There’s a tulip garden in Kashmir. Spread over nearly thirty acres of magnificent terraces, it’s girded by the Zabarwan hills at the back and overlooks the world-famous Dal Lake at the front. The garden is believed to be one of the largest in the world.
Every spring, we have a government-run festival here to mark the beginning of the tourist season, during which tourists, residents, and on occasion Indian soldiers, pose for photos amid a sea of red and yellow flowers. Colorful balloons soar into the sky, folk-music ensembles play string music, conflict-weary press photographers click away at the stunning vistas in the hope they’ll get to send images of pretty flowers into the world, as opposed to their usual fare: stills of young corpses and funeral marches.
Every year, there appear in the Indian and local press stories about the majestic tulip garden of Kashmir. Feature writers write eloquently about the breath of fresh air that the gardens bestow on the conflict-torn region; Television crews make slick features, showing us clipped vox pops of selfie-driven tourists, local floriculturists, and, of course, politicians hungry for beautiful photo-ops.
I’ve been reading the same tulip story for at least ten years and I have learned many things in the process. There are hundreds of thousands of bulbs planted across swathes of prime floral estate. Tulips usually bloom here in a four-week period from mid- or late March. The London-based World Book has included the garden in its pages for a record of 1.2 million bulbs the year before last. It’s been judged among the top five tulip gardens of the world by the World Tulip Summit Society in Canada. Last year, it was reported that the garden created another world record for the highest number of blooms in the world — more than a million blooms of seventy varieties. Bollywood crews sometimes take over to film otherworldly song and dance sequences. Music videos are shot here too — and why not?
Local people participate in large numbers, too, some for a brief respite from all the suffering and some in the hope of a bountiful tourist season. Others are there in the hope that the breathtaking garden might keep at bay memories of a lost loved one, even if momentarily, even if painfully.
If the winter lingers a bit too long, threatening to thwart the bloom, the authorities use high-tech poly-houses which help the tulips flower even in harsh conditions. The garden is also Wi-Fi enabled.
The same story, year after year, in journal after journal, on screen after screen. It doesn’t matter what else is happening in that blighted land. The whole place might be oozing blood, under siege, the streets deserted, people cooped up inside their homes, weighed down by worries of dwindling food and medicine, but at least we have a successful tulip festival.
The tulips and the attendant pageantry paint a beautifully rosy picture of Kashmir, a rare warm and fuzzy moment in an otherwise mournful place, wracked by conflict over the last three decades.
The long war in and over Kashmir began soon after the decolonization of South Asia in 1947. At the time, Kashmir, an independent state, was left undecided, so that a referendum under the aegis of the United Nations could be held to allow Kashmiris a say in their destiny, whether to join India or Pakistan. The plebiscite never took place; instead, the countries have since fought three wars over it. Kashmiris, wounded by various betrayals by Delhi as it sought to manage Kashmir via servile unionists, decided to take up arms soon after the annus horriblis of 1987 when a state election was massively rigged to prevent a new and popular Kashmiri party from acquiring legislative power. Pakistan readily gave Kashmiris arms and training, resulting in a full-blown armed and mass movement in the early nineties. Almost overnight, Kashmir turned into a slaughterhouse. The conflict has continued to rage since then, with ebbs and flares, killing at least 70,000 people. After the turn of the millennium, as the insurgency diminished significantly, Kashmiris decided to take to the streets in hundreds of thousands. Rivers of the young and old, men and women, on the streets every year. But India responded in the same manner as it had to the armed uprising, with limitless force: killing, maiming, and blinding hundreds including children.
For years I’ve looked at pictures of the red dazzle spread over verdant land that borders the Dal Lake, favored by imperial Mughals in the past, and ministers, administrators, and spooks in the present day. The Governor House, palatial home to rulers that India sends to Kashmir from to time, is close by, so are the state chief minister’s residence and some other “VIP” villas and chalets.
