SRINAGAR, GULMARG ~ There was a moment when Prashant Bhushan was irreversibly diminished, and he became the Ringo Starr of Team Anna’s famous four. It happened in the middle of a television interview, when thugs broke into his chamber and beat him up for demanding a referendum in Kashmir to solve the dispute. At the time, a section of Kashmir’s intellectuals were still waiting to hear from Anna Hazare. They were naïve enough to believe everything that television anchors said and to invite him to take up the Valley’s cause with the evil Indian government. After all, Hazare had demanded a referendum for the anti-corruption bill. He was surely the referendum-type? But Hazare soon made his position clear. Even as Bhushan’s body was still aching, Hazare publicly condemned his stand on Kashmir. According to Hazare, and possibly some other former truck drivers of the Indian Army, Kashmir was not a disputed part of India.
It was another reminder for the people of Kashmir that it is almost impossible to transmit to all of India the simple fact that India has occupied Kashmir and this occupation is morally indefensible. Kashmir’s intellectual elite, which includes writers, melancholy poets, artists, Facebook revolutionaries, filmmakers and at least one rapper who owns a hood, have since resumed what Kashmir’s elite has always done.
Trauma in Kashmir is like a heritage building—the elite fight to preserve it. ‘Don’t forget,’ is their predominant message, ‘Don’t forget to be traumatised.’ They want the wound of Kashmir to endure because the wound is what indicts India for the many atrocities of its military. This might be a long period of calm, but if the wound vanishes, where is the justice? India simply gets away with all those rapes, murders and disappearances? So nothing disgusts them more than these words: ‘Normalcy returns to Kashmir’; ‘Peace returns to the Valley’; ‘Kashmiris want to move on’.
Yet, all this is true. And for the regular people of Kashmir, who do not have second homes in North America, Europe, Dubai or Delhi, who have no choice but to continue living in Kashmir, this reality is not so disgusting.
Peace is designed to be fragile in Kashmir. Any moment, at the slightest provocation, its youth will be nudged by those who stand to gain from strife to erupt against the Indian Army, or militants may choose to stir things up to bolster the lucrative business of terrorism. But it is hard not to see that this is an extraordinary period of peace. A few days ago, Syed Salahuddin, chief of terrorist organisation Hizbul Mujahideen, confirmed something, which Kashmiris say is common knowledge—that he has withdrawn all his men from Kashmir. According to Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism minister, in 2011 more tourists visited the Valley than in recent memory. It is believed that the figure was over a million. This winter, almost all hotels in Gulmarg, a skiing destination an hour from Srinagar, were fully booked. Zahoor, who is from Srinagar and works in Gulmarg in the winters as a skiing instructor, and who taught me how to ski, says he is enjoying the peace and hordes of Indian tourists and his newfound ability to earn a decent living. Also, in Kashmir, the political stakes in ensuring that the Indian Army does not violate human rights are so high that Kashmiris today have little to complain.
On the streets of Srinagar and in the villages around, regular people, who are not writers or journalists or intellectuals, have come to hate Pakistan for what it has done to the Valley in the name of freedom. Also, what Pakistan has become, politically and economically, has ensured that accession to that country is not part of popular sentiment here anymore. In fact, there is even relief in Kashmir that historical circumstances saved the Valley from being a part of Pakistan. And what India has become, politically and economically, has made it more endearing than the Kashmiri elite wants to admit in public. But freedom from India remains a fervent wish for many, which means that an independent sovereign Kashmir stranded between India and Pakistan is the only option left. Kashmir’s elite, especially those who live in Kashmir, believe that a sovereign Kashmir is an impractical idea and to continue the status quo with the newly prosperous and somewhat secular India is the best way forward. “But we can’t say it, you know, we can’t say it publicly without a lot of our brothers from Dubai and America abusing us,” says one of the prominent journalists of Kashmir in an informal chat with me in the lobby of a hotel in Srinagar.
Is it obscene to search for happiness in Kashmir, is it obscene for a writer from the south of India to wander around Kashmir interviewing people who will tell him that they want to get on with their lives despite the presence of the Indian Army? What is the stake of an outsider in Kashmir? The fact is that Kashmir, too, has occupied India. Kashmir is the reason why India is one of the worst victims of terrorism. All Indians have a stake in Kashmir’s state of mind.
About sixty kilometres from Srinagar, in a crowded village hall on the slope of a hill, a meeting is underway. The district magistrate, who had arrived in a car that was followed by a battered ambulance and will leave the same way, is addressing a gathering of newly elected village leaders (there was a voter turnout of nearly 90 per cent in local elections held last year). The gathering is mostly male but there are about ten women in the back rows. The women are among the elected leaders, all of them for the first time, and they listen carefully as the district magistrate tells them how governance works. There are questions and complaints and occasional laughter.
