It wasn’t the presence of armed soldiers all over Srinagar airport that made it feel oppressive. I mean, it was, but it’s more than that.
It was the signage.
And no, it wasn’t because the signage was forbidding, or harsh. None of them said things like long lists of rules, or threats for non-compliance – you know, the things we tend to imagine, those of us who do not live under military rule.
No, it felt oppressive because of the signs that welcomed us. Specifically, because the signs told us that the security forces welcomed us. The Indian Army, or the CRPF – the Central Reserve Police Force – welcomed us. Outside on the streets, there were more signs. Reassuring signs telling us to Feel secure we are here.
Not the airport authority. Not Srinagar City. It was not Kashmir, or even India herself, who welcomed us. The Army welcomed us. And that gave me a sense of disquiet before we even exited the terminal building, more than the soldiers and the baggage carousels full of military footlockers of the incoming soldiers, even though the military lockdown on Kashmir was supposedly easing, some time after Article 370 was revoked in the Indian parliament in 2019.
It was also the lack of signage signed by any kind of municipal authority, or even the federal government. Alert alive above all, I read later at a local landmark, as if it were as normal a park signage as Do not litter, or Do not feed the monkeys.
Departing reminded you of this dread, if you somehow managed to have a stay in Kashmir that escaped it (and we mostly did). Both passengers and the car driver were patted down, and every part in the car is opened. Every bag, even ones belonging to the driver and not going into the flight, was X-rayed. Which in itself might be understandable, given the security situation that flares up now and again in Kashmir.
Except for the body language. There was nothing whatsoever welcoming in the demeanour of the security forces, which you might expect from an army looking for terrorists among a population they identify with, and tourists that they needed for the local economy. We all know that body language, air travellers in a post-9/11 world. A tense watchfulness, mixed with a mild apology towards the presumably innocent majority.
But here, it felt almost as though they knew they were not welcome, and thus outnumbered.
The last barrier before the terminal said, We protect the gateway to paradise.
Trauma makes 30 years ago seem like 3
The man listened to the Cuban speak of her full-time nomadic life, which began following the loss of her husband. He seemed enraptured by the idea of travelling the world alone, the temptation of freedom shining in his aging eyes. He told our fellow traveller that he had always chosen to be responsible his whole life. Like a good son, he studied engineering. At some point, he was even a magistrate.
But the same could not be said of their youth today. A drug abuse epidemic is in Kashmir, he claims. “It is easy, for a boy 18 years old, 17, 16, to become involved in drugs. Because they have nothing to do. They cannot go to school. They cannot go to college. They cannot go to university.” There seemed to be a belief that India is doing it on purpose.
There’s something wrong in Kashmir, he said, when it has so many resources yet local people have to pay India for the resources that they own.
He framed Kashmir’s independence movement in familial terms. “What’s freedom? If we are living together in the same home, you are my sister and I am your brother. If I say to my father, ‘Dad, I don’t want to live with you, I don’t want to stay with you and Mama, I want to live separate’, you should have no objection to that. What is bad?” He made another simile, likening it to a forced marriage, when a woman does not love a man who loves her, but is nonetheless locked in a room until she signs an agreement to marry him. “That is India and Kashmir,” he said, his voice breaking.
“I cannot fight, I cannot pick up no gun,” he continued. “Because my dad told me it is better to be the one killed, than the one who kills. That is what he told me.”
Another man chimed in, and told us of the time in the villages, when the boys were taken away, leaving the women to be raped by the army. “When was this?” pressed our Cuban friend. The 1990s, was the answer.
It was a traumatic time for the people we met. Nearly everyone remembers it, and spoke of it, as though it happened not long ago. Thousands of people were killed. Many who survived the massacre are left maimed, or with PTSD. That was why, they said, there were not many who came out to protest when Article 370 was revoked in the Indian Parliament, removing Kashmir’s autonomous status. The government, they said, had authorised the military to kill up to 20,000 people should the people come out to protest. And because of the massacres in the 90s, they believed that the army would.
His friend recalled the time when 7 soldiers had guns to the former magistrate’s head. It was in that terrible time in the 90s, and they told him to sign an order to sentence several youths to die, for making the Nazi ‘heil Hitler’ sign to mock the Indian Army. But he couldn’t do it. “They were just boys. Okay, they did something stupid, but do they deserve to die for it?” So he refused, but fortunately he was not shot. The soldier merely hit him in the head with the butt of his rifle, knocking out his teeth, and him as well.
