Plenty has been written and plenty has been said about Kashmir. But how many of us can recall reading or listening to the Kashmiris themselves? Why are most narratives built by outsiders and observers? Why there is no political representation of an average Kashmiri in our media?
What is it like to be an average Kashmiri?
We speak to young men and women from the Kashmiri diaspora, from both India to Pakistan and how their lives are shaped by the conflict.
SARTAJ HUSSAIN BHAT
What do you do?
I am a student, I live in Srinagar and currently, I am pursuing my studies in journalism. Earlier I was pursuing BBA nut I dropped the course after the 2nd semester when I realized the hopelessness of it all. I wanted to do something for my people, for my land which isn’t what BBA would have given me.
In Kashmir, the one and only concern which is the root of all other concerns is security. When you go out in the morning, you are mentally prepared to not return in the evening. In a climate as volatile as such, speaking out is not without its share of troubles. Nevertheless, when an ordinary Kashmiri is killed, his body is greeted with indifference by the media.
As a journalist, this profession does not tempt me with security, there is none in Kashmir. But it will give my people exposure. Even if it harms me personally, I won’t go in silence.
Take the case of the arrest of Asif Sultan or the killing of Shujaat Bukhari. The UN and the Amnesty intervened in the former’s detention whereas the latter’s death gained quite an attention even outside Kashmir. Journalism, for now, is perhaps the only profession where you can actually bring light to yourself and Kashmir in life and in death.
Talking of news, when was it when you first came to hear about the Pulwama attack on CPRF van? What was your immediate reaction and what followed up?
When I first heard about the militant attack on social media, I was unfazed. It is not unusual in Kashmir to hear of encounters and attacks as a staple with your morning tea. But then as the events started to unfold and the death toll kept rising, there was stunned silence at first.
Even our elders were stunned as they hadn’t seen an attack of this magnitude even during the turbulent 90s. Despite the constant social disturbance, suicide attacks on the army are not something that Kashmiris are accustomed to. We have seen a lot and this was new. As soon as the gravity of the situation had dawned upon us, believe it or not, we were talking about Uri, yes the movie!
It started as a possibility but soon everyone was convinced there was an impending doom at large. Evacuations in Pulwama had been started. The rest of the Kashmir watched on with bated breath.
During the rage that followed in India against Kashmiris, how were you affected?
We were expecting it. What we weren’t expecting was the hospitality that was shown by certain sections of Indian society who opened up their doors for the students living in India. I saw a tweet by Rajdeep Sardesai inviting Kashmiris to his home.
Want to tell any Kashmiri student out there, if you are being targeted in any manner, feel free to call/DM me. My home and heart is open to you as are that of thousands of right thinking Indians.Let’s fight forces of violence together: you don’t have to bear the cross of terror.
— Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) February 16, 2019
This makes me feel that the perception towards has slightly changed among the Indian masses. My sister is working as an intern in Delhi and while she was miles away we were hearing news of Kashmiri women locking themselves up in hostels and traders being beaten up and lynched by mobs. It was a difficult time for us. She was asked to make herself scarce at the workplace and to not show up until asked. No security was provided. Even though the lives of Kashmiris are marred by uncertainties and violence you never get over the fear when it comes to family. Each death is a new death, new wounds.
As you say there are constant violence and uncertainties in Kashmir, have you ever thought of moving away?
We have a saying this in Kashmir. Kasheer banni ni kunni, meaning you can’t get Kashmir anywhere. We are homogeneous in the sense that we are a deeply homesick demographic (laughs). Despite several of my friends leaving for abroad for studies, or even to India or Pakistan where they can live a normal life free of all disturbances, they always pine for Kashmir. There is perhaps not one single Kashmiri that hasn’t dreamt of peace, of escaping the violence, the psychological trauma but never of escaping Kashmir. You can take a Kashmiri out of Kashmir but you cannot take Kashmir out of a Kashmiri.
When did you first realise there was something wrong in Kashmir? What did you believe before that?
As a kid, I used to believe ‘Himachal’ in Jan Gan Man used to refer to Kashmir (laughs). Even though noone had explicitly said it, I always felt like an Indian. Our General knowledge books at primary school taught us the tricolour was our national flag and Ashoka chakra is our national emblem.
In the summer of 2010, at the age of 11, I was beaten up by two army men. I was returning from the mosque when they called me asked me to show them my hands. I turned my palms up, they had dust on them. They asked me “Paththar phekta hai? (You pelt stones?)” I couldn’t make sense of them .
