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Death in Kashmir

But I did other things; and after each of my travels around the city and the valley I came back to the hotel room, relieved that the day’s work was over, and that I could retreat for some hours at least from the world around me, from the stories—of torture (one hospital alone witnessed 250 cases of death by acute renal failure, caused by putting human bodies under heavy rollers in the army’s interrogation centers called Papa 1 and Papa 2), of summary executions, rapes, kidnappings, and arson—stories that came out unprompted in the most casual of conversations with Kashmiris, and that formed the grisly background to life in the valley.


The oldest among Kashmiris often claim that there is nothing new about their condition; that they have been slaves of foreign rulers since the sixteenth century when the Moghul emperor Akbar annexed Kashmir and appointed a local governor to rule the state. In the chaos of post-Moghul India, the old empire rapidly disintegrating, Afghani and Sikh invaders plundered Kashmir at will. The peasantry was taxed and taxed into utter wretchedness; the cultural and intellectual life under indigenous rulers that had produced some of the greatest poetry, music, and philosophy in the subcontinent dried up. Barbaric rules were imposed in the early nineteenth century: a Sikh who killed a Muslim native of Kashmir was fined nothing more than two rupees. Victor Jacquemont, a botanist and friend of Stendhal who came to the valley in 1831, thought that “nowhere else in India were the masses as poor and denuded as they were in Kashmir.”

But that background of constant suffering can remain invisible to the casual visitor; the physical beauty of the place—enhanced by the valley’s isolation from the rest of the world, and more tempting for foreign adventurers—is still, after ten years of violence, overwhelming. All through my stay, memories of previous trips kept bubbling up, visits made in less troubled times, just before the insurgency began in 1990, especially that first visit which for me—as for anyone who had never been away from the hot dusty Indian plains—was the first exhilarating revelation of beauty.

I hadn’t then really noticed the Kashmiris. They did appear very different with their pale, long-nosed faces, their pherans, their strange language, so unlike any Indian language. They also seemed oddly self-possessed. But in the enchanting new world that had opened before me—the big, deep blue skies and the tiny boats becalmed in vast lakes, the cool trout streams and the stately forests of chenar and poplar, the red-cheeked children at roadside hamlets and in apple orchards, the cows and sheep grazing in wide meadows, and, always in the valley, the surrounding mountains with their mysterious promise—in so private an experience of beauty it was hard to admit the inhabitants of the valley, hard to acknowledge the more prosaic facts of their existence: the dependence upon India, the lack of local industry, the growing number of unemployed, educated youth.

Then, as the years passed, the news from Kashmir took its place with the other news—equally bad, of murders and destruction—from Punjab and the Northeast: the distant struggles that were, ultimately, marginal to one’s own life in a very large and deprived country where almost everyone is struggling. In any event, one couldn’t always get the necessary information about Kashmir. There were some good books published by small imprints; but you had to search hard for them.10 To read what was reported in the press was to be told that Pakistan had fomented trouble in Kashmir, and the Indian army was taking care of it. It was to understand that there really wasn’t a problem except one of law and order, which the relevant military and paramilitary organizations would soon deal with. The missing physical details had to be imagined; and they turned out to be much grimmer than I once could have thought.


Srinagar’s big hotel, with its vast lawns and nude trees overlooking the lake, was empty in March; but the staff still felt obliged to work themselves up each morning, like the Indian papers, into cheerful falsehoods: “Everything is fine today, sir. There is no problem at all, there is as much violence here as in any Indian city.”

In their softly lit, carpet-muffled offices, with trays of tea and biscuits reg-ularly brought in by uniformed servants, Indian officials presented statistics about the number of guerrillas killed, and the number of guns, rocket launchers, and grenades seized. In a gloomy room, the carpet and curtains and sofa upholstery dark with grime, piles of unread newspapers in one corner, a member of the Kashmir Bar Association presented me with some counterstatistics about the number of Muslims killed (80,000 in his estimation), tortured, raped, or gone missing.

A day before I arrived, a senior guerrilla from one of the pro-Pakistan outfits had been shot dead. But weariness—there had been too many killings of that sort—and the fear of being fired upon by the Indian police or army kept the public mourners in their homes; the streets remained clear of the thousands of grieving men who had once taken the corpses of “martyrs” to the graveyards that were now scattered everywhere in the city, often adjacent to destroyed houses, a sudden swarm of green headstones and irises in the dusty, broken streets.

