Nun Chai Stories

A popular image from the 1970s shows an eight-handed Hindu goddess superimposed over a map of the Indian subcontinent. Sitting astride a lion, Bharat Mata or Mother India clutches a set of vaguely symbolic objects: a prayer bead, a lotus, a quill; a Trishul or trident, a sword, a sickle. Over her flowing hair, she wears a gem-studded crown which neatly obscures Kashmir. The picture speaks with crude eloquence to Indian imperialism in the Himalayan region, much of which it has occupied since Partition. (There are now under fourteen million people living in Indian-administered Kashmir as opposed to four million in Azad Kashmir or Free Kashmir, the arid north-western part controlled by Pakistan. China sits on a few villages in the far-eastern reaches.) For Indian nationalists, Kashmir is as a mystical, contradictory place: both national treasure and troubled borderland, an ‘integral part of the country’ – the phrase is repeated – that threatens to slip away.   

Part of the problem for India is that it has no historical basis for claiming Kashmir. For centuries, the Kashmir Valley has been ruled by outsiders: it was annexed by the Mughal Empire in the late 1500s, taken over from 1750-1840 by Afghan and then Sikh warlords, and after the Anglo-Sikh war of 1846, purchased for seven and a half million rupees from the British East India Company by Dogra mercenaries. From then until 1947, the Hindu Dogras lorded it over the Muslim peasantry – the ratio of Muslims to non-Muslims, 85 to 15, has stayed roughly the same since the fifteenth century – even bringing back the corvêe. Crucially, Kashmir was never part of the British Empire, whose subjects shared a colonial identity, whatever their other differences.

In Constitutional terms, Kashmir was a ‘Princely State.’ This meant that Maharaja Hari Singh had the right to accede to either country created at independence. He flirted with both options until Nehru lost patience and forced the issue in October 1947, sending in the newly minted Indian army, who were met by Pakistani forces entering from the northwest. Skirmishes continued till 1948, when the United Nations Security Council called a ceasefire and drew up a Line of Control (LOC) demarcating Indian and Pakistan-held territory. Kashmir was partitioned. What’s often forgotten is that over two hundred thousand were killed in massacres inflicted by the departing Dogra mercenaries, with support from paramilitaries sent north by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ever-resourceful fascist organization that later set up the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). This is how the atoot ang or inseparable limb of Kashmir was joined to Mother India.

The Security Council had mandated a plebiscite on the national question in Kashmir, which Nehru agreed to and then put off indefinitely. (King Hassan followed his lead in Western Sahara.) In 1953, he arrested Sheikh Abdullah, the charismatic leader of the National Conference (NC) party, which stood for Kashmiri Azadi or independence. For the next four decades, democracy in Kashmir meant rigged elections, press censorship, random arrests, and the transformation of the NC into a client regime. When armed resistance broke out in 1989, the state enforced democracy more bluntly.

By 1990, there were three hundred fifty thousand soldiers in Kashmir; that number has more than doubled thirty years later. Ostensibly sent to track down militants, they have effectively occupied the valley – erecting check-posts and spreading barbed wire, grabbing land for barracks and torture centres. An estimated seventy thousand has been killed, and another eight thousand ‘disappeared’, their bodies missing. A tiny minority of the victims are militants. The preferred method is a ‘fake encounter’, in which a civilian is murdered and labelled an insurgent. The army has also opened fire on public demonstrations, in recent years blinding and killing stone-pelting teenagers, who are risibly classified as ‘agitational terrorists’. While the insurgency petered out in the mid-90s, counterinsurgency has only intensified. Today, Kashmir is the most militarized region in the world.

In August of 2019, the ruling BJP abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had given the Kashmir assembly the sole right to determine who could purchase land in its territory. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act also dissolved the state, splitting it into two ‘union territories’ to be controlled by the federal centre. Kashmiris are clear this legal coup paves the way for setter colonialism. In the build-up, there was an ominous influx of troops into the valley, presumably sent to spread news of the abrogation from door to door. The Indian government completely shut down the state’s internet access, which was only partially restored four months later.

Kashmir remains under siege. The Legal Forum for Kashmir, a human rights monitor, recorded 257 political killings in 2021: of 163 militants, 46 civilians, and 48 armed forces. In November, Khurram Parvez, an activist who has tirelessly chronicled state impunity, was himself put in jail under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the crown jewel of Indian Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of anyone that might endanger national security. Under a new media policy, Kashmiri journalists have been harassed for publishing ‘anti-national’ content. Like everything else, the response to Covid-19 has been militarized.