As a kid, do you know how your hands got dirty or how your dress got stained? I was beaten up and I kept asking what my fault was. I was mercilessly thrashed by grown men for having dirty hands. Can you imagine?
The same summer a close friend from school was killed in a similar beating. Till then I had got an inkling that something was not right. I used to think it’s some communal politics but after his death, the only question that troubled me was, why are the children being rounded? What have we done?
I started reading.
Other than your friend, have you ever had any of your close family or your own life threatened?
I was born in 1998. My father was killed in 1998 in a grenade blast and later labelled as an OGW (Overground Militant Worker). He held a government job. That single incident has probably shaped my entire life. I saw my mother in the early years run from pillar to post in order to establish his innocence legally. In Kashmir, often, the legal procedure, the acquittal follows after your death and not before. Every time I sought information about my father, I was brushed off with some new story till I was old enough to handle the information. I do not what to do with the information that my father was innocent. Do I rejoice or do I lament?
Do you feel there are lesser opportunities for Kashmiris with respect to the future and do you resent that?
I visited India for the first in November of 2018 and that has just made me question the futility of life in Kashmir. I got down at the airport without anyone looking at me suspiciously, I walked through the roads without seeing men with arms, navigated streets without barbed wires, never had to care about an identity card lest I be beaten up, curfews or internet shutdowns.
We have not just been deprived of political expression but we have been deprived of normalcy altogether. Even though we imagine and demand demilitarisation, I was stunned beyond words to actually experience freedom. To spend a week with basic rights to privacy and expression and just human dignity. We in Kashmir, do not know what that is. I do wish to come to India for my future studies but my interests shall always lie in my home.
Why is there an alienation of Kashmiris with respect to ‘Indians’? Is there any identity crisis among Kashmiris?
There would have been an identity crisis had we not have such a strong sense of Kashmiri unity. Kashmiris on either side of the border identify as one. They may or may not accept a secondary identity as an Indian or Pakistani, which is completely upto them but we have our loyalties tied to our land.
The alienation of Kashmiris comes from the lack of exposure to Indian masses. When I speak to my Indian friends, they have a beyond warped opinion of the Kashmiri resistance. We live in a land where there are half a million troops, we can be rounded up anyhwere, we may not return home from the grocery in one piece, our day to day lives are an almost war-zone and yet the Indian media portrays us as a bunch radical extremists trying to destabilise India.
The risisng wave of islamophobia gives traction to this belief and there is no Kashmiri voice in Indian newsrooms to report the ground reality.
I completely blame the Indian media for our alienation.
What role has religion to play in Kashmiri resistance?
Dil ko samjhane ke liye ye khayal acha hai (Religion offers consolation to the heart). Logically, we realise that an armed struggle is impossible lying between two nuclear nations. There tends to be a hoplessness, a lack of direction when you constantly see body-bags since childhood and men in uniform 24×7, during which religion, a belief in a higher power restores your will to live. That someday, something will change.
What is the most difficult thing to say to a non-Kashmiri?
(Laughs) Hum kya chaahte? Azaadi.
Junaid is a software engineer,hails from Pakistani Occupied Kashmir (P.O.K), “Azad Kashmir” as he calls it. He has completed his education from Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
Junaid, how ‘Azad’ is Azad Kashmir?
Dekhiye, I being a Kashmiri had no option but to leave Kashmir for something as basic as completing my education.
Peace and freedom has been defined by the Pakistani government in manners that are not conducive to the Kashmiri population and serve only as a political tool.
In terms of basic amenities, the Indian occupied Kashmir is 100 times much more developed than Azad Kashmir.
We may not have heavy militarisation at every nook and corner and that’s our only solace. In case, I break an arm today in a minor fracture, there is nowhere in the whole of Azad Kashmir a hospital equipped enough to treat me. Our educational institutions are subpar and even for the most basic amenities, we need to leave our homes, lands and travel to Pakistan. This is the azadi we have, freedom to forcibly leave our land.
You tell me Azad Kashmir is so only in name sake, can you tell me the reason behind it? Pakistan claims to be a sympathiser of Kashmiri struggle, why then are the conditions this dismal?
The Pakistani government claims Kashmiris are free to move within and without the lengths of breadths of Pakistan. They claim we can avail every facility like any other Pakistani and to be honest, there is no lie in it.
