Most of my life I have been confused about Kashmir. As a school kid I barely ever read the newspaper. The first time I went to Kashmir was when I was four years old in 1980. I have very cute pictures from those days. My mom used to tell me how the people there would talk of India as a foreign country.
The first time I had a proper conversation with a Kashmiri was in college. I went to an engineering college in Bangalore where I met Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits. The Pandit friend told me how they had to abandon their home because they were threatened by militants. The rumour about this one Muslim guy in the hostel was that he had an elder brother who was a militant. And after that I dropped the topic from my consciousness. I didn’t care. I was young and there were many other things to explore.
Then in 2008 I chanced upon a documentary on Kashmir. It told me about the countless cases of rape, torture, disappearances of men, and the endless searches of their property the people of Kashmir had to endure at the hands of the Indian Army. I was enraged. How could my country do this to its own people? It was grossly unfair for people to be subjected to this. I felt sorry for the Kashmiris. Then later that year Mumbai was attacked by Pakistani forces. Apparently, they were also responsible for the problems in Kashmir.
I continued with my relative ignorance of Kashmir. It wasn’t affecting my life in any way really. In 2014, I made friends with a documentary filmmaker. She would go on to win a National Award for her film on Kashmir. We were catching up at her place, along with her Kashmiri Muslim friend. I asked them what the scene was with Kashmir. They both broke into an almost practiced speech about how Kashmir was illegally occupied by India. I don’t remember much of the content. Then I asked them about Kashmiri Pandits. Why were they thrown out? To which they both pounced on me and said “because the Pandits had all the jobs and land and money and the Muslims needed it.” Somehow, through the haze, I kind of remember being confused as to how that justified murder, rape and rendering hundreds of thousands of people homeless but at that moment I was afraid of my high being murdered by those two militant women and chose discretion over valour.
Then in 2018 I visited Kashmir for a second time. My mom was very worried that her 41 year old son would be unsafe in a place prone to random violence. So I asked a friend of mine to have me put up at the Army Base next to the airport and I was driven around in an Army officer’s car. I called up my old college friend (the Kashmiri Pandit from college) who told me not to worry and that I was safe as long I was not with anyone from the police or the army. I gulped. At that very moment I was getting into the army vehicle that could not be more conspicuous with flags and paint. The driver was from Kerala and told me all the nice wooden houses that were built around Srinagar were made using money received as aid from India as well as money from Pakistan.
I was walking in the lanes adjoining the Hazratbal Shrine when an elderly Muslim gentleman, with a beard and a skull cap and sitting on a chair, said something to me in Kashmiri. I did not understand him and politely asked him what he was saying. He asked me where I was from. I said from India, to which he appeared offended. I thought I had been waylaid by a ‘Free Kashmir’ fundamentalist. He told me that if I was Indian then I should know the Kashmiri way of saying hello. Then it dawned on me that the man was being friendly. I apologized to him and asked him to teach me the Kashmiri greeting. He did and then spontaneously gave me a hug as I said bye. This completely disarmed me.
As I had landed in Srinagar, my first experience was that of departmental stores, where I needed to buy essentials for the week-long ‘Great Lakes Trek’ that I was to embark on in a few days’ time. These stores were run by people wearing what I call the ‘Srinagar Scowl.’ If I went up to a lady manning a store (they were always ladies who would manage the inventory and assist the shoppers) to ask where an item was to be found, I would always be answered with a pointing finger and an expressionless face. At first I thought it was because Srinagar was conservative. But it turned out this was the preferred method of communication in Srinagar for an Indian even at the famous Ahdoos restaurant, where I half expected the waiter to point me towards the kitchen when I placed my order. In January 2020, I encountered a Kashmiri couple on a tour bus in Da Nang, Vietnam. I could recognize them from a mile away because they wore the ‘Srinagar Scowl.’ So the old gentleman at Hazratbal was rather unexpected. What was also unexpected were the young men in their late teens who stopped me as I was clicking photos of the Shrine and exclaiming that they had never been clicked on a DSLR before. They made me take a few photos of them and also had me search for them on Facebook so that I could add them as a friend and send them the photos later. All of this happened in an unreal fashion, with me barely saying a few words and receiving full instructions on what to do. This happened twice in the span of fifteen minutes with two different groups. I did as I was told, sending them the photos once I was back home in Lucknow. Then it struck me that maybe there was a sinister game afoot and these teen kids might be terror agents, tracking people outside Kashmir and so I removed them from my friend list. In hindsight, maybe I was a wee bit paranoid.
