Paradise lost

(Published on 27/08/2000 in print edition)

The events in Kashmir, swift as they are brutal, and so tainted by the vocabulary of realpolitik, no longer seem to be part of a recognisable human narrative. It is why when in March and June this year PANKAJ MISHRA travelled to the Valley of Kashmir - his first visit in many years - he found that very little of what he read before the visit had prepared him for the fear, devastation and anomie that has poisoned the lives of ordinary Kashmiris in the last decade. He travelled to several towns and villages and met a variety of people. His experiences form this exclusive essay, which will be carried by The Hindu in three parts. It details the human and moral costs of the insurgency while also exploring its historical background. It describes the extraordinary effort Kashmiris have had to make in order to survive the great disturbances in their midst; and it also records the horrible violence and murkiness of some recent major events in the Valley, such as the murder of 35 Sikhs in March.

THE village of Chitisinghpura is in the south-eastern corner of the Valley of Kashmir, a few miles from the highway that runs from the capital, Srinagar, across high mountains to the Indian plains. As you leave the highway, the dark forested mountains with the snow peaks, rarely out of sight in the Valley, seem suddenly closer. A steep winding dusty road takes you to a high plateau where, beyond a few miles of rice fields, the village lies in a little hollow muffled by pine, walnut and chenar trees.

It has none of the wretchedness you associate with rural India. In fact, the brisk stream of cool clear water that divides the village, the meadowed bank with the bathing cabin of rough timber and the leafless willows and the grazing stray cow suggest the romance of an isolated and self-sufficient pastoral community. The villagers are apple, almond and rice farmers. Some of them own transport businesses - there is enough money around for the village to have two gurudwaras, one for each side of the village. The houses are large in the expansive Kashmiri way, unplastered bricks stacked in timber frames, exposed lofts bulging with hay; each house has its own fenced-in compound where chickens run around vegetable patches; television antennae loom over the corrugated iron roofs.

Most of the families were at home on the evening of March 20, 2000, preparing for the evening meal, watching the extended coverage of Bill Clinton's visit to the subcontinent, and were not at all surprised when about 17 heavily armed men dressed in army fatigues showed up and ordered the men to come out of their homes. It was a "crackdown" - the word had gone into the Kashmiri language after years of the Indian Army's cordon-and-search operations.

The men were made to squat before - and this happened on both sides of the village - the gurudwaras. There could not have been much cause for worry: the villagers were Sikhs, neutral witnesses to the decade-long battle between Indian security forces and Muslim separatists.

But there were some men who suspected something unusual was about to happen and hid themselves in their homes.

None of the armed men came to look for them; there were enough people outside. In the end, 35 men were shot dead, all except one, on the spot, on the muddy hay-littered ground before the gurudwaras. It was the largest such killing in Kashmir since the beginning of the anti-India insurgency in 1990.

I heard the news from Abbas early next morning. He was the Srinagar correspondent of an Indian newspaper. The dignity and solidity of his bearing - his tall well-built frame, the elegantly cut Kashmiri jackets he wore - made him reassuring to be with in the city where everyone - the tense crowds in the streets, the jumpy soldiers in their bunkers, and the passionate men in bare dark rooms - seemed to be on edge. A mutual acquaintance had asked him to help me out during my stay in Srinagar; and he had done so dutifully, but not without a certain wariness which I put down to some slight resentment: I was not the first or last of the inexperienced, and possibly biased, journalists from India he had been asked to assist.

His voice on the phone was calm. In the days I had been in Srinagar, relatively and unsettlingly quiet days, the news of sporadic killings and gun battles and landmine blasts coming in from other places in the Valley, the military men opaque behind their sandbagged positions in the bazaars, I had often heard him say, "If you live here, you have to be prepared for anything. Anything can happen anytime in Kashmir." His words with their tinge of melodrama had made me wonder if he saw a certain glamour in his job, the dangerous nature of the world he worked and lived in, like the reticent taxi driver who had been quick to point me towards the vegetable market where 17 civilians had been blown to bits a few days before by a bomb.

