Combat breathing

In the spring of 1943, as the Germans violently suppressed the Warsaw Uprising, Czesław Miłosz recorded life beyond the ghetto’s wall. In ‘Campo dei Fiori’, he describes Polish gentiles riding the sky-carousel ‘to the strains of a carnival tune’:

The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.

As Jews fought and died, imprisoned in their own city, isolated and abandoned, Miłosz could think ‘only of the loneliness of the dying’.


Kashmir is a tourist retreat in an occupied land. Every year, as the monsoon rolls across India, bringing with it both soaring temperatures and pounding rain, the county’s elite escape to the overwhelming beauty of the Kashmir Valley. These two realities – Kashmir as a haven for holidaymakers and a warzone for locals – remain remarkably separate, so much so that when one invades the other the effect can jar, like a jolt of absolute reality. As in other disputed territories, tourists are deliberately shielded from the daily violence of occupation – but many are also wilfully blind.

I visit Dal Lake at sunset on a summer’s evening, watching as shikaras ferry tourists to houseboats and local men wile away the hours fishing and talking. It’s the ultimate tourist vista, disturbed only by a passing military convoy – a fleeting glimpse of Kashmir’s absolute reality. In the gun turret of the lead vehicle stands a helmeted soldier, his face obscured by his phone as he captures the sun being swallowed by the lake.

The next morning, I am stirred by the sonorous call to prayer, disheartened to discover that the temperate stillness of the previous evening has given way to a steady pattering of rain. I make my way through Srinagar’s labyrinthine streets to the old neighbourhood of Nowhatta, on the east bank of the Jhelum River. The area embodies, perhaps more than any other place in the valley, the Kashmiri traditions of tolerance and mutual respect, of religious and cultural syncretism, of the heterodoxy and diversity underpinning Sufism. Nowhatta is only a few kilometres from Dal Lake, where Srinagar’s tourists are usually quarantined, but the areas couldn’t be more different. Nowhatta brings into focus the reality of life under the occupation, revealing the daily struggles of a people largely treated as invisible and undeserving.

Nowhatta is the site of the ritualised violence that is the essence of India’s occupation: every Friday, after the midday prayer at Jamia Mosque, young Kashmiri men armed with stones line up opposite well-armed Indian troops and, for a number of hours, both sides play out their respective roles.

For the troops, it’s a show of force, a reminder of who has the guns and who makes (and is allowed to break) the law. It’s both a performative ritual and a genuine expression of power, designed to intimidate the local population. For the young men, it’s an act of resistance; to not be present would be to concede too much. ‘Srinagar is never winning, and never being defeated,’ writes journalist and New York Times editor Basharat Peer in Curfewed Night.


In the midst of the Second World War, Hans Frank, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, invited the internationally respected Baedeker publishing company to produce a tourist guide of the territory he ruled over. In Frank’s introduction, penned in October 1942, he writes: ‘For those coming to the Reich from the East, the General Government [of occupied Poland] is the first glimpse of the structure, offering a strong impression of home.’ The guide has information on railway connections through Bełzec’s train station to the rest of Galicia, and a passing reference to a place called Auschwitz, but no mention of the concentration camps.


On 29 June 2018, Dr Abdul Gani Khan left Pulwama district hospital, exhausted from a day of treating people injured in clashes with Indian security forces. Soon after reaching his residential quarters, he received a phone call ordering him to return urgently. But by the time he arrived, it was too late: his sixteen-year-old son, Faizan Ahmad Khan, was dead, killed by gunshot wounds to his chest, torso and abdomen. The security forces had used live ammunition to disperse unarmed civilians protesting a security crackdown in their neighbourhood. Three militants were also killed in Pulwama that day, an outcome later celebrated by Indian authorities: ‘All three terrorists eliminated. Good job boys,’ tweets SP Vaid, Director General of Police for Jammu and Kashmir.

A few days later, I travel to Pulwama, visiting the house – or what is left of it – where the militants had been holed up. Throughout the valley, militancy is widely supported; locals provide rebels with food and shelter, often at great risk to safety and property. The family who own the house say they didn’t know the militants they were assisting that night, but once the raid had begun, ‘they protected us.’ Romana Bashir, one of the family’s adult daughters, recounts how their house was surrounded by security forces, flooded with tear gas and shelled twenty-two times.

