Winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2021

We are pleased to announce that the winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2021 is Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir, University of Washington Press (2019) and Zubaan Publishing (2020).

Ather Zia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the Indian military occupation, settler colonialism, and women’s collective political and social challenges in the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir.
Resisting Disappearance is a powerful narration of the effects of oppression and political disputes on people’s everyday life. The book is engaging and shrewdly written. It effectively summarizes the broad and committed scholarship behind it. An excellent example of anthropology’s capacity to both inform and inspire.

Read below to learn more about Ather Zia’s work.

Antonio: What’s Resisting Disappearance about?

Ather: The political resistance in Kashmir predates the formation of India and Pakistan. In the last 40 years or so, from an international dispute involving Kashmiri people, the Kashmir issue has been relegated to being a bilateral dispute or a “border issue.” An issue that India from time to time even undermines as an internal problem or labels it as “terrorism,” negating the genuine political demands of the Kashmiri which are on the UN agenda and mandated by its resolutions. This book focuses on tracing the neo-imperial project that India has had in Kashmir effectively starting in 1947. My analysis deploys enforced disappearances that have been effected by the Indian army and other government militia and vigilantes as a way of tracing the project and policies of the Indian occupation. The ethnography centralizes the voices of Kashmiri activist women from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) who have been searching for the 10,000 + Kashmiri men subjected to enforced disappearance by the Indian forces. As a Kashmiri myself it becomes supremely important to center and amplify Kashmiri voices. Even though Kashmiris have been vocal and active in every decade since 1947, they have been increasingly invisibilized and their resistance criminalized by India. The power of ethnography lies in storytelling and this book tells the story of Kashmir through the voices of Kashmiri women, activists offering a critical feminist and political analysis of Indian occupation in Kashmir.

Antonio: Enforced disappearances disrupt families and society. What is the current state of the military occupation in Kashmir? 

Ather: Kashmir is one of the most densely militarized zones in the world. There are more than 700,000 Indian soldiers on Kashmir soil at the moment. As the world fights the Covid-19 pandemic, Kashmir, without a break, continues to reel under the brutal Indian occupation. In early 2020, Kashmiris were hobbling back to life from a long military siege and communication lockdown that had been imposed by India on August 5, 2019 when it unilaterally and militarily removed Kashmir’s autonomy. During the pandemic, India has not stopped any of its counterinsurgency operations. The cordon and search operations (CASO) are going on. During CASO the Indian forces enter neighborhoods and communities under the pretext of searching for militants. It is an operation filled with soldiers creating mayhem in people homes; arresting, beating, humiliating, physically and sexually harassing civilians. Armed encounters with militants are also continuing during the lockdown. Routine surveillance, patrolling, frisking at checkpoints and convoy movement have not ceased and they are even growing. All this despite the United Nations calling for cessation of violence in conflict zones across the globe. The India government followed the removal of Kashmir’s territorial sovereignty and autonomy with a brazen amendment in Kashmir’s own domicile act, which marks the manifest beginning of Indian settler colonialism. Thousands of Kashmiris are illegally arrested, raided and detained and media is fully gagged by imposition of new statutes. The Indian necropolitical policies are growing; never the ones to sit silent, India has enforced silence in Kashmir and the fear of state terrorism, dispossession, incarceration, and ecocide is growing.

Antonio: How does mourning become not simply a coping strategy but an active form of engagement with political violence? 

Ather: In the brutal political repression that exists in Kashmir, the simple act of remembrance is a marker of resistance and can invoke the wrath of the Indian nation state. Thus, to embark on public mourning is to invite danger and death. Yet, the APDP activists have been doing it since the late 1980s and formally since 1994. Mourning in the context of military occupation ceases to just be only a mode of coping, it becomes a revolutionary act of resistance. In the book, I propose the analytic lens of “affective law,” which is in contrast to the sovereign’s law that prevails over Kashmir and that has caused the enforced disappearances in the first place. I urge readers to see affective law as a paradigm, which manifests the quest for justice by the activists, as not just accidental but a deliberate effort to reclaim some power to get justice, despite the dangers to life and scarce legal options. This law is born of mourning, which is effectively a mode of politics and not just routine commemoration. APDP’s mission manifests creation of counter-memory, practices of remembering and forgetting that become crucial for resisting oppression and oppressive dominant ideologies. These counter memories as subjugated knowledges which are produced by a deeply brutalized people will often remain hidden behind dominant statist versions. So they need to be scrupulously traced and told. My analysis makes manifest in how they appear both in archival and performative modes, in documentation and in public mourning. APDP’s activism becomes a resistant memory against amnesia forced by a repressive occupation. By highlighting these subjugated knowledges, my ethnography illustrates how the APDP activists expose the Indian governments’ policies to control Kashmiri dissent and its genuine demand for self-determination as mandated by the UN.

Antonio: Poetry is a key component of your work. Can you tell us more about how you see your work at the intersection of ethnography and poetry?

Ather: Anthropology has a generous heart in allowing creative genres to become part of our analysis. For me, the poems written while doing ethnographic work acted as a moment of surfeit, where reason sought the logic of surplus and escaped measured words. As a poet who could not stop writing poetry while doing fieldwork, the poetic process to be part of research journey enabled greater empathy, an experiencing, and a witnessing which otherwise was not possible as part of my methodological toolkit. As a mode of contemporary ethnopoetics, the poetic aspect becomes part of the movement for strengthening the turn towards what Renato Rosaldo describes as “antropoesia,” bridging the cultural and social scientific fields of poetry and anthropology.

Antonio: What are your future plans?

Ather: I am working on a collection of ethnographic poetry based on my work in Kashmir. It is tentatively titled, Field-in-Verse: Writing under Occupation; and also a set of short stories; a novella if time permits. I am also co-editing a volume titled Dreams Under Occupation. My current research interest is the increasing Indian settler colonial project and that is where I am ethnographically parked at the moment.

Leave a Reply