Conflict, Space, and Public Architecture: Tracing Transformations of Loss through Bridges in Kashmir
Bridges are repositories of embodied trauma and loss in Kashmir. This article assesses the strange phenomenon of bridge-burning during the 1990s. Kadal (bridge) is presented as a personified object- a stationary witness to people’s immobility, hardships and resistance. Tracing the history of two bridges in North Kashmir’s Sopore-Kupwara stretch, the essay revisits the incidents through oral testimonies of locals in the North Kashmiri villages of Yaroo-Khouhn. The bridge which connects these two villages was reopened in 2016 after being razed in 1993.
There is both a horror and a fascination at something so apparently permanent as a building, something that one expects to outlast many a human span, meeting an untimely end.
-Robert Bevan (2007) The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War
The destruction of bridges during the 1990s was simply ignored as a consequence of the political turmoil and the military occupation of the region. They have been rendered as collateral damage, a ‘predominant term for legitimate violence against architecture and civilians during war’ (Herscher, 2008, p. 36). However, the people who were affected by this destruction experienced it otherwise: as a devastatingly dehumanising incident; ‘an unsanctionable targeting of civic spaces (ibid.) under the backdrop of political conflict. The complexities of this conflict, a critical aspect of the scholarship in this area, are difficult to address as a whole and therefore, were not considered at length in this essay. This question has by and large been touched upon in the recent research, although, no consensus has emerged on what these ‘complexities’ comprise of.
Burning bridges is an act of dehumanisation of people bound by its use for their mobility and commute. It is a repercussion of the conflict which finds little mention in our archives. Therefore, I start with a basic question. Why has bridge-burning been pushed to oblivion? During the 1990s, there was a rise of armed insurgency in the region, a movement which had immense public support. The Indian armed forces, in an attempt to crush the insurgency, unleased brutal violence on combatants as well as non-combatants, including, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Many incidents of transgressions took place on the part of armed rebels as well. While the former has been thoroughly documented, researched and theorized in the context of Kashmir and also within the broader discussions on militarization and violence around the globe, the latter continues to remain a contested subject. Although, a consensus has largely been made that the decade was a period of extreme tension and violence.
Bridges are a part of the material culture of people. In circumstances such as a deliberate demolition of the bridge, do the people simply comply with the act or do they resist it- starting initially from a feeling of anguish and outrage over the sundering, to the inter-generational disconnect Kashmiris in these villages have borne.
My interest in writing this essay was sparked by frequent visits to Yaroo village where my mother grew up and my relatives continue to live to this day. It is located in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district, 70 kilometres from the Srinagar city. I adopt a phenomenological approach towards ‘subjective experiences’ of the locals because my aim was not necessarily to find out the evidential facts about the events but the ways in which these were perceived and/or experienced by these people. In other words, the information gathered was from the perspective of the research participants (Lester, 1999). The essay proceeds by invoking oral testimonies of locals for ‘remembering remains an item of central concern on contemporary agendas’ (Casey, 2000, p. 2) particularly within the transdisciplinary study of public memory. There is also an important element of collectivity in remembering as Phillips notes:
…the systemic study of collective memories can be traced to the work of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in the 1920s. Halbwachs, following Durkheim’s notions of collective conscience, contends that all acts of memory are inherently social-literally that to remember is to act as part of the collective, In turn our collectivity is deeply intertwined with our capacity for and enactment of remembrance (2004, p.1).
I found this argument particular relevant to Kashmir; ‘remembering’ as an act of collective resistance, especially, the counter-memories that challenge the hegemonic narratives. For Kashmiri people, remembering is ‘fundamental weapon…while propaganda is strengthened by the state’ (Malik, 2019, p. 107).
In researching for this essay, I also employ the use of autoethnographic analytical approach to make sense of this wider material, cultural and political meanings of experiences associated with the brunt bridges. Growing up, I had been familiarized with the difficulties of being disconnected and the unspoken unease around the sundered Yaroo bridge. I was fascinated by the ‘mundaneness’ of this particular hardship for the villagers. My younger self would often associate this with the ‘lack of development’ in the area, the notion of development understood in a western European context (see Portes, 1973). According to the oral testimonies of locals, the torching of bridges was an extremely common phenomenon during the 1990s. Here, I revisit these intrusive acts almost three decades later.
