Kashmir My Lost Country



http://www.observer.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,647571,00.html



Muzamil Jaleel grew up in the meadows and mountains of

Kashmir. Then he saw friends and family die in its

pursuit of independence. His country has become a

battlefield - and he knows it can never be the same. 



Online debate: what hope is there for Kashmir?.



Observer Worldview 



Sunday February 10, 2002

The Observer 



Not long ago, somebody asked me what kind of stories I

wrote. Obituaries came to mind. As a reporter in

Kashmir I have been literally writing obituaries for

the past 10 years; only the characters and places

change, the stories are always the same, full of

misery and tears. 

And when in October last year I got a chance to leave

Kashmir, I hoped for a change. Every human being has a

threshold for pain and agony. I felt mine had been

reached. I wanted to escape. But within days, Kashmir

was in the headlines and although I was thousands of

miles away, I found myself in the middle of it all

again. 



I was born in Kashmir. I grew up in its apple orchards

and lush green meadows, dreamed on the banks of its

freshwater streams. I went to school there, sitting on

straw mats and memorising tables by heart. After

school my friends and I would rush half-way home, tear

off our uniforms and dive into the cold water. Then we

would quickly dry our hair, so our parents would not

find out what we had done. Sometimes, when we felt

especially daring, we would skip an entire day of

school to play cricket. 



My village lies in the foothills of the Himalayas.

During summer breaks, we would trek to the meadows

high in the mountains carrying salt slates for the

family cattle, sit around a campfire and play the

flute for hours. The chilling winter would turn the

boys and girls of our small village into one huge

family - huddled together in a big room, we would

listen to stories till late into the night. Sipping

hot cups of the traditional salt tea, the village

elder who had inherited the art of storytelling would

transport us to the era of his tales. He had never

been to school but he remembered hundreds of beautiful

stories by heart. Kashmir was like a big party, full

of love and life. Today death and fear dominate

everything. 



I was in Kashmir too when the first bomb exploded in

1988. People first thought it was the outcome of a

small political feud, although everybody knew the pot

was boiling after years of political discontent. Then

that September a young man, Ajaz Dar, died in a

violent encounter with the police. Disgruntled by the

farce of decades of ostensible democracy under Indian

rule, a group of Kashmiri young men had decided to

fight. They had dreamt of an independent Kashmir free

from both India and Pakistan. Although this young man

was not the first Kashmiri to die fighting for this

cause, his death was the beginning of an era of

tragedy. 



Separatist sentiment had been dominant among Kashmiris

since 1947, when Kashmir was divided between India and

Pakistan during partition, and the two countries

fought over it. But it was not until 40 years later

that most of the youngsters opted for guns against

Indian rule, in reaction to the government-sponsored

rigging of the assembly polls, aimed at crushing

dissent. 



It is not a surprise that India's most wanted Kashmiri

militant leader, Syed Salahudin, contested that

assembly election from Srinagar, nor that,

unofficially, he was winning by a good margin. When

the elections were rigged, he lost not only the

election but faith in the process as well. His polling

agents and supporters were arrested and tortured; most

of them later became militants. 



Neighbouring Pakistan, which occupies a third of

Kashmir, also smelled the changing mood in Kashmir and

offered a helping hand by providing arms training and

AK-47 rifles. Violence was introduced amid growing

dissent against India and hundreds of young people

joined the armed movement. Kashmir was changing. 



I had just completed secondary school then and was

enrolled in a college - a perfect potential recruit:

the entire militant movement belonged to my

generation. The movement was the only topic of

discussion on the street, in the classroom and at

home. Soon people started coming out onto the streets,

thousands would march to the famous Sufi shrines or to

the United Nations office, shouting slogans in favour

of ' Azadi !' (freedom). These mass protests became an

everyday affair, frustrating the authorities, who

began to use force to counter them. Dozens of

protesters were killed by police fire. 



Many of my close friends and classmates began to join.

One day, half of our class was missing. They never

returned to school again, and nobody even looked for

them, because it was understood. 



Although the reasons for joining the militant movement

varied from person to person, the majority of

Kashmiris never felt that they belonged to India. What

had been a relatively dormant separatist sentiment was

finally exploding into a fully-fledged separatist

uprising. 



I too wanted to join, though I didn't know exactly why

or what it would lead to. Most of us were teenagers

and had not seriously thought about the consequences.

Perhaps the rebel image was subconsciously attracting

us all. 



I also prepared for the dangerous journey from our

village in north Kashmir to Pakistan-controlled

Kashmir where all the training camps were. One didn't

just have to avoid being sighted by the Indian

soldiers who guarded the border round the clock, but

also defeat the fierce cold and the difficulties of

hiking over the snow-clad Himalayan peaks that stood

in the way. I acquired the standard militant's gear: I

bought the Wellington boots, prepared a polythene

jacket and trousers to wear over my warm clothes, and

found some woollen cloth to wrap around my calves as

protection from frostbite. 