When the family eventually evacuated, leaving the property and the militants to their fates, Romana’s brother and his friend were taken into custody. The Indian soldiers used them as ‘human shields’, sending them into thirteen houses in the neighbourhood ahead of the raiding forces: a living, breathing disincentive to militants thinking of firing back at the better armed occupying force.

The young men survived, but that doesn’t make the Indian forces’ actions any less of a war crime under the Rome Statute, or mitigate what is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.


In 2017, separatists called for Kashmiris to boycott Srinagar’s municipal by-elections; the people ought not play any role in perpetuating the charade of democratic rule, they told their supporters. But Farooq Ahmed Dar, an embroidery artisan from Chill, in Budgam district, defied their calls and made his way to a polling booth on the outskirts of the capital.

The day was marred by violence, with clashes between security forces and protestors popping up all over the city (by the day’s end, eight protestors had been killed). Farooq had hoped to avoid the commotion, but to be Kashmiri in public when things are tense is to invite suspicion. After casting his ballot, Farooq set out for his sister’s place, intending to pay a condolence visit, but was soon picked up by security forces. They beat him, strapped him to the bonnet of an army jeep and drove him through twenty-nine villages where they would otherwise have been pelted with stones.

In the eleven-second video of the incident, widely circulated on social media, a voice can be heard in the background: ‘Stone throwers will meet a similar fate,’ it says in Hindi.


The horrors of partition – Britain’s administrative incompetence, the scale and brutality of the violence, the lasting consequences of the catastrophe – have long eclipsed the sense of promise many felt at India’s independence. At the time, however, it offered hope to those who had been oppressed under the yoke of imperialism and the racism on which it had been predicated. At midnight on 15 August 1947, India became an independent nation: it was, according WEB Du Bois, ‘the greatest historical date’ of modern history, announcing the end of the era ‘when the white man, by reason of the colour of his skin, can lord it over coloured people’. That turned out to be an overly optimistic view.

Another writer, Frantz Fanon, observing decolonisation on another continent in the following decade, was more prescient on the challenges that lay ahead:

At the core of the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries a hedonistic mentality prevails – because on a psychological level it identifies with the Western bourgeoisie from which it has slurped every lesson. It mimics the Western bourgeoisie in its negative and decadent aspects without having accomplished the initial phases of exploration and invention that are the assets of this Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances. In its early days the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries identifies with the last stages of the Western bourgeoisie. Don’t believe it’s taking short cuts. In fact it starts at the end. It’s already senile, having experienced neither the exuberance nor the brazen determination of youth and adolescence.

Fanon’s critique, although not levelled at the Indian bourgeoisie specifically, is apposite: India, ‘the jewel in the crown of the British Empire’, had a significant British-educated elite – often with far more in common with the rulers than with the ruled – who took up ‘the white man’s burden’ after independence.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was the most notable of this ruling clique. Nehru had a personal connection with the valley – he was nicknamed Pandit Nehru, a reference to his familial roots in the Kashmiri Pandit community – and was determined to see the area remain part of the Indian state, so much so that he was prepared to forgo the parliamentary principles he championed in other parts of the country. At partition, Nehru’s Indian National Congress (INC) assured Kashmiris that a referendum would be held to decide whether the province would form part of India or Pakistan, but once in control, the party quickly abandoned the promise. Then, in 1953, Sheikh Abdullah, the popular leader of Kashmir’s governing National Conference party, was deposed and arrested on order of Nehru’s Congress Party. It was punishment for taking a pro-referendum stance and for stalling formal accession to India. Since then, Kashmir has been ruled by, as Pankaj Mishra puts it, ‘a long reign of puppet leaders who continue to enrich themselves under the long shadow of the Indian gun.’ India itself, while ostensibly a democracy, has been governed for most of its short history by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, with each successive generation maintaining its uncompromising stance on Indian rule in Kashmir.

