Monday, May 01, 2017

Kashmir - The Man Who Belongs to Nowhere

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are my interpretation based on what I saw during my trip to Kashmir. They are of course, influenced by the incidents I witnessed and conversations I was part of, which made me realize how ignorant I was about Kashmiri people in general. This post, in no way, means to harm the sentiments or defame any person or organization at any point.


When I landed in Srinagar Airport two weeks back, I was expecting to see barbed wires everywhere with security forces at every nook and corner. I hardly saw any of it. It was as normal as any other Indian city. The Indian tricolor flies high right in front of the airport. Had I not known that there is a conflict in Kashmir, I would probably have thought I have landed in a beautiful land with the most hospitable (Kashmiri tehzeeb) and kind set of people, snow capped mountains looking down at me, pine and chinar trees standing tall and acres of saffron fields expanding to as far as the eyes could see. I didn’t feel insecure for a second. I didn’t feel unsafe. I felt exactly like a tourist visiting any other new place in the world. I kept wondering what the ‘unrest’ was that was being talked off so much in the news. Until one morning…

I.

“They will miss their flight if we aren’t allowed to go immediately,” our Kashmiri driver told the army man.

“So what do I do?” came the angry retort from the man in uniform with a long stick and a loaded gun in hand, “Keep standing here.”

I was sitting in the front passenger seat of the Innova, absolutely silent for the next several minutes. I was shocked at the way the army man had shouted at an absolutely normal statement. Why couldn’t he respond calmly? Why was he so angry for a mere request being made?

We were on our way from Anantnag to Srinagar in the morning hours and army men stood guard after every few metres on both side of the highway, heavy loaded guns in their hands. I was surprised at this, because until now there had been no sign of any security forces anywhere since I had landed in Srinagar. Right now, the army convoy was to pass and no other vehicle, howsoever important, urgent or with an emergency, was allowed to pass. The journey that shouldn’t have taken us more than an hour, took us over three hours that morning.

In my 8 days of stay in the Kashmir Valley, those few minutes were the only ones when I was scared. Scared because of the way the protectors of the country behaved with the common man. As a tourist I wanted to click a photo of the army convoy but didn’t have the guts of taking the camera out.

When I say ‘common man’, here I refer to the Kashmiri population. Tourists are quite safe and the security forces always seemed supportive of them. I am guessing that if it had been one of us – non-Kashmiris- instead of the driver who had made the request, we might have received a polite response.

“This happens every single day here,” we were told later, “Kashmiri people are mistreated. Why can’t the army say the same thing calmly and with warmth? Why do they have to shout abuses? What wrong have we done? How can they expect us to respect them after this? We hate the Indian Army.”

Yes, this was from a Kashmiri. I don’t have anything against the Indian army. I have a lot of friends who belong to army families and I have the highest regards for them. But witnessing the incident and then learning that it is a regular occurrence did put me on second thoughts.

II.

When I had planned the Kashmir trip couple of months back, I had just wanted one thing: ‘I don’t want to discuss any aspect of the Kashmir issue at any point during my stay there. Let it be a fun trip to see the beauty of the place.’ What I realized in the 8 days there was that this is impossible. Probably the Kashmir issue doesn’t affect us on a daily basis and we can choose to completely ignore it and still not get affected by it at all. But there are common people exactly like us, who live in Kashmir and who get affected highly with the slightest of move by the government or the armed forces and who cannot, howsoever hard they might try, ‘put it aside’.

The day I arrived in Srinagar, 3G and 4G mobile services were banned so as to avoid the inflammation of sentiments raised due to circulation of videos on social media which were anti-Indian army. Couple of days back several social networking sites including Facebook and Whatsapp have been completely banned in Kashmir. ‘There is hardly any network in the phones here,’ my friend told me when I spoke to him last evening. It won’t be surprising if complete cellular network is cut-off in Kashmir in the coming days.

When the Kashmir topic did come up during my stay, my inquisitiveness and curiosity made me ask the most random questions to both my driver who took us on the sightseeing tours and my friend who was hosting me in the valley and on whose invitation I was there at the first place. I was deeply inclined to know and understand their perspective of the entire Kashmir issue. In the 8 days, I did learn a lot of things, including the fact that what we hear and read in the news is not always the complete truth. It is, instead, an interpretation that further gets understood by us in a not-completely-true manner.

One night we were all having some random conversations before going to bed when the Kashmir topic came floating around. This time I didn’t dissuade it. I let my friend speak his heart out. I asked questions. I asked about his experiences. I asked about things I have previously known and how true he thinks those things are.

The factual conversation soon became a deeply emotional one. In the silence of the night, I could sense the sadness in his voice, the angst in his heart, the helplessness on his face. He is my friend and I know he is a good person. I have known him for several years and I know I can trust him without a second thought.

III.

The day I arrived back in Delhi, my family asked me about the ‘stone pelting’ and if we witnessed anything. I laughed. In the 8 days that included 2 Fridays, I hadn’t witnessed nor heard of any scene of violence within Kashmir that would require me to be alert. The maximum violence that I had seen was probably the butchering of the chickens at the wedding function I was part of.

‘Kashmir is absolutely safe for us tourists,’ I told them and went on to explain briefly about what all I saw there and how everything was as normal as possible.

No, I am not saying all the news of stone pelting and ceasefires and killings are wrong. What I am saying is that the common people of Kashmir aren’t terrorists or militants, unlike how we have come to believe knowingly or unknowingly over the years. They have families, cook good food, stay in their houses in villages or towns, watch the same movies and serials on TV and have fun exactly like we do. The only difference being they live a life full of uncertainties and horrors of the past that majority of us thankfully don’t have to.

