I Went to Kashmir After Its Autonomy Was Revoked
I went to Srinagar in September 2019, when Kashmir was still in turmoil. On 5 August, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP-led government had suddenly and unilaterally revoked Article 370 in the Indian Constitution.
At the time, I did not know what that meant. But the event was preceded by tourists and pilgrims being made to leave Kashmir in the middle of their trips, and tens of thousands more Indian troops were deployed into what was already the most militarised territory in the world.
It was a concern for me, because Baiti and I were partway into our plans to go to Srinagar to visit the Kashmiri family who hosted us in Nepal. Baiti had thought to go trekking in the fabled Kashmiri mountains, since it would offer the opportunity for a reunion with Sumi, and a meeting with the rest of her family.
I had initially reserved my leave days to go to Pokhara with Jason, for our Ethical Cashmere store. But, as Jason's availability changed at the last minute, I quickly accepted Baiti's invitation to be her travel partner. Sumi promised us that we would be able to go see the weaver villages that she personally manages, and even meet the weavers. Besides, I wanted to stay on a houseboat, and go about the lakes in the shikaras that Sumi told us about.
But then, the news finally made international headlines.
- Aftermath of Article 370 revocation
- Arriving in Srinagar
- "Enjoy Being Back in the 80s!"
- First Impressions of Downtown Srinagar
- A trip to Sonmarg and the Kashmiri countryside
- What is the Article 370 Issue?
- Carbon offset information to Kashmir
Aftermath of Article 370 revocation
Breaking news continued to roll in. We learned that all telecommunications in Kashmir were shut down. The internet is offline. We were unable to confirm the status of our houseboat reservation. We also lost contact with Sumi. My e-visa application, normally with a fairly quick turnaround, remained pending.
Meanwhile, the official news rang false to a Malaysian who grew up reading between the lines in a nation with government-controlled press. Videos and news smuggled across the security lines hint at protests and retaliations, army brutality, injuries and deaths. Some were in areas close to where our friends live.
Our concern over the radio silence increased. Were they ok?
Our travel plans to Kashmir, up in the air
In the end, we finally heard from Sumi. They had managed to send word to a cousin near the border with Nepal, who then sent on a message to friends and family. They were safe. Nonetheless, Sumi and a cousin took the earliest flight out available, to her father in Pokhara.
Still, I hesitated. Not knowing what occupation is like, I was concerned that having to protect us would be a burden on Sumi's mother, should a raid or crackdown be ordered on the population. Besides, Sumi was not there for a reunion. It seemed best to sit this out.
But Baiti would wait to see the developments. And that got me to wonder whether I was right to make the decision based on probabilities and assumptions. What if the right decision was to go, and see the truth of what that's like? Perhaps we would be a consolation to our friends.
So I relented. I told Baiti, if our tourist visas were approved, then at least it means that the government is no longer opposed to tourists returning. On the news, they seemed insistent that everything in Kashmir is fine.
We verified that it would not be an inconvenience if we came at a time like this, and that in fact it would be a welcome distraction. The houseboat owner was coincidentally in Goa, and had the internet access to confirm our reservation. Mr. Ghulam, Sumi's dad, decided he would return to Srinagar to check on his wife, coinciding the trip with ours. And both our visas came through.
And that was how I came to be in Kashmir while it was under lockdown.
Journaling what I witnessed in Kashmir
Normally, I like to write about my trips in chronological order. At the moment, I have a long backlog, and by right I wouldn't get around to writing about Kashmir for a long time. But, before 2019 is over, I'd like to write this one article, chronicling what it was like to visit a state under long-term military occupation.
It was my first such trip. So, all the ways in which it was different from a normal destination stood out to me, especially as the occupying force was flexing its wide-ranging powers. All of the ways that it subverted my assumptions about occupied states and people, also stuck in my mind.
I know that I cannot truly understand the ramifications of the Kashmiri issue, as a foreigner outside of the South Asian region, who does not speak or read any of the regional languages. But I want to write about it, because I suspect my future writings would focus more on Kashmir itself, its points of interest, and the people we met. I would like to focus on Kashmir's beauty and cheerfulness then, its people's resilience and hospitality.
