Everywhere you go in Kashmir, you see the military presence that promises to ruin even the sunniest of days. No matter how you slice it, the very fact that there are soldiers and army personnel around leave you feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and seem to serve as a constant reminder that Kashmir is one of the most conflict stricken areas in India today.
However, there is something deceptively serene about a number of places in Kashmir. If you take a walk down the botanical gardens, or if you spend some time on a shikara on Dal Lake, you wouldn't for a moment believe that this part of the country could be witness to such bloodshed and strife. You'll hear the birds singing, the water gushing past the oars of the boat, you'll see beautifully silhouetted mountains in the distance, and brilliant flowers everywhere you go, and you'll wonder not once, but many times about how this particular paradise could ever have seen death and destruction.
Talking to the people, however, will fill in the gaps. We had the rare chance to visit Kashmir University and meet with a few students there. After a tour around what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful campuses in India, we met five wonderfully chirpy students of the English faculty and another excellent bunch of law students. They spoke freely and without any inhibitions about any matters in question. The law professor who spoke to us was in an especially precarious position because he had his students on one hand and us outsiders on the other. But he maintained a wonderfully neutral and humane stance, and I think the world should have more professors like that to make it a better place. The session was intense and many times we could feel their anger, resentment and bitterness about the past and the future of Kashmir because of what they saw as India's shortcomings.
There has never been a time before this when I questioned my integrity as an Indian. These were my thoughts that night:
This is my land too. Part of the country I was born in. This place is part of what makes India whole. And yet I am ashamed at how completely clueless and ignorant I am about the trials my countrymen here face. I am ashamed that we as a country could not find a way to allow them to feel they belong here. I am ashamed because this is my loss too. This is my problem too.
I do not feel like I belong here. I feel different. I feel like this is not part of anything I know or am familiar with. And this is not something I consider good. Wherever else I may go in India, I know I will feel at home within the differences. Here the difference is of another kind. It's more of a barrier and a brick wall than anything else.
This is no longer an issue of borders, of strange demarcations or fights over land. We have pushed these people away from us, and so we have created the difference, built the gulf of unfamiliarity. As Indians, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
When the Kashmiris choose autonomy over being past of India, we should allow ourselves no surprise. This is our fault, for being so ignorant and so completely at ease in our little worlds that we have forgotten to include this state in our thoughts. We are content not knowing the brutalities our own people face, because they're so far away. We believe the lies that the media feeds us. We are content, because we don't want to share in their agony.
When Kashmir chooses autonomy, it is India that will weep.
Many people I've spoken to have told me that it is not India's fault that the Kashmiris want a separate state and that it doesn't concern the common man. By that logic, nothing that happens anywhere in India has anything to do with any of us as citizens of this nation.
All they want is for people to hear them, hear their voices and speak as one people and call for peace. Shame that something that appears so simple in essence is something we can't do without turning our heads away and telling ourselves that things are beyond repair, and that those matters don't concern us.