (Zia 2016). As human rights lawyers, activists, photographers, film-makers, and reporters, they have tirelessly documented military crimes, and fought to reopen cases of rape and sexual torture against the Indian military (Batool et al 2016; Manecksha 2017). In certain instances, Kashmiri women have also assumed explicit political roles to demand the right of self-determination (Malik 2015). In their post-flood narratives, too, women offered a trenchant political commentary to establish the predatory nature of the Indian state in Kashmir and its intensification under India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

The Water Was a Balai, a Demon’

The women I spoke with shared their sense of disquiet and horror by focusing on the “nature” of the water that had snaked into their houses on the evening of 5 September 2014, leaving behind mounds of mud and rubble. According to Nusrat, a middle-aged woman from Bemina, “that was not water, ye ais balai (it was a demon, a curse). The water corroded our fingers. We had to take tetanus shots to get rid of the corrosions.” I had spent many days and nights in Nusrat’s living room, which was bedecked with bright red sofas and cushions and Nusrat’s carefully curated set of family pictures before the floods took it all away. Tearfully, she pointed to the walls that were still damp, even after eight months, with the paint on them peeling off to reveal the damage the floodwaters had caused. She had cleaned “the walls with phenyl several times but the grime refused to leave. This was not water. It was a strange mix of urine, faeces, and dead fish.” And, scariest of all was that the “water was screaming, it was lamenting.” Nusrat was sitting with her daughter in a room, which was on the second floor of her house when she had heard a sound, which she mistakenly assumed to be from her husband’s activities downstairs. It turned out that the water had already entered her house before she had realised it. Nusrat’s mother chimed in to say that “people were running away from water but it followed them.”

The other stories I had heard from women spoke of the floods being “directed” by a group of non-Kashmiri men, who were either seen on horses, or on buildings wearing long white robes. For Sameena, a middle-aged woman from Safakadal, in the heart of Srinagar city, the water was strange. “During nights, the water would scream so much; it felt as if we were being attacked by demonic forces, kos tyam balai aai hamlas.” In their stories, which seamlessly combined spiritual and political metaphors, women spoke of their pirs (spiritual mentors) who had warned them of the calamitous futures that awaited Kashmiris once Narendra Modi was elected to power:

I know a very pious soul, who had seen visions of Modi directing water and crushing people and property, and throwing them helter-skelter on the sidewalks and pavements. And this is exactly how it felt when the deluge finally came.

Sakina, another middle-aged woman who was visiting from a village in northern Kashmir, chimed in, “Mona ji, you won’t believe it when I say this. But I saw how a giant man, whose arms must have been at least a kilometre long, was directing the flow of water in my village.”

For Nusrat, Sakina, and Sameen, thus, the flood was an orchestrated design by outsiders (read Indians) to drown Kashmiris in their own water. Indeed, in the aftermath of the flood, a journalist described the flood as a “genocide in the skin of a natural calamity” (Sheikh 2014). As I argued earlier, such perceptions emerged within the context of Indian government’s unwillingness to accept international aid for Kashmir, and its exaggerated and strategic emphasis on military benevolence in post-flood rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Kashmiris believed that water was the most benign weapon in India’s counter-insurgency kit, especially as most “mainstream Indians,” particularly the Hindutva right-wing groups, refused to see the flood as an outcome of extensive militarisation. Instead, as Ashraf (2014) describes it, they called the flood a “comeuppance for the Kashmiri disloyalty to India, a divine chastisement for their quest for freedom and allegiance to Pakistan.”

