Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

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Hearts and minds

28 June 2011

Christopher Snedden reviews two books – a memoir and a novel – about the conflict in Kashmir


Srinagar, capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Austin Yoder/Flickr

Srinagar, capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Austin Yoder/Flickr

Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir
By Basharat Peer | HarperCollins | $30.99

The Collaborator
By Mirza Waheed | Penguin | $32.95

ALTHOUGH I first visited India in 1981, it wasn’t until fifteen years later that I travelled to the acclaimed Kashmir Valley. Tourists had been journeying there for thousands of years – among the more famous, according to Kashmiris, were Moses, Jesus, the Chinese Buddhist, Hiuen Tsang, and the fourth Mughal emperor, Jehangir, who regarded the place as “paradise.” By 1941, according to the official census of what was then the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, 29,000 holiday-makers, including 8000 Europeans, visited the valley each year, and the number increased annually until the anti-Indian insurgency killed off tourism in 1988.

Over the years since then, militants fighting to “liberate” Kashmir from Indian control have exploited, intimidated and terrorised the local people, and Indian military and paramilitary counter-insurgents have responded by injuring, browbeating and traumatising frustrated Kashmiris. Yet by 2009 tourists were again visiting in large numbers as the security situation improved. That year brought 450,000 Indian and 24,000 foreign visitors, about half the annual number recorded before the anti-Indian uprising commenced.

In 1996, during a dark decade of insurgency and despair for Kashmiris, I flew into Srinagar as an aberrant tourist. I’d had a frustrating journey from Muzaffarabad, the regional capital in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, made worse by the fact that I’d spotted a sign indicating that Srinagar was just 170 kilometres down the road – a road that wasn’t open. Instead, like other visitors, I had to endure a long and dangerous car trip – my driver drove like a maniac – via the hill station of Murree to Islamabad, catch a flight to Lahore, catch a second flight to Delhi (which, in my case, the petulant Pakistanis delightfully delayed), stay overnight in a dodgy hotel near Delhi airport, then fly to Srinagar – snow, bad weather and stroppy Indian authorities permitting. A trip of four hours could take anywhere up to forty-eight hours.

Despite the general belief among non-Indians that the Kashmir Valley was off-limits to all but native Kashmiris and Indian soldiers, all I needed to do at Srinagar airport was complete a form letting the local authorities know where I would be staying. On this first visit, faced with limited options, I stayed on a houseboat on the famous Dal Lake – an experience I’ve avoided repeating. I became a captive of the owner and his various mates who desperately sought to sell me shawls, tourist goods, jewellery, fruit, groceries, cigarettes – anything – from their showroom shikaras (canoes).

I had been struck by the palpable and overbearing security as soon as I came out of the airport. Heavily armed and surly – or was it scared? – groups of around a dozen Indian soldiers were on foot patrols throughout the city. Out of the bunkers pockmarking the major street corners, gun barrels poked and Indian soldiers peered. Armoured Suzuki jeeps (called “gypsies” locally), in the turret of which sat a stern soldier armed with an intimidating machine gun, regularly cruised the streets. To be in the wrong place at the wrong time was clearly dangerous.

For the first time in my life, I had entered an active and agitated war zone that made Germany’s Checkpoint Charlie, which I had crossed a dozen seemingly dangerous times in the late 1970s, appear insignificant. Srinagar by day was a city under heavy military control, often subjected to locally induced hartals (strikes that closed all businesses, usually to protest against Indian actions), and without cheer, charm or charity. Once the sun set, curfews and a lack of electricity made the city a dark, desolate and dangerous place in which the militants now opposed the military on equal terms. Indeed, on a return trip in 1998 during which I stayed with friends, they were frantic with worry when I strolled into their house ten minutes after sundown. They assumed that militants or the military – it didn’t matter which – had kidnapped me.

After a week on the houseboat, during which I read, rested and made “raids” ashore to explore the militarised and traumatised city of Srinagar, I woke one morning to the sound of heavy gunfire. In my naivety, I thought this was an India–Pakistan military exchange over the Line of Control that divides J&K into Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir (comprising Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) and Indian Jammu and Kashmir (comprising Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh). In fact, Indian security forces were fighting Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front militants holed up near Srinagar’s famous Hazratbal Shrine, which houses a relic of the prophet Mohammed purchased by a Kashmiri businessman in the 1600s. The Indians killed all twenty-two militants.

