Melody is an artist from Sydney. She said she liked nun chai, which is rare among people unacquainted with its salty taste. “I like the bitterness, and its pink colour is similar to the colours I’m painting with at the moment.” We shared a bagel in place of the traditional Kashmiri tsochevur that is often served with nun chai in the afternoon.
Melody and I spoke about the history of tea cultures across South Asia. The British Empire, Ceylon and Darjeeling ran through talk of milk and sugar and tea leaves and masala. The irony of the Indian subcontinent gaining its own freedom and in turn becoming an occupying power flavoured our thoughts. As a school girl in Sydney, Melody had been friends with a Catholic girl whose family had recently migrated from Pakistan. She asked if Pakistan and India’s endless game of tug-of-war over Kashmir was driven by religion. I began to speak about how India and Pakistan came into being in the first place with the Partition of 1947 and the nationalist movements of the time. This took us further back to the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar whereby the British sold Kashmir to Dogras for 75 lakh rupees. We spoke of the deposition of the Mughals by the British almost a decade later in 1857, and the emergent calls for the sub-continent’s independence from British rule in the late 1800s.
In the first part of the twentieth century, the Congress gained prominence within the nationalist movement. However the party was shaped by a political elite that was predominately (upper-caste) Hindu. A perceived threat that a Hindu majoritarianism would unfold within any future India led by the Congress pushed forward the emergence of the Muslim League. This meant that the independence movement was divided on who would actually lead the soon to be independent nation. As with politics in general egos were involved – Nehru and Jinnah’s to be precise – and so, quite simply, two nations were made; one an Islamic republic and the other purportedly secular. Though in practice both Pakistan and India’s theocratic and secular credentials have proved questionable. As a Muslim majority population under Hindu rule, geographically wedged between two emergent nations, Kashmir suddenly found itself in an impossible place. It was a parable almost too perfect, illustrating the deep fault lines of modern nation making to a tee.
Melody had always thought of India as a diverse and tolerant country, but the recent terror attacks in Mumbai and Delhi made her question this. The inadequacies and failures of democracy seem to be surfacing the world over. Kashmir’s experience of democracy over the last 60 years has led to an armed struggle. In his 1993 book Kashmir: Towards Insurgency Balraj Puri holds the Indian state’s abhorrent treatment of Kashmir’s right to democratic freedom responsible for the rise of political unrest and violence. But what Puri fails to recognise is that it is the very ideals of democratic secularism that contain the flaws; India’s behaviour in Kashmir is not an arbitrary stain on an otherwise ideal system but the direct result of this system’s inherent limitations. Democratic secularism need no longer be the only horizon for us to move towards. The future desperately needs a wider political imagination. Can Kashmir gift that to the world?
“Most conflicts are rarely ever actually about religion but more about the control of resources” said Melody. She reminded me of Kashmir’s fierce and fast flowing rivers, and the power of hydroelectricity. There is a small village on the side of a steep mountain in Kashmir. It sits above a power plant that generates electricity that is sent hundreds and thousands of kilometres away in an attempt to quench the ever-increasing power hungry appetite of North India. Each day in this village you can hear a siren that signals the sudden release of the dammed water. It is a warning of force. But is it signalling the force of water? The force of an industry? Or the force of a foreign state who is profiting by taking control of your resources?
When the dam was initially constructed, the locals were promised free electricity. But today, houses on this hill sit in darkness – sometimes for weeks at a time – as the power generated at their doorstep, generated with their water, is sent thousands of miles away to bring light to the cities and towns of the country who occupies their homeland. Melody was right – conflicts are often fought over the control of valuable resources. Without the power of Kashmir’s hydroelectricity cities like Delhi would be blanketed in darkness.