Kashmiris, forgotten in conflict

Fighting winds down, but Kashmir's 700-year tradition of tolerant society remains a casualty

Nine weeks of a war between India and Pakistan over the mountain valley of Kashmir has embittered relations, preoccupied 1.5 billion South Asians, and pushed the two new nuclear states into a military mindset neither can afford.

Now it appears the conflict will end by a July 16 deadline negotiated by the two countries. Pakistan-backed mujahideen fighters will withdraw behind the "line of control" that operates as a disputed border in Kashmir. Indian jets have ceased their airstrikes on mountain bunkers and caves. Attention is shifting to the troubles of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who, having pledged since a July 4 meeting with President Clinton to call off the fighters, is caught in a vise between his military, the mujahideen, and international pressure.

Yet in this capital city of lakes, floating gardens, and abundant birdlife - a tragedy on a very different scale is under way, itself a long-term consequence of five decades of struggle for custody of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

For Kashmiris, the tragedy is nothing less than the destruction and cultural eradication of a distinct 700-year-old identity based on multireligious tolerance and just plain friendliness.

So legendary was the Kashmiri spirit of amity and nonviolence, in fact, that when Mohandas Gandhi despaired about Hindu-Muslim relations in pre-partition India in the 1930s, he said, "If I see a ray of hope, it is only from Kashmir."

Yet like some epic custody battle between two selfish and unyielding parents, little concern has been paid by Pakistan and India to the stability and integrity of the Kashmiri "child," residents and experts here say. Pakistan tacitly backs a foreign-based insurgency; India keeps 450,000 troops in Kashmir.

Today, rooftops are being rebuilt on a row of burned-out houses in the swanky Hindu part of old town Srinagar. This neighborhood was torched in 1992 during a Muslim insurgency that drove 250,000 Hindus out of Kashmir, about 98 percent of them.

But the new sound of pounding hammers does not tell a sweet story of return and renewal. The Hindus, a crucial part of this paradisiacal Himalayan valley for 700 years, are not coming back. At least not now.

Moderate Kashmiris say what has been destroyed is something called "kashmiriat" - an invisible but palpable understanding that Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others would live together peaceably. The bedrock of this kashmiriat identity was a Sufi Islam that dates back centuries, and that stressed a need for gentleness and the treatment of other human beings in a dignified and equal manner.

But Sufism, nonviolence, secularism, and the broad-minded ideals of kashmiriat have been erased in Kashmir. Insurgency, occupation, and a new and harder-edged Islamic proselytizing has done more than drive away Hindus and bring massacres and grief. It has ended an invisible structure of trust, solidarity, friendliness, and faith in reason rather than force.

Caught in the middle

Young Kashmiris now have a choice between a vague Muslim utopia articulated by Pakistan-leaning politicians - or de facto second- or third-class status under occupation by Indian security forces. The irony, say longtime Kashmiris, is that their valley has never been allied or aligned with either India or Pakistan.

"For now, the old natural civil society in Kashmir is nonexistent," says Amitabh Mattoo, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who grew up in Kashmir, and still vacations there. "The real tragedy is that the music, dance, literary tradition, the rich syncretic culture of Kashmir, have been destroyed or forgotten."

Not that human tragedy has ended. In just the last two weeks three massacres of Hindus and Muslims - some 42 people, including women and children - have taken place in Kashmir.

Last year, after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, Kashmir was seen as the most likely flashpoint for an atomic confrontation. Kashmir has been a contested land between the two countries since 1947 - when a Hindu ruler decided to give Muslim-majority Kashmir, an independent "princely state" under British rule, to India.

This year, Pakistani-based rebels crossed the disputed border in northern Kashmir, seemingly a world away from Srinagar - largely with the idea of creating international pressure to force India to negotiate some new political arrangement for Kashmir.

Yet a trembling and fragile middle class here asks: What kind of Kashmir?

The kashmiriat tradition for 700 years blended Sufi Islam's egalitarian spirit with the liberal inquisitiveness of the Hindu Brahmans. In Kashmir, however, Brahmans are called Pandits - and they are more relaxed about Hindu codes. Pandits, for example, are hearty meat-eaters, unlike their high-caste Brahman vegetarian counterparts. Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India and a freedom fighter in 1947, was himself a Pandit from Kashmir - and a man deeply divided over whether to allow Kashmir the right to vote for its independence.

The loss of the Pandit has harmed Kashmir's civic, artistic, and academic life. For example, the Pandits made up 60 percent of schoolteachers here. They were famous for a secular approach to learning, and for diligence in the teaching of music, math, and science. Today, Pandits make up less than 1 percent of the teachers, and, they live in an increasingly impossible world of sandbag bunkers and bodyguards.

"The exodus of Hindus is not good for Kashmir. We Muslims are the losers," says Qudsia Shah, former president of the women's college in Srinagar. "The Pandit dedication to schools is something we have to recoup. Academic standards have dropped, to say the least."

"If there is a new generation of Hindus emerging here, I don't see it," says one elderly Pandit here.

What has largely replaced kashmiriat is an aggressive Islam that is turning the valley into a fundamentalist Islamic state inside India. In the late 1980s, residents tell of clerics coming from outside Kashmir, who pushed strict Islamic schools for children, the wearing of veils for girls and women, and undermined the liberal Sufi ethos. In part, it was a result of the Islamic backlash against modernity and the increasing hold that the superpowers had over small states that fueled revolutions in Iran and elsewhere.

"Our friends would go to the mosque and a new mullah would be speaking," says one Kashmiri official. "He would be telling them, 'You are unIslamic. You are wimps. You'd better change.' "

Today, in village after village outside Srinagar, the charming three-tiered, pagoda-like Sufi worship houses, known as "Ziarat," where Muslims and Hindus prayed together since the 14th century, are no longer used. According to Vijay Kumar, head of the Border Security Forces in Kashmir, new mosques financed by money from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are being built, and that is where the locals are praying. "The Sufi mosques are becoming a thing of the past, something for show," Mr. Kumar says.

Nor are the age-old multireligious festivals still being held - important celebrations that brought everyone out on the street, and to the same table. One Hindu feast, called Shivrati, which featured a special local fish dish, has not been held since the late 1980s. Most children do not know what Shivrati is.

A culture of more violence

Instead, what they know about is a violent gun culture. "Ten years ago I didn't have a clue about what militants did or what a bullet looked like," says a prominent businessman here. "What was a land mine? An AK-47? We were happy and peaceful. Now a 10-year-old can tell you everything."

As in the tragedy of the Balkans, notably Bosnia, the destruction of a "good" or "healthy" society raises some significant long-term questions: Is the violence and the elimination of different peoples and traditions in favor of "pure" or homogenous states, control of free expression, and the erasing of cultural memory and the creation of false histories - a permanent condition? Is there something more toxic and less reversible about the way in which these operations are conducted in the modern- or postmodern world that makes them ineradicable?

Or, as in the case of Kashmir, will this land's 700-year-old tradition of liberal harmony reassert itself? Can the "truth" of Kashmir spring back through thousands of small channels and means that the current political factions involved have not counted on?

Dr. Mattoo opts for the latter scenario. "You can't forever silence a centuries-old tradition in 10 years," he says. "Kashmiriat will come back, though it might take some time."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Kashmiris, forgotten in conflict
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today