Not in our name

As a veteran of the conflict can testify, the train blasts weren't the only Kashmir-related violence in India on Tuesday.

Published July 12, 2006 8:45PM (EDT)

My mother is perpetually anxious about me. I am a journalist and write about the conflict in Kashmir, and it makes her worry. Yesterday evening when the serial blasts shook Bombay, I was in our house here in Srinagar, which is the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, and Mother and I were talking about the unending violence in our city. Since armed secessionist rebellion began in 1987, more than 70,000 people have died in the struggle between Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris over who will control this region.

Mother and I were talking about what had happened earlier in the day in Srinagar. Around noon I was having coffee with a friend in a cafe in the city center, Lal Chowk, when I heard about a grenade attack on a tourist vehicle near Dal Lake. My friend and I rushed there to find policemen washing blood off the road. The injured had already been taken to a local hospital. A yellow plastic doll lay in the road. I returned to the city center with hopes of visiting the injured in the hospital. In the next two hours, however, four grenades were lobbed in Lal Chowk. Passersby helped the injured, shopkeepers poured buckets or water on burning cars to save the passengers trapped inside.

When I finally reached the main Srinagar hospital, I found a scene that has repeated itself thousands of times in the past 20 years. Friends and relatives hugged and kissed survivors; many others mourned their dear ones. The dead and the injured were both local Muslims from Kashmir and Hindu tourists from India. Among the injured was a 3-year-old American girl of Kashmiri origin named Hana. She was in Srinagar on a family holiday and was shopping with her mother when the splinters of a grenade hit her.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the old princely state of Kashmir, and I have grown up with the conflict and reported on it for years. But despite the deaths of friends and strangers, death never ceases to shock.

In the past, grenade attacks like those at Dal Lake and Lal Chowk were often carried out by the biggest Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, but that group stopped the attacks and apologized after immense public outrage. By late afternoon, the police in Kashmir told the media that they had arrested a militant associated with the Pakistan-based terrorist group Laskhar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Pure) for lobbing one of the grenades. Lashkar is a group of Pakistani jihadis that wants integration of Kashmir with Pakistan -- unlike most Kashmiri Muslims, who want independence from both India and Pakistan.

In the evening, after the grenade attacks and the hospital visit, I walked home. The shops were open and children were playing cricket by the roadside. It was when I got home that I talked to my mother about the attacks. She was watching coverage of the violence on TV, and she wanted to switch if off. She and my father had barely survived a land mine blast some years ago, and have found it difficult to deal with the news of conflict ever since. I got up to turn off the TV for her. Just as I was about to switch it off, there was a news flash. There had been a serial bombing in Bombay. "Oh God!" cried my mother in shock. "No city is safe now!"

I first saw Bombay on TV in the early '80s, as a child in a village in south Kashmir. On Sunday evenings Indian TV screened a Bollywood movie and I would gather with my friends around a neighbor's black-and-white set. Nothing happened in our sleepy village, and we depended on the made-in-Bombay films for excitement, for visions of Bollywood heroes jumping off buildings, singing songs and dancing around trees with beautiful women. Bombay was the city where the songs I sang while walking back from school were written. I still sing the Bombay songs and watch Bombay pictures, like all Kashmiris, and all South Asians. Only Bollywood films have the power to unite Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris across political lines.

I saw Bombay on TV again yesterday evening. The news anchors were in shock. It was raining hard and the communications networks were jammed. Reporters were trying desperately to get news. Half an hour later the first images of shattered train compartments were relayed to the world. I had a sense of déjà vu. I was reliving my Srinagar afternoon on live TV, only on a bigger, more frightening scale.

I tried calling some friends in Bombay, but the phones did not work. We watched the images of the mayhem with frustrated resignation. Cellphone text messages from desperate relatives scrolled on the TV screen: "Sweetheart I am safe, Arvind." "Papa, I have reached home safe, call us wherever you are, Amir." "Where are you mom? Barkha." They were no different from the phone calls Kashmiris made to their families after every grenade attack, bomb blast or gun battle.

The death toll increased as the evening progressed. One hundred eighty-three were dead; more than 700 were injured. Even before the police announced any suspects, I called my younger brother, who works with a think tank in Delhi, and asked him to stay home. After every terrorist act the Indian media and government blame the militant groups active in Kashmir. Most such acts are believed to be carried out by two Pakistani terrorist groups, Lashkar and a second group called Jaish-e-Mohammed (the Army of the Prophet). Unfortunately, they are often described as "Kashmiri militant groups." The Hindi-language media is especially unconcerned with distinguishing between native Kashmiris and Pakistanis who claim they are operating in the interests of Kashmiris.

After each such attack, those Kashmiri Muslims like my brother who work or study in Indian cities bear the brunt of xenophobia. Police in New Delhi and Bombay have a history of arresting young Kashmiris on false charges of terrorism, the most high-profile case being that of SAR Geelani, a Kashmiri instructor at Delhi University. Though innocent, he was prosecuted for the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and sentenced to death, only to be freed by a higher court.

Predictably, the intelligence agencies, the police officials and security analysts suspected Laskhkar-e-Taiba of orchestrating the Bombay blasts. But as of yet we have no proof. The biggest native Kashmiri guerrilla group, Hizbul Mujahideen, called news agencies to condemn the Bombay and Srinagar blasts, but so did Lashkar. Lashkar also denied responsibility for the explosions. There is speculation about other suspects, but all the names somehow trace back to Pakistan or the Kashmir dispute.

Kashmiris move on with life despite the deaths and the pain. But it is a life half-lived, a life clouded by fear, uncertainty and unanswered questions: Will the Kashmir conflict ever be resolved? Will we ever see a just peace? All that I can say for certain right now is that every Kashmiri Muslim I've spoken to since Tuesday evening is sickened by the violence in Bombay. We have seen too much of it up close. We are united on that point: not in our name.

By Basharat Peer

Basharat Peer is a Srinagar-based journalist who has contributed to the Guardian Weekend, the New Statesman, and the Financial Times. He recently completed a memoir about growing up with the conflict in Kashmir.

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