The introduction to the project began with the context that the book was set in—Kashmir. Born in the mid 90’s I was faced with an inadequacy of facts regarding the Kashmir dispute—the cause, the stakeholders, and the opinions. This section covers my understanding of this subject as gathered from various sources and based on my reading, provides a brief history of the matter starting in the 1500s to the current situation in the Kashmir valley. I also made a visit to Srinagar as a part of the project, to further my understanding of the situation and also interact with people from various walks.
Also included in the section, is a study of other aspects of the book, introduced in the initial brief—award winning and unconventional photobooks and limited edition books. And finally an introduction to the content—a first look at the photographs. My introduction to Kashmir and its troubled history began with a very thoughtful gift from my client— Until my freedom has Come—A new Intifada, a timely collection of writing from within Kashmir and about it and Jashn-e Azaadi, a full length documentary film, seeking to understand the different meanings of azaadi, freedom, for the people of Kashmir.During the process of gathering additional material on the subject, I realised that books in the genres of fiction, journalism and memoirs presented a range of views and stances on the issue of Kashmir while the photographic content available as photobooks did not comprise the same political diversity. Some well known photobooks, on Kashmir, like Amit Mehra’s Kashmir choose to explore the interrelations between the natural landscapes and the people of thevalley, while Arvind Hoon’s Unsettled Waters, captures the picturesque backwatersof Kashmir. This created a very unique space for this book, Witness, which would be a book whose content was mainly photojournalistic but, would also present them in tandem with the historical context as well as through a contemporary lens.
Other reading material gathered during the course of the project was—Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism, which traces Kashmiri Nationalism through the points of view of two men—a Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim, Do you remember Kunan Poshapora?, which questions matters of justice, impunity and responsibility of state in the Kunan Poshapora case of mass rape by the Indian army, in 1991 and A Long Dream of Home—The persecution, exile and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, a collection of memoirs by Kashmiri Pandits, who suffered the exodus of 1990. Since the 1500sThe last Kashmiri king Yusuf Shah, was defeated by the Mughals in 1586. The reign of the Mughals was marked by their decadence as is seen in the gardens around Kashmir, that draw throngs of tourists to the city of Srinagar till date. Ironically, when they were built, the Kashmiris themselves were never allowed to enter the gardens.
This was right until 1736, when the Mughals were defeated by the Afghans. The Afghan rule over Kashmir was one of tyranny and brutality, especially for the Kashmiri Pandits and Shias. Kashmir eventually moved into the hands of the Sikhs, which saw no respite for the people. In 1846, the Sikhs were defeated by the British, who then handed over Kashmir to the Dogra maharaja, for his support in the Anglo-Sikh war. With India’s independence in 1947, when it was time for the Princely states to accede their states to either India or Pakistan, Kashmir, whose population at that point in time was 77% Muslim (Burton Stein’s History of India), came under an invasion by Pashtuns from Pakistan. This invasion was allegedly to avenge the atrocities against the Muslims in Kashmir and scare the Maharaja into submission to Pakistan. Quite conversely, this drove the Maharaja to seek assistance of the then Governor Genaral of India, Lord Mountbatten, and eventually an accession to India.
What resulted, was the first Indo-Pak war, that ended in Kashmir being divided into, an India occupied and a Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. India’s accession was mutually agreed upon to be provisional, till the will of the people could be ascertained. Sheikh Abdullah, or Sher-e-Kashmir as he was popularly known, was a prominent leader in Kashmir at the point. He had led the movement against the tyrannous rule of the Dogras and thus endorsed this accession, as it was expected to be a shift towards a secular and democratic government. The then Prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had also assured the people of a ‘free and fair’ plebiscite, to determine the will of people regarding their choice of dominion.
1957, Kashmir was formally instated into the Indian union, and granted special status under article 370. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution is a ‘temporary provision’ which grants special autonomous status to Jammu & Kashmir. This implies that not all provisions in the constitution applicable to other states are applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. The rise of insurgencyIn the years leading up to 1989, two more wars were fought between India and Pakistan, in 1965 and later in 1971. The 1987 elections to the Legislative assembly saw the rise of the coalition of the National Congress and Congress party.
This election was thought to be heavily rigged and this allegation combined with the rampant corruption of the newly formed government led to a series of demonstrations, strikes and attacks on the Indian Government which began the Kashmir Insurgency, which during the 1990s escalated into the most important internal security issue in India. Kashmiri Pandit exodus The Kashmiri Pandits are a Brahmin community from the Kashmir Valley, and are also the only remaining Hindu community native to the Kashmir Valley. The Kashmiri Pandits had been a favoured section of the population of the valley during Dogra rule. About 20 percent of them left the valley as a consequence of the 1948 Muslim riots and the 1950 land reforms, (Zutshi, Chitralekha.
Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir. 2004) and by 1981 the Pandit population amounted to five per cent of the total. (K Rahul, Pandita.
Our Moon had blood clots: The Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. 2013)They began to leave in much greater numbers in the 1990s during the eruption of militancy, following persecution and threats by radical Islamists and militants. The events of 19 January 1990 were particularly vicious. On that day, mosques issued declarations that the Kashmiri Pandits were Kafirs, informers and that the males had to leave Kashmir, convert to Islam or be killed. The Kashmiri Muslims were instructed to identify Pandit homes so they could be systematically targeted for conversion or killing. It is reported that as many as 1,00,000 Kashmiri Pandits left the valley in the 1990s (Bose, Sumantra. The challenge in Kashmir: democracy, self-determination, and a just peace, 1997)Regarding the issue of resettlement, Article 370 has been considered a roadblock as the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir does not allow those living in India outside Jammu and Kashmir to freely settle in the state and become its citizensIkhwansIkhwans were the surrendered militants, who quit the active armed rebellion against the Indian forces for ‘azaadi’ or to free Kashmir. The simple role of Ikhwans was to counter the militant groups operating in the state by acting as informants to the Army.
