Tag Archives: Kashmir

Shikara – The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pundits

A movie about Kashmir is a natural magnet for me, since my mother was born and brought up in Srinagar. I’ve grown up listening to her stories of this Shangri-La, where every garden bloomed with apple and cherry trees, and where nature was like a gorgeous and generous mother, her bounty of fruit and flowers overflowing on the bosom of a land crisscrossed by crystalline streams and clear blue lakes.

The exodus of my mother’s side of the family from Kashmir during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 wasn’t considered a permanent separation. Like most Kashmiri refugees at the time, they considered themselves Kashmiris first, and Punjabis, second. They were sure things would settle down, treaties would be signed, a peace accord reached, and they would be able to return to their homes, and their beloved Kashmir.

Shikara is a movie about the flight of Kashmiri Pandits to India in the early 1990’s. The same journey my mother’s family had undertaken in 1947 was repeating itself with a different population in 1990, but with a similar, sadly predictable ending – no one gets to go back once a land is dipped in the bloodletting hatred of communalism.

Sadia Khateeb and Aadil Khan in Shikara

The movie begins in the late 1980’s when unrest is beginning to heat up. The two newcomers who play the lead, Aadil Khan and Sadia Khateeb, are a delightful, romantic pair, and the movie diffuses the brutal, bloody violence of strife between Hindus and Muslims through the soft prism of their young, idealistic love.  Aadil Khan plays Shiv Kumar Dhar, who falls in love with Shanti (Khateeb) after accidentally being paired with her as an extra during a movie shoot in Srinagar. 

This thread of an eternal love story which survives the cruelties and trauma of communal violence by clinging fiercely to each other is one frame of the movie. The other frame is the thousands of letters, one every day, that Shiv writes to the President of America to plead for help when they become stateless refugees. 

In the first half we see the innocence and beauty of an era where Shiv’s best friend, Lateef Lone (Zain Khan Durrani) is the messenger who carries Shiv’s declaration of infatuation to Shanti. Their wedding is simple, involving immediate friends and family and Shiv insists on including Lateef and his father (whom he calls Abbajaan) in his family wedding photo. We see the young couple endearingly in love, finding the perfect place to build their own house, and Lateef’s father bringing stones for the foundation of their future home from his own land. Hindu or Muslim, they are Kashmiri’s first. 

Shiv is a dreamy poet who’s working on his PHD in Literature and plans to teach, while Shanti is content being a housewife and doting on him. Their little piece of paradise is shattered by the death of Lateef’s father, Abbajaan, in one of those ‘unfortunate incidents’ which are all too common in Kashmir – a trigger happy government force fires on a peaceful protest. This trauma turns Lateef into a terrorist, determined to exact revenge for his father’s death, and aligned with the cause of the Mujahedeen who want to make Kashmir an all Islamic state.

The movie tries to depict both sides of this thorny issue, but the weight of suffering is clearly on the Kashmiri Pandit end. Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to bring balance by depicting both the ‘good’ Muslim neighbors (who help the Dhars escape when violence escalates) and the ‘bad’ ones (their doodhwaala who openly eyes their house, informing Shanti that he plans to move in when they leave, and then enters and squats illegally once they’re gone). But we are clearly primed to sympathize with the minority Pandits and their burning homes. 

The movie has some very poignant, cinematic moments which capture the pain of forced displacement – the exodus in crowded, overladen buses and cars which jams the highway to Jammu; an old man at the Jammu refugee camp crying incessantly that he wants to go back to his home in Srinagar; and incident when a truck, laden with tomatoes to distribute to the refugees, makes the state of beggary they have been reduced to painfully clear to Shiv and Shanti.

However, Shiv and Shanti’s idyllic love story, which is the prism through which we view the movie, has the reverse effect of diluting its primary message – the loss of dignity and trauma, the displaced feel, and the government’s apathy to the plight of permanent refugees; their helplessness in the face of the political forces twisting an individual’s destiny. It romanticizes and simplifies the experience of becoming a refugee refuge by creating a dream like quality to the narrative, especially in the second half.

The narrative also leaves gaping holes in the story, which beg for answers: 

Why have these refugee camps become permanent? How and where did most of those who decide to leave the camp resettle? How culpable were the Indian forces in stoking anti-India hatred by their excesses. What about Pakistan’s involvement in creating terrorism? Chopra doesn’t address any of these issues throbbing in the foreground of Shiv and Shanti’s invincible love story.

Shikara is an enjoyable, melancholy love story, which doesn’t ask any gritty questions or deliver thoughtful answers—it deals with emotions, but in a sanitized, over romanticized way. Aadil Khan and Sadia carry it on the backs of their excellent performances, and obvious chemistry. It’s watchable, but not memorable.

I would give it two and half stars. Four stars for the actors! Now on Amazon Prime.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Trip-Hop Artist Combines English and Urdu

Experimental solo artist, Neeq Serene introduced her haunting and introspective debut single, ‘The Others‘ in May 2020, crossing over genres of trip-hop, alternative RnB, and gothic neo-folk.

An emotive and cinematic soundscape, the sophomore single ‘Fields of Gold’, released on 8th January 2021, features hypnotic vocal layers sung in both English and Urdu, inspired by Serene’s South Asian roots. When writing the song, Serene envisaged crossing the boundary from this world to the next – where departed souls shall meet again.

2019 saw the launch of PINERO|SERENE, a dream-pop songwriting collaboration with bass player Cheryl Pinero. The debut EP, ‘Dark Matter,’ was released on 28th July 2019, with the first single, ‘Take My Soul’ premiered by Clash Magazine. In this new sonic chapter, Neeq reveals a self-reflective journey through minimal, electronic music and deep lyricism, drawing on influences from the alternative music world and her Kashmiri heritage.

‘Fields of Gold’ written and performed by Neeq Serene
Instruments written, played and recorded by Neeq Serene
Orchestra, guitar and additional synth-overdubs played and recorded by Gon von Zola
Mixing and production by Gon von Zola


 

After 370: Glimmers of Hope

Amrita Kar who was only four years when she became a refugee, now lives in Philadelphia and carries vivid memories of flying a kite with her sister and vignettes of her lost house. Ruchi Kolla from the Bay Area still remembers her childhood, the dolls she left behind in their mad flight in 1990 and nurtures a dream to take her children back to their home. Shakun Mallik, who lost her childhood home when her family was forced to leave Kashmir, now lives in Washington DC but wishes to go back. 

Since being forcefully evicted 30 years ago, the Kashmiri Hindu community has had to make a new life for itself. Today they can be found scattered in towns and cities all over India and the world. Thousands live in USA and Canada. While many years have elapsed, the pain for some is as raw today, as it was in those dark times three decades ago, when they witnessed their long time neighbors and friends turn on them.

For Kashmiri Hindus who have been exiled from their homes for decades, the one-year anniversary of the nullification of Article 370, is a poignantly political and personal milestone.

Women carry especially painful memories of those nights that echoed with slogans demanding Kashmiri Hindus leave the valley but leave their women behind. I caught up with three Kashmiri women who had been forced to leave their homes, now living in USA, to find out how the repeal of Article 370 has influenced their hopes for the future.

Last few remaining Hindu temples in Kashmir.

During their 30-year exile, Kashmiri Hindus have seen two generations of senior family members pass away with unfulfilled desires to return home. A new generation of kids has grown up cut off from their roots. Yet hope persists and got a fresh boost as they watched the Indian government finally abolish article 370 and take steps to redress some basic inequities.