How has India managed to get away with the occupation? In the first place, it has faced next to no domestic resistance. There was a time, in the 1950s and 60s, when socialist politicians like Ram Manohar Lohia could make the case for Kashmiri self-determination in mainstream newspapers – a state of affairs that seems apocryphal today. The space has been entirely ceded to Hindu nationalists and their liberal holograms, who alike place the integrity of Mother India above such things as democratic aspirations and human rights. (The parliamentary left – represented by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – opposed the abrogation and has urged Modi to uphold human rights. But self-determination remains a bridge too far for them.) The media has merrily played along, vilifying Kashmiris as separatists and Islamist fanatics while piously worrying after our under-paid soldiers.

Nor has the United Nations covered itself in glory. After calling for a plebiscite in 1948, it’s done little to hold India to account, now and then expressing ‘concern’ over human rights abuses. As for guardians of the liberal order, their strong words on Xinjiang contrast bitterly with the silence on Kashmir. ‘The cautiousness – or timidity – of western politicians is easy to understand,’ Pankaj Mishra has observed. ‘Apart from appearing as a lifeline to flailing western economies, India is a counterweight, at least in the fantasies of western strategists, to China.’

Mishra was writing in the summer of 2010, when mass protests broke out on a scale that drew comparisons to the Palestinian Intifada. The trigger was the murder in Kupwara district of three civilians who were lured into the hills with the prospect of jobs by soldiers, who shot them, planted weapons on their bodies, and no doubt pocketed a tidy sum for their efforts – a system of financial rewards has been put in place for nabbing or killing militants. ‘There’s a very important link between these incentives and the occupation of Kashmir,’ according to Khurram Parvez. ‘Stop this corruption, and I don’t think the occupation will even last a day.’ (Anna Politkovskaya said as much about counterinsurgency in Chechnya.) When the truth came out, so did demonstrators onto the streets of Srinagar, who were in turn greeted by police violence.

On 11 May, a seventeen-year-old boy, Tufail Mattoo, was returning home from tuitions when he was hit in the head by a tear gas cannister tossed by police. The intense protests that followed his killing lasted through the summer. The protestors’ demand was unequivocal – ‘Go India. Go Back’ was chanted and graffitied on walls – and as was the state response. In four months, 118 civilians were killed. Many were teenage boys, some even younger. This endless cycle – state crimes leading to protests leading to more state crimes – is why Kashmiri anthropologist Muhamad Junaid compares the Indian occupation to an ‘ouroboros’, after the mythical dragon that eats its own tail.

The 2010 Intifada forms the backdrop to Alana Hunt’s artbook Cups of Nun Chai, published in 2020 by documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak’s press Yaarbal Books. (This is their second title, following Witness (2017), an extraordinary compendium of photographs by Kashmiri photojournalists.) An Australian artist and writer, Hunt first grew interested in Kashmir in the late aughts, while doing an MA in aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Visiting the region with friends, she was horrified by what she saw, and felt powerfully if obscurely compelled – like Joe Sacco was in Palestine – to expose the atrocities that the Indian government was keeping quiet. Hunt was back in Australia by the time the Intifada broke out, which made it impossible for her to record voices on-the-ground, even as she wanted to commemorate the protests. ‘Cups of Nun Chai is born of that juncture,’ she writes in the introduction.

An oral history of a kind, the book is made up of 118 conversations Hunt held over two years with people in Australia (mainly), India and Kashmir. The rules are simple: over a cup of ‘nun chai’ – a salty tea popular in Kashmir – she speaks about the occupation, adapting their discussion into a two-to-three-page narrative. Each entry is accompanied by a close-up photograph of the interlocutor’s hands holding the teacup. ‘Cups of Nun Chai is a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd,’ she writes. ‘It is an absurd gesture when meaning itself becomes too much to bear. It is also a memorial, grounded in the killing of 118 civilians.’

Tea-drinking as an act of witness? The conceit is less naïve than it is seems. Like the Parisians clueless of Algeria in Chris Marker’s La Joli Mai (1962), most of Hunt’s interviewees know next to nothing about Kashmir, which, paradoxically, makes for fruitful dialogue. They ask commonsensical questions –

‘Is it a war over resources or religion?’

‘If the UN is so good, why don’t they step in and do something to help Kashmir?’

‘Is it something to do with India and Pakistan?’

