First Person | Humans of Kashmir

A change in perspective is needed for peace

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

About four years ago, when Kashmir was experiencing one of its fleeting phases of normalcy, one of my school friends went on a road trip to the Valley with his wife, two preteens, sister and her family. An intrepid traveller, he is obsessed with the Himalayas and luckily for him, his family shares his love. Ever since he began his love affair with the majestic mountain range, all his family summer vacations have been spent driving on the Himalayan roads, from Uttarakhand to Himachal.

Kashmir was the last adventure in his Himalayan series. Several factors held him and his family back from undertaking this journey. The security situation was one obvious factor. The other was his and his family’s eating habits. They are pure vegetarians, of the kind which does not even look at root vegetables, forget onion and garlic. Hence, they weren’t sure what kind of food they would get at roadside eateries during their journey in a predominantly Muslim state.

But the lure of the uncharted territory was too much to resist. Before planning the itinerary, my friend asked for my advice on the route they should take and the offbeat places they should visit avoiding the tourist traps. I was not of much use. Eventually, he relied on Google map and his instincts; and had a more enriching experience of the Valley in 10 days than I have had in the last 15 years.




After entering the Valley, their first stop was obviously Srinagar where they spent two nights in a houseboat. For some inexplicable reason, my friend hit it off with the houseboat owner and agreed to have a meal with him and his family. A special Kashmiri Pandit vegetarian fare was prepared for them. That one meal changed not only the course of their holiday but also perspective on Kashmir. God knows what the voluble Kashmiri told him and his family about the circumstances in which they live and their political aspirations, but my friend returned a completely different person.

The houseboat owner became their guide for the next few days, showing them his home state from his perspective. Even when they went to the touristy places like Pahalgam, the guide added layers to his narration. Kashmir was no longer a test of patriotism for my friend. The deeply entrenched battle lines dividing India and the people of Kashmir into us versus them got so badly smudged that it was no longer possible to see where one’s hardened position ended and the other’s point of view began.

“I am so proud of myself for mustering courage to make this journey,” he told me upon his return. “It not only changed the way I view the Kashmir issue now, it has changed the way I view human beings. The visit helped me see how my prejudices had held my innate humanity to ransom.”

Glimpses of History and the Story of StruggleFor some strange reason, this four-year-old incident and conversation started playing tricks on my mind as I sat listening to Professor Saifuddin Soz’s monologue during the release function of his book Kashmir: Glimpses of History and the Story of Struggle. In his introductory remarks, Prof. Soz was both defensive and aggressive by turn. He took great pains to explain to the assembled audience, few of whom would have any real experience or even interest in Kashmir as a political issue, why his book and views must not be construed as being against the interests of India.

Acutely aware that none, except Jairam Ramesh, from the political party he owed his allegiance to (and in which his son is now trying to carve out his future) had come for the launch of his labour of love, with former home minister P. Chidambaram backing out of releasing it at the last minute despite confirmation, Soz said in as many ways possible that his book was his own effort, based on his years of observing, interacting with key players and research. “It has nothing to do with my political party,” he pleaded with the audience, expressing hope that somehow the people seated inside the hall in India International Centre will carry his voice outside.

Soz was pushed in this position by the pre-launch publicity that his book had attracted, both through select extracts and his own interviews to the media. Soz had made two claims, which were found objectionable, in a series of interviews. One, that the back channel talks instituted by Manmohan Singh-Musharraf in 2005-2007 remained the best bet for the political resolution of Kashmir; two, Musharraf had admitted to his senior army brass that Kashmir would never become a part of Pakistan because given a choice, Kashmiris will opt for independence.

In these times of hyper-nationalism, both these statements were picked up by the Bharatiya Janata Party as anti-national, sending the Congress into a tizzy (the point about Kashmir not becoming part of Pakistan was conveniently ignored). With a few state elections lined up in the coming months leading up to the General Elections next year, Congress clamped down on its own, effectively disassociating itself from Soz’ book.

Hence, at his book release function, Soz spent nearly 40 minutes to prove his nationalistic credentials and how much the Congress leaders starting with Jawaharlal Nehru have done for Kashmir and the Kashmiri people.

