Death In Kashmir
Posted by Preet Mohan S Ahluwalia on Monday, 11/06/2000 11:04 AM MST
| FEATURE |
September 21, 2000
Death in Kashmir
The village of Chitisinghpura is in the southeastern corner of the valley of Kashmir, a few miles from the highway that runs from the capital, Srinagar, across high mountains to the Indian plains. A steep, winding, dusty road takes you to a high plateau where, beyond a few miles of rice fields, the village lies in a little hollow muffled by pine, walnut, and chenar trees.
It has none of the wretchedness you associate with rural India. In fact, the brisk stream of cool, clear water that divides the village, the meadowed bank with the bathing cabin of rough timber and the leafless willows and the grazing stray cow suggest the romance of an isolated and self-sufficient pastoral community. The villagers are apple, almond, and rice farmers. Some of them own transport businesses?there is enough money around for the village to have two gurudwaras, domed prayer halls with courtyards, one for each side of the village. The houses are large in the expansive Kashmiri way, unplastered bricks stacked in timber frames, exposed lofts bulging with hay; each house has its own fenced-in compound where chickens run around vegetable patches; television antennae loom over the corrugated iron roofs.
The serenity of the place at first glance seems unreal: elsewhere in the valley of Kashmir, which is ruled by India, the Indian military has been fighting since 1990 a particularly brutal war with thousands of Muslim guerrillas. Almost all of the guerrillas have been trained in Pakistan by Islamic fundamentalists, and are fighting for integration of the Muslim-dominated valley with Pakistan, even though a majority of the four million Muslims who live precariously amid the violence caused by guerrillas and the Indian security forces in the valley prefer independence.
But the secular guerrilla outfits that were fighting for independence in the early years of the insurgency have long been overwhelmed by such Pakistan-based Islamic guerrilla groups as Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which also recruit jihad-inspired citizens of Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight in Kashmir. India, which has fought two wars with Pakistan over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965 and almost came close to a nuclear war in 1990, sees itself as fighting a "proxy war" with Pakistan in Kashmir, and the present Indian government in Delhi, which is dominated by Hindu nationalists, has sent close to half a million soldiers to Kashmir to suppress the insurgency.
This makes the Hindus in the valley very vulnerable, and approximately 130,000 Hindus, almost the entire Hindu population of the valley, migrated to India after a few hundred of them were killed by Muslim guerrillas in 1990. More recently, in early August, unidentified gunmen, alleged by the Indian government to be Pakistan-backed guerrillas, massacred over a hundred Hindus. But Chitisinghpura is populated mostly by Sikhs, who form just over 2 percent of the population of Kashmir, and have managed to maintain their neutrality all through the last ten years.
This explains why the community has never before been targeted at any time by either the Indian army or the Muslim guerrillas; it also explains why the Sikhs of Chitisinghpura were, before this spring, equally, if uneasily, cordial with both the guerrillas, who often visited the village looking for food, and the soldiers from nearby Indian army camps, who came on routine patrols.
Most of the Sikh families were at home on the evening of March 20, 2000, preparing for supper, watching the extended coverage of Bill Clinton's visit to the subcontinent, and weren't at all surprised when about seventeen men with guns and dressed in army fatigues showed up and ordered the males to come out of their houses. Most people thought it was a "crackdown"?the word had gone into the Kashmiri language after years of the Indian army's cordon-and-search operations.
The Sikhs were made to squat before the gurudwaras?and this happened on both sides of the village?and were asked to produce their identity cards. The Sikhs complied; there was not much cause for suspicion at the time: the armed men in fatigues, who appeared to be from the Indian army, seemed to be carrying out the formality of checking the number of men in the village.
But there were some Sikhs who suspected something unusual was about to happen and hid themselves in their houses. None of the armed men came to look for them; there were enough people outside.
Identity cards checked, the armed men stepped back; there was a single shot, and suddenly the men raised their guns and started firing at the Sikhs. In the end, thirty-five men were shot dead on both sides of the village; all, except one, on the spot, on the muddy, hay-littered ground in front of the gurudwaras. It was the largest such killing by execution in Kashmir since the beginning of the anti-India insurgency in 1990.
I heard the news from Abbas early next morning. He is a Muslim, the Srinagar correspondent of an Indian newspaper. The dignity and solidity of his bearing?his tall, well-built frame, the elegantly cut Kashmiri jackets he wore?made him reassuring to be with in the city where everyone?the tense crowds in the streets, the jumpy soldiers in their bunkers, and the passionate Muslims speaking of the atrocities of Indian rule in bare, dark rooms?seemed to be on edge. A mutual acquaintance had asked him to help me out during my stay in Srinagar; and he had done so dutifully, but not without a certain wariness, which I put down to some slight resentment: I wasn't the first or last of the inexperienced, and possibly biased, journalists from India he had been asked to assist.
His voice on the phone was calm. In the days I had been in Srinagar, relatively and unsettlingly quiet days, the news of sporadic custodial killings and gun battles between Indian security forces and guerrillas and land-mine blasts coming in only from other places in the valley, I had often heard him say, "If you live here, you have to be prepared for anything. Anything can happen anytime in Kashmir." His words with their tinge of melodrama had made me wonder if he saw a certain glamour in his job, in the dangerous nature of the world he worked and lived in, like the reticent taxi driver who had been quick to point me toward the vegetable market where seventeen Muslim civilians had been blown to bits a few days before by a bomb.1
Something even bigger had now happened; and Abbas was as serene as always. He had no details yet, but he thought we should leave immediately for the village. When he arrived half an hour later at my hotel with two other Kashmiri journalists, his mood was light. The atmosphere inside the battered Ambassador was already one of good-humored banter; and the jokes and repartee in Kashmiri, which I couldn't follow, got louder after each encounter with the frankly contemptuous Indian soldiers at roadblocks, who poked AK-56 muzzles through hastily rolled-down windows, demanded identity cards, and wanted to know where we were going and for what.