The ladies interviewed were delighted at the change in J&K’s residency laws which are already showing results – just a few months in. With the grant of domicile certificates to long-time residents of the state, Dalits in Kashmir (also known as Valmikis) now have a chance to get access to better education and employment instead of being held as semi-bonded labor in janitorial jobs.

Homosexuality is not illegal anymore, removing a Damocles sword that hung over the LGBTQ community. They are also seeing Kashmiri citizens now finally protected by the many progressive laws that had been kept in abeyance by Article 370—everything from restrictions on child marriage and instant divorce to labor protections, affirmative action, and anti-corruption laws.

Part of the Kashmir Overseas Association’s executive team, Shakun and Amrita visited Kashmir in February 2020 and spent a week traveling through the state including Srinagar, Tulmul, Gulmarg and more. Shakun has been a regular visitor to the state since 2012, even when terrorism was rampant, because she felt that it was her right. It was, however, Amrita’s first time in Kashmir since she had fled. Growing up, Amrita had evinced little desire to visit her former home as a tourist – the memories would have been just too painful.

Shakun and Amrita in Kashmir Feb 2020.

“When I got out of the airport, I was really scared,” Amrita said. To make things worse, the women had chosen to visit right around the time the state was more than normally tense, observing the anniversary of both Afzal Guru’s execution and Burhan Wani’s death. Despite warnings, they pressed ahead. “While shops on the main thoroughfares were shuttered, life seemed normal on the smaller streets. Folks we talked to were tired of the turmoil they had lived through. There seemed to be a strong craving for peace-for more tourists and a chance to make a better living for their families.”

According to Shakun, “while it’s too soon to expect too much change, repealing Article 370 was important to integrating Kashmir more fully into India.  Really no place should have special rights purely due to religion to begin with, especially in a secular country,” she said.  “I feel the emotional pull of my homeland. I want to go back. I hope more steps are taken so I can feel safe 

ID card only valid till marriage for women in Kashmir.

“As women we now feel more empowered,” said Ruchi, celebrating the demise of the unequal laws that stripped Kashmiri women (but not men) of their rights to residency or property in the state if they married outside the community. “I have heard of girls who are struggling financially after divorce, but since they had married outside the community, they could not return to live or work in Kashmir, or even claim their parental property.” Kashmiri men, of course, were always allowed to marry as they pleased, without consequence.  

“As someone who has married a non-Kashmiri, abrogation of 370 impacts me very personally. It’s a restoration of my rights and my very identity,’’ added Ruchi. She is also heartened to see family members, who have found new jobs in the past year and now live and work in Kashmir.

Aside from positive changes on the ground, the repeal of Article 370 has led to structural change, giving a new lease of life and renewal to the dispossessed refugees who have languished in silence for 30 years. There is a glimmer of hope – it is now possible to envision a path to going back home.

It’s also been a cathartic experience for the community. “I think many people who were forced out, had suppressed their pain and not shared their stories – even with their own children,” said Amrita.  “Speaking for myself, it was only after August 5, 2019, that for the first time, I heard my parents open up about their harrowing experiences at length. I cried. We talked at length with a psychiatrist who said it was a critical step to coping with our grief and loss.”

The future has hope. “I want to visit again. I want to live there. I want to maybe even die in Kashmir,” says Shakun.

Pushpita Prasad has a passion for storytelling and Indic causes. She lives and works in the Bay Area.

Kashmir in Pain Before Article 370

Featured Image: Wailing mother of Faizan Fayaz hugs the best friend of her slain son. Faizan was killed in a firing by security forces on a polling day for Srinagar Lok Sabha Constituency in  Budgam district on April 9, 2017. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Bilal Ahmad, a freelance photojournalist from Kashmir, scrolls down the screen full of images he has clicked so far as part of his work. In his fourth-floor flat in Delhi’s Noor Nagar, he opens an image and looks at it for quite a while, as if reminded of the scene and the story behind it.

Taking his eyes off the screen, the 24-year-old photojournalist from Kashmir says, “My aim is to acquaint people around the world with the ground realities of Kashmir, most importantly, the hopelessness of a common man.”

However, Bilal’s aim hit a dead end when Narendra Modi-led government in New Delhi imposed a blanket ban on Internet and telecom services in Kashmir a night before it revoked its special status on August 5, 2019, one year ago. The state was divided into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Article 370, which the central government scrapped on August 5, granted the state some autonomy. The erstwhile state had its own constitution, flag, and could make its own laws.

“I lower my head in disappointment when I see the people whose stories I had captured with my camera but couldn’t publish,” Bilal laments.  

Out of thousands of pictures on his laptop, Bilal has kept six of them in a separate folder named ‘Best’. He agrees to share these pictures, how he clicked them, the stories in them.

“It was after Faizan’s funeral I clicked this picture,” Bilal tells me. “There was a huge crowd of people gathered outside slain Faizan’s house. I saw women and children crying and sobbing. Amid those mourning voices, one particular voice was louder and longer,” he pauses. “It was that of Faizan’s mother in the house. I made my way into the room, though with difficulty, and found her surrounded by other women weeping and trying to console the bereaved mother. She felt suffocated and was escorted out in the open. A couple of women held her and helped her walk round in the garden. But she was still sighing and sobbing. Soon, she saw her son’s best friend coming in. She rushed to him, hugged him tightly, and cried even louder. She kept repeatedly asking him, ‘Bring back my son. You left together in the morning after coming back from Madrassa. Why have you returned alone?’ I was already in tears and did not want to click any pictures. However, I ended up channelizing my emotions into bringing her pain in my frame and do my job,” concluded the photojournalist about the picture.

The next click brings us to a group of people attending the funeral prayers of Adil Ahmad at Eidgah, Srinagar. Adil was an eighteen-year-old boy, who was mowed down by an armed forces vehicle in Chattabal area of Srinagar during intense clashes between protesters and government forces on May 5, 2018.

“It is very intriguing,” says Bilal, “to see children take part in the funerals, which sometimes erupt in fierce clashes with the government forces. They easily become targets of tear gas canisters, pellets and sometimes even get killed by bullets fired by the men in uniform. This isn’t what a child should experience. These things have a long-lasting effect on one’s psyche and take shape of nightmares as you come of age.”

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Funeral prayers of Adil Ahmad. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Amongst the turmoil, Bilal tried to capture moments of calm in Kashmir.

“It was getting chaotic after Friday prayers in Srinagar’s Soura area as youth and paramilitary forces were about to clash with each other,” recalls Bilal.

“The man in the photo was playing with his son inside his shop until he heard a loud bang of tear-gas canister fired at the protesting youth a few hundred meters away. He started panicking, grabbed his son, and came outside.”

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A father fixedly looks at his son, who enjoys a packet of snacks outside a shuttered shop in Soura on the outskirts of Srinagar. PC: Bilal Ahmad

“His son, however, proved to be stubborn and was refusing to leave the shop. The father hurriedly tore off a packet of snacks from a rope of many hanging inside the shop and brought down the shutter. The clashes were yet to turn violent and the shopkeeper let go his son sit on the other end of the shop, while he kept a close eye on him and around.”

C:\Users\Bilal Ahmad\Desktop\Best\6.JPG
Nusrat reflecting on losing her eyesight. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Nusrat Jan, a 32-year-old mother of a two-year-old daughter lost her sight in the right eye after she was hit by pellets fired by government forces during intense clashes October 17, 2018 near Srinagar.

