Thursday, April 27, 2017

Kashmir: The Paradise and the Paradox

                                            Vipul Shaha, Pune, Maharashtra                                           
                                                                     

My family had made plans to visit Kashmir on a vacation this summer. Since I prefer charting out my own exploratory solo journeys rather than going on organized tours, I wasn’t sure whether I would be joining them.  Thanks to a chance encounter with the father of one of my Kashmiri students at a Krishnamurti School, who very enthusiastically invited me to visit his place that I decided to go. The pride with which he spoke about Kashmir got me convinced to take up his invitation.  Once in Kashmir, I realized that it isn’t just he who holds such immense pride about this region, but it was true for every person I met here.  Everyone was equally welcoming in extending their warm hospitality.  One of the first things I was impressed to observe about the culture in Kashmir was the ease and comfort with which men expressed their affection and brotherhood towards each other through hugs and touch.



Sunset, Dal Lake, Srinagar

What was meant to be purely a fun vacation trip packed with visits to common places of tourist attraction in Kashmir, ended up being so much more than that!  Over the course of 2 weeks that I spent in the Kashmir Valley, I got the opportunity to not only unwind and enjoy myself with my family as a tourist, but also to meet hundreds of local people in different towns and villages, stay with local families in different households, visit schools and dialogue with the young, visit and pray at various mosques, Muslim shrines, read up about Islam, the history and current affairs about the region and many such off-beat engagements which I had not earlier anticipated on this trip.



Visit to a mustard farm


My time in Kashmir left me filled with many mixed emotions, thoughts and questions.  I had discovered a stunningly beautiful landscape and a rich culture which I was completely ignorant towards until I actually came here.  Coming to Kashmir, one cannot escape being drawn into burning issues of this region. I have to admit that my only little understanding about Kashmir had come through news as reported in mainstream media—usually around militancy, terror and political unrest.  Growing up, it was easy to look at the map of India and regard it ‘one whole nation’ and assume it to be so with great pride.  The moment we set foot in Kashmir however, my assumptions began to be challenged and perspectives started to shift.  It was the unsettling self-realization that reality is far more complex and dynamic than what one sees, reads or hears from a distance.



Visit to Mazar-e-Shuhada (Martyr's Graveyard) in old part of Srinagar.  MartyrsDay is observed in Kashmir in remembrance of the people killed on 13 July 1931 by the state forces.


I spent time with people living together in a tight-knit community with a spirit of kinship very proud of their unique cultural heritage.  At a Kashmiri wedding procession I saw young women dancing on street with utmost joy even as there were fresh incidents of riots and violence all over the Kashmir Valley that day.  A young man told me how Kashmir region has been invaded time and again over centuries and yet their hardiness, resiliency and humbleness have kept them going through tough times such as the ones they find themselves currently caught up in.  Across the Valley, a deep sense of fear, distrust, sadness, frustration, helplessness and even anger towards the way in which successive governments and political leadership have let down the people of Kashmir was very much palpable.  Many individuals I met had poignant stories of loss of loved ones to militancy / army related conflicts.  The youth here were particularly restless and yearning for better opportunities and a different socio-economic-political narrative in their lives—many openly demanding separate nationhood --‘Azadi’ or ‘Free Kashmir’ while many asking for greater political autonomy.  One could see wall-graffiti with many such slogans painted in various towns across Kashmir Valley (more provocative and offensive graffiti expressions were also noticeable in some places).  Somehow, despite the best of intentions perhaps, it seemed that India has not succeeded in making the people of Kashmir feel truly integrated and belong to the larger idea of Indian nation.  Heavy and often intrusive military presence and divisive politics here is being resented by most people of Kashmir who are finding themselves rather oppressed than being heard. Public protests have been violently crushed with the enforcement of long periods of curfew in recent past—severely affecting day-to-day lives of ordinary people.  Schools and Colleges were shut for several months during 2016 when the curfew was administered.   It was a new discovery to me that Jammu & Kashmir State has its own state flag along with the flag of India, the state has its own constitution and had a prime minister of its own until the year 1965.  I read up about the Article 370 of the Indian constitution which grants special status and a degree of autonomy to this region and how over decades it has played out leaving the people in the Valley feeling betrayed.

Organic kitchen garden at my host's place

On the other hand however, there was much appreciation, warmth and admiration for the common people of India—Bollywood, cricket, trade and business, tourism and higher studies related travel to different parts of India has played a big role in keeping the ties intact I believe.  Despite the conflict related wounds and disappointments about their unfulfilled potential, I experienced that most the people I met in the Kashmir Valley have largely retained their innate goodness and have not yet developed bitterness towards the ordinary people of India or among each other.   Some attributed this to the lingering influence of Sufi/spiritual tradition in the Valley and call it the ‘land of rishis’.  We visited some of the very old Hindu temples and a Gurudwara, which were still highly well regarded. Many spoke of how different religious communities have harmoniously co-existed in the region until recent decades when the winds of communalism started to blow over this land. 

