Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jammu and Kashmir: The Country Without a Post Office*

Since the dawn of independence, Kashmir is the main cause of disagreement between India and Pakistan. The only difference today from what it was in 1947 is, that the state seems to be more divided and communalized. Regular attempts by both countries took place to resolve the dispute through various means: from bilateral talks, wars and state sponsored militancy but the crisis sustained as the major source of tension and dispute between them. Today the divide among the Hindu and Muslim communities has enormously widened up in the region, credit goes to the intensified promotion of religious politics by major political parties from both sides. When one side desires to justify the ‘Two Nations theory’ that emphasizes that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live together, the other side promotes jingoistic nationalism and demands Muslims to be treated as second-class citizens. Religious sentiments are repetitively injected to both communities, as it is a well-known fact that religion is the only topic that can easily rouse the ordinary people to fight against each other. History confirms again and again the famous Karl Marx maxim “Religion is the opium of the masses”. An elderly Muslim shopkeeper in Udarana, a mixed Hindu-Muslim village near the town of Bhaderwah, expresses this enormous divide “Now we hardly visit each other’s homes or patronize each other’s shops. ...We really don’t have love in our hearts for each other.” From the early nineties, Hindu-Muslim relations have rapidly been diminished in the state.

Jammu and Kashmir's first political party, the 'Muslim Conference' was founded in 1932 with Shaikh Abdullah as its President. While a student at Aligarh Muslim University, Shaikh Abdullah was influenced by liberal and progressive ideas. He became convinced that the feudal system existing in the land was to blame for the miseries of Kashmir, which was ruled in an oppressive and autocratic manner by a Hindu monarchy. 'Muslim Conference' changed its name to 'National Conference' in 1938 on the objective to create a broader platform and allow people from all communities to join the struggle against the monarchy of Maharaja Hari Singh. At the time of partition, when the Maharaja was hesitating over the choice of acceding either to India or to Pakistan, Shaikh Abdullah supported India. He was appointed Prime Minister of Kashmir on March 17, 1948. Until the monarchy existed, most Muslims in the region were landless laborers. Along with the Dalits, they were also treated as untouchables by the 'upper' caste Hindus. Under Shaikh Abdullah, radical land reforms were introduced in the state, through which sharecroppers, mainly Muslims and Dalits, got land previously owned by Rajput and Brahmin landlords. His effort made him a hugely popular mass leader. In 1953, the Indian government betrayed Shaikh Abdullah by sacking him from the Prime Minister’s post. He was accused for conspiring against the State and jailed from 1953 to 1975. Meanwhile, the Indian Constitution, vide Article 370 had granted a special status to the state guaranteeing it autonomy except for defense, foreign affairs and communications. After his release, he had sworn in as the Chief Minister in 1977 with a massive mandate. For the next five years, until the death of Shaikh Abdullah in 1982, Jammu and Kashmir was politically calm and stable. The separatist movement in the Kashmir Valley restarted from April 1988. The movement gathered momentum through a close nexus between Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Pakistan, which reached its peak in the mid nineties. The present controversy on the Amarnath Shrine Board land transfer and the subsequent incidents must be read based on this history.

Amarnath Shrine Board land transfer fiasco

The Amarnath Caves are one of the most famous Hindu shrines located in the Himalayas at the altitude of 12,760 feet. The caves are about 88 miles away from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (Jammu is the winter capital). It is one of the most significant pilgrimage destinations for the Hindus and attracts about 400,000 pilgrims (Yatri) every year. In the year 2000, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board was set up to take care of the pilgrims passage (Yatra) to the caves that was previously conducted jointly by tourism department of the state government and Dharamarth Trust. The Yatra and Yatris were largely assisted by the local people of the region, who are Muslims. Apart from the obvious gesture of religious harmony, the Amarnath Yatra is also economically important for the local people.

On 26 May 2008, the Congress-led coalition government of Jammu and Kashmir decided to transfer 100 acres of forestland to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to set up temporary shelters and facilities for the pilgrims. The government decision snowballed into a huge public outcry in the Kashmir valley. During protests, six people were killed and 100 injured in police firing at Srinagar. The coalition partner PDP pulled out its support and the government was reduced to a minority. Keeping in mind the coming state election and under pressure from different quarters, the government revoked the order on 1 July. Immediately, violent counter protests sparked off in the Jammu region spearheaded by Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti, a conglomeration of several Hindu chauvinist groups but with a large mass support. Here also at least three people were killed by police firing. Questions are raised by the Samiti, which was formed around the Hindu sentiment, that if the decision to transfer the land was revoked after the protests in the Kashmir region, why not it is further restored after the more aggressive Jammu counter protests? On 7 July, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad resigned after loosing the trust vote in the state assembly and Governor's rule was imposed in the state.

