Firdous Syed calls himself an ex-terrorist. After training in Afghanistan, he gave up the gun since "it divided people rather than bringing them together… to hold a gun and shoot is easy, creating a peace movement is a lot harder." Syed is the founder of the Kashmir Foundation for Peace and Development Studies, an organization dedicated to building a climate of peace and reconciliation between Kashmir’s Muslim and Hindu populations.
Our interview took place inside his living room under the watchful eyes of a security guard - not all of his ex-colleagues agree with his new views - and his two-year old boy. Also taking part was Arghit Malik, the founder of SPACE (an organization dedicated to creating space for youth to dialogue). Both of them wanted to know all about Quebec, since a referendum in Kashmir, let alone two, "is impossible to imagine." Never mind the fact that India promised them one more than fifty years ago.
Might Makes Right
Instead of a referendum, Kashmiris have ubiquitous Indian army checkpoints. 500,000 troops menace the streets and staff sandbag-laden military stations (not to mention the one million troops amassed at the border). In a territory of 8 million people, that’s one soldier for every 16 Kashmiris.
In a country as poor as India, the resources spent on keeping Kashmir Indian - even in name only - is too sad to even contemplate. When the British left in 1947, and the sub-continent was partitioned between Indian and Pakistan, Kashmir became part of India despite the fact that 90% of the population is Muslim. Kashmir is Partition’s open wound, and India and Pakistan seem determined to continue throwing salt on its people.
At 5:30 our hosts start becoming visibly nervous. It is almost dark, and there is an unofficial curfew. Night-time means empty streets, police roadblocks and danger. Best to get inside. As we are leaving, Malik remarks that "this is a community under siege, so while our belief is getting stronger, suicide and traumatic stress disorder are on the rise. After 6pm you’re stuck inside, often in a single room." We are quickly returned to our vacant hotel, where the staff to guest ratio is about 4 to 1: there are three guests, and the other two are my companions. The food is delicious, but the room is too cold, the atmosphere too barren, and the conversation too stilted to enjoy it.
A Political Vacuum
The next day we pick up on the theme of dialogue in Kashmir. Since India is viewed as an oppressive foreign power that rules the territory with an iron fist, there is very little space for dialogue. The little room that does exist is often swept up by religious fundamentalists. This can be direct and violent (on our last day in Kashmir, three young girls were killed for not wearing a burqa and a secular member of parliament assassinated as he was coming out of a mosque) or indirect, but still violent, through social pressure. There is no space for a third way. Ferdous recalls that when he was an armed militant "we did not know what we wanted, we just knew that we were against India."
Malik decided to start SPACE because "the state is oppressive and the culture is conservative… this is a generation that grew up without any freedom, and people are scared to explore the freedoms they do have… their fears are deeply internalized." Organizations like SPACE are trying to foster dialogue between the different communities in Kashmir, and to create political space for beliefs that are not centred on different fundamentalisms (be they religious or military) but on democratic development.
When I asked Syed what he would say to his ex-colleagues who continue to fight for a freedom with a gun, he sat back in his chair, breathed deeply and said: "it is easy to hold a gun and die once, but difficult to drink a cup of poison one drop a day for your whole life." He would not elaborate.
Using his experience as a guide, Syed’s efforts are concentrated on convincing frustrated and disillusioned youth to stop viewing the gun as the only alternative to the poison. He wants to explore other alternatives that include Kashmir not as the fault line between Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists, but as a plural society where all voices and cultures are respected. "When we can express our opinions without fear of reprisals (from either the army or the religious fundamentalists) things will start to improve… freedom and liberty are basic instincts of life… people have to be able to express themselves."
Syed, Malik and others are trying to create a space for people to explore how to put down their guns and simultaneously stop drinking the poison. If Kashmir is to ever have their referendum, the people will need to decide to wage the far more difficult fight for political space. For Syed, it’s really quite simple . "When you forgive and reconcile, you are a true freedom-fighter."
Chad Lubelsky, Alternatives Newspaper