Ever since the visit of the administrator of this blog, to the Kashmir valley, there have appeared a number of articles about this beautiful but troubled part of this world, the last one of which was by Reena Daruwalla, titled “Kashmir, A Paradise? Not Quite.”
As a Kashmiri, born in the valley, and with having spent a substantial part of my adolescence there, I am attempting this essay in four parts, trying to outline the story of Kashmir from 1947 till the present times. As we all know, history is a very elusive art, and tends to camouflage itself, chameleon-like, in the colours of the glasses that the writer is wearing at the time. To be able to write objectively about a subject requires not only detachment in time but also in distance. Both are absent in this case. In fact, it is an intensely personal memoir, heavily dependent upon my impressions as I grew from childhood to adolescence in the valley. I am not a writer of the caliber of Ramchandra Guha, whose “India After Gandhi” is a seminal work of research and admirably rises above the two pitfalls. I request the reader’s indulgence, and that is the reason why this essay will remain “My Story of Kashmir” and not its history.
Part I: The Seemingly Beautiful Forevers (With apologies to Katherine Boo)
My first day in school started just a few months before independence. I was five years old and I still remember that day when my father walked me to the C.M.S. Tyndale Biscoe Memorial High School. In October that year Pakistan launched its first incursion into Kashmir with the intention of annexing the princely province that had not yet decided its future. I was too young to understand war, but when my uncle with his wife and two daughters landed up at my father’s house urging him to instantly join them in the mass exodus of the Hindus from Srinagar; I realized that something serious was afoot. My uncle’s family had no baggage with them. However, they all looked very bulky. Later on I came to know that they were wearing all the clothes they could on their persons in an attempt to salvage whatever was reasonably possible. My father, I believe, told my uncle that he would not be able to gather all of us (I was five, my two sisters were nine and three) and that it would be practically impossible to find transport at that late hour. He somehow persuaded my uncle to abandon the idea of flight and to await whatever fate was going to throw at us.
Pakistani Tribals, with the active participation of the army, had launched a series of surprise attacks across Jammu & Kashmir on October 24, 1947. They quickly subdued the militia of the Maharaja, Hari Singh, whose Muslim soldiers from Mirpur deserted and joined the invaders after killing their Hindu and Sikh officers. Muzaffarabad was overrun the same day, and the invaders marched towards Baramulla, Sopore, and Srinagar. With practically no army worth the name, the valiant Brig. Rajinder Singh, fighting till his last breath, held up their march for two days at the Uri Bridge; that gave Hari Singh the time to sign the Instrument of Accession with India and to flee from the valley. Maqbool Sherwani, a young resident of Baramulla, had also contrived to buy some more time by misdirecting the invaders away from Srinagar. For his pains he was hanged by them. However, his brave act had delayed the march on Srinagar. With the accession confirmed in writing, the Indian government put its forces into action, and the invaders were stopped just 7 miles before Srinagar. We had escaped literally by the skin of our teeth.
The Kashmiri Hindus who were unfortunate to fall into the clutches of the invading Afridis were subject to the most heinous atrocities; the men were massacred, the women were raped and killed, their houses looted and burnt down. A number of Hindu women committed suicide by jumping to their deaths from the top floors of their houses. Many Sikh men had killed their women and young girls so that they would not fall into the clutches of the invaders. The Pakistanis were eventually repulsed, but Prime Minister Nehru, (apparently on the advice of Lady Mountbatten) and against the advice of the Home Minister, Sardar Patel, called a halt to the hostilities, even before the raiders had been driven fully out of Jammu & Kashmir. Bringing the UN into the midst of all this complicated the issue further and the ceasefire that followed has created a permanent area of conflict with Pakistan. Nehru’s blunder is making the country pay very dearly and one is unable to see a permanent solution to this problem.