The post-flood stories were poignant testimonials of a jolted world in which women’s relationship with land and water had been profoundly altered, and in which women used their water-soaked walls and damaged material artefacts as repositories of a familial world that had now turned eerie and unfamiliar. Women’s stories of Srinagar city populated with men on horses, or with water that “shrieked and yelled” stayed with me, shaping how I heard women’s anxious tales of an imminent flood that the Kishanganga dam would unleash, submerging their villages and devouring their highly fertile land. Likewise, women’s stories from another border region in Uri, where the consequences of the 2014 flood had worsened because of NHPC’s hydroelectric dam on River Jhelum (commissioned more than a decade ago in the 1990s) established the long-term social and ecological consequences of mega-dams. Such stories also offered radical ecological imaginaries in which Kashmir was no longer barricaded with dams and military installations, but presented as vibrant and free, empowered by extraordinary forces that animated its land, forests, and rivers. These narratives confronted the “ecological dread and disenchantment” produced through years of violence and militarised confinement (Palmer 2017: 2). In the next two sections, I rely on ethnographic narratives from Kashmir’s border regions—Gurez, where the Kishanganga dam is currently in its final stages of completion, and Uri, situated on the banks of River Jhelum, where a 480 MW dam was commissioned in the 1990s—to analyse how mega-dams shape women’s anxieties about flooding, resource alienation, and social and economic freedom.

The Kishanganga Dam

In Gurez, which is roughly 50 miles from Srinagar city, people were spared the wrath of a flooded Jhelum. Instead, Gurezis dreaded the man-made flood that would forever alter their worlds. The Kishanganga had flooded many times in the past, devouring large tracts of land or slicing it into fragments. People’s accumulated wisdom had taught them to work with the ebb and flow of the Kishanganga river. But, nothing could prepare them for the deluge that awaited them (Baruah 2012). Gurezis would often say “that the dam was their sehlab [flood],” which would drown their villages, and leave them at the mercy of government-sponsored rehabilitation packages. Gurezi women experienced a deeper sense of dislocation since they felt terribly disenfranchised in an already altered landscape, disrupted by men and materials that were both seen as “foreign” entities. Since 2009, Gurez was populated with officials of the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) and the NHPC, most of whom belonged to the plains of India. In addition to setting up makeshift camps and settlements on land that once belonged to the villagers, the HCC and the NHPC had also set up a stone-crushing plant in Badwan village. The incessant sounds from the crushing of rocks and the air they breathed, which contained specks of dust and smoke, I was told, felt “foreign.” The outsiders, all of them men, dug the earth, crushed rocks, and bored their mountains to redirect their water to produce electricity in faraway places. Instead of horses, it was men who were doing it; and instead of using sticks and batons, there was heavy machinery and equipment that was stealing their water. Women worried about the deluge that would submerge their homes, land, trees, and orchards, and drew a close connection between the impending flood and the loss of their freedom and independence.

In the summer of 2015, as the date for the commissioning of the dam drew closer, Gurezis experienced increased fear and uncertainty, which sometimes turned into anger and bitterness within the community. No longer would I find women gathered outside their homes, soaking in the summer sun or taking intermittent breaks between household chores and working on their land. Many homes were already deserted and families were scattered between Gurez, Srinagar, and Bandipora. Men and women were engaged in heated discussions, most of them tied to the issue of insufficient compensation for their acquired land. Despite this uncertainty, women refused to abandon their land even though there were government sanctions against cultivation that year. “Women love the land more than men do,” Nafeesa told me as she loosened the earth with her hands, flattening it a few seconds later after she had removed the weeds. “We work on it more than men do, and it takes care of us and our families.” A few other women who were working alongside Nafeesa spoke about their uncertain futures, a routine conversation among women when they gathered together in their homes or fields to socialise or to share updates regarding matters of land acquisition and compensation. “When the HCC came, and offered money, our important leaders did not ask the right questions. They accepted the money thinking that the world was coming to them.” I asked them if they had resented this decision, to which they promptly replied, “We were told that the dam was not women’s matter and the men were enough to tackle this issue.” Given their active participation in political rallies and speeches, the absence of women’s voices in dam-related matters, at least in the early years, was a striking one. The women I spoke with attributed this to the “misconception most men carried regarding what the dam might bring in terms of money and other benefits.” But, a lot of these turned out to be illusory as people realised that “they were not just losing their land, water, trees, fruit, and vegetables,” but also an “entire way of life.” Now, people are hushaar (vigilant), especially women, who feel terribly anxious about raising their children in unfamiliar environments, without access to farmland or the forests. “What will we do without this air, this water, and this land?” chimed in Haseena, a young woman in her 30s. She went on to say,

If we have 50 kanals here, we can only buy a few kanals in Srinagar from the compensation money. And the patch of land will mostly be used for building a house, with high walls and a solid gate. Those houses will confine us to the four walls. We will have to fight for inches of land for our graves [marguzar]. Here, we are free to move. There is so much space. We can go to the forest to get wood, herbs, and zeera. We will miss our forest trips where we would sing, chat, and play.

