An embracing spirit languishes like the dying chinar tree

by Meena Arora Nayak

Lal Chowk surprised me. Instead of crumbling stores, I saw in them merchandise piled high. Instead of the evidence of battles, I saw vendors and vehicles competing for street space. Instead of fear-stricken people, I saw a crowded marketplace, brimming with activity. When I expressed my surprise to Arshad, my escort, he told me that the state officials repaired all damages almost overnight–a ruse to convince the people or, perhaps, themselves that the situation was just as repairable. As for the people in the market, he said, “Life goes on. In fact, within 20 minutes of an incident every thing goes back to normal. We have become so used to it.”

We bought the cheese and as we strolled through the crowds, we heard a crash–thunderous–and the earth trembled under our feet. Within a minute, everything changed. Bustling streets became fear-filled confusion. Storekeepers pulled down shutters; vendors and vehicles became entangled in flight; people ran in all directions, pushing against each other, stumbling over wares laid out on sidewalks. As I stood rooted to the ground, suspended in this surreal dimension, a young woman ran past us, her bright yellow duppatta, which a minute ago had probably covered her head in modesty, flying off her shoulder in a trail of fire.

Arshad and I began walking towards the site, shouldering our way past people fleeing in the opposite direction. “What do you think it was?” I asked Arshad. “A police encounter? A terrorist’s grenade?”

“Not an encounter,” he said. “No shots.” He paused. “No screams. There were no screams.”

As we turned the corner, a small crowd of men gathered around an embankment. Leaving Arshad’s side, I elbowed my way into the crowd, determined to see the blatant tragedy of Kashmir. And there it was: a chinar tree 20-some meters in height and 12-some meters in girth, felled to the ground. Chinar is a Persian word meaning “what a fire.” In late autumn, the chinar bursts into flames, its palm-sized leaves smoldering in colors from passionate purple to blazing red. In 1596, the great Mughal Emperor of India, Akbar, planted the first grove of chinars in a garden in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, the chinar in Kashmir has become a dominant feature of the landscape, and its connotations have become an idiom both artistic and dialectic.

This is the story of Kashmir–the story of a dying civilization. According to a Hindu legend, Kashmir was once a vast lake called Satisar, inhabited by the Nagas, the snake people. Once upon a time, a demon, Jaladeo, began terrorizing the Nagas, so they beseeched their father, Sage Kashyap, to help. Kashyap, deciding to evoke the gods, performed such severe penance that the heavens shook. Finally, Shiva descended from Mount Kailash, his abode in the Himalayas, and rented the mountainside with his mighty trident. All the water of Lake Satisar drained out. Then Vishnu’s consort, the goddess Laxmi (called Sharda in Kashmir), took the shape of a hari or a mynah bird and dropped on the demon’s head a pebble, which penetrated his body and grew to the size of a hill, encasing him in the rock. Thus, the hill came to be known as Hari Parbat (Hari’s Mount). In gratitude to Kashyap, the site was called Kashyap Mir or Kashyap Mountain, which has gradually corrupted to Kashmir. Over the years, the slopes of the hill became enshrined with Hindu, Muslim and Sikh places of worship. In the 16th century, Akbar constructed the Hari Parbat fort along the top of the hill, enclosing the city of Srinagar in a citadel.

Even before Akbar built his fort, Srinagar and the whole Kashmir valley was already a citadel. Nestled securely between the lofty Himalayan range in the north and the Pir Panjal in the south, the 134-kilometer by 40-kilometer oval plane with its meandering rivers and rippling lakes, rolling greens and flower-fragrant paths was a citadel of Eden, a citadel for a way of life which the world would never comprehend. Kashmiris call it Kashmiriyat.

Kashmiriyat, when experienced as a culture, is so syncretic that it inspires an epitomizing co-existence: man’s oneness with man; man’s oneness with nature. Kashmiriyat, when perceived as a faith, is an amalgamation of four great traditions: the aborigines’ Shaivism, a Hindu Monistic philosophy, and the disseminated wisdoms of Quran’s Erfan, Buddhism’s Nirvana and Sikhism’s Ek Onkar.

Aside from being a fertile ground for missioners, Kashmir, being on the Silk Route, was also an easy target for invaders who were sometimes benevolent but often tyrannical. This constant shift in allegiance taught Kashmiris the attitude of Kashmiriyat. No matter who or what the monarch, the people of Kashmir knew survival could only be through seamless co-existence. One of the reasons for such integration was Kashmir’s insular geography, which buffered most disruptive influences. However, when the modern world’s demarcation made Kashmir a strategic vantage point, the permeation of outside antagonisms in Kashmir’s society was inevitable.

In 1947, the year of India’s partition, Kashmir emerged from the shifting tides of international politics as the invidious prize for both India and Pakistan. At that time, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu king, but the majority of its population was Muslim. According to the precepts of the British two-nation theory, Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. However, Kashmir’s Sufi Islam was hardly the Sunna- and Sharia-based Islam of Pakistan, so the Raja entered a stand-still agreement with both countries. Pakistan grew impatient and sent its troops and warlords into Kashmir, forcing the hand of the Raja, who appointed Sheikh Abdullah–a popular and trusted leader of the Kashmiris–to negotiate the treaty of Kashmir’s accession to India. Thus it was that Kashmir became a part of India–but with reservation. Article 370 of the Instrument of Accession gave Kashmir semi-autonomous status within India’s constitutional framework and promised the people of Kashmir a plebiscite. The article guaranteed the survival of Kashmiriyat in Kashmir, but it also became Kashmir’s albatross.

Imbued with this special status, Kashmir jealously protected its autonomy. Consequently, the central government in Delhi pumped into the region special food and resource subsidies but otherwise felt no real need to be actively involved in the region’s affairs. The government of India did very little to monitor the state’s administrative and legislative machinery. With money pouring in through the subsidies, the highly profitable tourism industry and the farming of such cash crops as fruits, walnuts and saffron, corruption was a natural result. Bribery took root early in Sheikh Abdullah’s 20-year administration and burgeoned into a full-fledged orgy when the regime of his son, Farukh Abdullah, began in the mid-1980s.

Civil lawlessness now reigns supreme in Kashmir. Investments, development contracts, higher education and employment are all privileges of the venal, while the ordinary Kashmiri is brick-walled. Who is held responsible for the failed system? The situation. Terrorism.

A disillusioned young rickshaw driver revealed the Sophoclean irony of this inverted truth to me on my way to Chirar-I-Sharif, the shrine of the Sufi saint Nur-ud-din Wali. He was a first-class graduate of Srinagar’s college of agriculture. “When I couldn’t get a job, militancy became the only option. Everyone knows how much they (Pakistan’s intelligence service) pay for young recruits. I tried going to the other side, but my guide abandoned me in the mountains and I returned home. I have a widowed mother and two sisters. Although I can barely feed them with this job, I consider myself lucky. If I had joined militancy…”

Kashmir’s reversal of fate was sealed in 1987 when various Muslim groups with an affinitive bias toward the Islamization of Pakistan’s military dictator Zia-ul-Haque formed a coalition called the Muslim United Front. Haque’s orthodoxy, drawing its inspiration from the Ayatollah’s experiments in Iran, promised a lawful land practicing Quranic principles of governance and personal ethics. The frustrated youth of Kashmir were ready and willing to surrender Kashmiriyat to law and polity, even if it meant living in a polarized society. Muslim United Front drew such unprecedented support from the people of Kashmir that Farukh Abdullah feared defeat in that year’s elections, so he formed a coalition with India’s ruling Congress party. Doubtful of the coalition’s victory, Farukh and Delhi orchestrated guarantees. The election was blatantly rigged. Members of the Muslim United Front watched as election booths were vandalized, votes were miscounted and polling agents were beaten and jailed.

Kashmir erupted in riots and a wayward spirit entered the hearts of people. It was the spirit of revolution. The former pleas for plebiscite– Hum kya chahte hai? Rai shumari!–turned to chants for azadi or freedom. Mothers urged their sons to beckon to the call; schoolteachers stopped teaching math and history, and began talking to their students about freedom and liberty. And Pakistan–with its tantalizing promises of money and training camps–became the much needed “helping hand” or, as India liked to call it, the “foreign hand.” Young Muslim men from all over the valley openly crossed the Line of Control in throngs: Local bus drivers announcing two towns–“Sopur, Kapur”–defiantly added “Upper” to indicate their destination was on the other side of the mountains.

Of those 18 Muslim United Front polling agents, five joined the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, 12 joined the Hizb ul Mujahideen and one enlisted with the Islamic Student’s Federation. The gun had entered the valley. Its first victim: Kashmiriyat.

Bashir Ahmad, a third generation weaver of pashmina shawls, is a witness. Most of Bashir’s business used to come directly from tourists and merchants in Jammu. The tourists stopped visiting and the shawls stopped selling. “Today, even if we can sell them in Jammu, it is at the cost of our pride. They don’t trust us any more.” He told me how a few years ago, he sent a shipment of pure pashmina shawls to a Jammu dealer he knew well, but when he went to collect the payment, he only received half of what was owed him. The dealer accused him of mixing wool yarn with pashmina thread.

“Weaving is an ibadat,” Bashir told me, “an act of worship. Weavers have a patron Sufi saint who demands honesty in ibadat. Believe me, in this business, if you are not honest, you will not be able to survive for more than a few years. We have been weavers for over 100 years. This situation has made my ancestors cheats.”

This mistrust has soured not just business relationships, but also relationships of the heart.

Shahid sahib, my host, shared his pain with me one afternoon. Before the Kashmiri Hindus, or Pundits, as they are called, fled the valley, fearing the fanatic implications of the Islamic insurgency, Shahid sahib used to have a very close Hindu friend in his neighborhood.

“Kaul and I used to play chess in the evening. His board used to sit in my living room. We would play in my house and, most evenings, go to his house for dinner. His mother was an excellent cook. I loved her like a mother. Then rumors of a Muslim militancy began to spread. But there was no real incident. However, I was worried about my friend and his family, so I told them that if anything happened, they could count on me. A couple of days later, Kaul came to ask for his chessboard and the following morning they were gone. The next thing we know, the media is splashed with atrocities the Muslims had supposedly committed against their Hindu neighbors–women raped, men tortured and killed, children brutally murdered, houses looted. These were stories that included my neighborhood. Right here where I live. How is it that I didn’t see anything?”

When I asked him if he still believed in Kashmiriyat, his eyes filled with tears. “No one talks about Kashmiriyat any more. Maybe it was always a myth, an illusion we had mistaken as truth.”

“But do you believe in it?” I insisted.

“If anything had happened, I would have protected Kaul and his family with my life.”

Whether the grievances of the Muslims are real or imagined, whether the Pundits fled due to a situation that was real or imagined, hardly seems the point now. The fact is that the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim saw the Pundits’ leaving as a betrayal of Kashmiriyat.

While I talked to Shahid sahib, his seven-year-old grandson came into the room. I dug out two candy bars from my bag to give to him. When Burhan saw his grandfather’s tears, he emphatically stated that Kashmir should become a part of Pakistan.

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because we are Musalmaan.”

“But do you know that India has many many Musalmaan?”

“Yes, but there are also Hindus. I don’t like Hindus.”


“They’re not nice. They tell lies.”

I asked him what he thought of me–whether I was nice or not.

“Very nice,” he said, biting into his chocolate.

“So, do you think I am a Hindu or a Musalmaan?”

Without hesitation, he said, “Musalmaan.”

I couldn’t resist telling the little boy that I was a Hindu, but I regretted the impulse almost immediately, because Burhan looked at his grandfather with bewilderment and his own sense of betrayal.

In fact, betrayal is the theme song of Kashmir’s tragedy. Ever since 1947, the Kashmiris have been suffering one betrayal after another. The promise of the plebiscite was never fulfilled. Waiting for its realization, the people of Kashmir never identified with India and, thus, remained bereft of a national identity. Compounding this estrangement was Delhi’s repeated condoning of corruption in the guise of secularism and democracy.

When embittered Kashmiris turned to Pakistan after the 1987 elections fraud, Pakistan’s intelligence service gathered the Kashmiris in an embrace of pretended sympathy. For a while, Kashmiris saw the Pakistani agents as fellow Muslims ready to fight for their brethren, and freedom in the Kashmiri psyche became synonymous with the fanatic elements of that agency.

However, within a few years the people of Kashmir realized that Pakistan had invoked insurgency in Kashmir not for the Kashmiris’ right for self-determination but for the establishment of an Islamic world-order. Their cause for freedom had been sabotaged and turned murderously against their own people. What was worse was that Kashmir’s grassroots revolutionaries became indistinguishable from the terrorists of foreign nations. This fight had become a free-for-all–Afghanis, Pakistanis, Sudanese, jihadis, freedom fighters, bounty hunters. However, by then it was too late. India had already raised its flag of nationalism against Kashmir’s separatist movement. India began to send in its security forces who, under the Armed Forces Special Power Act, started their own reign of terror, interrogating civilians at gunpoint and torturing and killing others on mere suspicion. The cause that had begun as a freedom movement turned into a fractured war against military occupation.

