Srinagar, Kashmir

It was 1987 and my sister had been offered a professorship at the University of Kashmir. I had just finished high school and had all the time in the world at my disposal. So off my mother and I went on a three day long train journey from Hyderabad in the south, all the way to Srinagar in the north.

Even at sixteen, Kashmir left a deep impression on me. It was the first time I touched snow and saw real mountains, inhaled fresh air and touched pristine cool waters.

The fourth Moghul Emporer Jehangir is credited with saying “Gar Firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin ast” meaning, “if there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”. Many also often refer to Kashmir as the Switzerland of the east. Having visited Switzerland once, I can say it fares pale in comparison to the beauty and majesty of Kashmir.

The formation of the India we know today, was achieved after a prolonged struggle against a colonial power. When they left, the semi-autonomous princely states that made up British India, were asked to accede to the new idea of India and Pakistan. Some did without resistance and others did not.

Kashmir and Hyderabad, were two regions that entertained the idea of going at it alone. They had aspirations of self determination. Hyderabad was invaded by an army in 1948 and Kashmir brokered a deal in exchange for protection, which was written into the constitution as Article 370 in 1954. Allowing it to have a separate constitution, a state flag and autonomy over the internal administration of the state.

For all its natural beauty, exquisite culture, language, music, food and its friendly mountain people, all Kashmir has known, since it was cut up by India’s partition in 1947, is violence, pain, suffering and sorrow, with periodic lulls and glimmers of hope. Kashmir is bestowed with a curse that has no intentions of lifting anytime soon.

I visited Kashmir during a time when things seemed normal.

India always had an interest in keeping Kashmir pristine and pure, as it was probably the biggest draw for tourists in the land. They hoped all Kashmiris would be houseboat owners and woodcarvers and maintain Kashmir the Disneyland it was meant to be. So to the tourist, which is what I was, the real world remained hidden.

I remember seeing groups of young men lining the streets idle, sitting on their Kangris (personal earthen heaters). Power cuts were routine and basic infrastructure was in deplorable condition. Kashmir had high unemployment and a youth ready for the taking.

In 1988 things began to shift. My sister was advised by her colleagues, for her own safety, to not wear a Bindi and abandon her jeans for more traditional clothing. The atmosphere was beginning to turn fearful.

This is when the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) separatist movement began. The JKLF was founded in 1977 as a political organization in Birmingham, England, by a Pakistani named Amanullah Khan. It operated as a militant organization in both Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir. Its goal was to liberate Kashmir from both Indian and Pakistani control and form an independent state.

The group began to target Kashmiri Pandits, who were a Hindu minority in the valley. Random assassinations and speeches at Mosques calling for their cleansing spread fear like fire. In 1990, a pro Pakistani militant group Hizb-Ul-Mujahedeen, issued a press release in the local newspaper asking all Hindus to leave the valley.

Before long the Pandits who had called Kashmir their home for centuries left enmasse out of fear. Out of the approximately 300,000 to 600,000 that inhabited the land in 1990, only a few thousand remain today. It was a deplorable failure on the part of the Indian government to not be able to provide protection and allowing such a displacement to take place.

The JKLF disbanded its militancy in 1994, and declared an indefinite ceasefire and hoped to achieve its goal through political means. But grave damage had already been done and things would only get worse.

Over the years, peace in the valley has ebbed and flowed rarely reaching normalcy. Militancy sanctioned and supported from across the border caused mayhem on a regular basis. The Indian army and paramilitary under the pretext of maintaining law and order committed grave crimes, alienating the population. Kashmiris have disappeared in large numbers, probably murdered in extra judicial killings. Indian soldiers have paid a heavy toll as well. The conflict has left deep wounds, that to many are irreconcilable.

In this scenario, on August 5th, the Prime Minister and his chief strategist fulfilled a campaign promise. They suspended any and all autonomy Kashmir had bargained for at the time of partition under Article 370 of the constitution. By the barrel of a gun, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was dissolved and converted to a union territory with direct control relegated to the center in New Delhi. Ladakh was separated into its own region under federal control.

The ruling political party BJP, had come back to power earlier in the year with a resounding majority. Despite the rhetoric and optics of being beholden to the constitution, they felt they had the numbers and the will of the people to suspend all parliamentary processes and act unilaterally as a “majority dictator”.

And so, as once in India’s dark past an “Emergency” was declared by a decree of the president on behest of the prime minister, Kashmir was disbanded on paper. With an overwhelming military presence, the arrest of prominent Kashmiri leaders, suspension of the internet and mobile phones, a media black out and a curfew, the democratic rights of a few million people were revoked in practice.

In his customary speech on August 15th, India’s independence day, the prime minister declared his Kashmir strategy a success. He said soon the Kashmiris will become whole with India. As full citizens of the land they will soon be able to decide their destiny at the ballot box. Jammu and Kashmir will be restored to statehood in due course, and the floodgates to development and prosperity will be thrown open.

For the prime minister’s faithful supporters this was seen as a decisive act. A move that many before him had only contemplated but were never were able to execute. It emboldened his strongman image and got his base energized. It was seen as a vindication of the four wars fought with Pakistan over Kashmir. It was also seen as a strong response to the Islamic radicalism that had run the Hindus out of the valley and was gaining permanent roots in the region. Now the Pandits could return and reclaim their land and get justice, was a dream that was being peddled between the lines.

To many across India who watch Kashmir from a distance and see the chaos filter through their television screens and social media, it is a thorn on the nation’s side whose resolution is long overdue. Probably an all out war and an invasion of the land seen as stolen from India by the other side is what is needed, is a common sentiment. This move by Modi, is the closest they seem to have come in satisfying that itch.

To those in Pakistan, they see it is as a land rightfully belonging to them just on the basis of all Kashmiris being Muslim.

Kashmiris who have families on both sides of the border, would love to reunite with their loved ones and live in peace. But those aspirations are seldom acknowledged due to the Geo-political nature of where this piece of land lies.

And so everyone ignores the elephant in the room.

The catastrophe that Kashmir is and has been for decades since it was cut up, is another of Britain’s many ill-formed colonial legacies around the world.

Indians in their suspension of history and hatred for Pakistan and its dubious incursions, see Kashmir as an integral part of their territory that must be held at all cost. As does Pakistan. Emotions run high on both sides when it comes to the LOC (line of control) that runs through Kashmir.

The sad truth is, there will never be any sustainable peace in this part of the world unless Indian and Pakistan sit across a table and put the interest, well being, hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people front and center.

Given the present conditions and the deep mistrust between the leadership of the two nations, any rapprochement seems like a distant dream.

If Modi’s experiment can only hold with 40,000 troops on the ground and a blackout, then it has already failed. Force has never solved anything anywhere, it never will.

My sister passed away a few years after she returned from Kashmir. I have not returned to Srinagar since.

But on my visit to Mumbai last year, where I was showing my film at the Mumbai International Film Festival, I met some Kashmiri filmmakers and saw documentary films about the disturbing conditions they were living under on a daily basis. One such film, In The Shade of the Fallen Chinar, was abruptly pulled from the screening schedule by the organizers as they deemed its content controversial. The film was made available on youtube and gives you a glimpse of what life is like in this “heavenly place” from the perspective of the youth, who are its future.