Anam Zakaria is the author of three books, including an award-winning book, The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.
Mustansar Siam (MS): My first question is related to oral history, its scope, why oral history is important & what makes oral tradition different from written tradition.
Anam Zakaria (AZ): Thank you so much for that question, I think it’s really important to talk about the importance of oral history. I think South Asia as a region has always had a long history of the oral tradition and with colonization of course we saw more importance being given to the written word, to what we see as traditional or conventional sources of history. But oral history has always been a very important form of expression, of record keeping, of passing on traditions, customs, culture and folklore and stories.
The reason I’m drawn to oral history in my work- all my books use oral history, is because I think in South Asia a lot of our conventional sources such as textbook histories are often selective histories, they often have a lot of bias. I don’t necessarily think that just because there are more conventional sources of history, makes them necessarily more objective sources of history, and so keeping that in mind I think oral histories offer a very interesting perspective and lens. It gives us access to voices that often don’t get documented.
In conventional sources of history, traditional sources of history people who are left out are often, ordinary people across gender, across class, across caste, many times across different geographical places. I think oral history gives us a different access into understanding our past and particularly understanding the subjective experiences of people. Because when we talk about history, when we talk about let’s say partition or we talk about what’s happening in Kashmir there’s a meta narrative, there’s a larger narrative and in that larger narrative it almost seems like there’s only one story there’s a grand story and that’s never really the truth. At an individual level macro events, big events impact us in very unique ways depending on where we are, what our social class is, what our privileges are or are not right.
So, oral history can then help us kind of understand the more subjective unique experiences of people and document a much more nuanced history, than the packaged history we often get from official narrative. In my work I think it’s given me access to women’s voices, stories of refugees, that don’t get documented and so much more, that it’s just narratives I never knew about, that I never knew existed.
MS: What motivated you to write this book because this book moves beyond politics and focuses more on the indigenous human dimension of the Kashmir conflict?
AZ: My work is very limited, it’s self-funded. It’s on a very small scale, I was only able to make a limited number of trips to Kashmir during these years and do limited work in limited region. So, I don’t want to make any tall claims but based on the stories that I did collect, the people I was able to speak with there’s again no homogeneous narrative.
Again it depends on where you’re located so a lot of my work was in Neelam Valley, and Neelam Valley for those people who might have been to Kashmir you’ll notice that in certain regions it’s even really hard to tell which territory you know is in front of you, is that Pakistan or Indian administered territory?
And so then what it means is that what happened during the 90s when the armies would be shelling across there were entire Villages that were caught in between the shelling across the LoC, there were entire villages that were caught in between the shelling. So, I interviewed a lot of women and those who were children during the 1990s and now had grown up and they spoke about spending a decade in and out of bunkers right, and bunkers are also very expensive so a lot of them also did not have access to bunkers. They were talking about hospitals being destroyed, they would talk about schools being shelled, they would talk about an entire generation right not being able to go to school, what does that mean what does it mean for children, to grow up in a bunker so there are so many stories like that so many lived experiences and what’s really disturbing about it is that after the 2003 ceasefire there have been numerous violations, and those violations escalated in recent years so many people who had lived through this during the 90s were kind of pulled back into the same scenario again and the every time firing happens roads get blocked, food cannot reach, schools shut down.
So, it has a very significant human social political economic impact in the last decade. After the 2005 earthquake tourism started to kind of revive in the area and many people turned their homes into guest houses but then some of them also got shelled and when that happens people stop coming so entire livelihoods get destroyed, livestock gets destroyed. A lot of times the Splinter from the mortar would slice the goat or the cow or the Sheep right so the repercussions are just multi-layered and extremely grave and a lot of women and children that I spoke to were just asking for peace. They just want peace in their lives and then you have the stories of people who became refugees, people who had to flee the violence in Indian administered Kashmir during the 1990s and they were able to make it to Pakistan administered Kashmir.
