LINES OF CONTROL
When They Want War, India and Pakistan Will Always Have Kashmir
For a few days in February two nuclear powers stood at the brink of war. This will happen again and if, or when, there is a South Asian Armageddon you’ll find the reasons here.
When this series was first published in The Daily Beast last December, I had no idea that Kashmir was about to explode—quite literally—into the headlines again.
There had been numerous developments in the region between my visit and the series’ publication, but none were quite as important, or as troubling, as those that came to pass in February and March. In light of these more recent developments, a preamble is in order.
On February 14, an Indian-born Kashmiri named Adil Ahmad Dar drove 300 kilograms of explosives into a convoy of Indian military vehicles in Pulwama, a district of Indian-administered Kashmir. In addition to himself, Dar killed 40 Indian soldiers, rendering the attack the deadliest in decades. A Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, claimed responsibility for his actions, and the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to allege Pakistani involvement. Pakistan denied the charge.
A quickly escalating game of tit-for-tat followed. Indian jets crossed the infamous Line of Control and, according to official statements, bombed a terrorist training camp on Pakistani soil. Pakistan denied this, too, saying the planes hadn’t destroyed much of anything and certainly hadn’t killed any terrorists.
Meanwhile, Pakistan sent its own planes across the LoC in response. For the first time since the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan engaged in dogfights over Kashmir. When an Indian plane was shot down on the Pakistani side of the LoC, its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured. He was returned to India on the first day of March in a move that Pakistan described as a “gesture of peace.” The stand-off has largely been limited to cross-border shooting and shelling since. A number of Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC have been killed.
Bill Clinton once described Kashmir as “the most dangerous place in the world.” Christopher Hitchens once described the LoC—from a vantage point on the Pakistani side—as “the near-certain flash point of a coming war that could well become an Asian Armageddon.”
For the moment, that war appears to have been averted. Cross-border shelling is business as usual in this part of the world.
But Hitchens would have been surprised to learn that it was Pakistan, rather than India, that came out looking like the adult on this occasion. Then again, Hitchens, who wrote his dispatch in 2007, had long been convinced that the U.S. alliance with Pakistan was a form of geopolitical self-harm, and Hitchens died before Modi came to power in India in 2014. He did not foresee the rise of an Islamophobic nationalist government in Delhi and couldn’t have guessed at the manner in which that government would wind up radicalizing a whole generation of Indian Kashmiris through its militarization of the region and the brutality it would inflict on its citizens there.
The essentially violent nature of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has now been laid bare by events. Many Kashmiris in other parts of India spent most of late February avoiding lynch mobs. Activists like Shehla Rashid, who you will hear from later in this series, tried to help them. These troubling scenes recalled the 2002 Gujarat riots, which left countless people, mostly Muslims, dead.
The Indian media, up to and including ostensibly liberal journalists like Barkha Dutt, devolved in the wake of the Pulwama attack into an unthinking, bloodthirsty rabble. Bollywood actors, who have only ever played at war, became all-too-willing mongers for it.
Hindutva Twitter—which has long made MAGA Twitter look quaint—seethed with denunciations of “traitors” and “Pakapologists” and writhed with demands for ever greater violence. The extent to which Modi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has entered the Indian mainstream—its bloodstream—seemed scarily absolute.
That Modi faces re-election in April obviously influenced his actions. (Indeed, his numbers went up immediately after he sent planes across the LoC, and a number of his colleagues have callously wondered aloud in the press how many seats the violence will net them.) But it’s the ideological bent of the nation he leads—which is to say, the ideological bent of the man himself—that strikes me as most important here. It is difficult to imagine a world in which Modi, heading to the polls or otherwise, didn’t respond to Pulwama this way.
This is more than a little concerning.
I have amended the postscript to this series slightly, adding some thoughts about what the recent stand-off means for Indian governments going forward—the country’s reluctance to confront its own culpability for the radicalization of Kashmiri youth means we are likely to see more attacks—and about Pakistan’s long-misplaced faith in the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.
I have left the rest of the series more or less as it was published. Consider it a 13,000-word primer on a situation—older than the Arab-Israeli conflict, older than the Tibet debate, as intractable as either and arguably more important than both—that this year brought us closer to midnight than we have been in quite some time.
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 navigated canals lined with colonial-era houseboats, an entire floating neighbourhood 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 patronised 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 homogenous 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. (Never one to miss an opportunity, China controls the remaining twenty.)
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 near 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 BJP leader 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 in the region, 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 Yasir, 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 neighbourhood, 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 was imprisoned between September 2017 and March 2018 on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy, and attempting to wage war against India. Delhi claimed that he wasn’t a real journalist on the grounds that he never received formal training in the trade. He was released on bail—against the wishes of the National Investigative Agency—after the Committee to Protect Journalists and others 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 enrolments; and a Bollywood movie about her life was rushed into the works.
Sitting across from me in the home of PDP 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.
The day after Narendra Modi’s visit to Srinagar, the city remained in a state of suspended animation. It was the anniversary of Molvi Farooq’s assassination, the one-time Mirwaiz of Kashmir and separatist leader having been murdered 18 years earlier. A march had been scheduled, as it is every year, and would have wended its way through the old city that afternoon. But the powers that be had decided that no such march should take place, citing security concerns, and the city was brought to a standstill for the second day in a row by the mutually reinforcing pressures of the military’s lock-down and the separatists’ shutdown.
It was, Yasir told me, as good a day as any to get out of the city and into the militant heartland.
Our driver was a veteran fixer of the insurgency’s 1990s heyday and claimed to have ferried around everyone from CNN to the Washington Post. Despite his bona fides, he still had to stop and ask directions on occasion, so deep into the boondocks were we going. It occurred to me that we could have followed the signs. Not the road signs, of which there were none, but rather those scrawled on the sides of houses and the roller doors of shuttered shop fronts: “We want free.” “We want peace.” “We will become Pakistani.”
If it was difficult to find the village of Heff—a mealy string of concrete buildings along a rocky, unsealed street in the district of Shopian—it was easy to find the home of Bilal Ahmad Mohand, a militant also known as Bilal Molvi who had been killed in a shootout with Indian security forces only two weeks earlier. One only had to look for the signs of martyrdom and mourning, with which the facade of the building was festooned.
Above the front door, fixed to the awning, photographic enlargements of Bilal had been erected that showed him posing with various weapons, his children, and his comrades-in-arms. He had been a large man, a leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen separatist group, and sported a beard that brought immediately to mind those of other militants—terrorists, we could call them in the West—the world over. His father, Muhammad Yousuf, met us at the door and quickly ushered us upstairs.
It was only now that I became aware of a misunderstanding that existed between Yasir and myself. As we settled in against the cushions that lined the walls of the otherwise bare room, he asked me what I wanted to know. I had assumed he was here to report a story of his own, where in fact he had brought me to help me with mine. That I hadn’t a story in mind yet was a problem. Indeed, I had spent most of the morning’s commute marvelling at the poppy plantations on the side of the road—private paddocks of potential heroin—rather than coming up with questions. I asked, a little pathetically, how Muhammad Yousuf was feeling.
