Kashmir’s Forever War
- Discussion (7)
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On an early December morning in 2009, I was on a flight home to Kashmir. It doesn’t matter how many times I come back, the frequency of arrival never diminishes the joy of homecoming – even when home is the beautiful, troubled, war-torn city of Srinagar. Frozen crusts of snow on mountain peaks brought the first intimation of the valley. Silhouettes of village houses and barren walnut trees appeared amid a sea of fog. On the chilly tarmac, my breath formed rings of smoke.
The sense of siege outside the airport was familiar. Olive-green military trucks with machine guns on their turrets, barbed wire circling the bunkers and check posts. Solemn-faced soldiers in overcoats patrolled with assault rifles at the ready, subdued by the bitter chill of Kashmiri winter. The streets were quiet, the naked rain-washed brick houses lining them seemed shrunken. Men and women walked quietly on the pavements, their pale faces reddened by the cold draughts.
In Kashmir, winter is a season of reflection, a time of reprieve. The guns fall silent and for a while one can forget the long war that has been raging since 1990. In the fragile peace that nature had imposed, I slipped into a routine of household chores: buying a new gas heater for Grandfather; picking up a suit from Father’s tailor; lazy lunches of a lamb ribcage delicacy with reporter friends; teaching young cousins to make home videos on my computer. Yet I opened the morning papers with a sense of dread, a fear of seeing a headline printed in red, the colour in which they prefer to announce yet another death – the continuing cost of our troubled recent history.
Political discontent has simmered in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir since partition in 1947, when Hari Singh, the Hindu maharaja of the Muslim-majority state, joined India after a raid by tribals from Pakistan. The agreement of accession that Singh signed with India in October 1947 gave Kashmir much autonomy; India controlled only defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications. But, in later years, India began to erode Kashmir’s autonomy by imprisoning popularly elected leaders and appointing quiescent puppet administrators who helped extend Indian jurisdiction. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir since then. In 1987, the government in Indian-controlled Kashmir rigged a local election, after which Kashmiris lost the little faith they had in India and began a secessionist armed uprising with support from Pakistan. The Indian military presence rose to half a million and by the mid-nineties Islamist militants from Pakistan began to dominate the rebellion. The costs of war have been high: around 70,000 people have been killed since 1990; another 10,000 have gone missing after being arrested. Although there has been a decline in violence in the past few years and the number of active militants has reduced to around five hundred, more than half a million Indian troops remain in Kashmir, making it the most militarized place in the world. India and Pakistan have come dangerously close to war several times – once after the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and more recently after the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.
And the attacks continue. A few weeks after I left Kashmir again, on the cold afternoon of 7 January, two young men walked through a crowd of shoppers in the Lal Chowk area in Srinagar. They passed bookshops, garment stores, hotels, and walked towards the Palladium Cinema, which once screened Bollywood movies and Hollywood hits such as Saturday Night Fever, and was now, like most theatres in Kashmir, occupied by Indian troops. As they neared the Palladium, the two men took out the Kalashnikovs they had been hiding and fired several shots in the air. One threw a grenade at a paramilitary bunker. Passers-by rushed into shops for safety; shopkeepers downed the shutters. Hundreds of armed policemen and soldiers drove from the military and police camps nearby, surrounded the hotel and began firing. The hotel caught fire.
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