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A kashmiri journalist talks abt his country & scarificies of his people
by Saima Alvi
01 June 2002 15:02 UTC
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My lost country  BY Muzamil Jaleel 

ABSTRACT: Muzamil Jaleel grew up in the meadows and
mountains of Kashmir. Then he saw friends and family
die in its pursuit of independence. His country has
become a battlefield - and he knows it can never be
the same. 

Full Article:

Not long ago, somebody asked me what kind of stories I
wrote. Obituaries came to mind. As a reporter in
Kashmir I have been literally writing obituaries for
the past 10 years; only the characters and places
change, the stories are always the same, full of
misery and tears. 

And when in October last year I got a chance to leave
Kashmir, I hoped for a change. Every human being has a
threshold for pain and agony. I felt mine had been
reached. I wanted to escape. But within days, Kashmir
was in the headlines and although I was thousands of
miles away, I found myself in the middle of it all

I was born in Kashmir. I grew up in its apple orchards
and lush green meadows, dreamed on the banks of its
freshwater streams. I went to school there, sitting on
straw mats and memorising tables by heart. After
school my friends and I would rush half-way home, tear
off our uniforms and dive into the cold water. Then we
would quickly dry our hair, so our parents would not
find out what we had done. Sometimes, when we felt
especially daring, we would skip an entire day of
school to play cricket. 

My village lies in the foothills of the Himalayas.
During summer breaks, we would trek to the meadows
high in the mountains carrying salt slates for the
family cattle, sit around a campfire and play the
flute for hours. The chilling winter would turn the
boys and girls of our small village into one huge
family - huddled together in a big room, we would
listen to stories till late into the night. Sipping
hot cups of the traditional salt tea, the village
elder who had inherited the art of storytelling would
transport us to the era of his tales. He had never
been to school but he remembered hundreds of beautiful
stories by heart. Kashmir was like a big party, full
of love and life. Today death and fear dominate

I was in Kashmir too when the first bomb exploded in
1988. People first thought it was the outcome of a
small political feud, although everybody knew the pot
was boiling after years of political discontent. Then
that September a young man, Ajaz Dar, died in a
violent encounter with the police. Disgruntled by the
farce of decades of ostensible democracy under Indian
rule, a group of Kashmiri young men had decided to
fight. They had dreamt of an independent Kashmir free
from both India and Pakistan. Although this young man
was not the first Kashmiri to die fighting for this
cause, his death was the beginning of an era of

Separatist sentiment had been dominant among Kashmiris
since 1947, when Kashmir was divided between India and
Pakistan during partition, and the two countries
fought over it. But it was not until 40 years later
that most of the youngsters opted for guns against
Indian rule, in reaction to the government-sponsored
rigging of the assembly polls, aimed at crushing

It is not a surprise that India's most wanted Kashmiri
militant leader, Syed Salahudin, contested that
assembly election from Srinagar, nor that,
unofficially, he was winning by a good margin. When
the elections were rigged, he lost not only the
election but faith in the process as well. His polling
agents and supporters were arrested and tortured; most
of them later became militants. 

Neighbouring Pakistan, which occupies a third of
Kashmir, also smelled the changing mood in Kashmir and
offered a helping hand by providing arms training and
AK-47 rifles. Violence was introduced amid growing
dissent against India and hundreds of young people
joined the armed movement. Kashmir was changing. 

I had just completed secondary school then and was
enrolled in a college - a perfect potential recruit:
the entire militant movement belonged to my
generation. The movement was the only topic of
discussion on the street, in the classroom and at
home. Soon people started coming out onto the streets,
thousands would march to the famous Sufi shrines or to
the United Nations office, shouting slogans in favour
of ' Azadi !' (freedom). These mass protests became an
everyday affair, frustrating the authorities, who
began to use force to counter them. Dozens of
protesters were killed by police fire. 

Many of my close friends and classmates began to join.
One day, half of our class was missing. They never
returned to school again, and nobody even looked for
them, because it was understood. 

Although the reasons for joining the militant movement
varied from person to person, the majority of
Kashmiris never felt that they belonged to India. What
had been a relatively dormant separatist sentiment was
finally exploding into a fully-fledged separatist

I too wanted to join, though I didn't know exactly why
or what it would lead to. Most of us were teenagers
and had not seriously thought about the consequences.
Perhaps the rebel image was subconsciously attracting
us all. 

