In Kashmir, Silence Speaks In Its Own Way

Kashmir elections have shown a record turnout. Some say this is the beginning of the end of an imposed and internalised silence. Political leaders here have said it is time to break the silence in the Valley. But is anyone listening?

In Kashmir, Silence Speaks In Its Own Way

“Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

—John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls

The silence in the square was ruptured by the ringing of bells from the newly renovated Ghanta Ghar (clock tower).

On a cloudy evening in May, a woman tried to fit the Ghanta Ghar at Lal Chowk in her hands. She stretched her fingers and yet the Ghanta Ghar kept slipping out of the frame. Her husband was trying to take this photo and for a while they tried adjusting distance and position and yet, she could only hold a part of it.

The new Ghanta Ghar came into being in August 2023. The tricolour was again unfurled on August 14, 2023, from here. The flag flies high atop the tower. The old Ghanta Ghar was dismantled. Someone said the old one showed the wrong time all the time. Now, the bells ring in real time. Indian Standard Time.

The square was full of tourists. It was also full of security personnel wielding guns.

It is tourist season. It is also election season.

There is a lot of noise. There is also a lot of silence here too.

In the election rallies, candidates from most political parties here talked about the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, which granted special status and limited the Indian Parliament’s legislative laws over Jammu and Kashmir.

In the election rallies, candidates from most political parties talked about breaking the silence here.

In the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, many political leaders, activists and journalists and others had been put behind bars. Some were made to sign bonds of silence and asked not to talk about the state of affairs and the abrogation of Article 370, in exchange for their release. So, many kept quiet.

Newspapers, too.

Some went on publishing news about nothing in particular. Some shut down. A newspaper editor told me he doesn’t read his own newspaper anymore.

A blind man whose feet resemble a beaten pound of flesh told me he will speak about this silence, but who will hear it? He had once been part of what they call the resistance. He is from downtown Srinagar. He had wanted freedom once, but he ended up in an old room where he now sees only darkness. He lost his eyes long ago when he was beaten up in a prison. He can see only the past. He knows the cost of breaking the silence. We know it, too.

But he tells us his story anyway. We hear it. We don’t record it. He has suffered enough.

Jane Hirshfield, a poet, once wrote, “As silence is not silence, but a limit of hearing.”

We have spent days hearing this silence. There are many kinds.

A tourist cupped a big rose in her hands the other day at the hotel. The camera captured the image.

The flower, once released, shook for a while.

There was no sound.

We heard the agony of the rose.

Silence speaks. In its own way.

There is hope. There is also hopelessness. People here have cast their votes. Some silence has been broken. A few have come to terms with this silence. As long as nobody is killed, it is fine to keep quiet. As long as children are not blinded by pellet guns, it is fine to keep quiet. As long as we can survive, we are fine with the silence. That’s what some people said. Others said this silence is not eternal.

There were gunshots the other day. Two tourists were attacked in south Kashmir. One BJP sarpanch was killed the same day in another area. Just two days before the elections in the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency on May 20, and seven days before Anantnag goes to polls on May 25.

Barbed wire remains. Guns remain. Bunkers remain.

Roses bloom. The Ghanta Ghar keeps the time. Tourism breaks new records in the Valley.

At a shrine in downtown, a woman wailed. She said this is where she breaks her silence.

“Kashmir ghamgeen hai. Kashmir ki khamoshi majboori hai (Kashmir is sorrowful. Kashmir’s silence is its compulsion),” she said.

As the Anantnag-Rajouri seat voted in the sixth phase of polling on May 25, it marked an end to elections in all five seats of Kashmir, the first since the abrogation of Article of 370 in August 2019. With the four other seats of Udhampur, Jammu, Srinagar and Baramulla having voted in earlier phases, Kashmir embraced the dance of democracy, counting fading stars in the twilight of the awaited dawn.

The next issue of Outlook is an ode to the silence of Kashmir. We have given it a hearing.