The festival of Eid came and went, but the shops still closed early, the tense busyness abruptly giving way to silence and darkness, and each evening, in little stockades beside the roads, sheep with purple paint on their back restlessly awaited slaughter. The long boulevard along the lake, filled in my memory with vacationers, remained deserted and dusty, the hotels on the boulevard serving as barracks for paramilitary soldiers. The houseboats cowered under the snow-capped mountains to the north, the jaunty names on their gables—Miss England, Manhattan Adventure—as gaudily ironical as the Bright Career Institute sighted in an alley full of spectacularly ruined houses, heaps of bricks that had already been plundered for wood.

Filth lay in small mounds everywhere in the alleys and bazaars of the gray old city—the stronghold of the pro-Pakistan guerrillas—where Indian soldiers stood alert in their improvised bunkers at every bend and corner. The bunkers seemed like little traps, their sandbag walls roofed with corrugated iron and blue weatherbeaten tarpaulin, with LMG muzzles pointing out from little squarish holes between the sandbags, behind which you occasionally saw the frightened eyes in dark faces, the helplessness of soldiers in this hostile setting, hundreds of miles away from home, somehow made more poignant by the “Happy Eid” messages painted in Urdu on little cardboards stuck to the sandbags. And everywhere on the narrow roads you saw, and hastily stepped aside to make way for, the big machine-gun-topped trucks in fast-moving convoys of three or four, often flying the defiant banners—“India Is Great”—of a besieged army.

The military controlled the roads, but the pro-Pakistan guerrillas were still at large in the countryside, the forests and hollows, the hills and flatlands of the valley. The myths once attached to them had been embellished: they now came out of nowhere—detonated a landmine, ambushed a convoy, fired and threw hand grenades at street patrols—and then disappeared. The soldiers and the policemen emerged from the shock and blood to rage against whomever they could. The victims were often civilians who just happened to be around when the guerrillas struck. Whole towns and villages had been laid waste in this way: shops and bazaars burned, houses razed, people shot at random.

It was how Jalaluddin’s copy shop at Pattan, a small town few miles north of Srinagar, came to be destroyed by local policemen. The guerrillas had come early in the morning, shot one policeman on the main street and then disappeared out of sight. First, the policemen came looking for the guerrillas, and accused the Muslim shopkeepers of helping the guerrillas escape. Then, before the shopkeepers could pull down their shutters and escape themselves, more policemen came, this time with cans of petrol. Jalaluddin’s shop was the first to be set alight possibly because it was very new: he had only recently brought the copy machine and Honda generator from Delhi, a long and difficult journey during which he had to bribe his way past more than one roadblock.

The fire had quickly spread to the adjacent shops in the ramshackle row of single rooms lining the highway, footwear and grocery stores, computer and typing institutes, shaky in structure, quick to combust with their wooden frames. The smell of burnt wood was still in the air when I went to Pattan two days later.

If you live in Kashmir, you have to be prepared for anything,” Abbas had said, and Jalaluddin, and other young men, had already moved beyond rage, hoping now to receive compensation from the government for the destruction of their property large enough to enable them to rebuild their shops. The men—well-educated and articulate, and handsome, with sharp features and artlessly staring eyes in the Kashmiri manner—were matter-of-fact about the lack of options. There were no jobs to be had if you couldn’t afford large bribes to government officials: 50,000 rupees simply to get fourth-class employment as a chaprasi (servant), the low-paid connection with a despised government that then exposed you and your family to the fury of the guerrillas.

You didn’t have to be involved with the guerrillas to have your property destroyed: the police and the security people knew all about the young men who had gone over to Pakistan; they had all their updated records. The arson was yet another way of asserting their power. An old man, short and squat, with dull, bloodshot eyes in a round, puffy face, came and stood behind Jalaluddin as he spoke. He was the owner of the house that the fire had consumed, and had been lucky to get out with his wife, five daughters, and two grandsons. It was his story that the young men began to tell me—the cousin who had been killed in an “encounter,” the son, a banana-seller in the bazaar, whom the police had kidnapped and then returned after a ransom payment of 5,000 rupees.