He cocked an eyebrow, almost bemused. “My son just died,” he said in Koshur, which sounded to me a little like Urdu, not that I understand Urdu, either. “How does he think I’m feeling?”
He continued talking, primarily to Yasir, as though to save me the embarrassment.
“My son was prepared to die this way,” he said. “We have always known that this is how it would end.”
He said the family’s primary concern was now Bilal’s wife, whom he said had been diagnosed with a “tumor”—meaning cancer—and his two school-aged children.
“We cannot be concerned for Bilal, who is in paradise,” he said. “He died a martyr, as Allah wished it. But now there is no one to care for his family. This is what we must focus on.”
I was better prepared at the next house, the home of Saddam Hussain Paddar, who was killed in the same altercation as Bilal. Paddar’s mother, Feroza Bano, came to join us on the porch, a large woman in a pink floral headscarf, and we settled in again on the cushions provided.
In May 2018, Bano became something of an internet sensation when footage of her at Paddar’s funeral went viral. In the video, which is available on YouTube, Bano stands atop the roof of the house with a group of militants and fires an AK47 into the air. The video was a gift to both sides. In south Kashmir, separatists rallied around it. In the Hindu heartland—and in the Indian press—it was seized upon as yet another example of how such separatists are ultimately all terrorists.
“I did what I did because I loved my son and was pleased when he became a martyr,” she said. “We need more martyrs, more boys like my son. It is Allah’s wish.”
Speaking to both Yousuf and Bano, I was struck, not by their sense of pride in their sons, which, commingled with their inevitable grief, seemed befitting of the families of fallen soldiers, nor indeed by their fatalism, which befitted their situation. There are between 150 and 200 militants in Kashmir at any given time, roughly split between locals and Pakistani infiltrators, with more than half a million Indian security forces ranged against them. Given the odds, I’d be fatalistic, too.
No, what I was struck by was their rhetoric. They spoke, not in terms of national liberation, but in those of Islamic fundamentalism. While these are by no means exclusive registers, the complete absence of nationalist feeling in what they were saying did seem somewhat curious. Yasir had noticed it, too, he told me: something did appear to be shifting in the narrative.
“This is why I wanted you to meet Paddar’s mother,” he told me. “I had never seen anything like [her behaviour at the funeral] before.”
We were standing at the gate to Heff’s “Martyr’s Graveyard,” a grassy knoll in which the militants had been recently interred. Their headstones dutifully faced Mecca, which at that moment meant into the early afternoon sun.
Militant funerals have become all too common in this part of the world, often drawing thousands of mourners. The February 2018 funeral of 19-year-old Ubaid Shafi Malla, who dropped out of college to join the Hizb, as the group is sometimes known, was representative of their tone and tenor.
According to Yasir’s BBC report of the event, Malla’s mother addressed the crowd:
“Would you like to become a police officer?” she began, to which the angry crowd chanted back “No, we won’t!”
“Would you like to become a militant?” she continued.
“Yes, we will,” the crowd roared in response.
“Would you like to become Tiger?” she said, pointing to a nearby village where a famous Kashmiri militant Sameer Bhat, also known as Sameer Tiger, was killed the previous week.
“Yes, we want to!” the crowd responded.
“Then say it loudly,” she shouted.
“Azadi! [Freedom!],” the crowd responded.
“This is what killing militants does,” Yasir told me. “It creates martyrs and brings their families honor—and, as a result, it creates more militants.”
We had a sneaky bite to eat nearby—neither Yasir nor the driver were observing Ramadan—before continuing onto Beighpora Awantipora in the district of Pulwama. Here, bathed in soft afternoon light and the pollen floating visibly on it, we found the house of Hizb commander Riyaz Naikoo, who styles himself as Mohammad Bin Qasim, and asked after the man’s father.
It had again been easy to find the place: the otherwise candy-colored building had been desecrated with black graffiti and its windows broken and patched up with cardboard. Naikoo’s father Assadullah told us it was the work of the Indian security forces, which have allegedly been harassing the family since his son became a militant.
“They have treated us like dogs for six years,” Assadullah said. “They have raided our house more than 30 times, often beating us up. They think we know where Riyaz Saab is.”
A former math teacher, Riyaz Naikoo is representative of what the Hindustan Times has labelled Kashmir’s “new breed of militant”: educated, middle-class, and social media savvy. “The [militants’ social media] videos are affecting the psychology of Kashmiri youth, who spend hours watching videos uploaded by local militants and by Islamic State,” Pulwama’s Superintendent of Police, Tejinder Singh, told the newspaper last year. “Their only role models are militants with guns. ... We haven’t been able to provide them with alternative role models."
Naikoo’s family spends hours watching such videos as well. They have only seen Riyaz twice since he went underground in 2012, Assadullah told us, and await his Facebook sermons eagerly: his digital dispatches are the only way they have of knowing that he’s still alive.
“Why would he tell us where he is when he knows the Indian military is hounding us?” Assadullah said. “We wait for him to make his statements like everybody else does.”
I asked about the graffiti outside: the name “Musa” was clearly discernible on the walls. This, I was told, was a reference to Zakir Musa, a militant who split with the Hizb in 2017 after it refused to back his calls for Kashmiri separatists to join the wider struggle for an Islamic caliphate. In April that year, a group of unidentified militants addressed a gathering in Pulwama. “We love Pakistan only because it was created in the name of Islam,” News18 reported them as saying after obtaining an audio recording of the meeting. “But there is no Islam in today’s Pakistan. We have to do jihad in Pakistan, just like in India.”
“[The] Taliban wants an Islamic system in Pakistan. We should love [the] Taliban,” they said.
This was not the opinion of others in the Hizb, and Musa broke away from them to form the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. “The Indians wanted us to think that we were being harassed by Musa’s supporters,” Asadullah said of the graffiti. “But we know the truth.”
Naikoo’s family were hesitant to discuss the internal politics of the Hizb with me, though Indian intelligence agents have credited Naikoo with holding the group together in the wake of Musa’s defection. (Indeed, some estimate that the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind may have as few as ten members.) They were far more keen to discuss the way that Indian security forces have made their lives a living hell.
Wearing an olive-green sweater vest and sitting cross-legged on the carpet in the family’s front room, Naikoo’s uncle, Ghulam Qadir, said he had been held for six months under the Public Safety Act in 2016, a year before Naikoo ascended to the leadership of the Hizb.
“I kept asking why they had arrested me when I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “They beat me regularly to make me answer their questions. It was a terrible time. This is why young men like Riyaz Saab want to fight them and become martyrs.”
By now, the matter of the families’ rhetoric—the constant references to martyrdom and Allah—had become my overriding obsession, and I put it to Naikoo’s family plainly. To what extent was their struggle for independence? To what extent was it religious in nature?
They didn’t seem to understand the question.
“Riyaz Saab and others like him are fighting for the Kashmiri people,” Assadullah said. “Our country and our religion are the same to us, you understand?”
