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…

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