Notes on feminist dissonance

Niharika Pandit (Department of Gender Studies, LSE, London, UK)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 8 April 2022

Issue publication date: 3 January 2023

21

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the potentiality of dissonance, especially as it engaged with feminist theory to raise familiar yet pertinent questions about undertaking research in contexts riven with political and epistemic violence. Drawing on the ethnographic fieldwork in the Kashmir valley, the author tracks the work dissonance does in shaping the research questions we ask, the methodological choices we make and its insistence on embodying a critical politics of location. The author then goes on to trace how dissonance variously emerged in the field and its theoretical implications in explaining the complex processes of military occupation in the Kashmir valley and how it takes hold in everyday life. That is, everyday sense of dissonance as explicated by interviewees brings to light the functions of military occupation but more importantly, it remains imbued with possibilities that contest, challenge and refuse to normalise militarised forms of state-led oppression. Overall, this paper makes the case for remaining with dissonance as a disruptive feminist possibility with epistemic and political potential.

Design/methodology/approach

This paper is based on ethnographically informed fieldwork located in feminist approaches to doing qualitative research.

Findings

The author argues for engaging with experiences of dissonance during research process as productive affects that can yield politically and epistemically useful forms of analysis that contest dominant forms of thinking and knowing.

Originality/value

This paper builds on existing feminist thinking on dissonance to contribute to peace research and the urgent need to centre locational politics and power inequalities as we contest dominant knowledge.

Keywords

Citation

Pandit, N. (2023), "Notes on feminist dissonance", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 13-22. https://doi.org/10.1108/JACPR-01-2022-0661

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

I want to begin with a vignette from 2017.

At a posh cultural centre in central Delhi, Indian writer, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy was speaking about her then released second fiction novel “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”. The novel is a tapestry of characters relegated to the margins in the making of the Indian nation-state and follows their struggles of living thereon. Its plot is closely knit with myriad socio-political moments in the recent history of India: military occupation of Kashmir, 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom, marginalisation of trans people and social mobilisations against capitalist neoliberalism, caste and religious oppression. Roy is among the few Indian activists of her stature who have been vocal about India’s occupation of Kashmir in a context when calling Kashmir a case of military occupation can invite pernicious state reprisal including being charged under sedition and anti-terror laws. Indeed, these consequences remain graver for Kashmiri Muslims who navigate occupation that functions through their gendered and racialised marginalisation – from encounters with soldiers at check posts, walking past bunkers and military camps with gun nozzles pointed at them to being confined in homes with tremendous economic, material and affective losses because of months of militarised lockdowns. As well as being subjected to devastating consequences of events such as the August 2019 de-operationalisation of the region’s nominal “special status” and settler colonialism this has amplified.

While discussing her book in which Kashmir looms large, Roy briefly segued into talking about military occupation of the region. It was almost a year after the young militant commander Burhan Wani of Hizbul Mujahideen had been killed by military forces in July 2016, kickstarting yet another mass uprising against militarised subjugation and for political self-determination. Speaking to a crowd of over a thousand people, mostly of dominant caste and (social, economic) class along with university students, Roy’s injunction was simple yet instructive. She said something along these lines: all life – trees, birds, flowers and those maimed, killed are key characters in my books. After all, how can we not pay attention to what is happening in our immediate surroundings, our backyards? This backyard analogy stayed with me. A backyard is often (but not always) part of a house and adjoins it. It can also serve as a marker of class especially as large patches of land can mostly be afforded by those with socio-economic capital indicating a specific assemblage of power. How manicured a backyard is consolidates one’s social class even further. But manicuring does not always suggest that all is well – it may hide infestation and decay. A backyard can also be an object of neglect – present but not tended to because it fails to serve any purpose. In this way, the backyard remains distinct in its separation from the house especially as everyday activities of cooking, cleaning, sleeping, working and so on that are undertaken inside the house are seldom practised in the backyard. Altogether, this suggests that the backyard embodies a distinct socio-spatiality. So, when Roy invoked the backyard in relation to the Indian nation-state, she was explicitly referring to Kashmir’s militarised colonial occupation. As such it was not Kashmir rather its occupation that constituted the “backyard” of the Indian nation-state, the oft overlooked borderlands that bear the brunt of border consolidation of (post)colonial states. She further contended that it is a form of colonial amnesiac power that keeps majority of Indian publics from critiquing and taking political responsibility for military-led occupation of the region that has claimed tens of thousands of Kashmiri lives and continues to shape their life trajectories and struggles that abound. In sum, her question was rather straightforward: how and why do we overlook the backyards?

