The Rebirth of Kashmir

By David Lepeska

They came from Bandipore and Baramulla, Pampore, Rajbagh, Sonmarg, and Uri, three to a scooter, 60 to an overloaded minibus, on foot, by bicycle, truck, rickshaw and horse-pulled tonga. Swinging placards and posters, hoisting banners and waving flags, miles-long convoys coursed through the streets of Srinagar as lakhs of Kashmiris descended on Idgah last Friday for the most exuberant display of their favorite new pastime, the protest party.

The demonstration was called by leading separatist politicians but you can tell it’s a celebration because of the smiling faces, the sense of brotherhood, the confident glow of the righteous. The protesters are exuberant, unchained, shouting anti-India slogans and pro-freedom chants. Everywhere, Kashmiri men are starting impromptu performances of the two-step jig that’s sweeping the Valley. Hands in the air, shoulders rolling, heads bobbing and right foot stomping an imaginary Indian flag, boys and men bounce in a misshapen circle, shouting, ‘Ragda! Ragda!’ They look at each other, one to the next and again, grinning and soaking it in, almost unbelieving. They’ve been waiting for this day for years.

The origins of the ragda are a bit vague. Some say it began this spring when a Kashmiri hijra set an Indian flag out on the ground and, seeking a more fabulous way to denounce his oppressors, stepped on it and shouted, ‘Ragda! Ragda!’ (‘Stomp! Stomp!’). It’s turned out to be contagious, and it’s given this movement rhythm.

The police and Indian army troops armed to the teeth and out in force earlier in the day, have melted away. How do you attack someone laughing and dancing joyously as he denounces you and your country?

Later on, separatists’ politicians would clamber up to the dais only to be lost in the din, like a drop of water trying to direct the tides. The masses would be too busy dancing and shouting and unburdening themselves in a grand group catharsis. Parties don’t need to be told how to embrace the moment.

Yes, many protesters are vehemently denouncing their oppressor, India, and celebrating Pakistan and Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. But these are less acts of allegiance, more expressions of Kashmiri unity, as separatist and Muslim.

Walking to Idgah, a smiling Mehrajudin Mattoo, 63, pauses to reflect on the sea change in Kashmir. ‘Those days, it was the gun, everywhere,’ the retired civil servant tells me, thinking back to the 90’s. ‘But this is different. This is the real Kashmir and they can’t stop us. We know what we want and we know the best way to get it.’

Hilal Ahmad Bhat, 26, is standing in the back of a lorry with a few dozen like-minded new friends heading towards the protest grounds. He is a teacher at a government-run school and I ask why he’s protesting the very government that pays his bills and feeds his family. ‘It is not a question of our bread,’ he said. ‘It is a matter of our freedom, because the exploitation has gone too far. Amarnath was just a single issue, just a part of the larger struggle that’s been going on for a long long time, and now we’ve had enough.’

The tipping point was not the land transfer, but what came after. ‘The road blockade was the turning point,’ said businessman Rafiq Bhat, 40. ‘Kashmiris are sensitive about their land, but if you threaten to starve them, look out.’

Still, that push has not prodded Kashmiris embrace the violence that’s been frequent further south. ‘Our protests are totally peaceful not like Jammu,’ added Bhat, who stayed in school when the conflict was revving up in the early 90’s. He didn’t think the gun was the answer. ‘We want a peaceful resolution to our struggle. India keeps telling the world about the militancy here, that we are terrorists. But look around, there is no violence here today. There are no terrorists. We are a peaceful people.’

I spent a few weeks in Kashmir in the late 90’s, lived in Srinagar from mid-2006 to mid-2007 and have visited regularly since, and suddenly it’s completely new. Still kind, generous and willing to talk through the night, most Kashmiris had lost family, friends, and in the last few years been worn down by the conflict, despite the recent drop in violence. Depression and other mental illnesses quarupled from 2001 to 2007. So while Kashmir remained beautiful the shadows of the past and a lingering threat darkened the days.

No longer. The floodgates have opened and Kashmiris are releasing two decades of pain, anger, fear, frustration and loss the pent-up emotions of the conflict generation. It is not a revolution as much as an evolution. We are witnessing the rebirth of Kashmir. For now, the insurgency is over, giving way to a broad-based non-violent movement for azadi.

And for my money, this is how freedom arrives. Not from the barrel of a gun. Not with a knock at your door in the dead of night. But from a seething, jeering, bopping mass of one. I’m reminded of a well-known reggae protest song:

Ah, no ignorance do it.
Ah, no brute force do it.
Your weapons can’t do it.
So hear this!
Throw down your arms and come,
Throw down your arms and come,
Throw down your arms and come,
Drop them
Put them away, to stay.

Kashmiris have answered the call. With the United Jehad Council announcing it will refrain from violence to allow this mass movement to take its course, so too have the militants. Who’s missed the bus? Delhi. Portraying the heavy, the Indian government has imposed a curfew and, as of 25 August, begun shooting violators.

David Lepeska is an American writer based in Delhi. He contributes to the Economist and Monocle and writes about aid and development for He was formerly senior correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar.

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