By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Picture right below Bashart Peer
American author and academic Alastair Lamb wrote of the Kashmir dispute as “incomplete partition”. He wrote that had it not been for the Kashmir dispute, Pakistan and India might have worked out their differences and existed as two prosperous nations “evolving towards each other” –which was the stated objective of partition in the first place- instead of away from each other. The cleavage instead has widened and Kashmir remains etched in the consciousness of Indians and Pakistanis – both anxious to claim it to complete themselves. So Basharat Peer’s memoir epitomizes the effect of this incompleteness that both Indians and Pakistanis have brought to bear on the lives of hapless Kashmiris.
“Curfewed Night” is a chronicle from the eyes of a Kashmiri growing up in the valley and watching it transform into a hotbed of violent militancy pitted against state oppression. It is also about a people unwilling to lose their identity. What is it about identity anyway that causes people to sacrifice their future in its name? Identity is the most powerful mobilizing force in history. But what happens when identity gets into a perpetual conflict with those who wish to crush it? Does identity dissipate? Kashmir has been ill-served by India, by Pakistan, by the militants and by its own politicians who have failed to work out a compromise. It has turned the serene valley into the bloodied nose of Asia.
Peer tells the story of this valley at peace in the 1980s but also of a people who consciously refused to associate themselves with India. Then- long before the terrorism and violence of that we’ve grown accustomed to- national identity had one litmus test: which side were you on of Miandad’s famous last ball sixer at Sharjah? Peer describes the jubilation that his family, his neighborhood and his valley experienced when the “stocky” Pakistani batsman hit Chetan Sharma out of the ground to win Pakistan an impossible victory. Pakistan won and Kashmir jubilated. It wasn’t just Pakistan. Kashmiris supported any and all teams which played against India. They rejected India more than they associate with Pakistan- a point often forgotten by Pakistanis. In subjection Kashmiris held on to their identity and rejected the one imposed on them. Perhaps we in Pakistan should consider the ultimate what if: what if the invasion of Kashmir by irregulars in 1947 succeeded inwresting all of the Jammu and Kashmir state?
Peer’s narrative then takes us into the 1990s, when militancy against Indian occupation takes full swing and India responds with the full force of state power. The valley of Kashmir becomes an endless maze of check-posts with gun totting Indian soldiers. As violence spreads, it becomes impossible to distinguish between the terror unleashed by the state forces and that which is inflicted by militancy. There Peer’s memoir becomes a cry for help more than cry freedom than many amongst militants and in Pakistan would like to hear. No one can remain a perpetual hostage to identity alone- that requires the determination of a mad man. Peer’s narrative is on the other hand evolving through personal experience. We meet the young Kashmiri child, at home with his own Kashmiri identity and yet paradoxically at peace with Indian occupation which he rejects, the Kashmiri teenager who is sick of living in fear of the Indian Army and tries to become a militant, the young student at Aligarh who finds Indian Muslims out of touch with the reality in Kashmir and finally the journalist who pens the memoir which tells it all. To me- and I concede that similarity might not be obvious to others- the “Curfewed Night” echoes “Khatirat” by Zafar Hassan Aibak as well as “Kala Pani; Tarikh-e-Ajeeb” by Jafar Thanisari, both of whom experienced similar subjection to British rule, which they first tried to overturn through violent militancy i.e. Jehad but who evolved into moderates through exposure to the world. Theirs was a case of evolving in their identity and not out of it. To me Basharat Peer represents a similar evolution and thanks to it, he now can have his story heard by the world. A wrong turn somewhere and he would be a statistic like many young men and women of Kashmir.
The most poignant lesson, however, is a political one- drawn both from Peer’s personal story and the story of his people: Militancy has but limited success in the way of any cause, especially when the same militancy leads to violence against those it claims to be liberating. The militants and their backers in Pakistan must make a note of this and stop making the mess they have in Kashmir. That said a people have the right to govern themselves and in Kashmir’s case, the right to self determination was conceded by India’s first Prime Minister. No Indian leader has kept that pledge starting with Nehru himself who imprisoned India’s closest ally in Kashmir, Shaikh Abdullah, because the latter would not settle on Nehru’s terms. Forced subjection of an unwilling group will continue to fuel the anger that leads to militancy harming the peace of the entire region. It is the responsibility of India, Pakistan and the world at large to solve what now is the oldest existing dispute on the United Nations’ agenda. Kashmir’s cry for help should not be ignored, as our collective future, particularly in India and Pakistan, is directly linked to it.