In return, they were given a stipend by the Indian security agencies, and a ‘sense of security’ was guaranteed to them for their cooperation. It was in an attempt to quell the rising terror of the militancy, that the army funded these groups. But these groups came to be notorious for their disregard of human rights and torture, and eventually disbanded.Though the militancy waned, popular sentiment for ‘azaadi’ or freedom, has remained ingrained in the Kashmiri psyche. In the last decade, the region has made a transition from armed rebellion to unarmed uprisings as tens of thousands of civilians frequently take to the streets to protest Indian rule, often leading to clashes between rock-throwing residents and Indian troops.
The new IntifadaIt isn’t a new phenomenon for the people of Kashmir to raise slogans or even arms to voice their demands, as is seen in their troubled past, through the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogra’s. For years now, this has been a demand for freedom. Sceptics in India, eager to contain the state of Kashmir within its boundaries will continue to question the many uncertainties of the word freedom.
But in 2010, it was made very clear, the meaning of Kashmiri freedom—a freedom from the Indian state. Scrawled on walls were the words—Go India. Go Back. But with the state unwilling to heed to the demand, according to popular sentiment, they continue to pour more resources into silencing the voice of the people and have introduced ‘non lethal’ methods of crowd control.
Pellet guns—Used to shoot cartridge containing few hundred pellets made of lead. When fired, the cartridge disperses few hundred pellets over a certain range depending on the type.Slingshots—Loaded with glass marbles or sharp pebbles that when shot at close range can cause permanent damage to the eyes, or even blindness. But in response to these ‘non-lethal’ methods, the sang baz or stone throwers, continue to raise their voices against the occupation. This phenomenon, that began in the summer of 2010 and continues till date, draws parallels to the resistance movements in Palestine, and is thus referred to as their new Intifada, the shaking-off of the chains of occupation.Visit to Srinagar After having engaged with the subject of Kashmir for a while, it was suggested that I accompany my client on a trip to Srinagar, to experience the situation and also interact with the people just to hear their views on the matter. I would also have a chance to meet some of the photographers who were to be a part of the book. Following is a short account of my five days spent in the city of Srinagar, the interactions I had and sights I saw.
In the five days that I was there I was able to meet several locals, including two of the photographers featured in the book—Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah, who are 23 and 19 respectively, and were the ones who very enthusiastically took me around town. Apart from the two photographers there were various interactions with people from organisations such as JKCCS(Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society), which really helped fill me in about the current issues that they are battling with in Srinagar. Since many of the members are lawyers, the interactions were instrumental in getting a legal perspective on the trending cases being fought currently such the Handwara case and the continuing Kunan Poshapora case. (Read more on http://www.
jkccs.net/handwara-minor-girls-struggle-for-justice-continues/ and Structures of Violence, the Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir, http://www.jkccs.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Untitled_1.pdf)There was a visit to the Kashmir university, as well, on one of the days. I was fortunate to be a part of the Freshers party happening in the Mass Communication department. Interesting thing here, there were a series of cultural performances put up by the students of which one was a play by the name- ‘Lallawen Daag’, which is the story of a university student who gets falsely accused of being involved with militant groups and gets imprisoned for twenty years before he passes away in prison. The amazing thing was, as the play progressed, I noticed the audience getting very emotional and by the time we reached the end of the play the crowd was totally swayed by their emotions and there was a spontaneous standing ovation from the entire auditorium.
I was surprised how a group of such young people were this taken by such an intense play at a ‘freshers party’ and how one cannot deny that it struck a chord with every one there. Which leads me to what probably was the most intense experience I have had till date. So, on numerous interactions with the locals in Srinagar, I realised that, to have a diplomatic opinion on the politics of Kashmir in not an option. So it is inevitable that any conversation you may be having will take a turn towards the political situation in Kashmir and it is made very evident what the person’s stand on the matter is.
On Friday, I accompanied the two photographers- Shahriyar and Azaan to Jama Masjid. We reached just a little before the Friday prayers were to end. But there was already a crowd gathering outside the mosque- mostly teenagers and young adults. As the prayers were coming to a close, these people gathered outside, pull out of their bags, scarves, masks and hoodies that they started wearing and covering their faces. In no time, there are banners and flags pulled out as well and this turns into a protest march that eventually people who had just finished with the prayers joined in toas well. This protest, I am told is something that happens every Friday, always post the prayers and there is some issue that the people might be against, that is addressed. But apart from raising their voices against the issue (On this Friday- they were opposing the Sainik colonies and industrial policy), there are slogans raised in the support of Pakistan and the Taliban supported with the respective flags. Since I was accompanying two photojournalists, we were very much at the head of this protest to be able to shoot the event.
As the protest progressed, the police began to fire what I was later told were tear gas and pellets. But to me this came as an absolute surprise, and it was utter chaos as we ran through the crowds of the protestors trying to get to a safer location. It was also my first experience with tear gas—the irritation on the skin and eyes is a very distressing experience and I imagine it to be so, for everyone experiencing it. Also being the only female amongst what certainly was over 200 males was also a part of the experience as it did make people curious and turn around and look.In time, through some narrow alleys, we reached the ‘police side’ which means we were now facing the protestors, who had regathered. This time they were armed with piles of rocks that they began flinging in the direction of the police.
But since we were on this side of it now our goal became to watch out for those rocks that were being flung in our direction. Eventually this was countered by another round of tear gas attacks by the police, followed by another continued shower of rocks being flung. It wasn’t long before we left.
But this left me never having felt so gripped by suchan intensity.