Kashmir: the word instantly draws two emotions in most people- fear and contentment. Fear, for those for whom it brings to mind imagery of machine gun trotting soldiers every few feet, gunfights, stone pelting, frequent bandhs, shutdowns, curfews-different words for the same thing— normal life in a constant state of suspension. It brings a sense of contentment to those who can imagine picturesque scenes of Shikara rides at the Dal Lake, cabins in the woods, pristine and lazy streams flowing against the back drop of snowcapped mountains. Yes, I am talking about the same place. Kashmir. Before I continue to write, I must clarify that I do not consider myself knowledgeable enough of the impasse’ that the situation in Kashmir is today or the history of it. My experience there has led me to learn that the situation is layered and complex, and I do acknowledge the complexity of the matter that has brought upon unimaginable suffering and pain to people involved on all sides. In August 2015, Leher, as a technical partner of UNICEF and KFORD, initiated a Child Protection District Need Assessment in Budgam district, 30 KM from Srinagar. This research work took me to Kashmir a few times. Kashmir and her people did touch me, and give me a lot to think about. I would love to share some of my experiences with you.
Getting to work on our first day
On our first day in Srinagar, ready to leave for work, my colleague and I asked the hotel staff for help with finding an auto rickshaw. Out came a gentle demeanored man, the owner of the hotel, who insisted on dropping us. He waited till we were let into a courtyard through a very large, tall iron gate (I noticed soon enough that all the homes in Srinagar have tall iron gates that you cannot see over), gave us his number and told us not to hesitate to call him for a ride back in the evening. I couldn’t help but notice that both he and the person who let us into the gate looked at each other rather searchingly. Letting go of some of the lingering anxiousness of the events so far, excited to meet the team, we entered the office of the NGO.
Meeting our research team
As we walked inside the office and introduced ourselves, a young man, returned our warm greetings with a serious, non-smiling, stiff, hello. No pleasantries exchanged, he looked at his watch and said, “let’s start, it is time.” I also noted that every time the iron gate creaked open, everyone momentarily looked outside the window to see who it was. We started our conversations on child protection and the study with a video, which talked about childhood, followed by a discussion on experiences of childhood. The same young man who let us into the office was the first to go. He said, “At the age of 7 my family and I were driven out of our home and village. Since then, I have never had a place to call home. We have moved too frequently. I still yearn for my home and my place. It was taken down in a gun fight.” As facilitators, words of solace were hard to find. I look at my colleague and she looked back at me. In that moment, we learned that listening is sometimes the highest form of understanding and acknowledging.
Over lunch in a fast food restaurant
On a subsequent day, we went to a popular local fast food restaurant for a quick lunch. We were instantly drawn to a group of vivacious teenage girls, dressed in their school uniforms, giggling and taking selfies. A few minutes later, the restaurant staff brought out a large cake, which was cut as everyone in the restaurant joined them in singing ‘happy birthday’. They shared their cake with us, and were also a little curious about us, so we talked a little. As their party continued, they are joined by a teenage boy, also in the same uniform. The birthday girl went all shy and coy. We suspect he was the ‘crush’. This could easily be a scene in a restaurant in Delhi.
“People will not trust you. This is Kashmir…”—No, Sorry—They did!
Doing research on child protection for the first time in a region known to be affected by conflict, we were intent on gaining a more nuanced understanding of how living in a situation of conflict affected childhood, the protection and safety of children. We set out with our research team to test the research tools in the community. Before we left, many warned us that the community would not accept us, they would not let us into their homes, they would not talk about their experiences with violence. We were told to expect hostility. Our experience was to the contrary. A village teacher, not only gathered a group of children, she let us in her home with them so that we could have our conversation. She made us refreshments and left. Later, we were joined by adult members of the community who spoke with us with more ease than we expected. They were willing to talk about their children, safety, and experiences with violence. Later, as we were preparing to leave, the teacher’s husband walked into his home filled with people, and begged us to have a meal and stay the night.
Many times people stone pelt to protest against bad roads, electricity shortages. It’s not always about separating from India.
In a focus group discussion with children, as we discussed stone pelting and the frequency of such incidents in the village, a boy not more than 12 years old, in a casual tone said that stone pelting was a common occurrence in their village—about 2-3 times in a month. We were taken aback. The children went on to explain that the stone pelting were most often angered protests due to irregular supply of electricity, and deplorable conditions of the roads. It was almost a relief to hear that Budgam had some problems that were similar to what is experienced in several other rural villages in the country. Finally, our travels to Budgam did come to an end and the study was completed. I trolled Gulshan Publisher’s store at Srinagar airport and have 4 new books on the valley and its people. I have a desire to return. I don’t think I need to think more about why people look behind you while talking to you, look searchingly around you, or are distracted every time a gate opens. I think it is because of constantly being in a situation of ‘expect trouble at any time’. People probably do not even realize that they are subconsciously always prepared for trouble. It is an unimaginable way of life for me. As strange as it may seem, I find peace in the fact that despite the constant state of tension, restrictions and disruptions, there is some normalcy in every-day living. I feel happy for the ordinary things which happen—kind acts by strangers, birthday celebrations, people welcoming you warmly into their homes. Even anger about inadequate public utilities is a familiar normal to me. I hope there is more conversation, more listening and more understanding. I hope for peace in the valley.