The romanticised Kashmir that persists as a tenet of Indian nationalism and Hindu supremacism makes no room for Kashmiri Muslims: they are superfluous and expendable, mere impediments to national unity. The suffering of those living under Indian rule – an occupation that has now spanned three generations – is irrelevant to those who dismiss Kashmir’s right to self-determination.


In south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, I visit a small concrete house ringed by paddy fields. It belongs to Rashida Akhter, who sits opposite me on a maroon rug in an unfurnished room, tea and biscuits laid out before us, as is Kashmiri custom. Rashida radiates pride as she tells me about her family’s history of militancy: since 1998, sixteen of her family members have been killed. ‘I am very satisfied with what the family has achieved,’ she says. ‘I feel as though we are on the right path; we are doing this for what we believe in. We accept it. We are mentally prepared for it.’

Tauseef Ahmed is the family’s most recent ‘shahid’ (martyr). He joined Hizbul Mujahideen in 2013, aged just fifteen, eager to continue his family’s legacy. But that was only part of the story: Tauseef was driven into the arms of rebels by ‘the brutality of the occupation,’ Rashida explains. He survived longer than most, rose through the ranks and became an important target for the Indian security forces. On 6 May 2018, they finally caught up with him. Trapped in a house in Shopian with four comrades, the building surrounded by security forces, Tauseef spoke to his family on the phone one last time. If there was no chance of escape, they told him, martyrdom was his only choice. The house was razed to the ground soon after.

Thousands turned up for his funeral procession, a shopkeeper in town tells me. They came to congratulate the family; it was ‘like a wedding celebration’.


In Moralia, Plutarch records the parting cries of Spartan mothers as their sons marched off to battle: ‘Come back with your shield – or on it.’


Rouf Khanday went ‘missing’ in mid-February 2018. What everyone suspected was confirmed a month later when – in what has become a distorted rite of passage – he posted a photo of himself on social media. The picture shows him brandishing an AK-47 in front of a nondescript wall, his face expressionless. A short time later, on 1 April, he was killed by security forces in an operation in Dialgam village, Anantnag.

Waseem, his older brother, lives in the family home in Kokernag. He greets me at the front gate, dressed in a grey-and-blue-check pheran, and ushers me into a room that is bare except for a Jamaat-e-Islami calendar. He fetches tea and biscuits, and we sit cross-legged on the floor as he tells me about Rouf. ‘He was religious,’ Waseem says, ‘and doing well in his studies.’ In 2006, he had been out riding his bike with a friend when he was picked up by police and detained for forty-five days without charge. This left a mark on him, Waseem explains: ‘It’s probably when he started to think about joining the militancy.’

On the night of his death, Rouf was trapped in a two-storey house, surrounded by security forces. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. ‘Rouf, it’s me,’ his mother called. ‘Please open the door. I have come to speak to you.’ His parents, Bashir and Hajra Ahmed, had been brought in by security officials to convince their son to surrender. Rouf let them in, but refused to surrender. During that last meeting, Bashir remained silent, while Hajra gave Rouf news of his sister’s engagement, set to take place the following day. They told him they would respect any decision he made and then left. Wassem also spoke to him on the phone, but he was unequivocal: ‘I told him there is honour in martyrdom and, as his final act, he should raise the Pakistan national flag.’

After Rouf’s death, the family posted recordings of these final conversations online. ‘My life is finished if I surrender,’ Rouf tells his family. ‘It will be hell. I will be thrown in jail for the rest of my life. Dying a martyr’s death is much better than that.’ Gunshots can then be heard in the background. Before hanging up, Rouf utters his final words to his family: ‘I am satisfied with my decision. Do not cry at my funeral.’


Everyone in Kashmir has a story of suffering and loss: the milkman whose neighbour’s home was raided in the middle of the night; the man who sells shoes in the bazaar whose cousin was tortured; the pharmacist who was detained for two weeks without charge; the taxi driver who was shot twenty years ago and hasn’t been able to walk properly since.

