Kashmir: The Lost Paradise
Portrayed in Bollywood movies as a place for romance, Kashmir is rife with violence and injustice.
Throughout my childhood the state of Jammu and Kashmir contained the myriad colors of heaven. Reared as I was on the magic of Bollywood cinema, I could only see its mountains and valleys through the perspective of the starry-eyed leading couple that carried the simplistic plots in film after film.
In all these formulaic movies the two protagonists, one male and one female, would fall in love by the fourth reel—after the hero with cherry lips teased the coy heroine with doe eyes by singing a song or two. She’d put up a token protest, but would finally acquiesce to his advances, fluttering her lashes. The next thing you knew, they were magically transported to a beautiful paradise in Srinagar where he teased her a little more and she fluttered her eyelashes, sometimes running around trees and sometimes boating in the picturesque Dal Lake.
But cinema needs a conflict to keep the audience glued to the screen; at this point the villain would enter the picture, like in all fairy tales. He was evil, like all villains are, and pursued his agenda of wanting to bump-off the hero and violate the heroine with a frightening, single-minded dedication.
The heartening thing about these films, however silly they may seem in retrospect, was that they were all about hope and faith. Being escapist fare, it was always the villain who came to a bad end, while the hero and heroine rode unscathed into the sunset, singing the same song they had sung when they first fell in love.
That was always the climax.
Because I witnessed the same story so many times with different actors reprising the same characters, the plot and the location became curiously intertwined in my head. The sins of the villain did not end with his evil designs on the innocent lovers. As I saw it, he was also bent on sullying this sanctuary, this haven for romance. And there was no way he could be condoned for that. The metaphor, Kashmir connoted, had to survive at all costs.
After a few years into my adult life this ideal, like many others I carried as part of growing up, was shattered. The distressing realization about the paradise I knew was that it was all based on sentiments. Not reason, nor historical fact.
If a state is an integral part of a nation, why does its Constitution grant it special privileges?
Like all Indians, I was brought up to believe Kashmir is an integral part of India. That selective history lesson has not changed for my adolescent son. In fact, it is being taught to him with an even more dangerous intensity. After all, the beautiful and tranquil land I knew only through cinema has become a nightmarish hell with Pakistan-backed insurgents and an equally violent Indian army vested with unparalleled powers to curb dissent and unrest. Rapes, torture, and brutal executions have seamlessly woven their way into the narrative of the once pristine land.
The Constitution of India grants the state of Jammu and Kashmir special status, which is paradoxical. If a state is an integral part of a nation, why does its Constitution grant it special privileges? The answer lies in the complex geo-political history of the region and the number of wars that have erupted over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, not to mention the one with China in 1962.
All three nations want large parts of the valley for themselves. None of them seem particularly interested in what the people of Kashmir want.
In India, there is a small but significant intellectual dissent against the military’s role in the valley. More and more voices of reason are asking why the people of Kashmir should not be given the right of self-determination. Writers Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, and Amitava Kumar, along with the well-known lawyer and civil society activist, Prashant Bhushan, happen to be some of the more prominent names to champion this cause, though there have been repercussions for talking about it.
Roy has been threatened with arrest a few times for sharing her views in her talks and the columns she writes. More than a year ago, goons attacked Bhushan in his chambers for speaking up for the people of Kashmir. He was slapped around viciously with a popular news channel covering the entire incident on camera. He was punished for publicly stating the people of Kashmir should be given the right to decide their future.
He was slapped around viciously with a popular news channel covering the entire incident on camera.
For his part, Mishra wrote a searing piece in The Guardian, titled “Why Silence over Kashmir Speaks Volumes,” pointing to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Indian army in the valley and condemning the selective amnesia of western nations who champion democracy.
The latest tragedy to befall the state has to do with the hanging of Afzal Guru, which took place on February 9. Guru, from Kashmir, was convicted in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. On December 13, 2001, five armed men drove through the gates of the parliament in a car fitted with an explosive device. When they were challenged they opened fire, killing eight security personnel and a gardener. The retaliatory fire killed all of the terrorists.
To date there have been no clarifications by the Indian government as to who these five men were and what their affiliation was. But the incident pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war for many agonizing months. Thankfully, sense prevailed on both sides.
In a forcibly extracted confession, which the courts did not recognize, Guru identified the five terrorists as being from Pakistan. Guru himself was a surrendered militant who had crossed the border to train in one of the insurgent camps.
The story is, he became disillusioned, managed to escape, and surrendered to the Indian army. Consequently, he turned into a pariah for both sides and was brutally tortured after his surrender. They wanted more information from him about other insurgents. Perhaps more than he could have ever given.
But who draws the line in such matters? How much information is enough information from a surrendered militant?
…Guru’s wife and son were notified of the execution only after his death.
As Roy pointed out in one of her essays, “Kashmir is a valley awash with militants, renegades, security forces, double-crossers, informers, spooks, blackmailers, blackmailees, extortionists, spies, both Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies, human rights activists, NGOs, and unimaginable amounts of unaccounted-for money and weapons…It’s not easy to tell who is working for whom.”
In short, the same Indian Supreme Court which had recognized that the evidence against Guru was purely circumstantial sentenced him to death in order to “satisfy the collective conscience of a society.” As legal judgments go, there are many who wonder whether there is precedence for such a judgement in any democracy in any part of the world. In an even sadder twist, Guru’s wife and son were notified of the execution only after his death. His body has not been handed over to his family, lest they take it back to Kashmir and turn him into a martyr.
But judging from the clampdown in the valley after the hanging became public, that may have already happened. A curfew was imposed and freedom of press curtailed. The valley is simmering once again.
Although Bollywood has not tired of its formula in the new millennium, it does not look as if any serenading for the benefit of cameras is going to happen in Srinagar for a long, long time.
Guns and barbed wire are not the best props for crazed lovers to dance around.