Conceptions of Freedom

The theme of “openness” of the fields, forest, and their homes, unencumbered by concrete walls and iron gates, was recurrent in women’s stories of dispossession. Older women recounted spending hours, sometimes from 9.00 am until 2.00 pm, in the forests, gathering wood, grass, fruit, and herbs. For many younger women, who went to the forest for picnics and not always for work, the openness of their orchard in Badwan offered occasional and welcome refuge from the confines of domestic life. Haunted by the uncertainties of the future, however, the present was punctuated with fear and remorse. The thought of abandoning their land, their watan (homeland) and “mother,” made them tearful as they asserted how the openness of their lands and forests meant that they were “free” too (Maggi 2001). Women’s freedom was their ability to do chakraat (walks or picnics) to roam in their fields and in their highland pastures, a freedom they would lose in the city. This freedom was place-based and, therefore, also precarious. It was structured by local regulations and cultural codes, most of which would shift once people moved into towns or cities, leaving women vulnerable to new and unfamiliar modes of order and propriety. “Living their lives with 10 marlas” (one 160th of an acre), thus made them terribly anxious, as they saw it as an assault on their right to freedom and mobility.

Scholars have shown how displacement intensifies relations of power instead of reconstituting hierarchical relationships between men and women. As displaced communities struggle with the loss of their homes and identities, such social crises can potentially translate into stricter regulations for women considered to be repositories of community honour and integrity (Srinivasan 2012). For Gurezi women, thus, the cultural and linguistic unfamiliarity of neighbouring towns and villages (given that many older women spoke Shina and not Kashmiri), filled them with uncertainties about their ability to sustain their social freedoms in other places.

And, this freedom was as social as it was economic. Women cringed at the thought of having to buy rajma (beans) or potatoes, part of their staple diet, and crops that Gurezis deem to be the “best and sweetest in the entire state,” from the market. “Here, we grow these ourselves, care for them. It is our wish if we want to eat or sell them, but in the towns we will have to buy these from the bazaar.” Most women recognised that contrary to what the government officials were promising, a forced migration into the cities and towns would not automatically translate into “opportunities for upward mobility,” especially for women who would not enjoy the bodily freedom or forms of economic self-sufficiency that living close to a river or a forest afforded.

Dams as Military Apparatus

Gurezi women’s care and labour translated into “love” for a vibrant landscape, which was now drenched in unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. The muck and the concrete had diverted the water and contaminated their routes of travel. In addition to the concertina wires installed by the military—a ubiquitous presence in Gurez—there were now meshes and slabs of iron, rusted trucks and rotting jeeps in the vicinity of their apple orchards, and mountains reduced to rubble and dust. If anything, the dam was an assertion of masculinity and control over a vibrant landscape. Much like Nehru’s writings in which the Himalayas figured predominantly in gendered narratives of self-realisation and nation-building, for the engineers and geologists of the HCC, too, dam building was deeply connected with conceptions of heroic masculinity in the face of difficult weather and harsh mountainscapes (Holden 2003). The “cool rationality of modernity” that the Himalayas represented for Nehru was only enhanced by the HCC’s investments in “meticulous planning, precise execution” and cutting-edge technology that helped the engineers and geologists establish domination over mountain valleys (Holden 2003: 7; HCC 2014).4 Scores of men donning their yellow helmets and fluorescent safety jackets, many of them from outside Gurez, considered themselves to be “pioneers” who were building India’s prestige project in an inhospitable terrain, where it was often difficult to breathe, especially if they were trapped inside the long and cavernous water tunnels. And, yet, the work of engineering persisted despite the hardships. Embedded in the tropes of hardship and difficulty were celebrations of their hardiness, the enormity of their efforts, and proofs of “national greatness,” which lay in transforming nature and bringing it in line with visions of national destiny.