I also prepared for the dangerous journey from our
village in north Kashmir to Pakistan-controlled
Kashmir where all the training camps were. One didn't
just have to avoid being sighted by the Indian
soldiers who guarded the border round the clock, but
also defeat the fierce cold and the difficulties of
hiking over the snow-clad Himalayan peaks that stood
in the way. I acquired the standard militant's gear: I
bought the Wellington boots, prepared a polythene
jacket and trousers to wear over my warm clothes, and
found some woollen cloth to wrap around my calves as
protection from frostbite. 

Fortunately, I failed. Three times a group of us
returned from the border. Each time something happened
that forced our guide to take us back. The third time,
23 of us had started our journey on foot from
Malangam, not far away from my village, only to be
abandoned in a dense jungle. It was night, and the
group had scattered after hearing gunshots nearby,
sensing the presence of Indian army men. In the
morning, when we gathered again, our guide was
missing. Most of the others decided to continue on
their own, but a few of us turned back. We had nothing
to eat but leaves for three days. We followed the
flight of crows, hoping to reach a human settlement. I
was lucky. I reached home and survived. 

As the days and months passed, and as the routes the
militants took to cross the border became known to
Indian security forces, the bodies began to arrive.
Lines of young men would disappear on a ridge as they
tried to cross over or return home. The stadiums where
we had played cricket and football, the beautiful
green parks where we had gone on school excursions as
children, were turned into martyrs' graveyards. One
after another, those who had played in those places
were buried there, with huge marble epitaphs detailing
their sacrifice. Many had never fired a single bullet
from their Kalashnikovs. 

One day, I counted my friends and classmates in the
martyrs' graveyards near our village. There were 21 of
them. I could feel the smiling face of Mushtaq, whom I
had known since our schooldays. He would have been 31
this January, but the ninth anniversary of his death
is just two months away. He was killed in April 1993.
His mother could not bear the pain and lost her mental
balance. For all these years, she has been wandering
around the villages carrying the shirt he wore on the
day of his death. 

Another friend, Javaid, was his parents' only son.
Extremely handsome, he was obsessed with seeing change
in Kashmir. The day he died, he was wearing my
clothes. He had come to our house in the morning and
changed there. He was 23, and even six hours after his
death, when they took him for burial, blood still
oozed out of his bullet wounds. I will never forget
the moment when I lifted the coffin lid away from his
face: there was that usual grin. For a moment, he
seemed alive to me. 

Javaid's sister was to have been married 15 days later
but the shock of his death gave her a heart attack.
She died a few days before what would have been her
wedding day. 

Today, there are more than 500 martyrs' graveyards
dotting Kashmir, and every epitaph standing on a grave
tells a story - a tragic story of my generation.
Engraving epitaphs has become a lucrative business. 

As the death toll of Kashmiris mounted, the world saw
the violent movement only as the outcome of a
territorial dispute between India and Pakistan which
had its roots in the 1947 partition. India always
called the rebellion a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist
movement, while Pakistan projected it as a jihad - a
Kashmiri struggle to join Pakistan just because they
shared a common faith. 

For India, the future of Kashmir is non-negotiable -
it is an 'integral part' of the country, the only
Muslim majority state in the union and thus a
cornerstone of its democracy and secular credentials.
For Pakistan, Kashmir is also important because the
majority of its population is Muslim - it is
Pakistan's 'jugular vein', and an unfinished task from
the subcontinent's partition in which Pakistan was
born as a home for Indian Muslims. 

With these claims on Kashmir, both countries have
choked the voice of Kashmiris. The Indian government
has reacted with an iron fist, deployed large numbers
of security men and turned Kashmir into one massive

Pakistan's hands are not clean either. When hundreds
of thousands of Kashmiris came out in support of the
separatist movement in 1990, Pakistan's lust for
Kashmir's land was exposed. It hijacked the separatist
movement, painted it with religious fundamentalism and
introduced pro-Pakistan, and later jihadi groups to
ensure it enjoyed absolute control. 

