Postcard — October 8, 2015, 2:20 pm

Border Lands

Battle fatigue in Kashmir

Photograph by the author.

Photograph by the author

For centuries, writers have romanticized the Jammu and Kashmir region, an eighty-five-mile basin that today encompasses the disputed border between India and Pakistan. From the window of my plane, I could see why: the Pir Panjal Range met the Greater Himalayas like a wrinkled white curtain, exposing a fertile hotbed of saffron fields, forested hills, almond and walnut groves, apple trees, apricot orchards, and rice paddies. At the airport, I was greeted with signs that read “Paradise on Earth”—a strange slogan for a valley that has seen three full-blown wars and hundreds of thousands of deaths since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

I hailed a cab to Dal Lake—a destination for tourists and the hub of Kashmir’s flailing economy. On the way, we drove through Srinagar, the capital that lies at the heart of many conflicts in India-controlled Kashmir. It was early May, and there were no traces of the protests that had broken out a week prior; only long-collapsed houses and red-dust-stained windowsills. The roads were flanked with ten-foot walls bearing water stains from last September’s severe flooding, which left around 300 dead. Women in hijabs and lipstick stared at me; police and army men with long Kalashnikovs lined the streets, a trio on every corner. Fading signs read: “Study Abroad CANADA, UK, AUSTRALIA.” The occasional small, green Pakistani flag could be spotted hanging in a window or etched into a stone wall. Everywhere, Indian flags were large and high-flying.

My driver was wearing a black mafia-style suit jacket and Elvis sunglasses. He spoke in broken, raspy English. “Bad tourists this year,” he told me. The streets were empty, filled with shops boarded shut. “But it is better than five years ago,” he added. Of those who ventured up to one of India’s “most dangerous” and disputed territories, most came on organized tours set up by middlemen in Delhi or Mumbai. The little money locals made came from the tourists who purchased 30-rupee ($.50) sweet kulfi snacks, 20-rupee ($.25) steaming-hot chai, or 200-rupee ($3) shikara boat rides.

After almost an hour of dense traffic, my taxi arrived at the Chicago Houseboat, one of hundreds of intricately carved boats floating in the lake. Ajaz, a large man with a long nose, came to shake my hand, offering me cookies and tea. The call to prayer echoed quietly through the cool air as the boat rocked from a passing wake.

“You are welcome here,” Ajaz said. I was his only guest that night, and he seemed eager to talk about the economy, the floods. “The government gave us two thousand, three hundred rupees [$36] for the flood damage,” he explained with tired, drooping eyes. I asked him about the violence in Jammu and Kashmir, but he dismissed me. “We’re at peace now,” he said.

Kashmir has been simmering with political discontent since 1947, when the British sold the predominantly Muslim valley to Gulab Singh, an infamously brutal Hindu maharaja, for 7.5 million rupees. Prior to Partition, the valley had been an unusually tolerant melting pot of Ladakhi Buddhists, Muslims, and Jammu’s Hindus—a fraction that amalgamated under a mounting British anxiety to prevent Tsarist Russian expansion in the nineteenth century. In 1948, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, “the Lion of Kashmir,” became the first prime minister of the newly formed state. Abdullah was, for the most part, radically in support of an independent Kashmir—he called for a plebiscite that had been promised by India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Five years later, in 1953, after Pakistani tribesmen invaded the region, upsetting India-Pakistan relations, Abdullah was imprisoned by India for trying to legitimize the valley’s autonomy.

The plebiscite Nehru had promised never materialized. Meanwhile, India’s relations with Pakistan quickly disintegrated, and Nehru didn’t want to endanger his grip on Kashmir. In 1972, the United Nations intervened to establish the Line of Control (LoC), the border that still divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The LoC, however, hasn’t stopped Islamist-led insurgency groups in Pakistan from crossing over. Some of them—like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) and Hizbul Mujahideen—are declared terrorist groups who recruit disgruntled Kashmiri youth.

In 1990, the Indian army responded to the insurgency threats by passing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gave the army the power to eliminate suspected militants in Kashmir. By the early 1990s, Kashmiri youth began disappearing in droves, slipping across the border in the middle of the night to join training camps in Pakistan to fight against the Indian Army. Terror reigned. Over half a million Indian troops were stationed in Kashmir, and the valley became one of the most militarized zones in the world.

