Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kashmir: A wedding under curfew

Revolve magazine -

It is mid week, the middle of the day and the streets of Srinagar are deserted. It’s like this four days out of every six. The “Quit Kashmir Movement” and “All Parties Hurriyat Conference” call for a hartal (strike) to demonstrate for azadi (freedom) and the Indian military responds by imposing a curfew to prevent the Kashmiris from taking to the streets. Road blocks are put in place, military vehicles move into strategic positions and troops go on patrol.

The violence has claimed over 100 Kashmiri lives since June 11, 2010 when the Indian Army shot at unarmed demonstrators. This violence has occurred most often when the Kashmiris challenge the curfew, swarming to junctions and the major arteries of Srinagar, with young men – and women – throwing projectiles, chanting slogans and, in general, resisting India’s occupation. Curiously, the slogans painted and chalked on roads, walls, shop shutters and in the grime of car windows are mostly in English: “Freedom”, “Go India Go Back”, and “Go Indian Dogs”.

The Indian Army is predominantly made up of Hindi speakers, with little Kashmiri known. Kashmiris are conversant in Hindi but lack literacy skills, so the default language of both sides – and useful for international media attention – is that of the former colonizer, Great Britain. Indeed, Britain was instrumental to Partition, promoting a separate Pakistan and after Pakistan invaded and occupied Kashmir in October 1947, Britain lobbied at the UN in favor of Kashmir becoming a Pakistani province.

Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin told US Secretary of State George Marshall that “the main issue was who would control the main artery leading into Central Asia.” And as the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton put it, Pakistan was central to Bevin’s ambition to organize “the middle of the planet.” (Read Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010).

On the two days that are hartal and curfew free, Srinagar turns into a mad house, with people trying to pack a week’s business into 48 hours and families stock-piling food for the inevitable next shutdown. This is the Kashmiri status quo. In the midst of all this a wedding was to take place, for life must go on, but the guest list was to prove rather unpredictable and the ongoing situation generating a rather somber tone to the celebrations.

Gilani’s On Board

I had been to Kashmir before in slightly more ‘normal’ times; at least there were no curfews and daily life was able to go on, while there were some tourists but not on the scale of the boon times in the 1970s and early 1980s. Kashmiris I had met in Srinagar on my inaugural visit had family members in New Delhi that I later befriended and stayed with on return visits to India. It was this extended family, that shall go under the pseudonym of Manzar due to the fear – alas very valid – of repercussions from the Indian authorities given their opinions on the occupation, that invited me to join them for the wedding of one of their daughters.

Having endured the bum breaking 24-hour, 1,000 kilometer bus journey between Srinagar and New Delhi before, I decided on the easier option of flying to the Vale of Kashmir instead. One of my fellow travelers was none other than Sayyed Ali Shah Gilani, the Chairman of the Hurriyat Conference (HC). Gilani was warmly greeted by the Kashmiris waiting at the departure gate, going up to shake hands, the young ones to have their hair ruffled and smiles all round. Gilani was clearly admired.

Gilani and the HC call for the hartals to take place and demands hurriyat (freedom), while intractably involved in a decades-long game of cat-and-mouse with the Indian government. On arrival in Srinagar, Gilani was detained by the authorities and later placed under house arrest, contributing to some 140 days spent in the confinements of his property during 2010, along with 40 days of imprisonment under India’s Public Safety Act. One of the Manzar’s commented: “It is a part of daily life for him, like having a cup of chai (tea).”

As a foreigner, I had to register at the airport with a plain clothes member of Indian intelligence, and upon being greeted by the Manzar’s at the entrance, was accosted by a Kashmiri tourist policeman in a disheveled uniform, who took down my particulars only as “Mr. Paul from Ireland.” It was a quick drive through the empty streets of Srinagar to the Manzar’s three-story home near Lake Dal. Once installed, I related that Gilani was on the plane, but this aroused little curiosity. And for a reason indicative of the sectarianism that is as rife in Kashmir as in the rest of India.