I want to write about it, before I lose the emotional memory of these first impressions*.
Arriving in Srinagar
I had my first misgiving even before we landed in Srinagar airport.
It was not the armed military behind riot shields scattered around Delhi airport, although we were taken aback. It was the airport money changer. I changed some money with them, easily. The misgiving came after Baiti went to the same money changer. Returning, she mentioned that she had to give an address in India for their records.
But I was not asked for an address. Was it because of her Indonesian passport? Or was it because Baiti dresses more 'religiously Muslim' than I do?
My next misgiving was when we were about to land in Srinagar. After the usual flight announcement formalities, the lead steward went on to warn us that no photos can be taken at all inside Srinagar airport.
"Jai Hind,' he intoned.
Welcome to Paradise on Earth
Srinagar airport is pretty, decorated with Kashmiri carved woodwork. It was a shame that we could not take photos.
A tourism sign depicting gorgeous Himalayan mountains greeted us with Kashmir's tagline: Welcome to Paradise on Earth. It seemed a mockery.
The baggage carousel delivered military footlockers among the civilian luggage. Apparently, our flight had carried soldiers alongside civilians. I wondered how many there could be, in this land. There were far more armed soldiers in Srinagar airport than I had ever seen.
We were stopped to fill in additional paperwork, being foreigners. Mr. Ghulam, who had met up with us in Delhi airport, was hustled away by those waiting to receive him. When we finally cleared the door, we discovered that we had lost him. Security forces noticed us loitering, and firmly suggested we make our way to the airport taxis, and leave.
Srinagar under siege
There were no tanks rolling up and down the streets. Nonetheless, there were vans and jeeps instead, modified to mount gun turrets on them.
And there were a heck of a lot soldiers. All of them were armed, stationed at regular points along public spaces and streets, atop buildings and abandoned structures. Most were also armoured, although they seemed unequally equipped in this regard. I think I saw more military in Srinagar than I'd ever seen before. That's saying something, considering I had once been in the navy reserves, and had trained in naval bases.
Barbed wire thrown across even large streets. Barricades and road blocks with signs such as: Feel secure we are here. It was less reassuring than if there had not been a sign at all.
Then there were the bunkers. Sandbag bunkers interrupt the pedestrian paths, topped by barbed wire and draped with camouflage netting despite sticking out obviously against the civilian backdrop. A soldier within, rifle barrel sticking out to us. Other soldiers were building more.
Baiti said aloud what we were thinking, "You know the camouflage is not for camouflage. It's to make the military presence more obvious to the civilians."
"Enjoy Being Back in the 80s!"
A haze obscured the famous mountain range backdrop of Srinagar in fine mist. Across the water, shops and buildings were mostly closed, including restaurants. They weren't forced to close, but many had responded to the clampdown by launching strikes. We were dependent on our houseboat host's wife cooking for us. There would be no eating out on this trip.
During our time on the houseboat, tourists from India came and went. They came, believing the government's claim that Kashmir was back to normal, and everything was open. Some left immediately.
The lack of mobile and data communications was something we expected. Before we left for India, Sumi - safely escaped to Pokhara by then - sent a perfectly millennial message to the two of us determined to enter a territory with no internet services. "Enjoy being back in the 80s!"
Well, I actually did have a childhood in the 80s. I know the difference. Back then, if you promised to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, you try your best to really get there, because there was no way to tell the other person if you want to change plans. People who just stand up others, are the worst.
But we didn't expect to have to contend with it so soon. Certainly not after a successful rendezvous with Mr. Ghulam in Delhi. Our friend had been separated from us, and we had not thought to tell him which houseboat we would be in. There was no help for it. We had to try and locate his home in downtown Srinagar and hope he was waiting for us there.
Howdy Modi, and tensions in Kashmir
"No." Our houseboat host seemed deeply uncomfortable. He shook his head, not liking the idea of going downtown at all. "Here on the lakeside, is safe. In downtown, there can be protests. Stone-throwing, even at tourists."
He did not like the idea of us moving to a home in the downtown area, let alone going around there to ask around for it. "So many soldiers there. If it was not your friend who is there, I would not bring you there." There is widespread belief that the Indian army responds to riots with lethal or maiming force. "Children have been blinded," he told us.