Fortunately, I failed. Three times a group of us

returned from the border. Each time something happened

that forced our guide to take us back. The third time,

23 of us had started our journey on foot from

Malangam, not far away from my village, only to be

abandoned in a dense jungle. It was night, and the

group had scattered after hearing gunshots nearby,

sensing the presence of Indian army men. In the

morning, when we gathered again, our guide was

missing. Most of the others decided to continue on

their own, but a few of us turned back. We had nothing

to eat but leaves for three days. We followed the

flight of crows, hoping to reach a human settlement. I

was lucky. I reached home and survived. 



As the days and months passed, and as the routes the

militants took to cross the border became known to

Indian security forces, the bodies began to arrive.

Lines of young men would disappear on a ridge as they

tried to cross over or return home. The stadiums where

we had played cricket and football, the beautiful

green parks where we had gone on school excursions as

children, were turned into martyrs' graveyards. One

after another, those who had played in those places

were buried there, with huge marble epitaphs detailing

their sacrifice. Many had never fired a single bullet

from their Kalashnikovs. 



One day, I counted my friends and classmates in the

martyrs' graveyards near our village. There were 21 of

them. I could feel the smiling face of Mushtaq, whom I

had known since our schooldays. He would have been 31

this January, but the ninth anniversary of his death

is just two months away. He was killed in April 1993.

His mother could not bear the pain and lost her mental

balance. For all these years, she has been wandering

around the villages carrying the shirt he wore on the

day of his death. 



Another friend, Javaid, was his parents' only son.

Extremely handsome, he was obsessed with seeing change

in Kashmir. The day he died, he was wearing my

clothes. He had come to our house in the morning and

changed there. He was 23, and even six hours after his

death, when they took him for burial, blood still

oozed out of his bullet wounds. I will never forget

the moment when I lifted the coffin lid away from his

face: there was that usual grin. For a moment, he

seemed alive to me. 



Javaid's sister was to have been married 15 days later

but the shock of his death gave her a heart attack.

She died a few days before what would have been her

wedding day. 



Today, there are more than 500 martyrs' graveyards

dotting Kashmir, and every epitaph standing on a grave

tells a story - a tragic story of my generation.

Engraving epitaphs has become a lucrative business. 



As the death toll of Kashmiris mounted, the world saw

the violent movement only as the outcome of a

territorial dispute between India and Pakistan which

had its roots in the 1947 partition. India always

called the rebellion a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist

movement, while Pakistan projected it as a jihad - a

Kashmiri struggle to join Pakistan just because they

shared a common faith. 



For India, the future of Kashmir is non-negotiable -

it is an 'integral part' of the country, the only

Muslim majority state in the union and thus a

cornerstone of its democracy and secular credentials.

For Pakistan, Kashmir is also important because the

majority of its population is Muslim - it is

Pakistan's 'jugular vein', and an unfinished task from

the subcontinent's partition in which Pakistan was

born as a home for Indian Muslims. 



With these claims on Kashmir, both countries have

choked the voice of Kashmiris. The Indian government

has reacted with an iron fist, deployed large numbers

of security men and turned Kashmir into one massive

jail. 



Pakistan's hands are not clean either. When hundreds

of thousands of Kashmiris came out in support of the

separatist movement in 1990, Pakistan's lust for

Kashmir's land was exposed. It hijacked the separatist

movement, painted it with religious fundamentalism and

introduced pro-Pakistan, and later jihadi groups to

ensure it enjoyed absolute control. 



Within years, Kashmir turned into yet another

battlefield in the pan-Islamic jihad and its warriors

as well as its leaders were now made up of

non-Kashmiris whose agendas transcend the demand for

self-determination. In the process, the genuine

political struggle for the unification of Kashmir and

the demand of the people that they should be allowed

to decide their own future was forgotten. 



Whatever attention Kashmir was given was because it

was a flashpoint between two nuclear neighbours and

not because Kashmiris were suffering. India and

Pakistan seem to share one common policy on Kashmir -

to force Kashmiris to toe their respective lines. In

fact, it seems that both countries want to fight to

the last Kashmiri. 



The Indian government held state elections in 1996

apparently aimed at ensuring a representative

government in Kashmir. But actually it was nothing

more than a farce. The security forces herded people

to polling stations and even conducted 'nail parades'

to check - by the indelible ink pasted on the nail of

the forefinger - that people had voted. 



The man who represents Kashmir - not only in New

Delhi, but across the world as India's junior Foreign

Minister - is Omar Abdullah, the son of Kashmir's

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. He received just 5 per

cent of votes in his constituency - after coercion by

the police and the security forces - and he won the

elections. Who he does actually represent, nobody

knows. 



I have been a witness to all this. I have seen Kashmir

change. I still remember my grandmother worrying

whenever the sky turned red. 'Murder has been

committed somewhere,' she would say. Now that

suspicion can no longer be reserved for red skies: the

daily death toll is 20. 



Kashmir used to be known as a crime-free state. One of

my neighbours was a senior police officer in the

mid-Eighties; he once told me that the average yearly

murder rate in Kashmir was three or four. Today, if

three people perish in a day, itis considered

peaceful. 



