Growing Up In Kashmir's War Zone
16 August 2007
Srinagar: While India and Pakistan celebrated the 60th anniversary of independence from Britain, a general strike paralysed life in the Kashmir valley on what Muslim separatist groups called a 'black day'. The BBC's Urdu online editor Waheed Mirza reflects on Kashmiri nationhood. On a summer's day in 1991 my grandfather, a weather- beaten papier mache artist of some repute, was preparing to go for his daily stroll to the neighbourhood grocer when we heard a noise outside. Militants from the JKLF and Hizbul Mujahideen, two of the biggest such groups in Kashmir, had taken up positions against each other behind small, improvised bunkers with their AK-47s and a rocket launcher apiece. Unimpressed by the presence of the gunmen, the old man sauntered out. A veteran political activist, grandfather was annoyed at being asked to stay indoors because of these 'impetuous boys with their sticks'. He came out and to my consternation even mocked the JKLF boys who had stationed themselves in front of the house. I, too, took to the streets and beat the tin roof of our house at night crying for freedom. In depth: Kashmir flashpoint The Hizb men were a few metres away, shielded by the curve of the road. He refused to believe that a bunch of boys flaunting new guns could do anything about Kashmir. He had lived through 1947 and through various agitations and movements. Turf war Pakistan had disappointed him too, so he was resigned to 'living with India'. The young men who had taken it upon themselves 'to liberate Kashmir from the clutches of India', believed that the old political order had failed them, that over the years they had been betrayed into India's fold. This small face-off raised some big questions. Supporters of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, burn the national flag of India in a protest over Kashmir region (file image from 1990) The JKLF eventually decided to abandon violence Weren't these militants supposed to be fighting the Indian army? Why, then, were they aiming their guns at each other? Behind the showiness of these men fighting for local turf, a much bigger game was underway. The JKLF's usefulness to Pakistan was over - now it was time for pro- Pakistan groups to assume centre-stage. Hizbul Mujahideen was rising to become the most powerful armed group in Kashmir. The JKLF leadership, suffering hundreds of losses, eventually gave up the gun in the early 90s and announced a shift from the gun to a peaceful struggle for 'Kashmir's independence'. It still lives on through freedom marches organised by its longest-serving 'commander' and chairman Yasin Malik. India responded with force to the rising wave of insurgency. Around 300 protesters were killed by the Indian paramilitary forces in January 1990. On 21 January, just a day after Governor Jagmohan took charge, at least 50 people were killed on the Gaw Kadal bridge in Srinagar. Curfews lasted months. I remember scouring the floating gardens of the Dal Lake with my friends in a rickety Shikara boat for vegetables. Hundreds were killed on the Line of Control and across the valley. The sight of the dreaded 'coffin car' (an armoured vehicle used by the security forces) and the green 'gypsy' (an improvised Suzuki jeep used as a patrol car) would send us boys fleeing. They grabbed and nabbed. Humiliation Many Kashmiris today feel they have been denied their chance at destiny. They are upset because they feel their fate has been scripted elsewhere, decided by somebody else. They feel upset at their 'sale' in the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846, at the Instrument of Accession in 1947, at both India and Pakistan. Indian police women of the Jammu and Kashmir state are seen reflected in a puddle (file image) Many blame India and Pakistan for testing their ideologies in Kashmir The past 20 years of the 60 years of independence have been humiliation for Kashmiris, myself included. I don't remember how much it hurt when the burly constable asked me turn around so he could whack me with his cane near a marketplace, but I remember the sense of insult. I always will. I have been away from Kashmir for quite a while now but I know from my annual visits and from family and friends that the humiliation continues: on the roads, in the streets, on highways, in the countryside, during search operations. In 1989 the HAJY group (Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majid, Javed Mir and Yasin Malik) launched the 'militant movement' and saw an eruption of mass support. I, too, took to the streets and beat the tin roof of our house at night crying for freedom. Independence was rumoured to be around the corner. Some elders even discussed where to house ambassadorial offices in Srinagar. Hindus depart But events took a tragic turn. The Kashmiri Pandits, a Hindu sect intrinsic to Kashmir's ethos of pluralism and moderation, left the valley in an almost overnight exodus in 1990. Some were victims of targeted killings. One day, on the signboard of the Gandhi Memorial College, a Pandit-run institution known for its academic excellence and where I was studying, Gandhi was smeared over with Jinnah. I do not feel Indian. I have never felt Pakistani. I'm a Kashmiri, but that feels like perennial statelessness Witnessing history I stopped going there soon after, because the Indian security forces had started 'catch and kill' operations that allegedly swallowed scores of young men, many of them innocent. I lost a classmate, whose head it was said was thrown into the family's front courtyard. I personally witnessed the first three or four years of the militant uprising, including the release of four militants in 1989 in ransom for the then Indian home minister's daughter. Many acquaintances and friends crossed over into Pakistan: at least one was captured on the Line of Control and another killed in India's anti-insurgency operation. A distant relative spent a year in Pakistan and I suspect in Afghanistan. He returned with impassioned dreams of freedom but was soon disillusioned and gave up his Kalashnikov and grenades. My father's younger brother was injured seriously when rogue militants hired by a disgruntled colleague tried to abduct him. Proxy battlefield I now live in London. I do not feel Indian. I have never felt Pakistani. I'm a Kashmiri, but that feels like perennial statelessness, or like an 'endangered species' as a friend put it recently. Some Kashmiris think they are themselves to blame for not having mounted a strong enough democratic challenge to both India and Pakistan, for not having created institutional representation. But they also blame India and Pakistan for continuously testing their respective ideologies of statehood in the battlefield of Kashmir. Monthly protest by mothers of disappeared, Srinagar, 10 June. Families of the disappeared hold monthly protests in Srinagar As India and Pakistan celebrate their 60th year of freedom, Kashmiris are waiting. Surrounded by a factitious leadership they do not seem to have much choice. The waiting is tellingly embodied by the mothers of the hundreds of disappeared people. How can they stop waiting for their missing sons? Everyone waits; seekers of freedom for their dream, lovers of Pakistan for some epochal miracle, pro- India sections for it all to end and 'business as usual' to resume, displaced Kashmiri Pandits to return home... I carry an Indian passport but I'm not an Indian. From outside, depending on where you come from, India appears either as a benign giant on the cusp of great economic might and international stature, or a repressive behemoth lashing out at any dissent with ruthless, brutal power. Last week I took the British Citizenship test and was told I'd passed. There was some irony in this for me, though. I was adopting citizenship of a country whose colonial forefathers, more than 150 years ago, sold mine to the then ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Gulab Singh, for 7.5m rupees. And yes, they were also to be presented with '12 goats of approved breed (six male and six female), three pairs of Kashmiri shawls and one horse' every year in acknowledgement of British supremacy.