The pellet injury left a void in my heart. Now, I can see my daughter only with my left eye,” recants Nusrat.

“It seemed a tough battle for the two-year-old baby girl to see glasses on her mother’s eyes,” Bilal tells me with a heavy heart. “She tried repeatedly to remove them, probably, to see her eyes, but her mother would not let her as she kept feeding her,” he says and is reminded of what the woman in the picture told him then.

Present Day

Here in Kashmir, I caught up with Bilal again after almost 8 months since our meeting in Delhi. During this time, Bilal says, Journalists in Kashmir have been through a lot. “One is scared to work under these circumstances, especially when you see your colleagues being questioned, beaten, detained, and booked under draconian laws such as UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act). See, what happened with photojournalist Masarat Zahra,” says Bilal.

Masrat, a Kashmir-based freelance photojournalist was booked under UAPA by J and K Police for allegedly sharing “anti-national posts”. Masrat, however, denied such charges and said that these posts were part of her professional work, some of which had already been published.

Bilal is also worried about the new Media Policy which the Jammu and Kashmir administration unveiled on June 2. “It has added to the difficulties that we as journalists were already facing,” informs Bilal, resigned to his circumstance. He hopes change will come soon…

Younis Ahmad Kaloo is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. Previously, he was a correspondent at Force Newsmagazine, a monthly magazine on national security and aerospace.

Bombay Rose and Kashmir Guns

I am not ashamed to admit that I sometimes cry in darkened theaters. It happened during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre scene in Gandhi, Naatak’s powerful play that tugged so expertly at my heartstrings. And my lachrymal glands were at it during Vrindavan, another superb Naatak play also by Sujit Saraf. Vrindavan was about the plight of widows cast off by society, that included a powerful performance by Ranjita Chakravarty. When I complained to Sujit Saraf that his plays kept ruining my eye makeup, he grinned happily and said, “Aur ro lo, aur ro lo,” (Go ahead and cry some more).

Salim and Kamala in Bombay Rose.

I took this advice and confess to weeping discreetly in the theater while watching Bombay Rose last week at the 2019 Third i festival in the storied Castro theater in SF, a movie palace from a bygone era. The film was like the delicious pain of a loose milk tooth. The refrain of the song about Reva, flowing like a river to the ocean, was sorrowful, like a replay of Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour in Silver Linings Playbook. Like nostalgia for a glorious era of Bollywood that has slipped into history. Like doomed love of the small and powerless for whom pain has already occurred and will occur again. Like regret for a lost paradise where Shammi Kapoor serenaded Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir ki Kali (1964) but now has more guns than roses.

Tareef karoon kya uski, jisne tujhe banaya. (What praise can I offer your creator?) (Kashmir ki Kali, 1964)

Kashmir ki kali (the flowerbud of Kashmir) Source: Wikipedia

Bombay Rose had a melancholy undercurrent that I thought of for days afterwards. The main characters in the film labor in the “informal economy” of Bombay’s mean streets. There is a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, a dastardly villain, romance, deception and heartbreak. So, is the Bombay Rose a homage to Bollywood? When the film begins, Salim, who has sought refuge in Bombay as violence engulfs his home in Kashmir, is one of the audience members in a movie theater. He is enthralled by the swagger of a six-packed, swashbuckling larger-than-life Raja Khan, a sendup of Bollywood’s grandiosity. Salim’s own existence as a traffic light flower-seller is more meager, but his view includes the lovely garland-maker Kamala across the street, and love blooms.

Is the rose flower Hindu or Muslim? Gulab Singh or Gulab Khan? The film raises this question in a voiceover.

There are flights of imagination to Mughal miniature paintings where our beleaguered couple can escape the indignities and cruelties of their crushed-under-the-heel-of-poverty existence. (The paintings were reminiscent of Nina Paley’s 2008 Sita Sings the Blues). This animated film might not get the highest points for technical excellence, but Anjali Rao has put together a memorable film that holds its bleak characters lovingly, like something fragile. A newly-hatched chick placed in one’s hands might elicit a similar response.

Or a bruised Kashmir ki kali.

Bombay Rose. 2019. Director: Gitanjali Rao. Writers: Asad Hussain, Gitanjali Rao. Actors: Anurag Kashyap, Shishir Sharma, Makrand Deshpande.

Geetika Pathania Jain is the Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. She sometimes finds catharsis for geopolitical sorrows in the dark, cocoon-like insides of theaters.

I am Kashmiri. Hear me!

I did not believe that I would live to see the day when my family could rightfully return home to Kashmir. Article 370 being revoked in Kashmir on Aug 5 2019, is one of the best decisions by the Govt of India to restore secularism in Kashmir, a land whose demography has been changed by the systematic targeting of its minority Hindus/Sikhs. 

For me the relief is personal, since my own family (parents, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors), along with other Kashmiri Hindu communities, was part of the mass exodus in 1990, when we were brutally targeted and cleansed from Kashmir by militant Islamic groups aided by Pakistan.

As is well known and documented, in 1990, mosques throughout Kashmir blared threats to all “kafirs,” (non-believers)  “Ralive, tsalive, ya galive” (Convert to Islam, leave, or die). Various terror groups posted posters on our doors declaring, “Allah-o-Akbar, infidels get lost. Jihad is approaching.” Thousands chanted on the streets, “Kashmir banawon Pakistan, Bataw varaie, Batneiw saan”  (“We will turn Kashmir into Pakistan, with Kashmiri Hindu women, but without their men”). 

We were terrified. I remember the mobs that roamed our neighborhood with slogans of wanting to rape and kill Kaffirs. Hindu families with girls were especially vulnerable. My mother kept poison ready, having taught me, even at 8 years of age, that we both needed to  poison ourselves if any terrorist entered our home. I began to regret being born a girl.  

My parents and relatives finally decided that they could not live with this constant looming threat. We fled from our homes, carrying just a few belongings, hoping that we would be able to come back in a few months. 

Life as a Refugee

In Jammu I smelled the fragrance of freedom for the first time and felt welcome. This was a change from my experiences growing up in Kashmir, where we always felt ostracized; be it a cricket match, when stones were pelted at our homes to mourn a Pakistani loss or when we hoisted the Indian flag or tried to celebrate our Independence Day (August 15th) or Republic Day (January 26th). 

Life in Jammu came with its own challenges. We were refugees in every sense of the word—distressed and helpless, living in tents, until we found rooms for rent. Even the weather was punishing, with temperatures rising up to 48 degrees Celsius, a shock for us Kashmiris who were used to much milder climes. The sudden change of climate  took the lives of many refugees, as they lacked adequate protection against the elements in their tents. 

I was a student at the time and often fainted from starvation. There were no facilities for students, so we tried to study under the shade of trees in the searing summer heat. There was little support from local, state or national government bodies-our only aid came from the local Hindu community and organizations like BJP, Shiv Sena, and RSS.

During this mass exodus, no ruling political party made an effort to support our families. Nor did they ever address the trauma we live with. The last 29 years have been brutal. Many Hindu Kashmiris, including my own grandparents (who were in their sixties at the time we fled Kashmir), passed away as refugees, longing for a chance to return to their motherland. 

Kashmiri Hindus are the original inhabitants of Kashmir. Named for the Sage Kashyapa, it  was our home for thousands of years. We gave up our ancestral lands, our communities, our places of worship, and our futures. The removal of Article 370 has revived hope in my community, as is evident from the many private and public celebrations that followed. Even though it’s too late for my elders, the new status offers a ray of hope for the rest of the community: a chance to return home, to pray in historic family temples that have been abandoned for decades, to once again be Kashmiri in every sense of the word-irrespective of our religion. 

