5 July, Kashmir, Life in Kashmir
I flew into Srinigar into a small airport. I waited around for a prepaid counter attendant (taxi) only to find out 40 minutes later that the office was outside. I went out and they charged me 700 rupees, 200 more because of the protests in Srinigar. So I got in a 4 wheel vehicle and started out from the airport. I noticed other four wheel drives and then saw the soldiers on the road. I saw razor wire, trucks and armoured vehicles. I found myself uneasy as we passed soldiers on every corner.
My driver tooted as we drove on and wove and weaved through narrow streets. I noticed the double story buildings and yet the environment seemed very European. Minus the military presence it was a beautiful and quaint village style of architecture. However, I cannot ignore this is a militarized zone. I am quite shocked at the amount of soldiers, armed. As we came through the centre of Srinigar I noticed women gathered in a protest and shouting. My driver was nervous as he drove me past it. The increased fee for the taxi was to go around the protest I was told. Oh well we go past and I notice there are people on the streets involving themselves in daily life. I see the amazing mountains and find myself filled with excitement. This is an incredible place yet there is a sinister cloud over it. We drive along this incredible lake, I am later to find out it is called Lake Dal. It sits at the base of huge mountains. You can see it is a tourist destination, nice street lighting and paved streets. I can imagine it being a successful tourist location. It appears I may be the only western tourist. People notice my face and they stare at me, some smile, including the soldiers, it appears I am novel particularly at this time of tension. One hour after I arrived the curfew came down and it seems my experience was not to be a tourist but to experience life as a Kashmiri and what it feels like to be incarcerated in a house.
I met my friends mother and brother and cousin. Lovely people. We sat around talking about our cultures. I explained the independent life of Australian women and the family situations which were far more unstable than a kashmiri who were married for life and they have extremely strong family bonds. This is a muslim family but they are not fundamentalist, the son prays but he is a lawyer and appears very open minded. He is particularly interested in cricket, turns out Australia is playing Pakistan. This was to be the beginning of my hearing about Ponting who is a super star in this part of the world. I guess I should watch a bit more cricket hey. Every day and night I hear them chanting and singing in the mosque. We are close to the university and my friend take me for a walk later the next evening (curfew is still on) so we go through the university and look at the magnificent Chinar trees, hundreds of years old. We see many other brave souls walking and getting their children out of the house. Others are trying to get food. We walk out of the university and I feel myself hesitate as a few soldiers are there. My friend walks confidently passed. We walk down to the lake and walk, people look at me curiously and one woman looked hard at my friend. She said that some may be surprised I am here during the tensions. We walk further and she sees a professor friend. Then we circle our way back meanwhile I am taking in the huge mountains a grandiose presence overseeing this troubled valley.
I’ve been in Kashmir 6 days and had one day when curfew was off all day until 5pm. We have to stay indoors but do get out occasionally at night. However, it is considered dangerous to go out as soldiers are everywhere. My friend advises to go down the laneways. I welcome stretching my legs and wear a long silk shirt and black pants in keeping with Islamic tradition. The funny part is I see cows roaming freely around here, it seems they have good karma, they are freer than the Kashmiris. Also there are a lot of dogs roaming I said to my friend they seem friendly, she said ooh they are not. After my dog bite I am a bit weary of dogs, but I don’t seem to be holding a deep fear thank goodness, I just walk past them and they are mostly sleeping. People don’t keep dogs as pets, you hear them at night barking.
