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I entered Kashmir in 1992 as a second lieutenant, just out of the Indian Military Academy. I was attached to an infantry unit in Kashmir for a year long experience in counter insurgency. Kashmir valley was then a complex cauldron of trust and faith and subversion and politics. The litterateur in me was spellbound by the reality of mass destruction and the human capacity for violence. The situation promised an immeasurable potential for human angle stories. And I heard them recounted orally, by the young and the old Kashmiris : stories of fear, pain, and suffering and of unchecked totalitarianism in an absurd, emotionally isolated, and essentially meaningless world.
But there was no poetry, no novel, no movie, not even a short story in print or in writing worth its name. Kashmir is a case of creativity gone awry. The real point here is that there is a deep and meaningful connection between risk taking and creativity and it’s one that’s often overlooked. This is not a job for the timid. Time wasted, reputation tarnished, money not well spent—these are all by-products of creativity gone awry. To me lack of creativity means lack of conviction. So not only does creativity require courage in ones convictions, it requires a willingness to die for those convictions—over and over and over again.
The element of risk has blocked the truthful accounts from permeating into the mainstream. What permeates is an opinion or a judgement formed from a safe distance. And the overwhelming fear prevents the willing Kashmiris to be fair and balanced in their accounts. It’s only the soldier of the Indian Army who is deep into it and committed to withstand the risk element.
Niya Shahdad looks straight into your eyes – from her bio on the website of The Wire on 29 May 2018 – quite sure that she has something substantial to say, as if she is holding onto an important piece of information : probably a bad news that she wants to break to you. And then she details her account with the chain of violence and horror in Kashmir, without giving the reader the chance to recover between each slaughter. Her style is graphic and picturesque, and both emotion and religious feeling are warmly and sympathetically expressed through the trip to the true “forces” and origins of that “mindless violence and terror.”
The dating is convenient with Burhan Wani’s killing and that sets the tone of the entire story.
Niya is 23, a recent graduate from Tufts University in Boston, where she completed her BA in English and Art History. She and her ilk write convincingly.
But there is a fundamental problem with this narrative.
It isn’t true.
And hers is only one of the many voices that are out to frame a narrative that only helps exaggerate the vices of the Indian State and ignores the strategic mobilization from time to time that uses Islam and independence, interchangeably. Only the soldier knows that the truth is a lot more complicated.
On the other extreme are the Kashmiri Pandits who have always been a minority and their voices fail to effectively counter Niya’s, because of lack of a demonstrable empirical strength.
Rahul Pandita was fourteen years old in the year 1990, which saw his family being forced out of their home in Srinagar. They were Kashmiri Pandits, a number of Hindus, who were minorities, within a Muslim majority. He wrote “Our Moon Has Blood Clots” – probably the only one to spotlight the Pandits’ side of the story. It is no less graphic in depicting the violent ethnic cleansing at the hand of Islamic militia, wherein scores of people were tortured and killed, and 3.5 lac Kashmiri Pandits forced to leave their homes.
So there’s an ascendant “Muslim” version and there’s a minority “ Hindu” version, and even though there are countless books and a deluge of information that concentrates on the historical, the socio-economic and diplomatic side of the 71-year-old dispute, the truth is somewhat missing.
In Kashmir, the “human” drama has been treated peripherally in almost all the media, from newspapers to magazines, radio, television and the many platforms offered up by the internet. Quite simply it’s in our nature as human beings to be interested in the things that happen to fellow human beings. A human interest story puts people at the heart of the events. Doing this brings a two-fold benefit. It gives the reader someone to relate to and taps into our natural curiosity in the lives of others.
I am concerned that faujis never write any human angle stories about Kashmir even though we are swarmed by writings of ex generals and the so called ‘defence experts’ that place all blame for the violence in Jammu and Kashmir on Pakistan because it contributes arms, training, even fighters to the insurgency. But they don’t communicate anything beyond what has been said over and over again.
