I met Amity in an inner city park in Sydney. Large trees, very similar to the famous Chinar trees of Kashmir, surrounded us. These deciduous trees were mostly green, but some of its star-like leaves coloured in shades of yellow and orange had begun falling to the ground. I could see Kashmir in the canopy that shaded us from Sydney’s summer heat. The fact that Kashmir’s most iconic tree is most commonly referred to in Kashmir by it’s Persian name as opposed to the Kashmiri boonyi is testimony to the creeping, banal, encompassing nature of occupation and colonisation and how the pendulum swings as much to one side as it is pulled by the other.
Chinar trees are ‘state property’ in Kashmir, as is the land on which they are growing. This discourages the planting and growth of new Chinar trees as people uproot them before they grow large enough to be noticed by government agencies, for fear of losing land to the government. As my friend Arif pointed out, this makes the most majestic and iconic of trees in Kashmir an enemy of the people, and the people are made an enemy of it. There are pressing environmental issues here, but the process of registering trees and rendering them state property feels synonymous with the various kinds of control the military occupation exerts on people through mechanisms like identity cards.
“How did your friends in Kashmir handle things last summer?” Amity asked. For many the violence was outside their front door. Brutality was in their face. Anxiety constant. Curfews were almost continuous. This meant the markets were closed and people lost access to even the most basic supplies. For months people couldn’t leave their homes. Families lost their income and schools sat idle. The postal service was sketchy. Phone connections and the internet were intermittently cut, whenever the state deemed it necessary. Hospitals were full, understaffed and with limited supplies. Reports circulated that Indian security forces had actually raided some hospitals.
As the extent of the occupation emerged, Amity sighed, “We were so naïve when we visited Kashmir. We just jumped on a plane and had no idea.” In 2005 Amity and her friend were traveling around India. After hearing about the must-see-beauty of Kashmir they decided to visit Srinagar. “I remember, immediately after landing, the presence of the military. It was like nowhere else we had visited in India. There were a lot of guns, but no one really explained why.” Amity and her friend stayed in a house boat on Dal Lake towards the end of a Kashmiri winter. “It was beautiful, but I kept trying to imagine what it would be like in the full bloom of summer.” Amity didn’t recall an official curfew, but the houseboat owners had told them to be home before dark. “The streets felt desolate apart from the soldiers and their guns. We didn’t see any other foreigners. There was tension in the air, but no one ever explained what it was about.” Amity continued, “I remember being given a basket of hot coals while riding on a shikara on the Dal Lake. It was beautiful.” As the only foreigners, the small income Amity’s visit brought to those families reliant on tourism in Kashmir must have been significant.
Most tourists are told these ‘baskets of hot coals’ are called kangri, a more palatable version of kãger, which it is called in Koshur, the Kashmiri language. Foreign palatability is not without significance in Kashmir, particularly when it comes to tourism. While being told about the beauty of Kashmir, while booking a plane ticket to Srinagar, while staying on the Dal Lake, while moving through the city’s streets, while visiting Gulmarg and then returning to North India, it speaks volumes that no one had properly discussed or even hinted at the situation in Kashmir to Amity or her friend. There was a gaping silence. Perhaps because it was an unpalatable truth.
“When we were at Gulmarg an old man was pulling us up the hill on a snow sled. I felt so uncomfortable that this elderly man was puling my body up a mountain, so I got out and offered to pull him. But I just confused the whole thing more. I felt awkward about a lot of things like this ofte,n.” Amity’s experience brought to mind a scene from Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), only in this film the tourists don’t get off the sled to help. This particular sequence in Kak’s film juxtaposes three scenes; the dead body of a young boy held by his mother while cries for azadi (freedom) echo in the background; Indian tourists sitting on a sled in the snow pulled up hill by an elderly Kashmiri man wearing a pheran; and the rich rolling green colour of a newly developed golf course. One of the Indian tourists going gung-ho about the beauty of Kashmir says “Yeh in logoun ne barbaad kar diya” (These people – Kashmiris – have wasted this place). The film’s narration states: As an enforced normality is dressed up as triumph, economic opportunism arrives – disguised as peace.