The arrogant efflorescence on display should make me feel happy, even proud. It’s less than half an hour’s drive from my parents’ home in Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir. It should perhaps even make me feel a bit patriotic about our fertile soil and luminous vegetation. I should celebrate it as many people do. At least Kashmir is in the news for happier, colorful reasons.
Positive news, you see, has been in such short supply during Kashmir’s many seasons of blood-letting that we must paint the internet red with Kashmiri tulips. And truly, when in full blossom, the garden does look like something out the world, like the masterwork of a rangrez, as if a possessed dyer has been at work all night, as if someone has unfurled a vast red velvet carpet in the bowl of the valley.
Like most people I love flowers. I grew my own when I was a child in Kashmir: pansies, roses, hyacinths, and irises. And the sight of the garden does please the senses enormously. But each time I see the pictures it also makes me feel a bit unsettled, uneasy, perhaps even guilty.
In moments of epistemic despair, I imagine the blood of Kashmir’s countless dead trickling down from the hills, the gorges, the gardens, and the graveyards in the countryside, and issuing forth in an insanely beautiful display in the prime of the city, where some of our ruling elites prefer to live.
When I was in Kashmir recently, I walked past the garden and its splendid surroundings. I saw it in its bare, un-flowered state. Perhaps because it wasn’t the season for mesmerizing flower carpets, I realized that a dreaded torture center — Papa II — is close to the tulip garden named after the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. The building was whitewashed, literally and metaphorically, a few years after it was decommissioned in 1996 as a place where Indian soldiers used to put live electric wires to the genitals of illegally detained young boys.
Many boys never returned from here and those who did were impaired for life. The colonial-era structure, previously a guesthouse called the Fairview, was turned into an official residence in the late nineties after local bureaucrats had it exorcized (you read that right), probably owing to some confused moral residue or perhaps because they were superstitious enough to believe that the ghosts of those who were tormented inside might come back to revisit. More recently, Papa II served as the official residence of Kashmir’s last chief minister. In a place where no one has ever been prosecuted for war crimes, it’s probably fitting that a ruler found safety and comfort within a torture chamber.
I asked a Kashmiri writer and journalist about it: why does every media outlet want a tulip piece, or other such stories, from Kashmir? I understand the journalistic impulse and duty to cover it, and it should be written about, but why the relentless focus every summer? He said it’s rather simple to grasp.
Editors sometimes turn down the usual death and devastation journalism from Kashmir and want an uplifting story instead. As reporters file stories and pictures of shootings, massacres, blindings, nocturnal raids, torture, extrajudicial killings, houses blown up by Indian forces, militant attacks, assassinations — because that’s what they’ve had to zoom in on all their lives — inured to the endless suffering of Kashmir, they want pretty pictures instead. It’s too depressing. Surely, life must go on. Where are the beautiful houseboats and flower-laden shikara?
The colors of spring, normalcy, peace, tourist season, even when they don’t exist or are as short-lived as the flight of a bullet, need some focus too, you know. It suits the state too, both the central command in Delhi and their representatives in Kashmir. Let’s not forever harp on the tragic conflict of Kashmir. The world must know the place also has a garden that people pay to see in spring …. In its belligerent quest for a narrative shift on Kashmir, the Indian state deploys everything in its arsenal to declare peace has arrived. Year after year. But then, as Tacitus would say, “they make a desolation and call it peace.”
Because, as we read about the record number of tulips every year, the ticket sales to the garden, the annual inauguration by successive client elites, the chief ministers and assorted chief guests, other numbers, other gardens, other flowers hover darkly.
Away from the sanitized, militarized tourist district — where a postcard-pretty eighteen-hole golf course, the ghastly torture house, and paramilitary camps flank the tulip orchard — close to people’s homes in the old city lies another vast garden: the Eidgah of Srinagar. It’s mostly a plain field, dusty, without manicured landscaping or a ticket counter.
In my childhood, all of it used be a vast open prayer ground, filling up with thousands of worshipers every Eid. A sea of white caps now, an iridescent wave of prostrate forms next.