I did, of course, but only intellectually. I couldn’t understand it in my bones. This is what separates me from them, and indeed, in large part, the West from so many of our professed enemies. Until we understand the interpenetration of these seemingly contradictory motives—which continue to define conflicts from the Caucasus to southern Thailand—we will continue to flail aimlessly, making as many militants as we kill, ensuring yet more forever wars.
At Ghat 7 on Dal Lake, where my shikara man was waiting for me, a large family of Indian tourists were piling their suitcases onto boats. I made a bee-line through them to my own ride and asked that I be taken home. On the boulevard that traced the lake, a man sat at a pedal-powered grindstone, and went about sharpening the locals’ knives.
A few months later, in August 2018, Assadullah Naikoo would be among eight people detained in a series of raids in south Kashmir. He was released after “questioning” two days later. The security services had once again made their point.
The worst thing I ever did on Twitter was follow Shehla Rashid. From the moment I did so—or at least from the moment she first retweeted me—I have had a front-row seat at the shitshow that is Hindu nationalist social media, especially when it’s out for blood. I have been accused of being a Pakistani spy, a Communist, and a terrorist sympathizer. I have been charged with overlooking the plight of Kashmiri Pandits—the region’s Hindu minority, which according to some has faced ethnic cleansing at the hands of its Muslim majority—and of slandering the Indian nation.
Rashid and I are friends on Facebook as well, though the level of abuse there is comparatively muted: her account on that particular platform is private, and has been since the rape threats she received there became too numerous, too credible.
It was amazing to think that the young woman I found myself sitting across from at Srinagar’s Chai Jaai Tea Room, reading a secondhand copy of Nandita Haksar’s The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism when I arrived and quick to order us a round of salty pink noon chai once I had, can inspire such insurmountable hatred. (“People don't hate me,” she once told me on Twitter. “Only Twitter trolls.” “I hate you,” responded a Twitter troll immediately.)
But then Rashid represents a unique threat as far as India’s right wing is concerned: not only is she a proud Kashmiri Muslim, she’s also a socialist and, perhaps worse, an outspoken woman as well. The only thing I found disturbing about her was how quickly she could turn from laughter to righteous indignation.
“On the ground, people feel that we are being targeted for our faith,” she told me at one point during our conversation. (We had spoken for an hour before she said: “Right. We can start the interview now.” I had already been recording it. All her quotes come from the second hour.)
“Forget international relations, the larger geopolitical situation. People here feel that we’re being targeted because we’re Muslims. That’s a very powerful narrative here, and the national government is doing very little to suggest that it’s untrue.”
In south Kashmir, I had been struck by the Islamist rhetoric of the militants’ families. But it remains true that a secular, non-violent separatist movement also exists in this part of the world. It coexists uneasily with its militant counterpart, but remains inevitably bound to it. That tends to happen when movements that differ on means, and even occasionally on ends, share at least an enemy in common. But those differences nonetheless exist.
“There is obviously a question about what exactly it is that we’re fighting for here,” Rashid said. ”Some people talk about an Islamic system, something closer to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. I don’t think there is much agreement or clarity on that front.”
“For the insurgents, the struggle may not necessarily be one to establish a separate nation,” she said. “Jihad is a fight against injustice. You simply fight against an unjust system, without being bothered about questions like the viability of a new nation-state. But there is certainly a growing consensus in Kashmiri society that we’re being targeted because of our faith, and as a result that we can and should take strength from it.”
She nevertheless finds certain aspects of the militants’ narrative disturbing.
“Many people now feel that they can find liberty in death, or dignity in death,” she said. “People don’t surrender now. They’d rather now die than surrender. In that respect, Kashmir has become a society with a death wish.”
She mentioned Saddam Hussein Paddar’s mother, Feroza Bano, and the gun salute that Bano performed at her son’s funeral a few weeks earlier. That was a seminal moment, she said, even a kind of tipping point.
“That was quite shocking. I had never seen anything like that. This is the kind of celebration of death that is now common in our society. It can only be explained as a lack of faith in government and democracy, and I don’t know how the government, or those of us who believe in a political solution to the conflict, can convince people to come back from that.”
“The government will have to do something really revolutionary to make any political headway now. There was a time when it seemed possible. There was a time when autonomy was a demand that had great currency here, but you won’t hear people talking about it today. The government doesn’t seem very interested in it, either. It is very difficult to see a way forward when this is the case.”
“The army and the security agents don’t seem to want it,” she said. “Among other things, the military-industrial complex here is a huge source of employment. If militant funerals create more militants, that can only be a good thing for them.”
As ever, Narendra Modi loomed large in our conversation. “Hate has been normalised under this government,” Rashid told me. “It is totally acceptable now to talk about killing Muslims in mainstream conversation. The number of beef lynchings [mob murders of people accused of selling beef] has increased exponentially every year of Modi’s prime ministership and he is aiding and abetting this.”
“His supporters have tasted blood, in a sense, and they’re not going to back down any time soon. If anything, they want him to be more violent towards Muslims.”
This sort of thing has affected Rashid directly, she said. It is not, it turns out, an easy thing to play a role like hers in a country like this.
“I remember the day that Modi became prime minister,” she said. “We went to the Student Union building.” That was at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where Rashid first came to prominence as a student union leader, most notably after the union’s leaders were arrested in 2016 on charges of sedition.
“There was a television set in the room and we were watching the results on it. India is not a perfect country—what country is?—but I had hope and naïve optimism that Modi wouldn’t be victorious. The election had taken place following major protests against corruption, major protests against rape. I believed that the Aam Aadmi Party would win, an alternative to the two main parties, the [Indian National] Congress and the BJP.”
“My hope and optimism were shattered that day. It was the first time I had been explicitly aware of my identity as a Muslim. I knew immediately that things would be different for me now.”
“It was just so difficult to believe that it had happened,” she said. “We suddenly had to come to terms with the fact that the country had elected a man accused of the massacre of Muslims.”
In 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, Modi oversaw, and was accused of implicitly encouraging, some of the worst religious violence since independence. Over three bloody days, between 790 and 2000 Muslims were killed, as well as roughly 250 Hindus, after a group of Hindu pilgrims died in a fire at Godhra railway station.
“I mean, I’m still an optimist,” she says. “But things have certainly been different since the election. They’ve been worse. I have been called a jidhadi on Twitter by a major newspaper editor. The same newspaper ran a graphic novel that depicted a character, which many commentators said was based on me, being raped and murdered. It is deeply reminiscent of anti-Semitic propaganda leading up to the Holocaust.
“But I’m not going to stop being an activist,” she says. “I don’t know that I could stop if I tried.”
The news never seemed to stop coming in Kashmir. Every day, there was something new on hand to outrage us. On May 21, Indian soldiers attempted to host an Iftar dinner in the village of Dred-Kalipora in Shopian. The locals rejected the olive branch. In the ensuing “scuffle”—an interesting example of journalistic euphemism, given that the soldiers opened fire—a number of girls wound up getting shot.
