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Kashmir: The Scarred and the Beautiful

The Arts of Kashmir

Catalog by Pratapaditya Pal
of a recent exhibition at the Asia Society and Museum, New York City
Asia Society/5 Continents, 224 pp., $55.00 (paper)

In November 1989, as a young journalist newly arrived in India, I was sent to Kashmir to cover a series of violent incidents in the state capital of Srinagar. Those protests turned out to be the beginning of the disastrous uprising against Indian rule that continues to smolder to this day. In the interval, it has left thousands dead, radicalized an entire region, and brought two nuclear powers to the brink of war.

At the time, however, the violence was still an amateur affair of young, largely secular-minded Muslims armed with unreliable homemade weapons—pistols fashioned from the steering shafts of rickshaws and so on. They were rising up in a disorganized fashion, from village to village, angry at the Indian government’s neglect of Kashmir’s dominantly Muslim population; its blatant rigging of the state’s elections; and its continuing refusal to hold a long-promised referendum on Kashmir’s future.

The extraordinary, almost unearthly beauty of the Kashmir valley made it a strange conflict to cover. In the morning, the window of my houseboat on the Dal Lake would be open, and as I lay in bed I could see the reed cutters and fishermen. The shikara canoes would be in the foreground; behind were the bridges and waterways, the willows and poplars, and the orchards of apricots and almonds. There were children paddling in the shallows and girls carrying brush-wood bundles on their heads. Beyond stretched the old Mughal watergardens and, above them, the mulberry trees of the silk farmers. Crowning all this were the jagged snow-peaks of the great Himalaya.

Yet even at the beginning, as early as those first months of the winter of 1989–1990, there were signs of how things would later develop. The first of the big massacres of civilians by the Indian paramilitary police, the CRPF, took place on the morning of January 21, 1990. Following incidents of police brutality during search operations, several thousand Kashmiris, including much of the local civil service, broke the curfew and marched peacefully out of the old city, waving placards complaining about police violence. When the vanguard of the crowd was halfway across the Gowkadal bridge, at the center of town, the CRPF opened fire, with automatic weapons, from three directions.

When I got to Srinagar the following day, I went straight to the city hospital. Every bed in the building was occupied and the overflow lined the corridors. One man, an educated and urbane city engineer named Farooq Ahmed, described how after the firing, the CRPF walked slowly forward across the bridge, finishing off those who were lying wounded on the ground. When the shooting began, Ahmed had fallen flat on his face and managed to escape completely unhurt. “Just as I was about to get up,” he told me, “I saw soldiers coming forward, shooting anyone who was injured. Someone pointed at me and shouted, ‘that man is alive,’ and a soldier began firing at me with a machine gun. I was hit four times in the back and twice in the arms.” Seeing that he was still alive, another soldier raised his gun, but the officer told him not to waste ammunition. “The man said I would anyway die soon.”

Ahmed waited forty-five minutes while the soldiers went through the piles of dead bodies, finishing off survivors and kicking corpses near the edge of the bridge into the river. When a convoy of trucks arrived, Ahmed was hauled inside along with the other bodies and covered with a tarpaulin. The trucks drove around Srinagar for an hour before finally dumping the bodies at the headquarters of the local Kashmiri police. Only then did survivors get taken to the hospital. The official casualty figure for the incident was twenty-eight dead. Ahmed and the three other survivors believed that the correct figure could well have been ten times that number.

After the international press published what had happened at the Gowkadal bridge, all foreign correspondents were banned from Kashmir for several months. When we were allowed to return in May, it quickly became clear that the brutality of the security forces had comprehensively radicalized the normally apolitical Kashmiris and turned a small-scale insurgency into a genuine popular movement. “India has united us,” I was told by a badly injured man at the city hospital. “We have no option but to continue. Only then can we live with our heads held high.”

It was on this visit that I heard the story of Mubina Gani, a young bride from Anantnag, who spoke to me from her hospital bed. On May 18, she was coming back from her wedding at eleven o’clock at night, being escorted by her new family to their home. Beside her in the bus, holding her hand, was her aunt, a woman of nearly forty who was seven months pregnant. Half a kilometer from their destination, the wedding party came upon a roadblock. As the driver pulled the bus to a halt, the paramilitary police at the checkpoint opened fire, killing the groom’s brother. The wedding party took refuge under the seats as the police boarded the bus. They attacked everyone—male or female—with rifle butts, then herded outside anyone who could still stand. The two ladies were then taken to a nearby field.

We were dragged along and when we resisted they beat us again with their rifles,” said Mubina. “They stole all our ornaments, including my new wedding ring. Then they took off their clothes and ordered us to do the same. I wept bitterly and told them I had not yet seen my husband. They laughed, then between four and six persons raped first me, then my auntie.”

Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India with a Muslim majority. At the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the state should logically have gone to Pakistan. But the pro-Indian sympathies of the state’s Hindu maharajah and those of its preeminent politician, Sheikh Abdullah, as well as the Kashmiri origins of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, all led to the state passing instead to India—on the condition that the Kashmiris retained a significant degree of autonomy.