Soon, however, as the war broke out in 1989, it began to be filled up with our dead. Kashmiris had risen up in arms. They went to Pakistan-administered Kashmir where Pakistani agencies gave them weapons. They shouted Azadi — freedom — on every street, every day and every night, I remember, demanding their right to self-determination, a promise India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made to them soon after India and Pakistan became independent.
The Indian state responded with a ruthlessness reminiscent of Colonel Reginald Dyer’s guns at Jalianwala Bagh (the British army officer gunned down hundreds of unarmed Indian protestors in 1919 who had gathered in a walled garden in Amritsar) — killing thousands, civilians and militants alike. A part of the prayer ground was then quickly designated as the “martyrs’ graveyard,” a final resting place for those shot dead by the Indian armed forces and police. It grew fast, as the number of stone and marble gravestones bearing Urdu and Persian couplets, and, of course, verses from the Quran, arrived week after week. Tended with the delicate care and love of the broken-hearted, graveyard irises, or mazar munje in Kashmiri, prospered in the fertile ground. Soon, rose stalks leaned by the side the dark headstones.
In another part of the town, the sang-tarash, traditional stone masons, worked into the night with their chisels to create elegant memorial tablets for the new garden in the middle of the city. By the mid-nineties, the freshly sprouted cemetery teemed with row and row of tombstones of the young and old, of those killed by the soldiers but also of those killed by the insurgents. A necropolis was born where kites used to fly in the spring only a few years ago.
Kashmiris grow flowers here too, hallowed ground as it is for them. They come here on Eid, on Fridays, or anytime the heart can’t bear the separation anymore, to offer prayers, to converse with their slain kin. Outside the graveyard, in the larger remaining part of the prayer ground, children play cricket, jostle, and banter, like I used to as a teenager, a time when there were neither fresh graves here nor old tombs.
Today, almost thirty years after the first bullet-ridden body was interred, many of the graves have flowers nodding next to them. In summer, the graveyard, now fenced off to set it apart from the rest of the ground, shines all white and pink.
Some days, as you go past, you can discern a form bent over or sitting beside a tombstone. At the far, southern end of the vast ground, I noticed that a children’s play area has arrived, and if you walk along the entire length of the adjacent road — the Eidgah Road — you can see the playground, swings and slides, the martyrs’ cemetery, the remainder of the old prayer ground, and lastly, an old mosque, in an unbroken stretch. It’s not very often you see such cradle-to-grave imagery in one place.
During the last three decades, similar small or large graveyard-gardens have cropped up across other towns and villages in what was once an Edenic land, “the paradise on earth,” as the thirteenth-century mystic poet Amir Khusro described it. The living in Kashmir now keep their dead close by, as mnemonic totems of their lost ones but also as urgent reminders of who did this to them.
This past year has been Kashmir’s most violent in a decade or so. Nearly six hundred people have been killed and some of the dead have found their burial place in the Eidgah. It’s a ritual practiced over thirty years.
Further afield, in the lush countryside, there are more traditional gardens and grounds, signifiers of Kashmir’s geography and culture: apple orchards, acres and acres of them, which for centuries have been a source of livelihood and dreams for many.
It’s in the environs of these orchards, or literally in the midst of them, that some new corpses are found.
South Kashmir, where apple orchards would throw up dead bodies even in the nineties, and which has of late emerged as a hub for a new generation of militants and protestors, has witnessed dozens of encounters between the Indian armed forces and Kashmiri rebels in the last couple of years.
It is this fiery cauldron of South Kashmir from where the suicide bomber, Adil Dar, who carried out the devastating Pulwama attack in February, killing forty-four CRPF troopers, was born. As Basharat Peer writes, Dar didn’t emerge from a vacuum. He was born and raised in south Kashmir, on a diet of humiliation and indignity. Until things change, Kashmir will continue to produce young men with less fear of death than living in a vast open-air prison.
