A week before he was elected in 2008, President Obama said that solving the dispute over Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination — which has led to three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947 — would be among his “critical tasks.” His remarks were greeted with consternation in India, and he has said almost nothing about Kashmir since then.
But on Monday, during his visit here, he pleased his hosts immensely by saying the United States would not intervene in Kashmir and announcing his support for India’s seat on the United Nations Security Council. While he spoke eloquently about threats of terrorism, he kept quiet about human rights abuses in Kashmir.
Whether Mr. Obama decides to change his position on Kashmir again depends on several factors: how the war in Afghanistan is going, how much help the United States needs from Pakistan and whether the government of India goes aircraft shopping this winter. (An order for 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, worth $5.8 billion, among other huge business deals in the pipeline, may ensure the president’s silence.) But neither Mr. Obama’s silence nor his intervention is likely to make the people in Kashmir drop the stones in their hands.
I was in Kashmir 10 days ago, in that beautiful valley on the Pakistani border, home to three great civilizations — Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist. It’s a valley of myth and history. Some believe that Jesus died there; others that Moses went there to find the lost tribe. Millions worship at the Hazratbal shrine, where a few days a year a hair of the Prophet Muhammad is displayed to believers.
Now Kashmir, caught between the influence of militant Islam from Pakistan and Afghanistan, America’s interests in the region and Indian nationalism (which is becoming increasingly aggressive and “Hinduized”), is considered a nuclear flash point. It is patrolled by more than half a million soldiers and has become the most highly militarized zone in the world.
The atmosphere on the highway between Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, and my destination, the little apple town of Shopian in the south, was tense. Groups of soldiers were deployed along the highway, in the orchards, in the fields, on the rooftops and outside shops in the little market squares. Despite months of curfew, the “stone pelters” calling for “azadi” (freedom), inspired by the Palestinian intifada, were out again. Some stretches of the highway were covered with so many of these stones that you needed an S.U.V. to drive over them.
Fortunately the friends I was with knew alternative routes down the back lanes and village roads. The “longcut” gave me the time to listen to their stories of this year’s uprising. The youngest, still a boy, told us that when three of his friends were arrested for throwing stones, the police pulled out their fingernails — every nail, on both hands.
For three years in a row now, Kashmiris have been in the streets, protesting what they see as India’s violent occupation. But the militant uprising against the Indian government that began with the support of Pakistan 20 years ago is in retreat. The Indian Army estimates that there are fewer than 500 militants operating in the Kashmir Valley today. The war has left 70,000 dead and tens of thousands debilitated by torture. Many, many thousands have “disappeared.” More than 200,000 Kashmiri Hindus have fled the valley. Though the number of militants has come down, the number of Indian soldiers deployed remains undiminished.
But India’s military domination ought not to be confused with a political victory. Ordinary people armed with nothing but their fury have risen up against the Indian security forces. A whole generation of young people who have grown up in a grid of checkpoints, bunkers, army camps and interrogation centers, whose childhood was spent witnessing “catch and kill” operations, whose imaginations are imbued with spies, informers, “unidentified gunmen,” intelligence operatives and rigged elections, has lost its patience as well as its fear. With an almost mad courage, Kashmir’s young have faced down armed soldiers and taken back their streets.
Since April, when the army killed three civilians and then passed them off as “terrorists,” masked stone throwers, most of them students, have brought life in Kashmir to a grinding halt. The Indian government has retaliated with bullets, curfew and censorship. Just in the last few months, 111 people have been killed, most of them teenagers; more than 3,000 have been wounded and 1,000 arrested.
But still they come out, the young, and throw stones. They don’t seem to have leaders or belong to a political party. They represent themselves. And suddenly the second-largest standing army in the world doesn’t quite know what to do. The Indian government doesn’t know whom to negotiate with. And many Indians are slowly realizing they have been lied to for decades. The once solid consensus on Kashmir suddenly seems a little fragile.
I was in a bit of trouble the morning we drove to Shopian. A few days earlier, at a public meeting in Delhi, I said that Kashmir was disputed territory and, contrary to the Indian government’s claims, it couldn’t be called an “integral” part of India. Outraged politicians and news anchors demanded that I be arrested for sedition. The government, terrified of being seen as “soft,” issued threatening statements, and the situation escalated. Day after day, on prime-time news, I was being called a traitor, a white-collar terrorist and several other names reserved for insubordinate women. But sitting in that car on the road to Shopian, listening to my friends, I could not bring myself to regret what I had said in Delhi.
We were on our way to visit a man called Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar. The previous day he had come all the way to Srinagar, where I had been staying, to press me, with an urgency that was hard to ignore, to visit Shopian.
I first met Shakeel in June 2009, only a few weeks after the bodies of Nilofar, his 22-year-old wife, and Asiya, his 17-year-old sister, were found lying a thousand yards apart in a shallow stream in a high-security zone — a floodlit area between army and state police camps. The first postmortem report confirmed rape and murder. But then the system kicked in. New autopsy reports overturned the initial findings and, after the ugly business of exhuming the bodies, rape was ruled out. It was declared that in both cases the cause of death was drowning. Protests shut Shopian down for 47 days, and the valley was convulsed with anger for months. Eventually it looked as though the Indian government had managed to defuse the crisis. But the anger over the killings has magnified the intensity of this year’s uprising.
Shakeel wanted us to visit him in Shopian because he was being threatened by the police for speaking out, and hoped our visit would demonstrate that people even outside of Kashmir were looking out for him, that he was not alone.
It was apple season in Kashmir and as we approached Shopian we could see families in their orchards, busily packing apples into wooden crates in the slanting afternoon light. I worried that a couple of the little red-cheeked children who looked so much like apples themselves might be crated by mistake. The news of our visit had preceded us, and a small knot of people were waiting on the road.
Shakeel’s house is on the edge of the graveyard where his wife and sister are buried. It was dark by the time we arrived, and there was a power failure. We sat in a semicircle around a lantern and listened to him tell the story we all knew so well. Other people entered the room. Other terrible stories poured out, ones that are not in human rights reports, stories about what happens to women who live in remote villages where there are more soldiers than civilians. Shakeel’s young son tumbled around in the darkness, moving from lap to lap. “Soon he’ll be old enough to understand what happened to his mother,” Shakeel said more than once.
Just when we rose to leave, a messenger arrived to say that Shakeel’s father-in-law — Nilofar’s father — was expecting us at his home. We sent our regrets; it was late and if we stayed longer it would be unsafe for us to drive back.
Minutes after we said goodbye and crammed ourselves into the car, a friend’s phone rang. It was a journalist colleague of his with news for me: “The police are typing up the warrant. She’s going to be arrested tonight.” We drove in silence for a while, past truck after truck being loaded with apples. “It’s unlikely,” my friend said finally. “It’s just psy-ops.”
But then, as we picked up speed on the highway, we were overtaken by a car full of men waving us down. Two men on a motorcycle asked our driver to pull over. I steeled myself for what was coming. A man appeared at the car window. He had slanting emerald eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard that went halfway down his chest. He introduced himself as Abdul Hai, father of the murdered Nilofar.
“How could I let you go without your apples?” he said. The bikers started loading two crates of apples into the back of our car. Then Abdul Hai reached into the pockets of his worn brown cloak, and brought out an egg. He placed it in my palm and folded my fingers over it. And then he placed another in my other hand. The eggs were still warm. “God bless and keep you,” he said, and walked away into the dark. What greater reward could a writer want?
I wasn’t arrested that night. Instead, in what is becoming a common political strategy, officials outsourced their displeasure to the mob. A few days after I returned home, the women’s wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (the right-wing Hindu nationalist opposition) staged a demonstration outside my house, calling for my arrest. Television vans arrived in advance to broadcast the event live. The murderous Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu group that, in 2002, spearheaded attacks against Muslims in Gujarat in which more than a thousand people were killed, have announced that they are going to “fix” me with all the means at their disposal, including by filing criminal charges against me in different courts across the country.
Indian nationalists and the government seem to believe that they can fortify their idea of a resurgent India with a combination of bullying and Boeing airplanes. But they don’t understand the subversive strength of warm, boiled eggs.
Arundhati Roy, the author of the novel The God of Small Things and, most recently, the essay collection Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.