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Bound Spaces: Of Papier Mâché Boxes and Legal Documents

As the tourist season begins anew, visitors to Kashmir will continue to consume things Kashmiri and things legal will continue to consume Kashmiris themselves. It would seem that while the attribution of a context of beauty to things comes easy, for things do not speak, the same cannot be said of Kashmiris, whose chorus for azadi reverberates in the streets every week.

Mahum Shabir ( is a researcher and writer currently pursuing a Juris Doctor degree.



Before I knew much about where I had grown up, I knew it was a “paradise on earth.” It is hard to say exactly when that notion took hold of the minds of people, though the exact words – firdous baroye zameen­ – are attributed to a Mughal king of the 17th century. That is how Kashmir has been broadcast in the imagination of both natives and Indians – it is lush with bounties to be consumed, from the cool of the mountain air, the green of the orchards, the water in its rivers to things like famed shawls, saffron and apples... But, each of them is not merely a thing for the act of consumption goes beyond the materiality of every consumable in the immediate sense.

Amongst the most iconic things Kashmir ki, the papier mâché box, is one which embodies the contradictions of a place, which is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, the world’s most heavily militarised zone and yet a “paradise” at the same time. Kashmir is projected as a place where Indians could go to relax, to get away from the summer heat and engage in the therapeutic purchase of beautiful things mentioned in souvenirs which could be placed in the showcases of one’s house or perhaps could be given to friends as memoirs of a tour, as a reminder of the time spent on a shikara in the Dal Lake, or riding horses in Gulmarg or Pahalgam. It is suggested that in “peacetime” Kashmir is as normal as any other place tourists may visit and if there is any doubt that it is not, visitors should construe the presence of several hundred thousand army personnel as a confirmation of having been secured.

Deplorable “Protectiveness”

Previously, I had spent hours perfecting miniature daffodils, tulips and begonias, while learning the craft of traditional drawing from a master-artisan, but with that papier mâché box, matters legal came to me, while I was working for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a civil liberties organisation based in Srinagar. A case that I assisted in litigation and that received much media attention was that of an alleged sexual assault of a minor girl in Handwara by the Indian army personnel on 12 April 2016. Following this incident, four young men and one woman were killed in army and police firing (Masood and Jaleel 2016). The case began when the girl’s mother filed a habeas corpus petition at the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir on 16 April 2016 on grounds that she was not aware of the whereabouts of her daughter and her husband for four days after both of them were taken into police detention. More worryingly, while they were in custody, the police had even recorded a video of her minor daughter without her consent, that too, in the absence of her family members. Later, the video was circulated in the social media and her identity was revealed.

 In response to her petition, the court chose to direct the police to file the grounds on which the daughter and her husband had been held, instead of following the usual procedure in habeas corpus petitions, that is, directing the police to bring the person(s) under custody to the court within 24 to 48 hours. Again, despite the girl being in police custody for a whole month, the court in its judgment, while directing the police to end its custody, ruled that there was “no question of illegal detention or confinement” of the daughter and her husband, terming the custody as “protective.” The family had sought numerous times, through various state agencies, to be able to move about freely without police surveillance. Further, the court made no mention of the deplorable video taken under custody or the fact that the daughter and her father had submitted that the police had forced them to sign applications requesting custody.

An Idealism Far from Reality

While the Indian intellectual elite insists that what, is in fact structural violence needed to sustain military occupation, exemplified in cases including those of mass rape and torture in Kunan-Poshpora, fake encounters in Pathribal and massacres in Gawkadal and Chittisinghpora are aberrations, criminal acts most certainly, perhaps, even exceptionally violent in many ways. But according to them, such violence is hardly symptomatic of the everyday condition of life in Kashmir for anyone may commit a criminal act on any day but this may be remedied though the legal process, which is available to everyone, everyday. Yet, civil rights associations such as JKCCS, who have fought cases in the courts, say that there is not a single case in which army personnel have been prosecuted and punished in a court of law, despite decade-long trials in some cases (Kazi 2011). The lawyers here “fail” again and again, slowly exhausting every process via which “success” may be achieved. It is not just special laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) under which sanction must be granted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi for prosecution of army personnel in a court of law (Kazi 2012) the factor–all judicial interpretation necessarily occurs within the limits of a normative framework at the level of ideas and is in return defined by such limits (Cover 1986).

During the two years of my association with JKCCS, I have observed that when Kashmiris approach the court in such matters,­ ­the presence of what can perhaps be described as judicial interpretation, was bounded by the realities of sustaining military occupation. This is an unspoken truth to be expected in a place like Kashmir. On the contrary, an expectation for judicial interpretation to make sense of violations of civil and political liberties–such as in the case of alleged sexual assault I mentioned earlier–in a reasonable manner, not to speak of so-called judicial activism, is thought of as based on an idealism that is far from reality. As aptly narrated to me by a survivor of one mass crime, when I asked him why he had not preserved a court judgment (I paraphrase), “We fight for the memory of our loved ones, but we know that the judgment is no taveez (amulet for protection).”