For the past five years, Jammu and Kashmir has been relatively calm on both sides of the border. At a détente, even. But every so often, an event will flare up in the valley, and if it’s large enough, the news will trickle down to the rest of India. A major scuffle happened on April 16 this year, when then-eighty-five-year-old ailing Syed Ali Shah Geelani, arguably one of India’s most controversial figures, returned to his home in Srinagar from Delhi. Geelani is the leader of the separatist party Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, which advocates for Kashmir to break from India and join Pakistan. A raucous crowd of young separatists greeted Geelani, chanting “azadi!—freedom.

The rally for Syed Geelani was front-page news in India the next morning: “Separatists raise Pakistani flag in Srinagar, insult India,” the Times of India wrote. To no one’s surprise, Geelani was placed under house arrest within a few days of his return—as per routine when things get tense in Kashmir. The leader of the rally, Geelani’s forty-five-year-old mentee Masarat Alam, was imprisoned on charges of sedition. The next day, hundreds took to the streets protesting Alam’s arrest, resulting in the death of two young protestors who were shot by police. Shortly after, Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistani jihadi leader with a $10-million U.S.-issued bounty on his head, who allegedly masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed, held protests in Lahore in support of the pro-Pakistan rally: “Jihad is the only way if India doesn’t give people their right,” Saeed told Pakistani media in a television interview. Schools, shops, gas stations, and public transportation went on a weeklong lockdown in Srinagar. But little changed. India’s aggressively Hindu prime minister, Narendra Modi, hasn’t show much interest in bringing about peace in the valley. “I want to give assurance,” he said, “we will not have any compromises on the country’s unity.”

There is a frustrated, repetitive quality to the fighting in Kashmir—educated, jobless young men inspired by separatist leaders pelt stones at police after Friday mosque prayers; police sometimes fire back; shops shut down and then reopen a week later; the economy suffers. A surging militancy movement in the ’90s left some 70,000 people dead and an estimated 10,000 more still missing. As of late, there has been relative calm between India and Pakistan. A former Kashmir Army general I met with in New Delhi explained the peace this way: “Ninety to ninety-five percent of the people just want their daily bread. Kashmiris don’t want to join Pakistan. And the will of the people will prevail. The radical chairs will die.” He summed up the present situation in two words: “battle fatigue.”

The day after I arrived in Srinagar, I visited Geelani in a dilapidated gray stone mansion with shuttered windows. Located in Hyderpora, a posh neighborhood near the airport, the house has served, since 2002, as the headquarters of Geelani’s faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an operation funded by private donors largely from the Gulf Region. I was told by Asif Qureshi, the bureau chief for ABP News in Srinagar, that Geelani was put in charge of one faction of the A.L.H.C.. Though Hurriyat is divided—some groups want a free and independent Kashmir, others a Pakistan-owned Kashmir—it remains the single active political machine pushing for Kashmir’s freedom, and hosts roughly thirty various separatist groups under one umbrella. A small, dusty white sign with a large Pakistani flag on it hung at the top of the house. “Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, Jammu & Kashmir,” it read. Its blue letters were fading from the sun.

“No photos,” the army officer standing outside told me. An army truck was parked outside Geelani’s front door. A crowd of men in plain clothes suddenly materialized in front of me. “You are not allowed inside,” I was told. “He is on house arrest.” India considers Geelani a major threat; he has been kept on house arrest intermittently for over twenty years. The threat has less to do with wanting an independent state and more to do with his potential ties to Pakistani terrorist groups.

Inside the house, word spread that a foreign visitor had arrived. Men in white topees began poking their heads though the windows. After some commotion and hushed whispers, Geelani himself appeared at the window, his symmetrically trimmed white beard matching his gilaba. “My daughters,” he called out to me and an Indian journalist named Shorbori. “You see the conditions we are forced to live in?” He smiled wearily. He had a calm, bright-eyed presence and didn’t look like the man who’d publicly condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the man with reportedly close ties to Hafiz Saeed, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, currently living freely in Pakistan.

“He’s coming down, he’s coming down!” Excited whispers resonated in the cool afternoon air.

As soon as Geelani appeared at the front door, giving the army officer stationed outside a disingenuous hug, the crowd of young men lingering outside rushed to meet him. The army officials barred us from entering. Geelani nodded and waved to us from his crowded doorway; his left eye was sagging, his shoulders drooping from old age. “You may call me,” Geelani said, as someone brought us water bottles. His press agent shouted out Geelani’s personal cell number from the window. Geelani hovered at his door, shrinking into the shadows as more men came to shake his hand. “Goodbye, my daughters,” he said. The door shut quickly behind him.

