An awkward silence descended on the packed hall at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Writer Salman Rushdie had just accused the Indian Army of behaving “absolutely dreadfully” in Kashmir. As the moderator of his session and someone who has spent years reporting from the Valley, I argued back just a bit.
I thought of the faceless foot soldiers who stand as still as statues, deep within the saffron fields or under the shade of a solitary tree, often for 24 hours at a stretch, just so that they can keep the roads safe for traffic. I thought of these simple men who came to Kashmir from villages so far removed from the Valley that they barely knew or cared about the politics of the problem — and yet, here they were making a life on a glacier, where water turned to ice and food to stone, all because we had asked them to do so. And then, I thought of the ordinary Kashmiri citizen, trapped between the battle lines, living forever in the shadow of the gun. And I wondered, who was really to blame in this sad, beautiful land, where tragedy embraced all, without fear or favour?
I turned to Salman Rushdie and asked why he saw the army as the chief offender, when it was essentially implementing a government diktat. Of course, rape, plunder and violations by men in uniform were appalling, condemnable and unforgivable. But in the larger context of the Kashmir conflict, shouldn’t politicians and successive governments take the blame, instead of soldiers? “That argument went out with Nuremberg,” he said firmly.
Later, many irate listeners marched up to me and asked why I hadn’t fought back with more ferocity. I struggled to communicate my own complex view to them.
In Kashmir, I said, everything and its opposite were equally true.
The soldier was sometimes a victim, and sometimes a villain. Terrorist violence was as guilty of alienating ordinary folk as high-handed government policies. The first independent election in years had been in 2002, but not enough people in the Valley were brave enough to concede that. And yes, while radical, hate-filled Islam, imported by mercenaries from Pakistan and Afghanistan, had begun to tear through the benign, Sufi traditions of Kashmir and was hell-bent on making enemies of old friends, how many of us could claim that we had ever treated the people of Kashmir as our own?
We get violently worked up over the sacrifices of the army in Kashmir, and understandably so. But when will we recognise that each act of prejudice and discrimination by us eventually costs a soldier his life? Every time we refuse to rent out that spare room to a Kashmiri student, every conversation in which we reveal that we think all Kashmiri Muslims are either carpet sellers or terrorists and each time we insist that the territory of Kashmir is an integral part of India, but demonstrate our indifference to, and suspicion of, the Kashmiri people, we end up deepening the divide between the Valley and the rest of India.And the Indian soldier swiftly ends up being seen as symbol of hostility — of our hostility.
Peace planners have long argued for the need to end the isolation of the Kashmiris — to open up our universities, our corporations, even our cricket team, to people from the Valley; to give them a direct emotional stake in the idea of India and create a sense of belonging and ownership.
But consider the reality. Just take a look at the headlines this week: Tariq Dar, a 27-year-old model from Kashmir, was released after spending three months in jail on charges of being a facilitator for terrorists. When the case went to court, the police had to concede that they had no concrete evidence against him. It was left to the judge to point out that “90 days for an innocent person can be a lifetime”, and that the police obviously did not understand the meaning of “personal liberty”.
I heard Tariq speak in a faltering voice about being tortured with electric shocks and physical violence, and I thought grimly, we had gone and done it again: we had created an enemy of a young man who had nothing against us; we had pushed him into being the ‘other’.
Tariq’s ageing father spoke with a grace that should shame us even more — he thanked all the ordinary people of India who had stood by his family. His dignified comments were in sharp contrast to the aggressive assertions made by the police.
Even after the court declared him entirely innocent, the police and bureaucrats in the Home Ministry insisted that Tariq was guilty. If they are right, then we have appallingly shoddy investigating agencies. But if they are wrong, and simply scrambling for cover behind hollow explanations, then the government owes Tariq and his family a public apology.
It isn’t the first time a man seems to have been punished merely for being a Kashmiri. We all remember the story of journalist Iftikhar Gilani, who spent seven months behind bars on the trumped up charge of being an ISI agent.
As evidence, the police pointed to what it claimed was a classified document found on Gilani’s laptop containing details of troop deployment in Kashmir. It turned out that the document had been published much earlier and was freely available to any resourceful internet surfer. Outrage among journalists who knew him well and a slew of signature petitions compelled the government to set Gilani free, and acknowledge its mistake.
But, otherwise, how many times do you and I speak up in protest? We, who have found our voice in campaigns for Jessica and Priyadarshni, remain silent for the most part on the victimisation of Kashmiri Muslims.
Perhaps, it’s because we fear that crocodiles sometimes swim in the murky waters of the Kashmir conflict, and we could end up getting bitten. Perhaps, it’s because in complex cases we can’t distinguish between guilt and innocence.
And perhaps, sometimes, it’s because we just don’t really care enough.