What we talk when we talk about Kashmir

Hari Parbat. Courtesy: 'Cashmere: Three weeks in a houseboat' (1920) by Ambrose Petrocokino
Hari Parbat. Courtesy: ‘Cashmere: Three weeks in a houseboat’ (1920) by Ambrose Petrocokino

Kashmir. What comes to your mind when you hear the word? Perhaps you recall a perfect summer retreat of many wonderful memories ago – the snowy Himalayas, the sun setting over the Dal, and the ever beautiful landscapes of the valley. Perhaps you happen to call Kashmir home and recall the delight of wazwan, of over-friendly neighbors, and your mother’s embrace. Perhaps all you know of Kashmir is the much touted slogan – “If there is Paradise on Earth…” You are right, my friends – it is here. Or perhaps you are an avid hard rock enthusiast and the only time you have heard the word is in “I will return again, sure as the dust that floats high in June, when moving through Kashmir”. Or perhaps, like most people tend to do, you see in your mind’s eye a place of terror, a place of occupation, and of dangerous living conditions.

I would not fault you for holding the last conviction. It is in fact very hard to understand Kashmir when you have not been there. It is hard to understand why violence has persisted. It is easy to ask why. In order to even begin grasping the phenomena that is Kashmir, you must first accept that it is entirely possible for hell to be a subset of heaven, and for heaven to encapsulate all notions of hell. Heaven and hell have always coexisted. If you want to learn how to create heaven out of hell, you must visit – and understand – and appreciate – the people of Kashmir.

Just for an instant, imagine this. Imagine looking out of your airplane window to an endless array of mountains blanketed in a beautiful shade of green, of meandering rivers and a sky dotted with pierced clouds amidst the mountain peaks. Then you land at Srinagar International Airport, which has still not lost its trappings of a military airbase. I doubt you would before have seen army personnel at such close proximity, but that is all you will be seeing now. On the streets, in restaurants, in market places, in the far off reaches of the valley and in the heart of the city, you will find them everywhere. You will begin to understand the nature of life in Kashmir. The load shedding, the army presence, the curfews imposed at the drop of a hat. But then, you will encounter people of the most genteel mannerism, who will have retained their humor, and their love for others, and will make you realize that life must always be taken with a grain of salt. I remember in particular growing increasingly agitated by the heavy military presence and asking our Kashmiri guide how he can bear to share space with all the patrolling forces. Without breaking a sweat, he said “What can we do if they insist on spending their days under the blistering sun while we enjoy our day to day existence?”

But that is not a position easily adopted. In my encounters with the people of Kashmir, I found the old and elderly to be increasingly accepting of the situation. They had adapted to their surroundings, and after all, how long could they live at war with their situation? They were content in their various blue collar jobs or fewer white collar positions. Content gliding a shikaara through the waters of the Dal, selling shawls and spreads or something or the other. Content sitting home. Content to be alive, perhaps. But the youth of Kashmir are an entirely different matter. It is always the current generation that holds the power to propel a nation forward. But to what end are the youth of Kashmir being forced towards?

There is no doubt that corruption exists in the very core of most political and economic endeavors in Kashmir. There is limited opportunity for growth or success. Your aspirations may be high but your scope will be limited in nature. If you want to have a shot at making any sort of money, you will resort to becoming a doctor or an engineer. If you do not, you may be sent to Delhi or elsewhere to broaden your horizons. If you have chosen a career path that is not the sciences, prepare to embark upon a continuous struggle to fulfill your aspirations. You maybe employed by the state, work in the police or join the army, but you will then risk being alienated by your own people. You will perhaps even feel as if you’ve betrayed them. Even when you do become a qualified professional, your employers – your corporate Kashmiri employers – will screw you over. You will be expected to work long hours, even into the middle of the night, without compensation or an overtime bonus. You will be expected to do so because hey, at least you have a job. Who cares if the standards of employment would be illegal in most democratic countries?

Faced with limited employment opportunities, one may resort to leisure. But leisure for the Kashmiri youth will not involve hangouts at the mall, or watching a movie at the cinema. There are no functioning movie theatres in Kashmir, very few libraries, even fewer places of preserved cultural heritage and value. In fact, when an art museum – Gallerie One – opened in Kashmir this January, it ended up being vandalized by state tourism officials. You may think that perhaps the internet would provide some form of solace but do not forget that freedom of expression is dangerous, with several people being arrested by virtue of their online activity. After the September 2014 floods, several areas of the valley have still not had broadband facilities restored, with the internet provider making slow to nonexistent progress to restore internet facilities.

But that is not all that is Kashmir. You may not have the movie theatre, or cool spots to ‘hang’, but nature empowers everything in the valley. There are a myriad of trekking opportunities, with beautiful landscapes and alpine lakes at several reaches of the valley. If you’re a photographer, there is no end to beauty that can be captured. If you’re a poet, you will find your muse in the valley of Kashmir. If you’re a writer, there are not enough words to write the story of Kashmir. If you’re a philosopher, your brain will never lack fodder. If you’re a lover of heritage, there is so much that needs preserving. If you’re a foodie, you will find some of the most delicious food in the world. All you need is to understand that hell is a subset of heaven, but the boundaries of heaven far outreach those of hell. Hope can be found even in the direst of situations.

Many of you – perhaps those of you who do not yet understand Kashmir – will ask why radicalism exists in the valley. You may be tempted to think that perhaps if violence was not resorted to – if people did not support ‘terrorists in Pakistan’ and did not pelt stones, then all would be fine and dandy in Kashmir. You would not be wrong. Violence is never the answer, and it will never be the solution. But that is a position easily adopted sitting in the comfort of your apartment, sipping tea. What is found in violence is not an answer. But what is sought in violence is hope. What are you to do when you live in such an intersection of socioeconomic factors? What can you do to improve, and how effective can you be? What is the solution, then, and how will it be found? Just for an instant, imagine this. Imagine a culture where we do not oppress each other, where we do not deal for blood with blood, where we do not make money by stealing another’s bread, where we do not travel freely by obstructing another’s justice. The call of the hour is to improve the socioeconomic state of affairs in Kashmir. When that is accomplished, it is my hope and belief that radicalism and the need thereof will dramatically decline in the valley.

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