The young men insisted on showing me the extent of the destruction. The copy shop had been completely gutted, the wooden beams charred and swollen into a kind of delicate filigree. The cream-colored xerox machine lay on the floor, the shiniest and most expensive thing in the shop, and it was with lingering solicitude that Jalaluddin turned it over and around to show the shattered glass and blackened underside. One of the walls had collapsed, exposing the derelict shell, larger when seen from above, of the adjacent burnt house, where a garish poster of a Swiss chalet remained on one of the bare walls, the broadbrushed sentiment on it still legible: “A smile works magic like the sun and makes things bright for everyone.”


The Muslim middle class in the valley still largely consists of people connected to the government as elected or non-elected officials, and during the insurgency it hadn’t stopped carving out private profits from public works: if anything, the violence and instability, the constant destruction and rebuilding, has offered more opportunities of raiding the state exchequer. Jammu, the Hindu-majority city outside the valley, is full of newly built mansions of senior ministers and bureaucrats; in remote villages in the valley, corruption finding its own level everywhere, the massive new houses of local petty officials stand apart from the enclosing shabbiness.

Twenty miles south of Srinagar, past steep slopes and startlingly panoramic views of pear and apple orchards and rice fields and the tall mountains on the horizon, lies the hillside town of Charar-e-Sharif. It was here that, to the great grief of Kashmiris, both Hindu and Muslim, the shrine of Kashmir’s fifteenth-century patron saint, Sheikh Nuruddin, was burned down in 1995 during the fighting. In Kashmir, Islam escaped the taint it acquired elsewhere in the subcontinent from forced conversions and temple-destroying during the several centuries of invasions and conquests by Muslims from Arabia and Central Asia. It came to the valley in the fourteenth century by way of Central Asian and Persian missionaries, and, blending well with earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, took on a uniquely Kashmiri character; it was to become known not for invaders, but for the Sufi saints whom both Hindus and Muslims revered. Sheikh Nuruddin was one of the earliest and greatest of these saints.

It wasn’t clear who started the fire: the guerrillas, some from Pakistan, who, contemptuous of the pacificism of Sufi Islam, had turned the shrine into a bunker, or the Indian army, which had laid a siege around the shrine. But the destruction was international news, and for some months various Kashmiri political and religious outfits as well as the government repeatedly promised to rebuild the shrine very fast.

Five years later, when I visited them, Charar-e-Sharif and its inhabitants appeared overtaken by events in the valley. The rebuilding amounted to an ungainly corrugated-iron roof over unpainted walls in the middle of a slushy field. A lot of money had been collected from shocked devotees; the government had pitched in; but little work was done, the funds for it disappearing, as with all delayed reconstruction projects, into many pockets.

The part of the town that had been destroyed and partly rebuilt was still a mess of rubble and open gutters and uncollected garbage. A few new houses and shops had come up: small, bare, windowless rooms, often with plastic sheets as doors, where ancient men sat embroidering wicker baskets for kangris (the little earthenware pots with charcoal embers that Kashmiris keep under their pherans), their thin legs drawn up against the walls, a hookah quietly smoldering beside them.

Word of my presence in the town quickly spread. The car, the notebook, and the camera had their own associations here, and now, as I prepared to leave, about forty men appeared before the tiny stationery store where I had been talking to some schoolchildren (there are about twenty schools in the thinly populated region). The men had walked four miles from their village, across the hilly countryside, after hearing that an official-seeming person was in town. The pipes in their area had burst and there had been no water for eight days now. They had trudged to the assistant engineer’s office but had found it locked; they had gone to the local police station but hadn’t been allowed a hearing; they were now melting the snow in the gullies for water but there wasn’t much snow left from the winter. Raggedly dressed, large holes gaping from their pherans, their thickly bearded faces white with dust, they seemed to have emerged out of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century scene of wretchedness in the valley—of the kind that would have made Victor Jacquemont conclude that nowhere in India were the masses as poor and denuded as in Kashmir.