That weekend was especially bad for such a foray, he said. It was the weekend of Prime Minister Modi's visit to the USA, where he was to be welcomed by President Donald Trump in a big 'Howdy Modi' event. While there were no mobile telecommunications, television works just fine. The event was anticipated and broadcast daily on Indian TV.
Tensions were expected to rise in Kashmir, due to the US President's indifference to the clampdown in Kashmir, and effusive welcome for Modi.
"After that, I will take you and we can try to find your friend," he said. There was no public transportation running in Kashmir. No taxis, no buses. If he didn't take us, we would have to hitchhike, a notion he seemed to like even less.
Meanwhile, why not go somewhere?
Closure-not closure of tourist attractions in Kashmir
"Oooooh, Pahalgam? Gulmarg? Sonmarg?" cried Baiti excitedly, ticking off all of the places she had wanted to see before events turned. No. The most famous tourist attractions in Kashmir were closed, the mountains taken over by the military.
Occasionally, tour guides drive close to check the status, and return to tell others that Pahalgam was open, or Gulmarg was open. And then again, others return to say they were closed again. I suppose technically you could say the army hasn't totally closed them. But, with a status that varied with no pattern, it was impossible to plan tours for the few guests that have begun to trickle back.
But our host knew another place. "How about Naranag? It's a place local Kashmiris like to go to. It's not as famous, but it is peaceful. Beautiful village streams, mountains. Apple trees in the gardens. You could ride a horse up the mountain." I was sold on the apples and horses. Baiti was sold on the mountains, that were said to be just as good as those she had seen pictures of.
He set us up with a Naranag family homestay. For a while, we did find a refuge from the pall of the political situation, for life in the village depended less on food imports and cash.
But even here, the news of Howdy Modi reached the homes of the village. And before our time there ended, 3-tonne trucks poured soldiers out into the Naranag mountains.
Our host in Naranag was nervous. He hoped they didn't conscript him as a mountain guide again. The army did not pay such rural guides, and the time he lost guiding them in their missions was time he could not earn to provide for his family in the lean winter months.
First Impressions of Downtown Srinagar
The Karbala mourning banners were still hanging over the streets in and around the old city, even though it was 2 weeks after Ashura. Downtown Srinagar is Shiite territory. The realisation dawned on me. But I was pretty sure Mr. Ghulam is not Shiite.
They were pretty intimidating, sombre and black, with blood red, white, or green lettering spelling out the names of the martyred grandchildren of Prophet Muhammad, whose murders the Shiite Muslims mourn to this day. Most were in Urdu, but some were in English.
Imam Hussain AS**: Mankind's Greatest Martyr who exposed the true face of terrorism, one banner read.
The theme was not entirely surprising, since the area had seen popular protests, which the army have been known to put down with violence. In the 90s, it amounted to massacre. Today though, odds are there would not be protests (or at least, not big ones), due to the increased pressure from the army.
Downtown Srinagar seemed like a highly conservative, extremely religious area. I began to have doubts over moving to Mr. Ghulam's house, even if he were there. Would I be able to move about?
I took a video of the banners from inside the car, but our host expressed astonishment. If the soldiers noticed, the phone could be confiscated, he said. He mentioned a Western tourist couple who had had theirs taken in the downtown area. They were only photographing the beautiful architecture of the old city, but the soldiers thought they were photographing them.
Baiti remarked at the tension in the area. She felt it was greater than the touristy side of Srinagar, around Dal lake. The soldiers seemed more vigilant, their eyes following you around.
I looked up at the black banners pledging resistance, commemorating martyrdom. I could see why.
The grace of Srinagar
Thus far, my description of Srinagar has been pretty bleak. The army certainly dominates the scene, and I was not yet used enough to it, to bury their presence into my subconscious. It was overwhelming, a constant pall over civic life.
But Srinagar itself was quite lovely. The Himalayas rise dramatically, a steep bank of mountain dominating the landscape. The lakes - while clearly being well on the way to eutrophication - were still and placid, the mirror-like water broken only by the graceful glide of plush, curtained shikaras rowed by Kashmiri men elegant in their salwar khameez.