Indeed, Roy’s question is a dissonant one. It asks her audience – with relative social, political and economic power and privilege in the heart of India’s capital city and political complicity by virtue of their citizenship – the conditions and consequences of overlooking, in other words of not witnessing, the backyard. I read her insistence on witnessing as multivalent. For Roy, witnessing is not simply an exercise of looking at what has historically been overlooked but remains a deeply political practice that needs grounding in a critical politics of location along the lines that feminist scholarship has long theorised (Rich, 1984; Nagar, 2019; Madhok, 2020 inter alia). In addition, it questions the epistemic frames of looking that have shaped dominant discourses and ways of thinking. This comes across in how Roy reiterates Kashmir as a case of military occupation followed by why most Indian citizens overlook conditions of control and survival in the region, often bolstered by their complicity and investment in the Indian nationalist project. As such, her framing demands that the audience shed nation-state framings when thinking of state colonisation to centre Kashmiri people’s voices and their grounded epistemologies. It is in this way that I read a persisting sense of dissonance – with the potential to further generate and circulate affective and embodied discomfort – that her question seeks to engender among the audience it is addressed to. In feminist tradition of thinking, such an orientation to affective dissonance remains imbued with the potential to rake up feminist questions on power including how we can co-exist differently in relation to each other (Ahmed, 2017; p. 14; Åhäll, 2018, p. 38).

To this end, this article tracks the place and potential of feminist dissonance as an analytical orientation in anticolonial feminist research in contexts of militarised coloniality. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the Kashmir valley, I approach dissonance in two main ways. First, I follow the shape dissonance took up in early stages of the research process, giving rise to a distinctly situated politics of location followed by the textures – specifically trust (or lack thereof) and radical vulnerability – it took during conversations with interviewees. I read these moments as openings that offer scope for thinking through differential research relationships and birth a distinct form of feminist relationality that necessitates ongoing political commitment. Rather than foreclosing solidarity and intimacy, dissonance, precisely in the conditions of its emergence, makes visible how colonial and militarised processes of power hierarchises bodies in gender, sexual and racialised orders to exert control. These differential conditions of control in turn give rise to dissonant strategies of mistrust and refusal that interviewees deployed because of our locational differences (me, a researcher from the colonising state). In the second part, I go on to follow how interviewees’ early sense of dissonance generated a political knowing that enabled them to understand occupation differently, in ways that make visible the quotidian forms of control under occupation seeping through everyday life. This suggests the analytical potential of dissonance in how it allows a sense of knowing as well as navigating everyday life under occupation in contingent ways in contrast to state control and statist frameworks. Overall, this article adds to recent scholarly insistence on dissonance as a salient methodological and epistemic framework in feminist political projects (Osuri, 2019; Zia, 2020; Chadwick, 2021).

In recent years, much has been written about the work of dissonance in feminist political, activist and academic projects in rejigging the theoretical frames through which we make sense of subjectivity, intersecting relations of power including race, gender, caste, class, coloniality, as well as resistance to it. Dissonance or what Ahmed (2017, p. 56) conceptualises as “disaffection” is a bodily, psychic and affective orientation in which the marginal subject (feminist, queer, colonized, others) is “disaffected from a former affectation”. To put simply, experiential affects that one were conditioned into – for example, “as a woman this is how you should feel, what you should say, do and so on” – are no longer understood as self-evident but undone, critiqued so that they can gradually be cast away. This process of disaffection can give rise to numerous conflicting and uncomfortable affects: feeling anxious, restricted and left out with an overall sense of being alienated (Ahmed, 2017, p. 57). Yet it opens us up to a heightened state where other alien, alienating affects and those made alien by structures of power can be recognised and subsequently brought into proximity. For Ahmed, disaffection thus remains imperative to embodying a feminist sensibility. Other than co-constituting feminist political subjectivities, dissonance can also emerge as a generative affective state for epistemic projects precisely as it enables us to recognise dominant modes of knowledge, methodological and conceptual frames that have long structured what we see and how we see what we see. Doing so, it can push us to recognise the structuring power of epistemic frames that render some knowledge, epistemologies, ways of thinking and being as unintelligible while dominant ones as indisputable truth claims. Many such epistemic structures often work in the service of hegemonic nationalist, colonial, raced, gendered, class and caste-based political projects (Grosfoguel, 2002; Lugones, 2008).

