• Read World Pulse founder Jensine Larsen's thoughts on Fatima's story.
• Learn more about the complicated history of India and Pakistan's war over Kashmir, and the effects on her people, in this photo-rich presentation.
• Watch clips from Women Between the Frontlines, a documentary detailing the many women fighting for peace in Kashmir.
• Find out how women in the conflict zone engage in politics in IMOW's "A Collage of Her Severally Inspected Parts."
• Listen to Arundhati Roy's recent call to action.
• Read more voices from the conflict at Kashmir Lit.
• World Pulse recommends The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir, the first-ever memoir written by a Kashmiri woman.
My Life, My Kashmir
“Over night, my reality became rooted in the turbulence and uncertainty of Kashmir’s history.”
Fatima Sultan Syed pierces the shroud obscuring one of the world’s most enduring conflicts—a brutal 60-year dispute between India and Pakistan over her homeland of Kashmir. Some, including US President Obama, say that resolving this conflict may be the key to peace for a region plagued by violence.
"Kashmiris believe in peace...Ours is a struggle for independence, not a struggle over warring beliefs."
I grew up in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in a small town adjacent to Dal Lake. If mythology were to be my source, I would tell you that life itself emanated from this lake and that monsters and demons hid deep in its waters. But that is a story for another time. Mine is a story of the vengeful spirits still haunting Kashmir today. In this era, they come in the form of competing nations fighting for control of the valley.
My own childhood in the Indian-administered Kashmir could be called idyllic. I attended a prestigious school in a town frequented by foreigners (even George Harrison of the Beatles spent time living in the famous houseboats along the water), and there was a quiet urbanity about my early life. My family took long strolls along the scenic boulevards; we ate ice cream cones (nicknamed ‘softies’) in the evenings. In the enchantment of growing up, I was unaware of the political realities of my homeland.
But in the confines of closed social gatherings there were banging fists, frowned brows, pursed lips, and sharp inhalations punctuated by jargon I could not understand. I heard terms like azaadi (Independence) and haq-e-khudiradiyat (self-determination) whispered in the barbershop, in the baker’s and the doctor’s waiting rooms, in the market. These strange words intrigued me; they hung in the air like big question marks, mysterious and unexplained for years, since my parents and other adults determined I was too young to understand them.
And then, one day in 1989, they were spared the burden of explaining them to me in words. The repressed political importance of each term became clear as a bloody battle erupted in every town square and in every pocket of the valley. Alleyways were filled with young boys wielding guns, and the Indian army was ready for combat. Soldiers huddled in bunkers that were pushed shoulder-to-shoulder against unlucky houses at the end of the lanes. This was not a hidden conflict anymore; it was a battle fought in the streets. Over night, my reality became one rooted in the turbulence and uncertainty of Kashmir’s history.
My homeland—what had once been the independent state of Kashmir (although under a princely rule)—was torn asunder when it was divided into two regions in 1947, following the end of British colonial rule. Kashmir became two regions, one administered by Pakistan and the other by India. This bifurcation was supposedly a temporary measure until Kashmir’s people could determine their own future in a UN-backed plebiscite (a referendum allowing my people to determine their own fate). More than 60 years later, both India and Pakistan have failed to adhere to this call, as India vies for control of the region, and Pakistan, suspected of backing terrorist militants in the region, hangs on tightly to the territory under its control. Kashmir remains a disputed territory, caught in between competing nations who use Kashmir as a rallying cry to sustain nationalism in their citizens.
Today, Kashmir is one of the most highly militarized regions in the world with upward of half-a-million Indian security forces occupying a region of only 10-million. India has declared Kashmir a “disturbed area,” implementing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other similar acts, which allow the Indian military to take full control of the region and act on any suspicion. The act has given Indian officials the unsanctioned right to commit fundamental human rights abuses in the name of counter insurgency.
Just as any other Kashmiri I have seen incessant suffering and desperation born of the tempest between Kashmiri will and Indian domination. I remember walking to my tutor’s house in 1992. There was only a hair’s breadth between my friend and me when we were caught in crossfire between the Indian army and militant fighters. My friend received a bullet and died on the spot. This is not the only incident that I have in my memory; there are many more, but they are too painful, and the only little I can add here are impressions of splatters of blood; smoke from the gunfire; bomb and grenade blasts; shutters of shops clanging closed; cries for help; the dank and dark of some basement where we took refuge.
Throughout Kashmir women have been disproportionately affected by this violence. Many have become the sole breadwinners since so many men have been killed or have simply disappeared. A large number of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which experts attribute to the increase in sexual violence, along with the sudden assumption of male responsibilities. A 2005 Doctors Without Borders report noted that Kashmir has some of the highest rates of sexual violence in any conflict region. Sexual violence and rape at the hands of the Indian army has largely lacked public discussion or legal deliverance, as the perpetrators enjoy immunity.
In recent years, there have been small signs of lessening violence by militant groups. Active combat has declined in the cities, although it remains an insistent reality in villages and along remote borders. While India’s government speaks of this as successful containment of militancy, . . .