What it’s like to be a Kashmiri in an Indian city

How Kashmiris are navigating the increasing threat of Hindu nationalist mobs in big Indian cities and why many of them are moving back to their conflict-torn home.

On a late February morning, with border tensions gripping India and Pakistan, I received phone call after phone call from my family members and relatives, each one asking me to return to my home in India-administered Kashmir.

I was on a postdoctoral teaching fellowship at a university in a small north Indian town close to New Delhi. I was so engrossed in teaching the winter course on ‘critical thinking’ that I rarely paid attention to daily news reports citing incidents of mob violence against Kashmiri people in the different towns and cities of India. But when my parents urged me to return, I suddenly felt exposed to the possibility of encountering violence just like my fellow Kashmiris were facing in other parts of the country. 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the disputed Kashmir since the two entities emerged out of the ashes of British colonialism. The two countries have engaged in countless border skirmishes but never before have mobs led by Hindu nationalists pursued Kashmiri people in India’s urban strongholds in supposed retribution for Indian soldier casualties in the restive Kashmir region.  

This time, the trigger was a suicide bombing on February 14 that claimed the lives of 45 paramilitary soldiers in Pulwama, a southern district of India-held Kashmir.

War talk dominated leading Indian news channels. Loud and rambunctious prime time TV hosts held vacuous debates and fuelled the frenzy of revenge. The hysteria found its public expression in the form of countrywide protest rallies, seeking military action against Pakistan and inciting hatred toward Kashmiris. Outside several college dorms where Kashmiri students resided, menacing mobs gathered —  in some instances breaking in and beating up a few —  calling out “shoot the traitors of India”, while many others elsewhere asked for “nothing short of a war”.

The mob anger was vindicated by Indian politicians from the ruling establishment including the country’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spoke with a shrill nationalist rhetoric. While India’s then Home Minister Rajnath Singh said they would choose the time and place to avenge the killings, Modi assured Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir that they “have been given a free hand” since “the blood of the people is boiling”.

Although my parents were concerned about my wellbeing, they didn’t seem to care much about themselves. They seemed to have reconciled with the possibility of facing a military reprisal, a resolve Kashmiri people have gained over three decades of conflict, in which custodial killings, torture, rampant detentions and raids and curfews have been a norm. I envy them in some way. At times I feel being away from Kashmir for 16 years in pursuit of an education and academic career has left me with a burden of longing for home and a smouldering guilt for leaving my parents behind. It becomes worse when you begin to feel vulnerable to frequent bouts of public outrage triggered by the acts of rebellion the Indian state faces in disputed Kashmir. And suddenly with a hard thump reality hits and you realise your identity makes you distinguishable in mainland India and you can be harmed for no crime of yours —  no matter how accomplished you are. You’re just a Kashmiri, navigating different forms of hostilities. From renting an apartment to setting up business, the odds are stacked against you.


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