Peering Into Kashmir's Turmoil

For decades this contested region has experienced violence and repression. Basharat Peer, the author of a powerful new memoir about the conflict, speaks to Karan Mahajan about what’s happening now.

03.27.10 3:39 PM ET

A month after his memoir of the Kashmir conflict, Curfewed Night, was published in India, author Basharat Peer received a phone call from one of his characters. The man, named Shafi, a torture victim, said, “When you came and talked to me I never believed that you would actually write a book!” He sounded excited. Then he added, “The one problem is that the book is 400 rupees,” or nine dollars. “I can’t afford to buy it.”

“There is a realization now that America doesn’t have a magic wand,” Peer says. “At the end of the day, India and Pakistan need to move forward.”

Like Shafi, the individuals in Peer’s disturbing first book are ordinary men and women in Indian Kashmir who have been ruined by two decades of armed suppression. Peer was thirteen in 1989 when his fellow Kashmiris began protesting against Indian rule, and soon everyone around him was sucked into the conflict: friends joined militant groups in Pakistan, his parents were almost blown-up in a mine-blast, and thousands were tortured and “disappeared.” Many have never recovered—mentally, physically, or financially—from their contact with this violence.

Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist’s Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland. By Basharat Peer. 240 pages. Scribner. $25.

Sitting in his bare office-space in the Open Society Institute in Manhattan—where he has recently commenced a yearlong fellowship to write a book about Indian Muslims—Peer explains why he consciously kept politicians out of the story. “Every other person who wrote about Kashmir would go talk to the same figures—militants and politicians. But when I get asked, what is Kashmir like? There are a series of images that pass through my head, and they consist always of people, not of militants. They are the only ones who have gone unheard in this territorial dispute.”

So Peer went about redressing the silence. He quit his job as a journalist for a major magazine and started living with his parents in Kashmir and writing into a tradition of reportage that didn’t exist in India. His literary models were George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and, most notably, Isaac Babel, whose stories of provincial violence from turn-of-the-century Ukraine appeared to be reenacted daily in modern Kashmir. The result is a brief but necessary testament that should finally clarify the conflict for American readers who are often as perplexed by Kashmir as they are by the game of cricket. (At the very least, it may melt some of the blank stares that Peer says he receives when he tells Americans he’s from Kashmir.)

Peer conveys beautifully the sense of a vanishing world, moving outward from the bucolic joys of Kashmiri village life to the first incidents of revolt in the cities and finally to the bloody involvement of Pakistani militants and Indian armed forces, who together have snatched the land and its story from the hands of Kashmiris. He describes the life of the ordinary Kashmiri as one of continuous queuing at army checkpoints to be frisked, interrogated, and humiliated.

Peer’s decision to focus on people rather than politics has also ensured that the book cannot be easily dismissed as propaganda. Indeed, Curfewed Night was acclaimed uniformly by audiences across the subcontinent and won a major literary prize in India, with columnist Khushwant Singh’s blurb accurately describing the book as being “deeply hurtful.” Peer became the first author to conduct readings in Kashmir, where he is sometimes stopped in the streets by smiling fans who recognize him from his handsome author photograph.

“I expected harsher critiques,” Peer says, speaking particularly about Hindu hardliners who deny that the Indian army is guilty of human rights abuses in Kashmir. “I suspect it’s because the book came out in 2008, when India is more comfortable about its image in the world—it’s ready to look into the mirror.”

India may be less self-conscious, but the political situation is far from resolved. India and Pakistan have been fighting wars over the disputed region right from the moment of their mutual independence in 1947, and the peace process has been initiated and stalled numerous times. Recently, politicians in India and Pakistan have been sounding an optimistic note—with India promising to pull back a fraction of the half-a-million troops stationed in Kashmir and Pakistan admitting its role in promoting militancy on Indian soil—but Peer is more cautious.

“Things have become very intense in Kashmir in the last two years,” he says. “Every other day there are youngsters out pelting. There is a danger that if the Indian-Pakistan peace process doesn’t go anywhere, there could be a serious turn toward militancy again.”

Recent events have not helped. In 2009, five hundred thousand Kashmiris turned out to non-violently protest India’s transfer of land to a Hindu religious trust only to be brutally fired upon by the army, and there was wide outrage over the reported rape of two women by Indian soldiers.

Reducing its military presence and owning up to its atrocities will not only help India regain the sympathies of the Kashmiris, but also improve the safety of the country as a whole, Peer suggests. “Every time there is a series of rights violations, the terrorist troops in Pakistan use it as a rallying cry for recruitment,” he says. On Pakistan’s side there needs to be the assurance that militants will not attack India—as with the Mumbai Attacks in 2008 that were masterminded by the Pakistan-backed Kashmiri-separatists Lashkar-e-Taiba. America can play a private role in bringing the two countries together, but neither India nor Pakistan will ever accept any public prompting from the over-extended superpower.

“There is a realization now that America doesn’t have a magic wand,” Peer says. “At the end of the day, India and Pakistan need to move forward.”

Meanwhile, the people of Kashmir continue to suffer. After Shafi phoned him about the book, Peer drove up to the capital city of Srinagar with a copy of Curfewed Night. Shafi had spent seven months in Papa-2, an infamous torture center run by Indian troops. He emerged with a limp and eyes burnt-out by exposure to corrosively bright lights. Unable to afford surgery, he was now nearly blind and he asked Peer to read aloud the section where he is mentioned. “I don’t really know English,” he said, “But I want to hear how it sounds.”

Peer opened up the book and read the pages. When he was done, Shafi said, “Thank you. My life is completely destroyed but at least it has been registered.”

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Karan Mahajan is the author Family Planning. He has contributed writing to The Believer, The San Francisco Chronicle, Granta, and The New York Sun.