So, here we are in Kashmir. I needed to wait and feel things out before blogging about this very complicated conflict. The first thing I will say is that the situation here is much more than we hear about in the west. This is not a simple two-sided conflict. There are more factors involved than it is possible to understand in a short trip such as the one we are on. Still, I’ve learned an enormous amount, and here is some of it.
For those of you who don’t know the history, Kashmir is part of the Indian state called Jammu and Kashmir, which encompasses three pretty distinct areas: Jammu, which is mostly Hindu; Kashmir, which is mostly Islamic, and Ladakh, whose ethnic group is different than either of these and historically related to the Tibetan people. The whole area is also referred to as Kashmir. When India and Pakistan gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu Majarasha, who quickly sided with India. The conflict here revolves around the idea that Kashmir should never have become a part of India and should be independent.
At it’s core, the ENEMIES Project is about photographing people from opposite sides of conflicts, so here the conflict is between pro-independence and pro-nationalist ideas. Ideally I want to bring people together from opposite sides of conflicts. In Africa, this was not a problem, but there I was mostly working with conflicts that were largely in the past. The Kashmir conflict has subsided in recent years, but it is still ongoing. The first thing people said when I arrived was that I would not be able to photograph people together, because they would be afraid of being a target.
This trip has already been entirely different to any of my previous work on the ENEMIES Project. In all of the past trips I have photographed almost exclusively people who were not in leadership positions – normal people who were simply caught up in struggles beyond their control. So far in Kashmir I have mostly met with and photographed leaders – so far leaders of moderate separatist movements. These are people who want Kashmir to become an independent country. All of them have either always forsworn violence or have dropped violent opposition in favor of non-violent opposition. None of them would be willing to be photographed with someone from the other side. I am told there are still militant separatists in Kashmir, but I am not meeting with anyone from these groups. Today I met with and photographed a leader from the government, who is obviously opposed to independence. I also want to photograph normal people in Kashmir, but it has been interesting to meet with people who are in positions of leadership.
Two days ago the most revered shrine in Kashmir was gutted by fire. The people of Kashmir were shocked and angry at the government’s response. There have been accusations and rumors, but nobody knows what happened. After a tense protest, a bout of rock-throwing and a police response, the city was put under unofficial curfew. We were told that it would be best to stay in our hotel for the day. We did and the day was peaceful and quiet. The people of Kashmir are devastated. The Dastgeed Shahib shrine was revered by Kashmiris of every faith, but this tragedy seemed to highlight something positive. Everyone I have talked with has said that if this had happened two or three years ago the reaction of the people would have been much, much worse. To me, this is the clearest sign that Kashmir is moving beyond the violence that plagued the region for much of the last twenty years.
Today we spent some time walking the streets and talking to people. Most people are incredibly friendly and open to talk about politics. I haven’t felt any hostility at all, and today I even got a group of Kashmir police to let me take my photograph with them. We have gone into Mosques during prayers and Hindu temples during gatherings. Today we sat on the street with a group of Sikh keymakers. Everyone we have talked with, including the separatist leaders, has expressed complete openness and tolerance towards other religions and the idea that Kashmir was historically and should be a multi-ethnic, religiously tolerant society. The predominant feeling I have gotten is one of a tolerant people who want contact with the outside.
I’ve met a number of people who have friends across the political/ideological divide here, and yet they are still unwilling to be photographed together. There is still a lot of fear. I understand that fear. If I can’t find people who are willing to be photographed together I’ll have to do what I am probably doing with Tibet-China – photographing them separately and displaying the photographs together.
This is a wonderful land. I hope that it continues to move toward peace, and I can only wish that whatever I do might help nudge it that way a tiny bit. Perhaps that is like throwing a grain of rice against a mountain and hoping the mountain will move. Still, I do what I feel I have to do.
Here’s a short timelapse of nightfall on Lal Chowk – the main square in Srinagar. I did this on the evening that the curfew was lifted after Dasgeed Sahib burnt down.