I have had no issue arising from my Kashmiri identity in securing my education in Pakistan like any Pakistani. They say we can come to Pakistan, they don’t mention we HAVE to go to Pakistan. By deliberately maintaining a dismal condition of Kashmiri society, devoid of educational institutions, of hospitals, roads and electricity, they make sure we have no other option than to leave behind this ‘Azad Kashmir’.
Kashmiris pay for this nominal ‘Azadi‘ with the quality of life. We do not live in the 21st century. Our leaders of “self-determination” are but mere pawns under the central authority. My personal belief is that the roads from Kashmir to Pakistan are thrown open not in way of amicability but in a system of forced dependence. To make sure that travelling and integrating into Pakistan is a way more convenient task than demanding basic amenities in Kashmir. As I said, we have the freedom to willingly evict our homes.
Would you say an average Kashmiri in PoK and IoK suffer the same alienation from the masses? That the solidarity is only for namesake?
I definitely believe that the Pakistani government and the Indian government are the two faces of the same coin. But there is a remarkable difference between the masses. The Kashmiris have no alienation from Pakistani masses whereas in India, the Kashmiris are systematically “othered”. In Pakistan, a good number of educated Pakistanis aware of our ordeal support Kashmiri independence over their own government’s policies.
What is the reason behind this difference of treatment?
One is definitely the clever policy of Pakistan to facilitate easy travel and integration of Kashmiris into the mainstream Pakistani society. Even though it is fed by vested interests of Pakistani governments to not only earn the sympathy of Kashmiris but force a dependence on Kashmiris, it has served to bridge the gap between the masses in comparison to the treatment of Kashmiris in India where they are frequently mobbed and lynched as very recently we saw in the aftermaths of Pulwama attack
The other reason is media empathy. The Indian media has consistently worked towards showing us as the “other”, as people who do not desire peace, who work towards destabilising Indian democracy. How can a population having 1 army personnel per four heads destabilise a country of 1.2 billions? When the vilification is planned on such a large scale, the alienation is only understandable.
Thirdly , the religious background plays a huge role in the attitudes. Pakistanis claim “Kashmir se humara kya rishta? La ilaha illallah”. I believe that is a clever weaponising of religion to earn the trust of Kashmiris in our struggle. They forget the Kashmiri struggle is not about joining India or Pakistan. It’s about a separate identity.
Similarly, the same religion factor is used to forge distrust in to the minds of the Indian public against the Kashmiris, the rising Islamophobia only provides impetus to their propaganda. Where Pakistan is pursuing its vested interests in Kashmir with diplomacy and compliance, India is doing the same with brute force.
Do you believe Kashmiris are free to pursue their interests more liberally in PoK than IoK?
As an individual to pursue my career and education, it is easier in Pakistan due to the connectivity. To pursue the interests as a Kashmiri, No!
To press for the demands of Kashmir, to press for an independent, flourishing Kashmir, no. If I do not chant pro-Pakistani slogans day in and out, I might not be eligible to stand in elections. There is large scale political subjugation and suppression of expression taking place.
What do you want to say to the Kashmiris in IoK (Indian Occupied Kashmir)?
I understand the struggles of a Kashmiri in IoK and PoK are heavens apart but at the heart of these struggles lies the same desire, peace, a normal life which we have been deprived of. If I could say something to my brothers in IoK, I’d say, this resistance is for yourself, for Kashmir.
Not for Pakistan. When we, Kashmiris in PoK try to raise our voice against our political subjugation in Pakistan, we are often branded ‘Gaddar’, the same way they are in India. We are called “Namak haram” and chided as, “Khate Pakistan ka ho aur Azadi maangtay ho?”.
We are told how “Indian Kashmiris” are dying in the name of Pakistan, under the flag of Pakistan and here we are ungrateful of our “Azadi” which is the “favour” of Pakistan government.
There is little truth to it, the support for Pakistan in IoK is blown out of proportions than is the actual case by both Pakistani and Indian media. For moral integration by the former and for systemic alienation by the latter. I can confidently claim that the majority of Kashmiris desire only independence, to stop being a battlefield for two nuclear powers looking to feed their megalomania. I request those few Indian Kashmiris rallying under Pakistani flags, Turkish flags or any other, to be assertive of your own demands, symbols and flags instead of foreign ones.
Toiba is a young woman living in Baramullah, Kashmir. She is currently pursuing her studies in Journalism.
Toiba, what is it like to be a woman in Kashmir?