Here fathers recognize the bodies of their teenage sons while attending to the wounded in a hospital. Here men are turned into human shields as Indian soldiers look for militants hiding in the orchards. Here, the soldiers shoot young boys dead as they throw stones or raise slogans when they see their militant friends surrounded. Or even if they’re merely present near the site of an encounter. In recent years, young Kashmiris, men and women, have flocked to battle sites in the countryside to save local boys who have picked up guns to fight Indian rule. These are ordinary young Kashmiris who fully recognize it’s akin to staring death in the face, but they do it nonetheless, because, having grown up in the corral described by relentless state repression, they’ve lost all hope, and all fear.
Of the eleven people killed on December 15 after an encounter in district Pulwama, around twenty-five miles from Srinagar, seven were civilians, three militants, and one soldier. An eyewitness said, “The forces could’ve left the spot easily. But they fired to kill.” Among those killed was year-twelve-student Shahnawaz. His father Muhammad Yusuf had this to say: “The encounter had ended and [the] forces were moving out when my son went out to fetch a bucket of water from a spring across the road. There were protests going on in nearby villages. He was on his way back when forces fired directly at him from inside the vehicle … I watched him fall down as he cried for help. They killed him in front of my eyes and I watched it all helplessly.”
I read and saw interviews of the parents of the slaughtered boys, and each one of them signed off on a note of ultimate despair and defiance. “Why don’t they kill us all … We want the army to leave. We want freedom …”
Less than a week before the massacre in Pulwama, two teenage militants, one fourteen and the other seventeen, were killed in an encounter outside Srinagar. What catastrophe, what injustice, did the two friends witness to make them abandon their school textbooks in favor of a rifle, knowing full well they wouldn’t last long against one of the largest armies in the world?
The scroll of the dead rolls on and on in monthly columns from December to January, making 2018 the deadliest in a decade. But then again which year in Kashmir’s modern history hasn’t been a year of the dead?
I was a teenager when we started the death count — now, at more than seventy thousand, we are into a second- and third-generation catalog of death. In some years, only a hundred odd are killed, in other years and other seasons more than five hundred. The great Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali once wrote about “Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir …”
The flood continues unabated, with blood given by everyone: civilians, militants, policemen, Indian soldiers stationed to keep Kashmir under Indian rule, and most precious of all, the children of Kashmir. Since 2010, Indian paramilitaries and police have used buckshot guns to stymie civilian protests in Kashmir. These Victorian-era weapons, originally designed to hunt birds in flight, spray hundreds of tiny lead pellets, often catching people in their faces and eyes.
All this blood, all the killing, all the brutality we saw over the past decades … curls back in different threads to the existential question that Kashmiris have posed forever. The question of their future. It also reinforces in unambiguous terms the image of India in the minds of Kashmiris as an armed aggressor, as an occupying military power.
What was done in Pulwama this last December is not new. Kashmir’s history is a history of indiscriminate killing.
I was only a boy when I looked at the banal aftermath of one of the most barbaric massacres in Kashmir: a doleful mound of abandoned slippers on a street not far from my ancestral home in Srinagar.
The people who had been wearing them until the day before were probably already recumbent in morgues and graveyards. “Bullets rained in all directions and (the) dead fell like the apples fall from the trees when they are ripe,” recalls survivor Nazir Baba.
More than fifty mourners, including four women, were killed in the Hawal Massacre of May 21, 1990, when Indian paramilitaries showered bullets at the funeral procession of Kashmir’s chief cleric, Mirwaiz Farooq, who’d been assassinated by militants earlier that day. A survivor remembers seeing the paramilitaries frisking the dead, snatching earrings and pendants from the dead women. This was a time when we used to witness or hear the sounds of a massacre as though they’d always been an integral part of life.
What’s new, however, is the death-defying fearlessness of a new generation of Kashmiris who rush towards an encounter to create a distraction, an interlude, so the holed-up militant, who might be a friend, neighbor, or kin, can escape. When I was growing up, the impulse and the rule was to run away from an encounter site, not towards it.
In 2018, Kashmir saw more than a hundred such encounters and the standard operating procedure for Indian forces seems to have been to kill anyone in their crosshairs. Anyone. As a result, of the more than 500 casualties in the last calendar year, 160 were civilians, including thirty-one children and eighteen women. Also this year, hundreds have been injured, and at least forty shot in their eyes, including twenty-month-old baby Hiba, who may lose vision in her right eye.
These numbers, which speak of the enormous suffering of the Kashmiri people over the last three decades, are pushed into the background at the start of the resplendent Kashmiri summer. A return to normalcy is heralded, despite government figures that show there’s been a 167 percent increase in violence since 2015–16. What happened, what was done, in 2018 is even starker than the explosive summer of 2016, the year of mass blinding in Kashmir. Following the killing of a popular militant leader, more than a thousand young people were shot with buckshot pellets, causing serious injuries to their eyes and blinding more than a hundred. These are children, blinded for life, who would never see the tulips.
But let’s focus instead on the positive — let’s remain amid a million flowers, watch the cutting of a ribbon, the inauguration by Kashmiri ruling elites, and the applause of their supporters, far away from the martyrs’ graveyards still bursting at the seams.
Away from the flower shows, the collective punishment of Kashmiris continues unchecked, or perhaps it should be said, with renewed force under the new regime in India. The spooks and generals in Delhi, who essentially run Kashmir for India, have in fact called it exactly that: “Operation All Out.” On the ground and in people’s homes in Kashmir, it’s translated into large-scale violence against civilians, the nightly raids on people’s homes, the slapping of draconian laws on anyone who dares to resist, the burning and destruction of family homes of insurgents or of homes where militants might have spent a night, detention of family members, the humiliations and arrests of teenage stone-throwers, the grotesque crime of turning Kashmiris into human shields, and the booming war cries on the same TV screens in India that broadcast the tulips in spring.
The state government in Kashmir is run by unionists who take turns to be the intermediaries of Delhi — until they are summarily cast off in favor of a man from Delhi. Displaying great moral dexterity, they trade blame as each set sits in the seat of cosmetic power or its opposition. When in power, they order inquiries into the killings that are almost always buried in the black hole of dark laws that provide immunity to Indian forces and the police. When not in power, they issue profoundly sorrowful sound bites and accuse their in-power opponents of callousness.
In J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate who runs the frontier settlement and who’s shaken by the torture of nomadic “barbarians,” remarks, “The Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty.”
Kashmir will continue to see killings, plunder, and the trading of place and blame. Office bearers from the ruling “elites” in Kashmir will take turns to express grief at blood spilled by an apparatus of which they are a small but essential cog. “The teeth of the axe,” as the Kashmiri proverb goes. As Coetzee’s magistrate returns the tortured nomadic girl to her people, he speaks of himself as “a jackal of empire in sheep’s clothing.”
The new statistics will simply add to the rolling journal of death that Kashmiris keep in their hearts and minds. They will add it to the at least 8,000 people forcibly disappeared over the years, and with at least 7,000 of those buried in unmarked graves in the mountains. Or with those who carry the deep scars of oppression on their bodies and minds. Since 1989, one in every six Kashmiris may have faced some form of torture, that’s almost one from every other family. The MSF revealed in the first detailed report into the mental health situation in Kashmir that nearly 50 percent of the population suffer from some form of PTSD. Half the population.
But we must, of course, also look at the number of tourists that visit the gardens of Kashmir.
Mostly ignored by international powers as they seek the growing market in India, Kashmir today is entirely in the grip of a monstrous campaign of suppression by the Indian state. No one gives a damn, really. Until recently, one used to take heart from the token candlelight vigil in Delhi or elsewhere in solidarity with the coffin-bearers of Kashmir, but now, perhaps battered by far-right TV channels and the robot lobbies of troll farms, many in India appear to have pressed the mute button on Kashmir.
