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Indian troops stand guard as a Kashmiri man walks by with his child. Srinagar. 1 January 2017

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 The Prison Between Mountains

As we mark one year since the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A we must reckon with how we have failed Kashmir.

PHOTOGRAPHS by MASRAT ZAHRA

TEXT by SKYE ARUNDHATI THOMAS 

August 05, 2020

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At the one year mark of the rescinding of Constitutional Articles 370 and 35A, and as citizens of the Indian nation state, we must reckon with one simple truth: we have failed Kashmir. As a plebiscite, and for generations. We have made repeated electoral choices that first, allowed for consecutive central governments to enact constitutional manoeuvres that successively eroded what autonomy the princely state was promised at its ascension, and then, readily indulged the myths of border politics and threat. We watched as military presence began to systematically erode the most basic human rights and dignities of the valley’s people.

A paramilitary trooper on patrol during an encounter between Kashmiri rebels and the Indian armed forces during the COVID-19 lockdown. Zoonimar, Srinagar. 21 June 2020.

We took comfort in legal fictions. We, once again, saw the crisis as being enacted elsewhere. We were unsuccessful at making the most basic connections between market economies and border politics. We failed to see that borders are always proxies – especially in our moment of accelerated capitalism and the total dominance of the international market – borders are proxies for economic action. This is not a new assertion: we are utterly aware that it is profitable for military occupations to exist; for nation states to plunder and subjugate others. It is never an ideological battle - or one about land, history or nationhood (regardless of the fact that each is an inherently disputable premise) - but one of financial systems. The nation state is all but dead, and what remains in its wake is an ugly, insecure brute force of economy, homogeneity and exclusion.

A woman takes part in the protests against the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. Srinagar. 4 October 2019.

As fresh horrors filled up our newsfeeds, Kashmir moved to the recesses of our minds. Every day we negotiate our compassion fatigue. As we stare into the abyss of our innocent aspirations; the fading futures we grew up being told were possible; and in many instances, our idealism and optimism – every waking moment is tinged by the shaded darkness of an end. Maybe of the world, but certainly of the structures that we occupy, have benefited from, and even (if we allow ourselves such appeasement) still believe in. It is exactly in this moment, saturated by endings – so flung to the edge of a precipice – that we must remind ourselves that our own freedoms are inextricable from that of Kashmir’s.

A masked protester demonstrating against the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. Soura, Srinagar. 4 October 2019.

Nearly a month after 5 August 2019 – a day that we must emblazon in our minds and in the histories we read, write and occupy as the day the Indian Constitution was entirely abandoned; all legal fictions ruptured – I received in my inbox images taken by a young female photographer from Srinagar. I was struck by her clarity, her assured, self-possessed gaze. She had photographed the protests in Srinagar: the women of the protests, its children and its elders. She had grown intimate with its spontaneous prayers, the curvature of the many hands that lifted its papers, flags and posters – the determined, relentless gaze of its participants. She had photographed bloody, bone-chilling injuries. Of the eyes, of the face and mouth, of the arms and chest. 

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The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) chase Kashmiri Muslim protesters during clashes that erupted after state authorities lifted restrictions. Srinagar. 11 February 2018.

Her name is Masrat Zahra - and she has the crystal articulation of a river running clear water. When she speaks she fills up the space and distance between us with the small details of life, of violence. Her images do the same: faces decked with surprise or a certain animation; neighbours peering out of their windows to catch glimpses of the aftermath of a clash; an exchange with an army officer that is suffused with deep tension, that lingers too-near gasping voids of terror. She both stills and animates the clasped elbows of frustration, of fight – the full, bursting, desire for Azadi.

Local men clean the blood of rebels killed by Indian troops after a long gunfight in a residential district in the outskirts of Srinagar. 21 June 2020.

I ask Zahra what she thinks I could do to be a better ally, what message I could pass on to others that want to be better allies too. She shrugs off this sentiment. What use is a solidarity that is disconnected by time and distance? What use is rhetoric that is applied, that is a supplicant, that often engages only with itself? Solidarity has become an abstraction. ‘I guess you can read more,’ she says, finally, ‘read every single detail of what we endure. It is difficult to find the truth – so you can work very hard to do that.’

A family looks towards their neighbour’s house in which an encounter took place. Zoonimar, Srinagar. 21 June 2020.

Our truth producing mechanisms have collapsed, but still we continue to rely on them. We look to existing – ailing – institutions to do better, but we need to create institutions of our own. Institutions, yes, of care: where we share our resources – and also our money – where we share our networks and access and many privileges. Our institutions must also be able, unlike their predecessors, to face up to their own critique; must remain vigilant to the spaces they occupy. We must recognise that we often inhabit discourses without fully reckoning with what is erased by our own occupation..

Basim Aijaz’s aunt Afroza holds up a photo of her nephew, who died after an unexploded shell went off at an encounter site. Nawakadal, Srinagar. 21 May 2020. 

In a recent image, taken by Zahra on 21 May 2020, a day after the death of twelve-year-old Basim Aijaz – who came in contact with an unexploded shell left behind after a clash between the military and suspected militants – his aunt holds up her phone, showing Zahra’s camera a photograph of Aijaz’s face. It is an image with precedent, with a deep history. Mothers and relatives clutching at the photographs and remnants of the disappeared, the missing, the dead. Showing to the world the leftover fragments of a person – so deeply loved – who was lost forever to them. This lifting up of the image, this gesture of display, is soaked with desperation: it is an attempt to deliver evidence – evidence of a life that was lived, evidence of a pain that still carries on. 

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Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, known in literary circles as the poet Madhosh Balhami, stands in front of his home, which was destroyed in a gun battle between Indian forces and militants. 16 March 2020.

When Zahra first tells me about Aijaz – she also points me toward a haunting TikTok video in which he predicts his own death; he also predicts a collective forgetting of his own existence. ‘Kya Karoge Tum Aakhir, Qabra Par Meri Aakar… Thodi Der Ro Loge, Aur Bhool Jaaoge (What will you do, after all, by visiting my grave... You will cry for a while, and soon forget),’ he sings, touching his hair.

Kashmiri children walk on stones flung by protestors at Indian government forces during a protest against civilian killings in Kashmir valley, and the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the Kathua district of Jammu. Srinagar. 13 April 2018.

MASRAT ZAHRA is a Kashmiri photojournalist and recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) 2020 Anja Neidringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. She reports mostly about women and children in conflict.

SKYE ARUNDHATI THOMAS is a writer and editor

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