Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The VCD Group Case Study

What does Afghanistan have to do with Kashmir?
Pakistan's Support for Islamic Militancy is Not a Stupid Thing

The VCD Group Case Study was a crazy but fun and challenging part of the course. The objective was to present a conflict with as much breadth and scope as possible in groups in the space of 30 minutes. The groups were formed by February/March. I really did not 'shop around' for groups - I ended up being in the Kashmir group because my VCD tutorial classmate asked me whether I wanted to join that group. I thought, 'why not?' Some of my other friends were doing Botswana - a country that was not in conflict, which was ingenious enough but I thought I better stick to what I know!

I will say right off the bat that it was a very rewarding experience in every sense. My group really made a journey from A to B - from knowing very little about the conflict in Kashmir to having a real appreciation of the suffering, complexity in terms of having at least 3 different actors and historical roots, and to what it had evolved into. Moreover, we were constantly trying to figure out ways in which to present the conflict within a regional context with global implications. Finally, there was a great group dynamic and we all got along really well. 

So who was in the group? An Indian - (Anubhooti), an Afghani (Haseeb), a Finn (Helka), a Korean (Nodi), a French (Cecile) and a Pakistani (myself). The first time we met was in Anu's kitchen in her halls of residence. When we first met, I thought to myself - hmmm, what an interesting group. It was interesting for me because there were three South Asians who would know a little bit more about Kashmir than the others. Nodi had been to Pakistan and India but she mostly thought it was a religious conflict. Helka and Cecile seemed to have even less of an idea about it. Hence, there was a lot of learning and teaching to do. 

Anu and I dived into lengthy and emotional stories of the Partition, the Raj, Kashmir's significance, etc - the way we have heard of them, been socialised around them, learned of them through our separate nationalisms and state brainwashing. Haseeb offered his point of view now and then. For me it was very clear from the beginning that the Kashmir story could not be told without speaking of the spill over into Afghanistan - Pakistan's quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan and the subsequent Cold War adventures with the damn Americans. I think Haseeb was also convinced of this. If I can remember correctly, this had already formed in my head in the very first meeting. And happily, Helka and Nodi were content to let us South Asians steer the boat. Cecile was quiet and I think was observing at that point. 

We made it a point to go back and do as much respective reading on Kashmir as possible before we really decided how to tackle it. We were very diligent as a group to meet as regularly as possible, even if it was just to have very general discussions and Anu and I going off on tangents! Bless the rest of the group for being so patient with us! We even made the effort to go watch a documentary on Kashmir (Project Kashmir) that was being played in a cinema in Brixton. We were not very impressed with it but it did show some of the sufferings of every day life, the huge Indian Army military presence, road blocks, curfew, encounter killings/disappearances, destruction of houses, and the departure of the Pundits. It showed how entrenched the cycle of violence had become. And, now that I think about it, how entrenched the religious identities had become - Muslim and Hindu - at the expense of Kashmiriness. So I guess we should have been more impressed with it!

The presentation started to take form and, I managed to convince the group that what would be most interesting would be to present four different positions on the conflict (Kashmir, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) in order to provide a multi-faceted picture. The Afghanistan position would say that because of strategic insecurities and the tension with India, Pakistan has always been interested in Afghan affairs. Haseeb would present Afghanistan and I would present Pakistan. What was funny was that Anu thought the Kashmir and India position would be one because Kashmir was an integral part of India. It took her a while to figure out that Kashmir was a disputed territory! It was very cute. That's what I mean that it was a rewarding experience - not only did the non-Asians learn something but the South Asians did too! 

So we laboured on, doing our respective research and preparing our parts. Helka researched the Kashmir position and did a really good job. Honestly, I did not know much of the Kashmir position but luckily had attended the Human Rights Watch talk earlier in the year. I had even lamented to myself of how much Kashmir had receded into the background while India and Pakistan continue with their rivalry. Nodi worked on the introduction and Cecile with her conclusion. We all worked separately and that it made it interesting in terms of coming up with each position and part. Cecile for example provided the SAARC and international perspective on the conflict in the conclusion she had been preparing. 

The last couple of weeks and the last weekend before we were supposed to present the case (27 April - right after our freaking spring break) were very intensive and nerve racking. We were meeting regularly in the library but because of everyone's differing commitments it was hard to find a common rhythm. Also there was a mini coup d'etat in the group and Haseeb took over the boss role from me! A few days before the presentation he said that the case was not interesting enough - the rest of us got pretty crabby and mutinous. He said that a certain group had rented a cottage just to work on the case. He was not very clear on how we should make the presentation interesting. I was very annoyed with Haseeb and told him so. Well, the next morning, mulling over tea and coffee, before we were to start working in the library, I thought open-mindedly about Haseeb's comments and it came to me! 'What does Afghanistan have to do with Kashmir?' That should make it interesting, right? The rest of the group came on board and, that is how we proceeded. 

