Kashmir, Qasmir or Casmere, the land of many names and far greater narratives. The land of many truths is a place of great beauty, caught in the web of a dysfunctional state government and at the crossroads of an international quest for territory. The immense weight of the Indian-Pakistani equation lies on the beautiful, delicate shoulders of the Himalayas that circle a pristine Dal Lake. The real problems here are perhaps not the political ones (important and all-encompassing as they might be) but of the daily struggles and how the simplest of facilities are considered luxuries here.
The day I landed at the Srinagar airport, one of the only civilian airports inside a military airbase, I was welcomed with snowfall. Children ran around in their long, baggy pherans screaming, “Sheen Mubarak!” or “happy snowfall!” throwing snowballs at each other, rolling around in the soft, powdery white snow. I was told that to be welcomed with snow was a sign of good luck (how I was stranded there for a few extra days because of the snow surely wouldn’t explain that though.) Nestled in an area of dwindling streets and narrow roads, Kashmir Lifeline and Health Center is a stark contrast to its immediate surroundings. In the not-so-posh outskirts of Srinagar is a little building which houses the state’s first toll-free number. Kashmir Lifeline (KLL) provides free mental counseling and also conducts awareness programs and counseling centers in the neighboring villages and towns of Kashmir. While working there, the data suggested that the majority of the patients were male and between the age of 21-30 years. They were unable to work and were suffering a variety of problems such as Depression, PTSD, Agoraphobia, OCD etc. as a result of the long, unresolved conflict. In most other relatively politically stable and peaceful areas, this is the main age group of the youth that is educated, driven, working, prone to new ideas and development, and has the potential to cause change. But this group of people in this case was suffering from a wide variety of mental health problems, stemming from stress over studies, work, relationship problems etc. that did not allow them to carry on with daily life. This is the age when people start earning for their families, get married and start supporting their ageing parents. This is the main earning, positive and optimistic age group of any society but here, they were being distracted from the joys that other people their age have. This has great implications for the coming generations.
The first real snowfall of the winter brought with it one of the harshest moments for the average Kashmiri – electricity was out in the city for almost a week, pipes were starting to freeze stopping regular water supply, internet and phone lines were down and essential supplies like food and gas were scarce. In the summer, Kashmir is a beautiful place – the weather is perfect and pleasant, men and women stroll on the streets, the Dal Lake is afloat with families and couples inshikaras (boats) and people take picnics to the gardens with a view of the mighty Himalayas in the backdrop. Winter however, is far from that. The wealthy Kashmiris (a small number) are able to hibernate aka move to Delhi temporarily, in their comfortable houses in manageable weather while the rural and not-so-wealthy are left to battle the cold by themselves. On the way to an outreach program to the Kangan village right outside Srinagar, we learnt that a village by the name of Govindpore hadn’t had electricity for the past 3 weeks. To protest, they closed off the main road that passed through their village and connected Srinagar to some of the other districts. We were stranded there for what seemed like eternity before a Counsellor who was with us was able to negotiate with them to let us pass. This was their method of peacefully making a point, but imagine if New York, London or even New Delhi didn’t have electricity for three weeks in the bitter cold? This cold doesn’t do much for the already dismal condition of mental health in the state. Suicide numbers have in fact risen in the winter months complemented by an increasing number of calls and visits to the clinic as well.
My experience in Kashmir made me realize how alienated the people of the Valley really are and how detached Kashmir is from India’s growth story that most magazines these days carry. They have been left behind in the larger picture of growth and development. Tourism had been their main form of livelihood, however ever since the militancy began in 1989; tourism has been in a downward spiral. Now it is just a downgraded version of a once-beautiful land that had captured the imaginations of many, almost like a withered away mistress. The blame game has gone on for far too long. The contested claims of India and Pakistan may as well result in another 20 years of difficulty for the people, but the way forward for Indian-administered Kashmir may be to see the real factors of the equation. 18th January marked the 22nd anniversary of the exodus of the Hindu Kashmiri Pandit community from the Valley. Both the Muslims and the Pandits are equal stakeholders in the state and must be considered before moving forward. Despite Pakistan’s contribution to the militancy in Kashmir, it may be useful for India to realize that the way forward is not in dwelling in the past. India has to act in its own independent capacity in alleviating the suffering of the people. In working positively for the growth of Kashmir, we may realize that Pakistan’s cooperation at this stage might very well be irrelevant. Setting up a Truth & Reconciliation Commission may be a positive step in this place where every person has a different story and truth. The infrequent but heartfelt renditions of “Hum kya chaahte? Azaadi” (What do we want? Freedom) may never subside but true reconciliation lies in the power of being able to see your narrative get recognized as the only truth.