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Crossfire zone


Caught between rival visions of identity, nationalism and the future, Kashmir's people hold on to their fragile hopes against the onslaught of despair.

KASHMIR TODAY: Mingled despair and hope. PHOTO: PTI

THE assurance of flight deserts us. We remain suspended in our surprise as the airplane breaks through the cordon of clouds, its progress monitored by a ring of snow-covered mountains. Far below, Srinagar's Humhama Civil Airport is bracketed by bunkers: painted in buff and drab camouflage, they spring paradoxically to meet the eye. Our wonderment at touching down in the legendary realm of Kalhana, Lal Ded and Sheikh Hamadani is tempered by a more immediate awareness of epaulettes, helmets and boots. Security watches as we collect our bags, are received, walk to the parking lot. Road-blocks and pill-boxes, we soon realise, are routine elements of street furniture here. The men posted around them seem keyed up, though their weapons are as natural as limbs.

Looking past the heavy curtain of militarisation, we discover one of South Asia's most beautiful mediaeval cities. A sudden glimpse of flowering jasmine or a terraced shrine may reward the visitor lost in a maze of alleys; a vista of the Jhelum may hide behind a row of broken houses, their windows paned with stray plastic. Srinagar's wooden domestic architecture is exquisite, as are its mosques, built in the distinctive `pagoda' style, in continuity with Hindu and Buddhist precursors; their lacquered interiors wrap the pilgrim in a mantle of meditative stillness. The first step towards protective legislation has been taken: a team of four young architects, commissioned by the local chapter of INTACH, has identified 1,500 heritage structures.

Concerns over culture

Built form is not the only feature of Kashmiri culture that needs protection. The Kashmiri language has never been the medium of instruction here, except during Sheikh Abdullah's first tenure as Chief Minister, 1947-1953. "Persian and Urdu displaced our language in previous centuries," says the distinguished poet and critic Rehman Rahi, sitting in his wind-blown garden. "I fear that Hindi will play that role in the years to come." Shafi Shauq, eloquent poet and Head of the Department of Kashmiri Studies at the University of Kashmir, regrets that Kashmiri is confined to a postgraduate course. "As parents speak to each other in Hindi or English, our children are losing touch with the textures and richness of their language," he observes. "I don't know how we can repair that damage at the M.A. and PhD level!"

Music is another casualty of social change. "No one wants to hear our Sufi music or instruments like the tumbak-nar," says Ravinder Kumar Bhan, an engineer who now runs a music production house from a crowded suite of rooms in Karan Nagar. "They want Hindi film songs, or commercialised folk music. The performers are scattered, or perform on rare occasions." A Pandit who did not leave when most of his community migrated under pressure in the early 1990s, and who braved the gutting of his first studio during this period, Bhan is surrounded by young enthusiasts, musicologists and vocalists. "We are passionate about saving our tradition," he spells out his solution to the dilemma, "but we also have to survive in the market."

* * *

Most exponents of identity politics emphasise language and culture as markers of a unique nationhood; but commentators tell us that the militants who led the Azaadi movement actively discouraged any emphasis on cultural endeavour as a potential diversion from the cause. "Imagine our isolation," says a writer. "We could not tell the truth about our suffering because we were threatened by the security forces on one hand, and by the militants on the other. During the turmoil, both sides were looking over our shoulders!"

Euphemisms like `turmoil' indicate the composite of freedom struggle, low-intensity warfare, counter-insurgency and repression that has defined life in the Valley for over a decade. The innumerable deaths and disappearances in the crossfire, the broken bodies and shattered minds haunt the men and women who pray and weep, sometimes for hours, in Kashmir's Sufi shrines.

In every shrine, they leave behind little mannat knots, coloured threads symbolising their wishes: whether at the immensely popular shrine of Maqdoom Sahib or the serene one of Dastgir Sahib in Srinagar, at Sheikh Balkhi's shrine in Pakkar Pora or at Charar-i-Sharif, partially and not satisfyingly rebuilt after its devastation during a battle between the security forces and the militants. The knots grow thick on railings, racks and filing cabinets. Without such an expression of its mingled despair and hope, the soul of Kashmir would have died long ago; it survives in the warmth of men who open their hearts to the visitor, in the smiles of women who have known much horror, in the laughter of children with the eyes of adults.

Masking pain

Kashmir has undergone centuries of oppression; its people mask their pain with courtesy, which accentuates it powerfully. Take Shad Ramzan, for instance. A poet and academic, he is equally at home with folklore and postmodernist literary theory; with his keen mind and elegant manners, he could brighten a university anywhere in India. He was beaten up by a security patrol some years ago for failing to carry his identification papers, a fatal mistake in a region governed by the Disturbed Areas Act. Such a humiliation would never overtake Ramzan's counterparts in Chennai or Mumbai. His son, an M.A. in English Literature, works on the family farm: a plight shared by many in a state that provides free education from primary to postgraduate level, but lacks employment opportunities. Young Kashmiris fear discrimination in "mainland India"; those who can emigrate to the United Kingdom or the United States do so. The others resign themselves to quiet despair, or become attracted to doctrines of violent redemption.

* * *

Gupkar Road is a fashionable address spoken of in hushed tones by some, in chilled tones by others. Along one side of this long road are the homes of Kashmir's elite, screened behind high walls, beautiful gardens, sentry posts. We pass the gates of Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Tariq Abdullah, Dr Karan Singh. Turning at the end, we drive back, keeping our eyes on the other side of the road. Certain forbidding, forbidden houses, standing in forlorn grounds, are pointed out to us; beyond them lies the Badami Bagh Cantonment. I have come a long way to look at what were, at the peak of the `turmoil', Papa 2 and Papa 11, interrogation centres where insurgents, declared or suspected, were held. Not all left alive, or whole, we are told; reporters say that even the toughest of the militants who spent time there are racked by the memory.

Kashmir is the first occupied area I have visited, in a reasonably wide experience of travel over three continents. It is also my ancestral homeland. Wherever we go, once people have abandoned bland civilities and established a bond of trust, they ask: "Why does no one tell the world our story? Why have you forgotten us?" I find tears in my eyes as we drive through the mountains, the earth alive with sturdy walnuts and tall pines, the flowering apricots and eager poplars of spring. But wherever there are settlements, we find a spiky metal creeper: it grows along the walls that surround public buildings and private homes; it curls around schools, mosques, abandoned temples, half-asleep hotels. Barbed wire is the most widespread form of vegetation in Kashmir: it grows everywhere, even in the mind.

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