Something very big had now happened; and he was as serene as always. He had no details yet, but he thought we should leave immediately for the village. When he arrived half hour later at my hotel with two other Kashmiri journalists, his mood was lighter. The atmosphere inside the battered Ambassador was already one of good-humoured banter; and the jokes and repartee in Kashmiri, which I could not follow, got louder after each encounter with the frankly contemptuous Indian soldiers at road- blocks, who poked AK-56 muzzles through hastily rolled-down windows, demanded identity cards, and wanted to know where we were going and for what.

The news had spread fast. We were often overtaken by speeding cars: more Kashmiri journalists. In little villages alongside the road, men in blue and black pherans stood in worried little circles and glanced nervously, out of the corner of their eyes, at the cars racing past them. In the rice and saffron fields, stubbly and glittering with frost, soldiers stood with their back to the road, Light Machine Guns slung over their shoulders; outlined against the blue misty mountains in the distance, they were like hunters from a 19th Century sketch.

At the village itself, where there was nothing they could do, they looked more casual, the elite commandos almost dandyish in their black headdress and bullet-proof overalls, sheepishly standing where the Sikhs had barred their way to the village. There were tiny shards of glass on the ground: some car windows had already been smashed by the Sikhs and a photographer roughed up, his camera lens broken. The soldiers had watched it all and done nothing; they now quietly watched the Sikhs abuse the senior officers from the Army and police that had begun to arrive, their car convoys ploughing up the muddy path, and disgorging men after men in fatigues.

The Sikhs were survivors from the night before; mostly middle- aged, they had not been around when the armed men came, but they seemed convinced that the "militants" were responsible for the killings. They were shouting at once, beating their chests, feeding upon each other's energy, and it was then hard to understand what they had been saying. "Go and wear bangles," one of them kept taunting, holding his heavily bearded face close to the local Superintendent of Police.

The Army and police officers heard them expressionlessly. "Give us guns and then we will deal with these Muslims," another man with a long grey beard kept shouting, "They know what we did with them in 1947. We are not cowards like the Kashmiri Pandits! Do they think they can throw us out of Kashmir? We will show them!" and then, spittle growing at the corner of his mouth, he added, "This is a country we have ruled." The historical reference - to the early 19th Century, when Sikh governors sent out by the king of Punjab had ravaged the Valley, and tormented the Muslims - was startling; and it made, just for a brief moment, the Kashmiri Muslim policeman before him flinch.

His passion spent, the man now retired to the back of the crowd, muttering to himself, and then began to adjust his yellow turban. Another man took his place; more journalists and Government people arrived. The Sikhs would not let anyone pass, and continued to curse and lament. Behind them, a frightful clamour, as of a thousand crows, arose from the top of the hill where the gurudwara was; it was the sound of the weeping and wailing women, and it seemed to bewilder the roosters in the village, who were to go on dementedly for several hours after dawn, their exultant cries hanging discordantly above the village with the grief and despair of the women.

Then, mysteriously, the journalists were allowed to go. A strange surge of excitement carried us up the ramp to the village, the photographers half running and fumblingly screwing and unscrewing lenses on their cameras.

All through the long drive to the village, I had wondered about this moment; it had even suppressed the anxiety about mines on the dug-up road, about the army-style green jacket Abbas wore, which made him a likely target for any guerrillas lurking in the area. It was strange, after all the dread-filled anticipation, to come up against what appeared, for reasons, then unclear, a familiar sight: the corpses lined up on the ground against the walled fence of the courtyard, the grieving women around them, a hectic gaggle of photographers that was to soon send images of this remote Himalayan village into the world.

