The village of Wathoora, nestled in the Kashmir Valley, blends into a dense oak forest. You approach the village on a bumpy dirt track that leads away from the potholed main road. Wathoora emerges gradually: a pile of bricks, a wrinkled old man dressed in a white phiran. At the town’s center, a warren of stone, brick, and sheet metal is home to three hundred families. On the warm Sunday I arrived, the village was relaxed. Women were washing their pots in a small stream that feeds a green river where a group of teenage boys were diving, wrestling, and splashing.

Peel back the peaceful surface of Wathoora and one finds a story mirroring the bloody violence that has wracked so many towns throughout the Kashmir Valley. Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of British withdrawal, India and Pakistan fought their first war over Kashmir. This has been followed over the past two decades by a brutal conflict between a Kashmiri insurgency and the Indian army. Throughout this period, Wathoora has survived on a curious combination of agriculture and folk theater.

Bhand Pather is a form of traditional Kashmiri theatre that is passed down not just through families, but through entire villages. There are about thirty villages in Kashmir where Bhand Pather is performed, and Wathoora is among the best known and most celebrated. I visited Ghulam Ali Majboor, the leader of the National Bhand Theatre, at his home in Wathoora. As we sat on the floor sipping chai, he gave me a brief history of Bhand Pather. He took from his closet a flowing red silk robe, woven with gold, which he wears when playing a king. “This is about two hundred years old,” he explained. “It has been passed down in my family, and I will one day pass it to my son.”

The Bhand Pather plays are satirical by tradition. Although the unwritten scripts often hark back to the days of the maharajah, when landlords were the oppressors of peasants, the plays’ political commentary still has great resonance today. Bhand Pather provides a voice, however small, for a people who would otherwise be silenced. While media outfits in New Delhi will rarely challenge the status quo, Bhand Pather is a sort of miniature broadcast media speaking on behalf of the downtrodden.

Since 1947, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, popularly known as Kashmir, has been divided between India and Pakistan, with the majority of the territory-including the coveted Kashmir Valley-under Indian control. Few residents of the valley think of themselves as either Indian or Pakistani-physically they look much more like their Central Asian neighbors to the north, in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and western China. The first road connecting Kashmir to India is only about seventy-five years old, and so Kashmiri culture has evolved without much Indian influence.

Following independence from Britain and the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, the maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir couldn’t decide which new country to join. With Pakistani tribal raiders on his doorstep, he signed the Instrument of Accession to India, and troops from Delhi quickly came to his aid, beginning a two-year war with Pakistan that ended in a stalemate. With only minor adjustments, the cease-fire line of 1949 has become the Line of Control, bisecting Jammu and Kashmir into Indian-controlled and Pakistani-controlled sections. (China lays claim to the isolated territory of Aksai Chin-mainly for the purpose of building a road connecting their western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.)

Today, Kashmir remains a crucial part of the Indian political consciousness. With a predominantly Muslim population, it is the “jewel in the crown” of India’s multiethnic, multireligious state. On the flip side, many Pakistanis feel that the prevalence of Islam in Kashmir gives their country a natural right to rule the region. The valley’s extraordinary natural beauty is, of course, a second reason both countries covet Kashmir.

The Kashmiri people have never felt particularly cozy with either Indians or Pakistanis, and most would like the chance to decide their own future. In 1948, the UN promised them a referendum to choose their national direction, but this has never happened and probably never will. Still, a recent poll conducted by the Indian Express was telling: 87 percent of people in Srinagar, the capital and central city in the valley, favored an independent Kashmir.

A Kashmiri expression describes a person caught between millstones-crushed and ground like a kernel of corn, and spit out the side. The phrase is often applied to the plight of Kashmir and its people, who are caught between the massive millstones of India and Pakistan. After forty years of slow, grinding oppression, 1989 marked the beginning of a new militancy that has completely changed Kashmir. The fuse was lit by a 1987 election for the Kashmiri assembly, which was rigged by New Delhi to favor the candidates of the ruling party. Violence against India grew gradually after that, and began in earnest in early 1989, when many Kashmiri men took up arms against the state. During the 1990s, outside support for the Kashmiri militants poured in, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, until it was nearly impossible to tell which insurgent groups were Kashmiri and which were not. In the Indian army, there was persistent confusion between civilian Kashmiris and militants, and crackdowns meant to suppress the rebellion led to thousands of civilian deaths.

The intensity of the conflict has waxed and waned, but even today grenade attacks on Indian soldiers and killings of alleged militants are a frequent occurrence. At least forty thousand people have been killed (some say as many as eighty thousand), and the vast majority have been civilians. Every Kashmiri knows someone who was killed-a friend or a neighbor, a brother or a father.

Feruz Bhat, who lives in Wathoora, is eighteen years old, the same age as the Kashmir rebellion. Feruz has the look of a young man for whom adulthood came early, and suddenly. His black hair hangs down to his eyes, and his plaid work shirt is open at the top, revealing a necklace of black beads. His eyes are his most striking feature-green and very light next to his dark complexion. He tells his story in a matter-of-fact tone. He knows it is not unique.

In 2000, when Feruz was eleven years old, ten militants took refuge in Wathoora. The Indian army got wind of this and cordoned off the town, isolating the villagers. As they searched for the militants, the army set fire to houses, forcing Feruz and his family to abandon their home. Three hundred villagers were holed up in the basement of a single house, while a pair of militants hid upstairs. They had all been without food and water for five days. As the fire came nearer to the house where they were hiding, two young women-one Feruz’s cousin, the other his neighbor-ventured out of the basement to secure safe passage for the people of Wathoora. As women, it was thought, they would be safe from the suspicion and wrath of the army.

Feruz points to his forehead. “One of them was shot here,” he says in his native Kashmiri tongue. “The other was shot here”-he points to his temple. The men and women of Wathoora flooded out of the house, in sorrow and rage, and fled their village through thick smoke, bearing the bodies of the two young women. When he finally returned to Wathoora a week later, Feruz found his village reduced to ash. For a year after his return, soldiers regularly beat Feruz and his peers. “They asked us, ‘Why did you help the militants?’ We were depressed. We were always afraid they would beat us.”

Violence has been utterly normalized for a whole generation of young Kashmiris. In the early 1990s, a bomb blast would scare people away from an area for two or three days. Not today. Kashmiris have been hardened by years of war. Many of them speak of the conflict in the past tense, despite the bomb blasts and grenade attacks that occur nearly every week. Young people refer to a grenade attack as “throwing a potato.” “Now our heart is strong,” Feruz told me. “Now killing and violence is a routine thing. I am not afraid of anything, even being killed.”

Indian soldiers, armed with assault rifles, cast a constant pall of tension over Kashmir. With very few exceptions, Kashmiris say withdrawal of the Indian army is their first and most important political aim, but there is disagreement among them about how Kashmir should be governed. Some demand total freedom and independence; others would settle for autonomous status within India or Pakistan. Nearly all, however, believe self-determination-government according to the popular will-is the only just solution to the conflict. Since 1989, the rallying cry for many Kashmiris has been azadi, which can be loosely translated as “freedom.” The precise meaning of azadi has changed over time; it means slightly different things to different people. But at its base, explains Aarshad Mushtaq, is a desire for psychological freedom.

I met Mushtaq in a dank basement that serves as the studio for his film-production company. Two years ago he wrote and directed the first Kashmiri film in nearly four decades. But he is most famous for his stage production of Waiting for Godot, which he translated and adapted for a Kashmiri audience. The show began with a mine blast, and there the characters met, in the pall of violence.

“We have nothing to do with Indian Muslims or Pakistani Muslims-Kashmiri Muslims are a different race,” says Mushtaq. “We have six thousand years of our own culture. Ours is a fight for cultural azadi.” He wants his films and plays to depict the life and thoughts of the common man. “We have to have our say in serious forums,” he says. “‘Might is right’ should not be the order of the day. Ideas should conquer.”

On my last day in Wathoora, I was lucky enough to witness a Bhand Pather performance. The show took place in front of Muain Shah, the local Sufi shrine. I sat near a crowd of children in the shade of a great oak. The skit, as my English-speaking friends helped me understand, showed poor, innocent people being exploited by the powerful maghdams, or landlords. Why eradicate poverty and unemployment, the landlords asked, when you could just kill the poor people instead? The audience laughed.

Throughout the performance, three Indian army soldiers lurked in the shade of another tree, just beyond the fence around the shrine. When I tried to take their picture, they became angry. What exactly did I think I was doing, and why was I there at all? A crowd quickly formed around me, and a few tense moments followed. These men-or men dressed just like them-had once burned Wathoora to the ground, had shot women and terrorized children. Indian soldiers had ruled the town for sixty years, and oppressed it for the past eighteen. As a shouting match began, I thought: This must be how the violence starts. Thanks to some quick diplomatic work on the part of my fixer, the situation was defused, and the show’s second act began.

Through the most intense years of the Kashmir conflict, Wathoora’s Bhand Pather faced an unfavorable environment and intimidation from both sides. Ghulam Ali Majboor describes the situation as a split. On one side, the Indian army (most of whom couldn’t understand the local Kashmiri language), fearing they would be subject to parody, outlawed Bhand Pather shows. On the other side, some hardline militant groups objected to the performances on theological grounds. The people of Wathoora were, as usual, caught between the millstones.

Today, though things are better, Majboor and others like him must still tread carefully. “In the past, when nobody would dare satirize kings, we would satirize the kings,” he says. “Today, we beat the drum, but not so loud.”

Published in the 2008-05-23 issue: View Contents

Samuel W. duPont is a recent graduate of Tufts University and a freelance journalist. His research in Kashmir was sponsored by the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts.

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