Focus Global Affairs Identity and Resistance Politics

‘Silence’ as a Language of Power and Resistance in Kashmir

The state uses "silence" and "death" as violence on different civic bodies

By Shafi Ahmad Khanday


“When democracy is manipulated to its death and
freedom is buried in unidentified graves,
When siege is so brutal that necropolitics become everyday politics,
silence perhaps is the last resort for a democratic resistance”

“Silence” speaks of an “action”; to “not act”. Does silence really speak? Silence can be understood both as a withdrawal as well as avoidance. While communication through language as a human endeavor creates a structure of human relationships, silence is seen as renouncing ties with fellow citizens. It was the feminist critical theory which transformed the meaning of silence into the act of silencing; an imposition of silence through patriarchal cultural norms by denying agency to women. Such discourse, where both “silence” and “silencing” seem unnatural,(1) created a compass to understand silence not only as a “lack of speech imposed on the powerless”, but also as a “non-participatory tactic” to resist the enforced silence. If “silencing” can function as a “participatory act of imposition”, “silence” can also function as a “non-participatory act of resistance”- a demand without necessarily opposing – to any institution that requires participation. However, the political implications of “silence” become more complicated when it is performed from both the ends through “death”. Death of  this sort is unspeakable. It is silenced by the ‘austere’ rhetoric of “nationalism”, “religion”, “honor,” “compassion”, and the “culture of life” itself.(2) 

Kashmir Valley(3) (which is a focus of this article) as a place, embodies one such layered substance to study complexities of relationship between “power and resistance”. It would not be wrong to say that the issue of Kashmir (4) has indeed moved from its primordial “democratic quest” to a tragic “human question” especially from the past more than 30 years of deadly armed conflict. The “death” and the politics of and over death (necropolitics(5)) have been playing a significant role in [re]shaping the emerging political narratives from Kashmir. This article attempts to identify how “silence” imposed through “death” can [re]produce even more complicated resistance that is performed in a similar way as power acts, “killing” and “dying”. 


Throughout human history “death” has been informing the culture of life. Apart from the “natural”, the death arrives as a “veiled intruder”. Who is killing and who is dead? Who has the right to kill or die? What is produced is a “body”– a body of unspeakable death — a death either enforced or chosen. In this context Achille Mbembe argues that,

“this use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die, subjugation of life to the power of death. Such kind of death exceeds biophysical death. It is not the mere cessation of life and not even merely an attack on the conditions of possibility for life itself, even though these attacks, from both sides, take place in the spaces of everyday life. The effect of it is a form of death, a death that labours under the sign of the future and existential uncertainty are made as real spectre”.(6)

In Kashmir, being the “highest militarized zone” in the world,  the state (India) as a power at the both ends of “command” and “promise”(7) represents violence disguised as “security and safety” measures in a range of forms like:  infrastructural warfare, fortified structures, military posts, interrogations and torture, nocturnal raids, arresting and maiming under draconian laws [Armed Forces Special Powers Act (APSFA) and Public Safety Act (PSA)](8) etc., disappearances and custodial deaths, rapes, fake encounters, curfews, children blinded by pellets, gagging of the press, jamming electronic communications and ransacking symbols of the resistance. State (Pakistan) in other forms execute armed struggle, kidnapping and desperate killings, bombings, suicidal attacks and other means of guerrilla warfare.

The “popular resistance” in Kashmir as a “third space” not only appears through agitations, defying curfews, mass protests and non-ending strikes, but also through violent means of articulating such discontent in the form of property damage, stone pelting, intermittent counter-insurgency operations for the “locally grown new age militants” etc. Such components generate violence and terrorize “the spaces of everyday life”. The specter of death punctuates the language of everyday life through the perpetual threat of attack at marketplaces and homes; the spaces where we ought to feel safe.

The result is production of “killable bodies”(9). Some “bodies” like armed forces and the rebels attain a significant symbol of “life”. The bodies are rewarded with gallantry medals, titles, gun salutes and heroic funerals. However, with the systematic propaganda some lives achieve political value while others are effaced and depoliticized. The bodies that are transgressed to a “bodiless speech”,(10) are of civilians in Kashmir. Hence “bodies” produced become Kashmiri pandits, Kashmiri Muslim, “Kashmiri patriots”, “Kashmiri traitors”.

The manufactured narratives through the media transform the language of death into this bodiless speech. The readily accepted narratives by the “public” thus creates even more complex narratives which continue to emerge as the instigators of “violence” and “terror” intertwined within an intricate network of the instrumentation of such “acceptance”. The public approval of any violence is so cataclysmic that it is normalized and deemed as perfectly legitimate. One’s “terrorist” turns into another’s “hero” and the mutilations of “bodies” aimed at discouraging “violence” instead charges the “subjects” emotionally and perpetuating the cycle of violence.