There were as yet few people in the courtyard; the bodies of the men killed just outside the gurudwara - where the scruffed ground held little pools of blood - had been brought in and draped in blankets that had gone stiff with dried blood. I had been standing there for a while, unwilling to move or speak when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a boy, not more than 10-years- old, his hazel eyes under the crimson head-cloth full of curiosity. "Are from the media?" he asked and when I nodded, he said, "They shot a 16-year-old boy." He pointed towards one of the bodies. I had not wanted to look at any of the faces of the dead men; his words jolted me into doing so. The face had gone white, the flesh tight on the bones, and skull-like hollows had begun to deepen on his cheeks and eyes. His middle-aged mother sat beside him, a jade green shawl draped around her head; she would have been grieving all night and in between lifting her arms and beating her chest, the tears running down her face in an unbroken stream, she forced out a tiny yawn.

I left the courtyard, and walked to the part of the village across the stream, past houses where groups of women sat silently on first-floor balconies and stared at the passing men, past the desolate-looking bathing house on the bank. There were more bodies being brought to the gurudwara from this side of the village: men trudging up and down the steep muddy slopes littered with chicken feathers and straw, balancing on their shoulders improvised wooden stretchers that appeared to have been hammered together overnight. The bodies slithered around on the stretchers, and the leaking blood from them left a bright large stain on the freshly planed wood: it was if the rough way the bodies were handled came out of the manner, and scale, of death, more than a dozen men shot here while they squatted before a scraggly fence of corrugated iron and barbed wire.

In the end, there was only one body left to carry; and it took some time because the young wife of the deceased who held her husband's head in her lap would not let go. A young girl in a long red mirror-work skirt, probably her daughter, stood by her side, freshly awakened and staring uncomprehendingly at first her dead father and then her mother who kept calling out a name and, with rough calloused hands, kept caressing her husband's face.

The clouds overhead grew thicker; mist blurred the edges of the snow-covered mountain overlooking the village; it was suddenly much colder. A few women and children lit a little twig fire before the courtyard and huddled around it, their shawls tightly wrapped around them.

More Sikhs continued to arrive on overcrowded buses and trucks. Some of them brought fresh white sheets; but strangely they were taken off the bodies soon afterwards and then lay crumpled in one corner, still stiff with starch. Photographers and TV cameramen climbed the trees and the walls of the courtyard for a better view of the courtyard. There was now a crush of people inside, people everywhere shouting, gesticulating, crying, wailing.

The senior bureaucrats began to arrive at the courtyard and were immediately surrounded by an aggressive crowd of Sikhs. I recognised the Inspector General of Police, whom I had met just a few days ago in his overheated walnut-panelled office and had heard him boast on the phone about the number of "militants" killed that day; he looked anxious and lonely now, shouted at by the Sikhs. I saw the Divisional Commissioner, one of the few Kashmir Muslim officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in the Valley. I had gone to see him on the last day of Eid. There were other Kashmiri Muslim officials at his house with their families: gracious women in bright salwar kamees and restless children in Disney colours. In between interruptions from his son, who wanted to know if he could play at a friend's house, his conversation had been of the larger world - he had spent a year in Glasgow and was eager to know about British politics. Only later, the women and children gone, had he spoken of Kashmir. He had been frank with me. The civilian administration, he told me had little power; people like him were irrelevant; it was the Army that ruled the State.

And now, as though proving his belief, the Sikhs were especially rough with him; he was shouted down as he tried to speak. It was the Hindu Major General, who saved the officials from immediate expulsion, even violence by joining the Sikhs in their slogan- shouting - slogans that came from the time of the persecution of the Sikhs and Hindus at the hands of Moghul emperors. The Commissioner withdrew to the back of the crowd. It was hard not to feel sympathy for him, so isolated now amidst these atavistic passions, with his allegiance to India, the modern world that had made him.

Abbas was passive in his own way. I had seen him quickly withdraw from the courtyard, his handsome face as unreadable as when I asked him in the car about Bijbehara, the town we passed on the way to Chitisinghpura, where police firing on a demonstration had killed 45 people in 1993. Abbas had been there soon after the killing; had seen the bodies on the road, and the abandoned slippers, but to me he only said, in English, "Yes, that was very bad," before going back to his conversation in Kashmiri with his friends.

