Many years ago, in 2003, I worked with an Italian research agency called multiplicity. At the time, we were trying to understand the nature of the Israeli occupation of Palestine by looking at the infrastructures and management of the built environment. From the perspective of spatial control, the West Bank became a laboratory in which the analysis of extreme situations revealed generalizable patterns, and modalities that could be used in different contexts to interpret the relation between power and the management of space.
Our work in the West Bank helped us create a matrix of metaphors and case studies from all around the world that revealed the different ways in which “borders” are used as devices of spatial control. We came to view borders not just as fixed, stiff lines between countries, but rather as physical or symbolic structures that inform our daily interaction with the physical space and the built environment.
I had not thought about this matrix for a long while, until it unexpectedly came back to me as a useful hermeneutical tool for understanding the city of Srinagar, the winter capital of the state of Jammu & Kashmir in India. At the time of Partition between India and Pakistan, in 1947, the whole of Kashmir was divided between the two countries and has been a site of contestation ever since.
Kashmir is the only state in India with a majority Muslim population. As early as 1947, the Indian government promised to transform Kashmir into a plebiscite so its people could determine its fate. The plebiscite has, however, yet to materialize. In its place, the Indian government has enforced a tight system of military control in order to preserve the its national territorial integrity – and to supposedly protect against Islamist insurgents. The infamous Line of Control (LoC) – the border between India and Pakistan – is tightly monitored to prevent movement and militant infiltrations Although Kashmir is not “technically” a territory in conflict, it is one of the most militarized areas of the world.
Thinking of borders, in a place like this, struck me with urgency. Borders may function as sponges or pipes or funnels. They may allow for porous exchanges or for a direct, regimented flux of people and goods. They may block movement, and determine the extent and quality of access to a place.
Borders do not exist, and should not be thought of as, independent from dynamics of power and control. Their significance and operational nature is manmade and requires sophisticated apparatuses and mechanisms of enforcement. For these structures, the state – or one of its agencies – determines rules and conditions of openness and access, porosity and closure.
As I walked around Srinagar, its seeming simplicity and normalcy was a conundrum to me. Walking is one of the most effective ways to discover the fabric of a city. The interweaving of roads and alleys, the size and nature of walls, the definition of landmarks, the distinction between neighborhoods all appear in great clarity when encountered with a slow pace. At eye-level, details and nuances are revealed; feet feel the different textures of tarmac or dirt and the physical crossing of space opens a multiplicity of scenarios and points of view. An attentive observer uncovers cities inside the city and invisible lines and boundaries emerge to disclose unexpected urban geographies.
As I walked through Srinagar, I looked for traces and signs of small urban stories that had fallen off the city’s official narrative: cinema halls that still standing, but no longer functioning; tales of temporary unauthorized monuments and memorials for the “martyrs”; “abandoned” military posts in the midst of civilian enclaves; neighborhoods for communities that have long since left.
Whether through denial or dismissal, the official facade of the city has made the traces of these stories irrelevant. The silence of these absences claims attention nevertheless and adds an intriguing, if barely visible, layer to the city’s geography.
Srinagar appears as an archipelago of distinct islands, a multiplicity of discrete bubbles with semi-permeable skins that enclose different sets of behaviors, rules, and inhabitants. Conflicting narratives coexist and overlap creating a map of multiple cities within the same physical space.
There is the “real” city – the one its inhabitants navigate everyday, moving around check-posts and bypassing ever-multiplying obstacles to movement. There is the city of the armed forces, those on a self-declared mission to provide (or rather enforce) peace and protection. Theirs is the city of military bunkers and occupied cinemas, of daily patrols and razor wire, a city that holds the weight of violence and occupation. And then, there is the mise en scène of the city of tourists: of picturesque boat rides at sunset, of photographs in traditional Kashmiri costumes, of well orchestrated transports to and from the highlights of the pristine beauty of the Kashmir Valley, of shuttling through invisible tunnels between the Dal Lake and the Tulip and Mughal Gardens.
Against this background sits the official rhetoric of restored order in the region. The herds of (oblivious) tourists serve as supporting, incontrovertible evidence against the malevolent voices contesting this deceptive appearance of peace. The “design” of the urban spaces containing and defining this reality is sophisticated and well planned, and includes an apparatus of invisible borders and devices of control. Here the curtains move in such a way to reveal only what is pleasant to the eye and agreeable to the state.
This imaginary geography is convincing only to those who do not venture beyond its unspoken limits. In this setting, the Tourist Reception Centre is one of the unofficial frontier’s furthest outposts. Only a few brave ones venture further, perhaps as far as the Old City – beyond that is the “no man’s land”, the city of real people, a city that is not necessary to the public representation of peace. Here, coils of razor wire multiply, armored vehicles become more frequent, policemen with automated rifles stand at every corner, and sandbags surround shrines and cinemas for protection.
“Protection from whom?” – we ask a Central Reserve Police inspector in an informal conversation. “You never know, things may always happen.” “But now there is peace, or so we are told.” “If small things keep happening it is good for us as they [the central government] will keep us here. Otherwise, where would we go?”
*Francesca Recchia is a staff writer at Muftah.