On the other side, we have Niya Shahdads who pander on the victim mentality, and consciously preclude the Pandits’ exodus and dwell on the killings, the injuries, or the sufferings of the Muslims alone – a race duped, swindled and tricked by the Indian nation.
And next to nothing about the soldier, who is forevermore duped into actions that do not serve him – a creature sacrificed to some deity or as a religious rite or someone sacrificed for a cause, whose case gets described only in a clichéd journalistic parlance or a textbook type moral story rarely venturing beyond physical courage.
For the average Indian, there are no individuals in Kashmir, only stock images. There are ‘secessionist’ Kashmiris; there are terrorists who are nothing more than ‘Pak proxies’ and there are soldiers who are ‘bravehearts’ pitted against them.
Years of turmoil have failed to shape any tangible characters either Kashmiri or military, that the reader can easily relate to or sympathize with. Kashmiris do have a common persona with problems or ambitions in common with the reader. Many of them are underdogs sandwiched between the armed forces and the terrorists. Learning about their insecurities ambitions, pain, anger, fear, etc would help the collective perceptions and emotions.
What was Muzaffar, who came from a strongly nationalistic family and was harassed and tortured into militancy to ward off the very same credential? I had stage-managed his surrender and found him exceptionally intelligent during my conversations. I owe him some rare insights about the reality of Kashmir which gives me the conviction to call Niya Shahdad and her ilk, ‘pseudo fillers’ who have majorly taken over the writing industry, and know how the whole ‘deal’ of writing works.
Muzaffar’s story doesn’t end here. After a weeklong custody, he sought my permission to visit his parents which I graciously granted. He never returned. And when I stormed his village to “sort him out”, I came to know that he was swooped on by the Hizbul Mujahideen, and who had gouged his eyes out of their sockets and pierced a red hot iron rod in his stomach. I carry the burden of guilt till date.
Then there was this jawan who had accidentally fired his carbine into his forehead and his grey matter had dripped till medical help arrived and the doctor declared him dead. He had been sitting steadily as though in a trance, and had attempted to sit up, seeing me , an officer approach, minutes before he had collapsed.
A school teacher had confided in me that the affinity with POK was not the same as the Kashmiris’ collusion with Pakistan. It was ‘emotional’ – his words – “because half of our relatives live on the other side.” This was a year or two after the insurgency had been launched by JKLF and groups had risen advocating for establishment of Nizam-e-Mustafa (Rule of Allah).
A lady whose husband was being interrogated for his suspected links with the militants, had asked me, whether it was his fault that he was born a Muslim. It was too frank a question coming from an illiterate woman. I still carry her faint, fleeting smile playing about her lips, proud and disdainful, undefeated and inscrutable to the last.
I had the chance to talk to Mohammad Yusuf Shah’s son in Budgam, who had recounted to me, how his Islamic scholar and preacher father had been forced to morph into a militant and chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen under the assumed name of Syed Salahuddin.
I have several more stories to tell and I pray to the heavens for the ability to recount them truthfully some day, while I see the country and the world being heaped with rumour after rumour and carefully orchestrated half truths, by the unbridled social media.
The Army is, today, an intimate part of daily life in Kashmir. New generations of Kashmiris have grown up living next door to military camps while the army, too, has learnt more about dealing with the Valley. Its own ethos is constantly rubbing off on local life. Lt Fayaz and Aurangzeb symbolise that ethos. Their saga has not had the desirable impact because of the accompanying sloganeering which is steeped in the typical “us versus them”. Patriotic sloganeering doesn’t connect with the Kashmiri – and Burhan Wani still rules the collective imagination.
The Army alone has the potential to create an alternate hero.
So the fauji must write. Not the usual official stuff that reminds of propaganda, but stories that are personal, provide an intimate angle and allow readers to engage with the content, to feel something…
More than rifles and bullets, the pen often defines a generation’s wars and turmoil.
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