When I arrived, the district magistrate, for my benefit, started talking in English and Hindi. He even started using words like “chauvinistic” to describe the men who had made the women take the back rows. His audience quickly instructed him to speak in Kashmiri. They were not here to be part of a farce; they were here to know the way forward. They want to know, very simply, the economic consequences of peace. They wanted roads and electricity and schools and hospitals.
At the end of the meeting, which lasted over two hours, the district magistrate told me, “There was not a word about politics. Not a word about the Indian Army or Pakistan or anything. They want to talk about things that matter to them and their families.”
His deputy is Shah Faesal, a delicate, affable and sharp man. Two years ago he was placed first among the 500,000 candidates who wrote the civil services exam. When the news broke, people went to his home in Srinagar playing drums and singing. Shah Faesal, now twenty-nine, was front-page news. It is hard to believe that someone who topped one of the toughest exams in the world will sit in a small village hall, in the smell of hay, and listen to the aspirations of villagers. But this is what Faesal wants to do.
Faesal does not have a passport yet. The only foreign country he has ever visited is Nepal. “But that’s still India, right?” he says with a chuckle. A decade ago, his father, a schoolteacher and known moderate, was killed by “unidentified gunmen”. Once, after a bomb blast in Srinagar, Army jawans rounded up some men on the streets, including Faesal’s father. The men were beaten up and they were, according to Faesal, forced to chant, “Ram, Ram.”
We drive together towards Srinagar. On the way someone tells us that we must turn back, there is stone-pelting going on just a few hundred metres ahead. Faesal nods.
He knows what it is about. A few days ago, some boys had tampered with an electrical transformer and they were picked up by the police. The stone-pelting was in protest against the arrest.
We don’t turn back, we head towards the venue of the apparent protest. There are about thirty boys standing on the road, doing nothing but laughing. They were the stone-pelters. The fun was over, for the moment.
In an earlier interview, Faesal told me that this period of peace in Kashmir might just be the beginning of something significant. He said, “Commonsense is finally winning.” I quoted him in an article in the International Herald Tribune. I had quoted him in indirect speech. But just that comment of Faesal—that commonsense was finally winning in Kashmir—attracted the wrath of many Kashmiris on Twitter and Facebook, chiefly the non-resident Kashmiris who live in affluent countries. They hurled a string of abuses at him and hurtful messages. It is as if, in their opinion, peace and happiness are truly obscene things until Kashmir is resolved. They themselves are in peaceful places, they have moved on, got on with their lives, but they want the people of Kashmir to have the decency to suffer.
Faesal posted his analysis of these angry Kashmiris on his Facebook page: ‘…the crop of burger-fed, Armani-attired pseudo-revolutionaries has actually harmed Kashmir, more than anyone else.’
The non-resident patriotic Indian, who adores Narendra Modi, and the non-resident patriotic Kashmiri are adversaries in the vacuous space of social media. But they have much in common. From the comfort of distance, they financially and emotionally support ideologies whose consequence they don’t have to face. They are not just a nuisance. As a collective they are dangerous. When men capable of murder receive the affection of engineers and MBAs, it makes them potentially far more lethal. That is why, in the genocide of impoverished Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka by that country’s army, the affluent non-resident Tamils living in Europe, who supported the LTTE through money and love, are very much complicit.
Srinagar does not have pubs or discos or cinema halls. Most young people there do not drink. A popular form of fun is sitting in a café and having coffee with friends. They are still uncorrupted by city slickness and there is an endearing honesty in their words. It is almost impossible to dislike Kashmiris, especially the strangers—they are too beautiful and too civilised.
One of the most popular professions among the young in Kashmir is journalism because they have for long seen their own world interpreted through this profession, which they overrate. The biggest private sector employers in Kashmir are cellphone service providers. “We are crazy about mobile phones,” says a 37-year-old employee of Aircel, whose job is to manage complaints from angry customers. “Every Kashmiri has at least one mobile phone,” he says. Cellphones have made Kashmiris feel safer. “You can reach your children at all times,” the man says, “That’s why everyone has one.”
He and his close friend take me to Café Coffee Day, which is filled with young people. Both the men work for Aircel. They say what many educated young people in Kashmir say—can we move on? Can we have development first instead of waiting forever for the Kashmir issue to be solved? We want industries to come here, we want MNCs and malls. We want to watch a cricket match in Srinagar. “We want KFC,” one of them says, and they burst out laughing.