On May 23, Major Leetul Gogoi tried to enter a hotel with a Kashmiri woman, resulting in a flurry of articles attempting to besmirch the girl’s character. It was the second time in as many years that Gogoi had made headlines. In 2017, he tied a Kashmiri man to the front of his jeep and used the fellow as a human shield during protests in Srinagar. At the time, he was actually awarded for his efforts. In August 2018, a court of inquiry found Gogoi guilty of “fraternizing with a woman source against existing orders” and “leaving his unit post in an operational area without permission.” That the girl was initially reported to be underage—something that the army has since “disproved”—seemed to have been all too conveniently forgotten.
We were discussing the Gogoi affair among ourselves when Firdous’s neighbour, Mr. Nazir, made his first appearance on the houseboat. He was smartly dressed in collared shirt and slacks, his beard trimmed neat and close. He held his cigarettes with the remotest possible tips of his fingers.
The plan had been to line up a meeting with Syed Ali Geelani, arguably the most influential member of the Joint Resistance Leadership. But the 89-year-old leader of the separatist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party was at that time under house arrest, as he has been, on and off, for years. The idea of a random Australian rocking up at his gate and announcing to the Indian guards that he sought an audience struck everyone as the fastest way to get myself kicked out of the country. Firdous and Mr. Nazir had come up instead with the second-fastest way: an interview with human rights activist Khurram Parvez of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
Firdous had decided that he wanted to come with me. He was keen to meet the man, he said, about whom Mr. Nazir had told him a lot, though I wondered whether that was really the case. Part of me thought, and continues to think, that he was a little worried about me, too — about having a guest, who was by now also a friend, wind up on the government’s radar.
We certainly took a circuitous route to Parvez’s office, ducking down alleyways and darting up questionable looking staircases before entering a sun-dappled room overlooking the Jhelum River, where Parvez sat looking over the final draft of a report that the JKCCS was about to release. He apologized for not standing to welcome us: with only one leg, it was easier to remain seated.
He lost that leg in 2004, when an IED took out the car in which he was traveling. One of his colleagues, Asiya Jeelani, and their driver, Ghulam Nabi, were killed in the same blast.
“We were deliberately targeted,” Parvez said. “We were monitoring the general elections. There had been claims of fraud, of people being forced to vote a certain way.”
Before Firdous and Mr. Nazir had conspired to get me in the room with Parvez, I had made the mistake of emailing the JKCCS about lining up an interview with him myself.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Parvez told me. “You know they’re probably following you, yes? That they might have seen you here already?” He was talking about the Indian security services, about their communications dragnet. “Luckily, we haven't spoken on the phone, and I don’t think we ever responded to your email,” he said.
“We know that we’re being surveilled,” he continued. “We try to use our transparency as a weapon. But you know, the Indian government puts Nazi Germany to shame as far as their surveillance capabilities are concerned.”
When Shehla Rashid evoked the Holocaust, I had written it off as hyperbole. I had been reminded of Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” I was reminded, too, of one of that law’s corollaries: whoever mentions Hitler first immediately loses the argument. But Mike Godwin doesn’t live in Modi’s India. Mike Godwin still has both his legs.
“It is a very difficult line of work,” Parvez said of Kashmiri activism. “It’s not just our organization, either. All activists in Kashmir are at risk. Lawyers have been killed, people’s houses have been targeted, unidentified gunmen have shot at people associated with us and other groups. It’s a very militarized environment, you know?” I said it hadn’t escaped my attention.
The report that Parvez had been reading was about Kashmir’s disappeared, he said. More than 8,000 people have gone missing in the region since 1990.
“The real tragedy is that the Indian government has resolved to kill the Kashmiri people slowly,” he said. “They don’t want a Rwanda on their hands. They don’t want any international outcry.”
“As a result, they have invested very heavily in Islamophobia. They have changed the national discussion around Islam so that people don’t pay attention to what’s happening here. They say that this is an Islamic insurgency, that it’s about al-Qaeda and ISIS and groups like that. This makes what they’re doing here acceptable to the people they’re trying to convince. But 8,000 disappeared people? It’s what we might call a slow genocide.”
I was again reminded of Bano and her gun salute and brought it up in the conversation now.
“Look, there’s no doubt that Islam plays a role in what’s happening here,” he said. “The Islamization we’ve seen in recent years is real and is a direct response to the hopelessness many people are feeling.”
“But say you went to Ireland and talked to people there,” he added. “What would their discourse be? Would it be secular, or would it be couched in religious terms? The language you speak is the language you’re brought up with. People here are raised on Islam. Religion is always going to be part of how Kashmiris’ frame the situation, especially given that the Indian government has decided to frame it that way as well.”
“What people here aren’t so good at is finding ways to frame the conflict in a way that is palatable to the international community,” he said. “The international community doesn’t want to hear about gun salutes and martyrs. It is able to justify its negligence in this region, able to justify its staunchly pro-Indian stance, precisely because of this religious framing.”
Parvez said that this is where groups like the JKCSS come in. By framing the conflict in other terms—in the language of International Humanitarian Law and human rights, in drily secular reports about the disappeared—Parvez and others like him are hoping to move the conversation to a place where the international community will not be able to ignore it.
“Of course, other issues will remain,” he said. “India has important trade agreements, especially arms deals, with countries all over the world, which people don’t want to jeopardize. The Indian and Pakistani governments want the conflict to continue because it energizes their bases and helps their electoral chances. But changing the way we talk about Kashmir is at least a start.”
Activism has never been the most pleasant of vocations, the easiest of callings to answer. But it’s also been getting increasingly harder. The internet promised a lot more than it delivered to people trying to fight for their rights. It has in fact become a great boon to governments, and not only Modi’s, that wish to crack down on and curtail those rights.
It occurs to me now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I was more at-risk in Kashmir than I pretended to myself at the time. It also occurs to me that I put others at risk. Rashid and Parvez didn’t have to speak to me. They chose to, knowing full well that their words, the vast majority of them incendiary, would wind up in front of an international audience. I am lucky enough not to live in India. But India—or at least Indian-administered Kashmir—is and remains their home. I was able to leave at a time of my choosing, and they, quite obviously, cannot. They, they told me, have to keep fighting. On the other hand, of course, I don’t know that they could stop if they tried.
With my stay in Kashmir now approaching its end, I wandered down to the town’s rugby pitch, to see one of the beginners girls’ squads at practice. As Waheed Para had promised, it was a great story: a ray of light befitting the beauty of my surrounds.
The girls had only been playing for a week and seemed unwilling to get too violent with one another. “I saw a video online,” one girl told me excitedly. “They were smashing into each other like cars!” They admitted that passing the ball backwards had initially struck them as counter-intuitive. “Catching,” they said, made rugby somewhat difficult to master.
But then rugby, unlike cricket or soccer, doesn’t have an overly long history in Kashmir. When I took a photo of the girl’s coach, Irfan Aziz Botta, he pointed to the goal posts behind him.
