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The Gilded Cage: Kashmir In Winter Of An Apocalypse

‘Normal’ is not a state of life in the Kashmir valley. It’s a shiny factoid woven into every movement, manufactured in a post-truth world.

The Gilded Cage: Kashmir In Winter Of An Apocalypse
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After two years of struggling with the viral apocalypse, an oft-asked que­stion these days is—will the world ever return to normalcy? Normalcy, though relative, is the state of being usual, typical or expected. For Kashmir, what is normalcy beyond the viral apocalypse? The bigger question for Kashmir would also be if the pan­de­mic is the real apocalypse? And if, the apo­c­­alypse that is real in Kashmir, can ever end, even after the pandemic does.

For Kashmiris, normalcy has ceased its relati­o­nship with the comfort or discomfort of routi­nes. It is not in the life beyond social distancing, jostling for the piping hot bread from the corner bakery or that cup of tea from the roadside stall. It is not going out or staying inside with or wit­h­out the mask. It is not the laidback joys or tribulations of everyday.

In the verdant necropolis of Kashmir, people have a fraught routine that counts as life. It is a Kashmiri normal, if you will. Broken down into chunks at checkpoints, crackdowns, frisking, det­ainments, crossfires, fake encounters, arson and beatings. Even during the pandemic, desp­ite the United Nations calling for cessation of violence in conflict zones, the government of India did not stop its counter-insurgency operations. For Kashmiris, the threat of virus seems small, even when fatal.

What does the Indian State count as normalcy in Kashmir? Normalcy is a statute imposed by the Indian State. It is a bunch of variables, ranging from an “event-free street”, “unbroken curfew”, “only one killing”—to name a few that are engineered to unfailingly project the acquiesce­nce of Kashmiris in some measure. The government then deploys these results as a measure of Kashmiri end­orsement for India and its polic­ies, however repressive. It is almost saying that the bird likes the cage, a gilded one at that.

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During the military operations of Aug­­ust 2019, Ind­ia’s Supreme Court directed the government to “restore normalcy” in Kashmir “keeping in mind the national interest and internal secur­ity”. How is normalcy restored in a state of exc­e­p­tion with a pandemic looming on the hor­izon? Despite the extreme communication clam­p­do­wn, a few videos surfaced on social media. They showed Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor, eating bir­y­ani on the roadside with a few hand-picked Kas­h­miris. Where on earth in the strictest of curfews is biryani cooked to be eaten on the str­eet with ran­dom lackeys. Doval reported there was peace and normalcy in Kash­mir; the situat­ion was “eve­nt free”. A summation of brutal curfew in which a woman in labour had to walk 26 miles to reach a hospital and the crisis received so much international attention that even the medical journal, Lancet, wrote an editorial. Normalcy, in the theatre of Kashmir, is thus a performa­nce, a spe­ctacle. It does not need to exist. In a post-tru­th India, a columnist managed to say that med­ia houses to hig­h­light the supposed “calm” and “normalcy” that is preva­iling in Kas­h­mir despite the governme­nt’s tum­ultuous ann­oun­ce­m­ents withdrawing not just special status for J&K but its statehood too.” But normalcy was a diktat even before the BJP militarily stripped Kash­m­iris of the last vestiges of its territorial sov­erei­gnty. Normalcy in Kash­mir is not a state of life, but a condition of subj­u­­gation. It is woven into every movement. Man­ufactured in a post-tr­uth India, normalcy in Kashmir is a shiny fac­toid.

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***

we exist only on paper,
till papers exist.
when they burn
in a fake encounter
we will cease, again-
for real

In the old ramparts of Srinagar city, it has bec­o­­me most normal for an aging patriarch to obs­ess over gathering all documents conne­c­t­ed to his pro­­perty. Since the dom­icile law was chan­ged, his anxieties around the influx of sett­lers from across the Pir Panjal have taken over his life. He routi­n­ely calls to warn his relatives to sec­ure their property papers and buy fireproof safes. Between not knowing when the military operations ended and the pandemic lockdown began, the ailing old man only has access to news. He cannot keep up with the laws that are being cha­nged fast, specifically ones pertaining to land. The story of a Palestinian couple standing in front of their old home while a Jewish settler family looks out from their hou­se haunts him. He is sure of becoming homeless in his own homeland. “The day is not far, I pray it nev­er comes, but we are at the receiving end here, just like these people [Palestinians],” he says.