The masculine nature of infrastructural work and the walls, tunnels, adits, and concrete in Gurez produced a new set of gendered immobilities, forcing women to alter their movements and restructure their sense of space and place.5 In frontier zones of Kashmir, where movements are heavily surveilled by the Indian military, infrastructural interventions such as big dams also end up multiplying and extending borders that limit people’s, especially women’s, access to critical spaces and resources. In doing so, infrastructural forms shape social domains by imposing new geographies of movements and restrictions, and violating pre-existing rights and claims to particular spaces. And, in the process, what arise are borders within borders, and infrastructure that reproduces the logics of border surveillance and enforcement (Weizman 2007; Lambert 2013).

Dams, thus, become extensions of a military–security apparatus, widening their reach into new social and ecological domains, and intensifying everyday levels of policing and surveilling, while ensuring that even less physical space remains for public use. For instance, concertina wires are no longer only confined to military installations, but are also used to enclose dam sites; there is posted signage in non-military sites prohibiting the use of cameras; there are no-entry signs, placed strategically near the dam site so civilians cannot access walled-off zones. Likewise, power stations built underground remain inaccessible to the general population, and worker camps installed on prime agricultural land make it difficult for women to walk across their fields after sunset.

The Uri Dam

In the frontier tehsil of Uri in north Kashmir, where the construction of the 480 MW Uri-I project, coincided with the onset of Kashmir’s armed rebellion for azaadi, dams were not mere material extensions of a military–security apparatus. In a bid to grab land, several people were “disappeared” by the military in the 1990s, often, as many villagers recount, at the behest of the NHPC. For instance, Razia, a 40-year old woman and a community leader, recounts the horrid tale when her father, a landlord, was disappeared in 1990 when she was 16 years old (Bhan and Bukhari 2017). She claims that her father, who the family was unable to find despite their best efforts, was reluctant to sell land to the NHPC and was, therefore, seen as an impediment to the upcoming hydroelectric project. Hardly anyone at the time could speak against the project, recalls another villager, “because the military could silence us anytime.”

For Razia and other villagers, thus, the dam was a disciplinary tactic to reorder spaces, communities, and ecologies, divide land, and force a recalcitrant population into submitting to the new demands of corporate and military labour (Bhan 2014). At the same time, the dam dispossessed populations of their land and resources, a phenomenon they saw repeating itself during the 2014 floods, when Uri suffered massive destruction because of a flooded Jhelum. The villagers complained that the NHPC, instead of disposing the debris from the dam in environmentally-safe places in the 1990s, had dumped it haphazardly in the village in the form of huge mounds that had loosened due to the flood and damaged their homes and fields (Bhan and Bukhari 2017). The water had eroded the debris, which consisted of boulders, mud, and pebbles, and dumped it on people’s agricultural land. The dam, it was clear, had lasting ecological consequences for Uri, which the 2014 flood had both intensified and made visible. The intervening two decades could barely hide the irreversible impact of the dam and its debris on their land, rivers, and waterbodies. The situation in Uri, thus, corroborated Gurezis’ fears that the Kishanganga dam would eventually flood more areas than the NHPC had estimated and would trigger lasting ecological impacts in the area, such as modified temperatures, stunted vegetation, more cloud cover, and less sunshine (Bauer and Bhan 2016, 2018).

The Flood and Its Jinn

For many women like Razia, the flood, while catastrophic, opened up alternative ecological imaginaries in which the gushing waters of the Jhelum river made explicit the connections between land and water, and human and non-human forms, reminding them of the lived landscape that existed before it was burdened with concrete and concertina wires. Here, I describe how Razia, a community leader and the daughter of the disappeared landlord, sutures a fragmented landscape through tales she recounts of the flood and her encounters with non-human figures, who remind her of Kashmir’s garam (spiritually potent landscape), and the ways it has been mauled and desecrated by decades of violence.