In this political chaos, the role of the PDP (Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party) was the most to condemn. The decision to transfer the forestland to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board was a unanimous cabinet decision cleared by the state forest ministry and the deputy chief minister, both top notches from the PDP leadership. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti’s remark that she came to know about the decision only from newspaper reports were a full-size lie. The fact is that the PDP leadership could not foresee the huge public protests following the order and when the situation turned worst did a volte-face to safeguard its political ambitions in the coming election. After the government revoked the land transform order, PDP started demanding a credit for it. This is a clear example of the politics of opportunism being played by political parties jeopardizing the life of the ordinary people of Jammu and Kashmir.

The aftermath

The present turmoil has clearly shattered the myth of Jammu and Kashmir as a single entity. The deep-rooted religious and social divide prevailing in the region is entirely exposed now as a 'Jammu versus Kashmir' dispute. In the Jammu region, the Muslims are a minority compared to Kashmir where the Muslims are the majority. Therefore, while protesters in Jammu enforced an economic blockade of the Kashmir Valley by stopping traffic on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, on 11 August separatist leaders of the Kashmir region instigated a march to Muzaffarabad (the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir referred as PoK) bypassing Jammu. The intention was to explore new trading options by crossing the Line of Control, the temporary border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The march violated the imposed curfew, clashed with the security forces leading to ten more deaths including All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz. The polarization in the state became absolute and there is no space of suppleness visible from either side now.

My memory is again in the way of your history.
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved— all
winter— its crushed fennel.
We can't ask them: Are you done with the world?

In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked
in each other's reflections.

Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are
found like this centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?

In this country we step out with doors in our arms.

Children run out with windows in their arms.
You drag it behind you in lit corridors.
if the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.

- Farewell: Agha Shahid Ali

Political gambits have caused a colossal damage to the economy, education system and social fabric of Jammu and Kashmir. The once tranquil and gorgeous land has turned into a ‘valley of fear’. It has turned into a land of orphans and widows, a land of graveyards. After frequently witnessing violent deaths and funerals of near and dear ones, the people here has lost their normal human feelings. Violence has affected all sections of life. It has in fact become a way of ‘communication’. Human lives are so devalued that a few killings hardly shock anybody. Students have lost their inquisitiveness to learn. Teachers lost their enthusiasm to teach. To visit homes of friends and relatives people has to prove their innocence before security personals. Everyone has to carry an identity card, which is regarded almost as oxygen. The situation is best described by Agha Shahid Ali in his poem, “everyone carries his address so that at least his body will reach home”. Anxiety and tension has become a part of the daily life here. A very disturbing psychology of suspicion and fear has permanently etched in the minds of local people.

Though located within free and democratic India, Jammu and Kashmir no more signifies to be a free place. The presence of army and security forces in every nook and corner has developed a feeling of confinement and repression. To the ordinary Muslim minds in particular, the most humiliating feeling must be to live under regular scrutiny about their ‘patriotism’ and allegiance to the Indian state. Armed conflict and disputes has halted the economic development of the state. In the last one and a half month following the Amarnath Shrine Board land dispute, the local economy suffered a loss of nearly Rs. 200-250 crores.

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished

in our absence from the broken city.
We’ll tear our shirts for tourniquets
and bind the open thorns, warm the ivy
into roses. Quick, by the pomegranate—
the bird will say—Humankind can bear
everything. No need to stop the ear

- A Pastoral: Agha Shahid Ali

There is very little hope left over for the ordinary people of Jammu and Kashmir today, the hope for an exuberant future. In the present circumstances, it is almost impossible even to dream about a brotherhood involving the two communities, as the poet Agha Shahid Ali did in his deeply emotional poem A Pastoral dedicated to his Kashmiri Hindu friend Suvir Kaul. To hope, one should regain trust and rely on truth. Who will bring back trust and truth among the people of Jammu and Kashmir? Time after time, people's trustworthiness has been used by fraudulent leaders for their own wicked causes. Who will tell them that division is greater a problem, not a solution? We really do not know. Truth is the most politicized commodity in today’s Jammu and Kashmir. Truth is perilous because it badly damages the vicious interests of the various players in this unfortunate state: governments, mainstream political parties, the separatists and the nationalists.

* Derived from the title of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s book The Country Without a Post Office published by W. W. Norton & Company in 1998. The book was originally published as Kashmir without a Post Office in the Graham House Review.
Agha Shahid Ali was born in New Delhi on February 4, 1949. He grew up in a distinguished Muslim family in Srinagar, Kashmir and was later educated at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar, and the University of Delhi. He earned a Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984, and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985. He died peacefully, in his sleep, of brain cancer in December, 2001.
* Painting by Nilima Sheikh from the series ‘Reading Agha Shahid Ali’: Each night put Kashmir in your dreams