News of violence and unrest coming from any part of the country – nay, the world – is disturbing. All the more so if it lasts and continues over long periods of time. And yet there are parts of the country that are special in a special way, and such news coming from there has a qualitatively altogether different effect on us. Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East are two such areas battling this scenario not just over a few months or years but over decades, as we know. Such news from these places affects you in a way news from other places doesn’t, even though one may not have visited them – in my case it is all the more so in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, for sure. I ask myself the question – what is it that makes me feel deeply troubled and hurt to the core with every such piece of news?
One possible answer is that more often than not, this has to do with its very nature – sad, unhappy, mind-and-heart numbing, tragic news that only adds to the misfortunes piling up over the decades for the inhabitants there, with no light to be seen at the end of the tunnel, people living as if in a constant zone of battle. The news of the bout of violence just this past week in Kulgam and the shutdown in Srinagar is another such instance.
Another quite obvious reason for deep, troubled concern common to both Kashmir and the North-East is the political aspect of discontent bordering on secessionism, and linked to it the failure of the Indian State to settle these issues to the satisfaction of the people inhabiting these parts of our land. This is, in a way, the ‘nationalist’ concern.
Are these reasons enough, I ponder – and dwell deeper.
Another aspect looms before my eyes – the “exotic” view of a paradise-on-earth land torn asunder by violence – is this what touches the very core of my concern? Is it the deep deep anguish arising out of the despoilment of the natural, awe-inspiring scenic beauty dotted with shikaras and lakes and stately chinars on majestic mountains that troubles our minds?
This too fails to fully convince me as an answer, seeming to be just one more dimension of the issue at hand.
I am gradually led to the real underlying cause of this sense of deep disappointment and hurt : it comes from the stupendous failure, especially on the part of the political dispensation, of not being able to connect to the people who inhabit these lands. What lies at the heart of the tragedy is the alienation that people from these parts of our nation feel, not just from the governments at the Centre but from the rest of us, the people on the ‘mainland’, a process that has now been on for decades. (One recalls the citizen, say, from Manipur living in Delhi, recounting exactly the same sense of alienation as the Kashmiri’s). This, to my mind, is the nub of the whole issue, a sense that is buttressed and strengthened in the light of personal experiences shared by friends and acquaintances from Kashmir. Irony of ironies, this is so in spite of the fact that there is a simultaneous account of the warmth with which guests from outside the state are hosted by Kashmiris – the glorious warmth of the wazwans, the kaftans and the phirans and the kangris reflected in the welcome accorded to visitors from outside in cozy Kashmiri hearths and homes.
It is, then, not just the land that stands blighted – the real issue is of flesh-and-blood human beings alienated and suffering all these years, their lives scarred and bruised, devoid of joy and happiness, including psychologically challenged children who have seen nothing but violence and fear around. This scathingly brutal truth is what brings on the ache with every new bout of violence that visits Kashmir – and the North-East; in this lies the answer to my query, born of an acute sense of longed-for empathy that one ought to be capable of developing for compatriots and fellow human beings.
I have been to Jammu and Kashmir just thrice to date, and that not beyond Jammu and the Vaishno Devi shrine visited more as an opportunity for trekking than for the obeisance. One recalls the happy chance of having witnessed the imposing Sheikh Abdullah addressing an audience at the foothills of the trek up to the shrine.
Never been to the Valley, and yet feeling for it so very deeply!? How did this happen?
As I ponder over this, my mind comes back again to the people of the land – the flesh-and-blood Kashmiris of various hues who became friends: some from afar, others in face-to-face interaction, still others in more tangential ways and forms, especially in terms of sharing a world-view. When you have those you know and care for living in a region such as Kashmir, it is perhaps but natural to feel concerned not just for them but for the land they come from too.
I recall the time of the earthquake that devastated parts of Kashmir on both sides of the border in 2005 – and the funds collected by school-going children in a city in Haryana, sent to the good doctor in Srinagar whose contact I got from Vinod Raina (alas, no longer with us) and her so very warm response appreciating this effort and assuring us that the amount will reach those it was meant for. This bond of humanity and common concern was, so far as I can recall, my first real contact with the Kashmir I had never been to – and have still not been to.
