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Entering the Kashmir Valley, a Paradox of Beauty and Fear.

The following blogpost is written by Nishant Saharan, Oslo Scholar at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations. Nishant is currently working with OFF 2011 Speaker, Justine Hardy, in Srinagar, India. The following post was first published in “The Liberal Arts Major” and is being republished here.

Kashmir, tucked into the Himalayas at the northern tip of India, has changed remarkably. This seems to be the broad consensus in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital. Violent incidents such as shootings and riots are less frequent in this pristine Himalayan neighborhood. The city is expecting the largest tourist season in recent years. People who fled the painful militancy that has plagued the region for more than 20 years are finally returning to their homes. “Ten years ago you would walk down the street and see only long, depressed faces but people actually seem happy now” and “I have hope for my business, I am not afraid of violence shutting down my shops anymore” are statements you now hear from Kashmiris.

Despite all this positivity, a thick air of tension has settled into the picturesque Kashmir Valley. Kashmir harbors a pervasive fear that something can still happen. For many of the people I have spoken with, an episode of “stone pelting”, a “firing” or a resurgence of the militancy are all very real possibilities. As a newcomer to “paradise on earth“, I am not immune to this feeling of anxious expectancy. No matter how much of Kashmir’s “welcome drink”, the warming kahwa tea, I consume, I simply can’t rinse away the deeply rooted tension that follows me throughout Srinagar. Kashmir has become one of those places that can give the bravest person phobias of anything from the dark to policemen. Quite paradoxically, there is so much in beautiful Kashmir that tells you to be afraid.

It starts before you even leave for Kashmir. Both in the US and in New Delhi, I was bombarded by sentiments of apprehension from friends and family members. “Don’t tell anyone you’re a foreigner” and “Don’t go anywhere alone” were two of the most common tips. Although some of the perceptions of Kashmir held by average Indians are media inflated, they do have validity. For the past several years, Kashmir was probably one of the most unsafe places in the world. And it might still be. The current crime rate in Kashmir is astronomical and stories of infamous kidnappings of foreigners by militants are still fresh in peoples’ minds. The US State Department has this warning on it’s website:

The Department of State strongly recommends that you avoid travel to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (with the exception of visits to the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh) because of the potential for terrorist incidents, as well as violent public unrest.

Many other governments also hold similar warnings for their tourists. Even the Australian government website has a “Do Not Travel” warning.

Taste the Unease

The tension does not go anywhere when you arrive. Immediately after I step out of my walled-in guesthouse, I face thick barbed wire clutching the 10-foot wall hiding an abandoned house taken over by a battalion of Indian security forces. Sometimes I glance through the grenade-proof netting into the small bunker next to the gate and make awkward eye contact with the tense looking guard, alone, save for his slender assault rifle.

Soldiers with machine guns or rifles are a common sight in Kashmir. Within the city of Srinagar they are usually CRPF, but once you leave the city you’ll periodically see a group, of Indian Army jawans stationed alongside the road. Each gun is a sharp reminder that militants still pose a potential threat. And these reminders are everywhere. Seeing all of these guns and soldiers does something to you. Subtly, you are put on edge and you can taste the unease almost everywhere you go. Calls to protest during “Martyr’s Week” and rumors of militants stirring in rural areas surely don’t help.

New Sentiments for Outsiders, But Everyday Life for Kashmiris

As a newcomer to Kashmir, I find the subtle sense of pending danger a foreign, unfamiliar feeling. Many Kashmiris, on the other hand, have learned to be comfortable in this general atmosphere of tension. Seeing camouflage and sandbags on street corners has become an accepted part of their day to day life. It is almost as though they are unaffected and unmoved. “This is exactly what worries me,” says a psychologist I recently spoke with about the issue.

The transition from a conflict to a post conflict state has transformed the Kashmiri psyche. The rates of mood and anxiety disorders have followed the drastic uptick in violence in the 90′s. The generation born during Kashmir’s violent era has experienced is characterized by ADHD and general aggression. These are the conclusions that are echoed from senior psychologists to shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers.

The fighting may be over, but who will do the healing?

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