As I have noted elsewhere, in the Kashmir context, part of ongoing movement against settler coloniality and occupation has been to challenge epistemic and material violence of dominant Indian nationalist frameworks that reduce people’s political struggle for self-determination variously to a territorial dispute between two “postcolonies” or as “Islamic terrorism” (Pandit, 2020). Much of early knowledge produced on the region, largely by dominant caste Indian scholars, rehearsed these frames of analysis to conceive Kashmir in nationalist vocabularies without carefully historicising people’s longstanding struggles against monarchic subjugation 1930 onwards, long before the India–Pakistan partition. Examples include framing Kashmir as a case of “internal” militarisation, armed insurgency as aberration to conditions of “normalcy” and Kashmiri women as “victims” of “Islamic patriarchy” (Mushtaq, 2019). Together, such nationalist, statist and dominant epistemic discourses make the case for Kashmir’s self-determination a discursive impossibility especially as they always already orientate from the vantage of the nation-state as a necessary and pregiven condition. Indeed, this renders illegible people’s resistance that contests state sovereignty demanding freedom from it and towards self-determination. It also frames military-led occupation of the region as a “necessary law and order” matter. Nonetheless, this landscape of volatile political and epistemic marginalisation offers a crucial departure point to understand and theorise from a critical feminist politics of location situated in an anticolonial standpoint. Imperative here is not that we only offer a critique of dominant knowledge as that may inevitably centre the object being critiqued and reify unequal epistemic relations of power. Rather, thinking of dominant knowledge, in a Foucauldian sense, as material and discursive constructions amenable to critical scrutiny can visibilise conditions of being, life and liveability they (dis)allow. I contend that embodying and attending to a feminist sense of dissonance – in its myriad textures of discomfort, distancing, alienation, anxiety and many such – can emerge as politically generative in shifting the research questions we ask, the theoretical scaffolding, concepts and analytical practices we deploy in geographies replete with political and epistemic violence inflicted by complex conditions of (post)coloniality.

Feminist conceptions of dissonance

Emerging feminist literature has remained with dissonance to understand its transformative potential in challenging existing thinking on identity and politics. Building on standpoint epistemologists, feminist scholar Hemmings (2012) proposes the concept of “affective dissonance” as a way of disrupting ontological and epistemological distance between identity and politics to suggest how they remain mutually constitutive. This challenges the overemphasis on individualising and fixed sense of social identities, which are not pregiven or precede one’s experience in the world but continually come into being in iterative ways. This is not to downplay structures of power that shape bodies, spaces and communities in gendered, sexed, racialised and colonised geopolitical orders. Instead, it allows attending to how processes of power function in everyday life. This contingency, for Hemmings, offers scope for reconceptualising transformative feminist solidarities which are no longer reliant on a fixed ontological sense of identity or membership in a particular group but emanate from a place of affective dissonance, “as that which moves us, rather than that which confirms us in what we already know” (2012; p. 151). Subsequently, dissonance can generate feminist reflexivity, which is able to identify disaffection, possibly towards addressing it. Indeed, there are no guarantees of transformation in such solidarity work. All it demands is “radical vulnerability” (Nagar, 2019) that does not rely on reciprocal expectations but opens up spaces where messy, contradictory and tense questions, ideas and feelings can be addressed.