Many of them are still living in makeshift situations, in deplorable situations, and half of the families are on the other side and during the winter months, before social media became a little bit more accessible people would actually sit by the Neelam River because the water would shrink during the winter and try to talk or see their families across. They are still divided and we know how bad the situation is right now on the other side of the line of control. Every time things escalate over there, it is not a third person story it is their family story, and so for them resolving the conflict and focusing on the human dimension and being able to go back home, being able to meet their families putting an end to this violence is a question of survival, it’s not a divorced political issue, it is of course a political question but it’s also a question of survival.
(MS): You have spent four years traveling and interviewing in the region; tell us about the native larger human perspectives, how this conflict affects the lives of nationals who grew up in ceasefire violations, and the diverse perspectives present among them about this conflict.
(AZ): It started off with a trip I took to Neelam Valley in particular and it was a leisure trip. It was a vacation, and once I was there, I started to hear stories at a local Dhaba or just somebody I would be in conversation with about what the 1990s were like for people.
The 1990s of course is a time when India Pakistan relations have plunged, there’s talk about war and there’s so much conflict happening in Kashmir, there’s so much violence happening in Kashmir and I used to live in Islamabad at this point just a few hours away, and it was shocking to me how little I knew, my own ignorance about the stories about the lived experiences of people. So, I came back and I wanted to know more, and I realised that not so much is written especially in English, there’s a lot of vernacular literature in regional languages but often it doesn’t make its way to mainstream publications or stores and there’s so little we know.
This entire book is my journey of learning, but also unlearning because we as a Pakistani or as an Indian grow up with a certain narrative of Kashmir. But do you really know from the voices of people, what their experiences are like, and for me at least I didn’t so this which motivated me I wanted to understand better, I wanted to peel away the statist narratives, the official discourse, the high politics, the dry statistics that we get to hear in newspaper reports Etc. And then kind of look at the human dimension behind those statistics and to really understand the human story.
(MS): What challenges did you face while traveling across the region and interacting with people living by the Line of Control?
(AZ): Well, I think obviously I had to build trust because, I’m not Kashmiri, I’m from Punjab and I had to build trust, why would I be curious? Why would people want to trust me and share this story with me? So of course there was a process of that.
But I think most significantly ethical issues as an oral historian, as a researcher, I worked previously on partition but partition you know when I was doing the work as much as the trauma is still ongoing and people live with it, there was also a certain level of distance from it.
But in Kashmir, it’s ongoing in a very different way so I had to be very careful about what questions are asked, how do I make sure I’m not pushing people to share, how do I make sure I’m not re-triggering trauma. I tried as much as I could not to go in with a set of questions, but let people kind of share what they wanted to share to tell me what is important for me to hear because again I went in from the perspective that I do not know so it’s for the people to tell me what is important for me to hear rather than me pushing them in one or the other direction.
I started this work in 2014 and things were slightly better in Neelam Valley, they had not seen firing for a while, but then 2016 happened when Burhan Wani was killed and tensions escalated and suddenly firing restarted. Many people were back to square, once they were pulled back into bunker that was also very difficult that what we had documented as maybe history was now again present and the landscape keeps shifting so drastically.
(MS): You have also interacted with government and army officials; how did you find the state narrative about this intriguing dispute? What policy proposals would you suggest to make people’s lives more restful regarding the Kashmir conflict, which is considered the elephant in the room between two nuclear powers?
(AZ): I think again the different narratives depending on who you’re sitting with. Some officials that I did interview were reflective about mistakes that were made, and what should not have happened, policies that did not work and others reinforced statist policies, official discourse and a lot of times those narratives were very divorced from people’s lived realities.
In terms of policy proposal, I think there is a fundamental issue a lot of times we are having these conversations without Kashmiris being present in the room.
The book is very much about my own unlearning as a Pakistani and I think what I’ve learned the most is that: there is no resolution, there is no policy solution that is not driven by and led by and directed by Kashmiris themselves. I think that’s the biggest problem that when Kashmir is talked about, it is talked about in bilateral terms by two hegemonic nuclear powers with their own interests and stakes. We are so disconnected from people’s lived reality in Kashmir, I think policies need to stop being made in faraway centers and by people who are not impacted on a daily basis by what’s happening in Kashmir.