I finally have hope that we will see a dismantling of the systematic infrastructure that oversaw the genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits. The abrogation will allow an Indian citizen, of any faith, to live where they like and pursue occupations of their choosing. The abrogation of Article 370 finally delivers on the promises of the Indian Constitution. 

Ruchi Kolla was born in Srinagar. She now lives and works in the Bay Area. This is her first piece about life in Kashmir.

 

Indian Americans – Inclusive in US, Intolerant in India?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States to join President Trump to address a gathering of over 50,000 Indian Americans is an opportunity to not only strengthen the ties between the oldest and the largest democracy, but also to pressure the Prime Minister to stand up to his promise of an inclusive and secular India.

To Prime Minister Modi’s credit, he has implemented developmental plans from space exploration to health insurance schemes at a rate unheard of in Indian politics. After a decade of unprecedented corruption and poor governance, Modi’s vision of India as a developed country has captured the dreams and imaginations of many.

But the economic strides comes with a cost: intolerance, bigotry and hate crimes.

Modi’s right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) and allies have made no secret of their vision of India as a Hindu country, contradicting India’s secular founding principles.

Just months after the B.J.P.’s rise, a Hindu right wing group induced over 3000 Christians to participate in mass conversion ceremony to Hinduism by a combination of intimidation and bribery. In a move unbecoming of the largest democracy, the B.J.P. endorsed sedition charges against students who had cheered for the Pakistani cricket team in an India-Pakistan cricket match.

This August, just a few months into his second term, Modi revoked the semi-autonomous status of the disputed state of Kashmir. Not by debate and deliberation, but by a security clampdown that left the residents of the Muslim-majority valley without internet, mobile and even healthcare services for weeks.

The rising intolerance is all too palpable on social media too.

The slightest hint of dissent is quickly silenced with raucous accusations of anti-nationalism.

Nobel Laureate Malala Yousaf was trolled for tweeting her concerns about the ongoing crisis in the Valley affecting the education of school children. Hindu American Foundation, an American non-profit and ally of the Modi government lambasted Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders for speaking out against curtailing civil liberties in Kashmir.

The similarities in the politics of Trump and Modi are hard to miss.

Both  are immigration and national security hardliners, ran for elections on populist policies, and frame any criticism of their policies as unpatriotic. Their majoritarian beliefs have galvanized the far right of their respective countries resulting in a wave of bigotry, intolerance and hate crimes.

Despite their similarities, it is ironic that the popularity of the two leaders are at polar opposites among the Indian diaspora.

As minorities in the US, we desis accept and enjoy the benefits of secularism, freedom of religious expression, and evangelizing (the Hare Krishna movement).

We vote for secular left wing policies in the US, and accuse Trump of instigating hate crimes  against Indian Americans, like the killing of an Indian engineer in 2017, by his racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Yet, Indian Americans, the majority of whom are Indian-born Hindus, hypocritically champion the Hindu nationalist policies of Modi in India, the very policies that we are critical of in the American setting.

If we want an inclusive and tolerant America, we must start by cleaning our own backyard. We must insist that Prime Minister Modi create a secular, inclusive and multicultural India, much like the America we seek for ourselves.

Ashwin Murthy is a software engineer at LinkedIn and a freelance writer of Indian descent.

Article 370: A Way Forward for India and Pakistan

My memories go back to the year 1991 when I wrote an article in India Currents about the history of Kashmir and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits starting in January 1990, stirring controversy and raising criticism by some local Kashmiri Muslims, thus leading to a long healthy debate. At the end of this civil debate most of us ended up as friends, as we are today. Friends with some basic disagreements.

We knew all along that all the issues in the Kashmir Valley will be resolved if Article 370, which provides special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir is abolished. Now, discrimination based on demography has been eradicated. Kashmir has been integrated with India.

Kashmiri Hindus, better known as Kashmiri Pandits, are historically reported to be the original inhabitants of Kashmir Valley. Their roots in Kashmir can be traced to that time when civilization began in the valley. Their history spreading over 5,000 years could be testified through several historical works, including the legendary ‘Nilamat Purana’.

Kashmir’s first imperial history began in 250 BC when Asoka reigned over the land. Nearly 1000 years later, Lalitaditya reigned (725-761) after conquering most of north India, Central Asia, and Tibet. The advent of Islam in Kashmir around 14th century brought a paradigm shift in socio-political and religious system.

Islam entered Kashmir nearly 700 years after its birth when Kashmir came into contact with the Muslim invaders. Islam had been spreading throughout the rest of India for 300 years.

 Force was used to convert the inhabitants of the valley. The population of Hindus in the valley continued to decrease and they became minorities in their own land where they were once in the majority. But somehow Kashmiri Pandits managed to preserve their religion, culture as well as traditions. Kashmiri Hindus have migrated several times from the valley due to this very Islamic fundamentalism. 

Kashmir’s history, after the arrival of Islam, sets the backdrop for the current conflict, which has been waging ever since India won its independence from Britain in 1947 and Pakistan became an independent Muslim state.

There have been seven exoduses of Pandits to this date. Unfortunately, the seventh one happened in 1989-90 in the age of democracy, liberalism, secularism and universal brotherhood.

Most of the Pandits were forced to flee from the valley owing to terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists. Pandits left the valley because there was an attack on their culture, traditions, and religion. Above all, Kashmiri Pandits left the valley because there was an attack on their existence. Thousands of them were killed in the valley during the gloomy  nineties and many lost their lives in exile due to post-exodus trauma. The trauma continues, especially among the elderly who will be in pain until they can return to their home. 

There are some sane voices among the  majority community of Kashmir who are truly secular and not “pseudo-secular”, who don’t support such Nizam-e-Mustafa movement but their numbers are very few. And their voices are curbed.

No culture can survive if it is uprooted from its place of origin. There is an eternal link between people and their land. The cultural heritage of Kashmir is an integral part of the vast Indian Hindu cultural fund as a whole. Since 1947 the land has become part of the Indian Union.

Religious minority groups flourish in India. It has the world’s second largest Muslim population (approximately 176 million or 14.4 percent of India’s population), and the world’s largest Sikh (1.9 percent) and Jain populations (0.4 percent). There are also substantial numbers of Christians (2.3 percent) and Buddhists (0.8 percent). Smaller communities of Jews and Zoroastrians have been living in India for over a millennia. India was founded on secular principles and as a home for multiple religious communities. On the other hand, Pakistan was and continues to be an exclusionary state intended only for Muslims, where the state has legalized and institutionalized discrimination against minorities. As a result, in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, minorities face much greater difficulties than minorities in India. 

It is important to note that the state of Jammu and Kashmir had a Muslim population of 65% and a Hindu population of 30%. So, the Muslim population is not overwhelmingly high. It is in the Kashmir Valley that the Muslim population is 97%. Often, the people following the Kashmir problem are ignorant of these demographics. Wars have broken out between India and Pakistan three times since 1947. An alarming component of this conflict is not only the suffering of Kashmiris, who have been forced to endure the outbreaks and Pakistan’s attempts at stirring up ancient rivalries between Muslims and Hindus, but the fact that in 1990 and 2001-2002, the two countries threatened to use nuclear weapons over it.

By making the new areas of Jammu and Kashmir a Union Territory, the constituent Assembly has been revoked.

