What Does It Mean to Be Kashmiri?
“We in Kashmir are not Arabs, Iranians, Turks, or Indians. We are Kashmiris, and with the acceptance that we have our own identity and narrative, we can have meaningful exchanges with the world.”
Kashmir: a place that evokes both appreciation for beauty and a horrific fear as South Asia’s most militarized zone, infested with a culture of lawlessness, impunity, and an explicit celebration of militarism. Kashmir is home to a 90% Muslim majority population and is often positioned as ‘concentrated minority,’ as against the ‘dominant majority’ of the Indian mainstream. Kashmir has been politically at war with India for its complete freedom from the dominion of India for the last 60 years, often receiving less attention internationally. As with Kashmir, its women remain hidden in a shroud of mystery and Indian propaganda.
I remember when I first traveled from Kashmir – where understanding freedom or demanding freedom was almost homologous to revolution or extremism (or at least that is the way it was represented in Indian media) – to Bombay, the economic capital of India. The nonexistence of army camps or barbed wires appeared no better to me; instead it posed a threat of ambiguity or a crisis of existentialism.
For the first time I embarked on a Bombay local train that is the heart of the city’s transportation system. I sat on an iron seat fixed to the floor with huge medieval looking nails and my eyes fixed to the fast-moving scenes replicating into new frames each second from the window. My gaze was interrupted by the shrill voice of a woman dressed in traditional Indian dress; she was frail, thin, and her bones worn out of tireless movement trying to sell daily-use articles on a train to make a living. This was when I deeply encountered poverty and abjection in India. In Kashmir, my crises had everything to do with identity and an illegal occupation, but much of the reform from our nationalist leaders had given us a breather from the cruelty of poverty. I gasped a long sigh, as if to show disdain for those responsible for the disregard of life in this desolate sense, but the undercurrent was always my resentment to Indian government for turning the heaven called Kashmir into a living hell.
A middle class Indian woman sitting across to me purchased some stuff from the vendor and unexpectedly smiled at me (because of viewing me an obvious outsider). She began a conversation: “Are you Arab?” I was surprised, and wondered why she would think I was Arab, but soon enough I found the answer. My hijab (headscarf) and fair complexion was the reason. I replied “No,” and she went on guessing. “Are you from Iran?” And I said “No.” Should I have answered “I am from India?” (India claims Kashmir to be its integral part.) I said, after some thinking, “I am from Kashmir.” The word Kashmir evoked surprise on the lady’s face. Kashmir to her sounded akin to saying Afghanistan in the international context. “Kashmir is a paradise on earth!” she exclaimed (probably owing to the way Kashmir is depicted in Indian films). And thereafter she inquired, “Do we need visas to travel to Kashmir?” Her questions were in some way satisfying my own belief about Kashmir, that it is culturally, historically, and politically a separate entity that is under forceful occupation of India.
The conversation had not continued very long, when the lady began to inquire in a fearful tone about the political condition in Kashmir. In her narrative of Kashmir, she imagined it to be full of gun-wielding, bearded monsters out to kill all those who are not Muslim. This labeling of Muslims as terrorists is often thought to be an issue faced only by Muslims in the West, but Kashmiri Muslims also face this demeaning label in India. This false and negative discourse is no longer just a Western import; it has spread far and wide.
Her questions showed me that the rhetoric on Kashmir that India has used internationally has failed to have convincing results in the heartland of its nation. Indians have failed to absorb the narrative of Kashmir as a part of India. In other words, there is an ongoing disconnect between the official narrative of India and Indian people’s knowledge on Kashmir.
We in Kashmir are not Arabs, Iranians, Turks, or Indians. We are Kashmiris, and with the acceptance that we have our own identity and narrative, we can have meaningful exchanges with the world.
Inshah Malik is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Born and raised in the tumultuous years of armed insurgency in Kashmir, Inshah has been actively engaged in highlighting the problems of Kashmiri people, especially issues faced by Kashmiri women. She published research on Kashmiri women in 2011 and also runs a women’s collaborative aimed at highlighting the issues of Kashmiri women.
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