By Niharika Pandit

In ‘The Storytelling of Science’, a debate organized by the Arizona State University, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about Dutch painter Van Gogh’s pre-dawn painting Starry Night. Tyson says that the painting has a foreground—it has Cyprus trees, a village, Church steeple, among other things, yet Van Gogh did not name the painting against either of these objects. Unlike most other paintings, in the Starry Night, for probably the first time, the subject is in the background—the night sky (The Great Debate: THE STORYTELLING OF SCIENCE 2013).

My research, which focuses on the anti-disappearance movement in Kashmir, seeks to do somewhat similar. It aims to make the background—the protesting women who continue to embark on the search for their disappeared sons, fathers, husbands—the subject of inquiry.

Seema Kazi has noted how political analyses and international relations knowledge production on Kashmir have reduced the region to only a geopolitical conflict between India and Pakistan that needs resolution. Such an approach not only silences the voices of Kashmiris, their circumstances and demands, it also undermines the centrality of gender in the military occupation and the ramifications of militarization on gender relations (Kazi 2009). Thus, one of the central motives of this research is to focus on the oft-silenced voices of Kashmir.

It was in 1994 when the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (henceforth APDP) took shape as a collective. While a number of men are also part of this collective, more women remain at the forefront of the collective (Ahangar 2016). Therefore, in my research, I look at the movement pioneered by the APDP, where the focus of my inquiry are its women members, who despite the unknown status of their men continue to protest and produce agentive moments. I attempt to deconstruct their protest by understanding how these activists’ bodies occupy public spaces in a gender-segregated Kashmiri society and how they narrativise memories in ways that spell out the violence perpetrated by the Indian state. By understanding how bodies despite being sites where power relations are inscribed, I argue throughout the research that these women not only subvert the State’s stance on disappearances but they also challenge the ontological assumptions about the subject, agency and subversion, some of the main foci of feminist theories. I study the micropolitics of protest to understand how their performance also opens up spaces for critical agentive moments, which may not be considered critical enough in feminist high theory thus, stands challenged. I also consult poststructuralist feminist literature, mainly the work of Judith Butler, to argue that no body is free from power relations.

With the corporeal comes the question of agency and subversion. Here I intend to show that firstly, it is unhelpful to envisage agency as synonymous with individual as such an approach, even in feminist theories, rushes to mark a social being as either an agent or victim and subsequently as subversive or not subversive enough. I go on to contend that under militarization where lives are precarious, the sheer will to live and protest is subversive and survival, political. I subsequently, study the protest devices employed by the APDP through the lens of Object-Oriented Ontology to understand how objects produce subjectivities and generate agentive moments of their own as well with the bodies that protest.

My work, developed as part of MA research, refers to ethnographies, journalistic reports and documentary films. An interview with Parveena Ahangar, APDP chairperson has immensely contributed to this research along with the photographs and other campaign material that I received from the collective through electronic means.

References:

Ahangar, P., 2016. Personal Interview with APDP Chairperson. Endsleigh Court, London. 9th June 2016.

Kazi, S. (2009). Between democracy & nation. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women.

The Great Debate: THE STORYTELLING OF SCIENCE. (2013). Arizona: ShirleyFilms.