Panopticon of Kashmir

14 May, 2021

Panopticons by Jay Crum (courtesy  Celeste ).

Panop­ti­cons by Jay Crum (cour­tesy Celeste).

Ifat Gazia

The first dream I remem­ber is almost 24 years ago, when I was four, and I still remem­ber it vivid­ly. I saw myself with my father in front of a beau­ti­ful house — some­thing I had nev­er seen before in real life. There was a huge tree with mul­ti­col­ored jew­els hang­ing from its branch­es. Unlike the norm in Kash­mir to have fences and huge brick walls around the hous­es, this house in my dream had none. My father was hap­py and so was I. Sud­den­ly a flock of ani­mals passed down the street, accom­pa­nied by huge crowds of men. These men were dif­fer­ent, they were out­siders and looked vio­lent. In no time they killed my father in front of my eyes. I woke up, shiv­er­ing and cry­ing. I told myself, no mat­ter how beau­ti­ful a house, there should be a wall sur­round­ing it. 

This was a vio­lent dream, as vio­lent as the real­i­ty around me. This was the time when we had bare­ly recov­ered from months of home­less­ness and vio­lence, after our entire town was burnt down by the Indi­an army and we were uproot­ed, dis­placed and forced to live like home­less peo­ple on the out­skirts of the same town. It was an “inter­nal exile”. There was an invis­i­ble wall of oppres­sion and author­i­ty between the town and the rest of Kash­mir. No one was allowed to come into the town, nor were we allowed to leave. For months those of us who were not able to escape the bor­ders of our town either lived in camps or shared hous­es left behind by those who were able flee in haste. To this day I fail to under­stand why we were not allowed to leave, although we decid­ed to do so later. 

Leav­ing behind one’s home and belong­ings is a hard­ship. It’s all you know and all you belong to. I won­der why we were forced to not only live that life of scarci­ty, fear and depri­va­tion but also wit­ness the spec­ta­cle of destruc­tion, when the cen­turies old Sufi shrine in our town along­side thou­sands of hous­es turned to ash­es in front of our eyes. 

I remem­ber watch­ing it with hun­dreds of oth­er peo­ple from a hill. I remem­ber the black burnt pages of books fly­ing in the air. I remem­ber peo­ple cry­ing and wail­ing. In that very moment, peo­ple of my town lost not just every­thing in terms of mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions, but also the rela­tion­ship they had with that space and its peo­ple. A close­ly-knit net­work of hous­es and inhab­i­tants was now scat­tered across the bound­aries of the town that was most­ly oth­er­wise cov­ered with agri­cul­tur­al land. I am remind­ed of the lines from an essay by Njab­u­lo S Nde­bele, called “Home for Intimacy”: 

“Time was not dis­tance and speed, but the inten­si­ty of anx­i­ety. The longer the dis­tance the more intense was the anx­i­ety. Noth­ing else exist­ed between A and B but men­tal and emo­tion­al trauma.” 

When we returned home after the fire, our house was still stand­ing there, pos­si­bly because it had a lot of free land around it which cre­at­ed a gap between the fire and our house. But the walls of our house were bare­ly stand­ing. They were bul­let-rid­den walls. They had become porous and one could see inside out. There was no sense of pri­va­cy left any­more. The armed men had van­dal­ized our belong­ings, our fur­ni­ture, our clothes and even our pho­tographs, our only win­dow to our past. The walls of that house were a tes­ti­mo­ny to our pain and agony. Between those walls, my father taught me how to lie flat on my stom­ach so as to not get hit by a bul­let dur­ing cross fir­ing, which was a com­mon occur­rence, before we were asked to evac­u­ate. When we returned, those walls nev­er­the­less pro­vid­ed a sense of secu­ri­ty to not just my fam­i­ly but four oth­er fam­i­lies, relat­ed to my grand­par­ents, who had com­plete­ly lost their homes to fire. With­in those four walls, these five fam­i­lies cre­at­ed their own bound­aries and called it home. There were five house­holds dwelling inside my tiny home. The bound­aries were flex­i­ble and expand­able, almost as if my home was preg­nant. There might not have been pri­va­cy, but there was a sense of security. 

My town took years to rebuild. Some peo­ple are still rebuild­ing, while oth­ers will nev­er be able to return. For many — for my par­ents cer­tain­ly — it was as Nde­bele describes, “Return­ing home, I did not find any home, but then again, I have returned home.” Their gen­er­a­tion was dis­placed for­ev­er. The only thing that added respite to their changed lives was to talk about their old dwelling places and the sense of belong­ing they had with those spaces in that par­tic­u­lar time. I imag­ine my father and oth­ers say­ing some­thing sim­i­lar to Ndebele: 

“I dream that my chil­dren can build homes of the kind that elud­ed me; homes that can nev­er be demol­ished by the state in order to make mem­o­ries impossible.” 