While I didn’t personally experience the nervous security forces’ hostility or brutality, I saw plenty of evidence of repression. More than once, I witnessed Indian soldiers severely chastising young Kashmiris who, with their darker complexions, stood out from the locals. Often, soldiers who were clearly about to strike Kashmiris would see me, an obvious angrez (Westerner) or firengi (foreigner), and lower their lathis (sticks) or fists and… smile. Life was neither pleasant nor easy for the “occupiers.”

Finally, when I left Srinagar in 1996, I had to endure three security checks of me and my bags – and that was before I even got into the airport terminal. There were another three security checks inside, after which I also had to identify my suitcase so that it could be loaded onto the plane. Then, with relief soaring as I walked out to board the plane through an unofficial guard of honour comprising heavily armed paramilitary officers on airport duty, local airline officials frisked me again before I boarded the plane – just to be sure. Only inside the plane did I regain some sense of normality. For the residents of Srinagar, meanwhile, the daily dangers and impositions continued.

In recent years, the security situation in the Kashmir Valley has improved. Many Kashmiris are war-weary and have reluctantly realised that their future will most probably be with India. Nevertheless, many Kashmiris are still very dissatisfied, as a serious stone-throwing campaign by younger Kashmiris last year showed. They are frustrated with a paternalistic India – and an opportunistic Pakistan. Both “sides” have a long way to go to win the Kashmiris’ hearts and minds.

THESE two new books help non-Kashmiris to understand some of the Kashmiris’ frustrations. As Basharat Peer writes in his memoir, Curfewed Night, India has more than half a million soldiers and paramilitary forces in Kashmir. “Srinagar is a city of bunkers, and the armoured cars and soldiers patrolling roads or manning check posts ha[ve] become a part of the Kashmiri landscape, like the willows, poplars, and pines… The heady, rebellious Kashmir I left as a teenager [is] now a land of brutalised, exhausted and uncertain people.”

The casualties of the anti-Indian insurgency are staggering. “More than 70,000 people have been killed in Kashmir since 1989; around 8000 people have disappeared; at least 25,000 children have been orphaned; and over 4000 people are in Indian prisons,” writes Mirza Waheed in an afterword to his novel, The Collaborator. “Thousands of women have been widowed in the conflict, including 2000 ‘half widows’ whose husbands remain missing.” This toll of death and disappeared approaches the 75,000 people killed by a devastating earthquake in neighbouring Azad (Free) Kashmir in 2005. (This region, which Pakistan administers, is only “free” in the sense of being “free” from Indian control.)

It was after, and partly because of, rigged elections in 1987 that disenchanted young Kashmiris instigated the anti-Indian uprising. They remained at the forefront of this movement until around 1993, when better-armed, trained and financed pro-Pakistan militants intimidated, suppressed or simply killed off Kashmiris wanting independence. Since then, people in the Kashmir Valley have lost control of “their” uprising; now, the major armed elements opposing Indian control are foreign militants – men housed, trained, armed, sent and/or supported by the Pakistan military in Azad Kashmir. Local Kashmiri militants still operate in the valley, but they play a subordinate role to the more brutal Punjabis and others from Pakistan.

Perhaps – and this is a big perhaps – the greatest sufferers in the Kashmiris’ anti-Indian uprising have been Kashmiri men. Suspicious Indian soldiers seeking to restore normality, but nervous because they know that Kashmiris regard them as oppressors, have often considered young Kashmiris to be either militants, militant sympathisers or potential militants, subjecting them to brutish harassment, surly intimidation, random and oppressive searches, incessant security procedures, overbearing curfews, and arbitrary arrest. For a young Kashmiri man apprehended for any reason the prospects are bleak. I was told on various visits to Kashmir that the best that he could expect was a beating; middling treatment would be torture; at worst, he could disappear or die a brutal, usually anonymous, death. Meanwhile, invariably powerless families would be further traumatised. As a result, other young Kashmiri men have decided, or been persuaded by their families, to leave for other parts of India or abroad.

The books by Peer and Waheed – two younger Kashmiri men – provide the outsider with a flavour of major aspects of the anti-Indian insurgency. Peer deftly describes his life story – from his idyllic childhood, shattered by the insurgency, through to his adult experiences as a journalist who returns to Kashmir to investigate and record the situation there and rediscover old friends and acquaintances. Along the way, he provides us with a readable and informative report about what Kashmiris have typically experienced. His two interesting sketch maps of the Kashmir Valley and Srinagar allow the reader to locate these experiences.