He was a middle class man, considering himself comfortable in terms of material needs today. But he is never happy, he told us, because of the occupation. He sent his own children abroad, one to the west, and one to the east. “Because if my son were here, he will be killed tomorrow!” he empathically said.
“I wish I could leave it all behind, and travel the world,” he said, returning to the tales of our fellow traveller. The sheer freedom tempted him greatly, the release of the long burden of his responsibilities. “I have not seen life!” He admitted to us, the two Muslim travellers, that his grief even drove him to drink. He addressed us, “You know what it means! You know we do not drink, that we aren’t Muslim if we drink it. But if I do not do it, I am worried I might pick up a gun.”
The Cuban traveller was the only one among us who could empathise directly, for she grew up under a dictatorship, before successfully fleeing on a boat to Florida. She counselled him, as someone who also understood loss of freedom, on the necessity to continue his life. She knew there was a point when even responsible people should pass it on, and I agree.
Fears about downtown
On the Dal Lake side, the tourism people were genuinely scared to go to downtown Srinagar. The cynical might say, they’re just faking it, so that you would stay with them instead, and spend more in their area.
But our host did drive us through downtown, to help us look for our friend. And I don’t think he was faking. He really was afraid of riots breaking out, and us being caught in the midst of it.
The downtown area was indeed heavily watched. It was around the time of Ashura, strongly associated with the Battle of Karbala by Shia Muslims. Black banners with slogans inspiring resistance were strung out over a street, adding to the tense atmosphere.
But when we came again some days after, the mood seemed lighter. The people in the inner lakeside villages around the area did not seem to consider their location particularly dangerous. I marvelled at this, for downtown was only on the other side of the lake from the tourist area. Yet the two communities had quite different perceptions of the other.
This was also true when it came to local perceptions for why India wanted Kashmir so much in the first place, why it was impossible for them to just get the referendum and be asked if they wish to govern themselves. We tend to explain other people’s actions based on what we covet or hate, not what they do. So generally the Kashmiris believe in a range of motivations depending on what they valued in their country. Most people we met seemed to genuinely believe the reason is the beauty of their mountains, which earned them the ‘Paradise on Earth’ moniker. But, at the same time, they also fear that when Indians can buy land in Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370, they will obliterate this same beauty with garish resorts and urbanise the wilderness.
It was also around the time when there would be a discussion on Kashmir at the United Nations, put forward by Pakistan. There was hope that international pressure might cause India to lift the lockdown. Or at least, for the internet to be restored; economic activity had ground to a halt when internet services were locked down.
But those were the optimists. The pessimists thought it wouldn’t make a difference. They considered Prime Minister Modi in particular to be borderline insane, citing the 2002 riot in Gujarat during his leadership, which he allegedly encouraged on his own state’s population.
The people we met invariably linked the events in the 90s with the longstanding unresolved question of Kashmir’s independence referendum, still pending after more than 70 years. But another group of Kashmiris had undergone trauma just before it all broke out. To them, the 90s were linked to this event.
The brutal suppression and massacre happened when it did, after the armed separatists began targeting Kashmiri Hindus for assassination. It tore apart the Kashmiriyat brotherhood that bound Muslim and Hindu Kashmiris in their shared national culture. An exodus of the Pandit community to India happened as a result, and India sent in the army as a reprisal, leading to the dark period in the 90s.
There is a missing community in Kashmir, so we were not able to hear their stories.
‘Why do you like Delhi?’
The Argentinian traveller liked Delhi over Srinagar, which neither her Cuban friend nor I could understand. I had briefly visited Delhi before, and while I certainly didn’t manage to see everything, I definitely preferred the nature proximity, not to mention the fresh air of Srinagar.
My travel buddy mentioned that she planned to explore Delhi for a few days. This generally made our Kashmiri friends curious about how much time she planned to allocate to Delhi. I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether it was mere curiosity, or if they felt it was an affront that anyone might might spend fewer days in Kashmir than Delhi.
Back at the houseboat, my host surprised me by admitting that he likes visiting Delhi, which he does regularly. His views on Article 370 were more pragmatic than other Kashmiris we met. He didn’t mind allowing Indians from elsewhere to open businesses and work in Kashmir, as long as only Kashmiris can own land.
I asked him why he liked Delhi. “There are no soldiers,” he told me frankly. “People go to work, go about their business, as if they had not any cloud hanging over them, no worries about the future.”
With a touch of wistfulness, he mused, ”The people go about their business like they’re free.”