In little villages alongside the road men in blue and black cloak-like pherans stood in worried little circles and glanced nervously, out of the corner of their eyes, at the cars racing past them. In the rice and saffron fields, stubbly and glittering with frost, soldiers stood with their backs to the road, light machine guns slung over their shoulders. Outlined against the blue misty mountains in the distance, they were like hunters from a nineteenth-century sketch.
At the village itself, where there was nothing they could do, they looked more casual, the elite commandos almost dandyish in their black headdress and bullet-proof overalls, sheepishly standing where some angry Sikhs had barred their way to the village. There were tiny shards of glass on the ground: some car windows had already been smashed by the Sikhs and a photographer roughed up, his camera lens broken. The soldiers had watched it all and done nothing; they now quietly watched the Sikhs rage at the senior officers from the army and police who had begun to arrive, their cars disgorging more and more men in fatigues.
The Sikhs were mostly survivors from the night before; mostly middle-aged men, who had stayed in their homes when the armed men came. Others were from nearby villages and had been in Chitisinghpura since dawn. No one had stirred out of his house for close to an hour after the massacre; then some men had come out and seen the corpses and trudged several miles in the dark to the nearest police station. The police arrived seven hours after the massacre, but could find no clues to the identity of the killers. But the Sikhs standing before the policemen now had already assumed that the killers were Muslim guerrillas. They were shouting at once, beating their chests, feeding upon each other's energy. The army and police officers heard them expressionlessly. "Give us guns and then we'll deal with these Muslims," a man with a long gray beard kept shouting. "They know what we did with them in 1947. We are not cowards like the Kashmiri Hindus! Do they think they can throw us out of Kashmir?! We'll show them!" And then,
spittle growing at the corner of his mouth, he added, "This is a country we have ruled." The historical reference?to the early nineteenth century, when Sikh governors sent out by the king of Punjab had ravaged the valley and tormented the Muslims?made, just for a brief moment, the Kashmiri Muslim policeman before him flinch.
More journalists and government people arrived. The Sikhs wouldn't let anyone pass, and continued to curse and lament. Behind them, a frightful clamor, as of a thousand crows, arose from the top of the hill where the bigger gurudwara was. It was the sound of weeping and wailing women, and it seemed to bewilder the roosters in the village, who were to go on dementedly for several hours after dawn, their exultant cries hanging discordantly in the air with the grief and despair of the women.
All through the long drive to the village, I had wondered about this moment. It was strange, after all the dread-filled anticipation, to come up against what appeared, for reasons then unclear, a familiar sight: the corpses lined up on the ground against the walled fence of the courtyard, grieving women around them, a hectic gaggle of photographers who were soon to send images of this remote Himalayan village into the world.
I walked to the other side of the village, where, in front of the smaller gurudwara, the armed men had shot seventeen of the thirty-five dead men. More bodies were being brought from here to the gurudwara where the widows and journalists had gathered: men trudging up and down the steep, muddy slopes littered with chicken feathers and straw, balancing on their shoulders improvised wooden stretchers that appeared to have been hammered together overnight. The bodies slithered around on the stretchers, and the blood leaking from them left bright large stains on the freshly planed wood: it was as if the rough way the bodies were handled came out of the manner, and scale, of death, more than a dozen men shot while they squatted before the gurudwara's scraggly fence of corrugated iron and barbed wire.
In the end, there was only one body left to carry; and it took some time because the young wife of the deceased held her husband's head in her lap and wouldn't let go. A young girl in a long red mirror-work skirt, probably her daughter, stood by her side, freshly awakened and staring uncomprehendingly first at her dead father and then at her mother, who kept calling out a name as she wept and kept caressing, with rough, calloused hands, her husband's face.
Outside the bigger gurudwara stood the police and army men, spiffily dressed, already stiff in anticipation of high-level visits from Delhi; the bored, silent groups of local journalists; the women and children warming themselves before a tiny fire after the long night of grief; the photographers and cameramen competing for the best view of the courtyard; the eager young journalists from New Delhi looking for blood; the cries of the roosters still incongruously mingling with the wailing of the widows?somehow the occasion demanded a more appropriate response.
And so when the Sikhs, growing in numbers by the minute as the news spread across the valley, each new arrival bringing his own outrage to the village, abused and drove out the first VIP, a senior state minister, stoned his car, shattered his windscreen, his bodyguards let loose a few rounds into the air from their AK-47s and caused temporary panic because some people thought that the guerrillas had attacked. Men began sprinting across the forest outside the village; the commandos threw themselves on the damp ground and prepared to shoot. No guerrillas showed up, of course. But the little commotion assuaged the growing need for drama and suddenly there was relief all around, and the commandos appeared less dandyish and more sheepish when they got up with muddy stains on their bullet-proof overalls.