This is not the Muslim-Hindu fitna (discord) that has flared off-and-on in Indian politics since the 1947 Partition with Pakistan – a controversial government paper has shown that Muslims are under-represented, and politically and socially disadvantaged in India. In Kashmir, one million Hindu Pandits were forced out over the years due to religious extremism and the perception that they sided with the predominantly Hindu national government rather than with Kashmir.

While this is a lingering scar, contemporary Kashmiri sectarianism is between the majority Sunni population and the Shia, the latter only having marginal political representation in the Hurriyat Conference. It is a similar story for minority Shia in other Islamic countries, such as neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, and an issue in countries where the Shia are in the ascendancy, namely Bahrain and Lebanon.

“I don’t like Gilani,” said Reza, the brother of the bride to be. “Gilani hates Shias.” This is not to insinuate that the Manzar’s dislike Sunnis – indeed, Reza is engaged to a Sunni and one of his father’s best friends is a Sunni – but that the Shia feel discriminated against by the likes of Gilani and other sectarian leaders. Division has become an obstacle for the Kashmiri resistance, as it has with every other occupied people, such as the Palestinians, when the occupying and neighboring powers successfully drive a wedge between, and pit the locals against, each other.

Internal Kashmiri rifts have been exacerbated by the Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sponsorship of militant groups, and bank-rolled by the Saudi Kingdom, ever keen to export its version of Islam, Wahhabiism, spending over $50 billion globally in the past decades. Propped up financially by the unlikely trio of China, Saudi Arabia and the United States, Pakistan has backed Kashmiri militant groups for over 30 years. Former Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, admitted in October 2010 in London that the ISI set up groups in the 1980s and early 1990s to attack India.

Another Bad Year

2010 was another bad year in Kashmir. In 1989, a popular rebellion – the Kashmiri intifada – against Indian misrule began, further stoked by militant Islamic groups connected to the ISI in the wake of the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, sending scores of Afghan veterans and Pakistani Kashmiris across the Line of Control (LoC) that separates Indian Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and the Pakistani Azad (free) Kashmir (China has the remaining 20 percent called Aksai Chin, which is claimed by India). This proxy war between Pakistan and India, that remnant of the 1947 Partition, put the Kashmiri populace in the middle. Intifada after intifada has occurred since 1989 and the Indian Army has cracked down hard, notably in 2001, when over 1,000 civilians were killed. Over 45,000 Kashmiris have been killed since 1989.

One major difference over the past year from former crises, when feelings rose to a boiling point and Kashmiris took to the streets, is that this time there has been minimal militancy – apart from the stone throwing and rioting. Sympathy with the militants has waned – particularly for Pakistani-backed groups – but anger with New Delhi’s political dillydallying and iron fist policy in tackling the “Kashmir issue” has spiked. The youth are not interested in siding with New Delhi or Islamabad. The youth want independence, or, at worst, autonomy from India.

A poll released in May 2010, carried out by Chatham House on both sides of the LoC, affirms that just 2 percent of respondents in J&K want to join Pakistan, and only 28 percent want to join India. More than four in 10, or 43 percent of the total adult population, want independence, particularly in the Kashmir Valley Division (between 75 and 95 percent), and 82 percent of those polled in Srinagar (in Jammu just 1 percent, Leh 30 percent and Kargil 20 percent). Some 44 percent of Pakistani Kashmiris also want sovereignty over their own affairs. (See Robert Bradnock, Kashmir: Paths to Peace. London: Chatham House, May 2010.)

The results show an overwhelming desire of the estimated 12 million Kashmiris for independence. But this in itself poses a particular problem. The options for the Kashmiris is tied up with UN resolutions dating back to 1948-49 that call for a referendum to take place for the people to decide whether they want to join India or Pakistan. Clearly, if the survey truly reflects the opinions of the people, the Kashmiris want neither, but rather prefer total independence. But independence for Kashmir is the last thing Islamabad or New Delhi wants, despite talks between the two sides that have been off and on since 2003 and gained new momentum in 2011.

