I had put a little less salt in the tea and Ingrid immediately mentioned the mildness of its flavour. Like others, she also wanted to know when people in Kashmir drank nun chai. On a remote hillside village in the north of Kashmir I helped make fresh chapattis over a fire and dipped them in nun chai for breakfast. In the afternoon we had nun chai with tsochevur. Women balance huge samovars on their heads, carrying nun chai to people working the fields. Salted tea is more common than sweet tea – which is commonly referred to as lipton chai in Kashmir. “Lipton?” Ingrid asked, “They call it Lipton chai?” Branding circulates in deep and surreptitious ways; from the suburbs of Sydney to the villages of Kashmir and spellcheck on my laptop, everyone seems to know the trademark Lipton.
“Are things still as intense in Kashmir as they were before?” Ingrid was referring to one of Kashmir’s bloodiest days. In mid-September 18 people were killed in one day and over 200 others injured, by police and CRPF, in a complicated series of protests that turned violent. Some said the sudden violence was instigated by members of the ruling National Conference (NC), who had otherwise stayed away from the recent uprisings for fear of being attacked for their role in sustaining India’s military occupation. The death toll quickly rose to 88. Two weeks later it had reached more than 110.
By early October there was a sudden calm in Kashmir. This calm coincided with Delhi’s Commonwealth Games. And just as the games came to an end, on the evening of the 14th of October the death toll in Kashmir rose, once again, when Ghulam Nabi Mir (55) succumbed to injuries inflicted by “unidentified men in uniform”.
The curfews still remained. In the odd chance they’re lifted by the government it was likely the All Parties Hurriyat Conference – an alliance of political organisations who work towards Kashmir’s freedom – called for a strike of their own. A friend in Kashmir recently remarked that in order to leave home one needed the permission of either the Indian government or the Hurriyat. Ingrid asked “What about peoples’ access to food and medicine during these curfews?” It’s almost impossible to fully comprehend how deeply and diversely the conflict impacts life. Income. Education. Food. Travel. Communication. Healthcare. Death is one of the more obvious things. The psychological impact of living day in and day out in the most densely militarised place in the world is another. It is often said that there are more “in-security” personnel on the streets of Kashmir than there are secure persons.
“What is the solution?” Ingrid’s voice almost drifted off at the impossibility of finding an answer. De-militarisation? Non-violence? A plebiscite? Azadi? It was almost certain that there will be a return to militancy if non-violence failed. I didn’t have an answer. I’d like to think it could be something as simple as listening. But there is always the tragic niggling of politicians, their self-concerned aspirations and the horrific consequences these have on the course of peoples’ lives. Speaking and thinking about that year’s elections in Australia, Ingrid said, “I don’t think its really possible to look towards the government for any sort of leadership or positive change anymore.” If this is the case, what has democracy come to? We can’t look to the government, instead we have to look individually and collectively into the little currents of power that lie within our daily lives and within our communities.
Located on the historic silk trade routes of Central and South Asia the Kashmir of ancient and medieval times was far more connected with its neighbours than ‘modern’ Kashmir. Today – in a world in which we’re supposedly more connected – the region is characterised by identity cards, borders, divisive lines of control and phone and internet bans whenever the state feels the need.