Jammu and Kashmir were given special status under Article 370 of the constitution of India which gave it, its own constitution, and without the concurrence of the State Government, the laws passed by parliament would not have been applicable. The Constitution order of 1954 contained the articles and other provisions applicable to only Jammu and Kashmir State. It constituted a founding legal document, whereas article 35A protected the exclusive laws which are related to the prohibition of buying property by outsiders and women, losing their property rights if they married non-Kashmiris.

In short, Article 370 restricted the Indian Parliament’s legislative power over Jammu and Kashmir to defense, foreign affairs, and communications, allowing residents of Jammu and Kashmir to live under a separate set of laws and preventing them from enjoying the same rights as other Indian citizens. Similarly, Article 35A defined who were permanent residents of the state and determined who could buy property in the state and enjoy other special rights and privileges.

President of India’s order # 2019, C.O. 272 dated August 5, 2019, entails scrapping previous order # 1954 and adds the following to article # 367:

  1. Sadar-i-riyasat will now be Governor
  2. Constituent Assembly will now be referred to as Legislative Assembly of the State.

Article 356 of the Indian Constitution is now applicable in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, by which President’s rule surpasses the Governor’s rule, which can be imposed in these areas.

The Bifurcation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, giving Jammu and Kashmir the status of Union Territory and giving Ladakh the status of a Union Territory as well, has been welcome internationally.

Article 370 removal has made many positive changes for the areas of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh including no special powers exercised by Jammu and Kashmir, no dual citizenship, no separate constitution, reservations for minorities and  backward classes, no discrimination against the women of the Kashmir when they marry someone from outside of the state. All citizens of these areas will be considered equal, all provisions of the Indian constitution are now applicable in these areas and with Union territory status, the security is now the Center’s responsibility. By making the areas of Jammu & Kashmir and the area of Ladakh, two separate union territories the special status has been revoked.

These are  historic and momentous efforts that will enable the free flow and applicability of Indian constitution and all its laws into the region of Jammu and  Kashmir without any special considerations.

Not only has the Kashmir problem been solved but it also vindicates Kashmiris of all faiths (some of whom lost their lives due to turbulence and some, like Kashmiri Pandits, who had lost their roots ). Now is the time for healing as all Kashmiris come together as Indian nationals and work toward making Kashmir the valley of saints once again.

As a Union Territory, it will also improve the security situation with respect to cross border terrorism and bring peace, harmony and stability in Jammu-Kashmir.

Kashmiri Muslims must understand that all manners of cultural markers over 2500 years of Kashmiri history (right from 500 BCE onwards) display unequivocally a Kashmir that was intensively integrated with the rest of India. In the face of this historical reality of Kashmir, Article 370 as an exclusionary means artificially separating Kashmir from the rest of the country was an anomaly that has now been removed.

It will be  recognized that the dynasty rulers in Kashmir have bungled up the state through corrupt practices.  The poor segment of society wants stability, security and employment, especially when unemployment rates are as high as 30 percent among the urban population.

The emphasis must be to promote Pluralism in the State so that all communities can live together as they did before Pakistani trained militants forced Kashmiri Pandits to leave. Intra-Kashmiri dialogue, exchanging programs of students, writers, artists to offer their strengths in all the regions will definitely help in reconnecting and reintegrating hearts and minds of the people. The opening up of the local economy to outside actors will be akin to India’s liberalization moment of 1991 when it opened up its economy and integrated with the outside world. As the legal impediments to the free movement of people and access to assets like land have been removed, the economic focus of the state can now be broadened beyond tourism and agriculture. Industrialization can slowly expand its prominence in the local economy. Thus, the elimination of the special status and more centrality of governance should beget higher availability of economic opportunities and wider avenues of growth for the people of  Kashmir. 

Regarding the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, my suggestion is that the matter be left for Kashmiri organizations in India to decide, based on their interaction with local Kashmiris and the Government of India. Our worldwide umbrella organization, All India Kashmiri Samaj (AIKS) works with all other organizations in India. 

California based Jeevan Zutshi, is the Chairman of Kashmir Task Force, founding member of the California Chapter of Kashmiri Overseas Association and founding member and former Executive Director of Indo-American Kashmir Forum.

 

 

Kashmiri girl

Kashmir’s Girls

Wasia Jan was six years old when her father was killed in the India-Pakistan border conflict. The year was 1999. He was a tailor and had never been involved with the military, though his brother had been in the army, and Jan thinks that this may have had something to do with her father’s death. Jan’s mother had little education and no work experience, and now had to support her three kids—Jan and her younger siblings.borderless_world_foundation-adhik_kadam-_2

Ulfat Nazir was three when her father was killed. She was one of four children. Her mother had only studied to sixth grade and she, too, was left to raise the family on her own.

By an estimate of the non-profit Save the Children, in 2014 there were 215,000 orphans in the Jammu-Kashmir area, 37% of whom had lost either their father or both their parents to the terrorism and chaos that drags on in that area. The conflict in the oft-forgotten reaches of India and Pakistan has raged on since 1947—always simmering, sometimes boiling over—creating hundreds of orphans even during the quieter years.

The region’s weak economy renders it almost impossible for a woman alone to provide for her children, so a child who has lost her father is considered an orphan. If a widowed mother remarries, the children from the first marriage are often shunned by the new family. The situation becomes especially dire for girls, who in this patriarchal and conservative society, are left without any guardian, education, or hope of escaping the oppressive poverty.

While Jan and Nazir suffered tragedies, they were among the lucky ones.  It is what happened after the devastating deaths of their fathers that altered the trajectories of their lives.

They not only escaped that downward spiral, but began to pursue careers that would be considered ambitious by any standard. Jan is in her first year in the engineering program at Kolhapur Institute of Technology and Nazir is pursuing a law degree there. An organization named Borderless World Foundation (BWF) is paying their full fare.

Two years before Jan’s father’s death, Adhik Kadam, the eventual founder of BWF, began to sew a metaphorical parachute for girls like Jan and Nazir.

As a student of political science at Pune University, Kadam had heard his Kashmiri classmates argue about the volatile situation back home. These arguments in cafes and mess halls carried a tangible undercurrent of real pain, anger, and often a sense of betrayal and loss. When Kadam considered going to Kashmir to observe the situation for himself, his professor urged him to “go deep,” Kadam recalled.borderless_world_foundation-adhik_kadam-_1

It was meant to be just an exploration trip with his friends. He collected what little funds he could—as the son of a poor farmer, he didn’t have much—and planned to go for three weeks. He ended up staying for six months.

What he found was a land more war torn than he had imagined. Regional rivalries were so intense that Kadam’s local contacts couldn’t host him in their homes for fear of reprisal from the militants. So he stayed at refugee camps with the very people he had gone to study.

For the first three months, Kadam and his colleagues went door to door taking a tally of homes that had lost a family member. The numbers were astounding. Estimates vary, but by Kadam’s calculations, there are currently 1,000 orphans in a single village called Dardpora, a hamlet situated at the Line of Control, a line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and where the two armies try to hold their ground.

Kadam looks a bit unlikely for the type of work he is doing. His sturdy build and good looks would appear to suit him better in a career as a Bollywood actor rather than as, what I term, a penniless vagabond. He claims no permanent residence, instead living with friends and supporters who are eager to contribute to his work in any way possible. In fact, when he jokes that he lives with “fakirs,” the Muslim equivalent of sadhus, who subsist on alms, you get the feeling that he may actually be living as an ascetic—his focus is so singularly trained on his work that it seems to be like a life in meditation.