In transnational occupied contexts of Kashmir and Palestine, Osuri and Zia (2020) have variously examined the potential of affective dissonance in generating meaningful solidarities that are able to draw connections in how power circulates on geopolitical scales and people’s ongoing resistance to it. In examining links between India and Israel’s occupation and settler politics in Kashmir and Palestine, Zia (2020) traces affective solidarity between the two occupied geographies and how it is emerging in a plethora of material and symbolic activist strategies including social media mobilisation, artistic and other forms of solidarity work. While acknowledging the disparate trajectories of occupation and coloniality in Kashmir and Palestine, Zia nonetheless traces the work affect does in bringing together communities under siege towards articulating transnational forms of resistance. In distinct but related manner, Osuri (2019) deploys affective dissonance to query her own position as a scholar of colonialism and how that has shaped her engagement with questions of sovereignty, violence and imperialism in Kashmir. Osuri thinks with Hemmings to interrogate her own position as a non-Kashmiri scholar not towards absolving herself but channelling dissonance as a yearning for more accountable forms of knowledge (Osuri, 2019; p. 3). Accountable knowledge in this context can include interrogating epistemic frameworks that justify occupation as a “necessary” condition, tracing transnational links of coloniality and economic liberalisation that deepen conditions of war, exposing silences, contradictions, solidarities of convenience (for instance, Indian state with Palestine) and how state-led militaristic projects deepen gendered and racialised hierarchies.

Dissonance directed this way performs several epistemic functions. First, it opens up lesser examined research pathways by remaining suspect of dominant political and epistemic claims. Second, tracking dissonance allows focusing on the ephemeral, transitory and contingent ways in which it emerges throughout the research process. More specifically, it is not simply a stagnant sense of dissonance that conclusively unfolds a process of feminist knowing and reflexivity. Instead, dissonance takes different shapes necessitating that we think of feminist research as accountability praxis that can create newer and more radical forms of relational solidarities. Finally, as dissonance can engender reflexivity, herein also lies the potential for critical attention to how the identities, spaces and bodies we inhabit shape our engagement with the world. In the course of my research as an anticolonial Indian feminist working with Kashmir, dissonance demanded paying careful attention to local epistemologies and concepts that people use to make sense of their social and political conditions. This included, similar to Roy’s proposition, beginning with a theoretical framework that transcends nation-state as a pre-requisite condition and thinking through military occupation as an analytical lens – as proposed by critical Kashmir scholarship – with which people make sense of their everyday life and political struggles. My ongoing conversations with interviewees also showed how the political project of occupation is a deeply differential one that reifies existing gendered and other social hierarchies to deepen its control. Examples include how fear of militarised gendered violence shapes the ways in which Kashmiri women navigate public space. This access is further contingent on differences between militarisation of urban and rural spaces, one’s class, caste and religious locations. These social locations are not simply additive but co-constitute how subjects viscerally experience military occupation in their everyday lives. Retaining dissonance in this way indicates its generative potential in recalibrating theoretical frameworks that centre not the state or other dominant narratives but those continually rendered marginal by imperialist political projects. It also entails interrogating the conditions of epistemic marginality that the project of military occupation relies on to in turn bolster state sovereignty claims.

More recently, Chadwick (2021) has examined the methodological and praxis potential of discomfort in feminist research. She argues for “staying with” feelings of discomfort and dislocation, especially for privileged scholars, as they arise in field settings to confront difficult and uncomfortable questions. Rather than disavowing or thinking of it as “lack” in a colonial sense, Chadwick insists on inhabiting discomfort and the interpretive strategies of epistemic uncertainty and hesitancy it yields. Indeed, this can inspire an anticolonial research ethic that does not claim mastery in representing others but remains a process of uncertainty, ongoing engagement, feminist learning and unlearning (2021; p. 10). In this conceptualisation, however, there is often a slippage between discomfort and dissonance; the latter I consider more expansive for it is not simply a floodgate that has a definite beginning, end or closure but arises in several moments and forms throughout the research process. Dissonance is also not simply an individualised affective experience limited to a subject but can circulate between bodies and in field spaces thus insisting that we interrogate and reimagine relationality. Understood this way, dissonance can be conceived as a wilful orientation, a grammar of intentionality that is unwilling to “go with the flow” (Ahmed, 2017, p. 82). This unwillingness, I suggest, can aid in making sense of the complex functions and effects of power in contexts riven with epistemic and material violence. It is this sense of dissonance and its potential that I explore in the next sections.

