The ninety-sixth cup of nun chai

24.06.12

I met Javed at the end of Zero Bridge in Raj Bagh. We walked for sometime, entered a bi-lane and came to a small community of houses where some Ladakhi people stayed. Javed is from Kargil, in the Ladakh region of Kashmir a few hundred kilometres north-east of Srinagar along the Line of Control (LOC). He spoke of traders from Ladakh who used to move across Kashmir and into China – but with the formation of India and Pakistan, with the formation of borders and boundaries and sibling nation rivalry, this was no longer possible. I found it significant that our conversation began here.

Javed had studied life sciences in Srinagar and then made an unusual shift into politics and international relations for his post-graduate studies in Delhi. These two streams informed each other and produced some unique ways of understanding the relationship between the political and natural environments in which he lived. For Javed, the now endangered status of the snow leopard, whose habitat spread across the LOC, exemplified this.

The LOC and the military operations of both India and Pakistan had restricted the snow leopard’s habitat, just as they had peoples’. This forced the snow leopard to venture out of its own, wild environment into areas of human settlement, where it had started to hunt domestic cattle and occasionally also people. Naturally, farmers who began to fear for not just their livelihoods but also their life, began to shoot the snow leopard in defence, and soon after their endangered status followed suit. In Javed’s classroom the story of the snow leopard became a means of understanding the cultural and bio-diversity of this region and the way that politics and science are interconnected far more than we often think.

Javed returned to Kashmir in July 2010 to teach in a local college. The uprising was in full swing and the whole valley was under a continuous curfew imposed by the state with respondent hartals (strikes) called by the pro-freedom Hurriyat. Education was severely affected as schools and colleges were forced to close for months on end. Despite the curfew Javed travelled from his home in Srinagar to college in South Kashmir each day, in order to teach the ten or twenty students who might turn up out of the usual 2000. This was a controversial move, politically and socially. People were expected to strike against the state and those who didn’t were often viewed as opposing the freedom movement, and in turn supporting the occupation. One day Javed’s college was attacked by a mob and Javed was beaten up. But as he told me, I could not sense a word of bitterness. He spoke about it briefly and put down the experience, quite forgivingly, to a ‘mob’s-mentality’.

What was most important to Javed was something he called ‘social communication’. Coming from Ladakh and being part of a minority community in wider Kashmir meant that Javed felt a real need for people in Kashmir, Ladakh and Jammu, and also other regions in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, to speak and listen to each other with openness and trust. He described the region itself as a family, and said nothing would change the current situation until the wider ‘family of Kashmir’ got together and spoke amongst themselves – person to person. But at the moment, he lamented, there was too much distrust between regions and people, that had been cultivated politically through ethnic and linguistic differences and geographic isolation. Javed saw the dissolution of borders and open communication as two vital components that would be needed for Kashmir to climb out of the muck it was presently in.

In an attempt to breakdown popular and divisive stereotypes, Javed explained that the reason people in Kargil support India in the cricket is not because they support India’s occupation but because, during the Kargil war it was Pakistan who was bombing their homes. Javed said that he honestly felt safer in Srinagar where there was a sense of protection within the four walls of one’s home. Up until 2009 in Kargil, where Javed grew up, he said you never knew upon whose home the bombs would fall. Bombs were always blind and indiscriminate.

I asked Javed about the future and he said it felt bleak. But there were two things that were important to him; communication and education. He was adamant that social communication needed to take place between people, so that a real understanding of the diversity that lies at the heart of this region would enable us to move towards a political horizon that somehow accommodates everyone. But before that happened Javed said he did not want to see the conflict rob children of their dreams. And it was this that lay at the core of his teaching and ongoing independent work with youth.

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