Although Punjab and Bengal were witnessing the worst kind of communal carnage during this period, Kashmir had, by and large, remained peaceful. Apart from the Mirpuris who deserted and joined the invaders, the other Kashmiri Muslims did not get swayed by the appeal of an Islamic army and tried their utmost to protect their Hindu neighbors. Maqbool Sherwani’s supreme sacrifice is a prime example of the attitude of the Kashmiri Muslims towards the Hindu minority of the state. However, in the face of a marauding horde there was not much that the poor locals could do. It is estimated that about 30000 Hindus lost their lives in that first invasion.
With the invasion halted and partially repulsed, life in the valley returned to its languid ways. The Kashmiris are generally very laid-back, not overly-ambitious, and for them a secure government job is the ultimate prize to be achieved. The attitude towards religion too was quite liberal, for both Pandits and Muslims. Visits to various shrines like Khir Bhawani and Hari Parbat were more like picnics than pilgrimages. The idea of going on a pilgrimage is rather unknown to the Pandits. For them there are no austerities to be performed or rituals to be observed before making a visit to a holy place. In fact, more non-Kashmiris would visit the Amarnath cave and the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu than the Pandits. I suspect we were too fond of the good, easy life, and going on arduous pilgrimages did not fit into this lifestyle. The Muslims too had a similar attitude towards religion. There were very few among the community who went on Haj and I did not know anyone who performed Namaz daily, let alone five times a day. Many of the shrines were held holy by both communities and many Sufi saints of Kashmir had Hindu as well as Muslim names. Both communities would worship at their mazars asking for their protection and for special boons. Our family deity, known to us as Roop Bhawani, is also recognized by the Muslims as Roop Arifa. Legend says that when she shed her mortal frame, the Hindus wanted to cremate her body while the Muslims wanted to bury it. However, like with Kabir, the mourners found that the body had vanished and only a few strands of hair, known as alakh, and some flowers were left under the shroud on the funeral plank. There are many shrines in different parts of the valley that are dedicated to her, but the one our family was particularly fond of was at the small hamlet of Vaskur, near Sumbal.
As children we would look forward to these religious picnics. The trip to Khir Bhawani would sometime be by a Doonga (a modest house boat, quite unlike the luxurious houseboats you find on the Dal Lake for tourists). The Doonga would inevitably be owned by a Muslim family (called Hanjis) who would also be living, usually in the aft section of the boat, where a kitchen with a dried-clay fireplace would be housed. There, obviously, was no problem of Brahmins and Muslims coexisting in the confined space of a small houseboat.
A Doonga trip would usually be with one or two other families, either from among our relatives, or from my father’s friends. The party would include a family cook who would prepare the meals during the journey. On these trips the menu would be more elaborate, and the cook expected to conjure up delectable mutton dishes and fresh vegetables bought from the vendors floating on the lake. Just before reaching the temple town, however, all the mutton on board would have been consumed, and everybody would become vegetarian. A trip to Khir Bhawani and back would normally take three days. These were three days of no school, no home work, and very little parental supervision. We were only cautioned to keep away from danger, and to ensure that we did not fall into the waters.
Once landfall was made at Ganderbal, we would all disembark, making the rest of the journey on foot. The complex at Khir Bhawani has a small shrine in the middle of an enclosed spring, whose waters are reputed to change colour. The shrine is connected by a gangway only used by the priests to wash and clean the idol of Devi. Devotees are not allowed on this gangway. Around the shrine is a large courtyard, paved with flagstones, canopied by huge Chinar trees providing ample shade. The courtyard can accommodate hundreds of devotees, who await their turn to make their offerings to the goddess, and make special prayers conducted by the officiating priests. The courtyard is encircled by the waters of a shallow rivulet that has been bounded on both sides. A part of this rivulet is enclosed for women, to take their ritual baths before they offer their prayers. The men bathe in the open waters. Beyond this circle is a market housing shops selling pooja materials, and a variety of general goods. There are a number of traditional Kashmiri Halwais who are busy making luchis and halwa. Luchis and Halwa of Khir Bhawani are somehow special, and are normally not a part of our regular diet. Both are rather rich and heavy; but there must be something special in the water and air of Khir Bhawani, that no matter how much we gorged on these delectable items, we never felt sick. The atmosphere is very relaxed. It is like being in a fair. Everyone is having a lot of fun. Children are playing a variety of games in the grounds beyond the rivulet, women exchanging gossip, brewing kahwa (green tea) in their samovars; and the men busy in making arrangements for the special offerings and prayers at the shrine of the goddess.
