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A Journey to the Valley of Sigh

"all political parties hold the same position on Kashmir: Kashmir is an integral part of India and that is all there is to it"
At noon of June 12, 1996 I along with three companions alighted the Indian Airlines plane at Srinagar. Coming from Delhi, one could have anticipated a cooler and pleasant day in the Kashmir valley; it was indeed cool and pleasant. A friend of ours whom I had met only two weeks ago for the first time had come to receive us. It seemed quite normal to be received at the airport. It is only during our return journey I realized he had taken some risk and must have gone through a lots of trouble to reach the airport.

This was my first visit to Kashmir. The other three had visited Kashmir before; more than a couple times since 1989. It is around that time that a new phase in the life of Kashmiri people had begun. During this visit, they witnessed a change. That is what they told me. They found a decrease in the number of Indian armed personnel on the street. To them more people were walking in the market now than only a year ago. My reaction was one of shock.

I felt I had entered a war zone, an occupied territory. I was a young boy during the Quit India movement of 1942 and had joined a High School in a small town. I do not recall seeing such concentration of soldiers then as I saw on the streets of Srinagar. There were a dozen or so of them at each street corner; at every 50 meters or so in each block, there were one or two with their automatic rifles ready, with bullet proof vests and helmets. There are nearly 500,000 armed personnel in the valley of 4 million people. This makes one soldier for every 8 Kashmiris; which amounts to one soldier for every 2-3 male of 15-40 years of age.

I remembered my days in the primary school in my village in the 1930's. My father was a primary school teacher so I was never punished. But then there was this hardy Dalit boy. His parents thought that schools are for everyone. So they sent their son to school. No matter what this boy did the teacher found something wrong and devised the harshest punishment for him. And it was not just token punishment. Unless the boy showed extreme pain the punishment used to continue. The purpose was not to make him a better student but rather to humiliate him and then feel proud of ones power. Perhaps the Indian government is not just dealing with terrorists of Kashmir. It is dealing with the whole people of Kashmir. They must not only be defeated but humiliated. A temporary victory in Kashmir is not enough. Kashmiris should be put to perpetual submission. The punishment for that tough Dalit boy in my school had to be different. And so should it be for the Kashmiris; after all it is their fault they want freedom; most of them are not even Hindus. I have seen dozens of billboards in Indian cities displaying Tilak's famous quote: "Freedom is our birth right"; but this applies only when you seek freedom from British colonial rule. If you demand freedom from Indian rule, you must be a terrorist.

I was to reach my hotel on a boat in Dal lake. A row of boats with two to three rooms, most of them empty in this high tourist season. A boulevard runs on one side of the lake. The boats are lodged hardly 100 meters from the shore. I was told that during this time of the year, all hotels used to be booked and tourists often had to sleep on the boulevard. Not so now. The last time our boat had a guest was three weeks ago in May. This hotel was like none I have stayed in. Perhaps the warmth of the staff (really a family) was symbolic of Kashmiri hospitality. They didn't expect a tip at every move of yours as happens in Delhi. Five days later when we were to leave Srinagar, the parting was emotional as if leaving your home to go abroad for an indefinite period. I would rather stay in a five-star hotel in Delhi; you can leave without any memory even of the comfort.

All our days were spent outdoors. We met different leaders of the Hurriyet, an all party body. We met Yasin Malik, the young leader of JKLF, whose face carried the signs of torture by the Indian authorities but whose warmth and smile indicated he was unaware of it. We met Shabir Shah, who has spent 20 of his forty-two years in different Indian jails. We visited the home of Abdul Ghani Lone just a week after his house was car-bombed on June 7; the entire brick wall facing the street was gone; all windows were shattered and there wasn't a single wall without cracks. We met Professor Abdul Ghani of Kashmir University, who could articulate the problems of Kashmir so clearly and convincingly that I had no doubt that Indian authorities would consider him a dangerous man. We watched life in the market place, calm and serene people. These are important leaders of Kashmir but their modesty was overwhelming; I was at once convinced that even after 49 years they have not accepted the Indian political framework. They seemed quite oblivious of what they have gone through. Not only they did not talk about it but their mannerism prevented even a person like me with immense curiosity, of inquiring about their experiences with Indian police and military and jails. When we visited Lone's house, he matter-of- factly showed us all the cracks and debris left by the bomb. There was no fear on his face, no despondency, no sense of defeat. During our meeting with Yasin Malik, no one had the time or desire to talk of army brutality; there was only time to assert their determination to continue with their struggle perhaps using a different strategy. Yasin Malik, too modest to conform to my experience with other big leaders, treated us to a sumptuous dinner; he himself is a vegetarian. After the dinner he decided to drive us to our hotel; I was afraid; he was not. Upon leaving us at the hotel at 11 in the night, he wanted to drive back alone. We felt very uncomfortable and wanted him to stay at the hotel and go home in the morning; On our insistence he eventually agreed. The boat to take us from the shore to the hotel was waiting. Our hosts immediately recognized him and one with all the excitement on his face whispered "is this Yasin Saheb?". I said yes. My hosts felt honored to have Yasin as a guest rather than show the fear of hosting a "terrorist".