One of the evenings in Srinagar, I had a few drinks with a high ranking Army officer. At one point I asked him what the Kashmir conflict was all about. He called out to his orderly to fetch a map. On that map he showed me the rivers that flowed through Kashmir and into Pakistan. “Water,” he said, “that’s what the game is about. And other than that …” he lowered his voice in his own house, “…it’s a war over faith.”
As it turned out the scowl was limited to Srinagar. My next stop was Sonamarg where I walked to the Thajiwas Glacier. There were two young men in their early twenties who were the only other people there besides me. They requested me to take a photo of them, a routine I had got used to, and in turn they took a few pictures of me. Then they started chatting with me. They were Kashmiri boys who worked in Jammu as electricians. They were genuinely friendly and took me for tea at the only dhaba at the glacier. As we parted ways, they took my number. For months I would get occasional video calls from one of them who wanted to know “What’s up?”
He wasn’t the only one to do that though. Mushtaq, who was working at the hotel where I was staying befriended me and promptly made me his Facebook friend. It basically started with me seeing him in a T-shirt while I was all bundled up in warm clothes and my paternal instincts kicking in and nagging the guy, who I had never met before, to wear something warm or he would catch a cold in the single digit temperature. He still messages me once in a while and we both faithfully like each other’s pictures on Facebook.
About five days later, miles away from Sonamarg on the Great Lakes Trail, I was wondering if I would live to see the end of the trek and was comforted to see that of the group of some 17 random people who had signed up for the trek, at least three others were going to die with me. High altitude trekking at the speed at which we were going can be taxing on the body. At the end of the first day of the trek, I was doing some photography when a twenty something Kashmiri gentleman started a conversation with me. His father had sent him on the trail to look out for some land that they had in this hard-to-reach area. He had completed his graduation in Philosophy and wanted to have a conversation with some “educated” people, being forced to hang out with “uneducated” shepherds on this trail. He remarked on how sad it was that so many problems were being created between Kashmir and India and that he frankly did not believe in any hostility. That young man’s words and his constant smile really touched me.
At three different points during the trek, we had to stop at army check posts and show our IDs. These were not posts by the road. These were posts on a trail that only shepherds followed. At one vague location, that took five days of walking to reach, we reached a large post with a permanent brick hut. One of the many army men at that place was particularly chatty and was asking us to play a cricket match with them. Then he walked up to our guide, Abdul, a fair Kashmiri man probably in his late twenties, and told him to shave his long Islamic beard or someone from the army would mistake him for a terrorist at night and shoot him. The exchange had a school ground bully feel to it and Abdul just kept looking at the ground and kept on smiling. On the last day of the trek, Abdul carried my bag for me because I was struggling with a bad back.
A few days later I was on the road from Srinagar on my way to Gulmarg in a cab that I had hired. The driver seemed friendly. I decided to take a chance and asked him about the Kashmiris’ fight for freedom. And then I asked him about the Pandits. Why did they chase them away? I still cannot forget the answer. “Sir, they had all the money and land so we chased them away and took it from them.” I was stunned at his candidness. Later on I was told by a friend, who had stayed at the Khyber Hotel in Srinagar that the staff there had told her that the Pandits did not actually belong to Kashmir so they were chased away.
Pehalgam was my last stop in my two-and-a-half-weeks Kashmir trip. It was mandatory to visit Aru Valley or be branded a loser. I didn’t see myself as a loser at that point in time so I took a cab to Aru Valley. I was given one hour to look around by the driver and then we would have to head back. It was the beginning of September and the skies were still cloudy. It started raining and I found my driver was not in the designated parking area. I went looking for him in the wee little town and found him chilling at a chai (tea) shop. I got drenched. When I got back to the hotel, I told the hotel staff who had arranged for the driver about what had happened. They called the driver and blasted him for being irresponsible for treating a guest like that.
After my trip, I was a bit confused about Kashmir. The people there, at least the ones who were not from Srinagar, were very nice and friendly. Yet there was this raging issue of freedom that had everyone in the area up in flames and most people in India wondering what their problem was and why they couldn’t be at peace with being Indians. So for my sake I had to dig deeper and find out for myself.