But something suspect lay in that need for drama, which, in the few hours it took to broadcast the TV images of the widows, was to be amplified all across India. There had been a small war in Kashmir the previous summer when Pakistan-backed infiltrators, many of them regular Pakistan army recruits, occupied high mountain positions past the border. Hundreds of Indian soldiers had died while trying to dislodge them; and the media, slicker but also much more coarse after ten years of economic liberalization, had brought about a general intoxication with war in millions of middle-class Indian homes. Opinion polls in English-language newspapers had shown much of the middle class demanding an all-out invasion of Pakistan; letters in the popular press had even called for a nuclear bombardment of Pakistan. The media itself had joined in the frenzy, with young, awkwardly helmeted reporters shouting into microphones over the noise of artillery fire, "You have got to be here to know what it is like!"
And that need for drama, for swift, brutal responses to brutality, wasn't going to be appeased by Bill Clinton's condemnation of the massacre. When I left the village and went back to Srinagar later that day, the groups of worried Muslims I had passed in the morning had been broken up. They were already in roped-off enclosures, squatting on the ground while soldiers searched their houses. Buses were being stopped and passengers lined up and interrogated by the side of the road: a multitude of little crackdowns were going on in the region.
Three days after the killing, while Clinton was still in India, a jubilant-looking senior bureaucrat in New Delhi announced a "major breakthrough" on Indian television: the Indian army and police had just arrested, he said, a man called Yaqub Wagay, one of the few Muslim residents of Chitisinghpura, who had provided valuable information about the Sikh killings. Another "major breakthrough" came two days later when five "foreign mercenaries" allegedly identified by Wagay as the killers of the Sikhs?guerrillas from Pakistan and Afghanistan?were killed in an "encounter" during a joint army- police assault on a lone hut on top of a hill in a remote village, not far from Chitisinghpura, called Panchalthan.
This was what needed to be done after the massacre to appease public outrage in India?the Sikhs had been rioting for three days in Jammu City?and the army and policemen in Kashmir, men more confident in their ability to manipulate the media after the war last year when false stories about Pakistani brutality and Indian courage had been tirelessly retailed, had known what to do.
The "encounter" with foreign mercenaries was reported on the front pages of the Indian newspapers, and the matter was seen to have ended there. But soon the government's story ran into unexpected problems. There had been no post-mortem of the five men killed in the "encounter" at Panchalthan. The frightened local villagers were bullied into quickly burying the badly charred corpses; but soon afterward they came across clothes and personal items near the burial site that had been left burning by the soldiers. These items now became evidence contradicting the government's story.
Within just three days after the killings, seventeen Muslims had strangely gone missing from the villages around Chitisinghpura. Three of them had been kidnapped before witnesses by armed men in a red Maruti van that was later discovered to have been one of the several vehicles seized by the district police and parked in the district police station. The son of one of the missing men heard about the discovery of half-burnt personal items in Panchalthan; he traveled to Panchalthan and found his father's identity card and ring among the items. More items were identified, as villagers came forward to testify that the five men had been fired upon at close range, soaked with kerosene, and then set alight.
The relatives of the five murdered Muslims walked in a procession several miles to the district headquarters to appeal for a public exhuming of the bodies. After a week of protests, the demonstrations grew larger and then a crowd of five thousand Muslims was fired upon by the police. Nine more men died; among the dead was the son of one of the murdered civilians, the one who had traveled to Panchalthan and made the first connection between the missing men and the half-burnt personal items.
When the bodies were finally exhumed, almost two weeks after the murders, they were discovered to have been badly defaced. The chopped-off nose and chin of one man?a local shepherd?turned up in another grave. The body of a local sheep and buffalo trader was headless?the head couldn't be found?but was identified by the trousers that were intact underneath the army fatigues it had been dressed in. Another charred corpse?that of an affluent cloth-retailer from the city of Anantnag, presumably kidnapped and killed because he was, like the other four men, tall and well-built and could be made to resemble, once dead, a "foreign mercenary"?had no bullet marks at all. Remarkably, for bodies so completely burnt, the army fatigues that they were dressed in were almost brand new.
I had left Srinagar by then. I followed the events from Delhi, where they merged into the general atrociousness of the news emanating from Kashmir, news that was reported fitfully and sparingly, often in single columns, in the Indian press, which was concerned from the very beginning of the anti-India insurgency not to report anything damaging to the "national interest." The news of the massacre had lasted for barely half a day when it was overtaken by Clinton's reaction to it, his harder line against Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, which emerged as the most important aspect of the affair. The circumstances of the massacre, the identity of the killers, were left unexplored.
In Chitisinghpura, I had spoken to some elderly Sikhs standing around a small tea shack. They were wary of me and couldn't tell me much: they had heard the orders for them to come out, they had stayed put in their homes, and then they had heard the gunfire and cries of pain. They couldn't imagine who the killers might have been. This was Kashmir: no one really knew what was going on. The armed men could have been sent by the Indian army; it could have been the Muslim guerrillas. They did remember that the men spoke Urdu and Punjabi (a meaningless clue since many Indians and Pakistanis and Kashmiris speak the two languages), and that some of them were drunk.3
The wariness of these elderly men had much to do with their new sense of vulnerability to both the guerrillas and the Indian soldiers in their isolated setting?a vulnerability that remains. Just a few days after the killings, almost all of the Sikhs in the village whom I had seen so stridently blaming the Muslim guerrillas on the morning after the massacre had migrated to India. More recently, the Sikh association formed to protect Sikhs after the killings have begun to talk about the possible involvement of Indian security forces.4 All the Pakistan-based guerrilla outfits have continued to deny their involvement in the Chitisinghpura killings, and to blame Indian security forces for them. There have been no further attacks on the Sikhs in the valley?and the questions about why Muslim guerrillas should attack civilian members of a community they have not bothered for over a decade, why they should do so hours before Clinton's arrival in India and thereby invite international opprobrium and discredit their cau
se, haven't been satisfactorily answered.