The waters came from a sar [source], which gives birth to seven rivers. Out of those seven rivers, four flow into Kashmir and three into Pakistan. The four rivers were responsible for the flooding in Kashmir while the three rivers were responsible for the flooding in Pakistan. Humans were not the only ones affected. There were jinn too and it is their shrieks that we all heard. They, too, lamented the destruction of their homes. The floodwater was so furious that it sliced the village into three parts. People had not yet set up makeshift bridges, which limited people’s movements, and yet there was a person, I was told, who would move across banks with immense ease. Sometimes villagers saw him on this side of the river, sometimes on the other side. I decided to find this person and set out into the village, the third day after the flood, after the rains had stopped. After walking a mile or two, I arrived at a spot where a villager had sacrificed a cow to stop the flooded river. It was here that this “man” came to me. I asked him the reason and purpose of his visit. He wanted to see the level of destruction in our village since the flood waters had destroyed his world as well. He said he had come from a border village, which was located on the banks of the sar and was about 25 kilometres away.

After recounting her encounter with the jinn, Razia talked in detail about her relationship with the sar, a place she had visited often. As a community leader in her village and also the daughter of the local landlord, Razia visited many sites that once fell under her father’s sphere of influence. Indeed, her interactions with the jinn and his directives to her must be understood within the context of the important position she occupied in the village as a well-known social and political worker.6

The first time I went to the sar was after a few Bakarwals [pastoralists] who live in dhoks [small mountain houses] complained about the military’s continued harassment. Despite living in a tightly-surveilled territory in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, Bakarwal dhoks were raided often, sometimes in the middle of the night. Men were routinely asked to leave the dhoks and sit outside during cold nights while women were instructed to stay back. I took my mother along and a few other villagers to visit the site to figure out a way to help the community. I mobilised at least 25–30 Bakarwals and went to the camp commander. I told him you have such high surveillance during the day so why is it that people are harassed in the night time; their identity cards and other official documents demanded at arbitrary hours? Seeing the size of the crowd, the commander ensured us that he would look into the matter. The Bakarwals lived in peace for some time after that. After we left the military station, we went to the sar with Bakarwals and their horses, many of them used for military portering. When we arrived, a feast was ready for us. A Bakarwal family had cooked a meal for us and sacrificed a goat for the feast. I can never forget the picturesque sar, with its blue waters dancing under gleaming sun rays. We could hear faint music coming from the other end of the sar. As I trained my ears, an older Bakarwal told me that the sar is home to jinn too, and these are old and pious jinn. The sar is deep and according to legend contains a mosque. He used to visit the sar with his grandfather and once a barāg—a winged steed used by the prophets to travel—appeared from under the water. The barāg instructed his grandfather to visit the site one more time but his grandfather pleaded that he was too old and might not be able to visit again. But the barāg insisted that he visit one more time, and carry with him a bag of rice. As instructed, the grandfather visited the sar and was told to dump all the rice in the sar. Later, he was asked to visit Chasmashahi and see the rice sprout there.

Razia continued to reflect on the “mysterious” and “magical” powers of the sar. “The sar is not always visible,” she said. Even when the weather is clear, the sar refused to be seen often. There is too much gunah (sin) in Kashmir, but many land and waterbodies remain pious.

Razia’s narrative is filled with references to a particular sar she is deeply fond of, one located in the highest reaches of Gulmarg, 25 kilometres (KM) from her village. She attributes the floodwaters to the sar, which she calls a magical place, one that reveals itself to a few people. Indeed, the shepherd she meets on one of her trips there confirms this too. The weather turns in a second, he claims, making it difficult for people to spot the sar. There are places in Kashmir that resist being “revealed.” Kashmir, Razia says, has many “secrets,” with land and waterscapes that dance and sing, bless and curse, and those that disrupt or exceed the confines of the human imagination. Rivers and sars also know no boundaries; they traverse the militarised borders between India and Pakistan, causing flooding in Kashmir as well as in Pakistan, and, in doing so, they resist reductive representations of Kashmir as India’s volatile frontier.