As the UN published its first ever exhaustive report into human rights abuses in Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the Indian state dismissed it as fallacious. Influential media bosses and journalists, rather than looking into the report and asking questions of the state — doing their basic job, really — decided it was best to ignore it or better still, dismiss it as unfounded. It was an exhaustive, well-substantiated investigation that detailed endemic abuse.
What does all this mean? An almost total suspension of normal legal and moral systems when it comes to Kashmir. Such has been the viciousness of India’s recent operations, that even the most heartrending stories are pushed off the radar in no time. In autumn this year, a young bag-maker from Srinagar was shot dead as he came out of his house to check a noise. As outraged residents took to the streets, first in protest, then as part of his funeral march, the paramilitaries and police charged at them with tear gas and pellet guns. The young man’s friend and neighbor, utterly bereft at not being allowed to mourn his benefactor, his shirt torn as he howled in the middle of a street, then pleaded with the armed forces to kill him too.
Last year, in another illustration of how far the Indian state has moved away from basic democratic norms and the rule of law, the army chief gave a medal of commendation to a torture-loving major who tied a Kashmiri shawl weaver to the front of a pick-up truck and paraded him for six hours. Something terrible has been unleashed at the heart of the new Indian state. Edward Said once wrote about the “uncompromising brutality against the latest bunch of ‘natives,’” and of the “reductive polarisations” of conflict in the modern world. Said also emphasized the urgency of a humanism gone out of fashion among postmodern elites. While he expressly renews his advocacy for Palestinian self-determination, Said makes sure it’s at a remove from the “mutual hostility” that has prevailed in the Middle East and elsewhere. Increasingly in India, owing to a terrifying rise in right-wing majoritarianism and a hardening of attitudes among the middle classes, the basic dignity due to an oppressed people, in Kashmir and elsewhere, has been significantly eroded or vanished altogether. The hostility now appears to be complete, unbridgeable, and for those at the receiving end, unbearable.
This last year or so, the thirtieth year of blood in Kashmir, we’ve seen yet another carnival of blood: we’ve seen parents plead with their militant kids to return home, and we’ve seen a father behold the face of his slain teenage son who perhaps knew, or perhaps not, the might of the country he chose to fight.
But above all, we’ve seen India come down on the people of Kashmir with a punitive wrath that harks back to the darkest of times, the early nineties when Indian armed forces committed massacre after massacre, burnt down entire localities, killed, raped, detained, and tortured hundreds. The kin of the slain, stunned into silence or thrown into paroxysms of grief at the sight of a shattered body, create real and imagined memorials to cling onto. They create rooms, they preserve memorabilia, they offer flowers on fresh graves.
All of it joins up to form a long, forever ringing arc of sadness and despair. Every bullet sound, every death, every howl, through years and decades of Kashmir’s solitary, cold suffering. For years now, for long decades now (with profound apologies to Agha Shahid), death has “turned every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala.”
Kashmir today, then, is Karbala more than ever. In its grief, in its vast tragedy, and in its lonely but resolute defiance. But when the houses are burned, when the children are slaughtered or their eyes stolen, Kashmir will still remain.
We will grow flowers, dazzling tulips and graveyard irises, we will make our houseboats pretty, we will decorate our guesthouses by the lake or in the hills, we will cook wazwan, we will take exams, publish newspapers, write poetry and code, run businesses, and we will lift ourselves up, in a cycle of hope and despair … Because that child’s got to be given batte, food, in faith that she will live to see a fresh dawn but sometimes also in fear that she, too, might transform into blood, like the fourteen-year-old boy whose perforated body his mother saw one month and his matriculation exam certificate the next.
Kashmir is now emerging from the grip of a long Himalayan winter, a season when Kashmiris try to soothe their new and old scars with warmth and dark humor. In spring they begin a fresh year in their long struggle for dignity and freedom; they will hope the world will at last take proper notice of them, as it does of the arresting beauty of their homeland.
I will return home again and hope to look at the gorgeous flowers, but I will know that there is a dark river that lies beneath.