‘Does Kashmir have its own politicians, or are they governed by India?’

 – that she patiently answers, filing in the historical and political background, offering a useful primer on the occupation. Their more wide-eyed observations – ‘When people are mourning, they are being killed!’; ‘They are killing children!’ – carry a simple moral force, burning through the justifications of the Indian state. The discussions also fill a void in the cultural discourse on Kashmir, which tends to be presented in the media as a conflict zone and nothing more. Kashmiri poet Uzma Falak addresses this tension in her lyric essay, ‘Life or Siege?,’ included in the volume:

How much silence makes a siege?

And how much sound ends it?

What makes a siege a siege?

When do we stop calling it so?

For how long does a siege last?

Does the Siege interrupt [our] Life or is [our] Life

merely in the way of an undying Siege?

What is a siege in a [perpetual] siege called?

What is more persistent – Life or Siege?

Hunt, however, foregrounds the lived experiences of Kashmiri people, who have responded to her project. In 2016, on the anniversary of Tufail Mattoo’s murder, her recorded conversations began to appear as a column in Kashmir Reader, an independent Srinagar newspaper founded in 2012 and known for its investigative reporting, which has kept the Indian censors busy. A month later, the popular military commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, prompting the largest protests seen since 2010. On cue, the Reader was banned for three months. Archival images of its pages (and, it seems, of some Indian publications) are interspersed throughout the book. The headlines allude to Kashmir’s dismal political situation – ‘JKPCC chief demands ban on use of pellet guns’; ‘Shutdown marks 1994 Kupwara Massacre.’


Most of the conversations take place in Sydney, where Hunt is based. Mainly friends and acquaintances, her interlocutors are curious, well-intentioned, and basically liberal in their political outlook – though she might have spoken to some conservatives too. The discussions tend to begin with uncertainty. Confronted by the scale of violence – ‘Isn’t that akin to genocide?’ – many wonder, with a mix of embarrassment and outrage, why so little global attention is paid to India’s crimes. ‘I doubt that anyone in my journalism class has ever heard of Kashmir,’ a student confesses. ‘None of this has been in our media,’ a friend complains. They guess this is because India is in the United States’ good graces, which is part of the story. Another factor, which Hunt alludes to obliquely, is that Kashmiris have been largely denied ‘the permission to narrate’ their own experiences – to borrow a phrase from Edward Said. All mainstream Indian politicians, and most of its liberal intellectuals, describe the occupation as an ‘internal matter’, as if the whole point was not Kashmir’s rejection of imposed state boundaries.

As the facts sink in, people are curious to know what life is like in the valley. Drawing on her own experiences and the stories of her friends, Hunt describes the overwhelming presence of the army. ‘I had seen the soldiers, thousands and thousands of them,’ she writes. ‘On street corners, on top of buildings, in their barracks, in trucks and armored cars, in orchards, under trees . . . I have seen stones fill the surface of an almost empty street.’ Hunt is also attuned to the more insidious ways in which India is disfiguring the landscape. For instance, she notes that Chinar trees – a recurring image in the towering Kashmiri-American poet Aga Shahid Ali’s verse – have been declared state property, along with the land on which they are planted, which obviously discourages people from growing them. ‘This makes the most majestic and iconic of trees in Kashmir an enemy of the people,’ Hunt caustically reflects, ‘and the people are made any enemy of it.’

Hunt speaks to Aboriginal people who immediately grasp the parallels between Australian and Indian state-creation. ‘That’s the same story here,’ the late Gija painter Rusty Peters tells her, describing settler massacres in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of which his uncle narrowly escaped. In staging such moments, Hunt seems to critique ‘the whole idea of a map and of a nation,’ though she does not spell out what an alternative to a state-based order would look like. (For a more in-depth discussion, see recent books by Claire Vergerio, Mahmood Mamdani, and James C. Scott, who Hunt cites in passing.)

Two years after Tufail Mattoo’s killing, Hunt finally arrives in Kashmir. Here she speaks to students, professors and activists, who alike greet her with affection – she is clearly a cherished visitor. The scholar Sheikh Showkat Hussain compares her project to the Kashmiri tradition of fatheha-chai, in which neighbors take responsibility to feed a mourning family for three days after a death, and on the fourth, nun chai is drunk to mark the end of grieving. Indian citizens will have to speak up against the occupation if we too hope to someday be accepted by Kashmiris as neighbours and not jailers.  

Read on: Alpa Shah, ‘Explaining Modi’, NLR 124.