He stood apart from the group of local journalists, who looked almost bored, content to see what they had seen and incurious about the rest, experience already transformed in their minds into the newspaper phrases I would see the next morning. Everyone was now waiting for the VIPs to arrive, the ministers and senior bureaucrats and army generals, and their hordes of armed bodyguards, who were to invest the scene with importance and urgency. The helicopter clattering overhead provoked semi-excited speculation that the Union Home Minister was about to arrive; and a little frisson went across the assembled local journalists when the newscaster of one of the slick new TV channels from Delhi, a woman with close-cropped hair and expensive-seeming Kashmiri shawl, arrived.

The police and Army men, spiffily dressed, and already stiff in anticipation of high-level visits from Delhi, but reduced until then to inactivity; the bored silent groups of local journalists; the women and children warming themselves before the tiny fire after the long night of grief; the photographers and cameramen competing for the best view of the courtyard; the cries of the rooster still incongrously mingling with the wailing of the widows - somehow the occasion demanded a less listless, a more appropriate response.

And so when the Sikhs, growing in numbers by the minute as the news spread across the Valley, each new arrival bringing his own fury and outrage to the village, abused and drove out the first VIP, a senior State minister, stoned his car, shattered the windscreen; when his bodyguards let loose a few rounds into the air from their AK-47s - the rattle dry and loud in the forest - and there was temporary panic because some people thought that the guerrillas had attacked; when men began running all across the little forest, and the commandos threw themselves on the damp ground and prepared to shoot, the little commotion assuaged the growing need for drama and activity and suddenly there was relief all around, and the commandos appeared less dandyish and more sheepish when they got up with muddy stains on their bullet-proof overalls.

But something suspect lay in that need for drama, which, in the few hours it took to broadcast the TV images of the widows, was to be amplified all across India. That need had become more urgent after Kargil last year, when hundreds of Indian soldiers had died while trying to dislodge the Pakistan-backed infiltrators, and the media, slicker, but also much more coarse after 10 years of economic liberalisation, brought about a general intoxication with war in millions of middle class homes.

And that need for drama, for swift brutal responses to brutality, was not going to be appeased by Bill Clinton's condemnation of the massacre. When I left the village and went back to Srinagar later that day, the groups of worried Muslims I had passed in the morning had been broken up. They were already in roped-off enclosures, squatting on the ground while soldiers searched their houses. Buses were being stopped and passengers lined up and interrogated by the side of the road: a multitude of little crackdowns were going on in the region.

Three days after the killing, while Clinton was still in India, a jubilant-looking senior bureaucrat in New Delhi announced a "major breakthrough" on Indian television: the Indian Army and police had just arrested, he said, a man called Wagay, one of the few Muslim residents of Chitisinghpura, who had provided valuable information about the Sikh killings. Another "major breakthrough" came two days later when five "foreign mercenaries" allegedly identified by Wagay as the killers of the Sikhs - guerrillas from Pakistan and Afghanistan - were killed in an "encounter" during a joint Army-police assault on a lone hut on top of a hill in a remote village, not far from Chitisinghpura, called Panchalthan.

This was what needed to be done after the massacre to appease public outrage in India - the Sikhs had been rioting for three days in Jammu city - and the Army and police men in Kashmir - men more confident in their ability to manipulate the media after the war last year when false stories about Pakistani brutality and Indian courage had been tirelessly retailed - had known what to do.

The "encounter" with foreign mercenaries was reported on the front pages of the Delhi papers, and the matter was seen to have ended there. But soon the Government's story ran into unexpected problems. There had been no post-mortem of the five men killed in the "encounter" at Panchalthan; the frightened villagers were bullied into quickly burying the badly charred corpses. But soon afterwards the local villagers came across clothes and personal items near the burial site that had been left burning by the soldiers.

In just three days after the killings, 17 Muslims had strangely gone missing from the villages around Chitisinghpura. Three of them had been kidnapped before witnesses by armed men in a red Maruti van that was later discovered to have been one of the seized vehicles parked in the district police station. The relatives of the one of the missing men heard about the discovery of half-burnt personal items in Panchalthan; he travelled to Panchalthan and found his father's identity card and ring among the items. More items were identified, as local villagers came forward to testify that the five men had been fired upon from close range, soaked with kerosene and then set alight.

