It was 10 years ago when I first arrived in Kashmir. The prospects of serving in the ‘Heaven on Earth’ had filled me with excitement, enthusiasm and uncertainty for only the blessed ones get to savour the land of snow-clad mountains, picturesque lakes and enchanting wetlands.
The mystic abode of magical rishis and pious peers — Kashmir — India’s ‘atoot ang’, Pakistan’s jugular vein and for strategic experts, a nuclear flashpoint.
This smaller but more populous part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has always been considered a relatively more important region than its poor cousins Jammu and Ladakh. And for multiple reasons, it remains the cynosure of all eyes and a constant centre of media attention.
When I arrived in Kashmir
Those were challenging times, as they still are. Undaunted, we worked very hard with the utmost professionalism and were extremely successful in counter-terrorist operations.
The nature of our military duties meant that we interacted extensively with the local population. Among them were government employees in police and other departments, contractors, journalists, businessmen and politicians. Some people were casual contacts, some informers, and other potential informers.
But some were friends. Good friends.
Indian Army drilled in us the importance of establishing a close rapport and personal connection with localities. And I made this my mantra.
Now, I have only two kinds of friends. Either they are in the Army or are from Kashmir.
Manzur Mallik is one among them.
Well-educated and an affluent man, Manzur lives in Srinagar and runs a travel agency. We met eight years ago, by chance, in a houseboat in Dal Lake.
I still remember that night.
The sky was lit with bright stars. The water was still with an occasional wave reminding us of its existence. It is the kind of setting that makes you forget everything, sit in silence and admire the wonderful gifts of nature.
I was there with my friends and Manzur had joined us. One meeting led to another and soon we became fond of each other.
I like his simplicity and honesty. For business, he frequently travels across the country and Europe. He isn’t a typically religious man. And he likes his beer.
His family has made me feel one of their own. When his father died a few years back, I was the only “non-Kashmiri” in the condolence meet at his house.
People will tell you that it is tough and dangerous to be alone in public gatherings in Kashmir.
But I trust him as I trust my many other Kashmiri friends.
We have spent many evenings together, over steaming kahwa and lazeez kebabs. We have talked of atrocious traffic in Srinagar and rampant corruption in local administration. Of the seasonal migratory birds and the tourists who are no longer ‘classy’. And of course Bollywood and Pakistani serials.
He often tells me about the turbulent ’90s. The violence, harassment and humiliation by militant groups and by security forces. I have apologised for those times and for occasional acts of atrocities. I don’t really know how the situation was then and there are far too many conflicting versions and self-interests.
But I believe him.
I also remind him about the good work that the Army is doing now in the Valley. Running schools and organising health camps, helping the youth with skills and jobs. Making a positive difference in the lives of ‘Awam‘. I emphasise that we do falter at times and make an occasional mistake.
After all, we too are human.
He agrees that the behaviour of security forces is much more cordial now and people have noticed this appreciable change. But like many others, he still doesn’t like the police and often stresses that people just want to live a normal, happy and prosperous life.
Left Kashmir, but Kashmir hasn’t left me
Over the last few years, our friendship has blossomed. When I moved out of Kashmir in 2018, he bid me a tearful farewell and promised to stay in touch. He still sends me terrible jokes and even more terrible are his good morning forward messages.
Manzur often comes to meet me at my present base in Delhi. It makes us happy.
Much water has flown down in the Jhelum since then. Article 370 has been abrogated and Jammu & Kashmir is now a Union Territory. Many laws have been amended and the status quo is being altered.
Some are happy, some upset.
The lockdown and communication restrictions have hurt the Kashmiris most.
And the global Covid-19 pandemic has added to everyone’s miseries.
In the midst of all this, Manzur met me last month.
His business has suffered badly and he has been trying hard to get tourists to Kashmir. Sadly, that hasn’t met with much success. I tell him not to lose hope.
And One Day
Manzur and I were discussing how the situation can be improved in Kashmir when he dropped a bombshell. “India has always betrayed Kashmiris and killed more than three hundred thousand innocents. They just want our land and have cheated Kashmiris through false promises,” Manzur, my friend said.
I understood his frustration and kept calm. I had sound arguments to disprove him but waited for him to finish this outburst.
“I don’t support violence and killings but India is forcing youth to pick up guns. No one in my family is a terrorist and still, I have been harassed and abused many times by soldiers.”
I interrupted him to say that there is enough data to prove that terrorists and their Pakistani sponsors have killed many more number of Kashmiris and the real obstacle to peace in the State is a particular section of the population.
I reminded him about the mob violence, growing radicalisation and extreme corruption.
“Manzur bhai, it is very easy to play the victim and blame everything on Delhi. It has become a habit but now it is time for people of Kashmir to introspect.”
He refused to see the logic.
“Kashmir was never a part of India. We have become a battleground between India and Pakistan. We have a right to exist with dignity and peace. We were a princely state in 1947 and since then Kashmir isn’t really a part of India. We should have a choice.”
I realised that this was a futile effort, but I insisted. “How many years in history do you want to go back to, Manzur? Why only 1947 or 1931? Why not go back a thousand years and see cultural and religious linkages with ancient India,” I said.
“There is no point in dwelling on the past. Let’s look at the present and work towards a better future.”
He refused to budge. “Leave alone Kashmiris. Even Muslims and other minorities are not safe.”
I stayed calm. But then I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Bhai, we are certainly not a perfect nation. We have our flaws but I don’t have to convince you about the idea of India. If you don’t consider yourself as an Indian, it is your problem. For us, every Kashmiri is an Indian but for you, me and my countrymen are foreigners. We shall be foreigners even after doing so much for the locals. And we shall remain foreigners despite sacrificing our lives for peace in Kashmir.”
“Manzur, you blame security forces for everything but what do you have to say about over 1 lakh Kashmiris serving in armed forces across India? And what about the youth who line up at recruitment drives. Do you know the percentage of people employed in police and other government jobs is one of the highest in the country? What do you tell millions of Kashmiris who benefit from various welfare schemes? Are they foreigners too? Or are they mere collaborators with the occupation forces?
His facial expression shifted to that of surprise.
“Isn’t it ironical that you don’t remember that security forces are helping the poor and needy in so many ways but you point out the so-called atrocities of the ’90s? You remember that you felt humiliated once at a check post but you don’t remember the love and respect you got every time you came to our army camp? Do you know why?” I said.
“Because as you said, foreigners, we are, and foreigners we will always be. Isn’t it?”
I would have debated more — about the social divisions within Kashmir, about the public sanctity to mindless violence or the way people exploit the ‘conflict’, but I didn’t.
“I know nothing will change. Kashmir is cursed. This is all politics. You are a dear friend. You are like my brother. And in friendship nothing should be a barrier,” he said.
“Don’t worry, Manzur. As you said, we shall always be friends,” I reassured him as we moved on to another cup of coffee.
Till We Meet Again
It has been a few weeks since Manzur left for Srinagar. The snow-clad Valley has been looking majestic. Tourists are back and he keeps sending me photos of incredible beauty.
He is coming to Delhi again next month and we shall meet again. As always, he will get my favourite walnut tart from the iconic moonlight bakery near Srinagar University.
We will always be good friends.
He hasn’t changed in all these years. Maybe I should have changed because for the first time he made me feel that I was an outsider.
But I haven’t.
Because it takes much more courage to accept someone with their flaws.
He may think that we are foreigners in his land but I have decided that I will convince him one day.
Because that is what friendship is all about.
- Author Col Sushil Tanwar is currently posted in Delhi
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