 As those who access arena of the law in their professional practice or who approach the court here know that judicial interpretation is not an abstract process, for it occurs within the realm of culture as a whole and material things in particular (Derrida 2005) – myriad processes relating to the interactions with things like paper are as integral to the legal process as any kind of strategy building. The filing of affidavits, first information reports (FIRs), status reports, writing of petitions, judgments, orders as well as processes such as indexing, stamping, photocopying and scanning simultaneously create a vast world of material culture within which the words of the law sit. It is nearly impossible to obtain a judicial paper without a stamp from a notary. It is marked with the seals of the state and its agencies–an acknowledgement of the transformative power of violence vested in the law and used legitimately by the state (Derrida 2002).

I understood the importance of such paper objects when I was researching five cases of mass crime that our office had been litigating for a comprehensive report on militarisation (presented before the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2015). During the fieldwork, I found instances in which the only material memory of a person killed or tortured in a case might be the photocopy of an FIR in tatters, obtained by the family from the police after much hassle. The document lay in some corner of the house, forgotten in the everyday life, but remembered when asked for, as if recalled from a museum of lost time. In the cases where the families decide to use the legal process their thumbprints, the turmeric stain from what they perhaps ate on the day of the hearing, the impressions of the drawer in which it sits, mark the paper.

Bound Spaces and a Symbolic Journey

The world of paper is also that of “chewed” paper–that of papier mâché. Papier mâché boxes are of course bound spaces, opaque to what is inside them, accessible most easily on the surface-level. In papier mâché, the box is created from newsprint, used books and copies; the outside of the box is hand-painted with highly stylised motifs, outlined in gold leaf while the inside part is most often simply painted black. The box is complete in itself, it is not intended for keeping something. The gilded exterior is topped with layers of varnish until it acquires a mirror-like sheen of the kind where one can see one’s face become part of a kingfisher-and-lotus-leaf design.

The occupation of Kashmir is not only about the much talked about “culture of impunity” (Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic  2009), the “inhuman” and “draconian” (HRW 2006) laws such the AFSPA, Public Safety Act, the scores of documented cases of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence, but also about a certain set of ideas implemented through a sociopolitical process (Enloe 2014) in which the trope of nationalism is tied to the consumption of things Kashmir ki without seeking to be reflexive about the experiences of the people who produce such things or the role of such a consumption in providing a filter through which to tour a place with the proverbial rose-tinted glasses. It would seem that while the attribution of a context of beauty to things comes easy, for things do not speak, but the same cannot be said of Kashmiris, whose chorus for azadi reverberates in the streets every week.

What is apparent is that the Indian tourist is not distant from this scene, neither is she neutrally placed, in fact, her assumptions and ideas form a part of the economy of which papier mâché boxes are a part (Copley 1994). Touring Kashmir is, in this context, a symbolic journey (Hunt 1992) delineated by ideas of nationalism which when pursued by the millions, can be thought of as an act of advancing, exploring possibilities for movement, for paradigms of nationalism in a certain landscape, possibilities that the next year can become precedent, in five a custom, in fifty… a map.

In the context of bound spaces, it is also relevant to ask, if judicial interpretations reflect only the norm, can we then take the law to be a voice of reason, of principle or morality? Are there parallels between ideas that encourage a fetish-like consumption of things Kashmir ki and those that suggest a reasonable legal interpretation by is in fact possible in place of military occupation? What is it to engage with a legal system when one knows that the hope for reasonable remedy may be an unreasonable hope?

Meanwhile, newer violations emerge every day. In 2016, in the months-long curfew that followed the killing of rebel leader Burhan Wani, more than 90 protestors were killed and more than 17,000 injured. Eight hundred have had their sight affected including a hundred who have been blinded completely (Waheed 2016). Any sense of urgency in how the law may offer reparation for injury is rendered meaningless as the present is subsumed under the weight of the past, possibilities for the future are pre-empted, time is flattened and remedies perverted beyond recognition.

As the tourist season begins anew, visitors to Kashmir will continue to consume things Kashmir ki and things legal will continue to consume Kashmiris themselves.

There is chewed paper, and then there are chewed people.


Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic (2009): The Myth of Normalcy: Impunity and the Judiciary in Kashmir, Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, New Haven Connecticut.

Copley, Stephen (1994): William Gilpin and the Black-lead Mine, The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics since 1770, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cover, Robert M (1986): “Violence and the Word,” 95 Yale Law Journal 1601.

Derrida, Jacques (2002): Acts of Religion, New York: London: Routledge.

— (2005): Paper Machine, California: Stanford University Press.

Enloe, Cynthia (2014): Understanding Militarism, Militarization and the Linkages with Globalization using a Feminist Curiosity, The Hague, The Netherlands: Women Peacemakers Program.

HRW (2006): Everyone Lives in Fear: Patterns of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir, Human Rights Watch, 12 September,

Hunt, John Dixon (1992): Verbal and Visual Meanings in Garden History: The Case of Rousham, Georgetown (Washington D C): Dumbarton Oaks Colloquia on the History of Landscape Architecture.

Kazi, Seema (2011): Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarization in Kashmir, Brooklyn, New York: South End Press.

— (2012): “Law Governance and Gender in Indian Administered Kashmir,” Working Paper Series, Centre for Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Masood, Bashaarat and Muzanil Jaleel (2016): “Handwara Protests: Girl, Father in Custody, Kin Demand Release,” Indian Express, 15 April,

Waheed, Mirza (2016): “India’s Crackdown in Kashmir: Is This The World’s First Mass Blinding?” Guardian, 8 November,


Updated On : 26th May, 2017
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