To be a woman is the same everywhere in the sense that patriarchy is remouldable, adaptable. Being under a siege, living in the most densely militarised zone in the world does not soften the grip of patriarchy on women.
It is not uncommon to hear of incidents of catcalling, ogling, harassment and frisking of Kashmiri women by the army who enjoying complete immunity from state know no bounds.
The humiliation is a part of our lives. A land where disappearances and killings are a norm, it sometimes feels vain to talk of “minor” struggles like catcalling. The first instruction from men in our families that we get during army scuffles and searches is “Tum andar rehna”(You, women stay inside). The notion of women as property to be desecrated in war is only amplified in Kashmir.
What is your first memory of the conflict in your home?
At the age of 7 or 8, we had a search operation at our home by the army in the middle of the night. This is my earliest memory of Kashmir. We were told to stand outside while the army men ransacked our entire home.
They left nothing. We entered into a home with spilled lentils in the kitchen and strewn clothes from the wardrobes. I entered my room and remember sobbing for hours as saw all my dolls had been broken, all my toys been crushed and my prettiest clothes been trampled upon. I was inconsolable for hours and that image of the army has been imprinted on my mind ever since yet it did not translate into Kashmiri resistance anytime soon (laughs). That’s another story.
What story, if you don’t mind telling us?
Due to regular curfews and protests, the education is severely hampered in Kashmir. Institutes are shut down for weeks for safety reasons and there is no provision to keep your studies on track. This is a great risk to the future of tens and thousands of students. To escape this, my parents admitted me to a boarding school at a very young age. My life at boarding school was poles apart from what my earlier friends were living.
There was a morning prayer to the motherland India, we zealously sung the national anthem each day, we were instilled with nationalistic pride religiously. There was no television or newspaper to keep a track of events outside the four walls. That’s where I grew up ad when I returned home during holidays, I heard these stories of bloodshed.
Everytime I returned, there was relative missing , a neighbour killed and I was told it was the army. I saw Kashmiris being killed but I refused to accept it was the state that was killing them even though it took place before my eyes. I saw Kashmiris being beaten up, humiliated before me yet I had this major cognitive dissonance lent by the nationalism instilled at my boarding school.
I fought my parents, accused everyone of lying and tried to find answers. The deeper I looked, the more the dissonance stretched. It was like your entire education, knowledge collapsing before your eyes as the oblivion cleared. I did not know where my allegiance lay for a long time, to what I have been taught my nation India is or to my people I see dying everyday. I left the boarding school.
You spoke of suffering cognitive dissonance and identity crisis. Could you please elaborate more on that?
You see, another example is that of several NGOs operating in Kashmir run by non-Kashmiri people. Frustrated young Kashmiris who want to do something productive join these NGOs in large numbers. I was a part of one.
What I noticed was the level of gaslighting we were subjected. Peace and unity was preached to us by people who had known nothing but peace in their own lives. How can you preach us unity when we are the “other” in your media?
The Kashmiri struggle, the day to day struggles were never discussed. When we did raise our issues, we were quietened down, we were tone policed, we were told we were being angry and divisive. What is this “humanity” they preach of when you cannot let us express our denial of human rights itself. We are not allowed to publicly acknowledge that our lives are nor normal. What is this façade of normalcy?
What are the daily struggles?
I will not go into how much seeing armed men everywhere mentally affects us and how we pine for a single day free of humiliation and surveillance. Such narratives are everywhere and people who do not know are only wilfully ignorant about our situations.
It’s the tiny things that also take a toll on you for years. For example, it doesn’t matter how important work you have, if an army convoy passes by, all public transport has to stop and wait. It doesn’t matter if you have a job or an exam, you are treated as second class citizens in your own land.
In 2017, the supreme court declared that the right to access the internet is the basic right of every citizen and this is perhaps the first right to be curtailed indiscriminately of every Kashmiri at the slightest event. Can you imagine the mental trauma of knowing there is uncertainty outside your doors and no way of finding out what?
Does all this ever make you want to leave Kashmir?
It makes me want to escape the violence but watan-e-azeez ko kon chorna chaahta hai? (…but who wants to abandon beloved homeland?) (smiles)
Ummer is a 24 year old Kashmiri h ailing from Anantnag, currently residing in Delhi.
When did you decide to leave Kashmir?
Every single day. 2016 was the final straw. During the funeral of Burhan Wani, thousands had people had spilled into the streets and tensions were running high. There were several firings on civilians by the army and scores of people had died. My mother came up to me panicked and said my younger brother was missing. I was beside myself with fear, it was not safe to step out at that time. I called up a few neighbours and decided to go look for him.
