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Kashmir: The Unending War

It wasn’t the only thing that worried Gautam, the Hindu I met in one of the camps. He had left his apple orchards near Baramulla in the north of the valley in 1990 with sixty-five rupees in his pocket to come here. There had been no water for eight days and the plastic buckets used for storage had begun to run dry.

Gautam sat behind a window with iron bars, half-slumped on the single wooden cot in his half-sleeved vest and pajamas. The smell of burned onion came out of the tiny room where all five members of his family slept. The walls were bare except for a calendar with pictures of Rama and Sita; there were a few steel utensils on the wooden shelf over a rusty gas cylinder; a small television sat on a rickety stool. Outside, in the cramped little courtyard edged with an open stagnant drain, a mangy dog slumbered in the shade of the overburdened clothesline, and the tin doors of the public latrines were cut so low that you could see the blank face of the person squatting over the hole in the floor.

I wasn’t invited in. Gautam, when he relaxed more with me, said bitterly, “We are like a zoo, people come to watch and then go away.” He felt betrayed by Jagmohan and the other politicians, especially the Hindu nationalists, who had held up the community as victims of Muslim guerrillas in order to get more Hindu votes, and had then done very little to resettle them, find jobs for the adults and schools for the young. He had been back to the valley just once: he had been persuaded to do so by his Muslim neighbor who personally came to the refugee camp to escort him back to his village. The warmth between the Hindu and Muslim communities of the valley—so alike in many ways for the outsider, so hard to tell apart—had remained intact, and had acquired a kind of poignancy after such a long separation.

But when he returned, he found his house had been plundered; children were playing cricket in his apple orchard where the trees had been cut down for firewood. Then he was kept awake by fear on his first night, by the sound of gunfire, a sound his Muslim neighbors had gotten used to. In the morning he had heard the news of the deaths of five Indian soldiers in the gun battle with guerrillas. Enraged soldiers were expected any minute to launch a “crackdown.” Gautam followed the young men of the village and took the first bus out.

He hadn’t been back; he didn’t know if he could. His son, fourteen years old now, had very few memories of Kashmir, had grown up in a different world, with a sense of injustice and the rage of the young. Gautam often had to stop him from denouncing Muslims and Islam.

I didn’t see the boy: he was at school. There was a picture of him in a small plastic frame; with large serious eyes in his pale Kashmiri face, he reminded me of the Muslim boy I had met some days before at a graveyard in Srinagar.

It had been my first day in Srinagar. A famous guerrilla had been killed by the army the day before but there had been no public mourning. At the Idgah graveyard for “martyrs”—placed at the edge of a vast, bald field scarred with muddy puddles, and full of signboards with exhortations: “Lest you forget that they gave their today for our tomorrow”—there was one fresh grave but no mourners. The grave was of a young man who had been taken away by the police from his home for interrogation. A very old man sat on one of the other graves with a teenage boy in large thick-framed glasses, both hunched in the cold over a kangri—the little pot with charcoal embers they carried under their cloak-like pherans. The boy, Jamal, took me around, stepping agilely across the graves, his dark eyes somber behind his glasses.

The earliest graves in that Srinagar graveyard had claimed the most reverence and space: they were set in large plots, with bead necklaces and plastic garlands on them. But then the numbers had begun to rise, and the graves had been set closer together; the headstone engravings acquired a uniformity of message and style: the green-painted word “martyr” occurred in all of them. The boy pointed out the new grave to me: the earth still moist under the wrinkled plastic sheet; it had no headstone yet, but a narrow, freshly dug bed of yellow irises ran around the grave. Irises were, Jamal said, the flowers used to honor the Muslim dead in Kashmir.

He couldn’t have been more than five years old when the insurgency began but he knew the names of all the “martyrs.” There were some in his own family: his elder brother, who had been killed two years ago, soon after he returned from Pakistan; his father, who had died of burn injuries after being tortured with hot iron rods. He had dropped out of school, and now came to sit in the graveyard each evening. I asked him why, and he said, his large eyes earnest, that he wanted to be close to the martyrs; they had died a holy death in the cause of jihad, and were now in paradise. Later, he said that his mother was worried about these visits to the graveyard; she had been going to various shrines and making him wear amulets to prevent him from becoming a “militant” like his brother.

He wanted to know what Indians in India thought of their army killing the Kashmiris, and it was the guilt brought on by this question that made me stay longer at the graveyard. Windows opened in the rain-dampened houses overlooking the graveyard, and curious faces appeared in them, watching me talk to Jamal. The day, already gray, began to quickly die. The taxi driver grew nervous: the area was the stronghold of the pro-Pakistan guerrillas.