“When these were first installed,” he told me, “people asked if they were some kind of artwork, or had some religious significance.”
The girls seemed very excited about the sport. Indeed, they seemed excited about sport in general. I would later speak with Irtiqa Ayoub, a 23-year-old who has become one of Kashmiri rugby’s leading lights. “In the town where I am from, it isn’t normal for a young woman to leave her home to learn how to play rugby,” she said. “I faced resistance from my parents, but as I began to have successes, winning some matches and getting some medals, they began to change their minds. Now they support me fully.”
But I also wondered whether the girls weren’t censoring themselves. With Botta there, coaching their answers as well as the play, they seemed not to be telling me everything.
After practice and my interviews were over, and a hundred thousand selfies had been taken, the girls retired to the nearby change rooms, from which they gradually emerged transformed. Gone were the J&K Rugby Academy Jerseys, the shin pads and spiked boots. In their place, highly conservative salwar-kameezes had appeared, much like the one that Ashiq, the soccer star, had been wearing when she had her famous run-in with the police. Most of them were fully veiled, and indeed, later, when they started adding me on Instagram in their droves, I noted that none of them ever posted a selfie that didn’t start below the neck. A generation of girls, I would find myself thinking, playing a sport best-known for causing brain injuries, walking around with online profiles that caused one to think that none of them had heads at all.
As I struck out along MA Road, in the direction of Dal Lake, two of them sidled up to me nervously, falling in step, wanting to walk me home—and, it became immediately apparent, to ask me some questions of their own.
At first, these were mostly innocuous. What is Australia like? Do you have a photo of your wife? Do all Australian women have such beautiful eyes? Do any of them wear the veil?
But the questions quickly took on a more political bent. What, they wanted to know, did I think of Modi? What did I think of his visit to Srinagar?
Obviously, I knew what I thought, but wanted to turn the question back on them. What did they think of India’s prime minister?
“I hate him,” one of them said matter-of-factly. (I have withheld their names for obvious reasons.) She was a slip of a thing, eighteen-years-old but far younger-looking, even though I could only see her eyes. There was something in them, and in her voice, that spoke to an anger much larger than her frame seemed capable of containing.
“He’s no good,” the other said. “But you don’t hate him.”
“No,” the first girl said. “I hate him. He hates Kashmiris. Why shouldn’t I hate him?”
I asked her what she thought of Ashiq.
“Oh, I love her,” she said. “She is very inspirational.” She nodded sagely. I liked her very much.
“Because she’s a good soccer player or because she’s a stone-pelter?” I asked.
“Both,” she said. “But mostly because she’s a stone-pelter. I would be a stone-pelter if I could. But my brothers won’t let me. They don’t think girls should be stone-pelters.” They probably didn’t think she should be playing rugby, either.
Her brothers were stone-pelters themselves, it turned out, and she thought their position very hypocritical.
“I would like to throw a stone at Modi,” she said as we approached the end of the road. “I would like to throw a stone in his face.”
We were nearing the Dalgate footbridge, where our paths were set to diverge. The other girl shook her head and said: “You shouldn’t listen to her. She’s showing off.”
I said I understood her anger. “That will help you with your rugby,” I said. The girls laughed.
Within twenty-four hours, I would see such anger unleashed. Stone-pelting wouldn’t be the half of it.
But first I had to meet Yasin Malik, the only member of the Joint Resistance Leadership it seemed possible for me to interview without alerting the Indian security services to my presence. Of course, I had arranged to meet him by email, which, as I had learned from my interview with Parvez, meant they had probably already been alerted to it.
Malik is the chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, which once advocated for armed struggle against the Indian occupation, but now favours a political solution. He also doesn’t favour joining Pakistan, a view that helps to differentiate him from many of the pro-Pakistani militants in the region. He believes that Kashmir deserves outright independence, and has been agitating for it, in various ways, since the beginning of the 1980s.
I was planning to attend Friday prayers the next day, I told him. What did he make of the young people who took up, not arms, but rather stones against the military?
“What else are they meant to do?” he asked me. We were sitting in his office beneath a map of the region. It was quite a thing to behold. The cartographer behind it, driven by idealism, the commission, or both, had included Kashmir’s Indian, Pakistani and Chinese territories within a single, much hoped-for border. It was this border that Malik wanted to make a reality, ideally by non-violent means.
“These children have grown up surrounded by conflict,” he said. “They have lived with the occupation, and the militancy, their whole lives. We cannot tell them no. They have taken the fight into their own hands. We should at least give them credit for that.”
My conversation with Malik was to remain fixed—and indeed would eventually flounder—on this contentious point. Although he has preached non-violence since 1994, following entreaties from the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European powers to do so, he could not bring himself to condemn, or even to describe as counterproductive, those among his countrymen who remain committed to armed struggle.
“My heart remains committed to the ideals of a non-violent democratic movement,” he told me. “But over the past four years, whatever little political space was available to us here, in which we could express our dissent, has been restricted even further. They’re not allowing us to march. They’re not allowing us to think.”
He asked me to think about that a moment.
“In the land of Gandhi, a nation state that claims Gandhi as its father—the man who gave these ideals to the whole world, to people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela—in the very state that claims Gandhi as its father, we find no space for political dissent,” he said.
Malik was born in 1966 in a densely populated neighbourhood of Srinagar. In the early 1980s, he helped to form the Tala Party, which, among various other acts of civil disobedience, attempted to disrupt a 1983 cricket match between India and the West Indies. By the end of the decade, Indian print media were describing him as “the self-styled commander-in-chief” and “most effective strategist” of the then-outlawed JKLF, and, no longer content with disrupting the cricket, he famously helped to kidnap the daughter of the Indian Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 1989.
He was arrested in 1990 and spent “many years” in solitary confinement. After his release on bail in 1994, he declared an indefinite ceasefire. The JKLF became very good at circulating petitions. (He claims that one of these, calling for political talks between India and Pakistan on the question of Kashmir, received more than five million signatures.)
“But at least six hundred people, including many of my colleagues, were killed by the Indian state after that,” he told me. “The only ceasefire that can work in Kashmir is one that all the stakeholders can agree to. In the past, India has not been opposed to this idea. But things have changed in recent years. It is now more content to kill us than to have a conversation.” Modi’s Ramadan ceasefire, he said, was little more than political theatre.
“This is why we have seen a transition back towards violence,” he said. “These boys”—I had asked about Molvi, Paddar and Naikoo—“believed in the non-violent movement once, too. But the space has been taken away from them. Harassment of their families has increased. They have seen their friends and families in body bags.”
“This is what radicalisation is,” he said. “India is humiliating these people.”
What Malik refused to acknowledge, though, was the way the cycle of radicalisation and militant funerals ultimately plays into the Indian government’s hands.
“These boys have nothing to answer to,” he said. “The Indians are the ones you should be asking.”
“The United States, the British government. They all asked me to give up arms, and I did,” he said. “They said they would convince India to create a space for discussion. Where is that space now? Even the British Empire gave space to Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.”
