Pakistani writer Anam Zakaria moves beyond politics to focus on the people in the Kashmir conflict
Anam Zakaria’s first book, The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians, got her the KLF-German Peace Prize in 2017. She is out now with her second book, Between the Great Divide: A Journey Into Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. Zakaria had led the Oral History project of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) till 2013: in that role and as a researcher with special interest in oral histories and identity politics, she has in-depth knowledge of trauma and healing in conflict zones. She currently lives and works in Islamabad. Excerpts from an email interview:
You have been working for CAP for years. Did your interest in Partition grow from this engagement?
It’s difficult to escape Partition while growing up in Punjab. It has a way of emerging in everyday conversations, in family gatherings, in textbooks, in popular media, and of course, in the poignant silences of Partition survivors. While my grandmother’s experience of attending to the wounded, ailing refugees who poured into Lahore in 1947 shaped my earliest understandings of Partition, as I grew older I began to witness other palpable residues of it in our society.
It became apparent that Partition is an ongoing journey rather than a static ‘event’ that one can leave behind. It continues to impact our politics, identity, and imagination to this day. It was this journey of Partition that I wanted to explore, looking at the ways in which it had been appropriated, silenced or distorted on both sides of the border over time.
Is your new book, Between the Great Divide, an offshoot of Footprints?
The book is not an offshoot but the two are related. What I realized during my travels to Kashmir was that while researching for The Footprints of Partition, my interviews had largely been restricted to Punjab and therefore my understanding of the division and its repercussions were also limited in many ways.
The exploration of the Kashmir conflict, especially its human dimension, unearthed one of the greatest fallouts of Partition, which can never be encapsulated while sitting in Punjab, or in any urban center of India or Pakistan for that matter.
Does Between the Great Divide challenge the state narratives of both India and Pakistan regarding Kashmir or does it build on them?
The book offers a fresh perspective on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), bringing forth narratives from a region all-too-often ignored and sidelined in the popular discourse on Kashmir. This perspective moves beyond politics and militarism, focusing on the human dimension of the conflict and challenging statist narratives. Readers will find stories about women and children living by the Line of Control, bearing the brunt of ceasefire violations; interviews with refugees who crossed the LoC decades ago and remain separated from their families even today; conversations with former militants, with pro-Pakistan Kashmiris as well as with those who fight for a united, independent Kashmir. A significant section of the book includes interviews with state and government officials as well as with army officers, in an effort to understand policy decisions and explore state narratives.
How difficult was it to conduct research on the project given the sensitive status of Kashmir both for India and Pakistan?
This was a difficult book to research and write for a number of reasons. The stories I have recorded are chilling and heart-wrenching, the trauma of recent or even ongoing for many. Moreover, while researching for this book, the situation in Kashmir changed drastically. In the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing, India-Pakistan relations soured and the LoC became very active.
Many villages by the LoC, which had remained relatively peaceful after the 2003-ceasefire, began to be subjected to intense mortar shelling, which destroyed the newly built lives. Further, not belonging to Kashmir myself meant that I had to gain people’s trust before they would open up to me. Navigating these complex situations was difficult, the journey emotional and challenging.
How do Kashmiris view the situation as both countries continue to play politics?
Through the course of researching and writing this book, the greatest revelation for me has been that there are multiple identities, politics, grievances, and aspirations in the region and it would be unfair to reduce Kashmir to anyone simplistic narrative. However, on both sides of the divide, there is an overwhelming dissatisfaction over how the issue has been reduced to India-Pakistan bilateral politics and militarism. So many of the Kashmiris I conversed with demanded peace and stability in the region, which becomes a far-fetched dream in face of growing Indo-Pak antagonism and its repercussions on the LoC.
Was the experience of Partition different for Kashmiris as, unlike people from Punjab and Bengal, most of them didn’t have to migrate?
Partition and post-Partition events have had a significant impact on J&K. As inter-religious violence spiraled out of control in parts of India and Pakistan, J&K was not immune to it. Muslims were killed in Hindu-majority areas of Jammu; in other parts of Jammu and Muzaffarabad, Muslims targeted Hindus and Sikhs.
The ‘tribal raids’ resulted in more violence, causing people to flee. The violence and migration weren’t only limited to 1947, but were also witnessed in the post-Partition years, especially during the 1965 and 1971 wars and then during the 90s, when many Kashmiris crossed over the LoC.
Even today, they continue to be divided from their families. These are the impacts of Partition or the journey of Partition, post-Partition.
The interviewer is a Lahore-based journalist who writes on culture and literature.