“You’re welcome, sir,” the houseboat owner smiled, “this is Kashmir, this is paradise.” His houseboat in Srinagar’s iconic Dal Lake seemed to symbolize India’s troubled northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir – its once elegant furnishings wearing a weary, derelict look, the fading, once plush interior carrying forlorn memories of happier days. The next 24 hours I would remember to my dying day.
From inside the houseboat on Dal Lake, I could hear sounds of life passing by outside. I heard sounds of pain like calls for help from tormented beings, of sudden cries breaking through the dying light of a vanishing day. After a brief rest, I was to take in the sights of Srinagar, but I could not stir– a surreal feeling like as if all the suffering of a people seemed to weigh me down. Hours later, the houseboat owner knocked the door anxiously asking if I wanted some food, if I wanted anything. I said no. I seemed living a nightmare – of misery felt as tangibly as the bed and the gentle dance of the houseboat on a lake.
I was returning to Mumbai via Srinagar and New Delhi, at the end of nearly a month-long stay practicing Vipassana in Kashmir’s extraordinarily beautiful, desolate Ladakh district. I reached Srinagar, the state capital, after one of the most spectacular road journeys in the world: the 18-hour drive from Leh to Srinagar, through Mars or Moon-like terrain, through morning light on the Zo-jila Pass 3,528 metres (11,575 ft) high, travelling through sheer walls of ice and a mountain plateau that at sunrise was a sea of snow glowing like gold on either side of the Himalayan road – a vision of such splendor, breathtaking beauty, of unforgettable wonder it felt good to be human, to be proud to belong to our home called Earth. A resident of Tingmosgang village near Leh told me to be “careful” when I was in Srinagar, but not for a moment did I feel unsafe anywhere in Kashmir.
The suburbs of Srinagar gifted an insight to a root of Kashmir’s troubles: everywhere were armed soldiers, paramilitary or military, uniformed with guns – in the streets, in front of shops, in doorways, under stray lampposts, in even deserted building lots. An army co-existing in such close proximity with a civilian population inevitably causes fatal problems – more so when the problem is sneak attacks from terrorists hiding among civilians.
Violence enacts its toll
And so Kashmir has suffered three decades of deaths from jittery trigger fingers, mistaken arrests, each casualty of a soldier or a civilian feeding a vicious cycle of anger, revenge and violence; a people, a state, a country victimized by cross-border terrorist masterminds and their military sponsors – the resulting haunting screams of agony of families suffering in one form or the other, this hell in paradise that my senses tangibly felt while resting in the waters of Dal Lake, this link to depths of suffering that no words can describe.
Soldiers and paramilitary recruits from distant, culturally different regions of India are there in Kashmir because successive Indian governments have failed to tackle cross-border terrorism at its source from across the border: of failing to take any effective action against terrorist masterminds in a neighboring country, the same masterminds and their military patrons plotting more killings.
Instead, a reactive policy of waiting for militants — brainwashed mercenaries who are mostly unemployed, uneducated youth — to sneak into India has kept the Indian army and the people it protects in an ironic, tragic conflict. Intensive presence of heavily armed, nervous, homesick, stressed soldiers in a high density civilian area is asking for more of the mistaken deaths that Kashmir has suffered for three decades. And each violent death feeds the cycle of anger, hate, violence and more misery.
India’s leaders apparently are yet to understand the urgency to take whatever action is needed to end cross-border terrorism at its source, and thereby end the need for the streets of Kashmir to be filled with soldiers — and end the risk of unintentional conflict with civilians.
Deeper causes fester: the violence of the past week is latest product of delusions about Kashmir, of quintessential existential problems of a partitioned breakaway country.
The delusion of a ‘separatist’ Kashmir
So-called “separatists” fanning unrest in Kashmir already have what they want. Not many outside India may know that Kashmir is already a more independent land within a free country, thanks to Article 370 of the Indian constitution.
The core of a people’s freedom is the freedom of their elected representatives to pass laws, and Article 370 gives Kashmir the extra right that no other state in India has: any law passed by India’s Parliament becomes law in Jammu and Kashmir only when ratified by its state assembly. In effect, Kashmir already enjoys autonomy. Until 1965, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir was even called the “Prime Minister,” as when Mehr Chand Mahajan assumed office on Oct. 15, 1947.
Likewise is the delusion of demands for a referendum on Kashmir, or the right to self-determination for the people of Kashmir. India’s northernmost state already has a referendum every five years latest: it’s called the state Assembly elections. Braving terrorist threats, Kashmir’s people have courageously come out to vote and elect their leaders since 1947, in a continuous democratic exercise never seen in a neighboring “failed state”.
