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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 195-199

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Fear and Loathing in Kashmir

Surinder Oberoi

One feels an eerie vulnerability throughout the streets of Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, as Pakistan and India rattle their nuclear sabers. Life on the streets seems normal to the casual observer, or at least as normal as any other place in South Asia. Unlike the early 1990s, this city of 800,000 no longer shuts down under nightly curfews. New cinemas and wine shops have opened their doors and ply the after-dark crowds; people linger on the streets longer and later; two five-star hotels have optimistically reopened, hoping for the return of the tourist trade.

Without a doubt, the people crave normalcy, yet the relative quiet seems all-too-good to be true. No local person believes that normalcy has really returned. An air of anxiety pervades the whole city. The warrens and walkways of Srinagar and its environs remain scorched. A mother's heart skips a beat when her child fails to appear at the appointed hour. People avoid the cinema, preferring to stay close to family lest "something bad happen" while they are out. Security forces still guard the streets from the shelter of sandbag bunkers; the muzzles of their weapons peek through embrasures at every important crossing to ward off the emboldened rifle-bearing militants. People still fear "collective punishments" in retaliation for militant attacks on security positions. From the moment the casual observer leaves the Srinagar airport toward the town, he sees armed troops lining both sides of the avenues.

The alienation of the troops from the locals is palpable. Srinagaris cross the bunkers gingerly, deliberately coughing or whistling, to advertise their presence lest jumpy soldiers gun them down. Ironically, the locals are barely even conscious of this tension. Kashmiri people have grown accustomed to living in a state of siege and to coexisting with India's security troops. They [End Page 195] know if they say "Jai Hind!" to a soldier or wave the Indian flag on Republic Day, the troops feel victorious, blissfully unaware that they have really changed nothing in the fundamentals of the valley.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir is a multiracial and multilingual society but its two major communities--Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims--live with daggers drawn. A long history of coexistence has in the last decade failed to develop any cultural fusion. Even the secular and progressive Kashmiri Muslims are influenced by fanaticism in the name of religion. The continuing violence in Kashmir since 1989 has completely polarized Hindus from Kashmiri Muslims, which has in turn led to the marginalization of other communities living in Kashmir. In addition, enmity between troops and large sections of the local populace runs deep. Locals consider the paramilitaries to be outsiders; the troops, on the other hand, believe that Muslims ipso facto are supporters of militancy. Despite the cease-fires, the mistrust on the ground increases with each passing day. No one is working to bridge the gap.

What Kashmiris want today is self-determination--which includes the opportunity not just to choose India or Pakistan, but to opt for independence, which neither of Kashmir's dueling masters finds acceptable. Pakistan favors a solution that implements a 1948 United Nations resolution giving Kashmiris the right to choose between the two countries. India prefers the Simla Agreement, signed in 1971 by Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which calls for India and Pakistan to solve the issue bilaterally. Both countries continue to be rigid in their stance. New Delhi accuses Pakistan of fomenting the insurgency in Kashmir, while Islamabad claims its support is limited to diplomacy.

Local Kashmiris are thus sandwiched between seemingly irreconcilable forces. They do not know what their future is nor which side they should support. They condemn the continuing massacres in Kashmir but do not want to blame anyone.

Violence Begetting Violence

To peer into Kashmir is to glimpse inside the skull beneath the thin skin of civilization. Since the conflict erupted in 1989, it has claimed more than 34,000 lives...


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pp. 195-199
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Archived 2009
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