The late poet Agha Shahid Ali had called his home, Kashmir, a country without a post office. For the crowd that gathered at Lal Chowk, Kashmir was a nation without a place to hoist its flag.
Last week, a few able-bodied men unfurled a flag atop a tower—but to the untrained eye, the flag looked like Pakistan’s. Many, including in Pakistan, called it Pakistan’s. Conspiracy-minded Indians complained why the media was not publishing the picture. (Some did.) For that crowd, freedom meant that they wanted to leave India (or, as they’d say, they wanted India to leave Kashmir). But the view of azadi for many in that crowd also meant submerging their identity with Pakistan.
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Many Kashmiris do seek a different freedom—neither this, nor that; neither India, nor Pakistan; or, as Mercutio says in Romeo and Juliet: “A plague a’both your houses!” A recent report of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, drawn from surveys of Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control, shows, with hard numbers, that Kashmiris want to control their own destiny. But some loud voices see being with Pakistan as azadi. They want to replace one occupying power with another.
That distance, between the Kashmiri who seeks to protect and celebrate his identity, and the Kashmiri who sees his state as part of Pakistan, exists. It sometimes widens—and troublingly for India, the numbers continue to swell in both categories. It means those who might like to sport the Indian tricolour find fewer reasons to do so, and feel too intimidated to do so.
The nationalist Indian is tone-deaf about this. His refrain remains: “Why don’t the Kashmiris love us? After all, we are a democracy.” This, even if the Kashmiri experience of that democracy often consists of midnight knocks, of disappearances, of shoot-at-sight orders, of premature funerals.
Agha Shahid Ali’s humane metaphor —the country without a post office—is misunderstood literally. “Build a new post office, and they will burn it,” the Indian nationalist grumbles. The poem is an anxious cry, seeking to put together broken fragments of Kashmir’s intricate woodwork. There, a woman with the surname Pandit is a Muslim, and Hindus and Muslims are passionate about wazwan and share not just the cuisine, but also sometimes the plates from which they eat. Not possible, the Indian nationalist thinks, imagining the world to be this-or-that—and not neither-this-nor-that. But Basharat Peer’s bone-chilling memoir,Curfewed Night, shows us how real it is, when he goes to a refugee camp, seeking out Hindu friends who have fled the valley, or how a Kashmiri Hindu woman rents him space in Delhi. The reality is nuanced.
Peer’s title is from another Agha Shahid Ali poem, in which the poet longs to see his city “from which no news came”, becoming visible only in the curfewed night; where a shadow chased by searchlight is running away to find its body. The mosaic is shattered; the tapestry unravelled.
What can the sensitive Kashmiri feel? Rage, of course. But also probably litost, that difficult-to-translate Czech word Milan Kundera taught us, which means a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. For what can you feel, when you see young men paraded naked; where the spirit of the Indian Constitution—with its ideas of respect and dignity—loses its meaning?
Indian troops in Kashmir are meant to protect civilians from extremists. But the troops are under stress, suspecting each half-open window, assuming that each child scurrying through an alley could be carrying a message. The soldier has a gun, he is afraid, suspicious and angry; young men taunt him, daring him to take aim. There are children in the front, mocking him. He aims. The trigger is pulled. The wrong time, the wrong target, leaving stories of interrupted adolescence.
To be sure, India has lavished resources on Kashmir, and the state enjoys a level of autonomy other states don’t have. But India has also jailed its elected leaders and rigged elections in the past, imposed curfews and driven many young men into the welcoming arms of their backers in Pakistan. Peer writes how easy it is to cross the line of control.
Those trained men return as heroes, striking fear among the Kashmiris who still believe in India. Many daughters and sisters are forced to wear the veil. When a young woman speaks out, saying she prefers India’s freedoms, she is threatened; she is interfering with the victimhood narrative.
There are other narratives, such as the violence forcing neighbours to flee because they worship different gods, the wazwan meal interrupted. Anything can spark violence, like the Florida pastor who threatens to, but does not burn the Quran. And yet violence erupts; the police shoot, 18 die. And protesters burn a school, leaving the country without a post office, without a school, without neighbours, while a flag, foreign to many eyes, flutters.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org