The continuing backwardness of Kashmir, its failure, or inability, to join the modern world and find new identities for itself: it was what the commissioner of Srinagar, an official of the central Indian government, had spoken to me about at his house; and, more indirectly, what Abbas had said when he told me on the very first day I met him that his ancestors had come to Kashmir from Samarkand in Central Asia.

Their connection to the Islamic world outside India was often exaggerated by leaders of Indian Muslims in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it was one way of holding on to an idea of personal and collective worth amid the general degradation of the Muslim community under colonialism. What struck me, however, was that Abbas, whose work as a correspondent for a major Indian newspaper gave him status, even prestige, in Kashmir, even needed to make the claim. But it was really an idea of dignity and selfhood that he was affirming—an idea that could take on a special urgency among such thoroughly trampled-upon people as the Kashmiris.

The troubles began, Kashmiris say, with foreign rule. After the Moghuls, Afghans, and Sikhs, the valley fell in the mid-nineteenth century to a petty Hindu feudal chief who had helped the British defeat the Sikhs. The British ceded the entire state—the valley together with Hindu-majority Jammu, and Buddhist-dominated Ladakh and the northwestern parts that later were to come under Pakistani rule, is slightly smaller than Great Britain—to the Hindu feudal chief for a meager sum of 7.5 million rupees. The sale is still a source of rage and shame for Kashmiris.

Things didn’t improve much under the new Hindu rulers. In 1877, a famine killed one third of the population. Thousands of underfed, underclothed Muslims died while carrying rations on their backs for troops in remote Himalayan outposts. Even prostitutes paid one hundred rupees as tax to the maharajah; Muslims found slaughtering cows were banished to the remote Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Muslims were rarely given jobs; the administration was staffed overwhelmingly by the small minority of Hindus (about 4 percent of the population in the valley). The maharajah and his Hindu courtiers built up fabulous private fortunes.

The son of the last Hindu maharajah of the state, Karan Singh, records a Buddha-like epiphany in his autobiography.11 Born in 1931 at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, an entire floor of which had been taken over by his father, he spent his childhood in Kashmir more or less free of contact with Muslims and poverty. His father, Hari Singh, was fond of shooting and hunting and racing; also, it is said, of London prostitutes. Life in his palace was an endless search for entertainment. As Singh writes, “We spent hours working up lists for lunch and dinner parties, seating plan and menus.” Once his father asked a friend to take Singh around the city and show him the kingdom he would one day inherit. The friend drove him to the Muslim majority areas, and pointed at the dilapidated buildings and shabbily dressed men on the streets, and said, “These are your people.” Karan Singh was astonished.

The more astonishing thing about this event is its date, in the 1930s. Barely ten years later, India was free of both colonial rule and the maharajahs; the Muslim elite of India were to demand and receive a separate homeland in the form of Pakistan; and the maharajah of Kashmir, faced with a choice between joining India or Pakistan, was to reluctantly accede to India, which had adopted a secular, democratic, and egalitarian constitution, giving to Indians a new idea of themselves, of their past and potential.

But such was the course of Indian history until then that it was mostly Hindus who took up these opportunities, who saw in modern education and the modern world the possibilities of personal and communal development. The Muslims of India, whose political power had been comprehensively destroyed by the British, and many of whose leaders remained trapped by fantasies of recapturing their old glory in India, took some time before even attempting to catch up with the Hindus.

In all this time, the Muslims of Kashmir, cut off from larger events and trends in British-ruled India, and held down by the tiny Hindu minority of rulers and administrators, were barely able to move at all. Illiteracy and poverty were widespread; political opposition to the Hindu maharajah was met with brutality. As in India, a few educated Muslims were left to carry the burden of their country’s humiliation and backwardness.

—August 23, 2000—This is the first of three articles on Kashmir.

  1. 10

    Some of the more useful books on the subject are: Sumantra Bose, The Challenge in Kashmir (New Delhi: Sage, New Delhi, 1997); Sumit Ganguly, The Crisis in Kashmir (Cambridge University Press, 1997); Balraj Puri, Kashmir: Towards Insurgency (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1995); Ajit Bhattacharjea, Kashmir: The Wounded Valley (Delhi: UBS, 1994); Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in Conflict (I.B. Tauris, 2000).

  2. 11

    Autobiography (Oxford University Press, India, 1997).

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