Thursday, 3 November 2016

India, Pakistan and everything in between

While in most Salon sessions, we try and probe identities that people wear both by choice and as inheritance, this one was different.

In two aspects. Firstly, we have never had such a range, from Kashmiris from both sides of the religion divide, to citizens from both sides of the border. It was also different in that a few of these identities were linked with personal experiences of persecution, grief & anger.

It was a great conversation. Writing about it has proved difficult though. It is a complex subject, that I am not the best qualified to hold forth on, and a sensitive one, hot even as we speak. So let me try and reproduce what happened that evening, with minimal garnish*.

Our participants were as follows:
Neha, Pratibha and Babar, all originally from Kashmir, now living in Mumbai; the first two Hindus, whose families left Kashmir around 1989-1990 and Babar, a Muslim, who also left the valley a decade ago in pursuit of education and a better life, while his parents still live there. Now I apologize to these wonderful people, who so readily agreed to be part of this session, for using such a unidimensional lens based on demography when I know there are many other ways to describe them, ways they have earned rather than be unwilling objects of.
I will say this about them that all three came across as open-minded individuals, who even while narrating their worst experiences, were in control of their emotions enough to be able to actively listen and absorb. At the same time, they didn’t shy away from speaking their minds on some of the pricklier topics – voicing sentiments that were different from those of the room and views that were diametrically opposite to those of other individuals. This was the nature of the beast though, in that dissimilar opinions were bound to emerge and I am just glad, that everyone had the emotional maturity to deal with a contrasting perspective.
Especially for Neha and Pratibha, whose anger and grief were palpable, it was a valiant effort, whereas in Babar, I saw somebody who had risen above his personal grief and an individualist agenda and was now keen to engage towards a solution. A rare group, and I wonder, if they can do it, why can’t the rest of us?
Then there was Ali from Pakistan, now living in Australia, a very articulate and well-informed person. He displayed an unusual impartiality, was truthful yet solution-oriented, as well as extremely patient; some of the questions we posed to him would have been disconcerting to most people.
Aksh, Karan and Kanishka made up the Indian citizenry brigade with widely differing views among them. I have ‘Facebook’ known Kanishka for ages now, and his views are a treat, stimulating & uncomfortable, the best kind. He cares deeply about this conflict, and has a well-thought-out contra-majoritarian opinion on it. While some of his views on Facebook might seem hopelessly unrealistic, I found out during this session that what he is trying to do is to create a new norm, believing that if a gradual shift happens wherein people meet him and others of a similar view, even half-way, progress would have been achieved.
Karan was the only person in the room I knew from before, apart from Ankit of course. I have known him to be an objective person, yet one entirely in-line with a patriotically-charged ideology; that’s a great mix to have as an individual, it was even more significant in the context of our session. He was all this and more, absolutely intrepid during the conversation, willing to challenge his own ideology, a sign of strength in my book.
That brings me to Aksh, I had invited him by virtue of him being a passionate, well informed Indian, putting country above all else. He did not disappoint, making pertinent points, challenging the others’ where required. Every society needs this blend, however, it also needs people with strong views of their own to be able and willing to see the others’, to be willing to change their outlook a tad, when faced with a truth different from their own. I think Aksh did see a little bit of an alternate reality during our conversation.  
Bringing up the rear, were Ankit and myself. I would like to consider myself as neutral, exploratory, but with a very strong aversion to conflict, and as that I will always be in favor of swallowing the bitter pill if it leads to resolution. Ankit is similar, except swayed much less by emotion, much more by practicality, and is often seen playing the devil’s advocate J

So here we were. In my mind, and as is the Ze Salon raison d’etre, the purpose wasn’t to seek solutions, but to understand another perspective. It is another matter that I strongly believe that solutions come through such understanding.

