Discovering Kashmir, Kashmiris

Kashmir and Kashmiris turned out to be completely different from what I had heard of and what was told to me by people and Indian media back home

“Run Sumegha, run!!” These are the only three words that still ring in my ears, though I can recall the whole incident as it happened before my eyes.

As an irony to mark the end of my peaceful first week in Kashmir, the protests at Lasjan presented a facet of Kashmir to me, which I had only heard of.

A CRPF vehicle had crushed a 10-year-old girl, and the driver had run away after the accident. As my colleague led me through the mob, to the dead body, things seemed under control. Yes, the anger and frustration was pretty evident. True, the young men of the area hurled abuses at the Indian Government and the military forces. But still, things seemed manageable.

It was only after the mob tried to burn the vehicle that the forces swung into action. And before I could comprehend what was happening, I saw people running, everywhere. My colleague told me to run, too. But I could not. Colour had drained out of my face. I was blank. I looked around and saw the men in the uniform throwing tear-gas shells at the young and old alike. It was at that moment that I realized for the first time, the difference between reading about ‘Conflict Reporting’ and reporting from a conflict zone in real life. I looked at my colleague, who was still urging me to run. And then, I ran. Not because I wanted to shirk off my journalistic duties but because no story is worth a life. And nineteen is too young an age to die. So, I ran for my life.

On my way back to office, while overcoming the initial shock that often grips naïve reporters, I wondered how far from reality was the image that the world has of Kashmir today. Barely a week here in Srinagar, and I already feel as if I am living in constant “captivity”. At every next crossing, a bunker awaits you. In the midst of the lush green lawns at the Kashmir University, the CRPF personnel seem completely out of place. They can stop you, beat you, rape you, pass lewd comments, run their vehicles over the kids, and guess what, nobody can stop them; courtesy, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Which democracy in the world throws tear-gas shell at its unarmed, protesting civilians? Which republic imposes a curfew on the day of the Parliamentary elections in the whole state? Which “efficient governance” justifies patrolling of heavy army vehicles, even though the city roads are not meant for such load?

Before coming here, Kashmir was an image, a mirage that had men with long beards, women wearing hijab, a restricted and closed society. That reflection was the result of “facts” that I was “made aware of” by the Indian media for the past 19 years of my life. That image today stands broken, shattered. There are no men with long breads and Kalashnikovs roaming on the streets. A lot of women wear hijab, some wear burqa, and almost all cover their heads; yet it is perfectly fine if one doesn’t wish to adhere to any of the above. One finds ATMs at every corner. Brands of every essential commodity are available. Big hotels and small dhabas coexist to give the true flavour of Kashmir. Lal Chowk is as lively—during days, not nights!– as Connaught place of Delhi in the evenings. Wherever one goes, people are good in the true sense of the word. They are good-natured and they don’t fake it for personal interests, the way people in Delhi and Mumbai do. Kashmiri hospitality is famous round the globe, and now I know why. Even if arriving uninformed, the Kashmiris are ready to serve their guests. Be it the traditional samovar for the Kehwa or the tashnari to wash one’s hands; be it the rista or the keema – they know how to take care of their guests.

I remember walking down the street once, in the evening, when I asked a middle-aged woman for directions to the local market. She told me to go back home since it might be unsafe with the military being around. Sensing the urgency, she accompanied me to the market and back home. I thanked her, remarking how good Kashmiris are. She kissed my forehead and blessed me. We never met again. But God alone knows, I will never be able to forget her affectionate eyes.

Is this the Kashmir that India has, for so long, tried to term as the ‘breeding ground of terrorists’? Are these the people we refuse houses and rooms-on-rent in Delhi and Mumbai, fearing they might have links with the Hizbul or the Lashkar?

After seeing all this, I am at a loss for words. I am dumbfounded. A sense of betrayal has crept in. I trusted my government for so long when it equated Kashmiris to terrorists. Today, I know it was all a big lie that was fabricated beautifully by the Indian Government. Worse, the mainstream media, a profession I had felt proud I would soon be a part of, lied, too. Sometimes out rightly, sometimes by hiding the facts – but nevertheless being a permanent party to all that the Indian state did, and is doing, in Kashmir.

Not once did they have the audacity to report the protests in Srinagar during the Amarnath row, despite the fact that thousands of young people were losing lives every day. Kashmiris were accused of hurting the pilgrims. Strangely, not a single worshipper was harmed. Rather, they were touched by the Kashmiri hospitality. And the mainstream media did not report it even once. Perhaps they forgot to do so, given the fact that they were too busy playing and replaying the protests in Jammu.

A writer recently wrote, “When you are in Jammu, you are in India. When you are in Srinagar, you are in Kashmir”. Perhaps the statement was made in an entirely different context but it holds true for me too. It’s true that Kashmir and its people are different from the rest of the countrymen. Which other state would try to lead normal lives despite being under a military occupation?

Having been brought up in a totally different environment, in the liberal environs of the capital, I often used to wonder why so many youth in Kashmir demand Azadi. Now I know why. When you are asked for identity cards each day as you step out of the house; and that too by forces who are themselves foreigners to your land, what would one think of in such a state? When the CRPF has the right to enter a home, kill, rape, murder and torture people, then what are these youngsters supposed to do?

My family and friends in Delhi feel India will never give away Kashmir. The truth is that India will not be able to “give” Kashmir away. But these enthusiastic youngsters will “take” away their homeland from them – the Kashmir that is rightfully theirs.

So much blood cannot go waste; and loss of about one Lakh Kashmiris is not a joke. And the Kashmir struggle, so far, has been written by the martyr’s blood. A bullet that I picked up from the protest site in Lasjan would keep the memories of the day etched in my memory forever. Inshallah, I hope I live to see a free Kashmir.

(This piece was written by Sumegha Gulati on her first visit to Kashmir in 2009 while interning with Greater Kashmir. At 26, she has passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer.)