I had put a little less salt in the tea and Ingrid immediately mentioned the mildness of its flavour. She wanted to know when people in Kashmir drank nun chai. Fresh chapattis dipped in nun chai at breakfast time, and tsochevur in the afternoon. I remember a woman I once saw balancing a huge samovar (a traditional metal teapot) of nun chai on her head as she walked along the roadside. We spoke about the differences between sweet and salty tea. In Kashmir sweet tea was commonly known as lipton chai. Branding has come to circulate so deeply in our daily lives, no matter where we are in the world.
Ingrid asked if things in Kashmir were still as intense as they were in mid-September. She was referring to one of Kashmir’s bloodiest days in the past two decades of conflict. 18 people were killed in one day and over 200 others injured, by police and CRPF, in a complicated series of protests that turned violent – many believe at the instigation of members of the ruling National Conference (NC), who had otherwise stayed away from the recent uprisings for fear of being attacked for their role in sustaining India’s armed occupation of Kashmir. The death toll at that time quickly rose to 88. By the beginning of October it had reached more than 110.
There was a calm in Kashmir that coincided with Delhi’s Commonwealth Games between the 3rd and 14th of October. Then, on the evening of the 14th, as the games came to an end, the death toll in Kashmir rose, once again, when Ghulam Nabi Mir (55) succumbed to injuries inflicted by “unidentified men in uniform”.
Today the curfews still remain, and in the odd chance they’re lifted the All Parties Hurriyat Conference calls for a strike against the government. A friend in Kashmir recently remarked that in order to leave home one now needs the permission of either the Indian government or the Hurriyat.
Ingrid asked if people were affected by a lack of access to things like food or medicine. It’s almost impossible to fully comprehend how the conflict really affects peoples’ lives. Income. Education. Food. Travel. Communication. Healthcare. Loss of life is one thing and the psychological impact of living day in and day out in the most densely militarised place in the world is another. That same friend says that today there are more “in-security” personnel on the streets of Kashmir than there are secure persons.
Ingrid’s voice almost drifted off with the impossibility of a simple answer when she asked, what is the solution?
Azadi. De-militarisation. Independence. Non-violence. A plebiscite. The return of militancy if non-violence fails. I didn’t know what to say exactly, but it brought us to the tragic niggling of politicians, their self-concerned aspirations and the horrific consequences these have on the course of peoples’ lives. Speaking and thinking about the recent elections in Australia, Ingrid said she didn’t think it was possible to really look towards governments for leadership or positive change. Rather we have to look individually and collectively into the little currents of power that lie within our daily lives and within our own communities.
Located on the historic silk trade route of Central and South Asia the Kashmir of ancient and medieval times was far more connected with its neighbours than ‘modern’ Kashmir. Today the region is characterised by identity cards, borders along divisive lines of control and phone bans whenever the state feels things are getting out of hand.
Ingrid asked if people were leaving Kashmir. I thought of the exodus of the Hindus in the 1990’s. I also thought of a Hindu family, from a small village in Shopian, who had remained because a snow storm at night had stopped their departure. People left because of trade. And they returned. There are young men and women who leave to study in Delhi, Chandigarh, Aligarh and others cities within South Asia and abroad. I thought of a friend in Delhi, just beginning her PhD on literature from Palestine and Kashmir. She told me she wanted to return home to teach in Kashmir someday.