In 2010, Suvir Kaul, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, returned to his ancestral home of Kashmir. He kept a diary, republished in Until My Freedom Has Come, in which he records how life in the valley has changed, the daily injustices he witnessed, and his efforts to make sense of the scale and extent of the suffering:

If 70,000 Kashmiris have been killed (regardless of by whom) in the last two decades, then there is virtually no family exempt from the eddying effects of such loss. This is the reservoir of grief, anger and frustration that produces the flood of emotion that moves people into risking their lives on the street; and sometimes, as we know, floods overwhelm the thickest embankments we build to contain them.

Kashmir is the most militarised region in the world; the occupying forces are omnipresent. Even when their cantonments, guardhouses or jeeps aren’t in plain sight, their presence can be felt. Bodies can be counted, casualties can be tallied and the destruction of property can be totalled, but there are some costs of occupation that can’t be accounted for. There are some effects – intangible, but somehow common to all – that can’t be measured.

‘There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other’, writes Frantz Fanon in A Dying Colonialism:

It’s the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It’s a combat breathing.

Kashmir’s is a combat breathing; a sense of perpetual danger and unease pervades the province. But the wholesale, indiscriminate violence Fanon prescribed for breaking free of this – the idea that violence, in and of itself, can be cleansing or liberating – has never been widely embraced by Kashmiris.


‘When we have azadi [freedom],’ my friend explains as we sit in his garden in Srinagar, ‘Burhan Wani’s face will be printed on all our bank notes.’

Since Wani’s death on 8 July 2016, the former commander of Hizbul Mujahideen has become a hero of the Kashmiri resistance; his use of social media revived and changed the face of the militancy. In contrast to Islamic State, which uses digital technologies to cast itself as barbaric and sectarian, Burhan presented a distinctly Kashmiri image of himself and the struggle. Across the province, he is spoken of in hagiographic terms and celebrated as a kind of archetypal Kashmiri. People, both male and female, always remark on how handsome he was – handsome in a quintessentially Kashmiri way (the media often describes him as ‘the chocolate-faced militant’). They pull out their phones and show me photos, his face framed by mountains or cedar trees. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where myth ends and reality begins. In the Kashmiri popular consciousness, Wani is the genius commander who deplored violence, but who took up arms out of a sense of duty to his people and his land. He joined the militancy as a teenager and in his five years as a rebel – so the story goes – he never fired a single shot. He was just twenty-two when he
was killed.

In that time, the anti-India insurgency has been brought back from the brink of extinction, shaped in large part by Wani. The epicentre of the militancy has shifted from north to south Kashmir – the area where Wani was from – and it’s now a recognisably indigenous movement, whereas in the past most fighters were drawn from abroad, mostly Pakistan.

Last year, on the second anniversary of Wani’s death, Srinagar became a veritable ghost town: all shops where closed and there was barely a car on the road. Indian security forces were on high alert; their presence made more pronounced by the absence of locals. But Wani’s presence was ubiquitous too: his name was painted alongside slogans for azadi on shutters and walls.


For Miłosz, ‘the loneliness of dying’ was an expression of the world’s refusal to recognise and confront the horrors of the Holocaust. But the dying and killing that was the genesis of that thought – the Warsaw Uprising – was an effort to escape the loneliest death of all: the death camp. As Jews fought a battle they knew they couldn’t win, one that would almost certainly end in their deaths, their resistance gave them some agency. It may not be much, but when facing the abyss of extermination, it’s not nothing either.

Kashmir is not the Reich, of course, but their histories are irrevocably linked – the Allied victory over Germany paved the way for the decolonisation of British India. But in an independent India – still widely celebrated as a multi-ethnic democracy built on the ruins of British colonialism, rather than in its image – Kashmir continues to be denied that same freedom. Atrocities are committed on an almost daily basis, yet the world averts its gaze.

There is much loneliness in Kashmir: those exiled and unable to return; those imprisoned and tortured without charge; mothers who have lost sons; daughters who have been raped. It’s this, more than anything else, that has revived the militancy: it’s a collective response to India’s policy of collective punishment. The revitalised resistance is a refusal to live, and to die, in loneliness any longer.


With thanks to Basharat Ali, Khalid Gul and Asim Shah, without whose generosity, patience and counsel this essay could not have been.





Tim Robertson

Tim Roberson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12.

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