Even if Kashmir is not fighting a conventional war, it is a war zone. There are approximately 700,000 Indian military personnel from five different brigades posted in Kashmir at all times. Not only is the border lined thickly with Indian and Pakistani armies, but the towns look like combat zones. Gun-toting soldiers are everywhere–patrolling gardens, parks, lakesides, and even places of worship. Traffic in the streets is often stalled to allow the lumbering, armored vehicles of war to make their rounds. In Srinagar, there is a military bunker every 200 meters, complete with sandbags, chains and soldiers flashing AK-47s. Roadside checks have become routine. Anywhere, anytime, public busses and private cars can be stopped and thoroughly inspected, and the passengers rigorously questioned. There is no official curfew in Srinagar, but after eight in the evening, the city becomes a shadowy ghost town of stray dogs and security guards. Every corner is a nucleus of suspicion and every military bunker an interrogation cell. If you are not able to provide identification, or if you resist in any manner, may God help you.

“What can they do to you?” I asked Arshad one evening when we were caught in this nightmare.

“Young men disappear in Kashmir every day. Sometimes people find their bodies–in lakes or on river banks; other times they just vanish.”

I remembered a wailing mother in Hazrat Bal, the mosque where a strand of Prophet Mohammed’s hair is enshrined. She had been circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum, kissing every latticed window, leaving a trail of tears all along the marble walls. Upon my asking, she had told me her son had disappeared.

Dr. G.Q. Allaquabad, a leading Kashmiri psychiatrist, says today Kashmir’s entire population suffers from depression. And it isn’t just the Kashmiris who are susceptible; the soldiers posted in Kashmir are also weary and homesick. In Zaina Kadal, a riot-prone neighborhood, I talked to a soldier standing beside a bunker with Mera Bharat Mahan (My India is Great) written on its side in large red letters. The soldier was a little wary but willing to talk. He told me he was from a village near Bombay and that he had been stationed in Kashmir for five years. “My son was born in my absence,” he said with a sadness in his eyes. “I see him when I go home on leave, but I miss him.” I asked him if he was afraid for his life, since military units were the terrorists’ main targets. “There’s always a fear, but I’m a soldier. I go wherever my country needs me.” I asked him then if he was aware that the people of Kashmir were sick of India and it military’s presence. His manner changed suddenly. “We are here for their protection,” he said in a tone of a programmed machine.

According to the people of Kashmir, they never needed military protection against their own militants. No Kashmiri blamed them for taking up the gun. Besides, they believe that all Kashmiris who were alleged terrorists are either dead or reformed. There are certainly foreign nationals still operating in the valley, and no amount of security seems to prevent their infiltration across the border. The Kashmiris say that is because the real terrorists have always been and still are India and Pakistan, and they don’t want the conflict to end.

When Kashmir’s trouble began, the governments of both India and Pakistan exploited communal sentiments by feeding the public rumors of ethnic cleansing. Aside from engaging domestic public opinion, both governments realized that they could use Kashmir to clean their image in the world’s view. Pakistan surmised it could ‘cry wolf’ and acquire large amounts foreign aid to keep its military well-equipped against its warring neighbor, India; and the Indian politicians discovered they could absolve themselves of all sins, including going nuclear, by citing victimization by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. The Kashmir conflict has become such a raison d’être for their hostility that one wonders what both countries will use as a stratagem if the Kashmir question were diplomatically settled.

“It’ll never be resolved as long as we are caught between their quarrels. The only solution is for India to cut us loose and for Pakistan to stop interfering in our bid for freedom,” Shahid sahib told me, echoing the sentiment of many Kashmiris.

A free Kashmir? The most poignant tragedy of this elusive desire is that Kashmir is almost incapable of survival as an independent nation. The people of Kashmir are aware of this, yet they crave it. For most of its post-1947 life, Kashmir has lived on subsidies from India. Over the years, the agriculture department replaced the farming of staple crops like rice and wheat with revenue–generating cash crops like saffron and fruits and walnuts. Consequently, Kashmir today imports most of its rice, wheat and vegetables from other Indian states. It would take Kashmir years to restructure its agriculture in order to feed its people. The tourism industry, which used to be the backbone of Kashmir’s economy, is non-existent today. Freedom for Kashmir would also mean a constant threat from its powerful neighbors, India, Pakistan, China and Russia. For the simple Kashmiri, however, freedom merely means the return of Kashmiriyat and a simple faith in God’s benevolence.
Sitting in the verdant green lawns of the Jama Masjid, enjoying the afternoon sun, four young friends who make a living by spinning pashmina thread, talked to me about azadi and what it meant to them. Irshada, one of the women said, “It is the right to live our lives like ordinary people.”