Herscher (2008) formulated the ‘warchitecture’ theory based on the catastrophic destruction of public architecture in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina during early-mid 1990s. “Blurring the conceptual border between ‘war’ and ‘architecture,’ the term provides a tool to critique dominant accounts of wartime architectural destruction and to bring the interpretive protocols of architecture to bear upon that destruction” (ibid. 35). Although, in the given context, this theory does not offer ample explanations of the motives and the unique nature of the destruction. Therefore, as suggested earlier, I move to the autoethnographic analysis of the gathered data.
Trauma, Hardships and Violence: Kadal as a stationary witness
Hadishah Kadal (Figure.1) in Sopore on the river Jhelum was burnt down completely during the Tehreek and was reconstructed a few years later according to the testimonies of locals. When I enquired about who burnt it, I sensed an eerie reluctance in the responses, “we can’t say that… they came and lit it on fire during the night… at 1 am… so we can’t say who burnt it. Maybe it was the military, maybe someone else”, said one of the interviewees. The destruction of bridges constituted violence against the architecture as well as those who used it on an everyday basis. The bridges became a physical apparatus of separation overnight. The two localities, Hadishah and Khanqah, connected by the bridge were disconnected after the bridge was set on fire around midnight. The original bridge of Yaroo (Figure.2) was constructed in 1977 on Nalle Maver. It was partially burnt in 1993. The reconstruction of Yaroo bridge took over a decade, finally opening for public use in 2016 (Figure.3).
The sundered bridges have also proven lethal in some cases. One particular incident which exemplifies this assertion is the accident of seven-year-old boy from the neighbouring village of Babgund which took place seven years ago. The boy fell from the ravaged bridge, into the river and hit the rocks underneath, leaving him in coma for over two months. The reconstruction of the bridge was sped up after the incident due to public outrage.
These bridges were not necessarily architectural or aesthetic marvels, but ‘the effort and human endurance needed to build these structures… colour our perception to such an extent that we believe them all to be masterpieces’ (Bennett, 1997, p. 6). Almost all the bridges that were burnt in the 90s were made of Deodar wood as opposed to the more recent bridges made up of steel, iron and concrete.
The testimonies of local residents, which I present here in a narrative form, point to the intertwined nature of the Kadal with the everyday lives of people. I do not employ the use of theoretical analysis for the testimonies, allowing the narratives of the locals to explain the experiences on their own. Rafeeqa, a 43-year-old woman from Yaroo village recalls:
our Kadal was made up by big logs of wood which the men erected on their own with little machinery. They would sing ‘manki ti birki, kanan gayi sadaav’ to keep each other’s morale up whilst pulling the levers and the ropes… I am not sure what those words meant; I don’t remember the meaning, but I remember that as kids we used to watch in amusement.
The erasure of public convenience coupled with a form of silencing of these narratives makes a strong case of inquiry into this subject. Under this backdrop, it is also important to think critically about the fragility of architecture in Kashmir especially if ‘their massiveness and solidity almost literally enforces [their] futurity’ (Casey, 2004, p. 17). Perhaps a comparative case study of the arsons could be carried out to understand the phenomenon of ‘enforced homelessness’ as perpetrated by the Indian forces as a ‘concerted strategy to discourage the masses from protesting against grave human rights abuses in the region’ and dissuade providing shelter, garner hostilities for the armed militants (Mushtaq, 2020).
Although the locals warily admit that the bridges were destroyed by armed militants, exploring this question in detail is beyond the scope of this essay. Although it is clear that in all the cases, the bridges were burnt with ‘a desire to wipe out the enemy’s capacity to fight’ (Bevan, 2006, p. 8), particularly, by rendering them partially immobile.
In this context, Kadal stands a witness to the ways in which armed conflict structurally reconfigured the living environments of Kashmiri people. As Shabnam recalls:
Many times, when [people] would hear that the bridge was lit on fire…. They would come from the neighbouring villages and watch it raze into the river. They often cried helplessly because they knew their life was going to be even more difficult now. Local villagers, especially the old, sick and children, were the worst sufferers. When a sick person had to be taken to the hospital…Women had to carry their belongings on their heads… how much would the boat take… sometimes people had to cross the river on their own.
