Kashmir has been classified as the most heavily militarized and largest territory occupied by armed forces in the world. The killing of Burhan Wani—hailed as a freedom fighter by some and a militant commander by others—on July 8, 2016, triggered a bloody summer in the valley. It has also brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war once more.
Border skirmishes between the two nuclear states have been abundant since 2011, but were particularly egregious this September. India and Pakistan went to war 1965, 1971, and 1999. The total death toll from these conflicts stands at 15,000, and the fatalities in Kashmir since 1947 are estimated to be over 100,000. The two warring states themselves emerged from the gory Partition of the Indian Subcontinent, which is considered to be the largest and most violent mass migration in human history. Close to 2 million were killed because of the communal violence that erupted and engulfed the 15 million people uprooted from their native land.
Punjab was ripped at the seams in the process. It is the province that my ancestors came from. They migrated from Amritsar and Ludhiana in what is now Indian Punjab to Multan and Lyallpur in the newborn state of Pakistan. They were lucky to have survived the journey. The painful tales that my grandparents narrated were an important part of my childhood. With tear-filled eyes, they spoke of friends turning into foes, of leaving ancestral lands and heirlooms, of dismembered bodies and tainted humanity. My father was among the first generation to be born in a Muslim majority country carved into the heart of the subcontinent. He was only in his twenties when he saw it split in two and watched what remained disintegrate into the bitterness of a promise not kept by a nation in deep crisis.
Here in Claremont, my peers and I treat this history and the present conflict that it shapes more critically. We look at the distribution of power in the region and think about militarization as a consequence of scarcity and access to resources. We attempt to understand identity construction through the process of colonialism and independence and how the global political paradigm reflects values from both. But perhaps most importantly, we have learned to humanize the geopolitical struggle.
When I started college in 2013, I received a thoughtful and witty email from Shaila Andrabi, who is the wife of Professor Tahir Andrabi at Pomona College, inviting me to lunch at Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages. It was for the Hindi-Urdu table she hosted each week. She had been volunteering her time and energy for years to ensure that students with linguistic ties to South-Asian had a space to express themselves in their mother-tongues in the absence of classes at the colleges for these Indo-European languages. Back then, we were only half a dozen regulars.
Now as a senior, I get lunch every Thursday with a group of over 25 students, faculty, and staff from across the 7Cs. The name of the table has also evolved as the attendance has expanded. We take up three tables on the east end of the dining hall, and talk and laugh the loudest of all the groups present. Last year we called it the ‘Cross-Bhasha Mez’—literally cross-language table—adopting a word each from Hindi and Urdu and giving it a more authentic desi name. This year, in an attempt to be more representative and inclusive, we simply call it the South-Asian Languages table. Many of the students speak a regional language other than Urdu or Hindi like Punjabi, Saraiki, Sindhi, Tamil, Telgu, Marwari, Guajrati, Marathi, Kashmiri, Kernada, or Pashto but come because of the community of support and intellectual exchange Mrs. Andrabi has created.
Urdu and Hindi, although mutually intelligible, are expressed in different scripts—the former borrowing from the Persian and Arabic alphabet and the latter from Sanskrit. To me, this seems to exemplify not just the linguistic differences between the two (which certainly do exist), but also the differences in the retelling of our shared history through the groundwork laid down in the colonial era. The policy of ‘divide and rule’ was used by the British East India Company to augment power and set up rule, and for this they created the ‘other’: Hindus vs. Muslims vs. Sikhs.
It is this very phantom that haunts my part of the world today. While power struggles in South Asia were rampant prior to colonial rule, the wars were fought in the name of empire and not religion. The British busied the Indians with fighting each other so that they could stay for as long as it was viable. And then when they were done plundering, they hastily drew up the Radcliffe Award and gave the Muslim League and Congress enough to ease their departure.
Sometimes I am asked why I cannot stop talking about colonialism. It is not because the British attempted (and failed) to wipe out our indigenous cultures. It is because they left my people with the idea that anyone who did not share their same political views and identities was not worthy of their compassion. They left us with a functioning railway and a legacy of hate. The former falls into disrepair and the latter continues to thrive in full force on both sides of the border. And now, after almost seven decades, after we won our hard-fought freedom, we wonder why our countries aren’t truly independent yet.
The hardest days for my Oldenborg family are not when the food is bland and tasteless. They are the days when tensions between Pakistan and India intensify, when the Line of Control becomes more than just a disputed, dotted line on a world map, when Kashmir bleeds and jawaans die defending their country’s honor. The hardest days are when we look at the familiar faces and see the specter of the “other,” when despite our multilingual fluency we grope for words to animate the silence, when we try to swallow the jingoistic rhetoric we see on our social media newsfeeds and keep it from poisoning our tongues and friendships.
On those days, I carry a silent apology on my lips. It is similar in quality to the silence with which my peers and I watch gross human rights violations on all sides and see the valley known as “heaven on earth” turn into living hell. We may have found ways of reinterpreting our histories but we still struggle to make sense of the present. What bothers me most is that we are bound by an inertia that distance from war creates, and we are not doing nearly enough to fight it.
Aiman Chaudhary PO '17 is a Politics and International Relations major.