The “majoritarian populist” rise of a “new India”  has a special “place” for Kashmir. Endorsed by a large section of Indian population, the current dispensation under National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) made many “right-wing nationalist” fantasies real. With the scrapping of Article 370(11), this government has fulfilled the “majoritarian desire” of Indian voters it relies upon.

The attempt of this “fetish desire”(12) is to subjugate the Kashmiri “political infidelity” and transform it into “loyalty” towards Indian state. In this act of enforced silence, the central government had to lockdown the entire state, arrest all the separatists and even mainstream ‘pro-Indian’ political leaders in addition to many social and political activists, journalists, lawyers and “apprehensive stone-pelters”. The complete clampdown of communication for months with the already high security measures in place, speaks a lot about the magnitude of the “situation” in this region.

This might be celebrated as a “master stroke” but the spectre of enforced silence and performed resistance through death in Kashmir has not altered. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the security crackdowns remained a top priority of the state, much higher than the lockdown for the pandemic. As per the biannual-report of 2020 by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), from January to June 2020 alone, there were total 229 killings (32 civilians besides killings of 143 militants and 54 armed forces personnel), 107 Cordon and Search Operations (CASO), 55 internet shutdowns and 48 properties were destroyed. One of the reports confirms a huge psychological toll, created by “unusual conditions of life” in Kashmir, by stating that 45% of the population in Kashmir is experiencing mental distress.(13)

In such an exemplary situation how can “silence” act as a “non-performed resistance”. Silence is a threat to those institutions which require participation, judicial affirmations, loyalty and pledge of allegiance. Silence as a non-participatory act is discomfort to those who regulate behavior with participation. This can not only be used as a “non-participatory democratic resistance” against the “enforced silence”, but also to strengthen domestic bonds of continuity in Kashmir in the face of such “forced discontinuity”. The famous maxims(14) in Kashmiri language is a good explanation of the wisdom which is associated with “silence” in Kashmiri cultural epistemology:

Tshupah chheh rupah sunz
Tshupah chhai wupah-kar
Tshupih chhui tyut phaidah yut sinis pakah suet
(Silence is silvern
Silence is profitable
As much profit from silence as there is profit to the dinner from cooking)

Silence accompanied with patience can bring pleasing results.


[1] Kennan Ferguson, “Silence: A Politics”, Contemporary Political Theory, 2003, 2, (49-65).

[2] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975–1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003.

[3] The Kashmir Valley became a province of the newly created princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (now a Union Territory) carved out of the Sikh Empire by the British East India Company through a “sale deed” with the newly ‘selected’ Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh on 16 March 1846 in an exchange of some handsels and his services to the Companyfor bringing down the Sikh Empire.

[4] The Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir consists of three provinces; Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh. Despite being a smallest province in the entire region, Kashmir has acquired a strong centrality for the reason of inhabiting the majority of the “resistant” population mainly Muslims. The Valley of Kashmir has become “synonymous” for the entire region of Jammu and Kashmir not only for being the economic backbone but mostly because it remains a hotbed for the geo-political war at play. Kashmir Question is one of the longest pending cases of an “unfulfilled democratic promise” in the United Nations Organization between India and Pakistan. Both countries have fought three full-fledged wars for Jammu and Kashmir since 1948.

[5] Achille Mbembe (2003), “Necropolitics”. Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40.

[6] ibid.

[7] Michel Foucault, ibid.

[8] Impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice are key human rights challenges in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Special laws in force in the state, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990 (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA), have created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations. For more details see this report.

[9] Mohamad Junaid, “Disobedient Bodies, Defiant Objects: Occupation. Necropolitics and the Resistance in Kashmir” The funambulist, 21 (Jan-Feb 2019).

[10] Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2016.

[11] Indian Parliament on 5th of August, 2019 scrapped Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. This article of Indian Constitution (last ruins of the “guaranteed constitutional autonomy”, job and land rights for the subjects of the state of Jammu and Kashmir) was dissolved by the Indian Parliament through Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019. The Act reduced the historic statehood of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories by bifurcating Ladakh as separate.

[12] The reactions that came after “stripping off Kashmiris” on the 5th of August in the rest of the country were celebrations; bursting firecrackers, distributing sweats and the “new toxic media” hailing the “brave” government for this “much awaited” step. The reactions stooped to the display of “hidden desire” of purchasing a plot of land in the exotic “heaven on earth” for “Indians” and marrying a “fair Kashmiri Bride. See a BBC report, and article from India Express;

[13] A report by Doctors without Borders confirmed in 2016.

[14] J. Hilton Knowles, A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs and Sayings, Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta, 1885, pg 219.

Cover photograph: Hamiya Jan, niece of Mohamad Abdullah Dar (enforced disappeared by Border Security Force, 1990) – APDP Protest, Pratap Park, 30 August, 2015. Credit: APDP.

About the author

Shafi Ahmad Khanday is a PhD candidate at Department of History, North-Eastern Hill University Shillong, India. A Kashmir born historian by training and a cultural activist in practice, he studies resistance in the countryside of Kashmir Valley. 

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