Trust and radical vulnerability

Many of my interviewees reiterated their concerns over knowledge and representation of Kashmir that I have detailed above. Those who agreed to speak with me through friends and acquaintances began our conversations by sharing their discomfort with Indian scholars, including feminists who had in the past misrepresented them or others they knew. Bazila who is active in Kashmiri feminist circles shared how many feminist scholars from India, under the guise of doing “postcolonial” work, have marginalised Kashmiri women by representing them as victims of “Islamic patriarchy” or as indoctrinated supporters of armed and militant resistance. For Bazila, this scholarship rarely names occupation or analyses how it creates differential gendered effects that are co-constituted by militarisation. They also fail to legitimise people’s struggle for self-determination. Her concern resonates with the recent searing critique of postcolonial and subaltern work undertaken by caste-Hindu scholars in the western academy, who have largely failed to centre complexities of caste in the colonial encounter. By subsuming diverse peoples of the subcontinent as “brown natives”, these accounts while critiquing the white coloniser do not unpack heterogeneities and hierarchies among the natives (Dwivedi et al., 2020). This form of postcolonial innocence takes a distinct shape in Kashmir where the Indian state and its people are largely seen as colonisers and potential settlers, yet this power asymmetry is seldom recognised or reflected upon in mainstream research Aziz (2019). While Bazila had refused to partake in any research led by non-Kashmiri researchers, especially Indians because of concerns over (mis)representation, she agreed to speak with me based on a shared sense of trust through a mutual friend. Likewise, Shirin, a researcher based in Srinagar, agreed to talk because of her “blind faith” in me as an extension of the person who had put us in touch. This convinced her that I am not “one of them” who will misrepresent her. It is worth noting here that this is not so much about being a “good Indian” versus “bad Indian” but dependent on the ability to offer a feminist ear, listen to how existing power structures that one may benefit from violate others and embody ongoing critique and questioning (Ahmed, 2017). Thus, a sense of trust – whether their own, on me, based on our brief meetings in the past or its extended form based on their trust on the person who connected us – emerged as central in being able to relate to one another through our locational differences.

Rather than being a dead end that forecloses solidarity, (mis)trust generated by a sustained sense of dissonance, a continual raking up and nagging at power, demands radical vulnerability. With trust and openness as necessary conditions, Nagar (2019, p. 30) views radical vulnerability as a “collective pursuit” that opens the possibility of togetherness “without guarantees”. In other words, radical vulnerability allows people to come together in contexts that are inundated with epistemic violence to learn, unlearn and relearn without subsuming their individual differences but working with them in specific time and space (Nagar, 2019, p. 42). While radical vulnerability can create shared solidarities, it does not suggest finality or fixity based on identity. Instead, it insists that solidarity can only emerge in specific spaces and times. This in turn offers reparative openings: it underscores the necessity of collective journeying and working through differences that resist certainty; it allows a person to simultaneously inhabit different – often antagonising – locations; and visibilises limits and contradictions in solidarity work (Nagar, 2019, p. 43). My field diaries have many such reflections where interview and other field settings necessitated that I embrace radical openness in contrast with Eurocentric principles of cautious distance between researcher and participants. For instance, after introducing myself and the research rationale, Momina, a social science scholar from Srinagar, contended that the interview be a dialogic process. She wanted to know about my life growing up, background and interests just like I had asked her. Similarly, others often laced their responses with: “don’t you think?”, “right?” or “what would you say?” to elicit a response from me as a co-participant in our shared spaces. Being able to know my politics on Kashmir helped them gauge how openly they could share their thoughts, beliefs and political aspirations with me especially because I was an Indian researcher. Partly, it also allayed their concerns over misrepresentation and fears that I was not a state agent or a state-aligned researcher.

These moments of establishing trust were not always seamless but riven with discomfort and generated more dissonance. In one of our many conversations, Bazila had offered to put me in touch with her feminist activist friends who I could speak with. Few days later, she sent me a voice note on WhatsApp saying they would rather not partake considering an experience of botched consent with an Indian feminist researcher who had also been dishonest about their research motivation in the recent past. In her 3-min-long voice note, Bazila carefully contextualised how young Kashmiri feminists have become overly cautious and (justly) mistrust non-Kashmiri researchers. While I was attuned to these complexities brought about by my location and its complicity in perpetuating occupation and epistemic violence on Kashmir, this moment generated a distinct bodily response, an unsettling feeling perhaps with a tinge of guilt. My field notes about this convey this psychic dissonance. Yet ultimately, they offer an entry into how solidarity work remains ongoing often with discomforting affects. As my notes read: “more than guilt, I feel anger at the state and the hurt it is causing. Perhaps a starting point for solidarity work…?” This suggests that part of radical vulnerability is to also embrace political responsibility that can create meaningful solidarities based on shared emancipatory beliefs. Bazila echoed this when she said: “both of us are talking for months now because on a fundamental level we share similar goals” (emphasis mine). Bazila’s “fundamental similarity” was not based on assumptions about identity but our shared beliefs. Overall, these tensions and contradictions gave rise to an “intense relationality” in the field space especially as we inhabited differential locations (me, the researcher who is part of the colonising state) (Nagar, 2019, p. 30). This form of relationality was ultimately derived from a reparative understanding of how our subjectivities and political struggles remain entangled. More specifically, as to how the idea of the postcolonial nation-state is born out of imperialising Kashmir along with marginalising caste and minority religious communities within India that has only heightened with the current Hindu right regime.

