It was almost three years ago that Tanya and I tasted our first cup of nun chai together in New Delhi. Now, in an outer Sydney suburb Tanya would have her second. “I often thought of the nun chai from Inder’s house, you loved it from the very first cup.” Tanya recalled, “I really tried to describe how it tasted to friends, but usually failed.” I wanted to remember what Tanya and I knew of Kashmir that day in New Delhi three years ago. Tanya was adamant that she knew of Kashmir as a conflict before she knew anything else about it. The order of that understanding says something about our generation. For our parents generation in Australia, Kashmir was first and foremost a place of beauty – an idyllic tourist destination – and knowledge of the conflict came second.
It is hard to know precisely where and how I began to encounter Kashmir. It was both gradual and sudden. The writings of Arundhati Roy. My friendship with Inder Salim. In early 2008 I met Yasin Malik, Chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, at a film screening about a peaceful march he had orchestrated in 2007 called Safar-i-Azadi (Journey to Freedom). He was warm and moved through the crowd with a sense of purpose, a powerful presence. As I left, outside the venue a right-wing Kashmiri Pandit organisation showered me with photocopied pieces of paper declaring Malik a rapist and a terrorist. I was shocked. My friend, Inder, shuffled me away and I soon learnt that these people were known for gate crashing any event that spoke of Kashmir’s freedom. As one of only a few foreigners in attendance I could feel both the JKLF and the right-wing Kashmiri Pandit group trying to convince me of their views. I knew at that time there were deep injustices and ambiguities. I knew there were contested histories. But it wasn’t until I actually visited Kashmir, when I saw the broken windows, when I walked among the graves, when people shared their stories with me in the intimacy of their kitchens over cups of nun chai, when I felt the military’s gaze as I walked the streets, it wasn’t until then that it became impossible to turn away from Kashmir.
At that same film screening I was briefly introduced to SAR Geelani, a Delhi University Professor who was falsely convicted and then later acquitted of his involvement in the 13th December attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. It was a peculiar, unresolved incident that apparently had its origins in Kashmir and Pakistan, yet some argue was actually set up by the Indian state itself. In a post 9/11 world, the attack helped to connect Kashmir’s armed struggle to the global war on terror, ultimately substantiating India’s excessive use of force in the region. The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament is a book that unpicks the farcical media trial that surrounded this case and led to Afzal Guru being sentenced to death in order to satisfy the “collective conscience of (Indian) society”. Almost ten years later Afzal is waiting in a cell, his life on a whim. He has become another symbol of the injustice delivered to Kashmir by India. I have a friend in the north of Kashmir whose voice always changes when he speaks of Afzal. He tells me, “If Afzal is executed Kashmir will go up in flames.”
But Afzal’s case is not an aberration on an otherwise sound legal system; his is one among many. In 2010 the Indian public health specialist and human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was sentenced to prison for life after being convicted of sedition. Other activists, writers and intellectuals have similar charges pending across the sub-continent. Kashmir University lecturer Noor Mohammad Bhat was arrested for inciting “anti-establishment” sentiment by “politicising” exam papers by posing the question Are Stone-pelters Heroes? Bhat drafted the exam while Srinagar was under curfew during the summer of 2010. The world’s largest democracy is even afraid of questions.
Postscript: In 2013 Afzal Guru was hung secretively in Tihar Jail. No notification or warning was given to his family, denying them the opportunity of one last meeting. His death anniversary on the 9th of February 2016 was the trigger for a massive crackdown on student politics and activism in India, particularly in JNU.