What an Outsider’s Eye Can See in Kashmir

The Wire

What an Outsider’s Eye Can See in Kashmir

When you live inside the circumstance with no possibility of stepping out, all your energies are expended in surviving. It is then that you need an outsider to show you that this is not living.

Ghazala Wahab

07/NOV/2019

In the last few weeks, I have often been challenged on Kashmir by those who believe that only the government discourse on the state, which is now two union territories, should be relied upon. Their argument stands on two legs: One, I am not a Kashmiri, so how can I know anything; and two, if I did not speak for Kashmiri Pandits, then I have no right to speak for Kashmiri Muslims.

The second argument is so specious that I don’t even want to respond to it. It’s the first argument which hits me. I have to admit it holds some ground. Being a non-Kashmiri, how can I claim to speak for the Kashmiris? What do I know of their suffering, their fears, their hopes and their aspirations? After all, my information is second hand, sourced from the people I chose to speak with on my ‘flying visits’ to the Valley.

What if those I did not speak with feel differently? What if actually the majority is with the Centre’s current move? What if the source of their fear is not the armed forces but the armed terrorists? What if people like me are actually stalling the realisation of their dreams, i.e., the full and final merger with the Union of India? What if ‘azadi’ is the slogan peddled by a handful of misguided youth and those on Pakistan’s payroll? What if these people have laid siege to the entire population? What if I am one of the vested interests running my shop peddling their misery?

So, here is my humble submission in defence of the outsiders. Sometimes, the distance that being outside affords you helps in seeing the big picture. Sometimes, it also gives you a multi-dimensional perspective, which close-ups cannot do.

When you live inside the circumstance with no possibility of stepping out, all your energies are expended in surviving; in getting through one day after another. And after a point, the abnormality of your daily survival-based existence becomes normal. You get used to it. You get used to disappearances, to torture and to death. Your mourning becomes part of the routine. Your wails become part of the chorus that periodically rise to a crescendo and then subside; waiting for the next flick of the hand.

It is then that you need an outsider to show you that this is not living. That this is akin to standing in the queue waiting to die.

A brief anecdote will perhaps illustrate the point better. A few years ago, a FORCE photographer was at the site of an encounter on the outskirts of Srinagar covering it live. As it always happens, the media was behind a barricade at a supposedly safe distance. In the course of the encounter, one of the holed-up militants threw a grenade which fell close to where the media was. A few people, including a journalist, died. Most were injured, including our photographer.

I was horrified and shaken up by his close brush with death. When I finally managed to speak with him, he was nonchalant. He not only made light of his injuries, he made light of the dead. Narrating the sequence of events, he concluded with a laugh, “Saare mar gaye (They all died).” I was shocked.

It reminded me of another incident. Once while driving past what had then become chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s official residence, a local accompanying me commented wryly, “Who knows how many young lives were snuffed out there.” It turned out that in the notorious early-1990s, this was a dreaded torture chamber, ‘Papa 2’. Those who went inside rarely came out alive. When I mentioned this to one of the local journalists, he dismissed my dramatic conversation, “Even I was taken there once. It seems somebody was trying to get even with me. But my family pulled some strings at the 15 Corps headquarters. Thankfully, I managed to come out with just a few broken ribs and a bone.”

Is there anyone in the Valley of a certain generation, across religions, who does not have a story to tell?

“If you don’t normalise these things how will you go through what life is in Kashmir,” the editor of an English-language Kashmiri weekly told me one evening.

But if death is normalised, what explains the mass mourning at funerals, the surge of wailing women? Wouldn’t that be orchestrated then?

“Why don’t you think of that as cathartic?” he countered.

I would have continued to argue had one disturbing statistic not been playing on my mind. Nearly 1.8 million Kashmiris suffer from some form of mental illness or the other. As a percentage of the total population, this is an unimaginable number. It means that one of every six person you meet in the Valley suffers from some form of mental disorder, from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia. How can those living with this on a daily basis understand that this is not normal? Only the distance that an outsider enjoys can put this in perspective. In that sense, my ‘flying visits’ to the Valley have afforded me the luxury of both distance and intimacy.

My first time in Kashmir was a holiday. In 1987, during our post-final examination school break in March, my uncle brought his pack of nieces and nephews on a 10-day holiday to the Valley. We did all the touristy things, with Srinagar as the base – houseboat, shikara rides, Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg and shopping.