I had the impression that these Kashmiri leaders can enter into any house and be assured of protection and hospitality. I wondered about this overwhelming support for these leaders. I had thought that the general population might be cursing them for having brought havoc to their lives, having destroyed their businesses and having been responsible for the deaths of so many innocent lives. After all nearly 50,000 male youth between the age of 15-35 have been killed by the Indian armed personnel. This adds up to approximately 3% of all the male youth in that age group. Obviously, most if not all families must have been affected by it and they should all curse these leaders for being responsible for this. But nothing like that.

I had the impulse of inviting a few of them to visit North America and argue their case. They seemed eager but unable to accept the invitation because none of them have nor can get passports. Those who had it could not get them renewed. Some had been waiting for as long as five years.

Many of these Kashmir leaders have had meetings with Indian leaders of different political parties from BJP's Vajpayee to CPI(M)'s Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Perhaps they could not explain their case or these Indian leaders do not want to give in. Whatever be the reason, all political parties hold the same position on Kashmir : Kashmir is an integral part of India and that is all there is to it. They may even talk to Pakistan and reach some kind of agreement in Tashkent or Simla. But with Kashmiris their can be no dialogue. Such is their logic. I could understand BJP position; after all Akhand Bharat (the great United India) used to be more than most of the present India. But this Marxist nationalism or national Marxism of CPI(M), is some what difficult to understand. But then all the communist parties, of which there are many in India, with the exception of People's War Group (PWG) , follow the leadership of CPI (M) on the Kashmir question.

Every Kashmiri I talked to was very proud of their 4,000-year old history until they were conquered by Afghans, Moghuls, Sikhs and finally British who sold their land to Dogra kings, who I am told surrendered this land to India. My impression was that it is freedom ("Azadi") that Kashmiri's want. But how can the left, especially the Indian left, let a people, especially Muslimmajority, have independence. First they do not deserve it. Second they might become fundamentalist. It is of course correct to prevent the emergence of a possible fundamentalist Kashmir since they can hardly guarantee secularism in India. How dangerous this political line can be? What if one day, some saintly soul passes a law that no woman will be allowed to become pregnant unless she can apriori assure that she will not give birth to a liar or a thief or a bandit or a fundamentalist. She can only be allowed to produce good citizens.

Undoubtedly the present phase of the struggle has been won by India. But have the people of Kashmir given up? My impression was that the struggle is far from over. The next phase of the struggle is brewing deep in the valley. Such mass disapproval of the savagery of the Indian state by the Kashmiri people is bound to emerge into a new wave. Kashmir is not Punjab much as Indian strategist like to think. The Kashmir struggle has a mass base; its militants and leaders are loved. It is the government-made militants who are hated by the people.

We spent five days in Srinagar. On the 17 of June we drove towards the airport to catch the plane to Delhi. The taxi driver was more aware of what lies ahead than we were. We went through seven check points before boarding the plane. The first two checkpoints about 1 kilometers from the airport were manned by nearly 50 armed personnel. Every piece of luggage, every corner of the taxi was thoroughly searched. Why two such searches? There might be a lapse in the first, said the officer. I had two plastic containers, one with penicillin and one with aspirin. The security asked me what it is and then told me to take appropriate number of pills for the plane and put the rest in the suitcase. In the final waiting room one security guard had kept a matchbox to light cigarettes of customers since no one was allowed to carry lighters or matches into the plane.

I was saddened to leave Kashmir but relieved to be away from all the gun-toting Indian armed personnel. The Indian Airlines plane took off for Delhi. The late afternoon of the same day I was to meet a friend in old Delhi. As my scooter drove past the historic Red Fort, I pondered that when on the midnight of August 14, 1947 India had its "tryst with destiny", the people of Kashmir began their tryst with India; the outcome is still awaited.

- Daya Varma

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