We went to visit my friend’s uncle, aunt and grandmother. I was a bit nervous as the curfew was on and my friend bravely walks up to the soldiers. One says ‘it is curfew’ she says ‘everyone is walking’ which was true. She laughs and says they just want to talk to women (men will be men). I am also a curiosity as I am westerner and they are quick to stare or smile at me. The Kashmiris are courageous people similar to Afghans, they are enduring weeks of curfew (approximately 20 days). It would be easy to go stir crazy as you are forced to remain indoors. I find myself observing and curious about this tense stand off between the people of Kashmir and the Indian army. Anyway, we walk along and see many men on the streets, the boys are trepidous around the soldiers, and rightly so, most of the fatalities are boys. We arrive at the Uncle’s house and my friend says they are surprised we came during curfew. But they quickly offer us juice. We sit on the floor and the two children are there, very excited and looking at me. The little girl hides behind her mum but full of smiles. The grandmother is very old and had a serious heart attack last year and is now bed ridden. She sleeps in the lounge room with the family. It is a different custom here, everyone sleeps on the floor. The grandmother is cared for by the son but the two daughters (my friend’s mother as well) regularly look after her. Apparently she was a wonderful mother, very kind and caring and all that love is coming back to her. The houses in Kashmir were typically designed with wooden roofs as 7 months of the year here is snow. But the latest trend is to concrete the ceiling. It is not the best way as it is colder, not insulated like wood. Also aesthetically it looks very dark as the concrete is grey. So I felt cooped up there and wondered how they coped with curfew given they don’t have a backyard. My friend pointed out it is much harder in the city as people are in high rise and clustered buildings. Most of the unrest is in the city. We are in a suburb of the city. Apparently the inner city is poorer people, less educated and there is much stone pelting (as they call it) by youth against the armed forces. Where we are staying is next to the university where more educated people live. Behind my friend’s house is a Chief Superintendent of Police, which is interesting.
We walked back and dropped by a shop. The shops are small with a few packaged items, and my friend buys some potatoes for me. The shop is more like a convenience store, but very small, not airconditioned and simply an assortment of basics. There are no malls here (thank god), so they are not living the capitalist life. Society is very much around religion and simple trades and service jobs. They are expert tradespeople and their weaving, copper making, rug production, tailoring is superb. Everything is hand made here. It is a simpler life and clearly this is a rich society. Historically there was much trade via the silk route which took traders to China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. So there was a lot of mixing of people. My friend says it was an open minded culture accustomed to different people from different places. Today, Kashmir is a tourist destination when there is no unrest, so the people are used to dealing with foreigners, I am not so much of a novelty coming from Australia, it is more they are surprised I am here during the unrest I am told. Probably the only western tourist here now.
It is fascinating seeing the women in their Kashmiri dress, the men wear a range of clothes from western style to long shirts with pants. During prayer times they wear their white hats and Muslim style dress. The majority, 95% of the people are Muslim but they are not fundamental, they are moderate and relaxed. Few women I noticed wear full burka and others show their hair. So there is relaxed interpretation of Islamic law. You can hear the singing in the morning, during the day and at night from the mosque, they pray 5 times a day which I find quite pleasant to hear. It gives you a sense of a world outside when you are prevented from going outside.
As we walked my friend was getting directions as she felt she may have taken a wrong turn. A couple with their young child talked to her. The mother was out to get medicines. My friend and I talked about what if people are sick here under curfew, the soldiers won’t let anyone move. Turns out when the PM was here a family with a sick child tried to get the child to hospital and the soldiers turned them back, the child died in their arms. It just added to the collective anger and outrage at the death of children and inhumanity towards their people. It is hard to understand how authorities can impose curfew on a whole population of 10 million people due to sporadic protests. The protests have been the anger over children being killed and occupation of the Indian army. So every time the protest the government imposes a curfew. This is only making things worse. It is incredible to me that an army is deployed in a civilian area, it appears excessive, highly intimidating and inappropriate given the function of armed forces. Clearly soldiers are trained to kill without question and to obey orders, this is not the appropriate place for men with guns particularly given the problem is a political one. India is certainly not being threatened here although Kashmir would be viewed as a buffer between India and Pakistan, both nuclear armed nations. Their presence inevitably ignites fear and anger and it will provoke protests, particularly when civilians are injured or killed. They are strongly associated in the mind of Kashmiris as murderers and rapists, the local population do not trust them and the longer they stay the more opposed the people feel and it strengthens their resolve for the Indians to leave. Any concept of driving out the local population will not happen as this is their home. It has a similar shadow to the Palestinian issue, the children modeling protest using stone throwing, I suspect that is where they learned resistance. I don’t condone that either but it is evident they are hitting back. It does attract attention and highlights there is opposition to the Indian presence here, but it will not resolve the problem. It becomes tit for tat and no-one wins. My concern is that it may escalate into armed struggle and that would be a disaster. It is a crucial moment for Kashmir and my hope is that rather than governments take the law and order card with the rhetoric of keeping the streets safe, but actually investigate the underlying grievances and be prepared to face the truth on both sides of this intervention. It is very important they find solutions and resolve the core issues.
