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Kashmir: Falling Between the Gaps

09.22.2005 | BOOKS

Alive and Well in Pakistan
by Ethan Casey
Vision Paperbacks, 2004
280 pages, $17.95

If someone were to describe a place that has a large Muslim majority but that is policed by a powerful state army of mostly non-Muslims; which has for decades been the impetus for wars between antagonistic neighbors; which is divided by a quasi-official Line of Control; which has been the birthplace of an intifada whose tactics have been branded as terrorist and been ruthlessly suppressed by the army; and whose civilians have lived for more than half a century under the shadow of violence and extralegal punition, disenfranchised and with little freedom, oppressed on one side and exploited on another, and treated as a bargaining chip by the world at large -- if someone were to describe this place most people would recognize the Israeli occupied territory and have some pretty strong things to say about it.

But if the place in question was actually Kashmir, as it is in Alive and Well in Pakistan, a book of essayistic journalism by Ethan Casey, most people might be absent of opinion or emotion, even though the circumstances are ethically more or less the same.

The most useful things about Casey's book, it turns out, is its demonstration of the way that international consciousness has changed because of September 11th. The book is divided into the sections "Before" and "After." "Before" was a time when the plight of Kashmir and the nuclear tinderbox it threatened to ignite was very much in the news.

Casey visited Srinigar (the largest city in the Kashmir Valley) and smaller villages upon the legendarily beautiful Lake Dal (in the footsteps of his role model V.S. Naipaul) with the admirable aim of humanizing the conflict, of showing "the aspects of this world not governed by politics." In the first chapters we see that he meets some Kashmiris (some of them were in Naipaul's books), probes tentatively into their feelings, and then leaves the Asian subcontinent.

He returns a few years later to a different world. This is the post-9/11 subcontinent. Now he goes to live and teach in Pakistan, where the dominant issues are that nation's volatile fundamentalist elements, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, and the results of the uneasy alliance with the United States. The question of Kashmir falls by the wayside for the rest of the book.

As much as this may mirror the trend of the media, it is not, of course, a virtue. Casey complains, "In the news biz, few really care how deep or subtle your insights are or how well you use language. They care more whether you're in a country they happen to be noticing at the moment." But then instead of flying in the face of such cynicism with depth and subtlety on a subject that is not in vogue, Casey abides by those low standards.

In Alive and Well in Pakistan, he can't decide whether he's writing a history of conflict, a social documentary of Kashiris and/or Pakistanis, or a journalist's coming-of-age tale, and as a result he succeeds in doing none of them. The rambling narrative that prevails is as much an exercise in vanity as in reportage: "I wasn't like all the other journalists," brags Casey, who always appears more interested in the novelty and danger of his assignment than in its meaning.

So the question remains, how is it that even Casey, who had gone to Kashmir, was able to forget about it so abruptly? Perhaps it's for the same reasons that protestors in this country can be so lustily vocal about the West Bank, but have nothing to say about the routine Kashmir "crackdowns," in which Indian paramilitary cordon off a village, gather together all the men, then ransack the houses and torture suspected insurgents and those who harbor them.

For one thing, the Western powers that are the principle enablers of Israel have been friendlier, in this case, with Pakistan than with India. (Casey is British, but even Great Britain's relationship with India chilled during the chess-match of the Cold War.) This has probably fostered the impression that, for once, the West has been on the side of the victimized. It is a false impression: Support for Pakistan has ultimately been deleterious for Kashmiris.

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States worked closely with Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence, who at the war's end funneled their excess funds, arms, and mujahideen into Kashmir. As a result, an insurgency that was originally homegrown, nationalist, closely knit and widely supported became replaced by a much more violent Jihadist movement composed of fundamentalist outsiders with little understanding or regard for the ultimate goals of Kashmiris.

Today the population of the territory is divided three ways, amongst those wishing to remain in India, those wishing to join Pakistan, and, in response to the ongoing depredations of both countries, a growing number wishing for the completely unrealistic goal of independence.

The larger reason that Kashmir escapes even the eyes of those paid to see that it is unrelated to the war on terrorism and the crises in Afghanistan, Israel, and Iraq is the dubious supposition that the moral violations in Kashmir (in some cases by the Kashmiris) are less opprobrious because they don't directly connect to some larger global drama.

But I would argue that a direct connection is merely a matter of time. Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, who survive solely by fomenting war, are not likely to let pass an opportunity to bring Pakistan and India back up to a bloody boil. There are also prominent Hindu extremist groups hard at work to this end, and often it seems as though they and their archenemy Islamicists are acting in perfect harmony with one another.

Despite the genuine attempts of many people to capitalize on the detente between India and Pakistan that came in part from 9/11, there is little reason to believe that any peaceful negotiation will be brokered. The United Nations will not get involved unless both countries want them, and India never will. Lacking that, compromise requires a sacrifice and political paradigm shift that neither government will feel much incentive to make as long as conditions remain relatively stable, no matter what renewed catastrophe looms on the forefront.

Leonard Woolf wrote, "Statesmen, those who are supposed and pretend to control events, are almost always content complacently to be controlled by them." This is why no European leader confronted Hitler until he had invaded a third defenseless country, and why American Presidents were unable to extricate their troops from a pointless war in Vietnam until tens of thousands of people had died.

So it will likely go for the Kashmiris. Terrorists will further exploit the unrest of the area. The Indian military will respond with their "catch-and-kill" program of summarily executing suspected militants in alleyways, and bunkers and blockades will multiply as fixtures in Srinigar. The world's superpowers will fuddle through empty diplomacy, utterly in the thrall of an impasse between intractable nuclear rivals. American students will shrilly and belatedly take up the Kashmiris' cause. And perhaps Ethan Casey will once again find the place suitably dangerous to travel to.

About the Author
Sam Sacks is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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