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Haunted by Death: My Kashmir Struggles to Live

What were native Kashmiris’ original reasons for the political violences that characterizes the region?

October 4, 2004

What were native Kashmiris' original reasons for the political violences that characterizes the region?

My village lies in the foothills of the Harmukh peak of the Himalayas.

During summer breaks, we would trek to the meadows high in the mountains carrying salt slates for the family cattle, sit around a campfire and play the flute for hours.

The chilling winter would turn the boys and girls of our small village into one huge family. Huddled together in a big room, we would listen to stories until late into the night.

Sipping hot cups of Kashmir’s traditional salt tea, the village elder who had inherited the art of storytelling would transport us to the era of his tales. Kashmir was like a big party — full of love and life.

I was in Kashmir, too, when the first bomb exploded in 1988. People at first thought it was the result of a small political feud, although everyone knew the pot was boiling after years of political discontent.

Then, that September a young man, Ajaz Dar, died in a violent encounter with the police. Disgruntled by the farce of decades of ostensible democracy under Indian rule, a group of young Kashmiri men decided to fight.

They had dreamed of an independent Kashmir free from both India and Pakistan. Although Ajaz Dar was not the first Kashmiri to die fighting for this cause, his death was the beginning of an era of tragedy.

Separatism had been the dominant sentiment among Kashmiris since 1947, when Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan during partition and the two countries fought.

But it was not until 40 years later that most youngsters opted to take up guns against Indian rule. They did so in reaction to the government-sponsored rigging of the assembly polls aimed at crushing dissent.

And it was no surprise that India’s most wanted Kashmiri militant leader, Syed Salahudin, contested that assembly election from Srinagar — nor that, unofficially, he was ahead by a good margin.

When the elections were rigged, he lost not only the contest, but faith in the process as well.

His polling agents and supporters were arrested and tortured. Most of them later became separatist militants.

Neighboring Pakistan, which occupies a third of Kashmir, also smelled the changing mood in Kashmir, and offered a helping hand by providing arms-training and AK-47 rifles.

The policy of "death by a thousand cuts" had worked against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan — and now it was to be tried here as well.

Violence was introduced amid growing dissent against India, and hundreds of young people joined the armed movement. Kashmir was changing.

I had just completed secondary school then and was enrolled in a college — a perfect potential recruit. The entire militant movement belonged to my generation. The movement was the only topic of discussion on the street, in the classroom and at home.

Soon, people started coming out onto the streets. Thousands would march to the famous Sufi shrines or to the United Nations office in Srinagar, shouting slogans in favour of "Azadi" (freedom), praying at the shrines or handing out memorandums to the UN officials.

These mass protests became an everyday affair, frustrating the authorities, who began to use force to counter them. Dozens of protesters were killed by police fire.

Many of my close friends and classmates began to join. One day, half of our class was missing. They never returned to school, and nobody ever looked for them because it was understood.

Although reasons for joining the militant movement varied from person to person, the majority of Kashmiris never felt that they belonged to India. What had been a relatively dormant separatist sentiment was finally exploding into a fully-fledged violent separatist uprising.

I, too, wanted to join — though I didn’t know exactly why or what it would lead to. Most of us were teenagers and had not thought seriously about the consequences. Perhaps the rebel image subconsciously attracted us. Violence was by now seen as the only means, and a majority of Kashmiri youth were ready to adopt it as a way of life.

I prepared for the dangerous journey from our village in northern Kashmir to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir where all the training camps were. One didn’t just have to avoid being sighted by the Indian soldiers who guarded the border round the clock, but also overcome the fierce cold and the difficulties of hiking over the snow-clad Himalayan peaks that stood in the way.

I acquired the standard militant’s gear. I bought the Wellington boots, prepared a polythene jacket and trousers to wear over my warm clothes. I also found some woolen cloth to wrap around my calves as protection from frostbite.

Fortunately, I failed. Three times, a group of us returned from the border. Each time, something happened that forced our guide to take us back.

The third time, 23 of us started our journey on foot from the hamlet of Malangam, not far from my village, only to be abandoned in a dense jungle. It was night, and the group scattered after hearing nearby gunshots, sensing the presence of Indian army men.

In the morning, when we gathered again, our guide was missing. Most decided to continue on their own, but a few of us turned back. We had nothing but leaves to eat for three days. We followed the flight of crows, hoping to reach a human settlement. I was lucky. I reached home — and survived.

Today, there are more than 500 martyrs’ graveyards dotting Kashmir, and every epitaph tells a story, a tragic story, of my generation. Engraving epitaphs has become a lucrative business.

As the death toll of Kashmiris mounted, the world saw the violent movement only as the result of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan which had its roots in the 1947 partition.

India always called the rebellion a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist movement, while Pakistan projected it as a jihad — a Kashmiri struggle to join Pakistan, united by a common faith.

For India, the future of Kashmir is non-negotiable — it is an "integral part" of the country, the only Muslim majority state in the union and therefore a cornerstone of its democracy and secular credentials.

For Pakistan, Kashmir is also important because the majority of its population is Muslim — it is Pakistan’s "jugular vein," and an unfinished task from the subcontinent’s partition which gave birth to Pakistan as a home for Indian Muslims.

With these claims on Kashmir, both countries have choked the voice of Kashmiris.

Within years, Kashmir turned into yet another battlefield in the pan-Islamic jihad, and its warriors, as well as its leaders, were now made up of non-Kashmiris whose agendas transcended the demand for self-determination.

In the process, the genuine political struggle for the unification of Kashmir and the demand of the people that they should be allowed to decide their own future was forgotten.

Whatever attention Kashmir received was because it was a flash-point between two nuclear neighbors, not because Kashmiris were suffering.

The foregoing excerpted from Muzamil Jaleel's essay, entitled "Haunted by Death: My Kashmir Struggles to Live" (pgs. 400-401) in "Rethink: Cause and Consequences of September 11." Copyright 2004 by de.Mo. Excerpts from "Rethink" published with permission of the publisher, de.Mo.