But unfor­tu­nate­ly, it only got worse for us from then on. In recent years, hun­dreds of homes have been demol­ished to the ground by Indi­an secu­ri­ty forces,  as a form of col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment for shel­ter­ing local rebels. Indi­an sol­diers can also force a fam­i­ly out of their prop­er­ty, call­ing it a strate­gic site. There is no fight­ing back. 

Political map of the  Kashmir  region as of November 2019, showing the Pir Panjal range and the Kashmir Valley or Vale of Kashmir, and Azad (Free) Kashmir.

Polit­i­cal map of the Kash­mir region as of Novem­ber 2019, show­ing the Pir Pan­jal range and the Kash­mir Val­ley or Vale of Kash­mir, and Azad (Free) Kashmir.

Kash­mir is a dis­put­ed ter­ri­to­ry, two thirds occu­pied by India called Jam­mu and Kash­mir and one third with Pak­istan called ‘Azad’ Kash­mir. A small chunk of Kash­mir is a cold desert and is not inhab­it­able, though it is occu­pied by Chi­na. It is called Aksai Chin.  Azad in Urdu means free and it is a word that I have heard often from child­hood. One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries is of an all-women protest after the fire in our town. Women were wail­ing, cry­ing and chant­i­ng slo­gans. I was there with my moth­er, hold­ing on to her leg, so that I was­n’t sep­a­rat­ed from her. I kept look­ing up at her face, full of sweat. The May sun was shin­ing bright on her head. I was­n’t able to look at her prop­er­ly. Her scarf was tied behind her ears and she chant­ed, Hum kya chahte, Aaza­di — “What do we want? Freedom!” 

In Kash­mir there are all kinds of walls, metaphor­i­cal and phys­i­cal. Through­out my school life in Kash­mir, there was just one wall, a barbed wire wall, that sep­a­rat­ed my high school from the mil­i­tary camp. My school was on a hill but towards the bot­tom. The mil­i­tary camp was atop the rest of the town, keep­ing a watch on every­thing and every­one. Mil­i­tary camps in Kash­mir are omnipresent. Every morn­ing we would trek for at least half an hour to get into the premis­es of my school. What was between my home and the school was a hos­pi­tal and a grave­yard with no end in sight. Some of my fam­i­ly mem­bers are also buried there. In fact, our school did not have a play­ground, so we would actu­al­ly eat our food and play hide and seek with­in the grave­yard premis­es. There was no vis­i­ble bound­ary between the school and the grave­yard, between life and death. 

My school was relo­cat­ed to this hill after the orig­i­nal build­ing was also lost to the town fire of May 1995. It was my first school. My first edu­ca­tion came from that sin­gle sto­ry build­ing made of mud walls, with hard­ly four class­rooms and two makeshift toi­lets. It was hard­ly 50 feet away from the shrine and locat­ed with­in a busy town mar­ket. Dur­ing my ini­tial days at this school, I over­came the fear of being caught by a teacher and decid­ed to run away back to my moth­er. I remem­ber it like yes­ter­day. The wood­en door of the sur­round­ing mud wall was open, I held my bag to my chest, and start­ed run­ning, run­ning down the stairs, cross­ing the roads and only stop­ping when I was home, almost a mile away from the school. 

Dur­ing high­er sec­ondary school, there was a tall brick wall, cov­ered with con­certi­na wires and bro­ken glass. It was the kind that has watch­ing pick­ets on top. The feel­ing of being watched all the time makes you ques­tion your very exis­tence. Am I not human enough? The Indi­an mil­i­tary cre­ates its own walls between them­selves and the peo­ple, the walls the estab­lish­ment cre­ates between peo­ple of dif­fer­ent areas in Kash­mir, turn­ing Kash­mir into a panop­ti­con. They can see every­one while Kash­miri peo­ple can­not see each oth­er. There are bar­ri­ers of roads, of cur­fews, of vio­lence, shoot­ings and even bar­ri­ers of lan­guage. I have always tried to under­stand the mean­ing and prob­lem behind these walls and nev­er real­ly suc­ceed­ed. And to top it all, a wall of mise­d­u­ca­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion has always cov­ered Kash­mir, keep­ing it hid­den from the for­eign imag­i­na­tion. What­ev­er hap­pens there, most­ly stays there. 

Kash­mir is the largest mil­i­ta­rized land on earth. It has been under Indi­an occu­pa­tion since 1947. In spite of being one of the old­est unre­solved con­flicts on the face of earth, where human rights vio­la­tions like tor­ture, enforced dis­ap­pear­ances, rapes, arrests etc. have become count­less, the world bare­ly knows about it. A plebiscite was promised to the peo­ple of Kash­mir when it acced­ed to India and Kash­mir was allowed to retain some form of auton­o­my. The plebiscite nev­er hap­pened and the auton­o­my was revoked on August 5th, 2019. 