At times, Peer’s account is chilling. For instance, he provides a “grim list” of just thirty-seven words a reporter needs to know in order to report on Kashmir: “Fear, arrest, prison, torture, death, Indian security forces, separatists, guerillas/militants/terrorists, grenades, assault rifles, sandbag bunkers, army installations, hideouts, crackdowns, search-and-destroy operations, frustration, tension, anxiety, trauma, democracy, betrayal, self-determination, freedom, peace talks, international community, mediation, breakdown, despair, and rage.” He also provides some history although, like many Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris, he does not mention the Poonch uprising – this major opposition movement against the maharaja was a precursor to both the invasion of the Kashmir Valley by tribesmen from Pakistan on 22 October 1947 and to the maharaja’s accession to India on 26 October 1947. Somewhat surprisingly, while discussing the terrorist attack on India’s parliament in 2001, Peer also does not mention that the first terrorist incident post 9/11 actually took place in Srinagar when terrorists attacked the J&K Legislative Assembly.

Waheed’s book provides an interesting complement to Peer’s memoir. It is a fictional account of the dark and disturbing part that an ethnic Gujjar youth plays “collaborating” with a captain in the Indian military as his force attempts to control, then defeat, the insurgency. Waheed describes in depth this collaboration and the youth’s attempts to rationalise, or remove himself from, this “hideous heap.” Until recently, Gujjars were typically nomadic cow herders who roamed with their cattle throughout Jammu and Kashmir. In this book – and in reality – the Gujjars have been encouraged to settle down by the heavily armed and restrictive Line of Control and by better economic times. The youth’s family lives in Nowgam, the closest Kashmiri village to the Line of Control; his father is village headman. Partly because of his father’s influence, he secures a job with the Indian army which involves searching for and removing valuable articles from dead Kashmiri youth who have attempted to cross from Azad Kashmir, via the Line of Control, into Kashmir. Chillingly, he hears how Indian forces calculatingly and ruthlessly kill many youths attempting to do so. Waheed’s narrative provides the reader with a feel for many untold and unsavoury aspects of the Kashmiri insurgency, particularly in relation to the role that Indians and Pakistanis play in it.

One weakness of Waheed’s book is that he assumes that the reader has a certain understanding of the Kashmir dispute and of local languages, which he uses freely in his text. But the story of how the Gujjar’s village depopulates as his friends become militants and people are killed or feel compelled “to escape the wrath of the Indian Security Forces… by running away to India itself” is compelling. And when he discusses the Gujjar’s deeper feelings and his desires to take revenge on the Indians, it is harrowing.

TRAVELLING from Jammu City to Srinagar for a weekend one winter, I realised how isolated and susceptible to interdiction the Kashmir Valley was, and still is. On a cold and snowy Friday afternoon I went expectantly to Jammu airport. A delayed Indian Airlines flight to Srinagar came into Jammu, then left. Shortly afterwards, my Jet Airways plane landed, but airline officials, apparently on a whim, decided that the weather – which hadn’t changed since the Indian Airlines’ departure – now made the flight to Srinagar impossible. The passengers, who were mostly stranded Kashmiris, protested vehemently; some left the airport, saying they would return for tomorrow’s flight, while others of us, perplexed and flabbergasted by such off-handed treatment, stayed put. Mysteriously, after thirty minutes, the flight was rescheduled and we duly flew to Srinagar.

When I was due to return to Jammu on the Monday morning, the weather was again inclement. I had planned to return to Jammu by road in order to see the terrain, a journey that would have taken eight hours by car. Unfortunately, rain and landslides at the Jammu end had closed the road – which was, and is, the only way south from the isolated Kashmir Valley – so I chased madly around Srinagar trying to secure a seat on an airline, any airline. This proved impossible. Then, after a chance encounter with a friendly and helpful Kashmiri bureaucrat and three hours in a travel agency waiting and urging, we both appeared to have secured seats on the only Srinagar–Jammu flight that day. My newfound Kashmiri friend kindly drove me to my hotel, where I grabbed my luggage, after which we sped to the airport. He then helped me negotiate the security processes which, because I was accompanied by an official, were happily reduced from six to a mere three stages. Once inside the airport, we had the satisfaction of finding that we were on… a waitlist. Thankfully, my Kashmiri again used his influence to get us on board the only Jammu flight that day, and for quite a few days.

Because of the region’s isolation, few people outside Kashmir – including most Pakistanis and Indians who either can’t go (Pakistanis) or won’t go (Indians) to Kashmir – experience problems like these, let alone the more deadly impact of the decades-old conflict. These two books bring the situation a little close for readers in the West. •

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