Though we arrived in Srinagar without a passport, it seemed like a foreign country alright. Since my uncle had friends in Udhampur, we had flown to Jammu to spend a couple of days with them and then driven to the Valley. We left Udhampur early in the morning and crossed Banihal Pass around noon. As we exited the blinding darkness of the Jawahar tunnel and came out to bright sunshine, the transformation of the landscape was so unexpected that we all sat up. On the one side was the magnificent Pir Panjal range and on the other was the lush valley in the indescribable shade of green. But what fascinated us the most were the men — fair but gaunt, mostly unkempt and attired in shapeless, inelegantly droopy phirans. The colours were most unappealing — dirty browns and indistinguishable greys. Of course, whenever we spotted any women on the road, we shamelessly gawked.

The sense of our foreignness was complete when friendly locals asked us if we were from India. An affirmative was enough. Few bothered with the follow-up question on which part of India. In a couple of days, even I got used to answering this question with India, instead of Agra.

“It’s like we are abroad,” I giggled to my cousin, sledding down the snowy slopes of Gulmarg. She giggled back.

I returned to Kashmir in September 1998 as a journalist. It was still a foreign land, but not the same that I remembered from 1987. The moment I exited the Awantipora airport operated by the Indian Air Force, I realised that this was not the Kashmir I had been to as a child. The drive to Srinagar was in absolute silence; the driver, a local on government duty, did not know what he could speak about with a Delhi journalist even though I was the guest of the state government.

The landscape was pockmarked with the remains of numerous military operations. The hills were denuded — result of unchecked felling of trees — partly for wood and partly because they denied hideouts to the militants. The streets had more armed and uniformed personnel than people. And then there were concertina wires, thrown everywhere — sides of the road, middle of the road to create diversion, around the buildings and at the gates.

I was to join a group of journalists who were to do a road journey through Ladakh. The government had opened the restricted Zanskar Valley to outsiders that year. Since I arrived early, I had two extra days in Srinagar with no work. The hotel room that I was provided overlooked the picturesque Dal Lake. I was advised not to get adventurous. The maximum that I could do was take short walks on the boulevard or rides on the shikara from the spot just opposite the hotel.

I obeyed the instructions. I stuck to the Dal and the boulevard. Since the instructions said nothing about not talking, I struck up conversation with whoever I came across. The men rowing the shikaras, the stragglers hanging around the Dal Lake, those manning the public telephone booth nearby, the visitors to the booth, the sales people at touristy shops selling overpriced saffron, faux pashmina stoles and so on. It helped that temperamentally I am a talkative person and prone to asking too many repetitive questions.

I was not trying to understand the Kashmir issue – for that one doesn’t have to go to Kashmir. I was trying to get a vignette of lived experiences in Kashmir. I was trying to pick on the memories of ordinary Kashmiris. Sure enough, I didn’t get any scoop; just a disjointed picture of life spent negotiating check-points on a daily basis and validation of one’s existence by identification cards.

Both were novelties for me. I had never come across a check-point in any city that I had been to till then. And ID, what was that?

Once FORCE started in 2003, I visited Kashmir more frequently, and following the 2005 earthquake, I was in the Valley at least once in three months. I have seen all seasons — hope, despair, protests, encounters, curfews, shut-downs and even cross-Line of Control shelling. Of course, I have witnessed the colours of summer, the serenity of autumn and the eerie quiet of winter. And also, the snowfall in April, which I was told was a rare phenomenon.

I have witnessed how dignity is stripped bit by bit off an ordinary Kashmiri on a daily basis. I have seen how abuse is internalised. I have been unnerved by the sight of adolescent school girls shrieking abuses at the roll of concertina wire carelessly strewn on a side road that was used as a shortcut by pedestrians, including me. I have been saddened by the sight of elderly taxi driver standing in a queue at a random checkpoint with his papers in freezing cold while I waited in the heated car.

Only an outsider, who visits Kashmir frequently, can understand how dehumanising the violence of everyday life in the Valley is. How it eats away at your body, your soul and something as ordinary as the right to take offence.

Here’s another anecdote from one of my visits. Sometimes in the summer of 2011, I had gone to interview the top army officer in Kashmir, the GOC 15 Corps along with my local photographer. After the interview, he presented mementos to me and my colleague from FORCE. To the photographer he discreetly handed over an envelope.

The moment we got in our car, the photographer handed over the envelope to me. It contained a Rs 500 note. It took a moment for me to realise what it was. The photographer was both livid and sad. I was embarrassed. I murmured that he could return it to the GOC when he met him next. We both knew that it was a preposterous idea. How on earth will he have the opportunity to see the commander so closely to return the envelope? More importantly, can he afford to offend the top military commander in the Valley by returning the tip he has given to a Kashmiri journalist?

My confidence in my democratic rights gave me the courage to take umbrage. Not a Kashmiri. A Kashmiri has no right to be offended. To stay alive, he has to be complicit in his own humiliation. To understand this, among other things, you have to be an outsider.

Ghazala Wahab is the executive editor of FORCE newsmagazine.