“Didn’t that have something to do with the fact that the British Raj was on its last legs?” I asked. “India sees itself as a rising power these days.”
“The fact of the matter is that the space existed for a non-violent movement,” he said. “The British knew that sentiment was against them, but they still allowed for that space to be created, and for the exploration of India’s democratic voice. But here in Kashmir, India is not allowing that space.”
“And where is the international community?” He was yelling at me now, on a roll. He was probably wondering who, exactly, he had invited into his office. His eyes were trained on me, even his lazy one, which seemed a lot less lazy now that it had a target. “These people do business with India while India continues to kill us. My dear brother, I will tell you this one thing. Today, the international community is supporting India without any compunction. What is the role of the United States in Kashmir? And not only in Kashmir, but in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, too? If there is no agreement on Kashmir today, it is because the international community’s national security and business interests demand that there cannot be. Where are the voiceless people in all this? Where are we? That is the question you must ask, my dear brother.”
I tried one final time. “I understand all this,” I said. He was interrupting me even as I started to speak and I was interrupting his interruption. “I agree with what you’re saying,” I said.
“I’ve been to a lot of these places you’re talking about. But doesn’t the rise in radicalisation make your work harder for you here? Doesn’t it allow the Indian government to claim that it’s right about Kashmir and to make it even harder for you to secure a political solution to the conflict?” More than 200 militants were killed in 2018, the highest number in a decade, yet the number of active fighters remains more or less stable.
Malik smiled and quietly said: “When I was their age, I was like they are now. You will not get me to condemn them.”
I said I wasn’t trying to. But then, by this point, it was also true that I didn’t know what I was trying to do. “I have to admit,” I eventually said, our half hour together finally coming to an end. “It almost sounds like you miss the armed struggle and have more faith in it today than you do in non-violence.”
He leaned back in his chair and considered the question. He held his hands in his lap as he spoke.
“I hope and believe in non-violence,” he said. “I will remain in the non-violent democratic movement until I die. I do believe this is how we will win.”
“But when you are fighting for a just cause, your conscience never questions your methods. This, you understand, my dear brother, is how countries are made. If King or Mandela had given up on their struggles—had people given up in other places—there wouldn’t be a single country in the world.”
Our time was up. Malik had meetings to attend. He extended his hand and looked me in the eye. “I am proud to say that I have played my part,” he said.
Friday prayers began at half-past twelve. There had already been a minor altercation. As I arrived, Indian security forces on Nowhatta Chowk, a square on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, where a fountain tinkled prettily, were attempting to prevent a group of young men from approaching the Jamia Masjid. I decided to get the lay of the land and walked around the burnt-brick building, built in 1394 in the Persian style, several times, sticking my head down the souks for a look, taking in the street art and graffiti. “8 lakh [800,000] uniformed terrorists versus defenceless Kashmiris,” someone had scrawled across one of the walls.
Latecomers to prayer watched me sitting on the steps outside the mosque, reading George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Mountain of Light, in which Gulab Singh, the first Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, plays a key role. They watched with a combination of wariness and concern, the latter apparently for my well-being, before performing their ablutions and hastening inside.
By the time the mirwaiz, Umar Farooq, leader of the separatist Hurriyat Conference and the third and final member of the Joint Resistance Leadership, began leading the Qunut, the building was overflowing with people, the aforementioned latecomers almost praying on the street. There was a hint of something metallic on the air, and behind me, near the fountain, the numbers of Indian military personnel were growing steadily.
The Kashmiri faithful had come prepared. No sooner were they out on the street than they were adorning themselves with facemasks, keffiyehs, and bandannas, and the shopkeepers directly opposite the mosque on its southern side started shuttering their properties. A press photographer standing nearby donned a gas mask and began flitting about like something out of Cronenberg.
There was a momentary, wholly abortive attempt at something like a peaceful protest, a group of young men arranging themselves behind a banner and walking with it towards the iron gates that gave onto the road. But this was mostly pretense. Behind the bannermen, their masked equivalent seethed, and as the first stone soared out in an arc from their midst, so, too, was the first report of gunfire to be heard.
The security forces, at this point, were showing something akin to restraint, wary of advancing too far beyond the gate. But as more rocks began to land among them, mostly falling short or flying too far, a second group, hidden before now, descended down a second, unseen set of stairs and began advancing along the shuttered shop-fronts. The protesters now faced their opponents directly to their front, and on their right flank, and began a hasty retreat into the mosque, which loomed above them on their left. Not for the last time, and without intending to do so, I found myself on the other side of the front-line, watching as men in fatigues fired tear gas canisters and live ammunition directly into the building.
I know it was live because, at this moment, taking advantage of a momentary lull, I came out from under the awning into the street, where the photographer in the gas mask was fingering a cartridge from a pellet-firing shotgun. He gave it to me and said I could keep it. It was labelled: “Indian Ordnance Factories.” I later left it in a bathroom cubicle at Indira Gandhi International Airport.
In a few short minutes, the scene had changed completely, the ground now littered with stones and pieces of brick. The military men were falling back to the gate in anticipation of the second wave. It came, but not immediately, or at least not in a form that one might have expected. A huddle of men emerged from the mosque, holding a bleeding body aloft. A man, a shopkeeper, had been shot in the chaos: the whites of his eyes, as the men passed me, were red, his arms streaked similarly crimson.
The soldiers fell back further, to the fountain, where I had seen them denying men access earlier, and a two-door hatchback sped up, an improvised ambulance. I was now among the protesters again, and the second wave could really begin. It did so with a fury, compounded by the sight of the injured man, that dwarfed that of the first. By falling back to make way for the car, the security services had ceded their advantage, and young men poured through the gate by the dozens. There came the sound of stone on steel as rocks pelted a retreating armoured vehicle and the sweet smell of tear gas filled our nostrils as ominous white clouds of the stuff wafted listlessly over the chowk.
From a shuttered corner store, I watched them push forward: young men in T-shirts, Pakistani and ISIS flags worn tight across their faces, shouting the Takbir and pointing their fingers towards God.
It seemed for a couple of minutes to be over: protesters now controlled the chowk and the three main arteries leading onto it. One group, apparently spoiling for a fight, began to wander down the widest of these, the Srinagar-Leh Highway heading south. As I went to follow them, another protester stopped me, shaking his head in warning. He pointed, and I watched as a column of riot police streamed out from a side street, forming a line across the highway and cutting the wayward group off from the rest of us. At the same time, to our left, an armoured vehicle appeared at the head of Nowhatta Road, and the security services commenced their own second wave.
This, I now realised, was the way things played out here: a constant push-pull between the two groups, one advancing, the other falling back, as though on a pre-arranged schedule, continuing until the fight lost its novelty or, more likely, one side was called away to evening prayers.