When I left, the image I carried with me was of the young boy and the old man sitting against the dirty overcast sky and the mist-hazy mountains and the flat, puddle-stained field; and it added to the desolation of those first few days in Srinagar, which—although the terrible scenes of the massacre were yet to come—had begun to contaminate my early memories of Kashmir, of the landscape that had once been a revelation of beauty.

On one of my last days in Srinagar—one of the many days of protest strikes, enforced by the guerrillas, the city surreally deserted in the middle of the long, sunny afternoon—I went back to the graveyard. There were more graves; and, with spring finally resurgent in the valley after many cold days, the irises were in full bloom.

But Jamal was gone. The old man sat all alone in the middle of the graveyard, and he didn’t know where Jamal was. He hadn’t been to the graveyard in several days, but his mother had come looking for him.

It was many days after I left Kashmir that I read in the papers news of a teenage boy who had driven a car full of explosives into the army cantonment in Srinagar, and blown himself up: it was the first suicide bombing in the valley. The boy went to a local school, and neither of his parents had known about his connections with the Jihadi outfits. He couldn’t have been Jamal, who had only one parent, but it was while reading about him that I thought of Jamal again; I remembered the wide serious eyes; I remembered his talk of martyrdom and paradise and death.

4.

The cycle of violence and destruction has been so swift and severe in Kashmir; the insurgency has poisoned and destroyed so many lives. Yet the insurgents’ political cause remains as lonely and hopeless as before. Independence, which a majority of Kashmiris seem to want, or integration with Pakistan, which for many Kashmiris is the second-best option after independence, are not possibilities that any Indian government can ever consider without immediately losing the support of the Hindu middle classes. The European Union and the US are unlikely to risk antagonizing India, with its lucrative markets and resources and the trappings of a democracy, by taking up the Kashmiri cause.

All Kashmiris can hope for at present is a change in Indian attitudes, a bit more breathing space, a bit less heavy-handedness. But any change in Indian attitudes is unlikely as long as jihad-minded guerrillas based in Pakistan continue to wage war against India in Kashmir; as long as the chaos and anarchy of Pakistan make it difficult even for its army, which is currently ruling the country, to rein in the guerrillas or their Islamic fundamentalist sponsors.

The elected legislature of Kashmir recently asked the BJP-dominated central government to fulfill the promises of autonomy that Nehru had offered to Kashmiri leaders while trying to persuade them to help integrate the state with India in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Limited autonomy for Kashmir within a genuinely federal India might be a more practical solution than the one that proposes the creation of an independent Kashmir with open borders, whose sovereignty would be guaranteed by both India and Pakistan. The idea of autonomy, if sincerely pursued, might eventually find some support among Kashmiris, and help diminish the influence of Islamic fundamentalists in the region. But the BJP fears, with good reason, that the slightest concession it makes in Kashmir would encourage many more of India’s disaffected constituent states to present their own case for greater federalism. This would bring to nothing the Hindu nationalists’ longstanding efforts to redefine India’s many religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities as “Hindu,” and to turn India into a proud and united superpower.4

The demand for autonomy was rejected by the BJP, with a speed and vehemence that, together with the repeated failure of India and Pakistan to even reach the negotiating table on Kashmir, indicate that there is going to be little respite for Kashmiris, trapped between, and within, the crude nationalisms and fundamentalisms of their neighbors. The tens of thousands of Kashmiri victims of the decade-long violence will have to wait much longer for even some partial justice.

But then you can’t hope for much justice in the subcontinent, where fulfillment comes to very few among the needy and restless millions, and where aspiration itself can feel like a luxury. In Kashmir, isolated and oppressed for so long, and then dragged into the larger world of competing men and nations and murderous ideologies, more people have been confronted with this awareness in the last ten years than in all of its tormented modern history.

The number of young men like Jamal who attempt to dissolve the pain of that awareness in the nihilism of jihadi martyrdom is growing. At the same time, there are many more Kashmiris who wish to make their own peace with that pain, who are wearied by the bloodletting and resigned to their lack of options, and who now want the relative stability of the time before the insurgency to return, even if it involves living with the humiliation of continued Indian rule over the valley: the private, uneasy accommodations with the world which keep the deprived millions elsewhere in the subcontinent from exploding into rage and destruction, and which are being increasingly made by Kashmiris, even as, cruelly, the suffering of their first great war goes on.

This is the last of three articles.

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