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Paradise Lost

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“This wounds me most (what can it less?) that Man,
Man fallen, shall be restored, I never more”

— John Milton, Paradise Regained

The once paradisiacal region coveted by kings and mystics alike, albeit for different reasons, where snow-covered peaks majestically tower over flowing rivers and streams bordered by lilies gently swaying to the cadences of the gentle breeze, by a quirk of fate, has become a valley of guns and unmarked graves. The paean of the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1620 to the enthralling and spiritually healing beauty of Kashmir bespeaks the passionate longing it engendered:

“If one were to praise Kashmir, whole books would have to be written. Kashmir is a garden of eternal spring, or an iron fort to a palace of kings – a delightful flower-bed, and a heart-expanding heritage for dervishes. Its pleasant meads and enchanting cascades are beyond all description. There are running streams and fountains beyond count. Wherever the eye reaches, there is verdure and running water. The red rose, the violet and the narcissus grow of themselves; in the fields, there are all kinds of flowers and all sorts of sweet-scented herbs, more than can be calculated. In the soul-enchanting spring the hills and plains are filled with blossoms; the gates, the walls, the courts, the roofs, are lighted up by the torches of the banquet-adoring tulips. What shall we say of these things or the wide meadows and the fragrant trefoil?” (Rogers 1914: 114)

The breezes of Kashmir, which once had the power to heal every trauma, now cause searing wounds. The throes of pain, palpable in every withering flower and trembling leaf, can lacerate the most hardened person. The ripe pomegranate trees that once bespoke a cornucopia now seem laden with an unbearable burden. The liturgies in mosques, temples and churches that once provided spiritual ecstasy are now jarring cacophonies. The comforting solitude that one could thrive on in various spots of the Valley now seems like a psychosis-inducing solitariness. What happened to the Valley that provided inspiration to poets, saints and writers? Where is the beauteous land in which even a dull-witted writer could find her/his muse? Where are the majestic chinars, the fragrant pine trees and the luxuriant weeping willows that provided harbour to those buffeted by the fates? The mesmerizing Mughal gardens in the Valley with their refreshing springs and breathtaking waterfalls bemoan the state of the riven land, the polluted streams and the devastated people.

The seductive beauty of the Valley of Kashmir that evoked a desire to live to the hilt, untarnished by sordid passions and murky politics, is now blemished with army camps and militant hideouts. The plight of the repressed Kashmiri is similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after their willful defiance of Jehovah. The palpable contrast between the enchanting beauty of Kashmir and the glazed eyes of its people is cruel. The redness of roses that once awakened sensuality now evokes the loss of innocent lives that mangle the landscape. The land in which dervishes meditated to willingly renounce the self is now a chessboard for wily politicians. The strains of mystical music are now drowned out by the cacophonous sounds of hate and virulence. The lush meadows carpeted with daisies and lupines now reek of death and destruction. The soothing fragrance of pine-covered hills has now been overwhelmed by the odor of false promises and false hope.

The tranquility of the region has been shattered by the heavy hand of political and military totalitarianism, and the erosion of indigenous politics. The Valley seethes with a repressed anger. The history of Kashmir is replete with egregious errors. As one scholar, Vincent H. Smith (1928: 176), wrote, “Few regions in the world can have had worse luck than Kashmir in the matter of government.” The saga of Kashmir has been one of oppression, political persecution and undemocratic policies. Since the pervasion of an exclusive cultural nationalism, religious fundamentalism and rampant political corruption it has become a challenge to lead a dignified existence in J & K.

The armed conflict has changed political combinations and permutations without either disrupting political, social and gender hierarchies, or benefiting marginalized groups. The social, economic, political and psychological brunt of the armed conflict has been borne by the populace of Kashmir. The uncertainty created by over two decades of armed insurgency and counter-insurgency has pervaded the social fabric in insidious ways, creating a whole generation of disaffected and disillusioned youth. Lack of faith in the Indian polity has caused Kashmiris to cultivate an apathy to the electoral process because it is a given that persons best suited to carry out New Delhi’s agenda will be installed in positions of political import, regardless of public opinion. The earlier enthusiasm that accompanied democratization seems futile in the current leadership vacuum in the state. Lack of accountability among the J & K polity and bureaucracy has caused a large number of people to toe the line by living with the fundamental structural inequities and violence, instead of risking the ire of groups and individuals in positions of authority.

Political organizations, including separatist ones, in the Valley have eroded mass bases and are in a moribund state. There seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between figures of authority and the electorate, who have been deployed as pawns in the devious political game being played by Indian and Pakistani state-sponsored agencies. The glaring lack of a well-equipped infrastructure in the Valley makes unemployment rife and underscores the redundancy of the educated segment of the population.

In the current scenario, it becomes necessary to productively discuss concrete methods of rehabilitating victims of violence, either state-sponsored or militancy-related. Representatives from Indian- and Pakistani-administered Jammu and Kashmir should discuss the socioeconomic hardships, psychological neuroses and political marginalization caused by dislocation, dispossession, and disenfranchisement. It is the need of the hour to mobilize women for effective change in political and social structures. Representatives from both sides of the Line of Control must vehemently endorse diplomacy and peaceful negotiations in order to further the India–Pakistan peace process; withdrawal of excessive forces from both sides of the LOC; decommissioning of militants; rehabilitation and integration of Kashmiri Pandits to rebuild the syncretic fabric of Kashmiri society; and rehabilitation of detainees. It is viable to underline strategies that highlight the ability to imagine confidence-building measures that grapple with normative structures and underscore the decisive role that women can play in raising consciousness, not just at the individual but at the collective level as well, giving the marginalized a vision with which to redefine life’s constituting parameters.

Historically, cultural, societal, and market constraints have denied some sections of the populace access to information about the outside world, particularly those in border states. But the sort of advocacy that I am propounding could overturn the historical seclusion of those sections of the populace and provide them with routes to make forays into mainstream cultural and socioeconomic institutions. Perhaps the mobilization of religious/ political minorities and women at the collective level would enable a metamorphosis, fostering the skills and ability of women, in particular, to make informed decisions about issues in the non-domestic sphere.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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