• Darkness Before Noon in Kashmir

    Huma Sheikh

    August 26, 2019

    Indian Army soldiers at the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. Photo: AFP

    A few weeks ago, Srinagar felt like any other city: people going about their simple routines, going to work, chatting in the aisles of grocery stores, and hanging out in small groups at public parks.

    In late July this year, I spent a week at my home in Srinagar, Kashmir. I thought I would write an essay chronicling a new phenomenon: the growth of local cafes and diners amid the agonies of the decades-old political conflict. Kashmir has been under Indian military occupation since 1989, and is the site of conflict between India and Pakistan since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

    I remember, years ago, when I craved for a day without violence, without the common sights of dead bodies on streets, a bomb explosion, or a shrapnel flying in the air. Back then, I craved for that one day when I could just walk about in my neighborhood. Cut to 2010, during my last visit to Kashmir, the situation was no different. Violent protests had erupted across the state when a teenage boy, Tufail Ahmad Matoo, was killed by a teargas shell on June 17, 2010. His death resulted in four months of protests which claimed the lives of about 118 people. The protestors had called for complete demilitarization of Kashmir. 

    Around the neighborhood of my parents’ house in Lal Mandi, a locality in Srinagar, I wandered down the new bridge, sometimes chatting with young men and women who sold cell phones, jewellry, fruit and ice cream on carts sprawled along the edges of the bridge. On the other side, just down the winding berms of River Jhelum, also bustling with new cafes, the roads in the Lal Chowk area looked wider. Most of the sand and concrete bunkers that I had seen for years in the past were gone. 

    I drove around Dal Lake all the way to Nishat and Shalimar gardens, wandered around at the carnival being held in some playing field on the other side of the Lake Road. There were variations of embroidered pashmina shawls, papier mache jewelry boxes and bells, wicker baskets and so on and so forth for sale. The rest of the stretch was filled with a chain of new diners, restaurants, vegetarian dhabas, dessert-and cafe parlors. As I sat on a brown chair at Le Delice, a French bakery shop owned by a Kashmiri man who had spent many years in France, it looked like people around the lake – both locals, tourists and Amarnath yatris – had leapt out from the Dal Lake water and spilled on the streets. In the evening, I drank coffee at Books & Bricks cafe in Gogji Bagh. The young and vibrant faces in the cafe seemed to define their real existence and their passion for a free Kashmir. 

    They had no clue what awaited them. 

    I was in Delhi on August 5, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scrapped Article 370, which protected Kashmir’s special status as a majority Muslim state. On the Yellow Line of the Delhi Metro, a young man in a grey shirt, holding onto the handrail of the train, raised his fist in the air, laughing, reading out aloud from his cell phone. Three other men rose from their seats. They looked together at his phone screen, bobbing their heads at no one in particular. Suddenly, they became friends in this public space. 

    I began contemplating what revoking Article 370 really meant. Had Jammu & Kashmir suddenly been deprived of its special status? Natives of my home-state could no longer have exclusive rights to buy and sell property in the state, or have their own flag and constitution. In fact, the state of J & K, which also included the Ladakh region, had now been downgraded to a Union Territory (with a legislature). Ladakh was to be a separate Union territory without a legislature. 

    Yet, the BJP government’s decision did not come as a surprise. On the contrary, what surprised me was the flourishing growth of local businesses in Kashmir when I visited in July. Revoking Article 370 had been the federal government’s manifesto in both its first and second terms. And in the past week when the government sent another battalion of thousands of troops to the Kashmir Valley, I found it hard to believe that that was merely a counter-insurgency move. Besides, the government had issued an advisory to cut short the Amarnath Yatra. It was highly unlikely that there was intelligence informing of threats of violence against the Yatris. The Yatra was in its final phase anyway. But that’s not my point.

    I wasn’t surprised by the revocation, because Kashmir Valley never had the 'special status' that it was supposed to have. Article 370 had been granted as an alternative to a plebiscite that never was held in J & K. People who had been living under Indian military occupation never really unfurled their own flag, except during protests. Kashmiris had property rights over land occupied by Indian military.

    Kashmir was the land of bombings, deaths, curfews, and strikes. These were common phenomena in the Valley, like monsoons in summer across India. Only these rains in Kashmir extended throughout the year, then another and another, until there was no end. 

    Why is the revocation news now when the Center, in many ways, in the presence of Article 370 and elected leaders of J&K, defined the political existence of the state of Jammu and Kashmir? Jammu and Kashmir is now a Union territory with a legislature. Is this another special status? This may be how the nationalists project it, but suppose they are right, what would that mean? Would the elected leaders of Kashmir, who are now under house arrest, have decision-making power while the federal government directly controls Jammu and Kashmir? 

    A local Kashmiri said on a local news channel, "Aise kaise khatam karege Article 370 raton raat. Hum khatam hogein lekin isko khatam nahi hone deinge. Yeh mere bachon ke mustakbil ka sawal hai." (How can they revoke Article 370 overnight? We will die but we won’t let it be gone like this. This is about the future of my kids).

    The next day, deadly monsoons hit several other parts of India hard; in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur cattle was moved to the safer third story of buildings. I thought of my people in Kashmir. They sank in their homes, cages that surrounded them. 

    Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Adha on August 12. I wasn't able to get in touch with my family & friends in Srinagar, since phones and landlines were cut off in Kashmir. I spent the day with other Kashmiris at Jantar Mantar in Delhi where people of J&K organized an Eid event. We sat together to eat, thinking about how the majority of us in Kashmir were perhaps even without a meal.


     

    Huma Sheikh was born and raised in Kashmir. She’s presently based in the US, where she’s pursuing her doctoral degree in Creative Writing and teaching at the Florida State University. Trained as a journalist, she has worked in India, China, and the US. Huma is currently working on her memoir and a book of poems.

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