Shepherds near a Kashmiri village
Blessed with awe-inspiring Himalayan mountains and incredible natural beauty, forests, water resources, fruit trees and fertile lands, the people here have traditionally been largely content and self-reliant.  Most households still continue to have their own organic kitchen gardens and fruit trees (a big savior during the times of curfew they said!) Horticulture and tourism have been considered the backbones of the economy, although tourism has greatly suffered over past couple of decades due to continuing unrest in the Valley.  Traveling through Kashmir one gets the sense that the region has not been able to fully reap the benefits of economic liberalization and globalization to the extent the rest of the country has been able to do so.  Many places give one the feeling as if they have been‘frozen in time’.  From a mountaintop the lake city of Srinagar offers a beautiful panoramic view of horizontally spread-out human habitation—buildings with traditional architecture not going above 2 or 3 stories—as if it were one large village.  I was told that movie theaters in all major towns had to be shut down due to the rise of insurgency and security threats. I did not come across any big shopping malls either. By coming to Kashmir, I was happy to have escaped the modern urban sprawl, the noise, traffic and pollution and yet I wondered if the young Kashmiris watching the story of growth and modernization taking place in the rest of India may be feeling left out?  Due to the paucity of private sector jobs and corporate opportunities, young college graduates seek security in opting for government sector even as many of them may personally find themselves in conflict with the government establishment in Kashmir.  Some expressed the desire to move someplace else in an attempt to escape the political uncertainty and turmoil that threatens their growth and potential here.

Newly released videos about military atrocities as well as civilian rebellion against military had started to spread like wildfire while I was traveling in Kashmir—forcing the government to block internet for longer periods of time.  Walking through old parts of Srinagar one of the afternoons, we happened to witness heavy stone-pelting and a tense clash between army and the local youth.  We quickly rushed into a local shop trying to seek shelter.  The kind gentleman in the shop tried to soothe the shock and anxiety which we were experiencing—“Please don’t worry.  They won’t harm a tourist.  These are common happenings here.  We are sick and tired of it.  Let’s talk about something else. How I can serve you?”

It became evident from spending time in Kashmir that mere systemic/administrative/legal/political changes, fear inducing strategies, forceful occupation or suppression (as many have come to feel about it) and not even any allure of ‘development and progress’ can truly win the hearts of the people who seem to have lost their faith in the government here.  Only 7% voter turnout in a recently held Lok Sabha seat by-poll election which later dropped to mere 2% re-polling was telling of this fact. If I had the opportunity, it would have been interesting to hear the perspectives of military and state officials on these issues.  Few of the army jawans that we got to talk to definitely seemed to live under a lot of fear and stress themselves.  What must it be like for them I wondered—being at the receiving end of mounting public resentment and having to stay vigilent in tough uncertainty so far away from their own homes, with no real sense of connection or belonging to the local culture or community where they are stationed.

Introspection and reflection on India’s own struggle for freedom from the British Raj may offer many lessons and confidence in India’s ability to remain a light of peace and non-violence in the world.  Ultimately, whose interest does violence and conflict serve and how long can power and force mute the voices and aspirations of the masses?  As a human civilization, isn’t it high time that we grow up and out of our narrow ideas of separateness and conflicts based on religious or regional divisions? What have we learnt from the history of wars and colonial imperialism? Connecting up with some of the journalists, activists, former politicians, community leaders and peace-workers in the Valley offered me hope and glimpse of a different possibility despite the cynicism that is easy to fall prey to under such circumstances.

At a seminar on peace held at Initiatives of Change (Panchgani), the speaker, who had closely worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during civil rights movement in the USA, had said something very insightful which has remained with me over these years and finds particular relevance as I ponder over Kashmir: “Association without understanding breeds conflict”.  Another quote by the commencement speaker at Naropa University--Parker Palmer had made a particular impression on me when he observed that “Violence is what happens when we do not know what to do with our suffering”.  Reflecting on these thoughts, I feel that the healing of wounds in Kashmir requires more than just knee-jerk reactions, quick-fix solutions and tightening of a forceful grip over a region.  It calls for going to the root of the issues and being able to listen to each other and rise beyond apparent divides. A couple of weeks of my attempts of connecting with ordinary people here opened my heart and mind towards their daily struggles, hopes, dreams, uniquely rich offerings and differences and most importantly our shared humanity.  It created in me a desire to learn more and contribute towards our collective peaceful future. More such travels and dialogue between people in different parts of India to Kashmir can go a long way in building bridges, mutual cultural respect and empathy, cultivate trust and goodwill between our fellow brothers and sisters—this would be my appeal to fellow Indians who wish to truly bring to life our nation’s motto of “Unity in Diversity”.  Else, more of the same and business as usual is likely to get this boiling pot to explode sooner than later.  During an interaction I had with Class 8 students in a village school in Kashmir, a young girl said something very moving: “Agar hum sub aakhir khuda ke pass hee jaane wale hai toh aaj mera tumhara karake zagadaa kyon kar rahe hai?” (If we all are ultimately going to God, why do we fight today saying this is mine or that is yours?)

Interactive dialogue with youth at a village school

While I may be na├»ve in my understanding of the complexity of issues playing their role in Kashmir and my commentaries from the brief time that I spent here, I do wish to draw from my experiences and belief in the transformative power of genuine human-to-human connections.  I also wish to continue to approach these issues with humility, curiosity, openness, courage and respect—in this interconnected world, I cannot choose to remain isolated from what is happening within another part of my own country—if I truly regard it to be so.  Moreover, being in Kashmir was a reminder for me to not take for granted the idea of freedom and to be alert to the fact that what may be happening in a particular region may be a reflection of a larger tide/trend that we as a global community are a part of and may even be unintentionally contributing towards.  It also called me to investigate the seeds of violence and conflict which may be buried deep within my own self.  I had known philosophically that the microcosm and macrocosm are deeply intertwined. The significance of this thought and my own role in this ‘wholeness’ have become more pronounced than ever—thanks all the churning that was set in motion during my brief visit to Kashmir. 

1. For additional historical and political analysis of the situation in Kashmir, please refer to this recently published article by former cabinet minister P. Chidambaram:


2. Parker Palmer on Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy and his Commencement Speech at Naropa University: