How Kashmir Became the Obsession of a Generation

When Haider –– Vishal Bhardwaj’s widely acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet –– came out in 2014, I was struck by the brilliant yet obvious choice of its setting. Hamlet’s story of vengeance, treachery, mystery, love and yearning couldn’t have been transplanted to a more fertile South Asian soil than that of militancy-struck Kashmir of the 1990s. In many ways, Haider became the pinnacle of Kashmir-obsession for the 90s generation, rendered illustriously by Indian cinema. Bollywood has often drawn from Kashmir’s flask of munificence and melancholy. Several movies were produced during the 1990s and 2000s that were inspired by the Kashmir issue and  in turn fed the subcontinent’s imagination about the valley.

So how did this distant valley nestled high up in the Himalayas keep millions of South Asians fixated? How did its multifarious aspects please, fascinate, offend and infuriate sensibilities across the subcontinent? How, in short, did Kashmir become such an acute obsession of a generation?

All Eyes On Kargil

“Doodh mangoge kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge” (Ask us for milk, and we’ll even share puddings with you, ask us for Kashmir and you shall be torn asunder) was probably the most definitive rhetorical line from a nationalist film that came in the wake of the Kargil war of 1999. A flurry of movies like these sailed steadily over the high tide of post-war nationalism and made the full force of public sentiment rally behind the Kashmir issue. This dialogue singularly attested to India’s strong feelings of possessive pride in Kashmir.

All summer in 1999, Kashmir had been under the dark clouds of the Kargil war with Pakistani soldiers perched at an advantageous height on an inner Himalayan range. Hundreds of martyred Indian soldiers had been sent back to their villages and hometowns in coffins wrapped in tricolour. The entire nation had mourned with the families as Kargil became the first televised war between India and Pakistan. This was the beginning of private news media in the country. Young Barkha Dutt’s courageous reportage gathered widespread acclaim as the Indian artillery was seen booming over her shoulder. The occupied Tiger Hill soon became the locus of attention for billions of Indians. Gulmarg and Pahalgam’s cinematic romanticism of the 60s, 70s and 80s that the previous generation had fondly cherished had suddenly vapourised, and Kashmir now appeared like an abscess in India’s neck. 

The war in retrospect seems like a hurried misadventure of a flamboyant Pakistani general who would later boast about smoking casually across on the Indian side of the boundary. However, Pervez Musharraf who later styled himself the President of Pakistan, would engage in plenty of back and forth with the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over the Kashmir issue. Both had the ability to keep cameras busy by sheer force of personality. The early 2000s saw both Indians and Pakistanis following the two leaders with a keen sense of optimism. With them in charge, a thaw of sorts had begun to appear in the relations. On a state visit to India, as Musharraf and his wife posed for the cameras with the glittering Taj Mahal in the background, the Agra summit became the crowning moment of the era. Kashmir of course was the main theme of the talks throughout. However, when the BJP lost the 2004 general elections, years of hard diplomatic work was undone, and Kashmir returned to square one.

Of Jamaat and the Jugular

In the Pakistani imagination, Kashmir has always represented a sacred cause. By the late 80s, Pakistan had single-handedly won America a decisive victory against the Soviets who had been defiling the Islamic soil of Afghanistan since 1979. The Mujahideen who were trained in Pakistan sent the ‘atheists’ packing, and as some Pak enthusiasts would argue, even caused the eventual demise of the Soviet Union itself.

But the euphoria of the Afghan war was now to be channelled to another ‘subjugated’ Muslim land. The weapons and finances so far used in Afghanistan were redirected towards the Kashmir theatre. Pakistan was confident that India, just like the Soviets, would falter under pressure. The manpower would once again be drawn from the vast network of Madrassahs, where territorial Jihad was already a favourite theme. But edification beyond the Madrassahs was required to create a massive national machinery dedicated to the singular cause of Kashmir. Moulanas across the country would deliver Friday sermons on the subject, while donations would be collected outside mosques for Kashmir’s Azaadi. It began to be seen through the prism of a Holy War, of the same kind that legendary Islamic heroes like Salahuddin Ayyubi had fought against the Crusaders. A medieval reimagination clamoured for the liberation of fellow Muslim brethren in Kashmir, from the tyranny of the cruel and scheming Hindu overlord. With religion blending perfectly well with politics, Kashmir had gripped the entire Pakistani nation at a fever pitch.