Everyday dissonance

Seher is a researcher and reporter from Srinagar who grew up in an insulated household where political discussions on Kashmir seldom took place. Some years after she was born, her immediate family moved to Jammu because of ongoing political volatility and months of curfews and strikes in the valley. Conditions of relative calm in Jammu especially during school years gave her a sense of certainty that she, a Kashmiri, belonged to India until her middle school summer holidays when she started visiting the valley more frequently. While in Jammu Seher was surrounded with the Indian nationalist narratives laced in everyday conversations, news discussions she heard, Bollywood films and music, it was witnessing the expanse of spatial militarisation – the check posts, bunkers and soldiers after every few miles in Kashmir that instilled a sense of sustained dissonance. In our hours long conversations as she carefully took me through her life experiences, she explained the dissonant questions such moments raised: “if we are integral to the state, as it says, why do they need thousands of soldiers here?” or “why have Kashmiris been resisting for so long at such grave costs?” For young Seher, such dissonance unfolded as discomfort, loss and deep dislocation also as she received inadequate responses to her questions from her family who often dodged them. Similar was the case with others around her who refused to engage with her or explain the complex politics of Kashmir. In many ways, this dissonance transcended beyond the summer months she spent in the valley and followed her to Jammu and from there all the way to Delhi where she received her undergraduate degree.

For Seher as with many other interviewees born in mid-1990s, it was these early experiences of dissonance – that something was not right – that remained and continues to haunt them. Indeed, this sense of haunting produced by dissonant experiences “demanded something to be done” (Gordon, 2008, pp. xvi–ii). For Seher, such persisting dissonance shaped her life course quite early on and continues to do so till date. Rather than taking a comfortable job after graduation, she decided to move permanently to Kashmir to connect with activist and journalist circles from whom she could learn more and partake in their collective struggle for self-determination. It is not so much the finality of where her initial experience of dissonance and discomfort took her. She insisted on its continuous nature and how it also instils a sense of hope in her. “That even though they may not live to see Kashmir’s political freedom, she will have died knowing that they laid the ground for resistance for generations to come”, she said. Many other Kashmiri women I spoke to shared similar experiences of discomfort early on especially as they were regularly subjected to the leering, jeering and abusive gaze of soldiers when they walked to school past military camps and bunkers. While they neither had the language nor any trusted outlets to make sense of their experiences then, this discomfort of something not feeling quite right stayed with them. Upon growing up as many moved to Srinagar city for education or work and encountered conversations happening among groups of friends or on digital media platforms is when they began to make sense of the breadth of militarisation that has shaped their lives as an occupied people. Even though this dissonance led to creating reparative spaces for collective sharing and making sense of gendered experiences, it also magnified feelings of “not being able to do anything substantial about it”. As Tara shared:

[…] we are so helpless that if we do talk about it, publicise it on social media that army does this to Kashmiri women, then what? (short pause) Who listens to us? Maybe there will be a strong and determined girl one day, she will retaliate, and they will kill her. Ye sirf misaal banke reh jaata hai (it just becomes another example). For one day, two days, three days, a week, people will praise her but then what? Nothing is happening! You know, it kills me inside that we can’t do anything… If we speak the truth, they will charge us or call us anti-national and all those things. They can even disappear you; this is how it works here.