I have been fortunate enough to be safe, but my family

and relatives have not been that lucky. My younger

brother Mudabir was picked up in 1994 on suspicion of

militancy, and it took us a month just to trace his

whereabouts. We divided up the entire Kashmir valley

among our family members. Every morning, each one of

us would do the rounds of the security force camps to

look for him. 



My mother had never been to a police station in her

entire life, but by the time she finally located my

brother, she knew almost every military camp around

Srinagar. 



And by the time the security forces were convinced of

his innocence and released him, he had already been

tortured so much that he spent the next two months in

bed. 



It is now seven years since his release, but he still

has nightmares and the mere sight of a soldier sends

shivers down his spine. A late-night knock at the door

still gives him goose pimples, and sends his heart

rate soaring. But this is not exceptional any more in

Kashmir. 



A cousin's husband bled to death after he was caught

in the crossfire while coming out of mosque one

evening. He could have been saved had he reached the

hospital in time. But the security forces did not

allow the family to come out of their house and take

him to the hospital, and there was no other way to

seek medical help. He bled to death crying for help,

and his wife, mother and younger brother could do

nothing but watch their own helplessness. A boy was

born in the family four months after his death. 



By 1992, there were hardly any young men left in the

few villages in north Kashmir around my home. Many had

joined the militant movement. Some had died, while

others had gone underground; some had surrendered and

become counter-insurgents and were part of the

pro-government militias. Many had migrated to the

urban area of Srinagar city, which was then deemed

comparatively safe. 



The complexion of the separatist movement was changing

fast, and it no longer represented the genuine

political aspirations of the people. The pro-Pakistan

jihadi groups who dominated the movement tried to

impose their radical religious, social and cultural

agendas, ignoring the fact that their extremism was

alien to the very ethos of Kashmir. 



Kashmir has a history of composite culture and

religious tolerance. In fact, Islam did not arrive in

Kashmir through the clatter of the sword. It was

introduced by mystics and Sufis who conquered the

hearts of the people. In the centuries that followed,

Kashmir turned into a melting pot of ideas and a

meeting ground for Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam; there

was no place for religious extremism. 



Now, as fanaticism started to dominate, using the

power of the gun, the militant movement was rendered a

mere tool in Pakistan's plan to bleed its arch-rival

India with a thousand cuts. 



I decided to leave my village to move to Srinagar and

join Kashmir University. I was so desperate to leave

that I applied to almost all the departments. It was

mere chance that I got into journalism. And when I

started writing about the war later that year, I felt

that I had been part of this tragic story from the

beginning. I knew the militants and the mukhbirs (the

police informers); those who surrendered and those who

did not; those who faced death because they had a

dream and those who were sacrificed by mere chance,

neither knowing nor understanding the issues at stake;

those who believed they were fighting a holy war and

those who joined for unholy reasons. But, as it turned

out, there was more to the story. 



My first assignment as a reporter was to visit a city

police station and collect information regarding some

corpses lying there. I accompanied a few local

photographers, who began taking pictures as I stared

at the six bullet-riddled bodies. They were in

terrible condition: blood-soaked clothes, entrails

exposed, faces unrecognisable. 



That evening, I was haunted by the picture of bodies

lying in a pool of blood - even a drink of water

reminded me of blood. I couldn't sleep for days;

corpses haunted my dreams. 



A few months later I arrived at the site of a massacre

to find wailing women and unshaven men sitting in

huddles. Bodies lay scattered, like rag dolls

discarded by careless children. I felt a lump growing

in my throat, my legs felt heavy. I felt incredibly

tired and wanted to throw down my notebook and sit

silently with the mourners. The noise of the camera

shutters invaded my private thoughts, forcing me to

think about the story I had to write. 



Over the years, writing obituaries became a routine.

When violence rules the day, there is nothing but

tears to jerk out of the reader's soul. If I avoided

writing about the gory details of death, I would end

up writing about orphans or widows. In the process, my

reactions to such incidents also began to change. I

could no longer relate to these tragedies. Now

killings meant stories and bylines, and there was

satisfaction to be found in penning them, even if I

knew the victims personally. 



The continuous interaction with death and destruction

was providing a necessary thrill, and the killing

fields of Kashmir were becoming nothing but news

pastures for me. Every evening, I would wait for the

police bulletin that provides the statistics of the

daily deaths. Much as a shopkeeper counts his cash

before calling it a day, I would count the dead before

leaving the office. I once used a calculator to count

the 105 men and women dead across the 12 districts in

24 hours. My newspaper wanted a breakdown and I found

myself lost in numbers. 



I belong to Kashmir's cursed generation - the youth of

the Nineties. I have lived all these troubled years in

Kashmir and am still well and alive. But in the

process my tears have dried up. I have lost normal

human feelings to the adventures of reporting

day-to-day violence in my country. I am immune to the

death of my own people; I have developed an inability

to mourn. 



And it seems that the outside world too is unable to

feel the pain of Kashmir. After more than 50,000

deaths, there still appears to be no headway towards

peace. The international community needs to resolve

issues between India and Pakistan. It is not only

important in order to avoid a nuclear conflict: it is

imperative to end the suffering of the Kashmiri

people. 



muzamiljaleel@yahoo.com 





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