The first place we went to was the nearest hospitals. You couldn’t see a single person not bleeding profusely, amputated or blinded. I saw my neighbour’s son, a 16 year old who was shot in the stomach, about to die.
We just looked on, waiting for him to die so that we could carry him home. There was nothing to be done.
Another 18 year old I knew, shot in his head. There were strangers carrying bodies of strangers delivering them to screaming mothers and shocked neighbours. Fortunately, my brother had reached home before me. Soon all internet connections were snapped, universities and colleges were shut down indefinitely, and a strict curfew was imposed .
We were trapped inside our houses for 5 months with no news. I had just completed my Bachelors and needed to enrol for my master’s programme. My father’s business heavily suffered due to the curfew and we were neck deep in financial problems.
Every single day came down with its own uncertainties, and we didn’t know if we’ll return if we leave our home. Everyday several young people were being rounded up and hardly anyone returned back. Young men were advised to leave their homes at nights and sleep under remote locations, sometimes under trees or between orchards far away.
After 5 months, I was on the verge of insanity and decided I needed to take the risk and get out of this hell. I called a few friends and at 3am left my home for Jammu with my passport. The journey wasn’t easy. We were frisked everywhere from passport offices to the train taking us from Delhi to Jammu.
I contacted a few companies in the gulf and applied for a job. At a time when people my age were studying, I left for an unknown land to simply survive. I drowned myself in work and funnily enough now that I had all the news access, I cut it all off myself. I would call my family when the connection was restored but stayed off the news. This has completely changed me. I feel like a section of my life was snatched from me.
When did you plan to return?
I returned recently when my contract with the company expired. I couldn’t recognise the way to my home. At least a dozen new army checkpoints were installed in the already heavily militarised area. All the memories came flooding back and all I could feel was anger thinking how I had just seen people living freely and look at us! I need to complete my studies.
Every time my mother called me when I was abroad, she wept. She wept about how my friends were still almost children and I was shouldering the entire family. How it was my time to study. I had nothing to console her. I came back to complete my studies and I will definitely leave again. We don’t deserve this.
My neighbour who is the same age as mine is completely blinded by pellet shots. What will become of his life now? How do I live with this uncertainty that I could have been him?
Does it feel safer now that you are no longer in Kashmir?
(laughs) I was in Delhi when my father called me to inform about the Pulwama attack. Even though he did not word it, I knew it was not a mere “news” that he was informing me. He was checking whether I was safe and advising I better be careful. For more than a week my roommate, who is also a Kashmiri and I kept to our accommodation.
We tried to manage with whatever food we had as news of Kashmiris being mobbed and lynched all over India started pouring in. My landlady who used to call me every day to fetch her groceries, who I gifted Kashmiri walnuts at her request, didn’t pick up my calls when I needed some milk during that miserable one week.
Kashmir me jee nahi sakte, pakistan jaa nahi sakte, hindustan me reh nahi sakte. What do we do? (We can’t live in Kashmir, we can’t go to Pakistan, we can’t stay in India)
What toll has the conflict taken on your mental health?
I am preparing for my entrance exams for masters in psychology. The reason being that there has been a huge toll on the mental health of civilians especially the youth. A study by OXFAM in 2002 reported that around 65% of Kashmiri families were directly affected by violence.
The suicide rates have increased up to 400% owing to violence. During the weeks of continuous curfew following Burhan Wani’s funeral, I was at my worst mental state. The only thing on my mind was an escape.
Even after leaving Kashmir, I would get severely anxious on seeing men in uniform. You never get used to it. We talk of PTSD, but for us Kashmiris, the trauma is never “post”. It is very much present. There is a need to address this issue and more and more young Kashmiris are looking towards a career in psychology.
Now that you are physically out of the conflict, has your opinion changed? How do you look at it from a distance?
We say in Kashmiri, “Phambass Manz Tengul” meaning “like cotton on fire”. Just like there is no saving a cotton stock set on fire, it seems like there is no solution to my home, at least in this lifetime. (Smiles). I have come to accept this.
If you had something to say to the people of India and Pakistan, what would it be?
Nothing. I would open up my home to them. I would invite them to come and live here, not as a tourist but as an average Kashmiri. Look for yourself.
I just hope in all this tug-of-war over Kashmir. People would remember Kashmiris too.