But he is a vagabond with a loyal following, as was clear when he made a presentation in Palo Alto, California, recently. Supporters had arranged his flights for him and provided him with room and board. His laptop and cell phone had been given to him by well-wishers. They drove him from place to place, as he spread the word about BWF to hopefully attract funding.

As most people seemed to have forgotten the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, in his presentation he had to begin by educating the audience about the situation. He talked about homes that BWF rents for the girls, and the schooling and professional training they receive. He described how the organization tries to strengthen the children’s bonds with the community by enrolling them in area schools, even encouraging local service providers to pitch in for their welfare.

It is My Home
BWF offers creative outlets  to allow the children to find their interests, develop talents, and grow in a well-rounded way. A National Geographic photographer has been teaching photography to the BWF kids, some of whom have gone on to win prizes in national contests. If some girls need emotional support, they can seek help from the holistic doctor who visits regularly. A large cohort of friends and volunteers provide a steady source of parenting for the girls.

There are currently 1,000 orphans in a single village called Dardpora, a hamlet situated at the Line of Control, a line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and where the two armies try to hold their ground.anantnag_home

When Jan, the engineering student, first moved into one of BWF’s homes as a child, she instinctively gravitated towards the structured setting and intellectual stimulation.

“When I first went to Anantnag [one of the four BWF homes], there was a sir named Abdul Aziz Parrey,” Jan said. “He used to guide me as a father. He worked as a coordinator. He worked in the evenings, helped me with homework. Everyone would eat, study, and sleep at the same time.”

Every two weeks, she visited her mother. “It was a little hard, going away from my mom, but I really liked studying, and there were other kids, so with them, I became friends,” Jan said. The kids helped out with the laundry and house cleaning. A hired cook prepared all the meals and a manager oversaw everything. They prayed five times a day, and studied the Koran in the mornings.

“It felt very safe,” Jan said. “It didn’t just feel like home, it was home.”

What does she hope to do after college? “I want to do work like Adhik bhaiya.”

A Shock Absorber
Not many groups are willing to come and explore the mountainous area that has been serving as, in Adhik’s words, “a shock absorber” for the animosity between India and Pakistan.  It’s remote, dangerous, and partitioned into Hindu and Muslim factions, where each group eyes the other with suspicion. Even the philanthropic organizations can’t seem to escape the divide.girls_jumping

“Other organizations tried to be there, but most were concentrating only on either Hindus or Muslims,” Kadam said. “There were no homes for girls, only for boys. There’s always fear that when you have so many girls in a home, they’ll be in danger.”

Kadam started the organization with a home for four girls. The children were young—two-and-a-half to five years of age. He lived in the home with them, helping to feed and bathe them, taking them to the hospital, and taking care of their daily needs.

But that was just a drop in the sea of need. So he took in more kids. And more. Today, BWF houses 250 Muslim and Hindu girls in four rental homes. As the children have grown, Kadam no longer lives with the children, instead focusing on securing schooling for them, helping them develop careers, even arranging marriages for some older ones. He is also hoping to build homes instead of renting, so as to minimize instability due to home relocations.

Children Buzzing In and Out
Chitra Mandyam of Sunnyvale, California, has been supporting BWF for four years through her informal group of civic-minded friends called “Caring Friends.” She wanted to see for herself the work Kadam was doing, so she went to visit each of his homes.

These were lively places, with “children were buzzing in and out of the rooms,” Mandyam said. On one such occasion, one of the girls, maybe 10-11 years old, was dressed casually,—came out without her burka. Adhik talked to this child in the tone of a strict father, reminding her to wear one immediately. He subsequently told us that he was stern because when this girl child is older and is at marriageable age, following the custom of her culture would be so important and he should not fail his responsibility in teaching her that.

“I’m not involved in any religious or political thing,” Kadam said, extending the “borderless” concept to his own spirituality.

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“Born and raised a Hindu, he was fully aware of their culture and the need for the girls to follow it in the conservative society of Kashmir,” Mandyam said.

For himself, Kadam rejects any religious categorization.

“I’m not involved in any religious or political thing,” Kadam said, extending the “borderless” concept to his own spirituality.  “Even taking this side or that side, that is a type of violence, because there would be conflict within me. I’m completely with no sides. I’m completely with the children.”

Unflappably Non-partisan
But not everyone around Kadam sees him as neutral. To date, he has been kidnapped 19 times—and released 19 times —by militants, army, or security personnel on both sides of the conflict.

“I’m a non-Muslim working in a Muslim area, the first question is ‘why?’ Because no one wants to go there, [but] that’s why I want to go there,” he said.

Kadam remains unflappably non-partisan though, refusing to even criticize his tormentors. When he ponders the frequency of the kidnappings, he describes it almost as standard protocol. “Every time there is a new district commander, they’ll start re-examining why these people are here,” he said.

For Kadam, these re-examinations have resulted in kidnappings both civil and brutal: he has been beaten several times. Fortunately, his early training as a wrestler gave him the physique to endure them. Under the ruse of inviting him to a friendly tea, purported friends have led him to a house where his kidnappers awaited.

To the question of whether he felt betrayed, he laughed and said, “that’s okay, even Christ was betrayed.”

To do this type of work, he said, you have to get past all religious and other biases, biases that lead to fear. First and foremost, you must overcome your own fear.

“Borderless is not just an organization name, you have to cross your own limitations also,” he said. “Fear is a great, great barrier of human life.”

And then then there is the issue of other people’s distrust. Government agencies are obviously distrusted, but even NGOs are considered suspect because they may be funded by the opposition’s government. To eliminate any appearances of partisanship, BWF accepts no government funding. Seventy to eighty  percent of BWF’s funding comes from donors in India, and the remainder comes from those in the United States.

Asha for Education, for example, a philanthropic organization based in the Bay Area, has been supporting BWF since 2003. Reshu Jain, a volunteer with Asha’s Silicon Valley chapter, points out that BWF’s aim is to re-seed the Kashmir valley with the fruits of the girls’ education and training.

“In the Kashmir area, there are no really good colleges, so for colleges, they’ve been going to Pune, Delhi, and there some of the girls learned to use the machines to make the sanitary napkins,” Jain said.

They developed a business plan for setting up a sanitary-napkin manufacturing plant in Srinagar, entered it into a contest, won a grant, and returned home to set up their business.

Jain cites the example of one of the girls Kadam rescued, and later arranged a marriage for, who is now the elected sarpanch of her village, though she is only in her mid twenties: “… it’s very important that they not leave Kashmir valley, so they work in their native area, so that other kids get the same chance that these girls got. Be self-sufficient, take care of themselves, be independent and productive.”borderless_world_foundation-adhik_kadam-_6

Even as Kadam sees the value of his work in building an organization that has provided homes, education, and nurturing for hundreds of girls, he is aware that he hasn’t been fulfilling his duties as local tradition would have it. As the eldest son, he is supposed to be providing financial support for his parents. Instead, his work remains a mystery to them, and his financial support illusive. They have a vague notion of the work he is doing, but Kadam has not been able to collect the funds necessary to take them to Kashmir to see for themselves. “My parents are not very worldly —they still don’t understand exactly what I do,” he says, but they do accept that “the man is doing some good work,” he says.

Vibha Akkaraju is a mom of three girls, all energetic and excitable, at times temperamental, sometimes maddening, mostly endearing. When she’s not cooking, cleaning, organizing, planning, and shuttling, she likes to read and sometimes write.

This article was originally published in India Currents on August 1, 2016.