Haseeb is a journalist by profession therefore he was able to steer the group in terms of creating separate and clear cut positions. It took us that entire weekend to alter our presentation. The challenging task was to distinctively carve out the positions. What did Afghanistan - the hot ticket item on Obama's foreign policy or at least that's what he's going around saying - and the mess it was in have to do with Kashmir? Why was Pakistan interested in Kashmir and Afghanistan? What did India have to say about it? We used a lot of journalistic articles that Haseeb had to put together our presentation. Helka's piece more or less remained the same but she did stick in some stuff about the presence of Afghan mujahideen veteran fighters in Kashmir and made the link. It started to come together but it was a frantic weekend and, we did not give ourselves enough time to polish it and come up with a strong conclusion with implications, suggestions and tie in with theory. And now that I think about it, we totally ignored Azad Kashmir. 

That weekend before the presentation was hair-pullingly frantic but fun. Other groups were also working around us and I got some snippets of it now and then. Some group was talking about putting in a Simpsons episode into their presentation. Whaat? I swear I heard that somewhere. Talking to others was funny as I am sure it was for everyone. None of the topics made any sense or seemed blah. 'What are you doing your presentation on'? 'Drones in NWFP' 'What about them?' 'DDRR in Liberia' 'What about it'? 'Responsibility to Protect in Guinea' 'Didn't they just get a UN Mission?' 'Kashmir' 'What about it'? 'Isn't it part of India'? 'Does not Pakistan have a piece of it, why can't you guys just be happy'?

The rule - apparently - was to attend all of the presentations for the day which you were on. A lot of people didn't follow this rule though, including some of my group members who were late! Well anyway, we were not on until 2 pm. I started to get really nervous seeing the other presentations which had power points and/or were presented in the form of panel discussions or role play. We did a bit of rehearsal in the lunch break and I told myself that our presentation was solid, we had worked hard and moreover, we had a secret weapon*! A cool tagline - Pakistan's support for Islamic militancy is not a stupid thing! Listen and weep, all you schmucks!

Well what can I say, we presented! Nodi went on, Helka went on. Anu all the while was gripping my hand and whispering loudly in my ear and I am sure the rest of the lecture theatre could hear us. Boy was she nervous! She went up, followed by myself, Haseeb and Cecile. It was okay. We went over the time and, perhaps that is why we did not get any good questions. This one fellow kept pestering us but Anu gave a good answer. I did not get Goodhand's question - something about transnational networks. I think he was asking us to explain how fighters could go from one war to another, what would be the motivations and mechanisms that would allow that. Haseeb answered that but I do not remember what he said. I guess he must have said that these networks were created by the CIA, ISI, the Saudis which exploited religious ideas of jihad. Once jihadis - they needed one jihad after another, I guess. 

What about the other presentations in general? Well, there was one that was really pretentious - it was 90% theory and felt like a lecture. I was very amused by the one on DDRR in Liberia - it was so hard to believe that the programme that was our freaking life for 3+ years in our wonderful DEX Unit at UNDP was being presented before me. This programme was a nightmare for us, from donors, to UNMIL, to UNDP management, to our IPs - careers were made, careers were lost - revenge was sworn - romantic moves were made. Man. It was a good time though.  All my 'inside info' apart - that information that was presented was really not correct and, it makes me wonder about the so-called academic research. But that's another blog post. It was still interesting to hear this presentation about the Liberia DDRR vis a vis women. What about the rest? There was nothing new about Palestine. The Mexico kidnappings was interesting enough but I should have paid more attention. The drones one was a hilarious presentation in terms of format but content wise not that solid. The state legitimacy angle - I didn't really get it. 

But still, if I had to grade these, I would give credit to those that are current and changing by the minute. Pakistan must be the most fascinating state to study at the moment because there is so much going on right now and, though everything is connected, each change/transition is something separate in its own right eg. lawyers movement, democratic transition, NWFP, Balochistan, Taliban, suicide bombings, violence, etc. 

As a tail note, I was really disappointed to see how unfriendly students can be towards each other. I was quite shocked to see students bombarding - rather attacking - each others' presentations with questions. Come on guys, take it easy! Why are you trying to score points or show how clever you are right now? Do it to lecturers, not your fellow students! I could have, for example, asked some leading questions to the Liberia DDRR group but why would I give my friends a hard time? I would either ask a simple question (they had enough though) or ask them later on. 

All in all, I am happy with my group and how far we came in understanding our case. We had a great sense of camaraderie. I think we tackled a difficult topic, did our best, and were on top of the current affairs. So kudos to us!

* Calvin's is a clear plastic binder! 


  1. "...revenge was sworn, romantic moves were made ..." tell us more! ;)

  2. It seems like it happened ages ago...Yep, it was frantic, especially the last minutes. :)

  3. Apparently we hardly passed. So much for critiquing other groups. Man. Oh well. Whatever. It is not my fault is all I am going to say. Yeah, that's right. Pass the buck.