The main body of protesters retreated again to the mosque, though some headed right, northwards up the highway, where they were met by another advancing column of troops. A shopkeeper and his wife were waving us over: we ran into their store, cluttered with boxes and inflatable pool toys, and they ushered us up the stairs. We were offered bottles of water for our faces and small glasses of tea. On the top floor of the building, which was otherwise empty, the protesters removed their masks and breathed heavily. Through broken windows, we looked out onto the mosque, from which Farooq’s voice could be heard, booming urgently from the minarets. There were injured people inside, he said. The security services had to stand down at once.
“Are you a tourist?” one of the protesters asked me.
“I’m a journalist,” I said.
The man nodded and turned back to the window. On the rooftops above the shops facing the mosque, figures occasionally appeared in silhouette, lobbing stones down at the patrolling military and disappearing before they were answered with tear gas.
“This is what we have to put up with,” one of the protesters said.
I went downstairs. It was quiet now. In the alleyways around the square, small fires of refuse had been lit in my absence. Old men in phirans glanced out tentatively from their doors, amazed, it seemed, to see me there.
It wasn’t like this at the time, and indeed my photos now suggest that the day had been bathed in riotous colour. But in my memory, the afternoon hewed yellow. The air, the dust, the grey of the concrete, all of it comes back to me in tones of faded newsprint. I remember following two children up the highway to the north, the kids arm-in-arm, no older than twelve, skirting around some abandoned sandbags. I followed them briefly past the mosque’s eastern entrance. At the gate, Indian security forces stood waiting, shielded by the gate’s pillars on either side. Protesters in the mosque threw rocks up the path. These skid fitfully across the road, hitting nothing. Some shattered. A soldier stepped out, exposing himself to their barrage, and made a gesture that seemed to say: “Is that all you’ve got?” The other soldiers laughed. Even this I remember in yellow. Why is that?
I returned to the corner store where the protester had stopped me from walking south. There was now an armoured vehicle parked there and a European photographer and her fixer were talking to a soldier, who was smoking.
He was from Hyderabad and eyed me warily.
“Are you a journalist, too?” he asked.
“I’m a tourist,” I said.
“You can catch an auto over there,” he said, and pointed to side street to the south.
“I’m all right,” I said.
The woman’s fixer was from Chennai in the south. He was several shades darker than the Muslim men on the street. He felt safer around the military, he said.
“I mean, I understand what they’re protesting,” he told me quietly, a little way off to the side. “But if they see me here, they might think that I’m military. Because I’m Indian, you know? That scares the shit out of me.”
The third wave of protesters began advancing from the mosque. Despite the fixer’s concerns, we waited while the military retreated, and then began advancing, too. We were heading up Nowhatta Road, getting increasingly far away from the mosque, but the security services were pulling a bait-and-switch and advanced again almost immediately. For the first time, the two groups were close enough to see one another’s faces, and there was true pandemonium as we tore up a side street to our left and found ourselves huddled in the doorway of an old man, who was fumbling for his keys between us.
A stone flew past us, perilously close, and we made the stupid decision to follow the men who had thrown it, putting ourselves between the two groups. I was ahead of the journalist and her fixer, and, as I turned back to check on them, a flash-bomb detonated between us. As our pupils dilated, we looked at each other in stupefied wonder, amazed that none of us had been hit. We kept running. At the end of the side street, protesters were milling about: their opponents would think twice before venturing this far into the maze. The fixer handed the journalist a motorcycle helmet and kick-started the bike they had left here earlier. He gave me a half-hearted salute. “We’re getting out of here,” he said.
My own mind was tending this way, too. I had seen what I’d stayed in Srinagar to see. With protesters on either side of me, I hesitantly retraced my steps to the chowk. Other young men coming up from the mosque had once again pushed the security services back.
“How long is this going to go on?” I asked a young man in a Pakistan flag bandanna. He misunderstood the question.
“Until Kashmir is free,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I mean today.”
“Oh,” he laughed. “Until tonight.”
That was at least three hours away: the clashes were only halfway over. I found an auto-rickshaw where the Hyderabadi soldier said I would and told the driver where I wanted to go.
“You don’t protest?” I asked him as we left the running street battles behind us, there to continue the inevitable cycle until dusk. He didn’t understand what I was asking him, either. “A stone-pelter,” I said. “You’re not a stone-pelter.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” he said—people were always calling me “sir” in India—“I am a stone-pelter sometimes, too.”
I was overcome by a feeling I have experienced several times in the past, a curious sensation of relief lined with guilt. It was so easy for me to walk away, to call time on my experience. It was a choice I was at liberty to make. The protesters had that choice as well, of course, at least as far as their protesting was concerned. Firdous’ right-hand man, Younis, had made it after ten days in prison, my driver in favor of a cab fare. But they could not choose to walk away from the situation completely. It would continue to define their lives here whether they protested or not. They could not leave, as I was soon to do, and pretend that nothing was going on back home. Even Yasir, who makes a point of visiting Japan once a year—the better, he told me, to ward off post-traumatic stress disorder—always eventually comes back. This is his reality. No Kashmiri is at liberty to choose, not really, not in the end.
The adrenalin of the protest dissipated quickly and I found that I was trembling slightly. For most of the afternoon, it seemed, I had been on the verge of hysterical laughter, and most of my exchanges with the protesters had concluded, on both sides, over massive, somewhat unhinged smiles. It is amazing what the body is capable of, and amazing, too, how quickly it shuts down again. I was, I realised, fighting back tears.
The next day, outside Yasin Malik’s office, where I had returned to record some minor details I haven’t wound up using, I was bitten by the dog.
I spent my final night in town with Shehla Rashid and the Bangalore-born journalist Nidhi Suresh, who was at that time reporting for the Kashmir Observer. They were discussing the role of women in the separatist movement. It remains, they agreed, a bit of a boy’s club. The women didn’t ask me about the afternoon prior and I didn’t tell them about it. I was sure they’d heard it all before. The only extraordinary thing about my experience was how utterly ordinary it had been. Across the road, on what William Dalrymple once described as the pellucid waters of Dal Lake—a one-word description so utterly perfect that I have since used it several times without attribution—fountains danced in the fading light. Behind them, the hills turned indigo.
The following morning, in those same mountains, I was ordered out of a shared taxi and asked to fill out a departure form. The Indian soldier flicked through my passport.
“Australia,” he said. “You have kangaroos there, yes?”
“Yes,” I said. “We have kangaroos.”
“What were you doing in Kashmir?” he asked. He was looking at me as though I were mad.
“Tourism,” I said. “Just a bit of tourism.” After my experience at Friday prayers, it seemed somehow truer than not.
He looked at me a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and handed back the document. I stole a glance in the side-view mirror as we pulled away from the shoulder: the soldier was standing there, on his mountaintop perch, happily waving me goodbye.
A week later, while I was receiving a rabies shot in Amritsar, Kashmir’s bloody Ramadan became a whole lot bloodier. At Friday prayers, a military vehicle mowed down protesters, killing a 21-year-old. His funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, who carried banners and shouted slogans. By the time that Eid al-Fitr rolled around, in mid-June, Narendra Modi’s Ramadan ceasefire had been declared something worse than a failure. Terror-related incidents, as the Indian press called them, more than doubled during the month-long period. Militant recruitments were said to have climbed.
