This participatory memorial, by artist Alana Hunt, emerged in response to Kashmir’s Summer of 2010. In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage, Hunt evolved ways to speak, to connect and to write in a form that would reach places where the news headlines do not. By July 2012 she had invited 118 people to share a cup of nun chai with her as a simple act that acknowledged this loss of life. Like an ever-growing memory the endeavour unfolded over two years of tea and conversation – across Australia, Europe, parts of South Asia and Kashmir – into a gentle yet challenging refusal to allow that loss of life to simply pass.
This is the twentieth cup of nun chai. A 17-year-old boy named Tariq Ahmed Dar was killed in police custody on July 25. He was the twentieth person to die in the conflict in Kashmir during the summer of 2010. Thornton and I sat in silence.
“17 is very young.” Thornton looked dismayed, “At that age one’s life has really only just begun. No, at 17 your life hasn’t even started. Was the young man Muslim?” Thornton and I discussed the religious makeup of Kashmir—historically over time and geographically across space. Thornton was particularly interested to learn of the class politics, the feudal dynamics of land ownership and the rule of a Hindu King over a Muslim majority population. Thornton was a self-taught student of Karl Marx and he thought that Kashmir’s story must be more complicated than religion.
He was surprised to learn that the death of young men like Tariq Ahmed Dar was taking place far from a border. The summer of 2010 was not about borders between India and Pakistan but about Kashmiri civilians and the Indian state. We spoke of the protests, the stone throwing and the waves of violence that build up and then subside. But Thornton wanted to know more about the quality of life in Kashmir. He held the ideal of egalitarianism close, and the land reforms that took place in Kashmir shortly after partition interested him greatly.
I was surprised to learn, in an article by Harsh Mander titled Hunger in the Valley, that while it is estimated that 28.3% of people in India live below the poverty line, in Jammu and Kashmir that number lies at only 4.5%. Mander holds the land reforms that took place in Kashmir during the first decade after partition responsible for these low levels of poverty. He describes Kashmir as among the most egalitarian societies in South Asia today. But, he argues, the lack of good local governance in Kashmir over the last two decades of conflict has meant that the “small battles of people’s everyday survival’ have been overlooked”.
Mander lambasts the state for lack of “good governance”. However, he does not cite the endemic violence of the state in Kashmir, but rather neglect of employment and agricultural issues, which has, according to Mander, lead “teenaged children driven to despair and anger to throw stones at policeman in Kashmir.” This ‘development plank’ often articulated to make sense of Kashmir’s grievances with the Indian state has been used to confuse the narrative of azadi within and outside Kashmir for some time now.
Many Kashmiris say the main reason they have been able to sustain their struggle for so long, against a much larger and stronger Indian state, is because the land reforms provided a vast majority with the means to grow their own food, providing the everyday household with a modicum of economic independence and security. This was true for the summer of 2010 as much for the decades that preceded it. During curfews that could last weeks or months at a time, the household garden and kitchen stores are key to survival. Pointing to a huge drum of rice in a domestic kitchen, one friend in Kopwoar told me with a cheeky, proud smile, “You never know what will happen in Kashmir, so we keep our stores as large as we can afford.” Many Kashmiris believe that as part of India’s military occupation there is a long-running policy to make Kashmiris dependent on state doles and to gradually erode the egalitarian agrarian set-up, in order to weaken the struggle for azadi.
In the light of all this, one needs to take in with a pinch of salt the arguments made by ostensibly well-meaning Indians like Mander. Why would a state that has mislead, tortured and killed people for decades with one hand, make decisions with the other hand that would actually better quality of life? How does one begin to discuss good governance without addressing people’s collective right to decide how they want to be governed?
But the core of Mander’s argument holds true. While the big political battles play out in Kashmir, we cannot forget the small battles of everyday life. But this ‘we’ is not the Indian state, as Mander would like us to believe, but Kashmiris themselves, and everyone who genuinely supports the right of people to live their lives according to their own will.
—Alana Hunt makes art, writes and occasionally curates. Her work is informed, in quiet yet consistent ways, by the dual (post)colonial worlds of South Asia and the remote East Kimberley region of Western Australia.