I could sense my family's temporary ire building from downstairs as I scrambled to shove as many vibrantly-colored chooriyan my wrists could accommodate. It was Eid al-Fitr, and like every year, I had underestimated the time it would take to don my new suit from Pakistan and layers of other embellishments. The smell of cardamom arising from freshly brewed Kashmiri Chai and sweet Semiyan floated up to my room; the fragrance of both gave way for a new type of elation: one coupling nostalgia for past remembrances with new ones to come. In preparing for the celebrations of the year, I had slept a mere four hours, spending all night with my friends dancing under the crescent moon and decorating our hands with intricate mehndi designs. “Jaldi karo, namaz ke liye dhair ho jaye ge!” As if on cue, my mother’s voice rang to signal the end of my grace period in getting ready. After observing a Ramadan full of late night taraweeh prayers, midnight IHOP runs with friends, and daytime reflections at the local masjid, Eid prayers were the kick-off to a day full of celebration, food, and community gathering. Year after year, Ramadan after Ramadan, I’ve always viewed such celebrations as a quintessential part of celebrating Eid; yet, little did I know such luxuries are never guaranteed — life in quarantine certainly has proved so.
A mere two days into observing “Ramadan: Quarantine Edition,” I could not help but notice all of the characteristics lacking from this usual, joyous holiday. Mosques were closed, I hadn’t seen my best friends in what seemed like ages, and long days were spent from within the walls of my home. My hunger and thirst experienced throughout the day were amplified, as if sleeping and doing nothing made fasting more difficult. As I continued to reflect and pray, I found myself cupping my hands together in a dua, and asking Allah, why? Tripping over words, I begged God to end quarantine, to allow my family to celebrate Ramadan as it was meant to be. I continued to list my grievances, remembering the loss of my Eid morning traditions as a starting point. In particular, the memory of a particular tradition kept circulating through my brain: It was the early morning light, pouring upon the gurgling treasure box which my father had been restlessly stirring since the beginning of Fajr. The rose color froth forming upon the steadily brewing liquid, the ground pistachios layered upon the finalized drink: Kashmiri chai. And as I reflected upon my mere loss of one year of Eid traditions, I found myself remembering those, such as the Kashmiri people, for whom quarantine was not the only deterrent in celebrating Ramadan. Had God put humanity in this situation, in quarantine, as a wake-up call? To remember those around us whose suffering did not begin and end with a global pandemic; rather, whose suffering was a long-standing tradition of a loss of sovereignty wrapped in political fervor? As I brushed my hands over my face, marking the conclusion of my dua, I decided to pray harder, and longer, for the Kashmiri people; to remember those who were forgotten, whose quarantine was not out of the ordinary. My misfortune was simply missing an Eid tradition of freshly brewed-chai; for the Kashmiri people, their grievances were much longer, and certainly much harsher.
The conflict over Kashmir has stretched decades, beginning far before the partition of the Indian subcontinent in a post-colonial era. An ethnically diverse area, Kashmir is often renowned for its unparalleled beauty; the snowy peaks of the Himalayan mountains, the lush, green valley all conduce a picturesque, postcard-perfect scene. In 1947, the creation of Pakistan and later India raised questions over who would gain access to this prized area of land. To the surprise of many, the Muslim-majority Kashmir hoped to access independence in the near future; in fact, the ruler of the Kashmiri state rejected Pakistani ownership and joined the Indian state, in return for help from an invasion by tribesmen from Pakistan. Since then, Pakistani and Indian tensions escalated into multiple wars, signifying a prolonged conflict, and Kashmiri hopes of independence shattered as the region became successfully “partitioned.” For more than six decades, Kashmir has remained one of the most-militarized zones in the world, facing pressure from both Pakistan and India. August 5, 2019 marked a drastic turn for the state of Kashmir when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India revoked ownership of Article 370 in Kashmir. Article 370 effectively enabled Kashmir to maintain its own constitution, flag, and independence over all matters except foreign affairs, defense and communication; its repeal marked the end of Kashmir’s protection as a distinct demographic state. To “preempt the violence the announcement may have triggered,” the state of Kashmir entered a telecom and media blackout in early August 2019. Since then, Kashmir has remained in a state of lockdown, with government mandated curfews, orders preventing the assembly of groups of more than four people, telephone and internet cut-offs, and the constant threat of rebuke from any of the tens of thousands of soldiers patrolling the streets.