There are other intriguing facts. Of the twelve other Muslim civilians that went missing around the same time as the murdered five, four were spotted at, and eventually rescued by local villagers from, an army camp near Panchalthan. It is quite likely they had been kidnapped for the same reason the five murdered men were: to be presented, once dead, as "foreign mercenaries" responsible for the killings of the Sikhs. The fate of the rest is still unknown, and as with many missing Muslims in Kashmir they are likely to show up in one of the daily police lists of "killed militants." Meanwhile, the family of Yaqub Wagay, the Muslim man arrested in Chitisinghpura for allegedly assisting the "foreign mercenaries" in the killings of the Sikhs, has refused to put up bail for him out of fear that he'll be murdered as soon as he's out of prison. A senior Kashmiri official connected with the inquiry told me that Wagay was innocent, and had been with four other men, including a Sikh, when the massacre took place. Wagay is
the Indian government's glaringly weak link between the killings in Chitisinghpura and the "encounter" at Panchalthan, which makes him just as likely to be killed in prison as outside it.
The Indian failure to identify or arrest even a single person connected to the killings or the killers, and the hastiness and brutality of the Indian attempt to stick the blame on "foreign mercenaries" while Clinton was still in India, only lends weight to the new and growing suspicion among Sikhs that the massacre in Chitisinghpura was organized by Indian intelligence agencies in order to influence Clinton, and the large contingent of influential American journalists accompanying him, into taking a much more sympathetic view of India as a helpless victim of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan: a view of India that some very hectic Indian diplomacy in the West had previously failed to achieve.
That view is what the Indian government offered again in early August, when more than a hundred people, mostly Hindu, were killed in Kashmir, a week after the biggest pro-Pakistan guerrilla outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen?which, interestingly, was held responsible by the Indian government in March for the killings in Chitisinghpura?declared what turned out to be a very brief cease-fire.
It is still not clear?and probably won't be for some time?what actually happened, even during the most widely reported of the recent killings in Pahalgam, the Kashmir town where, according to the Indian government, two pro-Pakistan guerrillas killed more than thirty Hindu pilgrims. Later reports said that the two suspected guerrillas were killed by soldiers of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), one of the Indian paramilitary organizations in Kashmir, soon after they assaulted a heavily guarded military camp; and in the fifteen to twenty minutes it took the CRPF to kill the guerrillas seven people died in the cross fire. The Indian prime minister himself, on a visit to Pahalgam, was confronted with hostile survivors who accused the CRPF of looting and killing pilgrims and Muslim shopowners of Pahalgam for almost forty-five minutes after the two suspected guerrillas had been shot dead.5
In another mysterious incident reminiscent of Chitisinghpura, gunmen in uniform were seen massacring nineteen migrant laborers, the poorest and most defenseless people in Kashmir, a few hours after the killings in Pahalgam. But there was hardly any follow-up coverage; and few people know who killed thirty-five people, some of them Muslims, in the remote jungles of Doda in South Kashmir in early August, since the reports about the murders seemed based on nothing more reliable than press statements put about by the Indian police and army.
The Indian government blamed guerrilla outfits working "at the behest of Pakistan"; the intention behind the killings, it said, was to disrupt the peace process. But it is not clear why Pakistan, which has long bankrolled the Hizbul Mujahideen and which brought about its declaration of cease-fire, should cancel its own moves by organizing killings in Kashmir, particularly at a time when the world's attention was fixed on the region. It is more likely that one or more guerrilla outfits opposed to the cease-fire acted without Pakistan's supervision or approval. The Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, accused Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is mostly composed of fanatical holy warriors from Pakistan and Afghanistan. But that organization, which, along with the Hizbul Mujahideen, was also blamed for killing the Sikhs of Chitisinghpura, condemned the killings and rejected the possibility that its recruits might have murdered civilians?a disavowal that is in contrast to its usual eagerness in claiming attacks on th
e Indian military and police, such as the recent bombing in Srinagar, which killed thirteen army and policemen, and which was claimed by both Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. There is, as yet, no convincing evidence linking them to any of the more than six separate incidents of extreme violence against civilians. These killings thus take their place, along with the murder of the Sikhs, with some very relevant but ultimately obscure and unexplained incidents in Kashmir's recent history.
As it turned out, the massacres in early August weren't what undermined the cease-fire, which continued for another week before breaking down over the Indian government's refusal to include Pakistan in any discussion of Kashmir. This failure was inevitable. The Hindu nationalists, to whom the Mujahideen's unilateral cease-fire came as a shock, could not have risked alienating much of their middle-class constituency by talking to General Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, who is held chiefly responsible in India for the disastrous battles between Pakistan-backed infiltrators and the Indian army in Kashmir last year, in which hundreds of Indian soldiers died. The massacres were presented by an aggrieved-seeming Mr. Vajpayee to Bill Clinton as another reason why he can't sit across the negotiating table from General Musharraf.