At the beginning of Eid, the editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari, was assassinated, ostensibly by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terror group. On June 19, the Bharatiya Janata Party ended its alliance with the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and the state returned to direct rule by governor for the fourth time since 2008.
Within days, all three members of the Joint Resistance Leadership had been detained. Syed Ali Shah Geelani described the detentions as “state vandalism” and accused the Indian government of attempting to “create a 1990-like situation ... to justify the use of lethal weapons against unarmed and innocent youth.”
At around the same time, the U.N. Human Rights Office released its first-ever report on Kashmir, which accused the Indian security services of operating in a state of “chronic impunity.” While the 49-page report also noted militant abuses, it was difficult to ignore the numbers. From July 2016 to April 2018, the report alleged, the Indian security services killed between 130 and 145 civilians. The militants killed twenty. The former’s use of pellet-firing shotguns, like those I saw employed outside the mosque, was particularly concerning, killing at least seventeen people, and wounding more than 6200, between July 2016 and March 2017. At least 780 of those injured by the pellets sustained serious eye injuries, including blindness.
Then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement that he would urge the Human Rights Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations, a call that was later backed by Secretary-General António Guterres. India’s Ministry of External Affairs described the report as “fallacious, tendentious, and motivated.”
As the year wore on, the situation only worsened. In December, Yasir wrote an article for the New York Times in which he described a “new and often fatal development in the decades-long struggle”: the increasing willingness of civilians to put themselves in harm’s way, to play human shield, in a vain attempt to protect militants from the security forces.
According to rights groups, at least 148 civilians were killed by those forces by the end of the year, many of them teenagers. On December 15, seven civilians were killed, and more than 50 injured, when Indian troops fired on a group protesting the killing of three militants in Pulwama. The U.N.’s numbers, which pre-dated Ramadan and its aftermath, began to seem almost quaint.
In the wake of the December incident, the Joint Resistance Leadership called for a three-day shutdown and a protest march on the Indian army's Chinar Corps headquarters in Srinagar’s Badami Bagh neighbourhood. Farooq and Malik, the former defying the terms of his house arrest, were quickly apprehended.
After being released on bail, Malik, whose health had been deteriorating for some time, was arrested again and charged under India’s “attempt to murder” law for his role in the protest. It was a charge that struck many, to borrow a phrase, as fallacious, tendentious, and motivated.
“New Delhi’s iron fist and its armed forces have left ugly footprints everywhere in the state,” Geelani said in a statement at the time. “New Delhi should accept the [reality on the ground] in Kashmir before it is too late to mend the situation.”
Earlier in December, Farooq had put it more plainly. “There is no semblance of democracy in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.
Then, in February, the situation exploded. For one harrowing moment towards the end of the month, Kashmir looked as though it might once again serve as the front line for a war between two nuclear-armed states.
It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened since both sides got the bomb. During the 1999 Kargil War, when the Pakistani military pushed deep into Indian territory, Pakistan considered trotting out its nuclear arsenal until the Clinton administration talked it down from the ledge. Between December 2001 and June 2002, following Lashkar-e-Taiba’s bombing of the Indian Parliament, India considered using its own. This is to say nothing of the various ceasefire violations along the LoC that take place every year.
But none of those cases have changed the game the way that the recent fighting may prove to have done. Following Adil Ahmad Dar’s attack on the Indian military convoy in Pulwama, India single-handedly rewrote the rules of engagement that have held in South Asia since both states became nuclear ones.
By sending planes into Pakistani territory—albeit, crucially, not far enough to trigger the nuclear response that Pakistan reserves as its right—Modi has set a bar that subsequent Indian governments will have to clear the next time something like Pulwama happens, which, given India’s behavior in the region, it almost certainly will. It is difficult to imagine a future Congress government opening itself up to the inevitable BJP charge of being soft on terrorism, or on Pakistan, or on India’s Kashmiri population. We should not be surprised if dogfights over Kashmir become de rigueur once again.
A serious question mark has also been drawn above Pakistan’s doctrine of “Full Spectrum Deterrence”—the policy of possessing “all” kinds of weapons to ensure that “all” Indian targets will be within striking range—which is basically another way of saying its policy of nuclear deterrence.
For too long, Pakistan, which lacks the conventional military capabilities of its neighbor, has valued such deterrence to the point that it has become something of an article of faith. A private WhatsApp group message obtained by the Mumbai-based Firstpost news website illustrates this clearly enough. At the height of the most recent crisis, Pakistani Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan told his colleagues in the group that: “[Pakistan’s] response [to India’s actions] should be to escalate and push the envelope of hostilities so that nuclear war is a likely outcome.” India, Lt Gen Khan insisted, “simply will not go down this road”.
Modi’s India—driven by ideology first and by the threat of thermonuclear armageddon second—didn’t blink. It called Pakistan’s bluff instead.
In a saner world, both sides might now reassess the value of their nuclear arsenals in this context. The opposite will almost certainly prove true. There have already been suggestions that Pakistan might conduct a nuclear test or two in order to give India some indication of what it’s actually got stored under the hood.
Others have suggested that India—which, unlike its neighbor, remains committed to a No First Use policy—might now do away with that policy in the interest of rendering its own posture more intimidating. At the very least, Srinivasa Prasad wrote on Firstpost in March, “India must... do everything to convince Pakistan that it also has a second-strike capability that would make the neighbor's first-strike [policy] far too risky to even contemplate.” This is the stuff of which arms races are made.
These are obviously serious issues. But, as I hope this series has demonstrated, the real problem—the problem that isn’t being addressed—is why some Kashmiris still feel compelled to drive themselves, and car-loads of explosives along with them, into Indian military convoys.
The uptick in cross-border shelling since the beginning of March was perversely reassuring: it marked a return to the weird kind of normalcy that usually holds along the LoC. But it also killed people who live on both sides of that line, some of whose family members, at least on the Indian side, will now almost certainly join the militants’ ranks.
As Malik argued, while cannily refusing to make any value judgements, many of these people, in the face of Indian aggression, simply don’t feel that they have any choice but to take up arms. This is a recipe for ever greater violence and heartache.
When this series was first published, a couple of months back, I wasn’t surprised when I got attacked by Hindutva’s most vocal Twitter warriors. I was surprised when some Kashmiris attacked me, too. They attacked me for declining to mention something that I should have done. I will do so here and now instead.
The Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC not only deserve, but desperately need, the plebiscite they were promised by U.N. Security Council Resolution 47 in 1948. They must be given the right to determine their future.
Until they are given the chance to do so—and it remains difficult to say which way they would vote—stand-offs like this latest one are going to keep happening. Until India and Pakistan start giving a damn about these people, as opposed to the Great Game that has existed between them since partition, and give the Kashmiris at least this small modicum autonomy, we can expect more Pulwamas, we can expect more wars, and we can expect to tick ever closer to midnight.