By Shama Naqushbandi*
Like countless others, I have heard no news from my loved ones in Kashmir since India emptied the region of tourists and flooded in tens of thousands of additional troops, before severing all communications with the outside world. Only Kashmiris can understand what decades of militarization does to the psyche, and the magnitude of suffering that results from the sustained brutalization of a people.
But even as a go-between passing in and out of the region, what I have encountered has been haunting. In a place where loss is physically palpable in every home, the experience of Kashmir can best be described as the feeling of wandering through a beautiful cemetery.
Through seeing what Kashmiris have endured and continue to suffer, many visitors like myself have witnessed, and shared in, the collective pain of a people. What we have observed most would consider abhorrent in any democratic society.
Forty days on, the blackout continues, and still no Kashmiri voice has been allowed out of the valley. Today, as much as I want to switch off, I cannot. There is no neutrality when you have been a bystander to a crime. It is this unresolved pain that continues to penetrate the privilege of any international identity that I might enjoy from abroad.
As Mandela wrote, “Freedom is indivisible”. With the recent communication blockade, this wound to the conscience is tragically the final chord that remains in connecting Kashmir to the outside world. One evening when I went for a walk, I looked up at the sky and found myself crying. Apathy and amnesia would be complicity. Even my grief is a reminder of those who have been denied the right to mourn.
Paradoxically, I am not alone. All over the world, there are thousands of diaspora feeling the intense stress of helplessness.
The intimacy of the community and the all-pervasiveness of violence into daily life has meant most second-generation children with family in Kashmir have experienced a strange, refracted second-hand version of the conflict despite growing up abroad.
It has become a daily ritual for many of us now, checking phones, refreshing social media feeds, searching for any sign of life breaking through the siege.
We have watched the leaked footage of mass protests being met with uninterrupted firing, the furtive recordings of children being abducted by soldiers in midnight raids, doctors being led off into police vans simply for speaking out about the humanitarian crisis. It is utterly heartbreaking.
These are people we have shared time, space and community with, ordinary folks who do not deserve to be pushed into the abstraction of a foreign, incomprehensible news story. Already reports are surfacing that thousands of Kashmiris have been detained without cause or knowledge of their whereabouts, among them children as young as 10 years old – lost in a maze of jails across India, with the bodies of the few youths released, visibly broken and bearing such extreme marks of torture as if a grotesque admonition to others.
To quote Mandela again, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Over the years, I have heard many educated people speak about Kashmir, and the level of ignorance has both stunned and saddened me. This is a conflict where rights groups have estimated over 100,000 have been killed and almost 10,000 have ‘disappeared’. For the last three decades of active war, 6-10 people have been killed every day as a result of the conflict.
In 2011, an enquiry uncovered mass graves all over Kashmir. Torture is systemic and endemic, with one in six Kashmiris having experienced torture of such cruelty that to even read about it will make you weep. Mass rape and sexual violence continue to be used as a weapon.
Despite close to 1 million troops deployed in the region and years of militarization, there has been no outreach, healing or reconciliation
Depression and post-traumatic stress is rife in the Valley, with reports indicating that tens of thousands of Kashmiris have attempted to take their own lives in the recent years of turmoil, most of them in the 16 to 25 age group.
If India has claimed Kashmir as an integral part of the country, the state has monumentally failed in taking any responsibility for the lives of the people who reside within it. Always, most noticeably in any dialogue on Kashmir, there is an utter disregard for the devastating generational effect of the conflict on Kashmiris, and the textbook histories of abuse, persecution and despair that define almost every youth that has taken to the freedom struggle in recent years. Despite close to 1 million troops deployed in the region and years of militarization, there has been no outreach, healing or reconciliation.
Injustice is widespread and rampant in the Valley, personified by enduring figures like Parveena Ahangar, a mother who founded the Association of Missing Persons after her 17-year-old son was kidnapped by security forces in 1990 and has yet to hear anything of him since.
In the last decade alone, even with the army publicly acknowledging that militancy has all but been eradicated in Kashmir, regular eruptions of mass civil movement have been met with unaccounted brutality and intimidation.
Pellet guns are routinely used against unarmed civilian protests, weapons which fire 600 metal shards at high velocity at a time, and have been responsible for killing dozens and maiming and blinding thousands, many of them children including a 20-month old baby.
Mohammad Ashraf, one of the founders of the Pellet Victim Welfare Trust set up in the aftermath of the 2016 mass blindings, who himself lost one eye and had 635 pellets fired into his body and head, described survivors “like walking dead, emotionless and purposeless”.
Last year, the UN issued its first ever report on the human rights situation in Kashmir, highlighting a structural lack of access to justice and a situation of chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces, enabled by colonial laws such as the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990 and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act 1978. Curfews, communication cuts and media gags have sadly fallen into a way of life, diminishing even further the chance for report backs of the on-the-ground actualities.
No matter how uncomfortable to national pride, at its core the reality is quite simple: people do not rebel out of any love for death. Systems of oppression breed inevitable revolt. “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”
Today, Kashmiris remain one of the most muted, marginalized and misrepresented people in the world. How then can we be surprised that sermons on participation and development mean nothing to a generation born and raised in a garrison state, who have all their lives known only the end of a barrel?
I hold no animosity against India. I have grown up with Indian friends and in the homes of Indians, done business with Indians and even partnered with undertakings of the Indian State. On the contrary, I know India’s diversity is its strength and even today my heart goes out to the hundreds and thousands of ordinary soldiers stationed in the Valley who continue to be exploited as instruments of this dehumanizing conflict (for let us not forget the suffering on that side too, with tellingly high rates of suicide and fratricide amongst the armed forces in the region). But what I have seen of Kashmir haunts me. And it should haunt the conscience of every Indian, and every human being in our world today. There is nothing noble about a patriotism that is used to justify the degradation and humiliation of an entire people. That a nation which once suffered so enormously under the boot of colonialism is now chief advocate of the very same structures and apparatus of oppression against its own citizens only lends more to the tragedy. After all, it cannot be said enough in India today, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
*British-Kashmiri lawyer and writer based in Toronto, author of The White House, winner of ‘Best Novel’, Brit Writers Awards. This blog has been released by Amnesty International India