Kashmir: Border State, Dream State
Githa Hariharan on a Crisis in Paradise
Kashmir via Bombay and Delhi: 1973-2011
April 2011. At the airport in Srinagar, two sets of signs greeted me. They seemed to belong to two storytellers who lived uneasily within handholding distance of each other. Defense Airport. No photos, announced the first storyteller. He was obviously the sort who wears a uniform day and night, breathes and dreams what he imagines is law and order. The second storyteller could also dream, but he was a failed dreamer, condemned to tired old formulas. He was incapable of irony. He could say, for example: Welcome to Happy Valley.
Sometimes the two storytellers collided so their signs ran into each other and they spoke at the same time. At the post of the Central Reserve Police Force, I was told, via Frost, that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Just in case I had trouble decoding this, there was a more matter-of-fact Welcome to Paradise on Earth. In the same place, at the same moment, I was warned that in this paradise on earth, I would have to Be alert be vigilant be safe.
Outside the airport, fifteen minutes into the visit, my first mental snapshot of Srinagar: armored cars, bunkers, and armed convoys anywhere, whether a quiet wooded lane or a busy market area; men armed and uniformed; and in the background, fuchsia and forsythia in bloom, the leaves of the chinar trees stirring in the breeze, trying to tell me something about the Kashmir I had seen before.
It was thirty-eight years since my last visit. It was possible all those years back—though it shouldn’t have been—to see only the valley of happiness, a place to find peace, serenity, the entire pastoral fantasy tourist package. A place that takes you to heaven. I was seventeen when I first went to heaven in May 1973. I didn’t even have to die to go there. My family packed one sweater each and we set off from Bombay for Delhi, then Kashmir.
Heaven was a couple of weeks in a houseboat on Dal Lake; it was the size of the roses; the first sight of snow; the shawls and saris passed through a ring to show us how fine they were; the food; the treks to Sonamarg and Gulmarg. It was almost like seeing close-up, but in three dimensions, what we had already seen on a flat screen.
Like most Indians, I first saw Kashmir via Bombay—the cinema that manufactured a Kashmir that existed only in the island’s dream factory. There were the newsreels from Films Division too, or the “Delhi view” of Kashmir. But these were a general blur of leaders getting off planes or out of cars, being met, inspecting this or that. Waiting impatiently for the real movie to start, the compulsory newsreel had a short shelf life in our heads.
When I try to recall what we schoolchildren in Bombay thought of Kashmir in 1965, the year of the war between India and Pakistan, I find myself drawing a blank. All I can remember is the excitement of preparing for a blackout, papering our windows with dark paper; and being told to pray for our soldiers in the school assembly. I doubt if I was more or less ignorant than any other eleven-year-old. But as far as I can remember, India and Pakistan were the players; Kashmir was barely visible in the picture we were shown.
Where we did see Kashmir was where most Indians probably saw it; in films that were not in Delhi’s black and white, but in Bombay-manufactured color. Of course there was Nehru in Delhi, and he had said of Kashmir, “sometimes the sheer loveliness of it was overpowering and I felt faint… it seemed to me dreamlike and unreal, like the hopes and desires that fill us and so seldom find fulfillment. It was like the face of the beloved that one sees in a dream and that fades away on waking.”So perhaps Delhi and Bombay agreed on one thing: it was best to relegate Kashmir to the world of dreams.
A dream of Kashmir lived on the big screen, and in the Indian imagination, endearingly pastoral, pristine, and naïve. Its shikaras floated down Dal Lake in glamorous Eastmancolor. Like snow, romance was a staple of these films. Flowers, necessary props for romance, abounded in more than the titles of films such as Kashmir Ki Kali and Jab Jab Phool Khile. In these films of the 1960s, Indians tended to go to Kashmir for R & R. But sometimes, the beauty of the place also meant “waking up from a lifelong slumber” and declaring, as in the 1961 hit film Junglee, that love in Shimla is all very well, but “Love in Kashmir is the best.”
The beauty of the valley was not only in its lakes, woods, snowy mountains, and deliciously cool weather; it also resided in the people. These Bollywood Kashmiris were rustics blessed with a noble simplicity. Unlike people in the corrupted cities the visitors came from, the locals were incapable of taking more than their due. Again and again we saw flower sellers or boatmen refusing anything beyond what they considered fair payment for their goods. Indeed, they could teach the visitor what it is to be human; or what it is, specifically, to be Indian. Jab Jab Phool Khile, released in the war-year 1965, had a boatman, an Every-Rustic, as its hero. The only war in the film was a gentle one, fought between the Kashmiri boatman’s idea of a good Indian life—simple traditional living—and the lifestyle of the upper-class “modern” city woman he falls in love with. Having watched with misery as the woman he loves dances with any man who asks her, he provides a moral via his contribution to party music: I feel like a foreigner here, he sings. And: kaise bhuul jaaun ki main huun Hindustani? How can I forget that I am Indian? This upholder of the great Indian way was also conveniently turned Hindu by the film—though most boatmen in Kashmir are Muslim. In fact, religion was barely a presence.
Later films from Bombay would make up for this. By the 90s, even Bombay’s dreams of Kashmir had grown up and become “real.” There was cinematic acknowledgment that things were not quite “normal” in Kashmir Valley. The silly dreams were gone, but not the blinkers. Films like Roja (1992), Mission Kashmir (2000), and Yahaan (2005), looked at reality with a vengeance. But to look at this reality, believe it was fully real, you needed a made-in-India “patriotism.” Protest, dissent, Islam, Islamism, terrorism, religion, separatism, nationalisms, the Indian republic, Pakistan and its designs—all could then collapse into one crazy remix. It helped if you believed that Kashmiris are innocent or angry puppets in the hands of the Islamic warmongers from next door. It helped if you equated the fate of the Indian republic with the high-pitched scene in Roja when the cryptographer-hero, kidnapped by terrorists, rolls on the Indian flag they set alight. With his body he defends the cloth that is supposed to hold all of India in its warp and weft.