K is for Kashmir

The religious dimension of the Kashmir conflict, sandwiched between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, has deeply ingrained the mutual hatred over the past 65 years. Pakistan is against an independent Kashmir that unites both sides, losing its border and access to China, not to mention a major dent to its pride and the all powerful military that forms the backbone of the Pakistani nation. Azad Kashmir is so integral to Pakistan that the country’s name means “land of the pure” and is an acronym, according to the popular saying: P for Punjab, A for Afghanistan, K for Kashmir, and STAN for Baluchistan. Take out the K and Pakistan wouldn’t quite have the same ring to it. India’s Hindu populace – which has become far more radical and militant over the past 20 years – would equally be against losing a major part of the Northern provinces, especially to Muslim rule.

While international observers are calling for the LoC to become an international border, for joint institutions to be developed and for the United States to partake in ‘quiet diplomacy’ and utilize its relations with Islamabad and growing alliance – particularly militarily and on nuclear power – with New Delhi, a far more radical solution is called for. One fitting with what India champions itself as, “the world’s largest democracy” – a referendum on what the Kashmiri people want, not Delhi, its puppets or the Kashmiri dynasties that have ruled the region for generations.

Young Kashmiris think this could work – with the state having abundant land and resources and more than enough people for a viable country, plus a flourishing tourism sector if there were peace. Kashmir is land-locked and would require the good will of its neighbors – the very same from which it would secede – for trade to take off. Unified with Azad Kashmir, a free Kashmir would have access to the large markets of China and Central Asia.

But India is not ready: the diabolical Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) goes unpunished and lets soldiers, quite literally, get away with murder. In 2010, Mian Qayoom, President of the Kashmir Bar Association, was arrested under the Public Safety Act for protesting human rights violations and sentenced to two years in jail, while peaceful protesters engaged in sit-ins are accused by the police of “offences” and “disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servants” while others were accused of spouting “anti-national slogans.”

The most sensational case was Booker Prize winning author and activist Arundhati Roy, along with Gilani and five others, being booked for “sedition” for making anti-India speeches at an event in Srinagar. In late 2010, Roy said the charge “is meant to frighten civil rights groups and young journalists into keeping quiet.” The case is to go on trial in April 2011. Read her book on what’s really happening in India: Listening to Grasshoppers, Field Notes on Democracy (London: Penguin, 2009).

“Suspect All, Respect All”

A slogan on an army road block: “Suspect All, Respect All”. This is India’s policy in Kashmir, although leaning to suspecting all, rather than respecting all. The slogan drew smirks from the young Kashmiri men I went around Srinagar with, as they saw little respect from the authorities. They related how during curfews Kashmiris were pulled from their vehicles at checkpoints and beaten by soldiers, for no apparent reason. They described how at hartals the army used live ammunition on the unarmed protesters, and how, during curfews, sticking one’s head out of your front door could also result in a beating. There was a sense of despondency about the situation and it being rectified anytime soon.

One of the failures of New Delhi in Kashmir is how little it has done to endear Kashmiris towards India. There has been no “nation building” or investing in infrastructure and improving living standards. Kashmiris view the Indians as exploiting their land – natural resources, water and the hydro-power that provides electricity to New Delhi and the populous state of Punjab while Kashmir experiences power shortages.

A major shortcoming is providing employment. Recent statistics show that 590,000 educated youth in the state are unemployed, while in the Chatham House survey in J&K, 81 percent of those polled said the most significant problem was unemployment, with government corruption and poor economic development in second and third place respectively.

The lack of work in Kashmir was reflected by the Manzar’s, their friends and extended family. A middle class family, the men had to work elsewhere in India to earn a decent wage, while some of the young men helping out at the wedding worked in Singapore, Dubai and Australia. With no opportunities in Srinagar, there was little choice but to head down to Delhi or further afield. But that didn’t mean the problems of Kashmir disappeared. The diaspora in India keep firmly attuned to what is happening through Kashmiri TV channels and newspapers, while trying to keep a low profile, particularly following terrorist attacks in the capital due to fear of anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmir bashing.

