At the age of five, I was fascinated by the idea of going to Kashmir to celebrate my sixth birthday after my teacher planted the seed by telling me that the Kashmir Valley was more beautiful than even Switzerland. I was excited to take a DDLJ-style picture in the tulip fields. When I asked my parents if we could go there, they cut me off and said, “It is unsafe. It is a place where there are many terrorists.”
All of five, I now thought that everyone who lived in Kashmir owned bombs, guns and had some terrorist connection or the other. It was 2004.
But I couldn’t stop imagining the beauty of Kashmir and after some coaxing and cajoling, somehow I convinced my parents to give in. For weeks before the trip, I kept imagining what people in Kashmir would be like and what ‘terrorism’ meant. I kept thinking about the dangers we might have to face.
Before our plane even landed, we were given strict instructions by my father to not discuss anything political or mention the word ‘terrorist’ during our time there. We were even asked to not mention our surnames around the driver or specifics about where we came from.
To my surprise, our Kashmiri driver looked perfectly normal, except that he was fairer and more handsome than any man I had seen in the city. I was charmed. As soon as we got to the hotel room, I asked my father, “Do you think that our driver is a terrorist? He looks like a normal person. He doesn’t have any guns and he doesn’t wear a mask.”
My father simply stared at me and asked me to not discuss such things again. He explained that asking these questions publicly could be the difference between life and death, and I had to stop asking questions.
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I celebrated my birthday, took stunning pictures, went out in a shikara around Dal Lake and took the trolley up to the Gulmarg peak. But not once did I see any Kashmiri as human enough. I did not care about their stories and looked at them with fear. I thought they were all terrorists who were out to harm my family.
I came back to my cocooned life in Mumbai and my opinions did not really change in any way until I went to university, met some Kashmiris, made friends and understood their stories and struggles.
At the age of 21, I am more informed by newspapers and social media than my father’s opinions. I have interacted with Kashmiris at college, who have stories as real as anyone else – stories of years of pain from dealing with countless curfews and nights full of fear. Stories of how they are a victims of terrorism too.
My awareness filled me with regret over how I viewed Kashmiris in the past. When Article 370 was revoked, I realised how many Indians still don’t see Kashmir as a safe place and Kashmiris as innocent people. We blame them for a cycle of violence that they have been caught in for decades for no fault of their own except for being born smack in the middle of it.
We don’t even follow the infamous Indian pledge which claims that “all Indians are my brothers and sisters” when it comes to Kashmir. It is “guilty till proven otherwise” in all our minds instead of actually trying to understand the history and hear from the people of Kashmir themselves.
As a six-year-old, I saw Kashmir as a tourist spot where I could go celebrate my birthday and make good memories while looking at people with distrust and obeying my father’s rules. Fifteen years down the line, I look at my six-year-old self with regret.
Maybe I should have been taught – even if not at home, at school – how much Kashmir has struggled, how children there do not go to schools for months at end, how its people are deprived of love from the rest of India.
As a child, I was shielded from reality by my parents. But in Kashmir, countless children have been shot dead or blinded by pellet guns in the streets – some younger than five. And even at those points, there have been dozens to point fingers at the victim and ask, “Why was he out in the street?”
To anyone from Kashmir reading this, I just want to say: I’m sorry.
Vidhi Bubna is a freelance writer from Mumbai. She writes about social issues, human rights, politics and business.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty