The Crisis In Kashmir Has Started A Conversation I Don’t Know How To Have

This year I picked up a pastime I thought was reserved for white people: fighting with my family about their terrible politics.

I didn’t have a great year, if I’m being honest. In all fairness, my most recent years haven’t been great thanks to my own inherent pessimism, and I really did think that 2018 was going to kill me. But I was wrong. 2019 is the one that almost did me in: I moved to another country, tried to navigate an incredibly hostile city, survived the first year of marriage, and almost bought out the entire country’s worth of antibiotics thanks to a litany of increasingly rare and peculiar illnesses. When I recently complained to my doctor about toe stiffness, he suggested it might be gout, like I’m a rich baby living in the 19th century. (Don’t worry, it’s merely the debilitating arthritis I inherited from my mother.)

Maybe I could’ve navigated 2019 better if I didn’t simultaneously feel like my family was cracking under the pressure of a confusing geopolitical conflict. I talk to my parents a lot — every day, which is shocking even to other brown people. But in my defense, what if one of them dies and haunts me, saying, “Oh, and this is what you were doing that made you too busy to pick up a call from your mother???” This year, though, I called less and less. I just couldn’t do it. My mom is smart and my dad is funny, and I like wrapping up my worst days by complaining to them and having them calm me down and build me back up. But lately, they’ve just made me feel alone.

This is confusing and somewhat niche, but bear with me, because you’ll need it to understand why I’ve blocked or muted about half of my family on WhatsApp: In August, the Indian government revoked Article 370, which up until then, had given the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status within India, preserving its autonomy. Kashmir, tucked between Pakistan and India, is a much-contested region both India and Pakistan have fought over in a conflict that has spanned decades. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kashmiri Hindus were driven out of the land after being targeted by Muslim insurgents. This is, at least, the narrative my family, along with other Hindu Indians, tells me, but according to some separatist leaders, the Indian state constructed the exodus in order to incite further conflict and be able to intervene. A hundred thousand Hindus left the valley, with only a few thousand remaining. My family considers their forced removal to be an ethnic cleansing; Kashmiri Hindus have lived in refugee camps for decades since. The conflict in Kashmir is long and complicated, but this New Yorker story is a solid primer on recent tensions in the region.

Since the revocation, Kashmir has been placed under curfew, there are internet and cell service blackouts, journalists trying to report on the region are being turned away, and Muslim residents live in fear. None of this is necessarily new, just better reported, and it’s certainly not unique behavior from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government. Modi’s record as an Indian politician has been punctuated by his anti-Muslim rhetoric, namely during the 2002 Gujarat riots. India is a stark example of how any country can fall into the deep, dark trap of religious nationalism.

Both of my parents were born and raised in Kashmir, as Hindus in the Muslim-majority state. My mom waxes poetic about Srinagar, her hometown and the largest city in Kashmir; a tourism poster of the city hangs in my brother’s home, and my half-white niece ignores it every day, proof of the privilege my parents wanted her to have when they moved to Canada. As a kid, my mom always told me stories about how my grandparents fled in the early ’90s; they were, as my dad tells me, fearful of being ethnically cleansed as Hindus in the region. I accepted these stories, believing — as I continue to believe — their fear to be sincere. Why wouldn’t I? Children of immigrants often have little history to hang on to — my brother, who was the last of our nuclear family to be born in India, has a birth certificate that’s just a handwritten note that reads “Boy, Koul.” There’s no reason to suspect your parents of biases you’re too naive to understand at 6 or 7. Other than these little stories, I dutifully ignored Kashmir. It was complicated, and I was just trying to fit in around white people. The solution, as far as my child brain was concerned, didn’t involve trying to understand the specificity of a conflict between two brown countries that I didn’t really feel a part of to begin with.

The Indian government’s logic behind the revocation was to create a space for Hindus to return to the region, decades after they had been run out or killed. But what the government did — imposing curfews, blocking internet access, creating a police state — has cut Kashmir off from the rest of the world. Kashmiri Muslims are being targeted by a government that wants to control India’s only Muslim-majority state.

As a human being, it’s been heartbreaking to watch. As a Kashmiri, it’s fucked with my sense of self.