It is important to note that dissonance shaping life and living under occupation is an everyday experience. Indeed, it informs how Seher, Tara and other interviewees navigate everyday life as they encounter the militarised state apparatus in Kashmir and critically engage with it in their professional and organising work. These experiences have led Seher to research the textures of spatial militarisation in urban and rural areas to hinterlands where access to basic health and education infrastructure is deeply limited by military presence and a constant threat of death. Everyday navigation and negotiation have further pushed many interviewees to recognise the differential and unequal ways with which occupation functions. In gendered terms, many identified how masculinist logic of militarisation and occupation have led to greater societal and familial control on how women access space, especially with the looming threat of gendered and sexualised forms of violence. This is further complicated by how often it is men and boys who are routinely targeted, roughed up, harassed and beaten by military forces. These complexities have necessarily altered gendered relations in the region. When conceived this way, dissonant experiences of living under occupation while instilling a sense of wanting to know more about what does not feel right also open up analytical possibilities to know in one’s own terms. This remains in sharp contrast to the overwhelming power and presence of state narratives that peddle conditions of “normalcy” in the region. This shift in the terms with which interviewees witness occupation ultimately allows accounting for how heightened precarity under occupation goes beyond spectacular events of violence and death counts and seeps into everyday activities that are shaped by occupational power and modes of control. It is by foregrounding how enforced militarisation alters everyday life that interviewees outlined the expanse of occupation while also contesting state claims of “normalcy” in Kashmir. Dissonance can thus engender an epistemic shift in terms of the concepts and frames that are used to make sense of political realities and articulate its effects in newer ways.

Along with shifting the terms of meaning-making, dissonance also informs how interviewees organise collectively as Kashmiris in turn giving rise to a distinct sociality. Over the past several years, digital spaces such as Twitter and Instagram have become a meeting place for young Kashmiris and others with internet access and literacy. With criminalisation and strict military surveillance of physical spaces that make them unavailable for discussion and assembly, digital spaces let people come together in community not just with Kashmiris across the valley but through national borders and in diaspora. Porous limits of digital spaces have also allowed forming of transnational links. With proliferation of Kashmir-centric solidarity initiatives such as US-based diaspora-led Stand with Kashmir, many Kashmir-based activists and collectives have been able to forge connections in the subcontinent with anti-caste, queer feminist groups and globally with Palestinian and Black Lives Matter movements among many others. Even as protests in Kashmir are frequently met with violence, dissenting presence of Kashmiris on digital media is evidence of their resistance against the state. While by no means does social media in Kashmir or India for that matter bypass state control, it nonetheless allows people to articulate disparate political imaginaries. For instance, many like Bazila and Seher who are active on social media put forth Kashmiri discourses to counter nationalist ones as large parts of their audience are Indians. It is a similar sense of dissonance, like Roy’s, which they seek to circulate through their questions and interactions. This suggests that while dissonance is a distinct bodily and affective response, a form of haunting that is generated by living under conditions of military occupation, it can also emerge as a generative affect which does not simply counter existing epistemic frames but produces newer, potentially transformative ones.

Conclusion

In this piece, I have stayed with dissonance – as an affective and political possibility – in multidimensional ways to offer an account of its productive potential in contexts of epistemic and political injustice. I have drawn on feminist conceptions of dissonance that centre its de-naturalising and de-essentialising potential towards thinking of solidarity and relationality differently, tenets that remain central to feminist academic and activist projects. In the context of occupation in Kashmir and grounded in ethnographic learnings, I have outlined two key ways in which dissonance emerged as a productive affect. Methodologically, staying with dissonance created a distinct political knowing that was able to hold dominant epistemic and political narratives to task and unpack the hierarchical conditions of power that frame them so. In the context of Kashmir, this meant moving away from nation-based, nation-state theoretical frameworks to centre the Kashmiri standpoint. This is not towards claiming a standpoint as truth, but what it makes visible about intersecting relations of power that order bodies in gendered, racialised and colonial hierarchies to make military occupation possible. In analytical terms, while early experiences of dissonance delineated interviewees’ sense of being Kashmiri, they also prompt epistemic shift in what conceptual language and frames are used to make sense of political realities towards relating and collectivising differently. Overall, this piece makes the case for remaining with dissonance as a disruptive and potentially affirming feminist possibility.

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Corresponding author

Niharika Pandit can be contacted at: niharikapandit28@gmail.com

About the author

Niharika Pandit is a PhD Researcher and a graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. Her research is an anticolonial inquiry into everyday politics of living under military occupation in Kashmir.

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