The root of the problem lies in the deep communal divide. The Kashmiri is a Muslim. There used to be Hindus too but they were chased away because they wanted a homogenous lot. The seeds of communalism were sown some 650 years ago, during the Shah dynasty. From then on, Hindus were discriminated against and even Shia Muslims were not spared, depending on who took the throne. Then the tides turned with the arrival of a Sikh ruler, Ranjit Singh. Muslims suffered what the Pandits had endured for hundreds of years. Things did not change with Gulab Singh and his dynasty of Dogras for the next hundred years. The people saw the rulers as anti-Muslims, which they probably were to varying degrees. This served to strengthen the Muslim identity and since the time of the Partition of India, the Kashmiri Muslims identified with Pakistan and the Hindus with India. This identity was further reinforced in the 1980s leading to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and the Islamization of Kashmir. Till date, it is not easy to find a shop selling alcohol in Srinagar as it is un-Islamic. It is clear to me that the Kashmiri people, all of whom were Hindus once, see Kashmir as a Muslim province. It is also clear to me that this view is not really subscribed to by the majority. The people of Kashmir are human beings first and they recognize this fact. The angry, vociferous, propaganda-filled lot compels the rest to project themselves as Muslims first. And India is to be held accountable for a part of this anger and freedom movement.
Nehru never gave the Kashmiris a chance to express themselves through the franchise set up for them under Article 370, though at all forums he kept on saying that the Kashmiris needed to decide for themselves if they wanted to be a part of India or not. All the elections were rigged till 1979 and only pro-India parties were allowed to stand for elections. Corruption was sewn into the blanket of self-governance, as Nehru allowed Bakshi, the first proper Chief Minister, to do as he pleased while Nehru kept diluting Article 370; something India continued to do until 2019, when the Article was scrapped altogether.
Today, ex-Chief Ministers Farooq and Omar Abdullah, father and son, are being investigated for corruption and no Kashmiri doubts for a moment that they are guilty. This is because India helped foster a culture of corruption much as it did with its own self. Nehru from the start was obsessed with Kashmir, for some reason; maybe because he was a Kashmiri Pandit himself. But then he had never really lived there so it defies logic. He handled all Kashmir related matters himself. Rightfully it should have been handled by the Home Minister. Nehru himself rode into the leadership of the country, riding on Gandhiji’s back and his own pedigree and education, so he probably thought nothing of installing leaders of his choice as he did with Kashmir. Maybe if Kashmir had good and honest governance, the people wouldn’t be such a disgruntled lot. However, all this can be termed as conjecture at best.
What is very real is the influence of Pakistan. They justify their involvement in Kashmir and systematic promotion of terrorism as jihad and a freedom struggle. That would not be such a tough pill to swallow if all of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was not equally dissatisfied with the Pakistan Government, so as to approach the United Nations with the human right abuses there. Even they want an Azad Kashmir, one free from the tyranny of Pakistan. This brings me to the moot point. Pakistan’s only reason to claim Kashmir is because its population is Muslim. This is strange because it does not account for the suffering of the people of Gilgit and Baltistan, a large percentage of who are Shias and, hence, not the brand of Islam that Pakistan endorses. There has been conflict between the Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan and the Sunnis who have arrived from Pakistan. Very few of the militants are fighting for an Independent Kashmir; Kashmir as a separate country. Most of them want Kashmir to be a part of Pakistan and want to convert India into an Islamic state. It is difficult to call a militant a freedom fighter under these circumstances.
I personally don’t endorse the Islam front. And Kashmir has a strong Islamic case to it. The exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits was a sin that they cannot be absolved of, no matter what argument is presented. ‘Kashmiriyat’, the culture under which people of different faiths coexist, is long dead. I personally feel that the Constitution of a nation should stand higher than any religion. A country should not be defined by the religion that people follow. I probably sound silly because I belong to a country that is obsessed with religion. The people of India are hyper sensitive when it comes to their religion and it takes barely more than a sneeze to ‘hurt’ someone’s religious sentiments. I recall once seeing a debate on one of the news channels years back. A Christian priest sat on the stage, offended about something someone had said about Christ and the whole affair had been organised to discuss how ‘hurt’ the priest was feeling. At one point, a young Muslim lady, wearing a burkha with her face uncovered, took the mike and asked the priest why was he so offended because lots of people say many hurtful things against Islam, but her faith was not so fragile that it could be shaken by what people said. The priest really did not know what to say to the young lady. For me, that lady is an icon of what the attitude of Indians should be. India, for whatever its shortcomings may be on this front, with the minorities in the nation feeling that they are not being treated fairly and equitably, still upholds an ideal of secularism that is worth striving for.