The Lowdown on Kashmir’s Crackdown

 ‘A Coup Against the Constitution and the Kashmiris’ is how Delhi-based human rights organization, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemned Indian PM Modi’s shock Kashmir intervention, in a statement released on Wed, Aug 7, 2019.

Modi’s controversial decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy has escalated tensions with Pakistan, placed thousands of Kashmiri residents under lockdown and infuriated human rights groups, and yet, this move has received support in India, and not just with the ruling, nationalist BJP which has long campaigned to scrap Kashmir’s ‘special privileges.’ Surprisingly, some opposition members have welcomed Modi’s move to absorb Kashmir into India and even reaction from the international community has been relatively muted.

So, will this power grab have explosive consequences for the subcontinent, or become an incendiary first step at attempting stability in a region where terrorism and violence have claimed more than 50,000 lives in over 30 years?

The truth is muddier and more complex than it appears.

What happened to Article 370?

Article 370 is a constitutional provision drafted in 1947 to grant special autonomous status to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) after Indian independence. From 1950 onwards, a series of presidential orders (referred to as sub-section A), allowed its residents to live under a separate set of laws related to citizenship, property ownership and fundamental rights, while the Indian Government was responsible for defense, foreign affairs and communications.

J&K has been under President’s rule since December 2018. With no state legislature in place, this allowed the President of India, as Head of the State Government of J&K, to exercise powers of the State Legislature and recommend abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. The PUCL, as well as some legal scholars of Indian Constitutional Law, are questioning the legality of this move.

This maneuver was as swift as it was stealthy, according to the PUCL, with the Indian government orchestrating its crackdown in a little less than four days. Over the weekend of August 4-5, J&K political leaders were detained, tourists evacuated, communications and telecom services shut down, and a curfew imposed on residents, while 35,000 troops were airlifted in to maintain law and order. Then, on 5 August 2019, both houses of parliament passed legislation repealing Article 370, removing J&K ‘s statehood and splitting it into the union territories of Muslim-majority J&K and Buddhist-majority Ladakh.

The World Reacts – Sort of…

Historically, Kashmir has been a disputed region with both India and Pakistan claiming ownership and fighting wars over it, while China controls a territory to the east. Despite an unofficial border established by the Line of Control in 1972, and a ceasefire agreement in 2003, border clashes are frequent, and cross-border firing has killed civilians on both sides. In February 2019, tensions escalated when both countries exchanged airstrikes for the first time since 1971.

Reaction from Pakistan has been predictably hostile with PM Imran Khan tweeting about Modi’s tactics in Kashmir  ‘Attempt is to change demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing. Question is: Will the world watch & appease as they did Hitler at Munich?”. Yet, Pakistan has refrained from direct military action, vowing solidarity with the people of Kashmir and showing support by downgrading diplomatic ties and suspending bi-lateral trade with India; instead, Pakistan has decided to petition the United Nations for a resolution.

Other countries have expressed concerns but are watching from the sidelines. Russia labeled it an internal issue, and the US asked Pakistan to exercise restraint and encouraged ‘an urgent need for dialogue’. Britain foreign secretary Dominic Raab called for calm, while China suggested that the UN Security Council resolve the Kashmir issue properly and peacefully. Human Rights Watch urged India to free political leaders and restore communications; even Saudi Arabia recommended a peaceful settlement.

In India, the J&K decision provoked outrage from political opponents in the government, but found unexpected support from others, including the Aam Aadmi party, the AIDMK and the YSR Congress who called the decision, ‘courageous’.

What this means for ordinary folks

While Kashmir today is a Muslim majority state, it was also home to the Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus who were native to Kashmir valley long before the Muslim influence entered. Twenty-six years ago, on January 19, 1990, fearing death threats from a massive Islamist uprising, more than a hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge outside Kashmir.  The abrogation of Article 370 opens a door for the return of displaced Kashmiri Pandits, even as it clears a pathway for non-residents from other states to now own property and establish businesses in the new union territory of J&K.

And what does it mean for the Muslim families in the valley? Monday, August 12, marks a week since the crackdown. The communications blackout is still in place affecting those trying to contact people outside the valley and journalists trying to cover developments. Despite a BBC broadcast about the use of tear gas at some rallies, and Reuters reporting protests in Srinagar’s Soura area, J&K police  are asserting that the Kashmir Valley is returning to normalcy as restrictions are being lifted. Ahead is the festival of Eid-al-Adha, one of the two most important festivals of the Islamic calendar when thousands of worshippers are expected to throng major mosques in Srinagar. Will the authorities ease restrictions on large gatherings? Already, a security alert has been issued for a possible terrorist attack in the valley in the lead up to August 15, India’s Independence Day.

In a strange twist of timing, just as the people of Kashmir lose their right to self-determination, the rest of India will be celebrating the day that Great Britain transferred legislative sovereignty to the Indian Constituent Assembly.

Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masterful Debut Novel

Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel – The Far Field – is many things all at once. A tale that spans from Bangalore to Kashmir, a tale that hints at the dark clouds of mental illness, of love lost and unrequited and the protagonist’s attempt to be honest about her own role in the story. 

The novel spins on the relationship that the protagonist Shalini shares with her mother –   “Somebody once described my mother as a strong woman,” she says without fuss. The vignettes she paints about her mother are where she is at her best  – “My mother, with her lightning tongue and her small collection of idols on a shelf in the kitchen. My mother, with her stubborn refusal to admit the existence of meat or other faiths, who crossed the street when we passed a halal butcher with his row of skinned goats, their flanks pink and shiny as burn scars.”  

Her father, a successful business executive, looks on at the world with pragmatism and confidence.

In the previous quote, the admission that her mother crossed the street at the sight of a halal butcher’s stall takes on new meaning as the novel progresses. A Muslim – Bashir Ahmed, enters their house selling Kashmiri kurtas and shawls, carrying a cloth bundle on his shioulders. He tries to eke out a living far from his home in Kashmir by walking from door to door selling his wares on the streets of Bangalore. 

“I was six the first time he came, and I still remember it. How my mother had not ceased moving even for a second, all week….How she had intense surges of laughter at nothing. How she cooked, a pile of vessels growing dangerously high in the sink, but how, at the same time, she claimed never to be hungry….When the bell rang that afternoon, I was in the living room.” The afternoon visits start then, and soon, Bashir Ahmed is the teller of tall tales about his land that leave mother and daughter listening with mouths agape.

With his arrival, the strife in Kashmir enters their lives in faraway Bangalore – during one of Bashir Ahmed’s visits, her father happens to be home sick and launches into a tirade that will sound similar to what many Hindus might have heard right in their homes. “These poor Pandits leaving their houses and running away in the middle of the night, because they might be killed for being Hindu! It’s sheer madness, and these militants sound like animals.” And, the verbal lynching goes on.  To this, Bashir responds saying, “It is very sad about the Pandits, janaab. But that is happening in the Valley. In my area (in the mountains) no Hindus are being killed.” After a while, Bashir Ahmed stops coming to their house, for reasons that are explained later.

When Shalini becomes an adult, she leaves in search of the vendor Bashir Ahmed in the mountains in Kashmir and a whole set of characters appear. Army soldiers who rule Kashmiri towns with impunity, men and women who grieve the disappearance of loved ones, tiny offices where grieving mothers file petitions to the government, and the harsh conditions in which they eke out a living.  Soon Shalini’s life starts to intersect in complicated ways with Bashir Ahmed’s family, and her choices start to matter in their lives as well.