Due to the virulent anti-Muslim prejudices of the Indian media, which jumped to conclusions that Muslims were behind the majority of bombings in New Delhi in 2007 and 2008, one of the Manzar’s living in the capital refused to go out on the streets for fear of being arrested. Subsequent evidence has shown that in several cases it was right-wing Hindus behind the bombings rather than the familiar culprit of radical Islamists. Investigations have shown the deep-seated prejudices within the police and security apparatus against Indian Muslims. Indeed, a Wikileaks cable showed that prominent politician Rahul Gandhi told the U.S. Ambassador in 2009 that while “there was evidence of some support for [Islamic terrorist group Laskar-e-Taiba] among certain elements in India’s indigenous Muslim community, the bigger threat may be the growth of radicalized Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community.”


Weddings in Kashmir are major social events, bringing together families, friends and neighbors. Given the current situation, weddings are one of the few positive occasions and a good way to also bring the diaspora together. Weddings are protracted events, with visits and gift-giving ceremonies between the families of the bride and groom that go on well before the wedding day and in the following weeks. The festivities take place separately for the bride and groom, who are brought together only on the final day, once the imam has formalized the marriage.

The wedding day requires days of preparation, with some 20 cooks working for two days on the menu, the famous wazwan of dozens of dishes. Some 25 sheep, 70 chickens and 100 kilos of rice are prepared for the 280 guests at the wedding, all cooked on open fires and the meat cooked in multi ways – bashed to a pulp to make huge meatballs, called gostaba, mutton cooked slowly in sweet milk, grilled chicken, stewed mutton, and skewered kebabs.

The morning of the wedding, Reza gets a phone call from a guest asking about the extent of the curfew. “Is it a whole valley curfew?” he asks the other seven young men sleeping in the room. Yes, the whole valley. One of the guests managed to get through the checkpoints by showing his wedding invitation, but he had to go through 12 checkpoints and take alternative routes when the Indian Army would not let him through at certain road blocks – 12 checkpoints to cover less than 15 kilometers.

Reza keeps getting calls throughout the day – cancellations and questions about the checkpoints. There is no text messaging as the Indian authorities have banned SMS in Kashmir. Will the groom make it tonight? “Inshallah (God Willing)…” The curfew tends to be stricter in the morning. The preparations continue, the people are resigned, yet they tell jokes and drink tea. The Kashmiris are used to waiting, sitting around chatting and passing the time – no jobs, schools closed, no business, and nowhere to go except for the immediate neighborhood.

The wedding day goes off without a hitch, with enough guests showing up that the large tent erected in an uncle’s garden is not empty, and the groom is able to arrive that evening. But the wazwan is consumed quickly, without a jubilant atmosphere due to the situation and the curfew. In the past, said the elders, the wazwan would have been eaten slower with the festivities carrying on for five days rather than just two. Reza’s uncle remarked that he was one of the last to get married the old way, just before the troubles erupted in 1989.

The end of the wedding is however affected by the curfew. Usually dozens of cars would accompany the new couple to the groom’s house, but Reza forbids too many from going due to the curfew and that the groom’s relatives will not be expecting guests. While the Indian Army says they “respect all,” they don’t allow for special circumstances during curfews, even for weddings.

Returning the Keys

In 2011, the Indian-administered Kashmiris have kept up the struggle for their rights and freedom. To have effect, the hartals will have to continue – as in Azad Kashmir – while Delhi will have to meet the Kashmiri leaders instead of continuously imprisoning them and enter into constructive dialogue with Pakistan to hammer out a solution. Until a viable solution is enacted, Kashmir will remain a bleeding wound of Partition and a paradise lost. It was a place once called the Switzerland of Asia due to its snow-capped mountains, rivers and forests, but this beauty – also under threat environmentally – merely masks the oppression and violence that torments Kashmir.

As the late Kashmiri poet Aha Shahid Ali wrote from his deathbed in the U.S. in 2001, in a poem dedicated to a Kashmiri Hindu friend:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar
By the gates of the Villa of Peace
Our hands blossoming into fists
Till the soldiers return the keys
And disappear.

Photos courtesy of Sarwar B.

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