Kashmiris claims they have their own culture and their own way of living. I say take a good look at India, where every few hundred kilometres people have their own culture and their own way of living. After finishing his engineering in Bangalore, a batchmate of mine went to Chennai to work at a software company. He was a Punjabi. One day he went to the neighbourhood kirana (grocery) shop to buy some paneer (cottage cheese). “You want paneer? Go to your bloody North India and buy paneer.” This is what the shopkeeper told him. I lived in Bangalore for five years while doing my engineering. I faced numerous incidents of discrimination by teachers and local people alike. The brand new KFC there was stoned by a local organization for not conforming to Karnataka and its culture. But I don’t hate Bangalore or its people because I know they are nice people. Screwed up stuff does happen sometimes. Despite the Tamil pride in its language and culture and that of the Kannadigas and the Andhraites and the Malayalis, we have still forged a republic together. Same is to be said of the eastern states, where each state has its own unique identity and culture.
Another dimension to this Kashmir issue is that it pertains to only the Kashmir Valley. Locals never cared about the people of Ladakh or those of Jammu. Their identity is contained within this small area. Everyone else is an outsider; especially, if you are a Hindu and, doubly so, if you belong to India.
So what is it that the Kashmiris pride so much about their culture that they feel they cannot be a part of the diverse cultures of India? I am afraid the answer for that may lie with how they have been treated since 1990. It’s the chicken and the egg story. True, the Kashmiris through sponsorship from Pakistan participated in militant or terrorist activities and so the army moved in. But since then the people there have suffered and are suffering a life punctuated with fear, defiance and guns. I do believe with all my heart that India did try and carry out a genuine dialogue with the people from 1999 to 2012 to try and end militancy. Even after that attempts have been made to have a meaningful dialogue. Unfortunately, with so many stakeholders in the mix – the militant groups (many of whom are at odds with each other), the Government of the state, the people of Kashmir, the Indian Government and Pakistan – it only takes one screw up from one of the involved parties to ruin a peace process. If a certain militant group wants a ceasefire, another group will shoot it down. If India and Pakistan are talking it out, then a Pakistan-based militant group will perpetrate an act of terrorism. Things might be going well and suddenly a lapse on the part of the army or some corrupt army personnel will destroy the peace. Attaining peace in Kashmir is akin to learning to walk on eggshells.
Why doesn’t India just give up Kashmir? That is a question that may be asked of Pakistan too. And it is a difficult one because the Indian Republic is very finely balanced with certain regions wanting autonomy or independence. Kashmir is not the only one. It might send a wrong message out to the rest, if India was to give up Kashmir. And with the ever changing dynamics of the power structure in South Asia, who knows what will happen? Could an independent Kashmir be invaded by Pakistan or China? Pakistan struggles with its own issues with Balochistan, where the people want independence. Who is to say what will happen to the tiny Vale of Kashmir, which will certainly not be able to survive without aid from its neighbouring country, as the area lacks a number of resources. For Kashmir to exist as an independent country, it will need the power dynamics in the region to be at equilibrium.
So how do we resolve the issue? I really don’t know. I have read many books that offer different solutions. One by Christopher Snedden offers many possible scenarios depending on the different possibilities that may play out. There are contingent on a number of ‘what ifs.’ What if China decided to do this or what if the people in Azad Kashmir decided to do that or what if the military in Pakistan was disabled? I will not dwell on those because it’s an exercise in permutations and combinations. What I see far more possible is that for India to reach some kind of resolution with the Kashmiri people and to provide them with such a favourable environment within their land that Kashmiris are content with being a part of India.
The current Government has put an end to dialogue and has imposed a lockdown on Kashmir that seems like the opposite of what we want to achieve. Maybe it thinks it can flush out militants altogether during this Draconian curfew that the area has seen since 2019. A part of what must be on its mind would be to try something different as previous methods of talks have not helped. It stands to reason that even curbing of whatever freedom Kashmiris had, will be provoking them to pick up arms.
What I say is, as an Indian I would like Kashmir to be a part of India. Also as an Indian, I would like Kashmiris themselves to want to be a part of India. As an Indian, I don’t want the people to suffer as they have, whatever be the reasons. My friend Mushtaq of Sonamarg had put up an anti-India meme on Facebook and I wrote to him scolding him and launching into a rant about how he should come to Lucknow and see Hindus and Muslims living in peace. His reply was very short: “Yes, sir. It is a war like situation here, sir.” There is no way sitting at home, wherever you are, for you to understand what the people there are going through. And as an Indian I hope what I have written, will make you understand Kashmir a little bit better.
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