The rice grains that the Bakarwal’s grandfather immersed in the sar sprouted far way in another waterbody, in Chasmashahi, located at least 60 km from Gulmarg, establishing the connectedness of a landscape that has been cut, sliced, split, mined, and fragmented—through walls, borders, dams, roads, landmines, and checkpoints—and rendered lifeless and inanimate. Such connections extend from the human to the non-human world, which include the jinn, who, dislocated by the floods, visited Razia’s village to assess the damage. In her narratives, the jinn, disguised as a human, comes from the same sar, making it obvious to Razia that he was indeed a jinn since he possessed non-human capabilities to travel across flooded roads and bridges.

The jinn, bestowed in Islamic cosmology with a long life and the faculties to move fast and swiftly, while continually able to change form (Khan 2006: 238), says to Razia that the deluge is a kheher from khuda (wrath from god) and it will come again, but that she should try to stop it. Razia claims she is powerless in the face of such calamities, although the conversation inspires her to immediately begin post-flood recovery work in her village. Razia’s constant invocations of the space as already heavily surveilled and guarded by the military, and their litany of atrocities against the Bakarwals, particularly their women and children, foregrounds a morally corrupt geography of militarism, in which the sar, standing here both as a metonym for Kashmir and its sacredness, is contaminated with gunah. And, yet, despite being scarred with militarised violence and located amidst dense geographies of surveillance, the sar, which guards a sacred mosque and is also home to the jinn, dances with joy as fountains of water burst from its womb. In her post-flood recounting of Kashmir’s morally laden geographies, in which jinn and humans are both victims of the deluge, Razia’s story restores lost connections, human and non-human, natural and social, as well as spiritual and political.

In his extensive study of jinn in Delhi, Anand Taneja (2017: 10) argues that “jinns are linked to deep time, connecting human figures thousands of years apart.” In doing so, they serve as “magical figures of memory,” who, by virtue of the long lives they lead “[connect] human beings centuries and millennia apart in time” (Taneja 2017: 11, 25), while also challenging an amnesiac state’s concerted attempts to efface Muslim artefacts and sacred sites in post-partition India. For Razia, too, the jinn reminded her of garam, spiritually potent spaces, or of the connectedness of spaces and waterbodies that militarised infrastructure—bunkers, camps, dams, and checkpoints—had fragmented. Such connections represented alternative social and material histories and spatial imaginaries that now lay buried under dense layers of a military occupation. In doing so, the jinn restore some form of mystique to Kashmir’s land and water forms, for instance, through their abilities to not “reveal” themselves fully, despite the structures of surveillance that attempt to map every inch of the region’s surface. At the same time, the jinn stand witness to the connections of the past; they speak to different modes of being and belonging in a space, where both are structured by the spatial logics of a military occupation. The jinn also prod Razia to “do something” and “stop the flood.” Realising her charge, she assumes the task of rebuilding her community by setting up teams and equipment to clear her muck-damaged agricultural fields, and she reclaims what is left of her land and village.


In this paper, I have analysed how the intersections between dams and more quotidian forms of militarised infrastructure shape women’s anxieties about their environments, and their abilities to seek opportunities for social, political, and economic freedoms. As exercises in border enforcement, the dams in Gurez and Uri intensified the structure and logics of a military state, by imposing new limitations on women’s freedom of movement and by literally disappearing people who refused to conform to the NHPC’s brutal land-grab policies. In a space where the military exercises various degrees and forms of spatial control, the flood of 2014 was both a stark reminder of how environmental and territorial freedoms were interlinked, and how Kashmir’s river resources were being exploited to power the Indian economy, thus triggering a series of conversations on Kashmir’s resource sovereignty and the fate of its rivers and waterbodies. The flood, it was clear, was a political event, which laid bare the state government’s apathy and callousness toward Kashmir’s water resources. For Gurezis, who had not experienced the 2014 flood, it stood as a reminder of what was to come: the dam, often called the sehlab, would inundate their villages, and also their way of life, and the consequences of this disenfranchisement were deeply gendered. In women’s narratives across Srinagar, Uri, and Gurez, I heard a trenchant critique of a militarised state, which was abusing Kashmir’s resources and using them against the local populations, revealing women’s vulnerabilities, but also spurring resistant political and ecological imaginaries in which Kashmir’s land and waterscapes were reimagined and re-spatialised through allusions to jinn, spirits, and Kashmir’s mystical and enchanted geographies. Such alternative conceptions of Kashmir’s geography, which presented it as unfragmented, undivided, and garam (spiritually potent) exceeded the militarised logics of border enforcement, and can be read as the political renditions of a landscape scarred by decades of violence and bloodshed.