What has long been clear is that the Indian government does not wish to involve Pakistan or any other country in what it considers to be an internal matter. In the first fifty years of its existence, the Indian state has several times defused secessionist uprisings across India without any external assistance, through locally produced carrots and sticks, a blend of force and appeasement. You can see the same gradualistic strategy at work in Kashmir, where the government has attempted in the last few years to win over at least some representatives of the disaffected population: some of the most corrupt and rich men in Kashmir are former guerrillas. At the same time, it has tried to crush militarily those fundamentalist outfits operating from Pakistan who believe, somewhat fancifully, that jihad, if pursued vigorously enough, might force India to concede Kashmir.
However, the insurgency in Kashmir, unlike previous insurgencies in Punjab and Assam, pits India against an unstable, traditionally hostile, and now nuclear-armed neighbor. This means that even if India were to succeed in pacifying Kashmir on its own, the possibility of a calamitous war in South Asia would remain.
A more enduring peace can only be reached through three-way talks between India, Pakistan, and the representatives of Kashmir. In this respect, the cease-fire was a good beginning; its immense popularity among Muslims in Kashmir certainly made all the warring sides aware of the need for change. But the Indian government, as much as the jihad-minded guerrillas, seems to prefer the status quo in Kashmir. The failure of the cease-fire means not only that it has managed to avoid talking to Pakistan. It has intensified its campaign to internationally demonize Pakistan, which includes trying to persuade the USState Department to put Pakistan on its list of terrorist states. By parleying, however briefly and fruitlessly, with the Hizbul Mujahideen, it has also managed to present itself before the world as being flexible and open-minded about Kashmir while creating the possibility of a severe rupture between the largest guerrilla outfit and the more hard-line Islamic groups that stress the futility of any kind of neg
otiations with the Indian government and want to carry on their jihad against India.6
The number of atrocities on both sides in Kashmir is so high, and the situation in general so murky, that it is hard to get to the truth, to confirm, for instance, India's claim, in both late March and early August, that Muslim terrorists are always responsible for them. Few people in India even talk of Chitisinghpura anymore; it did not come up when the senior bureaucrat I had seen on television in March accusing the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba of killing the Sikhs traveled to Srinagar in early August to talk to the guerrillas about ground rules for the short-lived cease-fire. And the forgetfulness and murkiness will remain: the recent killings will soon be supplanted by something bigger; there will be the usual exchange of allegations between India and Pakistan, the usual outrage and condemnation around the world; and no more than a few people will know what is really going on.
At present, what supports India's forcefully articulated sense of victimhood after the incidents of March and August is the basic fear and distrust in the West of anything related to Islamic extremism. The United States refused to join India in blaming Pakistan for the recent killings in Kashmir, but the State Department has kept up its pressure on Pakistan to rein in the Kashmiri guerrillas and their Islamic fundamentalist sponsors in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The cease-fire by the Hizbul Mujahideen is believed to have been a result of some gentle arm-twisting of the Pakistan government by the State Department.
The involvement of the State Department is also hinted by the speed with which the Indian government responded, after its initial silence, to the cease-fire. Since the cease-fire broke down, it has repeatedly declared its willingness to talk to any guerrilla outfit without involving Pakistan. There is an immediate incentive for the Indian government in working up a certain amount of enthusiasm about any US-mediated dialogue with the guerrillas: some of the more significant American sanctions imposed on India after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998 are still in place. And then the Hindu nationalists, who now claim that India chose the wrong and losing side in the cold war, and many of whose richest patrons belong to the 800,000-strong Indian- American community, are keen on building a strong military and economic relationship with the United States.
The cautiously pro-India policies now followed by the United States derive from the assumption that India, since it is more stable and economically stronger than Pakistan, would be a reliable ally in South Asia. The assumption may well prove true; but it makes the government of Hindu nationalists much too complacent, and ends up undermining the already fragile safeguards for civil liberties in India's imperfect democracy.
The government has been steadily indifferent to the several requests from human rights organizations and Indian political parties for an independent probe into the massacres of March and August. In the Indian parliament, the Union Law Minister asked members from opposition parties to drop their demand for an inquiry into the recent killings since it only helped Pakistan "point accusing fingers at India." A spokesman of the BJP exhorted members of parliament to instead "concentrate on exposing the evil designs of Pakistan."9
The Indian media, which usually shares such blinkered nationalism, is unlikely even to attempt to find out the truth behind the killings. A few hours after the murder of the Sikhs in March, the premier TV channel was already asserting, though its correspondent had yet to reach the site, and none of the police and army officers assembled could offer a clue, that the killings were the work of Pakistan-backed guerrillas; and this was to become the general Indian view. Later, the news of the army's killing the five "foreign mercenaries" at Panchalthan was reported in the same unquestioning way. The protests of the villagers against Indian officials were hardly mentioned by the Indian press until unarmed demonstrators were fired upon and nine men died, and then the news was lost again.
There is no point in blaming the Kashmiri journalists who represent Indian newspapers in the valley. All of them know from experience what their bosses in Delhi will or will not publish. And it isn't easy even on the rare occasion that they have full liberty to investigate; the threat of violence from the guerrillas and the Indian security forces is ever-present, and can't be underestimated: several journalists exploring human rights violations have been murdered, many more beaten up and threatened.
One's own capacity for exposing oneself to human distress on this scale turns out to be small. The figures alone are numbing. More than 30,000 people, mostly Muslims?and these are conservative figures?have been killed, maimed, or disappeared in the last ten years. The Indian army and police have lost a few thousand men, while they have killed many more Muslim guerrillas and civilians. There is hardly a family among the four million-strong Muslim population of the valley which hasn't been affected by either side. Abbas said, while we discussed possible stories I could cover, "You must do widows and orphans." I had foolishly asked, "Where can I find them?" Abbas had let the remark go; he simply said, "Anywhere." And it was true: widows and orphans were as ubiquitous as graveyards and ruins in the valley.