The relatives of the five murdered Muslims walked in a procession several miles to the district headquarters to appeal for public exhuming of the bodies. After a week of protests against the murders, the demonstrations grew larger and then a crowd of 5,000 Muslims was fired upon by the police. Nine more men died; among the dead was the son of one of the five murdered civilians who had travelled first to Panchalthan and made the connection between the missing men and the half-burnt personal items.

When the bodies were finally exhumed, almost two weeks after the murders, they were discovered to have been badly defaced. The chopped-off nose and chin of one man - a local shepherd - turned up in another grave. The body of a local sheep and buffalo trader was headless - the head could not be found - but was identified through the trousers that were intact underneath the army fatigues it had been dressed in. Another charred corpse - which was of an affluent cloth-retailer from the city of Anantnag, presumably kidnapped and killed because he was, like the other four men, tall and well-built and could be made to resemble, once dead, a "foreign mercenary" - had no bullet marks at all. Remarkably, for bodies so completely burnt, the army fatigues that they were dressed in were almost brand new.

The National Conference Government in Kashmir reluctantly announced an investigation and DNA identification tests for the bodies, but no one in Kashmir expects anything to come out of it. Even the DNA test results, which have yet to be announced, cannot be trusted. Last year, a disinterred corpse was identified by Indian DNA testers as that of the British tourist kidnapped and killed in 1995, along with three other Western tourists, by allegedly a Pakistan-based guerrilla outfit, but DNA tests in England contradicted this.

I had left Srinagar by the time the bodies were exhumed. I followed the events from Delhi where they merged into the general atrociousness of the news emanating from Kashmir, news that was reported fitfully and sparingly, often in single columns. The news of the massacre had lasted for barely half a day when it was overtaken by Clinton's reaction to it, his harder line against Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, which emerged as the most important aspect of the affair. The circumstances of the massacre, the identity of the killers, were left unexplored.

In Chitisinghpura, I had spoken to some of the elderly Sikhs standing around a small tea-shack. They were wary of me and could not tell me much: they had heard the orders for them to come out, they had stayed put in their homes and then they had heard the gunfire and cries of pain. They could not imagine who the killers might have been. This was Kashmir: no one really knew what was going on. The armed men could have been sent by the Indian Army; it could be the Muslim guerrillas. They did remember the men spoke Urdu and Punjabi (a meaningless clue as many Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris speak the two languages), and some of them were drunk: a clue that appeared, but could also have been meant, to rule out the involvement of Muslims.

The wariness of the men had to do with their new sense of vulnerability to both the guerrillas and Indian soldiers in their isolated setting - a vulnerability that remains. In just a few days after the killings, almost all of the Sikhs in the village who I had seen so stridently blaming Muslim guerrillas on the morning after the massacre had migrated to India. The family of Yaqub Wagay, the Muslim man arrested in Chitisinghpura for allegedly assisting the "foreign mercenaries" in the killings of the Sikhs, has refused to move bail for him as they fear he will be murdered as soon as he is out of prison. A senior Kashmiri official connected with the enquiry told me that he was innocent, and had been with four other men, including a Sikh, when the massacre took place. More recently, the Sikh association formed after the killings has begun to talk about the possible involvement of Indian security forces. All the Pakistan-based guerrilla outfits have continued to stridently deny their involvement in the Chitisinghpura killings, and to blame Indian security forces for it. There has been no further attack on the Sikhs in the Valley - and the questions about why Muslim guerrillas should attack civilian members of a community they have never bothered for over a decade, why they should do so hours before Clinton's arrival in India, and thereby invite international opprobrium and discredit their cause, has not been satisfactorily answered.