I recall also, just about three years later, the bitterness and anger with which a lady – Kashmiri Pandit – recalled those terrifying days of having to abandon their hearths and homes in the 1990s in the wake of the violence they faced – and sharply in contrast, her father, calm and cool and collected even in that moment of recalling the horrors recounted by his daughter, with not a trace of bitterness in him. He, even though much much older, became a friend of sorts as did his grand-daughter with whom I still remain in touch.
Further down the memory lane of time come three youngsters, two of whom had bitter memories to share right from their childhoods affected by the violence back home, and the travails and tribulations they had to face in the ‘mainland’ India where they had come for studies and job. The third, a Kashmiri Pandit, has the empathy for what her homeland – not just Jammu but Kashmir too – is going through. She has the deep human concern that cuts across and transcends all barriers of region and religion and keeps alive the flame of the syncretic Kashmiri ethos.
But what I recall the most every time there is disturbing news from Kashmir is a group-interaction we had with one of these three youngsters – an intelligent young girl from Kashmir sharing her experience of living in Haryana where she had come for her studies. There was an element of pain, at times even of distress, in the experiences she shared of her memories from her home-state. The pain extended to the injustice she felt in not being considered Indian enough even though her grandfather had been in the Indian army. Yet she was, broadly speaking, refreshingly positive and fairly appreciative of the time spent in Haryana in spite of the oddities she faced here and there. This, at that point of time, was a comforting thought, for that sharing happened somewhere around the time of the unrest in Kashmir following the killing of Burhan Wani. The fact that we had gathered to listen to her, and heard her out as she recounted the unhappy and bitter experiences of growing up under the shadow of the guns of the security forces that in actual fact increased a sense of insecurity rather than security, was something that she appreciated no end.
She too is a friend that Kashmir has given me.
I cannot but mention a few more sets of friends, tangential friends one feels so close to in thought – the rafoogars (darners) and dry-cleaners from Kashmir just a street down my house whose ever so cheerful demeanour welcomes me on every visit for the dry-cleaning or to get a torn clothing darned; the politician of the class of Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, the only CPI (M) MLA from Kashmir whose impassioned pleas for Kashmiriyat and a humanitarian view of things cannot but convince you of the rightness of what he so passionately says; journalists like the late Messrs. Balraj Puri, Ved Bhasin and the so tragically shot dead Shujaat Bukhari ; secular, people’s artistes, educationists and writers like M.K.Raina (who has worked in the state on theatre and culture even in the most adverse circumstances), Vinod Raina, Badri Raina and Rahman Rahi; and the Lal Deds and Nund Rishis (aka Sheikh Nur ud-Din Wali) whose deep springs of mysticism and spirituality are the cherished heritage of what the real Kashmir is. One may not have met any of them in person, and yet they are friends, for they occupy the same mind-space in terms of the society and nation one aspires for. These are just a few names the mind readily recalls, though there would be many more one fails to mention due to constraints of space.
An interaction with a Kashmiri actually boils down to how Kashmir is located in our consciousness. What is of significance is how we negotiate this terrain. One needs to look at it not as an issue purely related to the possession of a piece of land, a territory, but with consideration for the human beings who populate that territory, trying to understand their aspirations and desires and wishes, and the travails they have gone through. The same would apply to our friends from the North-East, entailing a sensitive and sensible understanding of how and why they are ‘different’, what their cultural ethos is, and how this difference is what makes India the beautiful country it is.
I end, again, with our interaction with the young, sensitive girl from Kashmir. For her, the peace in Haryana was in sharp contrast to the unrest and violence in her home-state. So, the pain she felt was palpable as she recounted the experience of witnessing her fellow-students transformed into divided caste-identities during the violent Jat reservation stir of early 2016. And yet, she retains the vivaciousness of youth even as one also recalls her poignant remark to the effect that this vivaciousness is perhaps an attempt at regaining what was lost of it in her childhood! She is now back to her birthplace, in a hard-earned job, and this dost of hers awaits the day he will partake of the warmth of Kashmir, she a host to this ‘guest’.