When I decided to take a class on conflict zones as an undergrad at Penn State, I was always miffed by my American professor, who referred to Srinagar as a city in Indian occupied Kashmir. What does he mean by occupied? Kashmir has always been an integral part of India. If there is anyone who is forcefully occupying parts of the state, it is to the north, where Pakistani insurgents have seized control over a region, we in India refer to as Pakistan occupied Kashmir. To my bafflement, the professor referred to this part of Kashmir as Azad, or Independent Kashmir. He surely has a hidden agenda, or hes a Pakistan sympathizer, I thought to myself. As a freshman in college who just moved from to the United States from India, I was never able to absorb the Kashmiri rhetoric from the perspective of a party not involved in the conflict, due to India not being viewed in a favorable way.
I didnt expect a paradigm shift of my views about the Kashmiri conflict in my four years in the US, but I did gain a sense of open mindedness and the ability to think critically about the situation. The opportunity to work in Kashmir as a reporter would give me first hand experience of how Kashmiris view this conflict, and help me draw conclusions to my inquiries as an Indian. After all, I have grown up under the assumption that Indian forces are in Kashmir to protect its citizens from foreign insurgency, and every incident of gun fighting and killings in the state are a result of terrorists funded by Pakistani elements. Why these thoughts existed in me by default, are the result of rhetoric observed in Indian news channels, textbooks and hearing the views of learned men and women, who are all attached by the common thread of an Indian Kashmir, and defeating Pakistan in its foolhardy quest to stake their own claim in the region.
Having been a reporter in Srinagar for almost a month now, I have had the opportunity to put forth my enquiries and views as an Indian, to academics, citizens and with everyone who calls this place home. I even work in an office as the only person who isnt from the state. It is always easy to ask someone their views about the state and its perils, but I was after finding evidence of why the conflict exists. I constantly kept looking for stories, whos trails would hopefully lead me to answer my questions.
One day while I was at work,reading the local news, a colleague asked me to accompany him to Lal chowk, where he was supposed to interview someone for a story he was working on. I didnt ask what the story was, or who we were supposed to talk to, but as someone whod never seen Lal chowk before, I was eager to go. We travelled to the offices of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. My colleague was supposed to interview a lawyer who worked for the organization. We entered the lawyers office, and having no idea whatsoever about the topic we were here to speak about, I didnt know what to look forward to. So sir, can you shed some light on how the Indian Army is using rape as a tool of war in Kashmir? I wanted to scream What?! at the top of my voice when I heard reporter colleagues question, but instead I stared at him with a puzzled look. See, the Shopian case of 2009 is not an isolated incident. We have records of countless incidents where the Army conducts these barbaric acts to loosen and ultimately break the will of the people, so Kashmiris would stop agitating against the Indian state replied the lawyer. Where is all this coming from? What are these men saying? Why would my own military, which is sworn to protect the country regardless of where come from, be accused of such heinous crimes? These two men are just like my professor in America. They also have an agenda. Thats the only conclusion I could come to.
I chose not to speak with my colleague on our way back to the office. Why is it that ever since Ive decided to investigate Kashmir on my own, have I been surrounded with people who make me question the sanctity of my nations military? I had to look into this myself, undisrupted by the bias of anyone who identified as Indian, or by anyone who called themselves Kashmiri. I went to the Human Rights Watch website, an institution that I perceive as a trustworthy source. What I found was an endless list of crimes reported against Indian institutions all ranging from the Border Security Force to the Indian Army itself. And what made my heart sink in my chest was that on their website, HRW has a section titled The Use of Rape as a Weapon.
The lawyers words ringed in my ear. Is this a systematic and well thought of mechanism used by the state to subdue a rebellious population? How have I failed to not see this? How were these stories shielded from me, my friends, and everyone who I believe to be well informed back home? Why dont we hear of these, and why dont our news channels let the nation know the whole truth?
Having looked into this, I have started questioning all my preexisting notions about Kashmir, its people, and all parties involved in the conflict. I cannot let the fact that I am Indian, be reason for having a lensed view on the issue. I have to ask my own questions, and draw my own conclusions.
This past week, I travelled to a local high school, which for the purposes of anonymity, I will leave unnamed. The school is one of the oldest academic institutions in Srinagar, whos youth are understood to be highly active in street demonstrations against Indian forces. Going to a school would give me the perspective of Kashmiri youth, who will be the future bearers of this conflict, and how they will choose to define their ultimate outcomes for the state. I spoke to Umar and Ijaz, both students at this school who have engaged in stone pelting incidents. We want our own country, because we have grown up under oppression. We dont want India, and we dont want Pakistan. We want a Kashmir we can call our own says Ijaz, who didnt blink or turn away his gaze once, as he looked at me while answering my questions. Umar on the other hand was hesitant to speak with me. He was once picked up by police forces for his role in a stone pelting incident, for which he was detained in a police lockup for 14 hours. After hearing Ijaz go on and on, Umar said shortly, and succinctly, Our faith teaches us that if someone kills an innocent person, it is as though he kills entire humanity. We dont want to pelt stones and hurt someone, but if our people keep getting killed, and our women raped, what choices are we left with? These two 15-year-old boys have grown beyond their years, because of the circumstances they live under. The childhood I had as a 15-year-old in Mumbai, and the one they share in Kashmir, seems as to me as though we lived in two completely different realities. I couldnt even comprehend, far even know how to Id react to such situations, if I faced them as a child.
It will take me many more months to truly understand the plight of the Kashmiri people, and what sort of end result each party invested in this conflict aims to achieve. It may even take someone more than a lifetime to find an adequate solution to achieving peace in Kashmir. But the first step that I discovered, to truly understand how we can bring peace, is to think of Kashmir and its people from an unbiased, unaligned and a universal point of view. Do not think of the state as an entity that belongs to India, or to Pakistan. More appropriately, do not think of the state as if it belongs to anybody. I may be lambasted for my views back home, but what I cannot help but put to words, and what I implore to anyone who wishes for a better future for its people, is to allow them a life of dignity we all desire and deserve.
It is very easy for us to be in Mumbai or Delhi and say Kashmir is an integral part of India. We need to come here and see for ourselves the sort of implications of our tug-of-war is doing to the people of our integral part. Today we have developed a conscious that leaves us guilt ridden after seeing the results of war. We see the Hindu Kush ranges in Afghanistan, and think to ourselves, What did humanity achieve from destroying such a beautiful country? I only hope we dont let our differences and egos make us witness a day when we refer to Kashmir in such a manner.
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