And the trees. There are many, many trees in Srinagar, making it far greener than any other Indian city I'd visited so far. Prominent among them are the chinaar, a local maple that is the sigil of Kashmir. There are several flower gardens, gentle gardeners selling flower seeds among the souvenir-hawking shikaras that would come alongside your houseboat. Fathers were out, taking little daughters out for the day. In the spring, they told me, Srinagar is filled with blooming flowers.
There is an old grace to Srinagar, in the layout of the city and the way the people carry themselves. The city holds a memory of confidence. The Kashmiris feel free. And I suppose, therein lies the crux of the political problem.
The truth about life in downtown Srinagar
It took us two tries to Mr. Ghulam's house, to be reunited. On our second attempt, finding the household still inexplicably not home, we left a note to tell him where we were. So he found us, eventually. They had been out to the countryside to see some relatives that Mr Ghulam hadn't seen for a long time.
We finished the remainder of our stay at the houseboat, and then our host brought us back downtown.
It was night and day.
Away from the sombre, heavily-surveilled roads, the clouds seemed to disperse. Within the community, you'd be forgiven for thinking no occupation was taking place. The occasional hushed conversations between adults sharing news, were the only signs. Neighbours and relatives came to visit each other, children were playing. The community was busy, for a wedding was to take place soon.
True to nature, despite the clampdown, Mr. Ghulam was still hosting couchsurfers! We found that there were already two foreigners before us, one of whom he had already hosted in Pokhara, just like us! Cuban-American Vero was a cheerful breath of optimism, dragging along a willing-reluctant Argentinian pediatrician to explore a region considered to be full of 'dangerous terrorists' in the West. Finding, of course, the same things we did.
My first impression was of sombreness and restriction. But inside the communities, downtown Srinagar was even... merry! Drum circles and LED lights, wedding feasts and dancing... and we were told that this was a scaled-down wedding, due to the army restrictions!
A trip to Sonmarg and the Kashmiri countryside
"Of course we can," Mr. Ghulam had said, when we asked to meet the embroiderer who made a particularly incredible needlework on a cashmere shawl that Mr. Ghulam bought for this Pokhara store. The roses were so finely embroidered, that from a distance, they looked painted. Who was she, we wondered. Her work should be signed! Surely it is art!
Mr. Ghulam decided to fulfil our wish, along with another wish of Baiti's. The trip to the embroiderer's village could be combined with a visit to Sonmarg, one of the top alpine attractions of Kashmir. He thought we might also spend the night at the house of a relative. "We will see," he said.
I asked if Sonmarg was open. Mr. Ghulam seemed to think it didn't matter.
And it didn't. Sonmarg was indeed garrisoned. But Mr. Ghulam led us to the grounds of a resort and we hiked across it to see the snowy mountain peaks. (Ok, Baiti, Vero, and Mr. Ghulam hiked. The altitude laid me low pretty quickly.)
But I thought our host seemed more jittery than usual that day. There was a tense energy to him that he kept well hidden. I wondered if it was because he didn't know if we would run into trouble with any of the many road blocks along the way. Was it safer to make it a 'family visit' trip, rather than just taking us as tourists to see Sonmarg? I don't know. I don't know if you could really tease out these implicit things that your subconscious knows.
The village of embroiderers
The village where the needleworker we sought lived, was further in from the road where Mr. Ghulam has a shop (now closed). When we arrived, I was taken aback to see soldiers standing on the roof, brandishing rifles. Bold as brass, he went out to greet them, as we made our way across the harvested fields.
We had a look around the village, whose people seemed untouched by the events taking place. The walnut harvest was in, and there were apples in abundance for us. We had tea while Mr. Ghulam caught up with them. Their best embroiderers came to sit with us in the reception room, continuing their work in our presence and basking in our admiration at the partially completed shawls.
When we left, Mr. Ghulam spoke with the soldiers again, as we got into the van. He even asked the soldiers to look after his shop for him while he was gone! "If you respect them, they will respect you," he explained as we drove away.
But I could see him visibly relax as we headed back to Srinagar, having completed our itinerary.
As for the master embroiderer of the rose shawl? He smiled when we showed him a photo of the shawl that led us to him.