1 The term “occupation” encompasses both the affective and legal dimensions of the existing Indian state in Kashmir. Kashmiris overwhelmingly resent and resist the presence of a hostile, largely Hindu, military force and their violent tactics to suppress popular demands for self-determination. Indian military presence can justifiably be called an occupation based on Article 42 of The Hague Convention, which states the presence of a “hostile” army and the exercise of its authority over the local population as a fundamental characteristic of an occupation (Ferraro 2012: 7). The ICRC report notes that, in recent years, the meanings of occupation and the laws governing occupation have undergone many shifts, mainly because “in addition to the persistence of traditional forms of occupation,” extraterritorial military interventions “have given rise to new forms of foreign military presence on the territory of a state, sometimes consensual but very often imposed” (Ferraro 2012: 7; Bhan and Misri 2015).

2 Badwan and Khopri are two villages in the Gurez tehsil, which is approximately 85 km from Bandipora district. According to census data from 2011, there are around 479 families in Badwan-Wanpora and the total population is 3,327. Khopri-Mastan, a village considered to be the 7th least populous in Gurez has 97 households and a total population of 520 (GoI 2011). Despite these official statistics, the data on the total number of households in each village was contested by the villagers who felt that their chula or household was not represented in the data, which made them ineligible for dam-related compensation. Badwan, which means big forest, I was told was the “face of Gurez” since many of its residents have excelled in the bureaucracy, as well as in medicine, arts, and poetry. The villages once used to be at the heart of the Central Asian Silk route and memories abound from the times when Gurez was not a border, but an entrepôt, and a thriving cultural and trade centre. Likewise, villagers were also arbitrarily separated from their families and relatives in 1948, when the UN brokered the ceasefire line soon after India and Pakistan’s first war over Kashmir.

3 Interview conducted by author, 5 June 2014.

4 HCC is the acronym for Hindustan Construction Company, a Mumbai-based contracting company, responsible for building the Kishanganga dam. For more details, see HCC (2014). Also see Bhan (2014).

5 Unlike in other Himalayan regions, where women are an integral part of the workforce in mega-infrastructure projects, such as roads and dams, women in Gurez did not participate in similar forms of construction work.

6 By no means were jinn-related stories limited to women. In Gurez, for instance, both men and women spoke about them, worrying that the jinn were harder to spot now because human interventions had wreaked pre-existing moral and spiritual worlds. In writing about the world of jinn, some scholars express concern that a widespread belief in jinn among South Asian Muslim communities might be used to reinforce stereotypes about Muslim irrationality (in this case Muslim women’s irrationality; see Naveeda Khan 2006: 239). Such stereotypes, they caution us, can miss out on the secular character of jinn, or their significance among non-Muslim communities in South Asia and beyond. In many instances, such as in the Feroz Shah Kotla ruins of Delhi, as Anand Vivek Taneja notes, non-Muslims, too, visit the durgah, petitioning the jinns to resolve their personal and professional predicaments. Furthermore, such stereotypes erase how Jinn are dynamic entities, and the ways in which relationship between jinn and humanity is also constantly evolving. Jinn can be seen as political figures, offering a nostalgic view of the past, and a yearning and potential for inclusive and moral futures (Taneja 2017).


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Updated On : 8th Dec, 2018


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