Successive Indian governments, however, steadily increased their control of Kashmir’s affairs, and in 1953 the Nehru government imprisoned Sheikh Abdullah. Elected Kashmiri governments were dismissed by New Delhi, and direct rule imposed. Grants for economic development were misappropriated: four golf courses were built, but few schools and no hydro-electric dams or public sector industrial plants. Many Kashmiris came to believe that they were not being treated as equal partners in the Indian Union, that they were a mere appendage, even a colony. Following the Indian government’s shameless rigging of the 1987 local elections, several furious Kashmiri leaders went underground. Soon afterward, the bombings, strikes, assassinations, and stone-throwings began.

By the mid-1990s, during the second administration of the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan had begun inflaming the conflict by sending first weapons, then thousands of heavily armed and ideologically hardened jihadis into Kashmir. Many of these soldiers were drawn from the urban poor of Pakistan, especially from the impoverished southern Punjab, but some were the same sort of exiled Arab radicals who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and who were at that moment forming al-Qaeda in Peshawar. Bhutto was vocal in support of the new Kashmir jihad: “The people of Kashmir do not fear death, because they are Muslim,” she told one rally. “The Kashmiris have the blood of the Mujahids and Ghazis [jihadis].” In 1994 I asked her whether this sort of religious rhetoric was wise. “India tries to gloss over its policy of repression in Kashmir,” she replied. “India has been unable to crush the people of Kashmir. We are not prepared to keep silent, and collude with repression.”

The Muslims of the Kashmir valley had long been known for their tolerant and heterodox Sufi faith. But these foreign jihadis tried to impose a hardline Salafi-Wahhabi form of Islam. By 1994, the Arab and Afghan jihadis, and their sponsors in Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI), had begun to take over control of the uprising from the local Kashmiris, and local Muslim women who refused to wear the full black chador—a brightly colored kerchief thrown lightly over the back of the head was traditional in the valley—risked having acid thrown in their faces.

India responded to Pakistan’s jihadi offensive by sending half a million soldiers and paramilitaries to the valley, where they undertook mass arrests and brutal reprisals against ordinary civilians. Few of these actions were ever investigated, either by the government or—with one or two honorable exceptions—the Indian press. Two detention and torture centers were set up—Papa 1 and Papa 2—into which large numbers of local people, as well as the occasional captured foreign jihadi, would “disappear.” Their bodies would later be found, if at all, floating down rivers, bruised, covered in cigarette burns, missing fingers or even whole limbs.1

The centers became notorious for two methods of torture: some suspects were crushed by the use of heavy rollers, leading to terrible internal injuries. Others had electricity applied to their genitals, which had been wound around with copper wires; the result was often long-term impotence. For Western journalists, too, the conflict suddenly became much more dangerous: al-Faran, one of the new ultra-radical jihadi groups sent over the border by Pakistan, was the first Islamist organization to make a spectacle of beheading the Westerners it captured.

Eighteen years later, Kashmir is still restive, and the issues that brought about the insurgency remain unsettled. India and Pakistan in all have now fought three inconclusive wars over Kashmir, while a fourth mini-war over the Pakistani army’s occupation of a slice of Indian territory at Kargil came alarmingly close to igniting a nuclear exchange between the two countries in 1999. Indeed, so long has the conflict dragged on that many people now associate Kashmir with violence and strife rather than the traditions of high culture, artistic inventiveness, and religious syncretism with which the region has traditionally been connected.2 It now seems only ironic that the Kashmiris were once regarded as so unwarlike that, according to an old Indian joke, their troops always refused to go into battle without a police escort.

It was therefore timely and imaginative of the Asia Society to produce an exhibition and an accompanying volume of scholarly essays devoted to the larger currents at work in Kashmiri history before the present sad chapter of violence and repression. “The Arts of Kashmir,” which closed in New York at the beginning of January, was a superb piece of museum craft—a beautifully realized display of the intellectual and artistic brilliance that had long distinguished the valley. It was not a show that highlighted one particular aesthetic; instead it was a celebration of how multiple influences and styles can coexist and influence each other within a single small but culturally vibrant region. Many of the most beautiful pieces, some of them never before published, are illustrated in the remarkable exhibition catalog.

  1. 1

    For details of these torture centers, see Pankaj Mishra’s remarkable pieces on Kashmir in these pages: “Death in Kashmir,” September 21, 2000; “The Birth of a Nation,” October 5, 2000; and “Kashmir: The Unending War,” October 19, 2000. Curfewed Night, an excellent account of growing up during the uprising, by Basharat Peer, will be published by Scribner.

  2. 2

    For a wonderfully readable introduction to Kashmir’s history and artistic traditions, see Brigid Keenan, Travels in Kashmir: A Popular History of the its People, Places and Crafts (1989; Permanent Black, 2006).

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