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A Walk Down Memory Lane: Kashmir and Its Environs

My adolescence was thus greatly infused with political uncertainties, manipulations, the blatant dismissal of the democratic rights of the people of the state, and the hurt that the people of Jammu and Kashmir, particularly of the Kashmir Valley, nursed.

The insurgency and counterinsurgency in the state in 1989-1990 unnerved many parents, who were afraid for the security and lives of their children. The perceptible uncertainty, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, made the commute to my educational institution a daunting task, and regular working days were few and far between. In May 1990, my parents, who all along had been overly protective of me, made the hard decision to send me to college in New Delhi, so they could fashion a regular life for me, away from the precariousness and manifest ephemerality of life in Kashmir. I was eighteen years old at the time. But I always carried Kashmir inside me, wherever I went: the verdure, the aromas, the majestic panorama juxtaposed with the pain, the anger, the grief, and the despondency became an integral part of my being. While in New Delhi, the physical distance from my parents and my unsettled homeland failed to allay my sense of insecurity; I experienced despair at the disintegration of familiar spaces, and heavyheartedness at the bruising of the Valley.

I traveled to Kashmir for my summer vacations with an insatiate hunger for home and hearth, and an excitement that knew no bounds. After the sweltering heat of Delhi, the nippy air of Kashmir, in the months of May and June, made aromatic by the swathes of dahlias and gladioli, swaying to the sounds of birds and crickets’ susurrating through the fluttering leaves was a pleasure to my young mind and fluttering heart. But it didn’t take long for the general despair, hopelessness, and apathy to set in. I would invariably spend those summer evenings with Grandmother, Mother, and Father under the blossoming tulip tree in the middle of my parents’ rolling lawn. The political apathy, military high handedness, disrepair of old institutions, moral turpitude, and tattering of society in the nineties was reflected in our conversations, most of which were about a present blemished by the torrent of militant rage and violence, and the nebulousness of an unforeseeable future.

Mother reminisces that the years of insurgency and counter-insurgency in the Valley were very difficult for my parents and more so for Grandmother.  Their movements, during that militarized, politically unstable, and psychologically agonizing period, were greatly restricted. They were, thus, isolated from the larger society. Grandmother, Father, Uncle Tariq, and Mother would spend so much time in my parents’ garden that they even adjusted the television in the garden so they could watch the news out in the open. Mother observes, “This was our dismal attempt to resist the claustrophobic and oppressive environment which was haunting everyone in the Valley in that punishing decade.” Grandmother was advised by her well-wishers to leave Kashmir, but she remained adamant in her refusal to do so. As Mother told me, “It was her faith in God that helped her to face the hardships of those exacting years” (E-mail to author, 14 February 2012).

The situation created an ontological insecurity. I think we experienced terrible unease at the time because we were excluded from familiar routines, sharpening the realization that trust and confidence could no longer be reposed in the surrounding environment. Grandmother once had a powerful political voice within the now defunct Plebiscite Front and the National Conference. Not only had she been a decision maker in the higher echelons of the organization, but she had also been a force to reckon with in a society that sets much store by the role of a dutiful spouse, who was politically savvy and had facilitated the inclusion of women into the political fold.

In the nineties, the National Conference, like other mainstream political organizations in Jammu and Kashmir, was in a state of immobility and stupor. At the time, the organization lacked direction and structure, but Grandmother, despite her frailty, remained a rallying point for those old loyalists who hadn’t disavowed their allegiance to Kashmiri nationalism. For those loyalists, politics was not governed by pragmatism but by conviction and the ability to sway public opinion in one’s favor by charisma, which was an attribute of those who invoked the moral, legal, and constitutional authority of the people’s voice.

Grandmother died a sad woman, having witnessed the distortion of her husband’s political agenda; the disintegration of the political and socioeconomic institutions built and fortified by her husband through decades of political wilderness and ferocious opposition which had taken their toll on him. Grandmother had bolstered her husband’s strength, his political commitment, and assiduously worked toward the materialization of his vision. In his years of incarceration, 1953-1975, she had raised five children, three sons and two daughters, by herself, in a politically repressive environment that peripheralized and sought to erase the ideological bulwark of which she had been one of the architects.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah dictated his autobiography to his scribe, Mohammad Yousuf Teng, a couple of years before his death in 1982, when he was in the twilight of his life. He was in his early mid-seventies then. That is a time in one’s life when one’s vulnerability and mortality stares one in the face. Perhaps when the outer layers of life have been peeled off and all a person is left with is the core that egotistical considerations and power struggles cease to dictate thoughts. It was at that precarious juncture of staring death in the face that the Sheikh reminisced over the upheavals in his and Akbar Jehan’s life, and talked of how the two of them had weathered storms together.

Despite the palpable hostility toward the Sheikh in the 1990s, approximately a decade after his death, and the misattribution of multitudinous motives to him, his political credo remained an article of faith for Akbar Jehan. The Sheikh, despite the political compromises and expediencies required in the oscillating and vast spectrum of subcontinental politics, believed that the course of Kashmir’s political destiny would be charted by its people:

Yih mulk tumhara hai, yih mulk kisi aur ka nahin.                                   

Yih Roos, America, Pakistan ya Hindustan ka nahin hai.

Yih mulk yahin ke Hinduon, Musalmanon aur Sikhon ka hai. (Quoted in Beg, 47)

This land [Kashmir] belongs to you, not to anyone else.

It does not belong to either Russia, or America, or Pakistan, or India.

The land belongs to the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs of Kashmir. (translation is mine)

The decade of the nineties was bereft of hope for Grandmother. Despite the antagonism toward the National Conference manifested by both state actors and non-state actors and the increasing vulnerability of the organization’s cadre, Grandmother made a firm and unwavering decision never to leave the Valley. Although the transmogrification of the Valley into a virtual battle- ground made political activity impossible, she held the opinion, perhaps naively, that rule of law would prevail, and the power of democratic principles would not be superseded by the corrosive discourses of militarization and autocratic fiats.

After a lifetime of political action, Grandmother had found it difficult to adjust to the militarization of Kashmir and the subsequent waning of the National Conference, which, to her great disappointment, had ideologically deteriorated after the death of her husband. The thought of being the last remnant of a dying world wasn’t a pleasant one for her. With the death of the Sheikh in 1982, she lost her life’s emotional center. With disintegration of the sociopolitical fabric of Jammu & Kashmir in 1989, the values for which she had fought and made great sacrifices slowly became enfeebled.

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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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