All the calendars in our home in Srinagar stood frozen at October 1999, which is the last month my parents lived in their house there. We feared great damage in the intervening years, but were relieved to find only enormous volumes of dust, and the detritus of pigeons nesting in the attic and the balcony, encouraged by the easy access provided by broken window-panes. As we cleaned — the hard work being done by two neighbourhood caretakers called Abdul Gaffar and Raghunath — it was tempting to think of the restoration of this home as a metaphor for a restored Srinagar, and a Kashmir, and a return to a multi-religious, syncretic culture.
That restoration, however, is going to be much harder, and even perhaps impossible, to achieve. The brutal history of the past fourteen years cannot be wished away, and a people ground down under the military might of the state and the violence of well-armed militants, cannot but wonder at what might have been, or indeed what the future might hold. But there are other important reasons why the state of siege in the valley will not be lifted soon: too many people have enriched themselves in the last decade, and they know exactly what they will lose if the conflict in Kashmir de-escalates.
Stories are rife of the wealth accrued by the leaders of each political faction (and there are many). Similar stories circulate about bureaucrats, officers of army units and of each paramilitary force (these too are multiple, and their acronyms — BSF, CRPF, SSB, JKP, RR, STF — have become the new idiom of Kashmiri). People talk at length of the money that has circulated in the valley via each of these groups and their counterparts in Pakistan, and of how much the politico-military elite on both sides of the border has benefited from the state of affairs in Kashmir.
Money to be made is arguably the most powerful local vested interest, but there is also the heady power of this elite bull-dozing its way in elaborate convoys past locals who have learnt to step aside or be assaulted. Recently, the local papers described a woman professor whose car failed to give way quickly enough being dragged out by her hair and beaten. When officers or their families go shopping on Residency Road or Lambert Lane, trucks of soldiers deploy on either side, all in addition to the forces permanently on patrol there. Local Kashmiris have learned to ignore such activities as the antics of a powerful elite, but for the likes of us visiting Kashmiris, every day offered ugly instances of the ways of a superior occupying force.
The boulevard that fringes the Dal Lake is alive with people, but no one can take free passage for granted, for at a moment’s notice the road is blocked and civilians must detour. Perhaps most egregious of all is the fact that local, non-upper class Kashmiris are turned away from the springs at Chashmashahi, while outsiders are granted access.
Nowhere is the remaking of an older Kashmir into the soulless forms of a modern India more visible than in the paramilitary take-over (which can also of course be styled the "preservation") of the old Hindu shrines of Kashmir. Kheer Bhawani (Tulla Mulla) and the Shankaracharya temple that overlook Srinagar have lost whatever ancient sanctity they once possessed. They are now armed camps, festooned with the bright colours and signboards so beloved of military officers. Commanding officers of units stationed at these sites have turned them into advertisements for themselves — now you can only get to the Devi via CRPF yellow and red, and by walking past large tin placards that rewrite Kashmiri belief into the vocabulary of a more "mainstream" Hinduism. When we visited, bhajans that blare from jagrans in Delhi were playing loudly — only the wonderful old chinars suggested all that was once distinctively Kashmiri about Tulla Mulla.
A Ram Mandir is being built at the site of the ancient sun temple at Martand (Mattan). This is not simply an addition to what is already there — it is a deliberate refashioning of Kashmiri Hindu worship to obey the dictates of Hindutva practice. But worst of all are the excessive displays put on ostensibly for the benefit of the Amarnath yatris, but which actually function as a warning to local Kashmiris: all along the route past Pahalgam, and to some extent on the Baltal route, banners and wall-slogans sponsored by the CRPF and the BSF (and occasionally, the Jammu and Kashmir police) welcome the yatris. These units also make available tea and snacks, and announce them as prasad. There is no constitutional separation of temple and state to be found here — the yatris, and those who guard them, are equally, and aggressively, Hindu.
Most surprising for the visitor, however, is the great prosperity of Srinagar, where new homes are ever larger and the air impressively polluted by the thousands of cars and buses bought recently. Stores are stocked with the goods sold in the fancy shops of south Delhi. The handicrafts for which Kashmir has long been famous are plentiful, and the situation in the valley has meant that enterprising dealers have developed outlets for them across the country. The electricity supply has improved considerably — there are power cuts, but they operate according to a schedule, and the voltage is no longer miserable. Outside Srinagar, however, it is a different story. Villagers talk of a time, twenty years ago, when they knew electricity, and wish for doctors and teachers, who, like piped water, are a scarce resource.
But there is change in the air, and everywhere in the valley people are celebrating their opportunity to travel to places that they have not dared to visit for years. An entire generation has been deprived of civic life and of the joys of Kashmir, and they are aware of this deprivation. Schoolchildren now flood Pahalgam and Gulmarg, and the Mughal Gardens are full of local visitors. No one knows how long this lull will last, with the result that locals are moved by a near-hysterical urge to wander, to picnic, to talk of the future.
This is a moment of hope then, of young people wishing for a life different from that they have suffered so far, of conversations in which plans are made for a Kashmir in which ideas can flourish, the mind can be without fear, and the head can be held high. I invoke Tagore’s great nationalist poem deliberately, for its aspirations — as true for Kashmiris as for Indians more generally — might well be those of a group of young college students and lecturers I met. They gather on Sundays to discuss a life of ideas outside of the machinations of international politics, paramilitary strategies, and the self-aggrandizement of those who rule Kashmir. Their hope, like Tagore’s, is to build a heaven of freedom into which Kashmir, and India, might one day awake.
Suvir Kaul is professor of English, University of Pennsylvania. This article first appeared in The Telegraph, Kolkata.