On that day, the mean­ing of every­thing around us had changed. Kash­mir was cut off from the world with all means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion com­plete­ly blocked and a phys­i­cal cur­few imposed to restrict any kind of move­ment. On Sun­day night, August 4th, 2019, a doc­tor friend of mine called me say­ing we should buy any essen­tials, as she heard rumors that there might be a cur­few start­ing Mon­day. Cur­fews in Kash­mir were not unusu­al, but what made this one par­tic­u­lar­ly fright­en­ing was that thou­sands of mil­i­tary men were fur­ther flown into an already heav­i­ly mil­i­ta­rized region, while Indi­an tourists, pil­grims or stu­dents were asked to either leave Kash­mir or were evac­u­at­ed. On Mon­day morn­ing I woke up to a pin-drop silence at my in-laws home. Noth­ing was mov­ing on the roads and our mobile phones could no longer find a cel­lu­lar net­work. It felt like life had com­plete­ly stopped. We were lost, as if we did­n’t exist on the map of earth anymore. 

You can’t imag­ine what it feels like to live with absolute lack of any form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Our TV only showed select­ed news chan­nels that ped­dled only an Indi­an nar­ra­tive. Ten days lat­er, I made a tedious jour­ney to the air­port with­out see­ing my par­ents. The air­port did not look like a Kash­miri air­port any­more. There were hard­ly any Kash­miris but only mil­i­tary per­son­nel being flown in. I remem­ber my hus­band whis­per­ing in my ear, “We will nev­er return back to the same Kash­mir again.” For months to come there was an invis­i­ble wall between me and my fam­i­ly. There was a silence between me and my home, the silence that oper­at­ed as dis­tance. Our exis­tence had been mut­ed with oppres­sion and the silence was instru­men­tal to the inter­pre­ta­tion of refuge, dwelling and belong­ing.

Dur­ing the day I would scroll down my Twit­ter home­page for any news com­ing out of Kash­mir and prayed I did­n’t see an acquain­tance or rel­a­tives named among the thou­sands of peo­ple arbi­trar­i­ly arrest­ed or even killed. At night I saw dreams pro­ject­ing the polit­i­cal real­i­ty of Kash­mir, I saw hous­es on fire, I saw peo­ple run­ning in fields, tram­pling each oth­er, I saw mil­i­tary trucks chas­ing me. In these dreams my fam­i­ly did­n’t exist any­more, and I dreamt of end­less con­ver­sa­tions with my moth­er, in which I would share every­thing that I would nor­mal­ly do in a phone con­ver­sa­tion. I dreamt of pain, agony, yearn­ing and loss. As Edward Said described it, there was an “unheal­able rift” between us. 

I land­ed in the US and for sev­en months to come, I com­mu­ni­cat­ed with my fam­i­ly through third par­ties. Some land­lines were restored in Kash­mir lat­er in August, but I was not able to call them from the US. Iron­i­cal­ly, after mobile phones were intro­duced in Kash­mir in late 2000s, peo­ple can­celled their land­line sub­scrip­tions. There are bare­ly any fam­i­lies that still have a land­line. I would call a Kash­miri friend in anoth­er part of India, they would call that land­line num­ber and if I got lucky, one of my fam­i­ly mem­bers would be around and I could leave a mes­sage for a minute or two. It was in Feb­ru­ary 2020 when 2G inter­net was restored in Kash­mir and I saw my par­ents on a hazy 2G video call. In all those months, my resolve to fight to over­come the injus­tices Kash­mir has suf­fered only grew stronger. 

I have not been able to go back home since August 2019. I am thou­sands of miles away, yet there are no bar­ri­ers between me and my home in my dreams. Every dream takes me to Kash­mir, to the peo­ple I knew there. I hard­ly see myself in Amer­i­ca. Some­times, I see dreams with­in dreams. Recent­ly I dreamt I was Kash­mir but when I woke up, I was in Amer­i­ca, then real­ized wak­ing up in Amer­i­ca was a dream and I was actu­al­ly in Kash­mir. But even­tu­al­ly I opened my eyes here, in Amer­i­ca. It reminds me of what my pro­fes­sor Stephen Cling­man once said, that one had “nev­er real­ly left, nev­er real­ly arrived, some­where in the mid­dle.” I nev­er thought how much yearn­ing I had for my home and I would have nev­er been able to imag­ine it until I was forced to live here with­out an imme­di­ate prospect of going back. 

Although I have a coun­try I call my own, I do not have papers to prove that Kash­mir is a coun­try anymore.