But I did other things; and after each of my travels around the city and the valley I came back to the hotel room, relieved that the day's work was over, and that I could retreat for some hours at least from the world around me, from the stories?of torture (one hospital alone witnessed 250 cases of death by acute renal failure, caused by putting human bodies under heavy rollers in the army's interrogation centers called Papa 1 and Papa 2), of summary executions, rapes, kidnappings, and arson?stories that came out unprompted in the most casual of conversations with Kashmiris, and that formed the grisly background to life in the valley.
The oldest among Kashmiris often claim that there is nothing new about their condition; that they have been slaves of foreign rulers since the sixteenth century when the Moghul emperor Akbar annexed Kashmir and appointed a local governor to rule the state. In the chaos of post-Moghul India, the old empire rapidly disintegrating, Afghani and Sikh invaders plundered Kashmir at will. The peasantry was taxed and taxed into utter wretchedness; the cultural and intellectual life under indigenous rulers that had produced some of the greatest poetry, music, and philosophy in the subcontinent dried up. Barbaric rules were imposed in the early nineteenth century: a Sikh who killed a Muslim native of Kashmir was fined nothing more than two rupees. Victor Jacquemont, a botanist and friend of Stendhal who came to the valley in 1831, thought that "nowhere else in India were the masses as poor and denuded as they were in Kashmir."
But that background of constant suffering can remain invisible to the casual visitor; the physical beauty of the place?enhanced by the valley's isolation from the rest of the world, and more tempting for foreign adventurers?is still, after ten years of violence, overwhelming. All through my stay, memories of previous trips kept bubbling up, visits made in less troubled times, just before the insurgency began in 1990, especially that first visit which for me?as for anyone who had never been away from the hot dusty Indian plains?was the first exhilarating revelation of beauty.
I hadn't then really noticed the Kashmiris. They did appear very different with their pale, long-nosed faces, their pherans, their strange language, so unlike any Indian language. They also seemed oddly self-possessed. But in the enchanting new world that had opened before me?the big, deep blue skies and the tiny boats becalmed in vast lakes, the cool trout streams and the stately forests of chenar and poplar, the red-cheeked children at roadside hamlets and in apple orchards, the cows and sheep grazing in wide meadows, and, always in the valley, the surrounding mountains with their mysterious promise?in so private an experience of beauty it was hard to admit the inhabitants of the valley, hard to acknowledge the more prosaic facts of their existence: the dependence upon India, the lack of local industry, the growing number of unemployed, educated youth.
Then, as the years passed, the news from Kashmir took its place with the other news?equally bad, of murders and destruction?from Punjab and the Northeast: the distant struggles that were, ultimately, marginal to one's own life in a very large and deprived country where almost everyone is struggling. In any event, one couldn't always get the necessary information about Kashmir. There were some good books published by small imprints; but you had to search hard for them.10 To read what was reported in the press was to be told that Pakistan had fomented trouble in Kashmir, and the Indian army was taking care of it. It was to understand that there really wasn't a problem except one of law and order, which the relevant military and paramilitary organizations would soon deal with. The missing physical details had to be imagined; and they turned out to be much grimmer than I once could have thought.
Srinagar's big hotel, with its vast lawns and nude trees overlooking the lake, was empty in March; but the staff still felt obliged to work themselves up each morning, like the Indian papers, into cheerful falsehoods: "Everything is fine today, sir. There is no problem at all, there is as much violence here as in any Indian city."
In their softly lit, carpet-muffled offices, with trays of tea and biscuits reg-ularly brought in by uniformed servants, Indian officials presented statistics about the number of guerrillas killed, and the number of guns, rocket launchers, and grenades seized. In a gloomy room, the carpet and curtains and sofa upholstery dark with grime, piles of unread newspapers in one corner, a member of the Kashmir Bar Association presented me with some counterstatistics about the number of Muslims killed (80,000 in his estimation), tortured, raped, or gone missing.
A day before I arrived, a senior guerrilla from one of the pro-Pakistan outfits had been shot dead. But weariness?there had been too many killings of that sort?and the fear of being fired upon by the Indian police or army kept the public mourners in their homes; the streets remained clear of the thousands of grieving men who had once taken the corpses of "martyrs" to the graveyards that were now scattered everywhere in the city, often adjacent to destroyed houses, a sudden swarm of green headstones and irises in the dusty, broken streets.
The festival of Eid came and went, but the shops still closed early, the tense busyness abruptly giving way to silence and darkness, and each evening, in little stockades beside the roads, sheep with purple paint on their back restlessly awaited slaughter. The long boulevard along the lake, filled in my memory with vacationers, remained deserted and dusty, the hotels on the boulevard serving as barracks for paramilitary soldiers. The houseboats cowered under the snow-capped mountains to the north, the jaunty names on their gables?Miss England, Manhattan Adventure?as gaudily ironical as the Bright Career Institute sighted in an alley full of spectacularly ruined houses, heaps of bricks that had already been plundered for wood.
