Shortly before 4 a.m. a chorus of voices erupted across Dal lake from the mosques of Srinagar, signalling the beginning of prayer time. For those observing Ramadan, they would already have had their only meal of the day  until the sun set and they could break the  fast at Iftar. It is a tradition which is immutable throughout the Muslim world, but in the valley of Kashmir on this glistening May morning, the chanting seemed especially  beautiful. As the sun rose and the sky began to lighten over the ring of mountains, dusted by snow, each refrain  was echoed a few minutes later by a nearby mosque. It seemed as though the whole valley was singing.

I had returned to Kashmir after nearly a decade.  There were noticeable differences, with numerous recently constructed  houses and a new flyover to improve Srinagar’s  congested traffic,  but much was unchanged: the valley’s magnificence, the sprawling town encircling Dal and Nigeen lakes, the bounteous flowers and waterfalls  in the Nishat and Shalimar gardens and the quantities of stray dogs feasting on the uncollected rubbish; but above all there remains a sense of despair that the political life of the valley’s six million inhabitants will ever change.  As anyone who lands at  Srinagar airport will soon realise, peoples’ lives remain hostage to the inability of the respective governments of India and Pakistan to put an end to the longstanding war of words (and bullets) over the disputed former princely state of  Jammu and Kashmir.

Although, as many now accept, it is no longer a question of the whole state becoming part of Pakistan or part of India, as was envisaged over seventy years ago when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, the rhetoric is caught in a time warp. Yet regional aspirations have moved on; the people of the various components of the former princely state may  not have been granted the promised plebiscite, endorsed by the United Nations in 1948 and 1949 – or as people now say, their ‘right of self determination’ – but there is very little expectation that the regions of this multicultural state can expect a different political affiliation from what they now have: Buddhist and Muslim Shia Ladakh, with its autonomous Hill Council, Jammu with its Hindu majority as part of India; Muslim Gilgit-Baltistan (now with heavy Chinese investment)  and the narrow strip of land known in Pakistan as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and in India as POK – Pakistan occupied Kashmir- as part of Pakistan. Granted this contradicts the official Indian position – that the whole of the state is an integral part of India, exemplified by a dogged refusal to sanction any map which shows the line of control dividing the two administered regions –  but, even though no leader has had the courage to say so, the de facto division has become the reality.  

Only  the predominantly Muslim valley’s status remains contentious;  geographically situated within the part of the state under Indian administration, but politically alienated, it is the fate of this region which accounts for the continuing hostility between India and Pakistan. When people talk about the ‘Kashmir issue’ or the ‘K’ word, it is the valley’s political future which causes ruptures, not what happens in Gilgit-Baltistan nor in Ladakh.  The general disaffection has been exacerbated by disastrous Indian government policies,   especially since the insurgency began in 1990,  intense and overt militarisation, human rights abuses, torture, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and, recently, the use of pellet guns which has left over 1,000 blinded and a population traumatised by growing up in a conflict zone. Whenever there is a flare up or an act of terrorism (as happened in Pulwama in February this year) life in the valley is put on hold, with curfews and crackdowns.

In the wake of the BJP landslide election, the  concern now is that Prime Minister Modi will put into effect his manifesto pledge to integrate the state into the Indian Union by revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution; this would  mean dispensing with the last vestiges of the state’s ‘special status’,  promised when the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir gave his assent to accession to India in 1947, restricting the Indian government’s jurisdiction to foreign affairs, defence and communications.  A supplementary Article 35A upholds the state legislature’s prerogative to determine who has the right to permanent residence, a concern among Kashmiris dating back to 1927 when the Hereditary State Subject Order was passed (and explaining why the British only owned houseboats). Although much of the state’s autonomy was lost in the early 1950s, that there is some constitutional protection still sets the Kashmiris apart. If these articles were to be abrogated, the demographics in the state could change drastically. ‘Kashmir will no longer be Kashmir’, stated one of my veteran journalist friends who is under caution from the authorities not to write about his homeland.

What has also changed since my last visit is that  Kashmiris, alongwith other minorities in India,  are increasingly becoming ‘the other’;  throughout India, the BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) fascist ideology, inspired by Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, has gained ascendancy in  what was once regarded as a secular society, tolerant of the aspirations and religious beliefs of all.    The attacks on Kashmiris outside the state after Pulwama meant  that many no longer felt welcome in the country to which they were supposed to belong.

Azadi is still the refrain which successive generations of Kashmiris are chanting.  This may not be independence as we in the western world might interpret it, but the political space to regain the dignity to lead their lives as they wish without India’s overbearing repression and military presence. Failing some hope for a better future, more young Kashmiris could take up the gun and endure a pointless yet highly publicised death, as thousands flock to their funerals; and while alienation remains, the cycle of violence and repression will continue.   As Prime Minister Modi embarks on his second term of office, he might take note, lest the call to prayer is echoed by a call to arms.

Victoria Schofield is the author of Kashmir in the Crossfire (1996) and Kashmir in Conflict (2000, 2003, 2010)

@rvschofield

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