The Indian failure to identify or arrest even a single person connected to the killings or the killers, and the hastiness and brutality of the Indian attempt to stick the blame on "foreign mercenaries" while Clinton was still in India, only lends weight to the Sikh suspicion that the massacre in Chitisinghpura was organised by Indian intelligence agencies in order to influence Clinton, and the large contingent of influential American journalists accompanying him, into a much more sympathetic view of India as a helpless victim of Muslim terrorists from Pakistan and Afghanistan, something that some very hectic Indian diplomacy in the West had previously failed to achieve.

That view was what the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government offered again in early August, when over a 100 people, mostly Hindu, were killed in Kashmir, a week after the biggest pro-Pakistan guerrilla outfit, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen - that, interestingly, was held responsible by the Indian Government in March for the killings in Chitisinghpura - declared a ceasefire.

It is still not clear - and probably will not be for some time - what actually happened, even during the most widely reported killings in Pahalgam, where according to the Government, two pro- Pakistan guerrillas massacred more than 30 Hindu pilgrims. Later reports said that the two suspected guerrillas were killed by soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soon after they assaulted a heavily guarded military camp; and in the 15 to 20 minutes it took the CRPF to kill the guerrillas no more than seven people died in the cross-fire. Mr. Vajpayee himself, on a visit to Pahalgam, was confronted with hostile survivors who accused the CRPF of killing and looting pilgrims and the Muslim residents of Pahalgam for almost 45 minutes after the two suspected guerillas had been shot dead.

In another mysterious incident reminiscent of Chitisinghpura, gunmen in uniform were seen massacring 19 migrant labourers, the poorest and most defenceless people in Kashmir, a few hours after the killings in Pahalgam. But there was hardly any follow-up coverage; and few people know who killed 35 people, some of them Muslims, in remote areas of Kashmir in early August, since the reports about the murders seemed based on nothing more reliable than press statements put about by the Indian police and Army.

The number of atrocities in Kashmir is so high, and the situation in general so murky that it is hard to get the truth, to know, for instance, the principal characters and motives behind the very relevant but ultimately obscure and unexplained killings in late March and early August. Few people even talk of Chitisinghpura anymore; it did not come up when the senior bureaucrat I had been seen on television in March accusing the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen of killing the Sikhs travelled to Srinagar in early August to discuss the practicalities of the ceasefire. And the forgetfulness and murkiness will remain: the recent killings would soon be supplanted by something bigger; there will be the usual exchange of allegations between India and Pakistan; the usual outrage and condemnation around the world; and no more than a few people would know what is really going on.

The Government has been steadily indifferent to the several requests from human rights organisations and political parties for an independent probe into the massacres in March and August. The media is unlikely to be of much help there. A few hours after the murders of the Sikhs, the premier TV channel was already asserting, though its correspondent had yet to reach the site, and none of the police and Army officers assembled could offer a clue, that the killings had been done by Pakistan-backed guerrillas; and this was to become the general Indian view. Later, the news of the Army killing five "foreign mercenaries" at Panchalthan was reported in the same unquestioning way. The protests of the villagers against Indian officials were hardly mentioned by the Indian press, until the firing upon unarmed demonstrators and the deaths of nine men, and then the news was lost again.

There is no point in blaming the Kashmiri journalists who represent Indian newspapers in the Valley. It is not easy even on the rare occasion they have full liberty to investigate; the threat of violence from the guerrillas and the Indian security forces is ever-present, and cannot be underestimated: several journalists exploring human rights violations have been murdered, many more beaten up and threatened.

Your own capacity for exposing yourself to human distress on this scale turns out to be small. The figures alone are numbing. More than 30,000 people, mostly Muslims - and these are conservative figures - have been killed, maimed or disappeared in the last 10 years. The Indian Army and Jammu and Kashmir police have lost a few thousand men, while they have killed many more Muslims, guerrillas and civilians. There is hardly a family among the four million strong Muslim population of the Valley which has not been affected by either side. Abbas said, while we discussed possible stories I could cover, "You must do widows and orphans." I had foolishly asked, "Where can I find them?" Abbas had let the remark go; he simply said, "Anywhere." And it was true: widows and orphans were as ubiquitous as graveyards and ruins in the Valley.

