Bashrat Peer’s very powerful and evocative work comes at a critical juncture of time in Kashmir’s history as the state has swung from a surge of anti-India sentiment, marked by religious and regional polarization to the highest turnout in its history in the recently-concluded assembly elections. All this has occurred within a short span of four months. Peer’s work stands out, in the English literary world in particular, as it lends an authentic Kashmiri voice to the tumultuous events that punctuate much of Kashmir’s historical canvass over the last fifteen years.
Curfewed Night revolves around the lives of ordinary Kashmiris, such as Peer himself, which were completely transformed with the onset of militancy in the early 1990s. The author makes a very poignant critique of the Indian state, which responded with brute force and crushed its proclaimed constitutional values of democracy, rule of law, freedom, secularism and human rights. The most disturbing aspect of these developments, apart from the mass graves that dot the otherwise picturesque landscape of Kashmir, comes in the form of the author’s profoundly disturbing account of Papa 2, which served as a notorious torture chamber in the heart of Srinagar (p.142-152). It now serves as a residence for the PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, touted as soft separatist. The author also drawing out certain uncomfortable realities that people in Kashmir have to face, that is, the failure of Kashmir’s political class - both the mainstream and separatist political leadership - vis-à-vis its people, how militancy has scarred the social and cultural fabric of Kashmir, how much as people despise Indian rule though they also do not support the idea of a merger with Pakistan and how his Muslim friends in Aligarh (and elsewhere in India) disagreed with Kashmiri aspirations of secession from India.
Peer’s work is also sensitive too how conflict painted the portrait of history in very different colors for two categories in particular. First, for women, who are seen as embodying the community’s honor and by robbing them of that honor the entire community was sought to be shamed. Second, for many non-Muslims, in particular the ancient Pandit community who were systematically cleansed from the Valley viewed as they were by the militants as being both the symbols and sympathizers of the Indian state. The inclusion of both these categories marks a significant intervention, for these are categories that have often been overlooked in most narratives on Kashmir.
While the author is deeply critical of the Indian state and its heavy-handed security apparatus, which has subjected Kashmiris to an almost routine humiliation of identity parades, body searches and an unpleasant volley of questions, yet he is also able to tease out the humane side of the men in uniform. Vividly recounting his run in with an army man in Srinagar, the argument that followed and the latter’s sudden transformation at the mention of Peer’s having studied from the same university and having had friends from the army man’s caste, and who on subsequently taking leave said “I was a different man before I joined the force and came to Kashmir.”(p.239) Thus, clearly the routine violence in Kashmir has taken a toll on all the actors involved.
Peer’s work makes a valuable intervention on the discourse in Kashmir, particularly as his work gives voice to the subaltern as opposed to focusing on a grand political narrative and much of his analysis is incisive. However he also tends to paper over some other key issues at play in the state’s political matrix. First, although he rightly castigates the Indian state for reducing the political process to a farce, he fails to even mention the free and fair elections in 2002. In fact this political process was carried further in the Assembly elections of December 2008 which witnessed an unprecedented level of voter turnout that took both the separatist leadership and the Indian government by surprise. While, elections alone certainly will not resolve the Kashmir issue, they nonetheless do restore some sense of political normalcy in the state and will give a chance to address everyday concerns of life through the ballot as fatigue with the bullet sets in.
Second, the author also asserts that the struggle in Kashmir is strongly underpinned by the issue of etching out a Kashmiri identity. However he, like most other commentators on Kashmir, approaches the issue of identity purely from the sub-regional level, focusing essentially on the Kashmir Valley, ignoring strong counter-discourses on identity formation from Jammu, Ladakh and regions like Mirpur in POK. Had he used some of his interviews with former militants who had trained in POK, to shed light on the political, social and cultural matrix of PoK, about which very little is known to the outside world, he could have helped fill in some crucial gaps in the discourse on Kashmir. The most recent and powerful reminder of the existence of such cleavages has been Amarnath land agitations of 2008 that polarized the state along regional and religious lines.
Finally, Peer also fails to explain why the people of Kashmir had to resort to taking up arms against a rigged election? Kashmir was not the first instance of an election being rigged by the Indian state. Nor does he explicitly address the issue of why the movement in Kashmir came to be characterized by Islamiyat and not Kashmiriyat.
In spite of these blind spots, however, Peer provides a moving and insightful account that makes for a very gripping read. His work underscores the need to see Kashmir beyond its pre-modern cast as a picturesque landscape, epitomized in popular culture through celluloid. This work underscores the need for us to take pause and introspect.