“Srinagar hunches like a wild cat: lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the city’s bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill…while the Jhelum flows under them, sometimes with a dismembered body. On Zero Bridge the jeeps rush by. The candles go out as travellers, unable to light up the velvet Void.
What is the blessed word? Mandelstam gives no clue. One day the Kashmiris will pronounce that word truly for the first time.”
∼ Agha Shahid Ali, A Country Without Post Office
I first met you in a poetry session a few months ago. We debated Faiz and Kaifi, and you introduced me to Agha Shahid Ali and his work A Country without Post Office. (Although I now realise that heavy lies the shoulder which has to explain her own pain.) And since then, I have known you a little bit. We are not necessarily what one refers to as ‘friends’. We just know each other as fellow students, who owe each other a ‘Hi! How are you?’ whenever we cross paths on our shared university campus.
But since August 5, every time I cross you, a grief, a guilt engulfs me. I feel ashamed. Ashamed as a believer in democratic values, for what the Indian government has done to Kashmir. Kashmir has been treated as merely a piece of land to be conquered, but never as comprising of humans who have dignity.
Kashmir has been put under ‘confinement’ for 100 days now. One season has passed but the people of Kashmir continue to suffer an unforgivable psychological trauma. They are facing challenges in contacting their loved ones; it is even difficult for them to access to basic things as medicines. The rights of children have been compromised with some of them being put behind bars, the newspapers tell me. Students have lost out on their education, businessmen on their business and labourers on their daily wages. And all this while my government, and my fellow citizens, are boasting of a ‘victory’ in Kashmir.
I don’t know what is a ‘state’ or what is a ‘government’, and how a citizen identifies with the actions of her state and her government. But I feel guilty for what the Indian government has done to you, and your homeland. I feel guilt and shame by association, perhaps. I feel guilty that the government elected by my people, my fellow citizens, has unleashed this unbearable pain on you. I feel guilty that a lot of my fellow citizens are cheering and calling the decision ‘historic’. I feel guilty about the sheer lack of empathy of a lot of my fellow citizens towards you and your home. And this guilt and shame override my attempt to muster the courage to talk to you.
And what do I say to you, if at all I am able to muster the courage? What do I ask you? ‘Are you fine?’ But would not that question be mockery of your pain, when I know you cannot be fine right now? Do I even bring up Kashmir and add on to your already anxious situation? Or do I not mention Kashmir? But would that not be selfish? What do I ask you? Whether you were able to call your parents today – a ‘luxury’ I enjoy everyday? Whether there are any more children of Kashmir in jail? Whether this has become ‘normal’?
Or do I say sorry and ask for your forgiveness? But that is selfish too. The choice of pardon lies only with the oppressed, not with the oppressor. And right now, the government’s burden of wrong seems too big to even ask for forgiveness.
Sometimes I think Kashmir has been treated the way women are treated in our patriarchal society. As a mere object of pride. Pride of two men, two communities, two nations. Men always decide for her. Things are done to her. She is not choosing herself. Her own voice is curtailed, curbed and silenced. She is only ‘won’ and ‘conquered’, never considered as having her own agency. And all this is done by telling her, ‘It is for your own good’. Abused, confined for her own ‘good’. I associate with Kashmir as a woman. I feel guilty thinking of Kashmiri women.
What do I say to you, my acquaintance? Is silence an option?
All I can seem to think right now is this:
“Sorry! My friend, I am sorry for what is happening in Kashmir. I am deeply sorry. I just want to share with you that amidst the entire chest thumping of conquering Kashmir, few of us are deeply concerned, deeply worried and deeply ashamed to what is being done to Kashmir.
I hope you find strength for yourself, your family and your home. I hope you and your home find peace.”
Surbhi Karwa is Delhi-based lawyer.
*This letter was originally written to an acquaintance of the author. Name has been changed.