I don’t talk about Kashmir a lot because I don’t feel like I have a right to. I was born in Canada, and nothing really betrays my particular heritage other than my last name. Only other Kashmiris can pinpoint where I’m from, and they do it with glee, which does indeed tickle me, for some reason. Kashmiris find each other all over the world and we cling to the specificity of our heritage. Your mom screams at you all the time? Me too!!!! Kashmiris eat a ton of meat, we perfected rogan josh, we love nadru and tsiri tsot and sheer chai (this last one is truly one of our worst culinary contributions to the world and we should be ashamed). We were raised on Kashmiri ghazals that our other brown friends didn’t understand, because our language was particular, with no real script, and a set of some of the most specific insults known to man. Who knew there were so many ways to tell someone you’re going to fuck their sister? My mom was proud of me when I graduated high school, but she was really proud of me when I got two conch piercings in my mid-twenties.

I wouldn’t argue that 2019 is the worst that Kashmir has been through — 1990 and 2001 and 2016 were pretty bad too. But this year, the revocation of Article 370 led to more visible coverage about Kashmir than I had really seen in recent memory. It’s a region of the world rarely reported on, and the research coming out of the area is often written by and for Kashmiri Hindus. The Hindu narrative is now the prevailing one in most Indian media, aided by the current Indian government, which is deeply nationalistic and outright hostile to Muslims.

The confluence of my age, my recent status as an immigrant (but, like, from Canada so, you know, come on, Scaachi), and my increasing existential dread forced me to read more and pay better attention and, ultimately, get angrier. Maybe the only thing that’s really changed is now, in my late twenties, it’s not really possible for me to say nothing. The privilege of passivity isn’t mine anymore. I’m the youngest in my family by far, and have been treated as such for most of my life, but you can’t get away with acting like you’re 12 just because your dad still can’t believe you’re competent enough to pay your own rent. (That said, please send money. Beti here needs a new coat.)

There’s no reason to suspect your parents of biases you’re too naive to understand at 6 or 7.

But also, my god, does it not feel like every book and television show and movie and article has been about Kashmir this year? I know, logically, that’s not true, but when I was browsing the selection at a bookstore in Miami’s airport last week and found a book about Kashmir tucked between romance novels and thrillers, I felt like I was being followed by a heritage I’ve ignored for most of my life. Information and art about Kashmir reached a fever pitch in my own brain and, seemingly, in the world around me.

It’s easy, when you’re young, to tell yourself that you’ll deal with the hard things when you’re grown: I’ll learn how taxes work when I’m bigger, or, The electoral college will make more sense to me after college. These excuses work just fine when you’re a kid, but time moves faster than you do, and one day you’re 28 and sunstroked and half-drunk in the Miami International Airport and trying not to cry because you don’t understand who you are or where you came from or what you’re supposed to believe. You know you should buy the book about Kashmir, but it feels like an anvil in your hands, like it could crush your own heart. Instead, you get a bottle opener shaped like a woman, her butt connected by springs. She twerks, so you can ignore the fact that your mother’s mother tongue is dying and that you’re fighting with your whole family about the future of your little community.

My family is Hindu — so Hindu that, for years, their stories about Kashmir didn’t include the existence of Muslims at all. Like a lot of Hindus, we were taught to be friendly to Muslims, but not too friendly. We couldn’t marry them or foster any kind of real intimacy. Friendship was fine, but we were warned to not get too close. I didn’t interrogate this with my family. I merely ignored their advice, dated whom I wanted, made close friends with whomever else I wanted, and did my best.

My best wasn’t very good. It rarely is. This year, when I saw my cousins posting celebratory meals and messages of joy after the revocation, I felt like they were living in an alternate reality. It was hard for me to fathom that my own family, who is otherwise quite liberal and thoughtful, could sustain such heartlessness about Muslims in Kashmir. The seeming focus of my family, and of other Hindus in general, was that the ends would justify the means. By disrupting the region further, by creating a larger Indian military presence in the area, by refusing to protect Muslims as a minority class in the region at large, “we” would somehow be able to “return” “home.” For the first time in my life, I engaged in a pastime that I thought was largely reserved for white people: fighting with my family on Facebook about their terrible politics.