However, while the ordinary Pakistani was told that Kashmir was the nation’s “jugular vein”, there was a sense of scepticism and frustration among the military and political elite. In private, some would derogatorily call Kashmiris “Brahmin ki aulad” (descendants of the Brahmin Hindus) suggestive of the cultural leftovers from their forefathers’ faith. Their commitment to the Islamic cause of Jihad seemed tentative. Nor were they a typically martial race like the Pathans. In 1947, when Pakistani irregulars had managed to grab a sliver of the territory, no sympathetic internal upheaval had materialised amongst the Kashmiri people. On the contrary, their most popular leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had sided with Jawaharlal Nehru’s India rather than Jinnah’s Pakistan. And then, Kashmiris had taken over four long and agonising decades to warm up to the idea of Azaadi. 

The most significant moderator of the Kashmiri opinion was its humane culture of coexistence and non-violence, which would time and again be evoked as Kashmiriyat. The valley had held in great regard the teachings of both Hindu sages and Muslim pirs. As per Kashmiri folklore, a Shaivite Hindu saint Lalleshwari or Lal Dyad, had mothered and breastfed Nund Reshi who went on to become one of Kashmir’s most revered Sufi preachers. For centuries, Kashmiri Hindus had found solace in the shrines and hospices of Muslim saints. These shrines had the spiritual and architectural air of ancient Buddhist pagodas. It was as if Kashmir’s diverse hues were placed layer over layer, and come to be represented in the microcosmic movement of a Kashmiri shrine. This transcendental tradition of Sufism had for centuries informed Kashmiri wisdom and self-awareness. India had long celebrated and promoted this ‘composite culture’ which it saw as an important storm-breaker against religious extremism.

But as an antidote to this amorphous and effeminate strain, the Jamaat-e-Islami movement in the early 1990s heaved with a spurt of radical political Islam. The Jamaat was originally established in Lahore of undivided India in 1941 with distant dreams of establishing a global Islamic order. After partition, it created separate groups in India, Pakistan and Kashmir. Incensed at the poll rigging in the Jammu & Kashmir assembly elections of 1987, the Jamaat funnelled the geopolitical energies into Kashmir, that had begun streaming in after the Soviet-Afghan war in the early 90s.

For the Jamaat, Islam encompassed not just personal, familial or social, but also the political sphere of life. The Western ideal of secularism was abhorrent and Sufi Islam was a heresy which had spongily absorbed various corrupting influences locally, like those of Hinduism and Buddhism. It was a serious internal roadblock towards the creation of the divinely ordained purely Islamic order. The nebulous air of Sufism had to be dispelled and the straight dagger of Islam had to be driven into Kashmir. But the tearing away of the proverbial Nund Reshi from Lal Dyad’s breast would cause a horrifying convulsion that would forever transform Kashmir beyond recognition.

A Hijack Thriller

The summer of 1999 was almost completely consumed by the Kargil War, but a fresh drama was to unfold towards the end of that year. On the 24th of December, as the festive air of Christmas was beginning to roll in, five militants hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814, from Kathmandu to New Delhi. On board were over 150 passengers. The hijack was announced late in the afternoon after which the plane seemed to hover aimlessly over the Indian airspace for many hours. It was running out of fuel but the hijackers wanted it to be redirected to Pakistan. After Pakistan’s refusal to entry, the plane was made to land in Amritsar for refuelling.

This is where the Indian government saw its chance. The forces would storm the plane while it was on the tarmac waiting to get refuelled. The operation would however be performed by the Delhi-based NSG rather than the local Punjab police. Meanwhile, time-buying tactics were to be employed to keep the plane on the runway. However, the operation got entangled in poorly coordinated and confused responses from the government.

When the hijackers saw no signs of refuelling for quite some time, they got suspicious and threatened to kill everyone. To prove their intent, they brutally stabbed and killed a 27-year-old passenger Ripon Katyal who was returning from his honeymoon in Nepal. Over the next few days, his name would be repeated over and over by the Indian media and get seared into the collective memory of the nation. For years to come, his name would evoke and come to represent this tragic episode of India’s national life.

The pilot who had earnestly hoped for some action from his government in Amritsar, was disappointed and forced to take off without refuelling. The Indian government had missed the only opportunity they would get to end the crisis. The flight took off and headed straight towards Lahore in Pakistan.