Incidents of evictions on one pretext or ano­ther, occur almost everywhere. Dir­ectly ruled as a Uni­on Terri­t­ory, all laws in Kashmir are being chan­ged or replaced. Changes in land laws are direct, and some are unfolding incrementally. The varying iterations, gradations and categ­orisations of new laws, especi­ally ones pertaining to land, will have grave impact on the future of native Kash­miris. First, the domic­ile status was assigned to non-­Kas­hmiris only fitting certain cri­t­e­r­ia, and agricultu­ral land was said to be protected. Now, the conv­e­r­sion of land from agricultu­ral to non-­agricul­tural purpose is permitted and can be used for businesses, without the need for construction of buildi­ngs or domicile status. From the Kashmiri vant­age, this is not development but an open invitation for their dispossession and plunder of the local economy. Not that people dare protest this for the fear of persecution, which is increasing.

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Kashmir is a mountainous region and land is limited. Agricultural land has already dwindled. Area currently occupied by the Army and param­i­litaries, if aggregated, would be the size of Dal­l­as, Texas, and it is growing. New laws ens­u­re the process for Indian defence ministry to acquire land is smooth. All this through simple bureaucr­a­tic orders with zero consensus of Kashmiris. More areas have been designated to be taken over by the troops. These places are not empty but neighbourhoods where people have lived for centuries. The famed pencil vill­a­ge named Ukh­oo is set to become a paramilit­a­ry base. Kash­mir’s own Sheikh Jarrah, where the community is distraught having nowhere to go.

***

we are silenced
not silent
we have tulips
waiting to bloom
and
graves to fill

While the world awaits a post-pandemic life, Kas­hmiris are counting ways in which they will be dispossessed. Kashmiris are lamenting pashmina will be woven in Uttar Pradesh, and saff­r­on will grow in Kerala. Such fears are ant­i­thesis of Kash­miri nature, which is open and futuristic, but have been instilled and exacerbated by open political, cul­tural and economic hegemonic for­ces, unleas­hed by the Indian gove­rnment on them. Mixed with fear of judicial persecution and impunity of Indian tro­ops, people are silen­ced. Cen­sor­ship has been institu­tio­n­ali­sed and human rights defenders are persecuted.

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The state of “normalcy” in Kas­h­mir is being stage-managed, but things are also getting out of hand. Despite the fear of arrest, women rec­ently came out on the streets when they witnes­sed the day-time fake enco­u­nter of three boys accu­sed of being militants. This incid­ent was close at the heels of ano­t­her fake encounter, where the Indian government fina­lly had to rel­ent and exh­ume the bod­ies of men that Indian troops killed, accusing them of being militants and militant aides.

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Pandemic or not, Kashmiri norm­alcy is a brief interruption lived bet­ween guns and bun­kers. The sorrow in Kashmiri normal is apparent in congregants crying for masjids to be opened for prayers. This, especially for the gra­nd mosque Jama Mas­jid, which is the hub of Friday prayers and protests in Kashmir. Kas­h­miris are not ready to believe it is just Covid res­trictions. “All pla­ces of worship of different religions have been ope­n­ed, while on other, Jamia Masjid Srinagar is bei­ng subjected to vengeance,” says a wors­h­i­pper.

Fear of annihilation, existential, cultural and political, has long been a forced normalcy in Kas­hmir. Beyond the pandemic, between pleading for the return of killed bodies and persecut­ion that does not ignore even a dissenting emo­­t­icon, Kashmir seems to be edging into the normalcy of a graveyard.

And yet, despite his anxieties, the old man res­orts all his cares to “hyermisshawale” (in the pro­­tection of the one above). He says Allah is the best planner. He is indeed speaking for all of Kashmir, where prayers have always been a way of protest.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Gilded Cage")

(Views expressed are personal)

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Ather Zia is a Kashmiri poet and writer who teaches anthropology and gender studies at the university of Northern Colorado at Greeley, USA

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