Kashmir: Twenty years after

Andrew Whitehead at Line of Control, while reporting from Kashmir.
Andrew Whitehead at Line of Control, while reporting from Kashmir.
Andrew Whitehead at Line of Control, while reporting from Kashmir.

My most recent visit to Srinagar, last spring, came twenty years exactly after my first reporting assignment in Kashmir. It prompted me to reflect on what’s changed over that time, and what hasn’t. And to consider why I keep on coming back to Kashmir, these days from choice rather than professional duty.

Ahdoo’s hotel, when I first started reporting on Kashmir, was the only option for visiting foreign journalists. Wonderfully central, but woefully connected. This was the era before mobile phones and email. There were no PCOs in Srinagar, satellite phones were banned, and at Ahdoo’s there was no international direct dial and even calls to Delhi had to be booked. So even if you could work out what was happening, getting your report on air was far from straightforward.

At times of tension , which was much of the time, Srinagar was closed – shops shuttered, no market stalls, a blanket security presence, and a formal or informal curfew through the hours of darkness.
There was also a new political landscape taking shape, as the Hurriyat Conference established itself as a broad-based alliance and became a political force to reckon with. Something was stirring in Kashmiri public life – it wasn’t simply insurgency and crackdown, there was an intriguing political angle too.

Twenty years later, most of the key political figures I got to know in the mid-1990s – those that have survived – remain people of influence. There are fewer new faces, both in separatist and mainstream Kashmiri politics, than you might expect. The resolution of the Kashmir issue remains a distant prospect.

But there is a measure of peace in Srinagar and a modest dose of prosperity – more room for civil society – new colleges, and lots more students and youngsters on the streets – a vitality which was simply not evident on my early visits. And there is more engagement with the political system, a higher turn-out and fairer polling, than in the bleak days of the ‘90s. It’s a more relaxed place than the morose, chained city that I first got to know.

Equally striking, though, is the marked disaffection that the young in Kashmir still harbor about India and its role in their valley. The events of summer 2010 politicised a new generation – that radicalisation has taken a different form from twenty years earlier, but it can’t be overlooked. Many Kashmiris still feel that they don’t have agency about how their region is run – and that, more than any real expectation that India might leave Kashmir, underpins the sentiment for independence.

As with any visiting reporter, I relied on BBC correspondents on the spot to get my bearings on the story and a sense of who mattered and the mood on the streets and in the villages. Slowly, you get under the skin of a place and its people; you build your own contacts; it becomes more than a story, more than an area of expertise, but an issue you care about and want to understand and to explain.

Kashmir is not my Valley, nor is it my cause. For both the crafts I have some claim to practice – journalism and history – it’s important not to advocate, not to take sides, not to lay down a way forward. In any event, part of Kashmir’s problem has been too many outsiders taking a view about its destiny.

And both journalism and history, at their best, share another attribute – they are about people as much as about territory or high politics. Issues about Kashmir’s status, and the conflicts spawned and pursued in the corridors of power, have had a profound impact on the lives of Kashmiris. But the narrative that both historians and journalists pursue should focus on the lived experience of conflict as much as on the geopolitical tussle.

It’s the people of course, the bonds of friendship, propinquity and concern, which keep bringing me back to Kashmir, and I trust will continue to bind me to your Valley.

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