I remember running around Dal Lake in the Kashmir Valley as a teenager, counting the soldiers as I passed by. They were stationed every dozen metres or so. Back then there were no gyms in Kashmir, so sprinting along the shoreline of the lake at an altitude of 5,200 feet encircled by the Zabarwan Hills was the only way to exercise. No one used to go jogging around the lake. The entire periphery was lined with Indian army, sometimes you had to hurdle over barbed wire as you went by. Each time I passed a soldier, they would whistle and call out. I remember the quiet humiliation of it all.
Six days after Eid, as I think of my family and the eight million other Kashmiris incarcerated in their homes for the 11th successive day, I am reminded of my runs. I recall the intensity of emotion I felt as a child overtaking those soldiers, how my heart raced as I sped past the bunkers, pushing the guns and camouflage behind. Eventually, the lake opened up and the overwhelming beauty of the valley caved in. Only then was my imagination finally able to break loose. I recall the absurdity of feeling free chasing a watery horizon in one of the most militarized parts of the world.
Something that has always struck me about Kashmir has been the endurance of life against all odds. Today the conflict spans lifetimes. Generations have grown up knowing only military rule. In the Valley, children play cricket among sandbags. The lack of access to justice is structural, fortified by draconian legislation such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, introduced in 1958, which licenses shoot-to-kill powers and indefinite detention, effectively granting the military impunity from their actions. Last year, just hours after the United Nations released its long-awaited first report on human rights in Kashmir, a prominent local journalist and human rights defender was gunned down outside his newspaper’s office in Srinagar. Against this impossible backdrop of terror and torment, it is easy to fall into despair. And yet, even as their lives have been burlesqued by Bollywood and pontificated over coffee cups by those Indians who today claim them in absentia as countrymen, Kashmiris have somehow managed to remain dignified and constant in their pursuit for freedom.
Sometimes I think the people must draw their resilience from the abundance of their land. Perhaps they see the mountains still standing and have faith that one day their pain too will pass. Perhaps that is how they are able to bear the crushing, everyday humiliations of occupation, with its brutalizing crackdowns and relentless curfews. Amidst the undulating meadows of flowers and otherworldly beauty, perhaps it is possible to look beyond the blinded and brutalized bodies of your children and not be confounded by grief. Otherwise how is it possible for an entire population to wait for so long and so patiently before putting their disappeared and dead to rest? For Kashmiris, the very act of existence has itself become the most acute form of resistance.
While the move taken over the past week to forcibly impose Central Indian rule under complete blackout may seem like the beginning of an end, in truth, Kashmiris have been here many times before. This week, as I dressed my children in red and left our house to join a peace rally in Toronto, I was painfully reminded that 30 years ago my mother once took me to Downing Street for my first protest in London. Leaked reports of children in Kashmir being abducted by the army in the middle of the night and women being abused are a continuation of a long harrowing history of boys disappearing in interrogation camps, mass rape and sexual violence. The torturous wait for news of loved ones is but a sad motif of the lifelong vigil of tens of thousands of half-widows and orphans in Kashmir suffering in perpetual purgatory. “We’re like animals being driven to extinction,” a man said as the crimson haze from a smoke bomb filled the air of the rally and our thoughts travelled thousands of miles away to the streets of the city we knew so well. Yes, the oppression is devastating. Yes, the humiliation is relentless. The hopelessness, generational. Justice is not ours today. But still we stand.
I am brought back once again to my childhood runs around the Dal, and a special moment when passing a group of local children, perhaps no more than seven to 10 years old. When the boys saw me dart past, they dropped their bicycles and sped after me, their earth-coloured pherans flapping in the wind. For several minutes, we ran together, an unlikely team, laughing at the strange incongruity of our scene, until struggling to keep up and falling behind, eventually they stopped to catch their breath, still waving from the banks. All that time, the soldiers watched impotently from their posts, and that was when I felt sorry for them. I felt sorry for the India they represented.
“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen asto-o hameen ast-o hammeet ast.” “If there is Paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” To every Kashmiri who is hurting right now, wherever you are in the world, whether inside or outside the Valley, no matter what caste or creed, let us remember the verse we’ve carried since birth. Kashmir has always been more than just land. Kashmir is the soul of the Valley passed down from our ancestors and entrusted to us as custodians that we carry in our hearts, a soul purified by love despite all adversity, and one so desperately needed in our sad world today. Come what may, that soul is truly the only Kashmir worth fighting for. So as the shadow of tyranny advances, and all over the Earth we gather to rally, raise our voices and remain steadfast on our path for peace, let us take faith from the Godly beauty that abounds and know that our run is not done, for in the end our mountains will prevail.
Shama Naqushbandi is a British-Kashmiri writer based in Toronto and author of The White House, winner of “Best Novel,” Brit Writers Awards (www.thewhitehousebook.com).