Why Write About Kashmir?

Since the release of my new books on the Kashmir valley, I have been asked repeatedly: Why write about Kashmir? While the answer is obvious to me, it is not so obvious to those who view Kashmir as a distant and distinct conflict. Questions from recent interviews with various podcasts are included below.

Kashmir Is Changing

Writing about Kashmir now is critical. An entire year of lockdown and the dismissal of Kashmiris’ special status has created a deep sense of hopelessness. As I write in my book: “On August 5, 2019, Kashmir went dark. 

The Indian State banned phone and Internet service indefinitely. Kashmir was subjected to a new form of cruelty. India forced an entire population into debilitating silence—a mental, physical, social and psychological lockdown. Although lockdowns were common in Kashmir, the extent of this silence was unprecedented.

The Indian State revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution that had protected Kashmir’s special status as a Muslim-majority state. The article granted Kashmiris some autonomy and special privileges as a people, such as the right to buy and own their land. The Permanent Residents Law or Article 35A prevented outsiders from owning property or landing a state job in Kashmir.

Under the article, decisions on foreign affairs, defense, and communications remained under the jurisdiction of Kashmir’s central government. That changed on August 5th when the Indian State declared that the fundamental rights of Kashmiris no longer mattered.”

Kashmir was forever changed.

Seventy-plus years later, local Kashmiris are still trying to understand and cope with an extreme lockdown, forced isolation, and the tragedies of war. 

Kashmir is a personal story. The collection of stories that make up the two books, Secrets of the Kashmir Valley and Untold Truths of the Kashmir Valley, are an expression of raw emotion from women who struggle to stay alive in this protracted conflict.

So Why Now?

Some claim that Modi and the supra-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long opposed Article 370; that the Indian PM had promised the article’s dismissal in his 2019 election manifesto; that Modi and his party-supporters had long intended to integrate Kashmir into the rest of the country; and that the PM believed he could bring economic growth to the valley and long-lasting peace. Perhaps India’s move was designed to change the demographics of the valley and threaten the very identity, interests, and integrity of Kashmir. In a New York Times op-ed, “Silence Is the Loudest Sound,” famed Indian activist Arundhati Roy wrote:

[India] turned all of Kashmir into a giant prison camp. Seven million Kashmiris were barricaded in their homes, Internet connections were cut and their phones went dead…For Kashmiris, this has been an old, primal fear.”

Lockdown

India’s decision to implement a policy of forced isolation is arguably the worst form of control and coercion.

Since August 2019, the communications ban imprisoned Kashmiris inside their own homes. They could not call their neighbors, friends, and other family members living in the valley, much less those outside of Kashmir. Without access to loved ones or the news, a silence of uncertainty permeated the valley. Feelings of resentment, rage, defeat, and doubt against the Indian State were amplified. The blackout reaffirmed to Kashmiris that India’s efforts would remain insincere and incapable of seeking a peaceful, political solution to the decades-long conflict.

Interview Notes: Tragedy & Beauty 

Q. What inspired you to write about Kashmir?

When I visited Kashmir, I was moved by the immense beauty and tragedy of the place. Western travelers have called Kashmir “Paradise on Earth” and “Wonderland.” But in Paradise, there are over 800,000 Indian soldiers—that’s one soldier for every eight civilians. Kashmir is the world’s most militarized zone and I wanted to meet the women to understand their struggles and sacrifices. My book is a collection of their stories because they cannot tell them for fear of being killed or arrested. Thus, the book is the secrets of the valley.

Q. As a scholar, there are many ways you could have written a book about the Kashmir Valley and the conflicts in the region. Why did you decide to go there personally and interview women?

There are many books on the politics of war and so few about the people inside active conflicts. The only way you can understand any conflict/war is to talk to its people and know them—their love stories, dreams, tragedies, fears, and hope for the future.

A people make a place, not the other way around.

Q. What was the most memorable or impactful moment of the trip for you?

I met a woman named Mugli, who was once called “the lonely mother” and she spent nearly 20 years looking for her son, who went “missing” during the 1990s uprising. The truth is her son was among hundreds of young men that the Indian Army captured—arrested and killed. Mass graves were discovered years later and her son could have been one of those graves. She never found her son and after I completed the book, I found out she died. She touched me deeply. If you are a mother, you will understand the fear and dread of searching for your missing child. I cannot imagine living this way. Her son was not a militant or political activist. He was just a math teacher.

When I left her, Mugli said to me, “I just want to hug his grave.” That is one of the most powerful sentiments for me.

Mughli and me in Kashmir

Q. How did gathering these stories and writing this book change you as a person, as a scholar, and/or as an author?

Kashmir forever changed me. When you meet women (and men) living on the edge, trying to survive another day in conflict, you feel so humbled and blessed for what you have. I was born in Pakistan and grew up in America. I have every luxury here, from a private school education to access to health care. I can go out; I can speak freely without being tortured. The Kashmiri people do not have these basic civil and human rights. I can never forget these people.

The Kashmiris people taught me two things: to speak up for truth and to be grateful to God every single moment for the freedom I enjoy in America.

Q. What are some of the most common myths or misunderstandings that you come across about Kashmir, and/or the women of Kashmir?

Many people see Kashmir as a traditional, conservative society where most women wear the headscarf. They see village women. What they do not see is that in all of India, Kashmiri women are the most literate and that’s a fact. Most girls go to school, and then college. They are some of the brightest and most intelligent women I have met, and I admire their activism. One woman, whose son also “disappeared,” started the silent protest movement and other women like her hold photographs of their loved ones (dead or alive, no one knows) in silent protests. That is so powerful. Another woman, who was falsely accused of terrorism and in jail for five years until her release, started a political activist organization for women.

She said to me, “I am married to the cause of freedom.” 

Even women who we consider “housewives” come to the streets and protest, calling for freedom and the right to self-determination.

Q. Today, you have a distinguished career in counter-terrorism, humanitarian work, and as a scholar and teacher. If the woman you are now could talk with the woman you were at 18, what would you say to her?

Be prepared for pain. Be ready to stand up for truth because it is the right thing to do. Be ready to embrace a life of activism and education because this is what Islam asks you to do—stand for justice and peace.

Do not be afraid of slander, criticism, and isolation. Know that God is always with you.

To get your copy of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley, click here: https://tinyurl.com/y3g2lvjk

To get your copy of Untold Truths of the Kashmir Valley, click here: https://tinyurl.com/y4yvy8v4

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