Kashmir rushed upon us like a charging animal. In other conflict zones I have gone in quietly and with subtle diplomacy in order to find people to photograph. In Rwanda, where it is illegal to ask peoples’ ethnicity, it took me three months of emails and phone calls simply to find someone who would be willing to work with me.
Two days after arriving in Kashmir we were being driven around town by a hilariously loud former militant who wanted to be a Bollywood actor and visiting leader after leader of the fractured and diverse separatist movement. The mix of personalities we met could have stepped out of a movie or a novel. Some of these people could still laugh for me and my camera. The faces of others were only serious reflections of years in jail or solitary confinement, the loss of dozens or hundreds of friends, or their own darkly mixed pasts.
I hadn’t intended to meet leaders here, but this conflict is filled with them – you cannot help but meet leaders here in Kashmir. It is a conflict overflowing with leaders. Some of people we met have always been non-violent protesters. Some were former militants – people who took up arms against the Indian government in the nineties, fought and killed and then later renounced militancy and are now working towards an independent Kashmir by non-violent means. Everyone had been in jail. Most on multiple occasions. Many for years and years.
This was our first view of Kashmir – a clash of leaders with ardent followers who all share the same desire for an independent Kashmir but come from different directions and histories. We had been thrown into a raging sea of desire for independence like the chaos of waves that break against each other at the end of a peninsula. We heard dozens of stories and saw hundreds of photographs of dead Kashmiris – men, women and children – gruesome and unforgettable.
I came to here thinking that the Kashmir conflict was a firstly a dispute between India and Pakistan and secondly a religious conflict between the Muslim majority and the Hindu minority of the region.
Yes, on the outside it is three of the largest nuclear armed superpowers in the world vying for control of a strategic valley filled with the liquid gold that is water – three because China also controls a portion of historic Kashmir. But on the inside this is a struggle for independence by a people who have been traded, trampled on, fought over, fought back, lost, and in several hundred years have not had a true democracy or independence but still hold out a desperate hope for it.
Even this is a radically simplified view, because embedded in this sad and complicated history are layers and layers of smaller interests and conflicts that would confuse even the most Machiavellian novelist.
All this was just starting to seep into my awareness as we careened around town past the machine gun and baton wielding soldiers on every major intersection while listening to short lessons on the recent history of Kashmir interspersed with hysterical impressions of Bollywood and American actors.
This is Kashmir.
Check out the blog of my friend and assistant, Alex Pullen: The Grotto