The kids were already asleep. The adults were relaxing after dinner, sitting on the floor. The TV was on in the background. Suddenly, our host, Imtiyaaz, turned off the TV and motioned to all of us to listen. It was gunfire. The first round sounded far away, but the second round put a look of surprise even on the faces of those who had heard it so many times before. The fighting was much closer than they expected, maybe only a couple kilometers away. Still, there was no need to panic. The skirmish was brief and we were told it that it was probably just a token response by the Indian army to the noise made by the Kashmiri forces.
This is life in Srinagar, the leading city of Kashmir, in India’s far north. The familiar sound of gunfire is a reminder to everyone in this city of the ongoing struggle for peace in this land. The armed conflicts are less common now, but the battle for Kashmir continues, to which the heavy military presence testifies. These days are mostly peaceful in Srinagar, especially compared to 15 to 20 years ago when this was a much more active battle zone and casualties on all sides were much more common. During that time, many considered Kashmir to be the most dangerous place on earth.
We are here as guests of our friends, the Imtiyaaz Hussain family. Even though they are Kashmiris, they live in Delhi most of the year, because of their family business. In Delhi, they have a home in the same colony as us, and over the past couple years we have become good family friends. We got to know them at the bus stop, waiting for our kids to return from school. Since early on in our friendship, they have been talking to us about the idea of accompanying them on a trip to their beloved Kashmir, their real home. This year we accepted their invitation.
For various reasons, Kashmiris may live outside of Kashmir, but it is very evident from the way they speak about their home that they love Kashmir more than any other place on earth and that is where they long to be. This affection for their homeland has only been deepened due to the tension that exists here. You can hear it in their voices. A day after hearing the gunfire, as I walked with Imtiyaaz through the upper-class colony where they have their home, I asked him more about the conflict and how close he had been to the fighting in the past. Casually, he proceeded to point to house after house within his own neighborhood where Indian and Kashmiri forces had fought. In a pained tone, he went on to share more about the war that has seemingly touched every home and heart in Kashmir. It is a deep scar on the face of a beautiful land.
In some ways, Kashmir is a little like Palestine. It has a rather complex history that causes unending controversy as people on different sides engage the topic. It is a land caught in the middle, a land that bigger powers have wanted to control and claim as their own. Kashmir lies between India, Pakistan and China. Though the majority of the former princely state is under the control of India, a smaller portion lies in Pakistan, and the border between the two is highly disputed. In 1947, at the time of Indian independence, Kashmir itself was under independent rule. But when Kashmir came under threat from Pakistan, India came to their defense with the support of the United Nations. Kashmir was not only promised that the Indian army would keep Pakistani forces at bay but also that a plebiscite would be taken promptly to determine what the Kashmiri people wanted in terms of governance. That was 62 years ago and there has never been a plebiscite nor has the Indian army ever left Kashmir.
Even this brief history is over-simplified. The story is complicated, but in the minds of many Kashmiris, their land is occupied unlawfully by a foreign power. They talk about India as a different country and rarely refer to themselves as Indians. Our friends insist that, more than anything, Kashmiris want the freedom to choose, whether it is to remain a part of India, to become a part of Pakistan, or to gain independence. Over these choices, the people of Kashmir are undoubtedly divided, yet they simply want to be given the chance to make their own choice. They want the promised plebiscite.
We are grateful that we have had the chance to visit Kashmir not merely as tourists but as guests in the home of our Kashmiri friends. Their love and generosity have not only made us feel special but they have given us invaluable insight into the riches of Kashmiri culture. For us, the physical beauty of Kashmir reminds us of our home in Canada. The weather is cool and the scenery is stunning, with familiar mountains, rivers, plants and trees. But even this beauty is marred by the ever present signs of military occupation, with soldiers and their machinery ever ready for action. The people of Kashmir, also, are beautiful and friendly, though their hearts are obviously heavy with the turmoil that persists in their land.
There is a certain tradition, well known in India, which says that Jesus visited Kashmir before his public ministry in Palestine. We have no way of knowing if the tradition is based on fact, but as we ourselves follow Jesus it is not hard for us to imagine that if Jesus came to Kashmir today he would not only love the land and its people but he would also be grieved by the lack of peace (as he would if he returned to Palestine today). We also believe that if Jesus came again, he would bring a message of peace and hope for Kashmir.
The vast majority of Kashmiris, however, are not putting their hope in Jesus. They are Muslims and though they believe in Jesus as a great prophet they deny that he was the Son of God and the Prince of Peace. They don’t believe that Jesus died for their sins and that his cross of suffering is actually the path to peace. Instead, they believe in the way of peace that was preached by Mohammed, whom they believe was the last and greatest prophet, through whom also God gave the Qu’ran, his final revelation to mankind.
As we leave Kashmir today and fly back to Delhi, we are giving thanks for our friends and we are thinking about the beauty and the turmoil in Kashmir. Our hope is for peace and our humble prayer is that Jesus and his good news would come (again) to Kashmir.