Later that night, after catching a three-wheeled auto rickshaw, a motorized version of the traditional tricycle, back to Dal Lake, we phoned Geelani. I was eager to hear what one of India’s most controversial figures had to say about Kashmir’s alleged ties to terrorism—and whether, under Prime Minister Modi, he thought the conflict would resolve any time soon. He sounded eager to talk, his voice slow and deliberate.                            

When Masarat Alam was arrested, I said to Geelani, he was accused of being mentored by the Pakistani “terrorist” Hafiz Saeed. Are there any links?

“No, not at all,” Geelani responded. “He was released after about five years, and there was not any justification for the government to arrest him and send him to Jammu jail. So this is really terrorism, and this is illegal, and this is immoral, and this is an inhuman act by the government.”

But, I countered, Mr. Hafiz Saeed has been said to be influencing Kashmiri youth?

“Mr. Saeed is in Pakistan. How can he come here and help us? This is media hype and the media is extremely—I will tell you without any exaggeration—that as far as Indian media is concerned, they are extremely biased.”

Are there any links between “terrorist” groups in Pakistan and separatist groups in Kashmir, as has been claimed by the media?

“They are not sending youth and militants here. If any militant is here, they are local. Pakistan is supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir politically and morally.”

But weren’t Hezbollah and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front groups trained in Pakistan?

“That was in the ’90s.”

And now?

“Now, there is sedate terrorism as far as the militants are concerned. There are hardly one hundred more or less. Nothing else.”

Do you think dialogues between India and Pakistan will help resolve the issue?

“I will tell you one hundred and fifty times, the dialogue has started and happened, and nothing has come out. India is one week saying they are ready for a dialogue, but another week, saying Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India.”

What’s the alternative?

“The world committee should see what is happening here. The majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are facing the worst kind of state terrorism. This is a moral and human obligation for the U.N. Security Council and the world powers. This is an international problem like Palestine is an international problem.”

Just then, the call to prayer came in a chorus of baritone loudspeakers. Geelani’s voice had begun to fade. “Excuse me, my dear daughters,” he said, clearing his throat. “But there is the call to prayers.”

I thanked him and hung up, imagining him in the mansion he’s occupied for the past twenty years, leading the small group of men through prayers just as he leads them through politics.

Geelani’s insistence that he is a pacifist is somewhat puzzling. He sits at the head of an organization that has birthed violent militancy branches like Hezbollah Mujahadeen and the Muslim League. And after Osama bin Laden was killed, he led hundreds of people in funeral prayers in Srinagar. Still, his calls for nonviolence have no doubt helped keep the valley relatively peaceful the past few years. Despite his age and his failing health—he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2007—young men still follow him. A profile about him in India’s Caravan magazine reported how in 2010, over sixty young people died in protests after an army officer’s tear-gas shell killed a high school student in Srinagar. The Indian army was unable to quell the fighting. Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, called on Geelani for help. Geelani gave a live press conference outside of his house in August: “We will fight peacefully. If [the police] stop you, you sit down and ask them to open fire,” he said. The fighting seemed to stop overnight.

There appear to be two Kashmirs within India. The first is the Kashmir India wants to see—the “Paradise on Earth” where you are driven past plush saffron fields and snow-capped mountains, and taken on an organized tour of the Indira Gandhi tulip garden and the famous Shankaracharya Temple that lies barricaded atop a cliff. The second is the Kashmir trapped by fighting—where Syeed Geelani and other separatist leaders are still considered Che Guevaras by many. It is a land littered with empty beer bottles, where army camps and Muslim villages hang India’s sacred cow skulls from barbed wire, where Lashkar-e-Taiba emblems and “Free Gaza” etchings tattoo crumbling walls.

The morning I had to leave Srinagar, I ran into a shop across from Dal Lake to pick up a water bottle. Unlike Delhi’s shops, which are loaded with goods, this shop sold only water, soda, chocolate, and chips.

“Where are you from?” The shop owner asked. He looked tired.

“America,” I told him. His face remained in a still frown.

“Rich country,” he mumbled, handing me a water bottle.

When I got back to Delhi, I met with Wajahat Habibullah, the former deputy commissioner of Kashmir, who reiterated the question that seems to be the focal point for past and future arguments: “The question of Kashmir needs to be: What do the people want?”

Azadi?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“No two Kashmiris will be able to tell you what they mean by ‘azadi.’ But if Kashmiris are allowed to relish in the scope of all India has to offer, they will surely feel they are free citizens. My view is that the separatists are ready to talk to the Indian government, and vice versa, but no one is willing to come out and say it.”

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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