This was tragic for three reasons; more for India as a nation than for Soz. If the government has been able to build a univocal narrative on Kashmir then it shows that either we have extremely short memories or convenient opinions. This is the reason we have allowed ourselves to believe that Kashmir is a law and order problem, one which has to be dealt with through unforgiving military means, no matter what it costs the local people. Anyone who refers to the history of the conflict and various efforts made over the decades to seek a political resolution is immediately called out as an anti-national. This disease of short-term memory afflicts not just ordinary people who converge as mob to terrorise dissenters online and offline, but the media too.

In their mindless sloganeering they do not realise that an unresolved Kashmir issue causes more harm to India’s national interest than talking about its resolution. India’s immediate and distant neighbourhood is changing very rapidly and all of this will impact on Kashmir. Today, there are already four stake-holders to the final resolution — People of Kashmir, India, Pakistan and China.

Second, as history shows in Kashmir, vilification and side-lining of the mainstream politicians only strengthens the dissenters and the hardliners. The government of India wants no truck with the Separatists in Kashmir and it undermines the mainstream politicians. Who is then left for it to engage with?

And the third reason is that for the vast majority of Indians, Kashmir was a beautiful valley surrounded by lush mountains and impish rivers where summers were spent. That gentle memory was rudely shattered by the insurgency. Today, we view Kashmir through the prism of violence, anti-India sloganeering and martyrdom of brave Indian soldiers. In our mindscape, there is no room for the humans of Kashmir because we have no experience of that place and its people. What daily life means to them and how it feels to go from one funeral procession to another!

A few days before the book release, I received a WhatsApp forward, which started with: ‘Received this from a colonel in the Indian Army. Please read, and please forward. Thank you’. The message urged the readers to not visit Kashmir because, ‘We ourselves are providing a source of income for the Kashmiris… These very Kashmiri people attack our BSF, CRPF, IAS, IPS. They stone soldiers & oppose our Indian Army. They do not allow Dharamshalas to be built in Kashmir… Only for 2 years boycott Kashmir… All the “freedom” will remain in the tent of Yasin Malik and Gilani… Do not buy anything from Kashmiris… For the sake of national interest…’

That is why my friend’s visit returned to me. Staying and then travelling with an ordinary Kashmiri he saw his humiliation at every checkpoint they came across; and there are plenty of them in Kashmir. He heard his dreams for his children and fear for their lives. He realised how privileged he was in the state where his money was calling the shots, and how unfortunate the locals were who were forced to live with multiple identities — one for the neighbours who could tattle about him to the authorities, one for the authorities, one for those ideologically opposed to him, one for his customers/ clients and finally one for his own family.

Usurping other panellists’ allotted time, Soz went to great lengths to describe the contents of his book, starting with 1946. As the name suggests, his is more of a historical account than a contemporary narrative. And unlike other Kashmiris, his portrayal of history is not one of successive betrayals by the government of India, but of missed opportunities, despite the best of intentions. Nehru, for Soz, was the person who meant well but was led astray by ‘small minds.’ At some point in his monologue when the audience made it obvious that it was getting tired of the lecture in history, Soz urged more patience saying that, ‘history is important, because from history emerges the future.’

Shourie disagreed. He said that all Kashmiris have a problem of dwelling too much on history and not on the future. He said that he wants Kashmiris, especially the youth, to come up with solutions. What should be done now? How do we resolve the problem?

Unfortunately, he omitted two critical issues here. One, people dwell on the past when future looks bleak. Those who look forward do not look back. And two, since the insurgency began, several formulations of resolving the Kashmir issue (without engaging with Pakistan) have been offered by the state mainstream and non-mainstream parties. Not only that, the government appointed interlocutors’ in 2010 have also given their roadmap for ushering in peace. And then there was the famous Manmohan Singh-Musharraf dialogue.

After burying each of these formulations, we are now seeking yet another formula for peace. And at a time when the government of India has made it clear that it needs no advice, least of all from Kashmiris on Kashmir. With future so bleak, do we really blame them for dwelling in the past?