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Book: Sense of duty creates new kind of jihadist in Kashmir

May 13, 2013

Book cover

Cabeiri deBergh Robinson expected to hear a story about suffering endured by people living near the disputed Line of Control between India and Pakistan. Robinson, an associate professor at the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies, regularly visited the homes of Kashmiri families living in refugee resettlement villages while doing field work from 1998-2008. But she was surprised when this young man, sitting among his relatives, looked her in the eye and said, “I’m not a refugee. I’m a militant,” Robinson remembers. “Do you want to know about our cows getting shot by Indian snipers or do you want to know about the truly unspeakable things?”

The young man proceeded to tell her the reasons he had joined a militant organization: he had heard stories about human-rights violations on the Indian side of the Line of Control and felt strongly that he had a duty to take up jihad to protect Kashmiri sisters and mothers.

The man’s two brothers had both died, and his family refused to let their last son become a militant, so the man ran away. At the request of his father, the young man was sent home and the family moved farther away from the Line of Control to prevent him from running away again.

What struck Robinson during this story, and others like it, was how young men in Kashmir took up jihad as part of their history of conflict in the region, rather than as part of a political party, a more traditional understanding of jihad. “The idea that an individual would himself be obligated to determine whether a situation rises to the level of jihad really has no precedent either in classical or in modernist thinking,” she said.

Robinson’s research in Pakistan is now published in her book, Body of Victim, Body of Warrior, from University of California Press.

She explained that, throughout Islamic history, jihads have been tied to some sort of institution, which clearly defines when and how violence can be deployed.

This is not the case in Kashmir, Robinson said, where jihad is tied to refugees’ historical understanding and an individual sense of duty to Kashmiris living on the other side of the Line of Control.

Kashmiris have made their homes in these settlements since 1947, when India and Pakistan, newly independent from British rule, both claimed the state of Kashmir. About two-thirds of Kashmir is controlled by India and about one-third is controlled by Pakistan. Refugees displaced near the Line of Control set up temporary villages and, 66 years later, among intermittent fighting and documented abuses against civilian populations, India and Pakistan have yet to reach a settlement. More than a generation of Kashmiris have grown up in these so-called “temporary” villages, which have permanent houses, well-developed agriculture, and are a far cry from other slum-like refugee camps.

Robinson became interested in how Kashmiris had been impacted by this long-term conflict while monitoring the conditions of detained people in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Most media and scholarship were focused on legal interpretations of treaties between India and Pakistan, she said.

But Robinson wanted to know why young Kashmiri men were willing to die and kill as part of militant organizations. She noted that the departure from a traditional view of jihad coincided with an emphasis on human rights at the United Nations and implementation of human rights laws around the world. “To forge jihad in defense of community or violation of the body is a notion that is very clearly a hybrid between classical ideas of sovereignty and modern ideas about individual rights,” she said.

Early in her field work, an elder who had helped settle one of the 1947 villages requested a meeting. After questioning her about her research and her views on other world events, the man gave Robinson what she calls “a gift.”

“These men get hot and emotional,” he told her. “And when they get hot and emotional they want to join the jihad. And I tell them, honor your mother by marrying well, get a good job, educate your daughters. These are ways also to defend human rights, and to fight for your nation and for mankind.”

Robinson said, “He encapsulated so much of the tension that I experienced throughout the course of my research and that I laid out in the book: The attempt to live as honorable and political beings under the shadow of guns of two nations.” Robinson said the younger generation has come to the conclusion that some sort of direct action is required to bring about the change they’ve spent their entire lives waiting for.

As Kashmir has become increasingly politicized, any model for peace will need to take into account the inability of states and Kashmiri leaders to rein in military organizations, Robinson said. Human rights abuses need to be taken into account and, over time, people will have to be convinced that conditions that led to fighting in the first place no longer exist.

By Kristina C. Bowman