I remember my friend telling me a few years ago how he was dead scared of the sound of the Diwali crackers or the crackers when any wedding procession passes by. It brought back his memories of a haunted childhood when gunshots could be heard at any random time and people would hide inside their homes scared for life, not sure if the family member who was out for work would ever return home.

The incidents shown in the 2014 movie Haider are true. There was a time when the army would enter any household without a search warrant at any time of the day or night, raid the entire house, probably even rape the women or kids. Men and young boys would be picked up and would vanish overnight. Days later their dead bodies would be found, most of the times in unrecognizable conditions. How wouldn’t the common people turn anti-army and anti-India then?

‘Almost every Kashmiri is educated and well qualified. We know exactly how bad an economy Pakistan is. We do not want to be part of Pakistan. But the kind of atrocities we have faced here over the last many years on the hands of the Indian army and the political parties, Kashmiris don’t want to remain part of India as well. We would prefer remaining a separate state. Hume apne haal pe chhod do (Just leave us alone the way we are),’ the thought was reiterated in several conversations with various people during my stay.

‘When there is peace for a few days at a stretch, suddenly news of stone pelting would come. The media says militants fund the stone pelters. We say the political parties do not want peace in the valley. The government cares about building good roads for movement of the army convoys. Nothing wrong in that. But the development of the areas doesn’t figure in their concern. We still have to live through several hours of power-cuts every single day. Why should we go to vote then when all parties are just the same and not care about the people at all? Kashmir is being played as a political battleground, in which the Kashmiri people are the scapegoats,’ I am further told.

IV.

I had known about the Kashmir conflict since always. I had been warned against going there even till the day I was to catch my flight to Srinagar. I am glad I didn’t pay any heed to the warnings and went ahead to see the ‘unrest’ and witness it live.

I went to Kashmir to attend a wedding at my Kashmiri Muslim friend's place. I stayed at their home for 8 days. To say the truth, I was absolutely stunned and overwhelmed with the warmth and hospitality meted out to us every single moment of our stay there by the entire extended family. Not only did we get to see the insane beauty of the places there, but also saw the traditional way of living and got an understanding of the rich tradition and customs of Kashmiris the local way. Not for a moment did I, a Hindu by birth, feel alienated by the Muslim family.

We visited a temple and a gurudwara located in the same compound with a mosque right next to it peacefully co-exisiting. We drove through an area dominated by Kashmiri Pandits who live in Kashmir, peacefully and in harmony with Sikhs and Muslims. We realized the fact that the term ‘Kashmiris’ refers to Sikhs and Hindus living there as well and not just the Muslims.

Probably there are ceasefires and violence at the borders happening right now. Probably the border areas are as volatile as we have always thought they are. Probably the army on both sides of the fences is sitting uptight and planning the next move in the interest of their respective countries. But what is for certain is that the common man of Kashmir which includes Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, has faced greater atrocities than we can possibly ever imagine. We live in a secular democracy and it is only right to hear their point of view and give it as much weightage as we give to our own before forming conclusions.

It's easy to make an opinion without really knowing what we are saying, without seeing what's for real and instead blindly believing what's shown to us. What is logical is to visit the place, see things with our own eyes and then decide which story to believe because there are a lot of things which we Indians wouldn't want to accept - in the guise of patriotism - howsoever true they might be.

V.

I think I have only scraped the surface of the iceberg in this post. But then these are things that I observed and thought are important to be shared and so I did. Going by the absolutely insane anti-national sentiments that have come up in the last couple of years, somebody stupid could iterate this post as anti-national and intolerant instead of a balanced expression of views. We have known the Indian side of views for long, how about giving Kashmiris a chance to express their opinion instead of shutting them up?

I am a proud Indian. I am not writing this post as either a pro-Indian or anti-Indian. But yes, I definitely do not want to be shrouded by guise in the name of patriotism. I know this post has the power of getting very strong reactions – some in support but a lot against it. My only purpose with this is to express what I saw during the trip to Kashmir and to urge more and more people to visit the state before forming an opinion about the people there.

About the entire Kashmir issue, I am not learned enough to comment on what can be done or how it can be solved. What I know for sure is that our perception of the common people of the state needs to change. They aren’t terrorists. They aren’t militants. They are common men and women like you and me and are in fact, the most hospitable people I have ever met. 

Check out this video we made during our trip to Kashmir. Share it if you like it.


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8 comments :

  1. That's so amazingly written and pretty much what i believe has been happening. We always cry about how we are affected by the problem j & k is facing but never pay a heed about what the residents of j&k are facing. I agree that some problems are kept alive for advantage of certain people but what about humanity, haven't we learnt as a kid to keep peace, live & let live. Then why do we change as we grow up. We need to solve the issue once and for all. We need to learn once again to live and let live. The beauty is by people who have the power to spread life or create more graveyards.

    I hope what you have written reaches the mass!
    Last but not the least the opening photography did say a thousands words fomme.

    P.S. vdo was superb.

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    1. It took me a long time to decide the photo to accompany the post. Glad you understood its significance :)

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  2. Good post. Likely to do away with many misconceptions people have about Kashmir.

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    1. That's the point. But again I would say make your opinion by visiting the place and not simply reading or hearing about it.

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  3. Very well expressed Antarik.. I believe that kashmir is safe too. Never got a chance to visit. Probably there is no harm to the visitors. The militants have a tough life undoubtedly. Locals may be suffering. Did you feel anything like that?

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    1. Visitors are safe. The locals are suffering, yes, with the army presence at all times. But life is normal, unlike how we see it in the media.

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  4. Good to have written your heart out. In these jingoistic times, it is even tough to call a spade a spade. Our political establishments have always been fed up with the idea that we need to keep Kashmir in control, even if we have to kill all kashmiris for that. That's why we are at such tough crossroads now!

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