The author has tried to marry the political to the personal, and for some reason, the political side of the equation did not carry with it the urgency that the personal did for me. Two themes that she repeats at opportune times in the novel when she comments on the choices made by characters in her novel stayed with mel. Never be a coward. Do something, anything – is advice that her mother first spouts and other characters in the novel spout this too at other times. Along with this, comes another piece of advice that seems to have been drawn from the Bhagavad Gita – without action, what is there to life but to wait to die? A question that hangs with great significance in the context of the novel and one that seems to reach every reader.

The tautness with which she draws the characters of her parents, Bashir Ahmed and herself does not somehow extend to the characters living in the mountains in faraway Kashmir. However, in the lines of the plot, she masterfully manages  to carry a certain tension that lasts till the last page of the novel. A twist at the very end only amplifies this tension.

A masterful debut novel and a must read!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.

 

A Glimpse of Heaven–Kashmir

As soon as our flight begins its descent into Srinagar, I see a glimpse of heaven as snow-capped mountains, flowing rivulets, and Chinar trees appear and take shape below.

The Dal lake in Kashmir

This is a family holiday and in the next eight days, I will see many more sights that will make me realize what the poet Hazrat Amir Khusro is said to have penned about Kashmir—“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast” translating as, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

The rush at the airport and the conveyor belt makes me wonder whether the whole country has made a beeline for Kashmir. With tourism opening up in the last couple of years, it seems to be a popular destination for travelers. But the road blocks and the re-routes that our driver is forced to make gives us an idea of what the average Kashmiri has to live with every day—a state of uncertainty. Yet, when I look around, I see peaceful faces, perhaps even resigned faces. One driver, seeing our bewildered look, leans and yells out, “This is Kashmir!” The only frustration that is visible is the constant tooting of horns, making one wish for a set of ear plugs.

At Bloomingdale Cottage, our home-stay, we are greeted with the rich Kashmiri tea called kahwa and cookies and the warm welcome of one of the best hoteliers that I have ever had the good fortune to meet. Firdaus Saheb is the quintessential gentleman host who takes us sightseeing in his car on our first evening in Srinagar (and shopping on our last one), when we have our first sighting of the Dal Lake and the famous houseboats.

Bloomingdale turns out to be our home away from home, thanks to Firdaus Saheb’s familial warmth and the care of his two Man Fridays, both of whom see to all our comforts and needs.

A visit to Srinagar is incomplete without a visit to the Mughal Gardens. As the name suggests these tastefully landscaped spaces were set up during the era of the Mughals and reveal their love for natural beauty. Chashme Shahi, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar and the Botanical Gardens play host to a variety of flowers, fountains and waterfalls, which are a feast for the eyes. Kashmir ki Kali and many other Hindi films of the ’60s and ’70s made use of the valley’s scenic sights for the romantic duets of the leading pairs.

At Chasme Shahi we scoop fresh water from mountain springs and enjoy the feel of the ice cold water going down our throats.

A visit to the Shankaracharya Hill reveals a bird’s eye view of Srinagar from the ramparts of the temple.
There are crowds milling everywhere except perhaps at the Hazratbal Mosque, where there is a strict dress code for men. Women can only have a view from the outside.

Mist shrouding Sonamarg

Abdul Majeed, our well-informed driver who ferries us around, becomes our friend, philosopher and guide for the rest of our stay in Kashmir. Our first stop is Gulmarg, where a steep trek by foot to the ticketing counter is followed by a long wait for a cable car—a gondola that operates in two phases. It has to be mentioned here that though Kashmir thrives on tourism, there is complete mismanagement in several places. In Gulmarg, we see touts running the whole show and allowing people who have paid speed money, to jump the queue. The ride on the gondola affords scenic views and we decide to get off at the second phase, which is higher than the first. I’m excited to be walking on snow, for the first time, a task easier achieved with a pair of rubber boots (compulsory and available on hire) as also a ride on a sled.

Pahalgam is the next stop on our itinerary. En-route, we get off at the Avantipura Ruins, where the Pandavas are said to have stopped by. It is a beautiful place for photographs and we click away to our heart’s content. We stop by some apple orchards, where a few green apples are making their appearance. Our driver also shows us almond, walnut, chinar and pine trees.

flowing waters at Kokernag

The Himalaya Discover Resort at Pahalgam turns out to be a great shock, as what we booked on the Internet is different from what we actually find. We are fortunate enough to find an alternative and use the rest of the day to take rides through the Aru and Betaab valleys and Chandanwadi, from where the Amarnath yatris start their pilgrimage. These journeys are compulsorily done with the use of a local car and driver and we stare spellbound at the sights of the lakes and springs and snowy mountain tops, as he drives us up and down the valleys. One can only say that in Kashmir the journeys can be as pleasurable as the destinations and we request the driver to stop so that we can sit on the rocks and dip our feet in ice-cold streams we encounter along the way.

Pahalgam turns out to be memorable in more ways than one because here is where I take a toss along with a mountain horse whilst heading up to Baisaran Valley, also known as mini Switzerland because of the hill and dale view. Luckily my wounds are superficial but what is disturbing is the lack of first aid for such possibilities. Nevertheless, I sit back on the horse again and enjoy the rest of the journey, opting for first aid at a civil hospital in Pahalgam town. The doctors tell me that I am fortunate, as they have seen much worse.

There is a saying that wherever you throw a stone in Kashmir, you will find a beautiful sight to behold. We realize this again en-route to Hotel Paradise Resort in Daksum. The hotel is luxury personified and my room has a small sitting area overlooking the mountains, where I spend some happy moments just gazing out at nature’s bounties.View from the aircraft

After breakfast the next morning, we climb approximately 14,500 feet to the snowy Sinthan Top. As always, the views along the way are enthralling. At the top, the stream waters slide down and drench the road so the driver has to be proficient. On account of a sprained foot, I climb only a portion of the mountain and spend the rest of the time just enjoying and photographing the wondrous sights around me.

The fountains of Chashme Shahi

At our next halt in Kokarnag, we stay at a quaint cottage run by Jammu and Kashmir Tourism. The service here is passable but the staff is friendly and the greatest attraction is its location, which is inside a park. After the tourist crowd leaves, it is like having the park to oneself whilst walking past the waterfalls and stopping to smell the multi-hued roses, which are huge in size and blooming in gay profusion.

One cannot visit Kashmir without picking up dried fruits, the famed Kashmiri chillies and saffron. We do this in a place called Paunpur and are surprised to find the driver pointing out bullet pockmarked buildings along the way; battlegrounds between security forces and militants. In many of the tourist spots, it seems a little eerie to see uniformed police keeping guard—a reminder of the insecurities that beset this valley.The ruins of Avantipura

Farah’s Homestay on the way up to Sonamarg is the saving grace for this part of our journey. It is a charming little place run by a Kashmiri and French couple, who have named it after their perky four and a half year-old daughter, Farah, who barges into our room, demanding chocolates.

This part of our journey is marred by bad weather and the climb up to Sonamarg is dark and dreary. The sky is overcast and the mountains are out of sight.

Near Farah's Nest at Sonamarg

Now, that I am back and writing this piece, I wonder if those were portents for what was to follow. Everywhere we went, people spoke of the lack of security and the breakdown of systems. One young lad said, “Please offer dua that peace is restored in the valley.” Having seen the beauty of the Heaven on earth that is Kashmir, what else can I do but pray for peace there.

Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer and literary fiction reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and mass communications.