2011: A Desolation Called Peace
In real life, in the bits of Kashmir I saw in 2011, and from the disparate voices I heard, it was not a film but two lines of poetry that beat a contrapuntal tattoo in my head. I heard the words of Kashmir’s own saint-poet, Lalla Ded, but with a meaning quite different from what she intended: Life here is but an empty breath. And I heard Lalla Ded’s descendant in our times, Agha Shahid Ali, every word meaning what he intended: “I am being rowed through Paradise on a river of Hell.”
But if the extended family of security forces, the Indian government, the Pakistani government, the varieties of militants, and the venal local politicians had helped make these lines true, the people in the valley, even children with nothing but stones in their hands, seemed more than ready to take back their lives, breathe something hard and strong of their own into them.
I was in Kashmir as part of a small “civil society” delegation. Our visit was intended as a modest step toward building awareness across India on the urgent need to resolve the crisis in Kashmir. In the profusion of testimonies, demands, challenges, solutions and half-solutions heard over the next few days, three motifs recurred. One was overwhelming anger, and fear and hatred of the uniformed guardian viewed as occupier, predator—whether personified by the Kashmir police and their Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), or the Special Operations Group (SOG). The second motif was a strong sense of who India was to Kashmir, and who it was not—and India here was an unhappy mix of the army, the central and state governments, the law, and the media, particularly television. The third was the sense that the civilian energy of the year before, expressed on the streets with flying stones, marches, and slogans in the summer of 2010, still lay simmering underneath every conversation and encounter.
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The room was lined with photographs of shaheeds—martyrs. All of them were lawyers. I looked at the one right across from me: he had a full head of hair and thick dark eyebrows; the look on his face made him seem older than he must have been. The man, in his forties, was Jalil Andrabi, a well-known human-rights lawyer. I was told he also believed in independence for Kashmir; he was associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). In 1996, he was arrested by Major Avtar Singh of the 35th Rashtriya Rifles unit of the army; the major was, for some reason, known as Bulbul—the nightingale. Three weeks into abduction by the nightingale, Andrabi’s decomposed body was found floating in the Jhelum River. He had been shot in the head, I was told, and his eyes gouged out. In response to the direction of the high court to arrest Avtar Singh, the Indian government said it did not know where the major was. Besides, the major was no longer employed by the army; and he had not committed the “offense” in his “official capacity.” The army then could hardly be held responsible for his actions. Avtar Singh is reportedly living in California, a free nightingale.
We were at a meeting at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association at the Saddar court complex. As in Palestine, there seemed to be an astonishing number of the middle class who train to be lawyers in Kashmir. It’s as if there is a hope against hope that the law will set right the crimes of occupation in one case, militarization in the other.
But it was not hope I picked up in the room when people began to speak.
“We don’t need your healing touch,” one man said bluntly. Then I got a taste of the words that would punctuate all accounts: “your people.”
The anger and frustration in this room had a specific edge: these were lawyers, and how must they see themselves if the law itself had gone awry? It is hard to imagine any lawyer applying the word legal to the workings of the Public Safety Act—a law that allows “administrative” and “preventive” detention without a specific charge or a trial. The Bar Association’s own president, Mian Abdul Qayoom, and its general secretary, Ghulam Nabi Shaheen, were among those who had been detained. Mian Qayoom was detained for “illegal activities” such as pro-secession protests. Later, the detention order got more elaborate—the charge was sedition and “waging war against the state.” Ghulam Nabi Shaheen was detained for similar charges, and for organizing protests against the detention of Mian Qayoom.
This is the point that was being driven home to us: the members of the Bar Association are taking on matters involving the violation of basic rights—cases of “enforced disappearances,” for example. And intimidating lawyers, or punishing them with detention on vague charges, or charges of political protest, is a way to keep them in line.
The lawyers said to us: “As many as 99.9 percent of detention cases are quashed, but still, anyone can be suspected and detained. With laws like this, anybody can be killed anytime, anywhere.” Independent reports bore this out: in 2010, for instance, Amnesty International estimated that over two decades, between 8,000 and 20,000 Kashmiris had been detained under the PSA.
More than one lawyer in the room said to us, “Please educate the people of India about us.” This was the education we were to take back, the hard lessons, the unbending syllabus: “Our rights are being violated day after day. Our leadership is not allowed to interact with people. They use the excuse that a house is being used for terrorist operations and the house is destroyed. We are losing lives. We have lost nearly a whole generation. If you push us to the wall, what will our boys do?”
There was bitterness whenever democracy came up in the conversation—the word was constantly coupled with Delhi.
“The high court is disabled, the judiciary is not working, the local press is gagged.” As for that great romantic image of Indian democracy, the election: no one took seriously elections “facilitated” by men in khaki and green, elections that require a good number of people to be kept out of the way in jail. And those who talk of “human rights” and “development” as if these live in a vacuum—they, we were told, miss the real, political point. Democracy cannot be curfewed democracy. One lawyer summed it up: “Democracy and freedom mean choices. What choice do we have?”
From ALMOST HOME. Used with permission of Restless Books. Copyright © 2016 by Githa Hariharan.