One particular cousin and I went back and forth for a day, on his page and then mine. One of his friends watched our exchange and called me “a fucker” in Hindi (finally, my weekly lessons are proving useful). My smart, educated, thoughtful family referred to the New York Times’ coverage of Kashmir as “fake news” and the “biased media” refusing to hear the “Kashmiri Pandit side.” The Kashmiri Facebook groups and email lists I’m part of stopped being fun; instead, I was bombarded with chains of people trying to figure out how to get “the real story out there.” On Facebook, my conversation with my cousin dwindled thusly: “It is pretty arrogant to talk as if you have mastered the constitution of India and are able to pass judgment,” he said to me. “Your arguments are passionate but hollow to me, because you haven’t lived the life in that part of the world.” My cousin grew up in Rajasthan, a hot, arid state in Western India, hundreds of miles away from Kashmir’s cold mountains. His context is uniquely Indian and Hindu and exclusionary. Mine is global and anxious and lonely.

We haven’t talked since. I haven’t attempted to. I’m too tired.

My husband, who is white enough to get mad that turmeric stains our kitchen countertops instead of accepting placidly that everything in our home is now yellow, initially found this very funny. “See, now you’re going to have an awkward Thanksgiving dinner too!” He compared it to white people going home to their relatives to argue about their Trump-voting ways, which I guess is apt, but somehow mine feels much worse: My family has real trauma in their history, real fear, and real marginalization. It complicates their narrative significantly. I get where they’re coming from. I just think they’re wrong.

What makes my conflict with my family over Kashmir different than, say, a white person begging their relatives not to vote for Trump, is that my family is suffering from intergenerational trauma. A lot of white people don’t have a history of ethnic cleansing, a family line that’s been disrupted by government and war and death. When my mother talks about her parents having to flee Kashmir in the middle of the night, I believe her, because I can see the light in her eyes dim. I wish I could fix it for her, as if I could make the world less cruel. That doesn’t mean we should consider it acceptable that another family — any family, different from us only by religion — will suffer the same fate, decades later.

It was hard for me to fathom that my own family, who is otherwise quite liberal and thoughtful, could sustain such heartlessness about Muslims in Kashmir. 

I’m not interested in fighting over who I think is or isn’t responsible for Kashmir’s lifetime of havoc; I’m similarly not interested in hearing arguments that Muslims need to be “punished” for whatever hand a few of them may have had in destabilizing the area. But for my family, there is real fear there. They remember losing their home. My mom was already in Canada when her parents were driven out.

That’s cold comfort when it comes to seeing my own community commit the same infractions against others. The cruelty that Kashmiri Pandits experienced doesn’t mitigate our callousness toward displaced Muslims. If our home was taken from us, why would we foist that onto someone — anyone — else? None of our trauma, real or interpreted, is a valid reason for generations of lies and propaganda spread about Muslim people. It doesn’t justify Hindus reacting placidly to the subjugation of another religious group. It’s not a mistake that Modi’s government has made Muslims the target of his campaign: It’s a great, quick way to whip up Hindus.

It’s a deceptively simple thought that I keep returning to: When this happens to us, we call it ethnic cleansing. When it happens to Muslims, we call it righteous. In one context, Kashmiri Pandits are victims looking for retribution. In another, we’re a privileged class: fair-skinned, high-caste, with a religion that isn’t constantly being policed by white and brown people alike. (Or, at least, just not in the same way that Muslims are interrogated globally.)

It’s a conflict not dissimilar to the ones progressive American Jews are having now about Palestine. Though the specifics of these conflicts are different at heart, there’s a commonality there. There has to be a way to maintain and understand the historical context of your own people’s suffering while also refusing to pass that legacy down to other disenfranchised groups. There has to be a way to ask for accountability for your family’s grief and displacement without displacing others. Right? I say this to myself every few days, and sometimes it rings so naive and gullible that I can’t trust myself anymore.

I don’t know how to talk about Kashmir with my family, which makes it hard for me to know how to talk about it publicly. I have been told by some of my own blood that I’m not entitled to an opinion on it because I’ve never been to Kashmir, and because I’m not really Kashmiri since I’ve been so whitewashed by the West. But this, to me, just feels like a silencing tactic. If Hindus who live comfortably around the world, who don’t worry about being oppressed by other brown people, aren’t going to speak publicly about the harm their own community is doing, who will?

