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The Joys and the Conflict of Being a Kashmiri in Delhi

"When I came to Delhi, I was amused because I felt, all my 24 years, I hadn't really been living," says A, a Kashmiri living in Delhi.

Last week, Kashmiris across India found themselves being targeted for their identity in the wake of the Pulwama attack before settling into an uneasy peace. However, talking to Kashmiris who live in Delhi or other parts of India, it becomes clear that being othered is a regular part of their lives – partly because of the vast difference between life in Kashmir and elsewhere in India, and partly due to the fact that Kashmiris don’t often get to put their perspective out on their own terms.

LiveWire spoke to a 24-year-old Kashmiri, who chose to only be identified as A, about life in Kashmir versus Delhi and how he navigates the differences.

What’s the most common image of Delhi and its people in Kashmir?

The 24 years that I was there, my knowledge of Delhi was limited to movies and news reports. Delhi was synonymous with modernity – a fast-paced, metropolitan city but with sky rocketing pollution-levels.

Whenever someone travels to Delhi from Kashmir, we are usually given a set of guidelines to follow – to stay in areas that are fairly populated by other Kashmiris, to refrain from talking too much; to maintain our cool if somebody tries to agitate us.

The first few months of my time here, my parents were quite apprehensive and kept a regular check on me. In Kashmir, we live in an environment of no freedom or personal space, anything suspicious happens and they remove the internet services, followed by a curfew on streets. A life where Zomato and Swiggy are all just a click away, is still just a dream. Here you have freedom to move around.

When I came to Delhi, I was amused because I felt, all my 24 years, I hadn’t really been living. I wouldn’t have known what life is or what it can be in the absence of turmoil and the complete chaos it brings.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced here? What about Delhi surprised you?

Just the casual nature of life was a shock. Here, people have the concept of ‘weekends’. I watched my first movie in a theatre in a movie hall in CP (Connaught Place). For someone who doesn’t know what a movie theatre looks like, seeing one can be a rather unique experience.

One instance where I had a hard time was when I was trying to find a place to live, people stepped back because I’m a Kashmiri. It was a bit surprising but then, for all you know, they might have thought that I roam around with a gun.

People in Delhi believe so many stereotypes about Kashmiris – we live in some place up in the hills, we do not have electricity, Kashmir doesn’t have roads and we have to climb the hill to travel back and forth. These sorts of questions have come up many times for me and many other Kashmiris living here.

How does this contrast with life in Kashmir?

Visiting Kashmir as a tourist and actually living there, holds a tonne of difference. Here, I got the chance to define ‘normalcy’ – there aren’t people getting killed every day, you are not held as a suspect for everything that goes wrong, your moves aren’t monitored and you don’t have men with arms following you.

All the major food franchises like KFC, Burger King don’t invest in Kashmir because they’ll only incur losses since the city [Srinagar] remains shut for half the year. The few chains which have opened up outlets are at the airport, far away from locals.

There is no investment in infrastructure development, simply because there are larger issues at hand. It is absurd that on one side people are dying every day and on the other you dare to think about entertainment, but that’s what life in Kashmir is.

So people there are playing with their lives everyday?

Yes, to quite an extent. Over the years, Kashmir has become immune to the number of deaths. When topics like death become too common and a casual part of everyday conversation, they stop having the same effect on people. Situations like these are very dangerous for any society.

Every street or shop that you visit, the discussion revolves around questions like ‘how many people died today?’

How does the education system work there in the middle of all the political chaos?

In Kashmir, every student worries about whether they will be able to complete their education in the normal span of time. A lot of people do not make it to IITs and other top institutions despite having the ability, simply because they don’t get the opportunities and other necessary facilities to realise their potential. That’s another reason why a lot of Kashmiris study abroad.

In Delhi, everybody is focused; they have defined goals for their future.

In one way, people in Delhi can ‘choose’ to be ignorant about world affairs and the news. Can you say the same for Kashmir?

In Kashmir, you cannot escape the news, it is all around you. Discussing the news is an integral part of our lives because something happens every day. We have to be aware, as most times it directly affects us.

Students in Kashmir have much more knowledge compared to people in Delhi. They belong to a community which is suffering; they have to be aware and well-prepared to defend themselves and their identity. Here people lack basic general knowledge, but over there, people are aware about topics such as Article 370 and the Palestine-Israel issue because everybody is discussing these subjects.

How have things changed since the Pulwama terror attacks?

Now I’m wondering if I should stay in Delhi any longer. It’s scary, how the attitude of people I’ve known for so long, changed overnight. We are told that Kashmir is an integral part of India and we are their very own, but now suddenly the attacks happen and we are branded as ‘anti-nationals’. The people of India are not aware of the real situation in Kashmir.

There were blasts in Mumbai in 1993, which were done by the locals there. If people thought of Kashmir the same way they think of Delhi or Mumbai, then innocent Kashmiris here would not find themselves bearing the brunt of a terrorist’s act.

Diksha Gupta is interning at The Wire.