The first time I tasted Qawah, I was gathered with a circle of friends — Americans and Indians — in my friend’s cozy cottage in the tiny Hill Station of Panchgani above Pune in southern India.
Qawah is tantalizingly aromatic — a traditional Kashmiri tea made with saffron, cardamom, cumin and ginger. Omar, a 40-year-old attorney, began to tell us about the extraordinary beauty of his home state of Kashmir and the exquisite city of Srinagar on Dal lake cradled by the towering Himalayas. But alongside these nostalgic descriptions he also began to tell us horror stories about the terrible challenges he faces as a Kashmiri living in Bangalore — the Silicon Valley of India. The stories sounded like familiar tales from my African American friends in the USA who speak of the dangers of driving or walking around while black: he and his friends would be harassed by the police, sometimes roughed up, and even thrown into prison without cause.
India as a whole has been moving steadily to the right since Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014. Islamophobia is on the rise. Reporting on Kashmir in the Indian media has become increasingly slanted and inflammatory.
Omar implored me to go, to see for myself. Over the next weeks I seemed to keep meeting more Kashmiris. Each one would talk about Kashmir while getting this dreamy eyed look with an intoxicated smile: I could feel their hearts expanding as they talked about the beauty of the land, and they would urge me, “oh you must go to Kashmir it is the most beautiful part of India, such a magical land. Please go and tell our story.” I began to feel deeply drawn; indeed, I got hooked and vowed to go.
When I started telling my non-Kashmiri Indian friends of my plans, the response was always the same: “Oh no don’t go there! It’s too dangerous. You can’t go to Kashmir.” But their protests just added to my resolve.
So where is this place? Picture the top knot at the very north of India — that is the state known as Jammu-Kashmir or J-K. It has three sections, like a three story building: on the first floor, furthest south, is Jammu, which is primarily Hindu and Sikh; then comes the second floor of Muslim Kashmir with the major city of Srinagar. At the very top is the penthouse: exquisite Ladakh is the sparsely populated Buddhist part nearest to China.
At the time of partition in 1947, the leader of Kashmir needed to choose whether to join India or Pakistan. He faced a dilemma: while he was the leader of a primarily Muslim land, he himself was a Hindu from Jammu and was also very good friends with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
He chose to join with India on the condition that there would be a plebiscite (a direct vote by the electorate) where the people of Kashmir would get to choose for themselves. But that never came to be. Soon after partition Pakistan invaded and the Indian army came in to protect Kashmir. The military has been there ever since.
Today Kashmir is one of the most heavily occupied places on the planet. Soldiers are highly visible on the streets. There are curfews and even government shutdowns that have lasted as long as six months last year when schools were closed and the internet locked out.
I felt a taste of this as soon as I got off the plane and discovered that my phone would not work in this state of Jammu-Kashmir. You have to have a special chip purchased locally unless you have an ongoing Indian account. (Not the on-demand by the minutes type for visitors ). I was stunned to find how immediately and painfully isolated and helpless that made me feel: my plane ticket, hotel reservation and everyone I knew was of course in my phone. Elections were happening all over the state while I was there, which meant nightly curfews. The entire Internet was locked down for many days while I was there. For the first few days I couldn’t even send a text as even 3G cell coverage was shut down. It was a profound experience of how reliant we’ve become on our connectivity: it felt like being under house arrest to be so isolated.
But it was also beautiful. On a sunny day the valley of Kashmir is exquisite with the beautiful sparkling Dal lake surrounded by snow capped Himalayas and on its shores Mughal gardens with fountains, flowers and nearby tulip fields. But the years of conflict and military presence have taken their toll. There is a heaviness amongst the people reflecting the harshness of their situation. A once-thriving tourist industry is almost nonexistent now. The city itself appears tinged with a bit of gray as they are still struggling to recover from a horrendous flood of three years ago.
One day I was guided by a delightful and fascinating character on a walking tour of the old city. We followed winding alleyways through the town, passing delicious little bakery stalls with their well-like ovens dotted with dough of round flat breads in the morning and breads with a hole in them like bagels in the afternoon. Yum. Tiny little tea shops. Fish mongers. Clay jars for collecting water. Spice stores. Fruit stands. Men in traditional cloaks bulging with the “Kangri” held beneath — a small basket heated by coals of reeds (“the Winter Wife!). Picturesque bridges.
And oh, so many beautiful traditional homes with their intricate woodwork, yet in a sad state of deterioration since they were abandoned during the riots in the 1990s when there was an insurgency uprising. The Hindu Pundits had occupied these homes: they were the intelligentsia Hindu Brahmin of Kashmir and speakers of Sanskrit who had served as the administrators of kings and princes since the 14th century. Most of them fled and abandoned these beautiful homes and there’s no way to maintain or restore them. An area crying out to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
As I listened to people’s stories it made me think much about the many parallels to Israel and Palestine where I have spent time listening to stories from every side Consider the perspective of the Indians and Indian government who feel they’re doing so much to protect and help Kashmir and spending so much money on its security. And then there’s the Kashmiris themselves who feel they just want autonomy and the army to leave. They see corruption in the army grabbing up choice blocks of land for their own use for pleasures and golf clubs as well as army bases along with their abuses and indifference to the pollution of the lake. The army has been using pellet guns since 2010 which has blinded thousands of children as young as 4 and 11. And all the while Pakistan and China loom at the borders putting Kashmir in the middle of the super-nuclear-powers struggles.
No easy solutions arise but my heart feels called by the beauty of the land and the depth and kindness I feel in the eyes of my Kashmiri friends. I will return to learn more, to listen to all sides, to offer support and share their stories.
Want to travel there with me? I will be leading a Global Citizen Journey delegation in October 2018, to join twelve US delegates with twelve Indians and Kashmiris to join in dialogue and to bring sanitation to several girls’ schools in Kashmir in October 2018. You can read more about it and come to our Information Night on Thursday Dec. 14 or phone into the Zoom conference call on Tuesday Dec. 19.
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