Over the course of the year, I have attempted to write about Kashmir six or seven times, both for my day job and just for myself. I interviewed other Kashmiris for my forthcoming book to try to make sense of it. At our company holiday party a few weeks ago, I cornered the only Indian immigrant I know in the newsroom and forced her to talk about Kashmir, which mostly meant me screaming in her ear over Pitbull songs. (Sorry, Tasneem, I got excited.) All of my attempts have felt like failures, mainly because this doesn’t feel like my story to tell, and yet it’s the only thing I want to talk about. The topic makes me feel stupid and uneducated and illiterate. My dad, whom I love terribly, finds my anxiety about this all very funny. He has always been liberal, believed in the same things I did, full of compassion, and has always been mindful of how racism and religious prejudices have affected me and our family. Kashmir is his big blind spot. I feel almost desperate when I talk to him about Kashmir, like I just want him to be better about this.

Weeks ago, we fought about the lack of internet and cell service in Kashmir. I argued that it was a tool to keep the people there even more oppressed. He brushed me off, laughed at me, his silly pyari beti. I didn’t call him for a few days after that. My dad has, many times in my life, launched silent treatments against me because of whatever disrespect he seemed to glean from my behavior. This year was the only time in my life I felt completely unwilling to speak to him, a Koul family first.

I don’t even think he noticed.

In March, my family is supposed to go back to India for a wedding, and I’ve asked my mother to go to Kashmir with me. It feels dishonest, somehow, to keep visiting the same places — Agra, Jaipur, Jammu, Delhi — and never go to the valley. My mom hasn’t been back there since she first left, now more than 40 years ago. She’s been afraid to return and refused to bring me as a child in case of regional unrest. She’s willing to go now, but my father is trying to chip away at the idea. His current argument is, incredibly, that it will “rain,” so why bother taking my mother to the very place she was born and grew up? As if rain might wash away the roads completely. As if he isn’t afraid of something darker, more nefarious in the region.

We may have been the hunted, sure, but now we’re the hunters. We know better, but we’re not doing better.

My parents are old as hell. Their parents are dead. My brother has forgotten his Kashmiri, and his daughter is so detached from it I’m not sure if she even knows where it is. I feel like I’m running out of time to understand a family history that will soon turn into dust. All year, I felt like something indescribable was being wrestled away from me, and I want some of it back. But do I have the right to it to begin with?

India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir for my lifetime and my parents’ lifetimes. I’m not arrogant enough to think that it’ll get solved in 2020. What I’d actually like is for the unafflicted in this conflict, people like myself, young first- and second-generation kids, to recognize the legacy of trauma that we’re encouraging. I’m not asking for an answer or a definitive explanation. All I really want, to close out this terrible, year, is for my family to acknowledge a hard, complex, and unfair fact: We may have been the hunted, sure, but now we’re the hunters. We know better, but we’re not doing better.

It used to be that when an Indian person heard my last name, or where my family emigrated from, they’d smile and say, “Oh sure,” and we’d move on. But now we talk with trepidation. We’re all trying to figure out where the other has landed. Muslim Kashmiris have, rightfully, treated me with caution. Pandits, meanwhile, assume we all agree. I’ve been most disappointed with the twentysomething kids with no attachment to Kashmir beyond their grandparents’ birthplaces, who parrot what their elders are telling them about Hindus and India’s superiority. India — a country I’ve never lived in but a place that, I assumed, had to take me as I was, in a way that Canada or the US never could — has become more foreign to me.

Does being Indian mean anything, namely as someone who very much might not be Indian? Does it mean anything good? Can I, this late in my life, eons detached from the place itself, begin to refer to myself as Kashmiri instead?

In my parents’ house, on a long table in the living room, they have a few model shikaras, wooden river boats found on Dal Lake in Srinagar. As a kid, these were merely toys that represented a fantasy world to me, like something you’d see if you fell through the looking glass. It was easy to pretend as if Kashmir wasn’t real, that it was a dream my parents had, and I’d never have to think about it beyond looking at those little boats. I wasn’t allowed to, but I’d play with those boats anyway — tipping them back and forward, peering inside their windows, pushing them along the table, all while imagining a world much less fraught than the one I ended up living in. ●

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