Here, the plane was reluctantly allowed to land, quickly refuelled and sent off. The hijackers now wanted it to be directed towards Kabul in Afghanistan. But the Kabul airport didn’t have night-landing facilities, so it was instead redirected to Dubai. Here, after deplaning a few passengers along with Ripon Katyal’s corpse, the plane took off and flew through the night towards Afghanistan. It was made to land in Kandahar where it was quickly swarmed and surrounded by Taliban militia brandishing their guns in their open-air Toyotas. It was hard to comprehend whether they intended to provide a security blanket to the plane against some sort of ingress or simply contain the mess within the plane.

Over the next few days, Indian viewers would wake up every wintry morning to watch the eerie visuals of a stalemate from the mist-covered Kandahar airport. The sight of a familiar Indian national aircraft with its striking red and white logo, far north on the dusty Afghan soil, sad and solitary in the stillness of a vast desert, and surrounded by turbaned Taliban gunmen. There was something extremely perturbing about these visuals.

Finally, a team of negotiators reached Kandahar and began talks with the hijackers who demanded the release of 3 militants: Maulana Masood Azhar, Omer Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar. All three were charged with militant activities in Kashmir and were lodged in three different prisons across India. They were converged in Delhi, and flown to be released in Kandahar, accompanied by the Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh no less. The crisis would end with Singh’s avuncular reprimand for hijackers and platitudes in favour of Taliban officials for facilitating the negotiations. The jubilation of IC-814’s passengers, crew and their relatives coincided with New Year celebrations as they arrived at the New Delhi airport. But a profound sense of humiliation and defeat had descended upon the nation. To think that the roots of this entire crisis went back to Kashmir, once again brought the valley to the centre of India’s national awareness.

The Spectre of Stones

In 2008, Kashmir became the arena of a new kind of conflict. The Indian masses who had for years imagined bearded, gun-toting militants to be behind the trouble in Kashmir were taken aback by a new spectre. Until now, the separatist militant sentiment was divorced from that of the common population. The latter were even seen with some amount of sympathy for being a people under the shadow of terror. Separatism seemed not like a common sentiment but merely the project of a few Pakistan-backed militant groups. This view was largely shaped by Indian media, cinema and government narrative.

But now, a new image of the Kashmiri commoner was developing as the media day in, and day out covered Kashmir’s widespread street protests. These were triggered by the Amarnath Land Row in May of 2008 when the Kashmiris saw the earmarking of land for the Hindu Amarnath pilgrims as the beginning of an ingress into Article 370 which barred non-J&K citizens from purchasing land in the state.

The Kashmiri now was a menacing teenager, masked in a chequered handkerchief, sprinting on Srinagar streets, pelting a stone or two at the paramilitary, scuttling away and vanishing into the labyrinthine alleys of the old city downtown. It soon took the character of a weekly sport, as after every Friday Namaz, hostile youth would gather outside mosques, and ritualistically begin pelting stones at the troops. The tricolour would spitefully be defiled in front of the cameras which shocked and offended the nationalist sensibilities across the country.

The media would give plenty of airtime to this new political spectacle that had never been witnessed in the country before. The action would be followed by nightly panel discussions that would denounce, defend or explain the happenings of the day. This era would forever change the way Kashmir and Kashmiris were viewed in the rest of India.

From the Saffron Prism

The Hindu right wing of India owes its rise to Kashmir deeply. The valley has been at the centre of its politics from the earliest days. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s “Ek Vidhan, Ek Pradhan, Ek Nishaan” (One state, one leader, one flag) was a battle cry against Kashmir’s lavishly privileged position in India’s body politic. Under Article 370, Nehru had allowed them a separate constitution and flag in return for accession to India in 1947. Most significantly, land purchases and government jobs in the state were put out of reach for outsiders.

The Hindu right wing was aghast at this, as it saw Kashmir as an integral part of India’s cultural and historical essence. Kashmir had been the land of ancient Hindu temples and hospices. Hindu rishis had for years reflected in the chill of its snow-clad mountains. The valley itself was named after Kashyapa Rishi, the Rig Vedic saint who had drained the massive lake under which it lay.  Only then, had civilisation begun!

Kashmir’s origins were thus unmistakably Hindu. It was only in medieval times that Muslim settlers had come in from West and Central Asia to convert the inhabitants en masse. With time, the Kashmiri Hindus or Pandits were reduced to a minuscule minority.

In the early 90s, when Pakistan turned its attention to Kashmir, it was these Pandits who would bear its greatest brunt. They would be attacked ruthlessly by radical Islamist militants and forced into exile in India’s plains and beyond. Visuals from migrant camps in Jammu showed their women, children and the elderly in abject misery. Here sat a young girl wailing for her father lost to a militant burst, and there lay a widow too numb to embrace her fate. The heart-wrenching tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits shocked the nation and their extended exile prolonged its rage.

Their plight became the most thumping political cause for the Hindu right-wing. Through the cause of the exiled Pandits, they were able to funnel political attention to Kashmir and keep it riveted there. As the Hindu right grew stronger, so would the desire to transform India’s dealings with Kashmir.

When the BJP came to power in 2014, it was able to successfully translate these motivations into hard action. The breathing space for Pakistan-backed separatist groups was choked, their finances disrupted and separatist media clamped down upon. Technology was used extensively to keep the irredentist networks under check. While the state teetered on the edge of democracy, Kashmir was once again centre stage in Indian political consciousness. In 2019 when the BJP was voted back into power for the second term, the Indian Parliament finally abrogated the contentious Article 370 that had for years acted as a wall between the mainland and the valley. For the first time, the obsession for Kashmir had become a coherent state policy.

Artistic charms galore 

Kashmir didn’t ensnare South Asians through cinema, news or politics alone. Kashmir’s seductive charm also stems from its snow-clad mountains which persistently beckon travellers as the summer sun swelters over the Indian plains. For many travellers, Kashmir is where they experience their first snowfall. It also evokes a sense of elegance, with its vast and varied artistic hues meant for the classy and the tasteful eye. Located at the crossroads of South and Central Asia, the valley carries the cultural, culinary and genetic influences of both regions.

The intricacy of the walnut wood furniture is paralleled only by the rich motifs of the Kashmiri shawl. For years, young Kashmiri merchants have slung their oversized sacks and stridden the serpentine streets of Delhi, Lucknow and Calcutta, selling exuberant Kashmiri shawls door-to-door. The fair-skinned young Kashmiri with his aquiline nose cut a handsome figure and could be identified in the thick crowd of a busy bazaar. Yet, many have often been mistaken for being Afghans or Iranians.

Back in Srinagar, in the showrooms along the Dal Lake boulevard, as salesmen unfurl handicrafts one after another, travellers can’t help being transported into another realm, one suffused with poetry, regality, sophistication and charm. A truly surreal moment of elevating one’s aesthetic senses to heights never scaled before.

The nook of resignation

Just before her assassination in late October of 1984, Indira Gandhi had wistfully desired to spend some time in Kashmir. The valley was her family’s place of origin. But that year, it was as if Kashmir’s autumn offered the perfect theme for the autumn of her own life. Autumn in the Valley actually paints a rather melancholy picture. Bonfires flicker across towns from the heaps of golden leaves that drop silently with each blow of chilly breeze. Gothic mist seems to blanket the valley as the air becomes smoky thick from these fires, while the sun struggles to charge in its summer glory. Indira had begun to have a sense of an ending. Immediately after returning from her Kashmir sojourn, she faced the wrathful barrage of her own bodyguards in Delhi.

Today, as the valley tides over political turmoil, it has become the preferred nook of resignation for a generation that has come of age. The post-pandemic work culture offers plenty of flexibility to travel. All that a laptop-bearing corporate needs is a window-side place in a Srinagar cafe or a park bench underneath an almond tree. A sense of coolness away from the bustle of urban life is the new Kashmir obsession of the generation. The overinvested, spacious Kashmiri bungalows are now listed as ‘homestays’ in their hundreds. Travellers invariably gape at the illustrious woodwork of the ceiling and the ingenious workings of the Hamam. These homestays offer a window into the rich yet earthy lifestyle of a Kashmiri family –– a tiny knot at the centre of its own universe ever calm, unmoving and wise.

Why Kashmir charms and seduces to obsessive levels, is a question that continues to baffle. What has made it the favourite muse of artworks from poetry to painting, cinema to storytelling, is hard to discern. Probing this subject could be one of the most quintessential studies in human psychology. Possibly it is the way Kashmir mixes beauty and tragedy in equal proportion. But the obsession also comes from a range of intense human emotions that Kashmir has come to portray. It symbolises the masculine jealousy between suitors. It represents pride in possessing an object of enviable elegance. It stands for the fear of betrayal from the beloved. It also portrays anger at her rejection. Most of all, it preoccupies a generation with the grip of emotion never felt before, for a piece of territory so deeply personified.

[Photo by Ishtiaq Ali Khan, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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