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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
espite enfolding several Indian battalions within its hills, the border town of Uri had none of the buzz that I imagined would characterize the “garrison-entrepot” (Roitman 1998). Until the recent release of a Bollywood military-action film titled Uri:The Surgical Strike, the name Uri did not command the kind of patriotic charge associated with places like Kargil or Siachen, symbols of heroic confrontation with Pakistan in the war-map of Kashmir. Rather, Uri hosts precarious transit and exchange on one of Asia’s most hostile de facto borders: the Line of Control or LoC that separates the Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir. The inauguration of “cross-LoC” trade and bus services made Uri the official junction of civil-military contact between Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris in the disputed and divided Himalayan region. My Kashmiri friends and I were on our way to the Kaman Post, the last point of Indian-controlled territory on the Kaman Bridge, that lies over the narrow gorge of the river Jhelum and connects divided Kashmir.
We passed the charred remains of a building that sheltered militants who had attacked an army camp months ago. From the right bank of the river, Pakistan army posts, some visible and others hidden high upon denuded hills, looked down at us. Our driver Javed joked about our car moving in the crosshairs of their artillery. While waiting for security clearance at the last checkpost before Kaman, a train of painted and tasseled trucks plying trade goods from the other side passed. The drivers smiled and slowed as we posed for selfies.
Uri loses out in the draw of heights that confers vertical control and strategic advantage in high Himalayan warfare (Elden, 2013; Baghel & Nüsser 2015; Harris 2017). Pakistan controlled peaks enjoy higher vantage and surround the town, producing a persistent sense of insecurity that stems from being watched and attacked from above. In an effort to countenance this vulnerability, the vertical dimension is saturated by the emanations of threat, trade and tourism – facets that could be incompatible but are in fact complementary. I borrow the term interference from wave theory to indicate how these entities superpose and disrupt each other even as they occupy the same overground space. Each maintains its distinct character, but mutual diffractions generate visual-affective holograms: their interferences generate rapid shifts in perspective on the nature of investment in the other side. The dynamics of threat-tourism-trade gather at the Kaman post, simultaneously fashioned as checkpoint, customs & control and tourist attraction.
On our walk to the Kaman Bridge we passed a motley montage of visual emblems: the shiny but shuttered Kaman Café, a rest-stop flaunting captioned bullet holes in its interior walls – souvenirs from sporadic cross-firing, the incongruous green shrine of an ancient Muslim saint, and black granite commemorating the construction of the bridge as a “Symbol of Peace”.
At the Bridge we faced the other side. Flags of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir adorned the gate on the far end. The soldier guiding us unfurled a white flag to indicate visitors; on the other side too a white flag signaled laborers at work on the road. Blue signage marked distance in kilometers to cities in Pakistan. Two large boards on the other side beamed across missives in the Urdu script. One broadcasted the call-and-response slogan proclaiming a common political community of Kashmiris and Pakistanis based on shared religious identity:
What does Pakistan mean?
La Ilaaha il-Allah.
What is our relationship with Kashmir?
La Ilaaha il-Allah.
Further off, a second board bore a portrait of the poet-philosopher of Kashmiri ethnicity, Muhammad Iqbal, widely regarded as having inspired the idea of Pakistan. The writing was indecipherable. “How many megapixels does your camera have?” Javed asked, “we can enlarge later to read what is written.”
Later, from the shape of the letters, friends identified it as a verse from Iqbal’s Bang-e-Dara: aptly placed at the dividing Line, exhorting Muslims to unite across geographical boundaries
Let Muslims unite to watch over the Qaaba/the sacred space
From the banks of the Nile to the deserts of Kashgar.
Javed asked to be photographed against Iqbal’s picture in the distance. Our guide saw him whispering, “You can take photos of the Other Side, but not of Our Side”, he instructed.
On our side, a large board doubled up as rejoinder and photo-op. An enlarged image of the Indian flag carried a line from the poem Taranah-e-Hindi:
“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will amongst ourselves.”
This poem too is an early composition by Iqbal, an ode to land that once encompassed India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, an anthem against British rule. An abridged version is performed as a patriotic song in India and played as a marching tune by the armed forces.
Remainders of warfare – burnt stumps and bullet holes – jostle against the shrines of holy men. Mimetic dueling around Iqbal renders hyperbolic competing claims and fractured fealties. At the tightly regulated site of rupture, jibes and smiles are exchanged with the other side. The air thrums from dense visual cues whose effects feel electromagnetic. They distend the visual field, mixing other durations with the stasis of the status quo. Threat and proximity invoke ambient thrills and chills, expanding the visual dimension as well as its photographed record, zooming, distancing, and deferring the process of ultimate decipherment. Intended and unintended affects create patterns that conjure myths of community and fictions of separation. Their interferences counteract vertical precarity by curating Kaman as a voluminous field of endless and agonizing mutual entanglement.
 I thank Ghazal Asif and Mohammad Sayeed for help with deciphering, identifying and translating Iqbal’s verse:
Aik hon Muslim haram ki pasbaani ke liye
Neel ke sahil se le kar ta ba-khak-e-Kashgar
Baghel R and Nüsser M (2015) Securing the Heights: The Vertical Dimension of the Siachen Conflict between India and Pakistan in the Eastern Karakorum. Political Geography 48: 24–36.
Elden S (2013) Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depths of Power. Political Geography 34: 35–51.
Roitman J (1998) The Garrison Entrepot. Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines.