I love writing about crazy adventures. Unexpected events, situations that went pear shaped or places that are completely off-grid. Looking at travel from a humorous angle and inspire other people to get out there.
But then you encounter something during your travels - a situation or a people, that is not humorous. It is dead serious. And some people’s everyday reality.
My first visit to Kashmir made a huge impression on me. The kindness of the people and the hospitality in this part of the world - it was on a complete different level than I ever experienced before. So when I was invited for a 3-day Kashmiri wedding by basically complete strangers, I decided to go back there.
I also decided that their story is a story that needs to be told.
This is the untold story of the Kashmiri people
It’s a story that only rarely and partly reaches official media. A story that is being modified to fit national agendas. All along ignoring the people that are living it - day-in, day-out.
The Kashmir valley itself is a stunning place. It has everything: snow-capped mountains, gorgeous lakes and ancient gardens. It receives lots of tourists and makes for a popular place to relax on one of Srinagar’s houseboats.
But the apparent ‘normal’ hustle and bustle of daily life can be deceptive. Visit Kashmir as a tourist and you won’t notice much or even anything at all. There is the obvious presence of the Indian army. The shops being closed because of strikes. And that’s it.
Nothing in the lives of the Kashmiris is ‘normal’ however, and has not been for a long time.
In order to see this, you have to look beyond the beautiful Dal lake - with its tranquil houseboats, floating gardens and floating markets. You have to look beyond the impressive mosques and lively bazars. You have to speak to the people and dive into their history.
And what you’ll unravel, is beyond imagination.
During my first visit to Kashmir I was reading the local newspaper. In it was a piece about two Indian soldiers that got killed by militants. At the time I couldn’t believe that was true. I simply couldn’t match the image that was given by this media with the real-life Kashmiris I was meeting everywhere.
But it was true.
It sparked this drive in me to understand what makes peoples turn to militancy. What motivated me even more to get to the bottom of this story was something else that happened. It was during my flight to Srinagar to attend the wedding I was invited to.
I was sitting on the middle seat. On my left was a middle-aged man from Delhi. On my right a young, Kashmiri student. And we started talking.
During the conversation it became clear that the man from Delhi had no idea how life was like for Kashmiris. The questions he asked sounded like they came from a person who lived across the other side of the world. Not like they were coming from a fellow countryman.
Either the rest of India intentionally keeps a blind eye from the problems in Kashmir, or they are in fact unaware of the situation. To me it’s not so important which version is true. Fact is that media coverage on Kashmir is very limited, and more importantly, it is biased.
But a story about a conflict, always needs to be told from both sides.
Back to the beginning
To begin to understand the conflict in Kashmir, one has to go as far back as the British occupation. The area of British rule was so vast, that they’d appointed a Maharaja that ruled Kashmir for them.
When the end of the British occupation approached in 1947, the Maharaja favoured an independent Kashmir. It should be neither part of Pakistan nor India. But when he failed to make a definite decision, Pashtun tribesmen, backed by the new Pakistani government, tried to take Kashmir by force.
It led to the first India-Pakistan war, pretty much immediately after India and Pakistan were officially separated. The tribesmen were forced out for the largest part, but Kashmir was since then divided. Part Pakistan, part India. A UN-demarcated border, known as the “Line of Control” separates the two until this day.
The birth of militancy
Following several decades of political games, provocations and human rights abuses, the insurgency in Kashmir kicked off in 1988 after alleged rigging of elections. It was a home-made bomb that was set off at the Srinagar telegraph office that caused no casualties but marked the beginning on a conflict that would cause 70,000 dead until this day.
For more than a decade after that first bomb, Kashmir was filled with street protests. Protest marches in support for the militancy came from all corners of Kashmir society - intellectuals, students, farmers and traders.
Pakistan, which saw the unrest in Kashmir as a way to loosen the position of India in the region, jumped at the opportunity and soon started pumping sophisticated weapons into Kashmir and providing training for militants.
India was scrambling to its feet to get hold back of the region. By 1994, the Indian army had arrived in Kashmir with hundreds of thousands. And the Indian military response left tens of thousands dead - mainly civilians.
Many thousands of Kashmiris more disappeared - to be never seen again.
At the end of the 1990’s, Kashmir was worldwide known as ‘the most dangerous place on earth’.
The essence of the conflict
2007 was the year in which India and Pakistan came closest to an agreement over Kashmir. At this point, the Kashmiri youth had mostly given up the urge to fight. Militancy had almost completely died out, and the region was on the verge of peace.
The counterinsurgency apparatus that was put in place in those horrible years of the early ’90, kept going at full power however. Cash rewards, promotions, medals - they were the currency of the Indian counterinsurgency apparatus. Indian forces received a large financial reward if they’d kill a ‘militant’.
Peace would put an end to these rewards. It would put an end to enormous budgets, extra soldiers, promotions and special funds. Not even to speak about powers such as those over life and death. Or the easy possibility for corruption.
There are several high-profile, proven cases of citizens who had nothing to do with militancy being killed for ‘rewards’ - blood money. Several army personnel got sentenced to life imprisonment for it. But there are thousands of Kashmiris more who have been buried in unmarked graves in Kashmir. Branded to be ‘militants’.
The objective of the corruption and murder of innocents was to keep the conflict, the booming conflict economy, the deployment of forces and its special laws and powers - in place. There were proven staged incidents of militancy. The branding of innocent people as ‘militants’ was necessary to achieve an supposedly ongoing ‘conflict’.
On top of the interests of the Indian army and special police force to keep the conflict alive - Pakistan had been playing a key role over the past two decades. Until this day, Pakistan is pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars for each season of unrest in Kashmir.
India in turn, uses the Pakistan factor in another way. By claiming that Kashmir wants to be part of Pakistan, the presence of the Indian military in Kashmir is justified.
But around that year of 2007, it were those actions by the armed forces that again put fuel to a fire that had been at the verge of dying out. The police force used extortion, blackmail, torture, intimidation and humiliation to get a reaction from the Kashmiris and justify their own presence.
It worked. It worked so well, that it sparkled a new rage with this generation of Kashmiris that had grown up in an era of violence. The rage, hopelessness and despair with respect to corruption and abuse of power by the police and army in Kashmir had been accumulated for so long. By now, even a minor incident would turn young people to militancy.
A new era of militancy kicked off.
A new generation of Kashmiris
An incredibly large portion of the current Kashmiri population is young. Almost 70% of the people of the valley are below an age of thirty, about 50% below the age of twenty. That means that two-thirds of the population was born after 1988 - when militancy in Kashmir begun.
They have grown up with death, suppression, fear and humiliation. Seeing a person blown to pieces as a three year old is scarring beyond imaginable.
But this generation also grew up with something else: modern applications such as television and later internet. They grew up with televangelists who were extremely popular in Kashmir. Later, the religion-based videos started dominating their social media accounts and WhatsApp group.
The teenagers and people in their mid-twenties -together representing half the population- had already lost all faith in any political leaders. The so-called ‘leaders’ of Kashmir, who were promoting an independent Kashmir on International conventions - owned properties in Delhi and hotels in Bangalore and Pahalgam. The self-enrichment of the political leaders in Kashmir led to an ultimate low in believes in democracy, politics and leadership by the young Kashmiris.
In 2016, the 23-year old militant commander Buhan Wani was killed - who had an enormous following on social media. His death was another sparkle to new protests which would last months and left nearly 100 dead and more than 10,000 injured. An estimated 500 militants were killed across the valley since then.
Radicalisation of Kashmir Valley
The millennial generation of Kashmiris also grew up with an increased religious awareness. Through television and the internet, the ‘war on terror’ and repression of muslims world-wide was part of their growing up. The focus was often on the victimhood of Muslims around the world.
This was the angle that ‘worked’ as they experienced the oppression by the mostly Hindu Indian forces for reasons of being muslim.
Money from Saudi Arabia started pouring into Kashmir for the construction of new mosques. The attendance at mosques grew increasingly.
This change was visible in the latest outburst in Kashmir in 2017 - when it was now made clear that the militants were fighting for an sharia law based Islamist system. The popularity of militant commander Zakir Musa in 2017 who took his extremist Islamist views to the next level, showed how powerful radical ideas had become.
Adopting a sharia law system, would in the minds of young Kashmiris finally put an end to all the corruption and bad administration by politicians. The so called “Kashmiri politicians” were nothing but puppets to the Indian Government, Pakistani government, or any foreign power that would pay them enough money.
As faith in politicians was at an ultimate low, the soil was fertile for beliefs in another system. A religious based system. But above that, it seemed to a lot of young people that it would provide a safe heaven, in a world that is so intolerant to Muslims, or to Kashmiris.
These views were not shared for the large part by older Kashmiris, or even young adults. Fear arose that Kashmir was heading to a similar situation as has been happening in Syria over the past years. But because of their sheer numbers, the views of the teenagers are the ones that matter in Kashmir.
But then again, many older Kashmiris are very suspicious about these developments in any case. Zakir Musa was originally photographed with 15 followers. All of these boys have allegedly been killed - but Musa is still alive. After so many decades of schemes, hidden agendas and deceptions, some Kashmiris suspect that Musa is put in place by the Indian government.
Radicalisation, rumours about connections with Al Qaeda and comparisons with IS would generate even more reasons to justify the presence of a million Indian armed forces in the region. And once again - is giving a license to kill.
For an outsider, it is impossible to know which of the different versions is true. But to me, all of them are terrifying scenarios.
What is the future of Kashmir?
The people in Kashmir are divided. Not only do different generations have different opinions, but even within a generation, there are many different opinions about their future.
But there is also a lot of agreement. What every Kashmiri wants, is the random frisking to stop. For the killing and beating of innocent civilians to stop. For the raping and humiliation to stop. The majority doesn’t want to be part of Pakistan. Many of them even don’t want to be independent. What the majority really wants, is to be left alone.
For the Indian armed forces and special police forces to leave.
At this moment, the total Indian Army forces count 1.2 million soldiers. An unbelievably number of 700.000 are stationed in Kashmir. On top of that, there are 120,000 special police (or Task Forces) stationed in Kashmir.
Given that there are only 1 million Kashmiris, that amounts to a ratio of close to 1 armed force for 1 Kashmiri.
The second time I came to Kashmir, the armed forces were present in possibly 10-fold numbers than a month earlier. Bunkers had emerged. Armoured trucks and vans were parked all along the streets. Every 100 meters there would be a group of Indian soldiers. Heavily armed.
What had happened? Election. For the municipality - not even a high government. The day I arrived in Srinagar was already the third day of strikes and several more were to come. All shops were closed for almost a week. School were only open 2 weeks per month on average.
On the fourth day I was in Srinagar, there was an attack by the Indian armed forces in Kulgam. They blew up a house which was housing 3 militants. In the attack, 7 civilians died too. These attacks are very common in the Kashmir Valley.
When the militants don’t surrender - the armed forces attack. Whether or not there are civilians around the militants does’t matter.
None of the people I’d met in Kashmir were impressed, shocked or even talked about the attack much. “It will calm down after a few days again”, most of them assured me. I was shocked to see how accustomed the people of the valley were to these events.
Internet speed in Srinagar got reduced from 4G to 2G. In Kulgam the internet got completely taken down. I couldn’t reach the friends I made in Kulgam during my previous visit to Kashmir for days. They were OK - but their neighbours child got killed in the attack.
Even though history shows that in the past, uprisings were always during summertime, I would not be surprised if there will be a reaction to the attack in Kulgam. The rising tensions give me the impression that the next big confrontation does not lie far in the future.
Peace in Kashmir remains an utopia.
With the increased tensions in South-Kashmir, I decided to leave Kashmir a few days after the end of the wedding I’d attended there.
And even though the numbers say it all, and Kashmir is one of world’s highest militarised zones - I was still shocked. Leaving Kashmir through the airport in Srinagar was like entering a military zone.
The first luggage check and frisking point was located several hundreds of meters away from the airport. Barbed wires, bunkers with military guns sticking out of them, pointing at the road and road blocks were scattered around.
In the airport itself, my luggage got searched twice more. I got frisked twice more. A final frisking and luggage checking point was located just before entering the plane.
I had to show the pictures on both of my cameras and had to start up my laptop. I was lucky I’d just deleted some of the pictures I had taken of armed forces on the side of the road. It would’ve cost me my cameras.
In a way I was glad to leave Kashmir, but I deeply hope that there will be a time in the future where it will change. And there will be peace upon the entire Kashmir Valley. So I can return and visit my friends, once again.
End note - There are and have been tonnes of other factors, historical events and powers at play in Kashmiri history. I am barely scratching the surface here. I can recommend “The generation of rage in Kashmir” by David Devadas if you’re interested in reading more about the horrifying story of Kashmir.