I sat with my aunt in her home in suburban Sydney. This house, and for that matter the whole suburb, had been built in the aftermath of WWII as part of the government’s attempt to provide returned soldiers with affordable housing. In a home that once housed trauma we shared tea in the name of death. Death in a place so distant from here it was almost invisible. But this made it all the more necessary to speak.
I left Kashmir early in the evening on the 9th of June and reached Delhi, via a slow journey by road and train, two days later. That was the day, the 11th of June 2010, that Tufail Ashraf Mattoo was killed when a tear gas canister fired by the Jammu and Kashmir Police hit him on the head as he passed a demonstration near his home in downtown Srinagar. Tufail was 17 years of age when he died. He was a boy, on his way home from tuition carrying books in a bag on his back.
Demonstrations are a part of the everyday in Kashmir; death too. Fourteen civilians were killed in the first months of 2010, including five boys aged between 14 and 19 years of age, and three unarmed men who were shot in the forests of Machil, Kopwoar, by a Rashtriya Rifles unit who falsely described them as “militants killed in an encounter”. Tufail’s death was not the first of its kind, nor was it the last, but renewed a fierce sentiment that spread across the valley during the summer months of 2010.
The slogan ‘Go India! Go back!’ was shouted on the streets and in the fields. It appeared in rough, desperately written graffiti on the city walls, like traffic signals on the roads in the mofussil, in status updates on social media and it was in the weight of a stone hurled at Indian soldiers.
In response to the protests, the slogans and the stones, over a course of four months, the Indian state’s armed forces killed more than 110 people – mostly young men in their late teens or early twenties. Thousands were injured. But none of this violence, nor the urgency of Kashmir’s political will, has emerged overnight. In the last two decades more than 70,000 people have lost their lives in the midst of Kashmir’s struggle for azadi (freedom). This struggle was born nearly 70 years ago in the aftermath of WWII, with the downfall of the British Empire, the (post)colonial Partition of South Asia and the formation of India and Pakistan as modern nation states.
My aunt gasped at Tufail’s age. Overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation that had brought about this conversation, she said “It feels impossible to imagine a solution.” Impossible to imagine a solution? Perhaps. Yet, at the same time, it is so important to keep on imagining every possible (and impossible) solution.
I once met a principal at a higher secondary college in Kopwoar district. When some young Kashmiri friends asked if he thought there could ever be a solution to the situation in Kashmir, he responded with a surprising lightness, “Yes, of course there will be. Look around the world – there are so many situations similar to Kashmir that have been solved. So why not ours also?’ He went on with the eloquence of a well practiced teacher, “Just think of South Africa, of East Timor and of course India’s own fight against the British. What makes you think our story is any different?”
My aunt hesitated, “But things in East Timor haven’t really been solved.” East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world.” When I asked what she meant by poor, she responded plainly, “One meal a day. You know one of the ironies of Australia’s proposed offshore detention centre in East-Timor is that those detained will receive three meals a day while the locals will have a hard time finding one.”
Freedom, like happiness, can never really be held on to or materially grasped. They are effervescent and fleeting. When Kashmir attains freedom there will, no doubt, be more un-freedoms to come, as from happiness there will inevitably follow unhappiness. These are slippery ideas and experiences, which make it all the more urgent for us to carve out spaces they can slide into.
My aunt went on to explain, “There is an Indian priest at my local Parish. He always says that you can’t have hope without faith. My other friend says that hope gives us resilience. But it’s ironic that India itself fought against the British, and today they’re the ones occupying Kashmir.”
This is part of the horrifying cycle of complicity and wilful forgetfulness that we’re all a part of.
In the midst of WWII when Australian soldiers, who would later live in the building my aunt now called home, were fighting against the Nazis, only a few years before Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan, Arthur Koestler wrote:
I believe in spiral nebulae, can see them in a telescope and express their distance in figures; but they have a lower degree of reality for me than the inkpot on my table. Distance in space and time degrades intensity of awareness. So does magnitude. Seventeen is a figure which I know intimately like a friend; fifty billions is just a sound. A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland cause but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts. We are unable to embrace the total process with our awareness; we can only focus on little lumps of reality.