Filth lay in small mounds everywhere in the alleys and bazaars of the gray old city?the stronghold of the pro-Pakistan guerrillas?where Indian soldiers stood alert in their improvised bunkers at every bend and corner. The bunkers seemed like little traps, their sandbag walls roofed with corrugated iron and blue weatherbeaten tarpaulin, with LMG muzzles pointing out from little squarish holes between the sandbags, behind which you occasionally saw the frightened eyes in dark faces, the helplessness of soldiers in this hostile setting, hundreds of miles away from home, somehow made more poignant by the "Happy Eid" messages painted in Urdu on little cardboards stuck to the sandbags. And everywhere on the narrow roads you saw, and hastily stepped aside to make way for, the big machine-gun-topped trucks in fast-moving convoys of three or four, often flying the defiant banners?"India Is Great"?of a besieged army.
The military controlled the roads, but the pro-Pakistan guerrillas were still at large in the countryside, the forests and hollows, the hills and flatlands of the valley. The myths once attached to them had been embellished: they now came out of nowhere?detonated a landmine, ambushed a convoy, fired and threw hand grenades at street patrols?and then disappeared. The soldiers and the policemen emerged from the shock and blood to rage against whomever they could. The victims were often civilians who just happened to be around when the guerrillas struck. Whole towns and villages had been laid waste in this way: shops and bazaars burned, houses razed, people shot at random.
It was how Jalaluddin's copy shop at Pattan, a small town few miles north of Srinagar, came to be destroyed by local policemen. The guerrillas had come early in the morning, shot one policeman on the main street and then disappeared out of sight. First, the policemen came looking for the guerrillas, and accused the Muslim shopkeepers of helping the guerrillas escape. Then, before the shopkeepers could pull down their shutters and escape themselves, more policemen came, this time with cans of petrol. Jalaluddin's shop was the first to be set alight possibly because it was very new: he had only recently brought the copy machine and Honda generator from Delhi, a long and difficult journey during which he had to bribe his way past more than one roadblock.
The fire had quickly spread to the adjacent shops in the ramshackle row of single rooms lining the highway, footwear and grocery stores, computer and typing institutes, shaky in structure, quick to combust with their wooden frames. The smell of burnt wood was still in the air when I went to Pattan two days later.
"If you live in Kashmir, you have to be prepared for anything," Abbas had said, and Jalaluddin, and other young men, had already moved beyond rage, hoping now to receive compensation from the government for the destruction of their property large enough to enable them to rebuild their shops. The men?well-educated and articulate, and handsome, with sharp features and artlessly staring eyes in the Kashmiri manner?were matter-of-fact about the lack of options. There were no jobs to be had if you couldn't afford large bribes to government officials: 50,000 rupees simply to get fourth-class employment as a chaprasi (servant), the low-paid connection with a despised government that then exposed you and your family to the fury of the guerrillas.
You didn't have to be involved with the guerrillas to have your property destroyed: the police and the security people knew all about the young men who had gone over to Pakistan; they had all their updated records. The arson was yet another way of asserting their power. An old man, short and squat, with dull, bloodshot eyes in a round, puffy face, came and stood behind Jalaluddin as he spoke. He was the owner of the house that the fire had consumed, and had been lucky to get out with his wife, five daughters, and two grandsons. It was his story that the young men began to tell me?the cousin who had been killed in an "encounter," the son, a banana-seller in the bazaar, whom the police had kidnapped and then returned after a ransom payment of 5,000 rupees.
The young men insisted on showing me the extent of the destruction. The copy shop had been completely gutted, the wooden beams charred and swollen into a kind of delicate filigree. The cream-colored xerox machine lay on the floor, the shiniest and most expensive thing in the shop, and it was with lingering solicitude that Jalaluddin turned it over and around to show the shattered glass and blackened underside. One of the walls had collapsed, exposing the derelict shell, larger when seen from above, of the adjacent burnt house, where a garish poster of a Swiss chalet remained on one of the bare walls, the broadbrushed sentiment on it still legible: "A smile works magic like the sun and makes things bright for everyone."
The Muslim middle class in the valley still largely consists of people connected to the government as elected or non-elected officials, and during the insurgency it hadn't stopped carving out private profits from public works: if anything, the violence and instability, the constant destruction and rebuilding, has offered more opportunities of raiding the state exchequer. Jammu, the Hindu-majority city outside the valley, is full of newly built mansions of senior ministers and bureaucrats; in remote villages in the valley, corruption finding its own level everywhere, the massive new houses of local petty officials stand apart from the enclosing shabbiness.
Twenty miles south of Srinagar, past steep slopes and startlingly panoramic views of pear and apple orchards and rice fields and the tall mountains on the horizon, lies the hillside town of Charar-e-Sharif. It was here that, to the great grief of Kashmiris, both Hindu and Muslim, the shrine of Kashmir's fifteenth-century patron saint, Sheikh Nuruddin, was burned down in 1995 during the fighting. In Kashmir, Islam escaped the taint it acquired elsewhere in the subcontinent from forced conversions and temple-destroying during the several centuries of invasions and conquests by Muslims from Arabia and Central Asia. It came to the valley in the fourteenth century by way of Central Asian and Persian missionaries, and, blending well with earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, took on a uniquely Kashmiri character; it was to become known not for invaders, but for the Sufi saints whom both Hindus and Muslims revered. Sheikh Nuruddin was one of the earliest and greatest of these saints.
It wasn't clear who started the fire: the guerrillas, some from Pakistan, who, contemptuous of the pacificism of Sufi Islam, had turned the shrine into a bunker, or the Indian army, which had laid a siege around the shrine. But the destruction was international news, and for some months various Kashmiri political and religious outfits as well as the government repeatedly promised to rebuild the shrine very fast.