The Simla Agreement of 1972 to end the 1971 India-Pakistan war, provided a shared solution to problems of Partition. The Simla Agreement provided a peaceful status quo in Kashmir, until the Janata Party ruling India in 1977 made the devastating blunder, with Atal Behari Vajpayee as External Affairs Minister: India resumed active bilateral relations with Pakistan, with military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
He began sponsoring terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir – creating the monsters over which the civilian government of Pakistan has no control. Since then, Kashmir has been a favorite diversionary ploy of military dictators, and infiltrating terrorists became waging a low-cost war against India.
Successive Indian governments and diplomats have failed to present to the world a clear picture of the situation in Kashmir. Much worse, India’s leaders have failed to see the urgency in needing to stop cross-border terrorist attacks, insurgency, and sponsored political unrest at their source in the neighboring country– terrorist camps from where brainwashed, trained, paid young mercenaries are pushed across the border into India, to do the dirty work for cowardly army generals.
Existential problems of Partition
The idea of a Hindu ruler of a Muslim-majority state of Kashmir contradicted the essential delusion that gave birth to India’s partition and Pakistan: that Muslims cannot survive in a Hindu-majority India. That the Muslim-majority Kashmir legally acceded to India through free will and people’s approval was a deathblow to the “reason” behind partition.
Since Independence and Partition, India has had Muslim leaders in all walks of life, including the central government. Circa 2004, India had a Muslim president and Commander-in-Chief of India’s armed forces (Abdul Kalam), a Sikh prime minister (Manmohan Singh) and a Roman Catholic (Sonia Gandhi) as leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition – in effect, leaders from three minority communities peacefully ruling over the vast Hindu majority. No other country than India has such strong secular credentials. Consider the chances of a Muslim becoming president of the USA, or a Hindu prime minister of Pakistan.
One’s religion was never much of an issue in India, as when I was growing up as a student from a Hindu family studying in a Roman Catholic Salesian school of Don Bosco. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs … we shared the same classroom and happy school memories.
In fact, only about two years ago I realized that our class leader (or monitor) from Standard 3 to Standard 10 was a Muslim. Not once do I ever remember thinking, or any of us even mentioning, why a Muslim boy Ayaz Ahmed should be our class leader. I remembered Ayaz’s religion only recently when I was reviewing material for an article on how religion was rarely a divisive issue in modern India – until politicians like L.K Advani began spreading their self-serving poison.
That Muslims are being discriminated and deliberately brutalized in Kashmir is not just a myth that sections of Pakistan perhaps need to keep feeding for existential and criminal reasons – but it is also a fact since the people of Jammu and Kashmir are being victimized by their own fellow Muslims from across the border.
Perpetrators of murderous violence in Kashmir protesting against the violence in Kashmir, and announcing July 20 as a protest day, is an example of the deadly delusions and duplicity that are uniquely peculiar to India’s western neighbor – such as accepting billions of dollars in US aid for hunting down Osama bin Laden, while hiding him in their army’s front yard. Or in being hailed as an “ally in the war against terror” while being the mother ship to terrorist groups.
Over three decades of cross-border terrorism and political unrest in a land that seems a heaven on Earth, the suffering of a generation in Kashmir who do not know what it is like to see a street without armed soldiers, the deaths of thousands – all will have their inevitable effect on those creating the hell in a paradise called Kashmir.
Some years ago, I saw a person outside Churchgate station in Mumbai with no hands, no legs. Someone had carried him there, and left him lying face down on the road — without limbs, just a living torso with a shrunk, twitching head. Some passersby hurried away from the terrible sight; others dropped money, and many no doubt wondered what he had done to reach such a state.
As the seed is so the fruit will be. There is absolutely no escape for the terrorist masterminds and their military sponsors wherever they are, no escape from the consequences of their actions, no escape from Nature’s law of cause and effect. Which is why every harmful action is first self-destructive, more so crimes against humanity. And which is why I fervently hope better sense prevails in all concerned. Nobody has guaranteed that we will be alive tomorrow, or the next hour – and at the moment of death how much property, power, land in Kashmir are we going to carry with us?
Even the longest night has its end, and the day will dawn sooner than later, one way or the other, when brainwashed, trained killers are no more a country’s leading export. And that is when the good people of India’s northern most state regain their lost paradise.
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.