We spoke about a wide variety of themes, from light-hearted ones such as the things we liked and didn’t about our countries, to intensely personal ones like why the subject at hand was important to each one of us. This second one is where a lot of the stories emerged, personal tales of persecution and frustration. Some we had known about as a collective, but a lot of it was unfamiliar.
The Kashmiri pundit saga is an example of both of the above for me. While we know the outlines, we treat it casually, too casually. Growing up, I was more engaged with the holocaust, than something that came to pass in my own backyard. It is amazing to me how little we speak of it, how little is known about it, and how these people walk around having rebuilt their lives, survivors of a heinous act of war that happened in our own lifetimes.
And coming back to why India-Pakistan is relevant to all of us, while we can never understand fully the pain of the victims, on either side, each of us has a right, indeed an obligation, to be concerned, enraged and engaged. We live in an interconnected world today, with people and war, both having traveled out of their traditional bastions. None of us are exempt.
Some of the ‘impersonal’ reasons as to why a resolution was imperative, ranged from the sheer distraction that such a long running conflict posed to development and welfare, to the tragic waste of lives over a struggle nobody could anymore stake a righteous claim to.

Then there were a few controversial discussions.
One of them was India’s stance on the ownership of Kashmir. While there were people in the room who believed in the undeniability of it, there were people, both Kashmiris and non-Kashmiri who challenged it.
What also came up was India’s cartographic insistence on showing PoK as a part of itself, which some believed to be needlessly provocative and delusional.  
While there is no easy answer, I think it’s worth acknowledging that there is a question.

Another contentious subject was the treatment of Kashmiris by India. And here, we had Babar’s story, who having grown up in Srinagar, spoke about how as a boy the face of India for him was the Army, an association that was less than pleasant for him. Now, we would have to be delusional to believe that the Army is an entirely benign presence in Kashmir, and his account of a life spent under its watch, where one could get pulled & detained at what might have seemed like whim, corroborated it. While a lot of us might feel resolute about Kashmir belonging to India, we should also ask ourselves if Kashmiris today are treated as Indians. We cry foul on being excessively subjected to demographic profiling in foreign countries, rightly so, however, here is a population that has spent an age experiencing a disrespect that’s more harmful in its being so everyday.
In spite of this situation, he revealed that a majority of the Kashmiris, if put to vote, would want to be with India, due to the sheer number of opportunities for progress India offers. He also spoke about his own feelings towards India having transformed in the time he has spent out of Kashmir, having seen so many facets of the country, and what it stands for, all this largely inaccessible to youth living in Kashmir.

There was talk of possible solutions.
Plebiscite was, of course, mentioned, as were some of the challenges in executing it.
One of those being the stake of the Kashmiri Hindus as a minority in the state, as potentially being at receiving of an unfair referendum. Another, which wasn’t discussed in this conversation, but came up as part of another I was in recently, is the geographical security a mountainous border region bestows. If we were to lose Kashmir as an outcome of this referendum, it might pose grave geopolitical risks.
The other solution discussed was demilitarization or a gradual reduction of it. A lot of the possible options here were proposed by Kanishka. The gist of it is a rehabilitation effort that includes demilitarization, development efforts for Kashmiri youth and an open communication channel for the people to see India as the benign power it wishes itself to be seen as.
I want to add here that solving for the frustrations of the Kashmiri people may not be a holistic solution to the Kashmir issue, in that there are not just unhappy locals at the root of it, but an organized effort that rides on these voices to destabilize the region. Any solution of this nature will have to be complex, staggered, long-term with backing from governments & people.
It is not easy, but what other choice is there? Who does this stalemate benefit? Nobody, including the Army. To quote someone I spoke recently with, half the problem in Kashmir is that all parties believe they alone are victims, case in point – the attitude towards the Army. Being stationed in Kashmir can’t be something to celebrate about.   

There were a few questions raised on article 370 and how it prevents private investment, thus blocking the road to development. There was a point on the highly militarized Pakistani state never allowing the conflict to die down due to the power it derived from it. Alternately, Ali spoke about how the civilian government today is beginning to assert itself over the military, about civil society getting more aware.  

It was an extraordinary evening, emotionally draining though satisfying. I wish I had been able to get together even wider a set of perspectives, say those of the Army, policy experts, historians. Nevertheless, this conversation is merely one of the many that need to happen or are already happening; but I do think it served a purpose.
I know a lot of those who read this article may not agree with large parts of it, but agreement is reached over time. Right now all I am looking for is the possibility of different voices to co-exist and inform one other.

*  the garnish was significant. Since you have taken the trouble to read the entire piece, my apologies on that count

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