Within years, Kashmir turned into yet another
battlefield in the pan-Islamic jihad and its warriors
as well as its leaders were now made up of
non-Kashmiris whose agendas transcend the demand for
self-determination. In the process, the genuine
political struggle for the unification of Kashmir and
the demand of the people that they should be allowed
to decide their own future was forgotten. 

Whatever attention Kashmir was given was because it
was a flashpoint between two nuclear neighbours and
not because Kashmiris were suffering. India and
Pakistan seem to share one common policy on Kashmir -
to force Kashmiris to toe their respective lines. In
fact, it seems that both countries want to fight to
the last Kashmiri. 

The Indian government held state elections in 1996
apparently aimed at ensuring a representative
government in Kashmir. But actually it was nothing
more than a farce. The security forces herded people
to polling stations and even conducted 'nail parades'
to check - by the indelible ink pasted on the nail of
the forefinger - that people had voted. 

The man who represents Kashmir - not only in New
Delhi, but across the world as India's junior Foreign
Minister - is Omar Abdullah, the son of Kashmir's
Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. He received just 5 per
cent of votes in his constituency - after coercion by
the police and the security forces - and he won the
elections. Who he does actually represent, nobody

I have been a witness to all this. I have seen Kashmir
change. I still remember my grandmother worrying
whenever the sky turned red. 'Murder has been
committed somewhere,' she would say. Now that
suspicion can no longer be reserved for red skies: the
daily death toll is 20. 

Kashmir used to be known as a crime-free state. One of
my neighbours was a senior police officer in the
mid-Eighties; he once told me that the average yearly
murder rate in Kashmir was three or four. Today, if
three people perish in a day, itis considered

I have been fortunate enough to be safe, but my family
and relatives have not been that lucky. My younger
brother Mudabir was picked up in 1994 on suspicion of
militancy, and it took us a month just to trace his
whereabouts. We divided up the entire Kashmir valley
among our family members. Every morning, each one of
us would do the rounds of the security force camps to
look for him. 

My mother had never been to a police station in her
entire life, but by the time she finally located my
brother, she knew almost every military camp around

And by the time the security forces were convinced of
his innocence and released him, he had already been
tortured so much that he spent the next two months in

It is now seven years since his release, but he still
has nightmares and the mere sight of a soldier sends
shivers down his spine. A late-night knock at the door
still gives him goose pimples, and sends his heart
rate soaring. But this is not exceptional any more in

A cousin's husband bled to death after he was caught
in the crossfire while coming out of mosque one
evening. He could have been saved had he reached the
hospital in time. But the security forces did not
allow the family to come out of their house and take
him to the hospital, and there was no other way to
seek medical help. He bled to death crying for help,
and his wife, mother and younger brother could do
nothing but watch their own helplessness. A boy was
born in the family four months after his death. 

By 1992, there were hardly any young men left in the
few villages in north Kashmir around my home. Many had
joined the militant movement. Some had died, while
others had gone underground; some had surrendered and
become counter-insurgents and were part of the
pro-government militias. Many had migrated to the
urban area of Srinagar city, which was then deemed
comparatively safe. 

The complexion of the separatist movement was changing
fast, and it no longer represented the genuine
political aspirations of the people. The pro-Pakistan
jihadi groups who dominated the movement tried to
impose their radical religious, social and cultural
agendas, ignoring the fact that their extremism was
alien to the very ethos of Kashmir. 

Kashmir has a history of composite culture and
religious tolerance. In fact, Islam did not arrive in
Kashmir through the clatter of the sword. It was
introduced by mystics and Sufis who conquered the
hearts of the people. In the centuries that followed,
Kashmir turned into a melting pot of ideas and a
meeting ground for Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam; there
was no place for religious extremism. 

Now, as fanaticism started to dominate, using the
power of the gun, the militant movement was rendered a
mere tool in Pakistan's plan to bleed its arch-rival
India with a thousand cuts. 

I decided to leave my village to move to Srinagar and
join Kashmir University. I was so desperate to leave
that I applied to almost all the departments. It was
mere chance that I got into journalism. And when I
started writing about the war later that year, I felt
that I had been part of this tragic story from the
beginning. I knew the militants and the mukhbirs (the
police informers); those who surrendered and those who
did not; those who faced death because they had a
dream and those who were sacrificed by mere chance,
neither knowing nor understanding the issues at stake;
those who believed they were fighting a holy war and
those who joined for unholy reasons. But, as it turned
out, there was more to the story. 