Offerings made, prayers said, and it is time for the return journey. We pick up our things and start walking back to where the Doonga is berthed. Ganderbal is a town on the banks of the river Sind, and is famous for its fish. As soon as the party reaches Ganderbal, the cook is dispatched to buy fish and mutton for dinner and the meals for the next day. Being vegetarian is no longer necessary.
These beautiful times just rolled by, and the pace of life continued to maintain its languid poise. The people of Kashmir, though not wealthy, were quite content within their limitations. There was respect for the state leaders, among whom Sheikh Abdullah was indeed the tallest, as also for national leaders. As school children we have enthusiastically welcomed Prime Minister Nehru, Home Minister G. B. Pant, and the other visiting dignitaries from India and abroad. People moved freely across the land and the only visible uniform on the roads would be worn by the men of Jammu & Kashmir Police. The CRPF were in barracks far from the towns and cities, while the Indian Army was stationed at the outposts along the Line of Control that came into existence after Pakistan’s first attempt to wrest the province by military force. The Army Cantonment was at the entrance to the city of Srinagar at a place called Badami Bagh, and its inmates hardly interacted with the local population. My brother was an officer in the state Police and I have travelled to some very remote and beautiful parts of the valley with him during my school vacations. On one such trip we followed a criminal right up to the no-man’s land before the LOC; a chase that lasted for two days across steep mountains and deep valleys, and apart from two pill boxes manned by a single soldier each, we did not see any other person in uniform except the members of our police party. Even at the last village before the LOC we found no men in uniform. The village was small and its headman welcomed us and bade us stay in his house. We were treated with utmost respect and affection. The criminal was caught, and brought back to the original village for further proceedings.
That these beautiful times were not going to last forever had not entered the consciousness of the Kashmiris. Pakistani pin-pricks continued but they seemed not to be making any impression on the people of the valley. Sheikh Abdullah’s land reforms which truly abolished zamindari in the state and gave agricultural land to the tillers had, in one stroke, put a surplus in the hands of the impoverished peasant class. A visionary reformer, he made education almost free up to University level. The standard of education too was no less than any other institution in India, although the state did not yet have many professional training institutions for engineers and doctors. The twin initiatives of giving land to the tillers and providing free education to all was grabbed with both hands by the peasantry who found that they could now spare the young from their fields and send them to school to get a proper education. They were no longer living a marginal existence where every hand had to be productively employed in the fields or in the sweat shops run by wealthy merchants knitting shawls or knotting carpets. Notably, these reforms have still not been implemented in the rest of India.
During the sixties, within a span of ten to fifteen years, Kashmir had a significant population of educated, lower-middle class youth, with normal aspirations of gainful employment. However, during this period the moral climate had been completely vitiated by a succession of self-serving and venal class of politicians, who came to power after the thoughtless dismissal and incarceration of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. This blunder of truly Himalayan proportions by Nehru was second only to his call for cease fire when still a large part of Kashmir was in hostile possession. Kashmir was handed over first to the most corrupt family then in existence, known as the BBC (Bakshi Brothers Corporation), who amongst them bled the valley while building enormous fortunes for themselves. The Kamraj plan was, mercifully, used to get rid of this son of the soil, but his successors were even worse. In between came people like Shamsuddin (I am sure nobody even remembers that he was the Chief Minister for a few months), followed by the leftist G. M. Sadiq, and Syed Mir Qasim, in whose times began the alienation of the newly educated youth of Kashmir. By the time the Sheikh had been let out of jail and reinstated by Indira Gandhi in 1974, under the Indira-Sheikh accord as the C.M., much damage had been done to the secular fabric of Kashmir.
In 1962, our family left Srinagar and I joined college in Delhi. Little did I think that events would turn so that future visits to the valley would be as tourists and not as residents!
This is part one of a four part series on Kashmir