While the hardships of travelling on a ‘bridge-less’ road are obvious, Shabnam’s retrospective description brings forth the intimate stories that get lost within the larger imaginations of these violent events. Similarly, Gulzar, Rafeeqa’s brother and a 54-year-old resident of Yaroo describes the frequency of the bridge-burning incidents:
all the bridges from this area were burnt, pohurpeth kadal, youins kadal, koultur kadal, even our small gotaarkadal was pressure blasted in 1997… they did it so that the army is unable to move freely through these areas… if the locals raised concerns, they’d say that this is necessary for our safety, we can’t sleep at night thinking the army might come
In her description of the events, Rafeeqa often personified the Kadal, speaking of it as one of the villagers struggling to survive. I found her explanations particularly fascinating as they stemmed from a merger of her ‘individual’ and ‘social’ memory (Casey, 2004, p. 21). She noted:
Many times, when it [bridge] was lit on fire, the villagers put it out. It was like the bridge would save itself… when it was finally brunt it was as if it was tired of fighting. After its demolished, people tried to fix it using wooden logs etc but it wasn’t effective…Finally, the people started using naav to cross the rivers… then the boatman would drop people back and forth the river of the nalle… the fares were in kind for the locals and cash for the non-locals. As kids we would steal handful of rice just to get a ride in the naav.”
Army on Foot: People’s Encounters with the Military
The loot and plunder by the Indian armed forces in the region has been meticulously documented. A simple conversation with people of Yaroo suggests the extent to which incidents of plunder surfaces in peoples memory as an everyday reality. Shabnam and Rafeeqa recall:
…oh! they had spread so much terror in this area. They were zaelim. This is what they did, it was the norm… the army was the gunde of the area, they did and [still] do what they want to do
The army from the camps controlled the movement of the boats by strictly regulating the opening and closing times. They would lock the boats on the shore at 5 pm and would open them for public use at 8/9 am in the morning… people had to travel accordingly…When the bridges were burnt, they [army] had to walk on foot… they would beat anyone who came their way- young and old. The young army men would take their belongings on foot while moving to the other camp, but they would force the local men to carry their things for them. These local men were used as human shields as well.
…during those days it was common to hear that some man was taken for begaar… these men would then be beaten up in the camp and then released, sometimes after days… On their way to the camps, the army would ransack our gardens and orchards. They’d steal the vegetables, fruits and spices… anything that they found on their way… they were like djinn they’d not leave anything for the villagers… Sometimes the army would do identification parade of people… they’d make men stand in a line… no one was spared of a beating if nothing at least they would slap.
Bridging the Gaps: Politics of Memory and Silence
Bridge-burnings were not isolated incidents but an interlaced reality of the conflict in Kashmir. Notably, the question of oblivion that was raised at the beginning of the essay still remains in place. Within the decolonial literature on Kashmir, memory surfaces as an incredibly important element of resistance (see for instance, Malik, 2019). The main argument in this essay is that people’s memory offers an alternative lens to the dominant discourses of history.
These trends of segregation and silence manifest themself in the lack of research and documentation of this bizarrely common phenomenon of bridge-burning. Irrespective of their agendas and strategies, the campaigns of conquest by ‘unknown gunmen’ rendered the locals in a state of prolonged despair and needs to be critically enquired and framed within the larger context of conflict.
This essay prioritized people’s experiences but other explanations with regards to bridge-burning that centre around the motives of the insurgents are certainly possible. While the monocausal explanations can be limiting in their scope, here it allows peoples subjectivities to exist independently-without fitting into strict structures of predefined frameworks.
Torching the bridges was carried out to abolish, or at the very least limit, their expedience; so that they no longer enable the movement of (army) vehicles. However, the people were the worst sufferers of these demolitions. Which is why I conclude by arguing that the militant transgressions during the 1990s make a case for an empirical study on their own. But perhaps more than anything, this essay attempted to indicate that north Kashmiri people’s banal and everyday experiences of trauma and violence do not find enough mention in the critical scholarship on Kashmir. This gap remains for the scholars, researchers and theorists to bridge.
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Mariyeh Mushtaq is an independent researcher exploring the intersection of gender, militarism and precarity in Kashmir. She recently completed her MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London.