When I asked her what her definition of an ordinary life was, she blushed and looked at her friends. Her friend, Sumaira, who, incidentally, is the sister of the man Irshada hopes to marry, said, “she wants to marry the man of her choice.”

“And have a family and enough money to live a comfortable life,” Irshada shyly added.

“Azadi means no violence, no Indian presence, no Pakistani presence. Just us. Kashmiris,” Sumaira said.

“And no Pundits?” I asked.

“They will come back once we have azadi. This is their Kashmir, too. We want them to come back.”

“And there would be no trouble between the communities after all that has happened?”

“Have you heard about Kashmir’s Kashmiriyat?” Irfana, the unsmiling one asked me.

I told her I had, but I wanted to hear her version of it.

“We used to have a Musalmaan ruler a long time ago–hundreds of years ago–whose governor was so cruel he used to tie up Hindus in gunny sacks and drown them in the Dal Lake. Most Hindus fled from Kashmir at that time. Then another Musalmaan ruler came to rule Kashmir. His name was Zain-al-Abdin. He invited the Hindus back and appointed them to high positions in his kingdom. He helped them rebuild their temples and celebrated their festivals with them. The Kashmiris learnt so much from him, they called him Budshah (great king). He taught us all to love our land–our Kashmir–and to live together as Kashmiris. That is Kashmiriyat.”

“It’s still there,” Irfana added. “Kashmiriyat is still there. “It’s hard to see it these days, because of the violence, but it’s there–in the hearts of all the Kashmiris.”

Irshada smiled at me and said with a faith so firm I envied her, “We’ll be fine when we get azadi. Allah tallah will look after all of us.”

I came to Kashmir as a Hindu to reaffirm my faith before an image of Shiva which is found in a cave near Srinagar. Instead, I tied threads of hope on the lattice work of Makhdoom Sahib and Dastgir Sahib mosques, rubbed my nose in the dirt of Chhati Padshahi Gurudwara and rang bells of peace at the Chos Khor Buddhist monastery. I had become a pilgrim who questioned the silence of these silent guardians of Kashmiriyat. Irshada's simple faith restored my hope for Kashmiriyat’s survival, so I decided to spend my last day in Kashmir as I would have back in the days when Kashmiriyat was not just in the hearts of the people but roamed free in the streets. I rented a houseboat for the evening to watch the sun rise on the Dal Lake.

Sitting on the deck that evening, watching the long twilight linger on the Dal, I heard shots in the distance.

“An encounter?” I asked Aslam, the houseboat owner.

“No, no. Only some tourists playing with firecrackers. Don’t let it worry you. You enjoy your evening.” But I knew he lied. I asked him what he thought of the situation.

“Death,” he said, lighting his 10th cigarette of the evening. “We will die, either from a terrorist’s gun or from being caught in the crossfire. If not that, then from a heart attack brought on by the tension of a failing business.”

“Whom do you blame?’ I asked.

He shook his head. “Kashmir has been touched by an evil eye.”

I remembered the chinar I had seen on my first day in Srinagar. A tree removal team from the garden and parks department had felled it. It was dying. Nobody really knew the cause. “It was the heavy traffic. The pollution,” a bystander had told me. “Some bug was eating away at its insides,” another one said. “It’s greed,” a dapper young man dressed impeccably in khaki trousers and a bright white shirt had stated. “They need the space for more business construction.” The chinar was obviously dying. I remembered seeing the peeling scabs on its once-smooth bark and fissures in the circular age lines in the massive hollow trunk. Some of its branches, dry and brittle, had snapped when it had crashed to the ground and were strewn around it like hacked-off limbs. I had been told that only a week ago one of its dead branches had broken loose in a storm and struck a little girl of five, killing her. I remembered the old doll seller, who had stood beside me, holding a pole against his shoulder on which hollow plastic dolls with painted faces had hung from strings. His gray beard had been filled with dirt; wrinkles reached into his eyes.

“It was touched by the evil eye,” he told me in a hushed voice.

At dawn, the following morning, as I stood on the deck of the houseboat, watching the sun rise, the Dal became ethereal, silver with drops of golden sunlight twinkling along its still water. The first rays of the sun streaked the sky behind Hari Parbat. Then the sound of the first azan arose from a mosque on the hill. It was soon joined by the sound of the first ardas from a Gurudwara also on the hill. Filled with a sense of divine unity, I wondered if the prayer generated from this elemental euphony would be powerful enough to one day negate the touch of the evil eye.

Meena Nayak is writing a children’s book about Indian historical legends which will be published by Penguin India. Steve McCurry's photographs of have appeared in magazines and books including his own South Southeast, published by Phaidon.