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Kashmir: The Unending War

In the early years of the conflict, 1994 to 1996, the renegades had come in very handy: they had helped the army rebuild its intelligence network in the valley; they had helped track down and kill hundreds of guerrillas trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They had proved less effective against the Fidayeen, the new “suicidal” guerrillas, often Pakistani citizens, who had started coming to the valley in larger numbers after the battles of 1999; and a lot of the renegades had been murdered by the Fidayeen. They still threatened, and sometimes killed, the families of guerrillas living in the valley; or those journalists and human rights activists who were seen as too eager to report the excesses committed by the army. In return, the army and the civil administration looked the other way when the renegades kidnapped and killed for money.

But now, and increasingly, as the talk of restoring order and normalcy to the state continues, the renegades have begun to be seen by the government of Farooq Abdullah as a liability. One of them has become a member of the state legislature, but there are still 1,500 of these young men with guns on the government’s payroll. A senior government official spoke of them to me as Frankenstein’s monsters; the renegades were, he said, the most visible and hated symbol of Indian rule over the valley, and it wasn’t going to be easy to tame them.

At Anantnag, a town thirty-five miles south of Srinagar, where the renegades were considered unassailable, I tried to see their local “commander.” But he was away in Delhi—an unexpected sign of his status with the Indian government; the renegades had recently helped set up the BJP office in Anantnag. A polite policeman directed me to the house of another commander in the same protected compound. Parts of the house looked relatively old, and the rest was under construction, the money for it coming, it seemed, in installments. When finished it was going to be a very large house, its size and the high walls topped with glass shards making it look like something from an affluent Delhi suburb.

A young, good-looking man in kurta pajamas came out after much apprehensive peeking through the holes in the heavy iron gate. It was the brother of the commander, Rashid; Rashid himself was at his headquarters a couple of miles away, and the young man drove me there.

The headquarters was a large building that had been vacated by a Kashmiri Hindu family. It had been built into a mini-fortress, with boarded-up windows and a tall, corrugated iron gate, behind which, in the large courtyard, young men stood dramatically poised with light machine guns to repulse any attack. There were good reasons for their defensiveness: one of the commanders of the renegades had been shot dead a week before in a crowded bazaar, and some months ago the improvised explosive device hidden in an auto rickshaw and intended for the renegades had turned the house ten meters away into a huge mound of rubble.

Rashid was waiting outside the gate, and to see his bodyguards, teenage boys with oversized guns, was to feel the fear and uncertainty their presence brought to the neighborhood, to the tense men in the little meat shops and bakeries lining the alley. His lean, wiry frame, sharp features and thick moustache, his thick gold ring and blue jeans gave him a Bombay movie-star glamour and an impression of brute power until the moment he spoke. Then the quivering jaw and broken syllables betrayed his jitteriness: the jitteriness, I thought, of the doomed man; it made him an attentive host and keen talker. He saw me as taking back an important message to the Indian government conveying his sense of India’s disregard for the renegades, the poverty and isolation to which they had been reduced, the temptation they felt to go back to Pakistan; and he shouted at the bodyguards when they showed up with lukewarm tea.

It was hard to get him to talk about the things I was interested in, which he mentioned indifferently when pressed: the bachelor’s degree in science from the local college, the lack of work, the journey, out of no clear motivation, to Pakistan with twenty-eight other men, the training in light weapons in Pakistan and Afghanistan for eleven months, then the return to the valley as a guerrilla, the sudden disillusionment with the armed movement for independence, and the recruitment by the army. He was frankly puzzled when I asked him to expand on little details in his narrative—about the camp commander in Pakistan named after Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor and persecutor of Hindus; the deception in Pakistan where he had to present himself as a fundamentalist pro-Pakistan Muslim in order to receive his training and small salary. But he went on at some length about his local patron, a brigadier in the Indian army. The brigadier had asked him to lead an anti-guerrilla operation very recently, and he had obliged by killing the two guerrillas who had infiltrated an army camp. He pointed at the thin, unshaven, middle-aged man in grimy kurta pajamas I had thought of as a supplicant awaiting his turn: he was the one who had covered Rashid as he went, guns blazing, into the little room where the guerrillas had holed up, and then had shot one of the dying men as he attempted to reach for a hand grenade. This thin, unshaven man, Rashid said, had been rewarded by having a police report lodged against him for “asking” a rich merchant in the town for some money. What, after all, could he do with the little money he was given by the government?