We get home after our walk and I am always offered sweet tea with Roti. It is different from my usual toast, so I just absorb the local way. I am greeted always with a smile and I feel completely at home here. This is a place of peace and as a guest all my needs are met. There is no tension, fighting or selfish behaviour, everyone works harmoniously together. If this reflects the nation, I think they are more than capable of manifesting peace here even after 21 years. We eat rice and halal meat every night with very little variety. I am surprised by that but that is the way they do things (or it may reflect restrictions on food given curfew). We drink yoghurt with salt and water and it is quite nice. I am starting to ask for no meat as I am a vegetarian and I am finding the meat very heavy. They are making boiled cauliflower for me with rice. It is quite simple but I am fine with that.
We have a lot of discussions about the political situation and they have cable TV. So CNN and the local channel are viewed. There are other sources of media from Pakistan, Algazeera, Indian media, Arabic so a variety of viewpoints are shown, which is good to see. The media also features western programs and American movies. It is fascinating to see media globalization in Kashmir and how the younger people are very influenced by the western culture. I can see traditional lifestyles being watered down as the young embrace global culture and thinking.
There has been a few days of news blackout of local journalists however the authorities are unable to control Facebook and Twitter other forums of uploading non government footage. When interviewed the bloggers said they were not impressed with the national media and felt they had to provide the other side. The internet is certainly an alternative media as is evident here. I also noticed there is much talk about stone pelters but little discussion on the root of the problem. As far as I can see, and I am no expert, it appears that the people felt betrayed by a Sheik back in the 1950’s who signed a certificate to invite the Indian military in to suppress civil action. This opened the door to India I am told and it seems as if the people did not sanction this as he is seen as a traitor, not respected. Thus, the core is that the people do not want the Indian presence or allegedly biased elections to occur here, they are seeking independence, as they see themselves as a distinct culture and were independent prior to this invitation.
After dinner, discussions and some television it is time for sleep. Everyone gets their floor mattress and quilt and finds a place to sleep on the floor. They usually sleep in the same room, but because I am here my friend and I share the room. It is very comfortable on the floor and it is also very quiet here. During curfew there is no traffic. So I lie in bed with my ipod and consider life and where I am. I am feeling the peace within and all situations I am confronted with I see as part of my inner work. I wonder what it would be like to be facing these conditions as a part of everyday life. At some point I will leave, but my friend will remain. However, this is a challenge, all challenges must be met. My advice is satyagraha – truth and love. My friend is similar to myself, she is very honest and has a deep knowledge of history and the current situation. I encourage a focus on the positive and minimizing the news media and anger. In my philosophy there is no enemy there are only problems to be solved. I am an outsider but I feel this is the challenge. Ignorance, fear and guilt are negative qualities and will not generate solutions. Dialogue, historical understanding and empathy are the pathways to freedom for all, both the Indians and the Kashmiris. At the end of the day the situation is a lose/lose, therefore when both are ready and willing, a solution is waiting to be found. As my friend in Australia joked denial is a river in Egypt. This is a key barrier to willingness. When propagander is continuously broadcast, this creates greater confusion as the strategy is to convince the audience that the other side is wrong. Peacemaking is not interested in the so called blame game, it is to find the root problem, engage all in dialogue and work towards a win/win. To rehumanise all people to each other and to address denial with the truth of the situation. The problem with fear and power, is that one seeks to force outcomes, but in the future this is no longer the way to work with conflict, the future will be to face oneself and actions, this is the hardest mirror to look into. To apologise and to acknowledge mistakes takes much courage. Yet this is the only way forward to real resolution, the rest is just illusion.
I close my eyes, at the end of the day we are where we are, you have to make the best of it. I keep laughing, as always there is beauty in difficult situations.
Until my next reflection … sweet dreams …