Mr Bashir, you live in Srinagar, the capital of the Indian-administered state of Jammu & Kashmir. Since 1989, there is a rebellion against the Indian state power. On which side does the majority of the population stand?
Over the course of history, the people of Kashmir lived under foreign rule again and again. Four to five hundred years ago , it was the Sikhs, the Mughals, the Afghans and later the British and since 1947 India. By holding elections, India claims that Kashmiris are voluntarily with it and then there is a charade to purport that claim. But , elections cannot replace a referendum. To find out what the Kashmiris want one would have to hold a referendum. Whatever the result, one would have to accept it. Kashmiris should be given this opportunity. Nehru came to Kashmir in 1947 and promised a plebiscite. Kashmiris are still waiting for that.
Have the opportunities grown since Narendra Modi became Head of Government in 2014?
An Indian narrative is that independence of Kashmir, which is predominantly populated by Muslims, would endanger the more than 150 million Muslims of India, because they think there could be a situation of backlash. But Indian Muslims live dangerously anyway, which has intensified with the right-wing-oriented Modi government. Kashmir would not change that.
Is the intensification of the conflict like the uprising in the summer of 2016 a matter of concern?
Of course, it is not good to grow up in an atmosphere of conflict. The inhabitants of Kashmir would prefer to live in a welfare state like Switzerland. However, growing up under oppression also strangely and sadly has its advantages. To resist is to connect with a feeling of freedom itself until the goal is achieved.
It gives you an identity?
Yes. The moment of struggle is the moment of absolute freedom. Once a goal is achieved, then the feeling is not as intense as in the moment of struggle for the goal. Of course, the condition of conflict is unhealthy. The education sector, for example, cannot work properly. It is difficult to be treated in a hospital properly. There is no development. There is corruption and all the bad things that exist in a non-welfare society. But then you say, we will have it all one day when we are free and live in harmony with the rest of the world.
You have also worked as a journalist, today you teach journalistic storytelling and conflict reporting. What conflicts did you report?
Only about the Kashmir conflict, I and my students grew up with it; for me the political conflicts of the rest of the world are mirrored in it. The main interest in reporting should be the ordinary people and their perspectives. This type of journalism involves risks, a reporter could be harmed, and one who wants to report conflict has to be mentally prepared for it. The conflicting parties have stakes and interest in the conflict so one has to be neutral but that is very difficult.
Your first novel The Half Mother and the stories in Scattered Souls play in the 1990s. Why?
That was a turbulent time in Kashmir. The first, almost ten, years of my life I grew up without seeing soldiers, camps and bunkers. In 1989, the Indian battalions arrived, there are around 700,000 soldiers now; Kashmir is the highest militarized zone in the world.
Then early in the mornings, all our men had to queue up in front of a military jeep in crackdowns. When the informant of the army pressed the horn, the person signalled at was arrested. That happened in the 90s two or three times a week. The houses were plundered, foods such as rice and flour mixed to make them useless so that it dispirited one from resisting. There were month-long curfews imposed. We ate rice, chilli powder and salt at home once.When the supplies were used up, my cousins and I could not sleep from hunger. That’s how the ‘90s got into me. And, it was natural to let them out of me in literature.
That’s what made you a writer?
I think I would have become a writer anyway. The problem with conflict is that, as a writer, you mostly have to tell about it because it is constantly in the air. Without it , you cannot tell a proverbial love story even or work your own memories— the conflict is everywhere. Leaving it off, it is understood as a political statement in the sense that you do not want to have anything to do with the conflict. I wish I had grown up under normal circumstances. The things that have happened are so real. From a literary point of view, this is associated with costs. The imagination cannot unfold as freely as usual. Because it tends to destroy the real, which in turn is dangerous. But literary fiction is a higher truth. So far, I have written about the 90s, in my new novel, I change into the present. Nevertheless, one does not escape the conflict; it is the air that one breathes.
Have you ever received any threats?
I was once called by a military commander over phone, I do not know if it was meant as a threat. He said he had read my book, it was very interesting, and he asked: “When will you write about us?” I replied, “I’ll, once you leave us alone.” He hung up.
In India it is claimed that Kashmir is facing an Islamist threat. Is this the case?
This copies the narrative that the US uses elsewhere. It is an excuse to hunt down enemies that are not acceptable to you. There is a saying for this: Give the dog a bad name and kill it. The inhabitants of Kashmir are the coolest Muslims imaginable. But if you are so oppressed and grown up with it, then you have internalized the oppression. The majority of the population is depressed. And there is only one psychiatric hospital in Kashmir. The prevailing stress makes us all mentally disturbed. Out of hopelessness or because people know what’s going on around them.
Do you write the novel in one go?
No, I’m not a disciplined author. Sometimes I write all day, with the nervousness of a murderer. Then nobody should bother me. Then again I do not write for weeks. Sometimes I write an hour a day. I think it’s important to go out and look around. When I come back, I have a different view of the story. But I read daily. Sometimes , I wake up at night and write/type on my phone until morning, because I’m dealing with a dream or an idea.
—The above is an English translation of the interview published in German in a leading Swiss newspaper Der Landbote on Feb 14, 2018. Writer Shahnaz Bashir teaches journalism at Central University, Kashmir. He is currently living in Villa Sträuli, where he is writing his second novel. The interview was conducted by Helmut Dworschak