The Blood of Kashmir: Part One — A Ramadan Ceasefire
A reporter’s travels through one of the most beautiful and most explosive regions of the world, and one of the least understood. This is the first of five chapters.
In the end, I was probably lucky that the dog bite was the worst thing that happened to me. Not that I felt very lucky at the time. What I felt at the time was a pain in my leg. When I looked down, there was a stray hanging onto it. “Get off,” I said, which it eventually did.
I spent the next couple of weeks in and out of Indian hospitals on a crash course of rabies shots. I had to be convinced to go. My initial response was to stagger into a coffee shop and order a cup of something strong. I checked my jeans, which had been punctured, and my leg, which, at first, didn’t seem to have been. The dog’s teeth had clearly made a mark, but it took some probing before it started to bleed. There was only a speck, but the waiter seemed concerned. I thought he was overreacting and said so. The day before, I’d been dodging bullets. He wrote down the address of the hospital anyway. He seemed amazed when I sat there and finished my drink, not realizing that I was testing to make sure I could still swallow.
The doctors told me that the waiter had been right. I shouldn’t be so blasé about these things, they said. They gave me a tetanus shot in one of my butt cheeks and a rabies shot in each shoulder, and wrote down the name of the vaccine they had used so I could show it at the next hospital, in the next town.
Perhaps it was karma, or a reminder of my mortality. Perhaps I’d simply walked too close to a pissed-off, pregnant dog. Whatever the case, it was certainly fitting: a mildly bloody end to an especially bloody week.
I arrived in Kashmir 10 days earlier, at dawn on the first Friday of Ramadan, the streets empty but for the few auto-rickshaw drivers who had come out to meet the overnight bus from Jammu. It was an emptiness to which I would become accustomed over the course of my first 48 hours in town. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was due in Srinagar the following day and he wasn’t taking any chances. The roads into the city had been heavily militarized, with checkpoints reducing traffic to a trickle.
Compounding one’s sense of a city under siege, a total shutdown had been announced by the Joint Resistance Leadership, a triumvirate of Kashmiri separatists that commands a great deal of respect in these parts. At the time, the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was ostensibly in power in the state, having formed a coalition with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. Largely as a result of this alliance, it was considered by many to be Delhi’s puppet, only serving to strengthen the triumvirate’s hand, the sureness of its grip.
A light rain fell on Dal Lake as the man commanding my shikara, or canoe, navigated canals lined with colonial-era houseboats, an entire floating neighborhood of them, to the place where I was staying.
Kashmiris don’t like the houseboats, he said, which are a reminder of the British and only patronized by Westerners and Indians up on holiday from the south. The view from my room recalled the Louisiana bayou, all lily pads and corrugated iron lean-tos, with only the rolling, snow-capped peaks beyond them to remind the visitor that, far from America’s Deep South, he was in fact in India’s Far North.
Not that the vast majority of Kashmiris consider this India. Since 1947, when British India was partitioned to create India and Pakistan, Kashmir has remained a point of contention. The whole point of partition—“our crowning failure,” as one of the British characters in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet memorably put it—was to create two religiously homogeneous states. But the rulers of British India’s princely states, which included Kashmir, were given a choice as to which fledgling nation they would join.
By a quirk of history, Muslim-majority Kashmir was at that time ruled by a Hindu, Maharaja Hari Singh, who decided upon independence until Pakistan tribesmen came knocking with other ideas. The Maharaja fled to India, seeking military assistance, the cost of which was ceding the region to Delhi. War ensued, and ensued, and ensued. India today controls a little over 40 percent of Kashmir’s territory (and 70 percent of its population) and Pakistan a little under the same amount of land. (Never one to miss an opportunity, China controls the remaining 20 percent.)
In the late 1980s, vote-rigging in the Indian part of the region, designed to benefit Delhi’s preferred candidate, gave rise to a separatist insurgency, which has waged a low-intensity conflict ever since. India accuses Pakistan of bankrolling the insurgents. Pakistan, which has previously admitted to doing so, claims that the region—the “k” in its acronymous name—should belong to a Muslim nation like, say, Pakistan.
On the ground, arguments vary. In the time I was there, I heard them made in favor of everything from joining Pakistan, to greater autonomy within India, to outright independence.
Around midday, as I sat drinking coffee at the stern of the houseboat, the muezzins could be heard calling the faithful to prayer from unseen mosques in nearly every direction. The houseboat’s owner, Firdous, was visiting his home village, called away by the untimely death of an uncle, and his right-hand man, Younis, said it would not be possible for me to go into town: all the shikara men were off praying. I spent my first full day in Srinagar confined to Dal Lake, unconscious but for Twitter updates of the clashes unfolding outside the city’s central mosque, the Jamia Masjid. Those clashes would be repeated with bloody regularity until the advent of Eid al-Fitr.
It said much about the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir at the time that Narendra Modi’s visit on May 19 should have been so furtive. The leader of India’s ruling BJP was scheduled to fly in from Ladakh in the east, lay the foundation stones on various construction projects, and then fly out again almost immediately to Jammu in the south. There were to be no parades, no public rallies, the likes of which he has staged in the region before. It all rather belied his claims that the situation was under control, and called into question his own belief in the efficacy of the conditional Ramadan ceasefire he had announced only a few days earlier.
According to Kashmiri journalist Sameer Yasir, it was going to be all but impossible to see the prime minister while he was in town. He suggested that we catch up instead, and at least discuss the visit. We met outside the Ahdoos Hotel, sneaking under a half-closed roller shutter to take our seats in a working men’s coffee house, which was half-defying the shutdown order in order to serve its regulars.
These days, unless a bureau chief is up from Delhi for a few nights, or an Australian freelancer swings though on an ill-advised 10-day tour, Kashmir’s story is largely being told by Kashmiris themselves. Yasir is one of the most prolific journalists, though he never intentionally set out to become one. When he returned to Srinagar in 2010, after getting a degree in international relations and working in Singapore, he decided to head out to the India-Pakistan Line of Control and wound up writing about his experiences there.
After a few days spent dodging mortars and living in bomb shelters, he returned with a story that he sold to the New York Times. It was a hell of a way to find his feet as a stringer, but it paid a small fortune in local terms, and the paper wanted more from him. By virtue of history and geography, his homeland was of interest to readers elsewhere, compelling him to take up the pen. Plenty of others have done the same and have something that we foreigners — parachute journalists and bureau chiefs alike — rarely do: an innate understanding of what’s going on here, of what stories really matter, and why.
It was while we were drinking coffee that Modi made the few fleeting remarks that quickly made headlines across the region. “Neither abuses nor bullets will resolve problems,” he told an audience at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre. “But hugging every Kashmiri will.”
The comments were cynically paternalistic and, like the ceasefire before them, difficult to take seriously. According to my interlocutor, the ceasefire had already been broken, with a number of militants killed. According to the government and its cheerleaders in the Indian press, the militants had fired first—having never agreed to the ceasefire in the first place—and the terms of the arrangement allowed the security forces to retaliate. “But there’s no way of knowing who shot first,” Yasir said. “It’s a very convenient loophole.”
We finished our coffees and went for a walk. The neighborhood of Lal Chowk was dead. On Residency Road, the ghanta ghar, or clocktower, showed one o’clock, and Indian military types sat eyeing us from the roadblocks leading up to it. On the walls of a building in the Press Colony neighborhood, where the city’s various news outlets are quartered, a strapping young photojournalist, Kamran Yousuf, appeared in his Press vest on a banner reading: “Kamran Yousuf is a Journalist Not a Stone Pelter.”
Yousuf is a freelance photojournalist who has been imprisoned since September 2017 on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy, and attempting to wage war against India. Delhi claims he isn’t a real journalist on the grounds that he never received formal training in the trade. The Committee to Protect Journalists and others have called for his release.
Kashmir’s most famous “stone pelter”—a term given to the young people who face off against the Indian security forces armed with little more than rocks—is arguably Afshan Ashiq. In April 2017, the 23-year-old soccer star, who captains Kashmir’s girls’ squad and also plays for a team in Mumbai, was escorting a group of female players to training when she clashed with police. A photo of her in that moment throwing a rock in a blue flowing salwar-kameez made her a sensation. Ashiq was asked to meet then-chief minister Mehbooba Mufti; the sports academy where she coached saw a 100 per cent increase in female enrollments; and a Bollywood movie about her life was rushed into the works.
Sitting across from me in the home of Peoples Democratic Party youth president and spokesman Waheed Rehman Para, Ashiq was difficult to imagine as a riotous stone-pelter. She also seemed a little bored to be rehashing the incident yet again.
“It’s all anyone ever wants to talk about,” she told me. “It’s the first question they ask in every interview.”
“It was very unfortunate,” she said. “A police officer used abusive language towards us and then slapped one of my players. I couldn’t help it.”
Para was keen to have me write a story about Kashmiri girls’ sports. The J&K Sports Council was his baby, he told me, the means by which he hopes to create opportunities for young Kashmiris while also engendering a kind of state identity that isn’t reliant on the usual communal and religious frameworks. It bothered him, he said, that the stories about Kashmir should always be so negative.
But he was also clear-eyed about the region’s reality, and gave it to me straight when I asked him about it, even though we were still on the record and I was still recording the conversation.
“The situation is very bad here,” he said. “It is probably the worst it has been in years. There is a tension in the air. You can feel it. We are closer to war than we have been in a long time.”
The houseboat’s owner, Firdous, appeared that night, his familial duties having been discharged. He was a thin man, well-hidden within the folds of his phiran, and he sipped slowly at a large bottle of Kingfisher beer—“I am not a very good Muslim,” he said, a refrain I would come to know well—as I made my way through another pot of weak coffee.
The houseboat was his heritage, he said. His father had run the hotel before him, and his grandfather before that. It was a tough time to be in the tourist trade, he said. The word itself puts people off: Kashmir, with all its baggage, its echo, even for those who don’t know its history, of conflict. I was the only guest scheduled to stay that week, and those who were coming after me, on their ways to or from Ladakh, the trekking capital of the north, would only stay for one or two nights before continuing on their way.
“It is a shame,” he said, “because Kashmir should have thousands of tourists. We have the mountains, the Kashmiri crafts, the natural beauty. You should see our Kashmiri crafts.” He took down a papier-mâché duck from a mantle above the fridge and showed off its quality. “Even if you don’t buy anything, you can’t help but admire it,” he said.
I decided to tell him why I was here, that it wasn’t to play the tourist. He came over excitably conspiratorial and immediately began making plans. I needed to meet his friends, he told me, such as Mr. Nazir, a fellow houseboat owner from around the corner, who might be able to help me out.
“I cannot read or write,” Firdous said—our entire correspondence prior to my arrival had been conducted, on his end, with the aid of a speech-to-text app on his phone—“and I don’t know much about politics. But Mr. Nazir knows a lot and sometimes comes over to read me the newspapers.”
It was not out of kindness that I extended my stay on Firdous’ houseboat, though it pleased me to think it might do him some good. It was rather that I had decided, at some point that day, during Modi’s visit, that I wanted to attend the next Friday prayers. I wanted, I said, to see the stone-pelters at work.
“Stone-pelters?” Firdous asked. “Younis was a stone-pelter.”
The young man standing in the doorway nodded, apprehensively it seemed to me, rather than with pride or braggadocio.
“We were bored,” he said. “Me and my friends. We got into fights with the police for something to do. But then I got arrested and was in prison for 10 days.”
Younis nodded again, recalling the memory reluctantly. “I didn’t do it again after that. I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Across the darkening water, the muezzins began calling, one after the other, never quite in time, or in quite the same key. Their prayers would continue well into the evening, a near-constant drone of all-male voices, not unlike that produced by Tibetan throat-singers, rumbling on until well after midnight and then starting again long before dawn.
That night, everyone seemed to assume, the ceasefire would be broken again.
Tomorrow: The Families of the Mujahideen