It was at this moment that something hit the high corrugated iron roof sloping into the courtyard, a deep, heavy sound, and everyone—Rashid, I, the three boys with guns—froze for an agonizing second. It was several minutes after the scruffy cork cricket ball had pattered off the roof into the open drain around the courtyard that I heard my heart pounding wildly.

Rashid’s face had gone white; and the shame of that confession of fear was what made him grow wild when I asked him about the Fidayeen. He and his men were the true Fidayeen, he shouted—people who were being martyred for being faithful to India. Then he added that he was ready to take on the Fidayeen any time. All he needed was a “free hand.”

A “free hand”: you heard the words very often in the valley, and it spoke, as nothing else did, of the breakdown of communications, the end of dialogue, and the unthinking preference for violence and terror. Rashid had been puzzled when I asked him to explain what he meant by a “free hand,” because he had already done so indirectly: he had made it clear, without saying so explicitly, that the government, and busybodies from the press and human rights groups, should turn the other way while the harassment of the families of the guerrillas, and the torture of suspected informers, and the mistreatment of civilians went on.

3.

The idea of a “free hand” wasn’t very different from what government officials themselves meant. The words were part of the official vocabulary, more potent than the previous talk of “pro-active policy,” which really meant the pursuit of guerrillas across the border into the training camps, easy to fantasize about in Delhi but impossible to achieve without starting, as almost happened in 1990, a war with Pakistan. The borrowed phrase “ethnic cleansing” was even less effective. After each killing of Hindus, it was said that the guerrillas were engaged in “ethnic cleansing”; but, ethnically, the Sikhs and Hindus were no different from the Muslims of the valley. In the end, the few attempts at subtle rhetoric always collapsed into crudely aggressive demands for a “free hand.”

The use of a “free hand” means that the cycle of retribution will go on for a much longer time. In Pattan, outside Srinagar, just a few days after I left, the local police station was attacked with grenades and rockets. This time, the frustrated policemen looted and burned down the entire market. I didn’t go back; I didn’t feel I could face the helpless shopkeepers I had met on my previous visit. I went instead to Jammu, the city of the plains, where, far away from the new mansions of the politicians and bureaucrats, thousands of Hindu refugees from Kashmir now live.

It was in early 1990, during Jagmohan’s few months as India’s appointed governor—and with, some say, his active encouragement—that most of the 140,000-strong community of Kashmiri Hindus left the valley. Jagmohan had originally been made governor of Kashmir in 1984 by Mrs. Gandhi in order to dismiss Kashmir’s elected government; he had served for five turbulent years during which his aggressively pro-Hindu policies further alienated Muslims in the valley from India. His limited comprehension of the insurgency—as simply a limited law-and-order problem which could be contained fast—is apparent in his memoir about his time as governor of Kashmir.3 Many Kashmiris believe that he wanted the Hindus safely out of the way while he dealt with the Muslim guerrillas.

The Hindus had formed a kind of elite in the valley; they had a large presence in the bureaucracy, both in the valley and in Delhi, where government policy on Kashmir often came to be dictated by the fears and concerns of this tiny minority. Their connections with India, and their relative affluence, made them highly visible targets during the first few months of the insurgency in 1990; several government officials were assassinated by pro-Pakistan Muslim guerrillas who also committed random atrocities against Hindu civilians: rapes, murders, kidnappings.

Few of the approximately 130,000 Kashmiri Hindus who left the valley in less than two months after the insurgency began have been able to return. The ordeal of displacement was less difficult to bear for the professional elite of doctors, engineers, and academics, who, on leaving the valley, could renew their links with the outside world: they now form a distinct diaspora within India and in the UK and America, where large numbers of them have settled. It was the less well-off Hindus in the countryside who suffered the most.

A few miles out of the city of Jammu, on a stony, treeless plain, you suddenly come across hundreds of one-room tenements where thousands of Kashmiri Hindus have been living for the last ten years, waiting, without much hope, for things to improve. It was early spring in the valley and still cold when I visited the camps, but around Jammu the temperatures had begun to rise, and the sun felt more severe on the rocky exposed ground. The tar that held together the thermocoal roof of the igloo-shaped tenements had already begun to melt, and more tar was hard to find: you had to bribe the roadworks laborers for a little bit of it.

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