A Kashmiri girl pulling a sheep in the snow-covered Neelum Valley, Azad Kahmir | AFP
A Kashmiri girl pulling a sheep in the snow-covered Neelum Valley, Azad Kahmir | AFP

I have been visiting Kashmir since my childhood. Over the years, the valley has taught me many hard lessons about the world. With my early trips to Kashmir, the terrain between history and reality blurred. It was the first time I realised that tragedy was not a foreign country. Its proximity was too intimate and too intense for me to ever return home again to that feeling of comfortable distance. I learnt how most of the world’s greatest crimes are executed without fuss in darkness and silence. I learnt that pain can bleed into the most beautiful things and great horrors are inflicted in the name of flags. I discovered that childhood is not always innocent, that news is not always the news, justice is never passive, laws aren’t always intended to protect, just as terrorists are not always terrorists and freedom fighters are not always freedom fighters.

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Though I have travelled all over the world, I keep returning to the Valley. Sometimes I ask myself why. In spite of the many forces that vie to possess it, for me Kashmir endures as one of the most wretchedly forsaken places in the world. Though fiercely desired, the people remain monumentally unloved. Perhaps that is why I love the valley so much. Approximately 135 km long and 32 km wide, it is the site of the world’s largest and most intransigent conflicts. There are no exact figures of the dead, but by any account they number in the tens of thousands, whether a low estimate of about 20,000 by the Indian government to around 100,000 by those living there. Thousands are simply missing, many more displaced or exiled. Few know much about the lives of the soft-spoken people that dwell there, where curfews, torture, rape, detention without charge, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and mass graves have simply fallen into a way of life. In Kashmir, there are no hydrocarbons or diamonds buried in the soil, just roses and apple trees. And corpses.

In Kashmir, there are no hydrocarbons or diamonds buried in the soil, just roses and apple trees. And corpses.

Over the years, I have experienced the curfews, the checkpoints and the garrisoned townships. I have seen the entrails of orphanages, the countless fatherless children and the crippled bodies. I have found myself inadvertently sipping tea in national conferences observing every Kashmiri in the room silent whilst the Indian national anthem was sung. I have watched paid crowds come for staged political rallies and disperse as soon as the broadcast was over. I have seen the broken glass and bombed-out homes rotting in urban wasteland, whilst army abodes luxuriate on the choicest of locations. I have travelled behind military convoys and had my taxi battered by the batons of men riding tanks. I have spent time with the youth, played basketball with teenagers and listened to the way they speak of the artillery fire in the distance and their catalogue of beatings. I have consoled a boy whose best friend bled to death in his arms. Over and again, I have watched an entire population supplicate to men in uniform. In all of these occasions, I have seen no shred of love for the people that reside in the Valley’s folds. In fact, I have never seen such an unloved population, where the reach of compassion evades even the infant, the elderly and society’s most vulnerable.

Also read: The pursuit of Kashmir

It is for this reason that when I think of Kashmir, I do not think of polemics between good and evil. I do not think of India and Pakistan. It is of no consequence to me whether Kashmir falls under the aegis of one flag or another, or whether it gains independence. I do not see politics. I see real people and real suffering. I see the orphans and the bullet-riddled bodies of children. I see the sad eyes of wailing mothers. I see the taciturn teenagers watching, remembering. I see generation after generation being relentlessly crushed in slow motion. Somewhere even now a child is being silently broken. The longings of a people are inscribed on the scars and burns of their young.

In the last couple of weeks, almost sixty more fledgling lives were cut short by violence, with hundreds more children permanently blinded by bullets, among them a five year old boy. All this because the life of another youth was extinguished. Lest it be forgotten, 22-year-old Burhan Wani – whose death was recently celebrated in India as the vanquishing of a terrorist, despite there being no official record of him ever launching an armed attack – chose to confront the army on social media as a direct result of personal persecution by the security forces as a child. For the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris who took to the streets to join his funeral procession, Wani was David against Goliath, the young cricketing teenager who dared, bare-face, to take on the might of one of the most powerful militaries in the world, knowing full well his trajectory would entail the ultimate sacrifice. In response to the popular mass uprising that took hold of the valley following his death, the government imposed an indefinite curfew with shoot to kill orders for any who defied it, shut down the printing press and switched off the phone lines. This summer in Kashmir, there will be no wedding songs as a people continue to mourn their dead.

Indian police clash with Kashmiri protestors in Srinagar | AFP
Indian police clash with Kashmiri protestors in Srinagar | AFP

At a certain point, aloofness gives over to complicity and becomes a wrong. There is a point when witnessing is no longer an option and one must speak up. The heart grows heavy with the lack of love. It is for this reason that I am writing. But what can you say for a people so comprehensively ignored and misappropriated? When their lives are played out for sport and their stories are constantly misrepresented? When their protests are lethally quelled? When their children are butchered in daylight, and their guardians have turned aggressors? When there is so little compassion around them?

Come to the valley.

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Come to the valley. I do not care what caste or creed you belong to. It does not matter to me if you wear a veil, turban or vermillion on your head. It does not matter if your freedom is painted in emerald, saffron or another colour, only come to the valley. Come to Kashmir. Come with your open souls. Come with your videos, cameras and pens. Go deeper than the Polaroid shikaras and the colourful picnic spots. Go off the beaten track into the townships, the hamlets and the villages. Go into the homes. Talk to the people. See their lives. Touch their flesh. Bury their dead. Feel as they do. Go deep, deep into their hearts. Witness their pain. Come wherever you are. It is not too late to find all that has been lost. Come to the valley of love. Empathy is the most we can hope for. Perhaps one day before it is too late enough hearts that can make a difference will learn to feel the same.

This was originally published in The Wire, India

The writer is based in London and authored the book, 'White House', which won 'Best Novel' in the Brit Writers' Awards 2012.