But I did other things; and after each of my travels around the city and the Valley I came back to the hotel room, relieved that the day's work was over, and that I could retreat for some hours at least from the world around me, from the stories - of torture (one hospital alone witnessed 250 cases of death by acute renal failure, caused by putting human bodies under heavy rollers in the Army's interrogation centres called 'Papa I' and 'Papa 2'), of summary executions, rapes, kidnappings, and arson - the stories that came out unprompted in the most casual of conversations with Kashmiris, and that formed the grisly background to life in the Valley.

The oldest among Kashmiris often claim that there is nothing new about their condition; that they have been slaves of foreign rulers since the 16th Century when Akbar annexed Kashmir and appointed a local Governor to rule the State. In the chaos of post-Moghul India, the old empire rapidly disintegrating, Afghani and Sikh invaders plundered Kashmir at will. The peasantry was taxed and taxed into utter wretchedness; the cultural and intellectual life under indigenous rulers that had produced some of the greatest poetry, music and philosophy in the subcontinent, dried up. Barbaric rules were imposed: a Sikh who killed a Muslim native of Kashmir was fined nothing more than two rupees. Victor Jacquemont, a botanist and friend of Stendhal who came to the Valley in 1831, thought that "nowhere else in India were the masses as poor and denuded as they were in Kashmir".

But that background of constant suffering could remain invisible to the casual visitor; the physical beauty of the place - enhanced by the Valley's isolation from the rest of the world, and more tempting for foreign adventurers - is still, after 10 years of violence, overwhelming. All through my stay, memories of previous trips kept bubbling up, a visit made in less troubled times, just before the insurgency began in 1990, when I had travelled for the sights, particularly the first visit which for me - as for anyone who had never been away from the hot dusty Indian plains - was the first exhilarating revelation of beauty.

I had not really noticed the Kashmiris. They did appear very different with their pale long-nosed faces, their cloak-like pherans, their strange language, so unlike any Indian language; they also seemed oddly self-possessed. But in the enchanting new world that had opened before me - the big deep blue skies and the tiny boats becalmed in vast lakes, the cool trout streams and the stately forests of chenar and poplar, the red-cheeked children at roadside hamlets and in apple orchards, the cows and sheep grazing in wide meadows, and always in the Valley, the surrounding mountains with their mysterious promise - in so private an experience of beauty it was hard to admit the inhabitants of the valley, hard to acknowledge the more prosaic facts of their existence: the dependence upon India, the lack of local industry, the growing number of unemployed educated youth.

Encounters with Kashmiris had been limited to greedy touts and taxi owners at the Tourist Reception Complex; crafty shawl and saffron-sellers, exotic enough to be mildly amusing, always forming the dim background to memories as well as photographs. And it was with some puzzlement that I had first read about the large demonstrations in Kashmir against Indian rule in 1990; the beginning of the insurgency and the violence left me - as well as anyone who had thought of Kashmiris incapable of taking up arms - even more bemused.

Then, as the years passed, the news from Kashmir took its place with the other news - equally bad, of murders and destruction - from Punjab and the North-East: The distant struggles that were, ultimately, marginal to one's own life in a very large and deprived country where almost everyone is struggling. You had to achieve a certain degree of personal security and stability before you could even look around yourself, and then you found that you could not always get the necessary information. There were some good books published by small imprint; but you had to search hard for them. To read what was reported in the press was to be told that Pakistan had fomented trouble in Kashmir, and the Indian Army was taking care of it. It was to understand that there really was not a problem except one of law-and-order, which the relevant military and para-military organisations would soon deal with. There were so many suppressions that even after you had read all the right books, large areas of ignorance still remained. The missing physical details had to be imagined; and they turned out to be much grimmer than I once could have thought.

(To be continued)

* * *

Pankaj Mishra is the author of Butter Chicken In Ludhiana: Travels In Small Town India and

The Romantics: A Novel. He writes essays and reviews for The Hindu,

The New York Review Of Books,

The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman among other Indian and foreign publications. He is at present working on his next book. This is the first of his three articles on Kashmir.

Recommended for you