Kashmir: my lost country
13 February 2002
New Delhi: Not long ago, somebody asked me what kind of stories I wrote. Obituaries came to mind. As a reporter in Kashmir I have been literally writing obituaries for the past 10 years; only the characters and places change, the stories are always the same, full of misery and tears.
And when in October last year I got a chance to leave Kashmir, I hoped for a change. Every human being has a threshold for pain and agony. I felt mine had been reached. I wanted to escape. But within days, Kashmir was in the headlines and although I was thousands of miles away, I found myself in the middle of it all again.
I was born in Kashmir. I grew up in its apple orchards and lush green meadows, dreamed on the banks of its freshwater streams. I went to school there, sitting on straw mats and memorising tables by heart. After school my friends and I would rush half-way home, tear off our uniforms and dive into the cold water. Then we would quickly dry our hair, so our parents would not find out what we had done. Sometimes, when we felt especially daring, we would skip an entire day of school to play cricket.
My village lies in the foothills of the Himalayas. During summer breaks, we would trek to the meadows high in the mountains carrying salt slates for the family cattle, sit around a campfire and play the flute for hours. The chilling winter would turn the boys and girls of our small village into one huge family - huddled together in a big room, we would listen to stories till late into the night. Sipping hot cups of the traditional salt tea, the village elder who had inherited the art of storytelling would transport us to the era of his tales. He had never been to school but he remembered hundreds of beautiful stories by heart. Kashmir was like a big party, full of love and life. Today death and fear dominate everything.
I was in Kashmir too when the first bomb exploded in 1988. People first thought it was the outcome of a small political feud, although everybody knew the pot was boiling after years of political discontent. Then that September a young man, Ajaz Dar, died in a violent encounter with the police. Disgruntled by the farce of decades of ostensible democracy under Indian rule, a group of Kashmiri young men had decided to fight. They had dreamt of an independent Kashmir free from both India and Pakistan. Although this young man was not the first Kashmiri to die fighting for this cause, his death was the beginning of an era of tragedy.
Separatist sentiment had been dominant among Kashmiris since 1947, when Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan during partition, and the two countries fought over it. But it was not until 40 years later that most of the youngsters opted for guns against Indian rule, in reaction to the government-sponsored rigging of the assembly polls, aimed at crushing dissent.
I had just completed secondary school then and was enrolled in a college - a perfect potential recruit: the entire militant movement belonged to my generation. The movement was the only topic of discussion on the street, in the classroom and at home. Soon people started coming out onto the streets, thousands would march to the famous Sufi shrines or to the United Nations office, shouting slogans in favour of `Azadi!' (freedom). These mass protests became an everyday affair, frustrating the authorities, who began to use force to counter them. Dozens of protesters were killed by police fire.
Many of my close friends and classmates began to join. One day, half of our class was missing. They never returned to school again, and nobody even looked for them, because it was understood. Although the reasons for joining the militant movement varied from person to person, the majority of Kashmiris never felt that they belonged to India. What had been a relatively dormant separatist sentiment was finally exploding into a fully-fledged separatist uprising. I too wanted to join, though I didn't know exactly why or what it would lead to. Most of us were teenagers and had not seriously thought about the consequences. Perhaps the rebel image was subconsciously attracting us all.
I also prepared for the dangerous journey from our village in north Kashmir to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir where all the training camps were. One didn't just have to avoid being sighted by the Indian soldiers who guarded the border round the clock, but also defeat the fierce cold and the difficulties of hiking over the snow-clad Himalayan peaks that stood in the way. I acquired the standard militant's gear: I bought the Wellington boots, prepared a polythene jacket and trousers to wear over my warm clothes, and found some woollen cloth to wrap around my calves as protection from frostbite.
Fortunately, I failed. Three times a group of us returned from the border. Each time something happened that forced our guide to take us back. The third time, 23 of us had started our journey on foot from Malangam, not far away from my village, only to be abandoned in a dense jungle. It was night, and the group had scattered after hearing gunshots nearby, sensing the presence of Indian army men. In the morning, when we gathered again, our guide was missing. Most of the others decided to continue on their own, but a few of us turned back. We had nothing to eat but leaves for three days. We followed the flight of crows, hoping to reach a human settlement. I was lucky. I reached home and survived.
As the days and months passed, and as the routes the militants took to cross the border became known to Indian security forces, the bodies began to arrive. Lines of young men would disappear on a ridge as they tried to cross over or return home. The stadiums where we had played cricket and football, the beautiful green parks where we had gone on school excursions as children, were turned into martyrs' graveyards. One after another, those who had played in those places were buried there, with huge marble epitaphs detailing their sacrifice. Many had never fired a single bullet from their Kalashnikovs.
One day, I counted my friends and classmates in the martyrs' graveyards near our village. There were 21 of them. I could feel the smiling face of Mushtaq, whom I had known since our schooldays. He would have been 31 this January, but the ninth anniversary of his death is just two months away. He was killed in April 1993. His mother could not bear the pain and lost her mental balance. For all these years, she has been wandering around the villages carrying the shirt he wore on the day of his death.
Whatever attention Kashmir was given was because it was a flashpoint between two nuclear neighbours and not because Kashmiris were suffering. India and Pakistan seem to share one common policy on Kashmir — to force Kashmiris to toe their respective lines. In fact, it seems that both countries want to fight to the last Kashmiri.
The Indian government held state elections in 1996 apparently aimed at ensuring a representative government in Kashmir. But actually it was nothing more than a farce. The security forces herded people to polling stations and even conducted `nail parades' to check - by the indelible ink pasted on the nail of the forefinger — that people had voted.
The man who represents Kashmir — not only in New Delhi, but across the world as India's junior Foreign Minister — is Omar Abdullah, the son of Kashmir's Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. He received just 5 per cent of votes in his constituency — after coercion by the police and the security forces — and he won the elections. Who he does actually represent, nobody knows.
I have been a witness to all this. I have seen Kashmir change. I still remember my grandmother worrying whenever the sky turned red. `Murder has been committed somewhere,' she would say. Now that suspicion can no longer be reserved for red skies: the daily death toll is 20.
Kashmir used to be known as a crime-free state. One of my neighbours was a senior police officer in the mid-Eighties; he once told me that the average yearly murder r in Kashmir was three or four. Today, if three people perish in a day, it is considered peaceful.