Yes, folks. Kashmiri men grow flowers, and they also do some of the best needlework in the world.
What is the Article 370 Issue?
We met many people in our two weeks in Kashmir. Add to that, the people that Vero and Juana had already met. There are a variety of opinions among them, as to the ultimate fate of Kashmir, and whether the strikes were helpful on top of the army restrictions already being imposed by the Indian government.
Some would rather Kashmir join Pakistan, especially as they saw no one on the international stage ever speak up for them, save for Pakistan. Some would like Kashmir to be independent. And others wouldn't mind staying with India.
But a few things were pretty much unanimous. Modi was the bogey in Kashmir. Universally unpopular, it's gotten to the extent that there is a kind of supernatural malus attached to Narendra Modi in the public's mind. He is blamed for everything, whether in seriousness or in jest. Power outage? It's Modi. Schools closed? Modi did it.
Kashmiris would reminisce to former Prime Ministers who respected Article 370, the article in the Indian constitution that guaranteed autonomy to the region, as part of the circumstances of Kashmir joining the federation in the first place. Its own constitution, its own flag, and crucially - its own land ownership laws.
I imagine Article 370 being stripped in the Indian Parliament is as if the Malaysian federal government removed the negotiated rights of Sarawak when they joined our federation, insisting it's legal because enough votes were obtained, even though none of those votes came from Sarawak itself.
What Kashmiris agree on
But the overriding fear that unites the different points of view, was the cultural integrity of Kashmir. Do what you will with Ladakh, or Jammu, if they like to be absorbed into India. But do not force Kashmir to be Hindu. Ease or even eliminate the restrictions on working rights for non-Kashmiris in Kashmir, just let us keep our land within Kashmiri people.
The fear is of land being sold off to non-Kashmiris, to purposely change the demographic in the valley and destroy Kashmiri culture. Rumours of a campaign spreading in India for Hindu men to simply 'take' a wife from Kashmir after Article 370 is revoked, increase the anxiety of the women and further fuel the fear that the ultimate objective of the BJP government is to dissolve the family structures of Kashmiri Muslim communities.
But amidst their existential fears and loathing towards Modi, and army brutality in the past, astonishingly the animosity never extended to Indians in general. In this respect, the Kashmiris remind me of the Filipinos, who generally have not descended into Islamophobia, despite their close identification with the USA and the long separatist conflict in Mindanao.
My houseboat host was even empathetic to the soldiers, that they have to be deployed for so long on an errand that (he believed) must strain the conscience of at least some of them.
The Bollywood drama on the houseboat
I returned to the houseboat when Baiti went on to Delhi. There was drama in this period. One night, there was a lot of yelling and fighting on the front deck. Later, I found out why the two Indian tourist families were at odds.
It seems that one of them was the boss of the other, and had invited the other's family to join his family's Kashmir trip. As it was an affordable package, the subordinate accepted. However, once in Kashmir, the superior began booking all of them on expensive tours and shopping, which the subordinate could no longer afford. Yet, the amount was expected to be split in half. An argument ensued, and the two families split off to do their own thing.
My houseboat host took the second family in, inviting them for meals in his family kitchen. Among his last words to me when he took me to the airport, was empathy for them, who were abused on his houseboat by a wealthier man, and all he could do was to shelter them.
As I suffered through the extra layers of checks at the airport by zealous-looking security personnel, none of whom were local Kashmiri, I marvel at the Kashmiri people, who can still feel the humanity of their oppressors even as they resist them.
I hope on the other side are those who likewise feel the pain of a people whose lands are being taken by legal fiat and moral vacuum, while they only wish to govern themselves. Perhaps when they sit in history class, learning of the time when the British had done it to them. To my ancestors too.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.
*My friend Baiti has begun writing about her impressions of our trip to Kashmir on her own blog. Readers who are proficient in either Indonesian or Malay can go check it out.
** AS, abbreviated form for Alaihis-Salaam, meaning 'peace be upon him'. A salutation said at the end of the names of religiously significant figures in Islam, such as Prophets.
These are the kinds of thoughts and impressions that usually need time to settle into your mind. Pin to read (or re-read) later.