Five years later, when I visited them, Charar-e-Sharif and its inhabitants appeared overtaken by events in the valley. The rebuilding amounted to an ungainly corrugated-iron roof over unpainted walls in the middle of a slushy field. A lot of money had been collected from shocked devotees; the government had pitched in; but little work was done, the funds for it disappearing, as with all delayed reconstruction projects, into many pockets.
The part of the town that had been destroyed and partly rebuilt was still a mess of rubble and open gutters and uncollected garbage. A few new houses and shops had come up: small, bare, windowless rooms, often with plastic sheets as doors, where ancient men sat embroidering wicker baskets for kangris (the little earthenware pots with charcoal embers that Kashmiris keep under their pherans), their thin legs drawn up against the walls, a hookah quietly smoldering beside them.
Word of my presence in the town quickly spread. The car, the notebook, and the camera had their own associations here, and now, as I prepared to leave, about forty men appeared before the tiny stationery store where I had been talking to some schoolchildren (there are about twenty schools in the thinly populated region). The men had walked four miles from their village, across the hilly countryside, after hearing that an official-seeming person was in town. The pipes in their area had burst and there had been no water for eight days now. They had trudged to the assistant engineer's office but had found it locked; they had gone to the local police station but hadn't been allowed a hearing; they were now melting the snow in the gullies for water but there wasn't much snow left from the winter. Raggedly dressed, large holes gaping from their pherans, their thickly bearded faces white with dust, they seemed to have emerged out of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century scene of wretchedness in the valley?of the kind
that would have made Victor Jacquemont conclude that nowhere in India were the masses as poor and denuded as in Kashmir.
The continuing backwardness of Kashmir, its failure, or inability, to join the modern world and find new identities for itself: it was what the commissioner of Srinagar, an official of the central Indian government, had spoken to me about at his house; and, more indirectly, what Abbas had said when he told me on the very first day I met him that his ancestors had come to Kashmir from Samarkand in Central Asia.
Their connection to the Islamic world outside India was often exaggerated by leaders of Indian Muslims in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it was one way of holding on to an idea of personal and collective worth amid the general degradation of the Muslim community under colonialism. What struck me, however, was that Abbas, whose work as a correspondent for a major Indian newspaper gave him status, even prestige, in Kashmir, even needed to make the claim. But it was really an idea of dignity and selfhood that he was affirming?an idea that could take on a special urgency among such thoroughly trampled-upon people as the Kashmiris.
The troubles began, Kashmiris say, with foreign rule. After the Moghuls, Afghans, and Sikhs, the valley fell in the mid-nineteenth century to a petty Hindu feudal chief who had helped the British defeat the Sikhs. The British ceded the entire state?the valley together with Hindu-majority Jammu, and Buddhist-dominated Ladakh and the northwestern parts that later were to come under Pakistani rule, is slightly smaller than Great Britain?to the Hindu feudal chief for a meager sum of 7.5 million rupees. The sale is still a source of rage and shame for Kashmiris.
Things didn't improve much under the new Hindu rulers. In 1877, a famine killed one third of the population. Thousands of underfed, underclothed Muslims died while carrying rations on their backs for troops in remote Himalayan outposts. Even prostitutes paid one hundred rupees as tax to the maharajah; Muslims found slaughtering cows were banished to the remote Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Muslims were rarely given jobs; the administration was staffed overwhelmingly by the small minority of Hindus (about 4 percent of the population in the valley). The maharajah and his Hindu courtiers built up fabulous private fortunes.
The son of the last Hindu maharajah of the state, Karan Singh, records a Buddha-like epiphany in his autobiography.11 Born in 1931 at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, an entire floor of which had been taken over by his father, he spent his childhood in Kashmir more or less free of contact with Muslims and poverty. His father, Hari Singh, was fond of shooting and hunting and racing; also, it is said, of London prostitutes. Life in his palace was an endless search for entertainment. As Singh writes, "We spent hours working up lists for lunch and dinner parties, seating plan and menus." Once his father asked a friend to take Singh around the city and show him the kingdom he would one day inherit. The friend drove him to the Muslim majority areas, and pointed at the dilapidated buildings and shabbily dressed men on the streets, and said, "These are your people." Karan Singh was astonished.
The more astonishing thing about this event is its date, in the 1930s. Barely ten years later, India was free of both colonial rule and the maharajahs; the Muslim elite of India were to demand and receive a separate homeland in the form of Pakistan; and the maharajah of Kashmir, faced with a choice between joining India or Pakistan, was to reluctantly accede to India, which had adopted a secular, democratic, and egalitarian constitution, giving to Indians a new idea of themselves, of their past and potential.
But such was the course of Indian history until then that it was mostly Hindus who took up these opportunities, who saw in modern education and the modern world the possibilities of personal and communal development. The Muslims of India, whose political power had been comprehensively destroyed by the British, and many of whose leaders remained trapped by fantasies of recapturing their old glory in India, took some time before even attempting to catch up with the Hindus.
In all this time, the Muslims of Kashmir, cut off from larger events and trends in British-ruled India, and held down by the tiny Hindu minority of rulers and administrators, were barely able to move at all. Illiteracy and poverty were widespread; political opposition to the Hindu maharajah was met with brutality. As in India, a few educated Muslims were left to carry the burden of their country's humiliation and backwardness.
?August 23, 2000 ?This is the first of three articles on Kashmir.
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