My first assignment as a reporter was to visit a city
police station and collect information regarding some
corpses lying there. I accompanied a few local
photographers, who began taking pictures as I stared
at the six bullet-riddled bodies. They were in
terrible condition: blood-soaked clothes, entrails
exposed, faces unrecognisable. 

That evening, I was haunted by the picture of bodies
lying in a pool of blood - even a drink of water
reminded me of blood. I couldn't sleep for days;
corpses haunted my dreams. 

A few months later I arrived at the site of a massacre
to find wailing women and unshaven men sitting in
huddles. Bodies lay scattered, like rag dolls
discarded by careless children. I felt a lump growing
in my throat, my legs felt heavy. I felt incredibly
tired and wanted to throw down my notebook and sit
silently with the mourners. The noise of the camera
shutters invaded my private thoughts, forcing me to
think about the story I had to write. 

Over the years, writing obituaries became a routine.
When violence rules the day, there is nothing but
tears to jerk out of the reader's soul. If I avoided
writing about the gory details of death, I would end
up writing about orphans or widows. In the process, my
reactions to such incidents also began to change. I
could no longer relate to these tragedies. Now
killings meant stories and bylines, and there was
satisfaction to be found in penning them, even if I
knew the victims personally. 

The continuous interaction with death and destruction
was providing a necessary thrill, and the killing
fields of Kashmir were becoming nothing but news
pastures for me. Every evening, I would wait for the
police bulletin that provides the statistics of the
daily deaths. Much as a shopkeeper counts his cash
before calling it a day, I would count the dead before
leaving the office. I once used a calculator to count
the 105 men and women dead across the 12 districts in
24 hours. My newspaper wanted a breakdown and I found
myself lost in numbers. 

I belong to Kashmir's cursed generation - the youth of
the Nineties. I have lived all these troubled years in
Kashmir and am still well and alive. But in the
process my tears have dried up. I have lost normal
human feelings to the adventures of reporting
day-to-day violence in my country. I am immune to the
death of my own people; I have developed an inability
to mourn. 

And it seems that the outside world too is unable to
feel the pain of Kashmir. After more than 50,000
deaths, there still appears to be no headway towards
peace. The international community needs to resolve
issues between India and Pakistan. It is not only
important in order to avoid a nuclear conflict: it is
imperative to end the suffering of the Kashmiri

Prose poem by Agha Shahid Ali

Dear Shahid, I am writing to you from your far-off
country. Far even from us who live here. Where you no
longer are. Everyone carries his address in his pocket
so that at least his body will reach home. 

Rumours break on their way to us in the city. But word
still reaches us from border towns: Men are forced to
stand barefoot in snow waters all night. The women are
alone inside. Soldiers smash radios and televisions.
With bare hands they tear our houses to pieces. 

You must have heard Rizwan was killed. Rizwan:
Guardian of the Gates of Paradise. Only eighteen years
old. Yesterday at Hideout Café (everyone there asks
about you), a doctor - who had just treated a
sixteen-year-old boy released from an interrogation
centre - said: I want to ask the fortune-tellers: Did
anything in his line of Fate reveal that the webs of
his hands would be cut with a knife? 

This letter, insh'Allah, will reach you for my brother
goes south tomorrow where he shall post it. Here one
can't even manage postage stamps. Today I went to the
post office. Across the river. Bags and bags -
hundreds of canvas bags - all undelivered mail. By
chance I looked down and there on the floor I saw this
letter addressed to you. So I am enclosing it. I hope
it's from someone you are longing for news of. 

Things here are as usual though we always talk about
you. Will you come home soon? Waiting for you is like
waiting for spring. We are waiting for the almond
blossoms. And, if God wills, O! those days of peace
when we all were in love and the rain was in our hands
wherever we went.

A prose poem taken from The Country Without a Post
Office by Agha Shahid Ali (WW Norton, £8.50). Ali was
an award-winning Kashmiri poet praised by, amongst
others, John Ashbery and Edward Said. He died last


Posted from THE GUARDIAN


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