As a Scot travelling in Srinagar, I found it hard not to compare the yearning in Kashmir with that of my own country
Imagine a city in a valley, surrounded by beautiful, imposing mountain peaks and huge, mirror-still lakes of crystal clarity, where kingfishers flash in the sunlight among floating gardens of lotus flowers. That’s Srinagar, summer capital of Kashmir. At the start of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie called it "paradise". And it should be paradise. But, as Rushdie says: "In those days travellers were not shot as spies if they took photographs of bridges, and apart from the Englishmen’s houseboats on the lake, the valley had hardly changed since the Mughal Empire."
Earlier this month, I stayed in one of those Englishman’s houseboats on the lake. I took photographs of bridges and I wasn’t shot as a spy. The worst of the violence is over, for now at least. Kashmir’s long quarantine from the rest of the world, imposed by the Indian military after uprisings of protesters demanding independence from India, has tentatively, cautiously, ended.
The mountains are still there, and the lakes. The lotus flowers are still there, and the kingfishers. But Srinagar is no paradise. The violence and the horror it has hosted in recent decades coats it like a sticky, stinking miasma. In its battle for self-determination, Kashmir has sustained great injury. For all its serene natural beauty, it is a sad and damaged place. You feel depressed just from breathing the air.
No one in Srinagar who talks to tourists wants to talk about the massacres, the suicide bombings or the physical and psychological torture. Tourism was the region’s second largest industry, after agriculture, before it was ripped apart in the 1990s, and many people whose livelihoods were suspended during recent decades wish fervently for tourism’s return. Others, however, are hostile to visitors, especially women, and are generally referred to by the more open-minded as "the ones who caused all the trouble".
Back in London, I sat in a room listening to voices testifying to the brutality of those lost decades. Abhishek Majumdar’s play, The Djinns of Eidgah, has just started a run at the Royal Court. It tells the story of Bilal, a talented footballer who wants to take part in trials for a team in Brazil, but has been told by the military authorities that he must wear an Indian football strip if he wishes to take part. If he does so, he will be shunned – or worse – by the Kashmiri separatist community in which he lives.
It’s not for me to say that Bilal is right, and the rest of his community is wrong. But one man in the play does. Bilal’s sister, Ashrafi, frozen at the mental age of 10 after her father died in her arms of bombing wounds, is being seen by a psychiatrist, Dr Baig. His character is based on Dr Mushtaq Margoob, whose tiny hospital for psychiatric conditions in Srinagar receives almost 100,000 self-referrals from traumatised Kashmiris each year. Dr Baig despises the fight for independence and the human toll it exacts. What he sees is a people who have destroyed the thing they love most in its name. It was good to hear this said by someone who had a right to. It was all I could think, all the time I was there.
It’s not an opinion I’d have shared with a Kashmiri, given Britain’s huge part in the history of conflict in the region. The houseboat I was staying in, one among thousands, was a hangover from the Raj. Colonial administrators preferred the climate of Kashmir for their holidays, but were banned from purchasing land in the region. They built the beautiful, elaborate, sometimes enormous barges to get round the problem. What fun they all must have had in Kashmir, where polo was invented. How strange that the houseboats should now be considered so Kashmiri and the polo so English.
Srinagaris sometimes compared to Venice and not that I’ve been to somewhere as handy as Venice – it’s easy to see why. Srinagar is a city on water, and the shikaras (large punts) are like gondolas. As I floated through the waterways of the Old City, the boatman described how lovely it had been, in the days before what Kashmiris always call "the Troubles".
Beautiful, often half-ruined houses line the waterside: wooden, with elaborately carved balconies. These had belonged to the Hindu ruling elite. Then, the water had been clear and clean, not mucky as it is now full of floating debris and sometimes choked with weeds. The Hindus had known how to care for the waterways, the boatman admitted, and after they had left, the government had not been equal to the task. This was just one of the reasons, he said, why Kashmir needed independence.
I didn’t challenge him on the idea that the Hindus had "left". When people, rich or poor, abandon their homes and flee from the threat of violence against them, they are usually described as having "left", like that was their decision. Srinagar, once a place where Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist lived peaceably side-by-side, all distinctively Kashmiri, is no longer such a place. The destruction of religious tolerance is another aspect of paradise lost.
I have no doubt that a politically independent Kashmir would be a very fine thing. But it’s an impossible dream. At the time of partition in 1947, there was an attempt to establish Kashmir as an independent state. But, then as now, it was a territory coveted by India, Pakistan and China. Kashmir’s Maharajah signed the princely state over to India in return for his own safety. If India gave it up now, Kashmir would be occupied by one or both of the others. That awful truth is clear to Dr Baig. The dream that Kashmiris have fought, suffered and died for is impossible.
As a Scot, I’ve found it hard not to compare the yearning for independence in Kashmir to the yearning for independence in Scotland. In so many ways, this is an exercise in absurdity. Whatever my countrymen wish to believe about the southern oppressors, Scotland is not under military occupation.
Yet in some ways, the comparison works. Both Kashmir and Scotland, although they do not have complete autonomy, are nevertheless seen as culturally discrete, recognised as their own distinct places with their own characters, whoever ostensibly rules them. Sometimes I think that Scotland, which has retained its own legal system, its own education system, has always had its own separate NHS, and now has a high level of devolved government, is pushing its luck by claiming itself as so destructively subsumed under the yoke of England. Maybe the worst thing about not having political autonomy is that it allows people to blame the distant government for all the failures in the region, and the doughty local resistance for all the successes. Maybe independence is important, because it bestows clarity of responsibility.
I’m in favour of independence for Scotland, in much the same way that I’m in favour of independence for Kashmir. It’s bad for people when they cannot own their problems. Kashmiri Muslims are contemptuous of Gandhi, the great man of peaceful resistance, who disseminated the slogan: "Be the change you wish to see." In The Djinns of Eidgah, there’s a reference to Indians as, "the peaceful, peace-loving Gandhian sons of bitches …" Yet Gandhi himself met his own violent end, precisely because not everyone appreciated his championship of Muslims. He would certainly be appalled by what India has done to Kashmir.
The tragedy too is what Kashmir has felt compelled to do to itself in pursuit of independence. It’s a miserable tale that plays out throughout the world, throughout time.
Courtesy: The Guardian
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