Eid celebrations have become a story of the past for Kashmiris; although India has allowed “cease-fires” during the holy month of Ramadan, these small band-aid like fixes cannot account for the constant suffering and fear Kashmiris face, amongst other emotions. The closing of the Jamia Masjid and the shortage of traditional Ramadan foods are minor inconveniences for Kashmiris; the constant threat of violence and death knocking at their doors in a military uniform consumes any Ramadan-characteristic joy or celebration. In such a politicized conflict, such minute suffering has been long forgotten; for many Kashmiris, especially those in lower socio-economic classes, the thought of a day in which Ramadan celebrations can occur is far from the present. To the outside world, Kashmir remains a picturesque postcard scene, yet the barbed wires surrounding Srinagar, closed signs covering stores, and dust lining the shelves of Mosques is more similar to the reality. For centuries, Kashmiris have been entrapped in a war of independence, losing their right to celebrate, to live, in the process. But for how much longer? While the rest of the world grapples with the newfound uncertainty of COVID-19, Kashmir’s uncertainty has become an inherent characteristic. Kashmiris live day-to-day, unsure of what tragedy may come tomorrow. With continued occupation and violence, a peaceful ending certainly seems far-off.
The gradual loss of Kashmiri identity has formulated the current conflict into a war of autonomy, rather than a war of politics, headed by two nuclear powers posing violence at any given moment. Loss of internet, social life and resources is the new norm for Kashmiris, but the greatest loss is of sovereignty for these diverse individuals. Kashmiris all around the world are suffering; suffering from being unrecognized, from being looked down upon, from losing their identity. I have observed these past few weeks of quarantine in the comfort of my home, with high-speed internet, home-cooked meals and running electricity. Kashmiris have observed quarantine for years, geo-politically isolated, fearing leaving their homes for reasons far more sinister than a virus. There is no equating the two. It should not be the case that our own misfortune of quarantine has made us more aware of the world; we should be aware of these conflicts regardless, with our own personal privilege at hand. Kashmir is in dire need of support, from global recognition of the conflict to simple dialogue and education of Kashmiri identity and sovereignty. For a long time, Kashmir has been entrapped in a battle of recognition; it is important Kashmiri voices are elevated in every possible platform. The resolution of this ages-long conflict is a much longer-goal; yet for Kashmiris, the gradual steps to end this prolonged conflict can hopefully restore normal life.
Kashmiris can no longer enjoy the beauty of their own mystic, desirable state; isolation and suffering has caused Kashmiris to lose sight of their own diverse, arresting culture. Kashmiris deserve to celebrate this beauty, the beauty of Ramadan, of their identity, and of their freedom. Education and advocacy for Kashmiris is only the beginning to ending the lockdown in the region and achieving peace. With or without independence, the narrative must allow Kashmiris to decide what they want for the future of their state, rather than any outside ruling group. I will not just pray for the Kashmiri people, but I will join those who remember them, who stand in solidarity with them, and fight for them.
If this quarantine was a divine intervention, reminding us of humanity’s conflicts, I hope we will now feel more impelled to advocate and fight for Kashmir. I pray for the day Kashmiris can see the end of lockdown, the start of a revolution and a new age stretching along the Kashmiri valley far into the Himalayas. There will be a day in which Kashmiris can leave their homes without fear of violence, can be recognized for their diverse and distinctive culture, and valued for their political ideology. A day in which Kashmiri Muslims can and will celebrate Eid and Ramadan: by praying in their beautiful Jamia Masjid, shopping for dates in the market, or in any way they so choose. Once we have achieved global solidarity and formal recognition of the Kashmiri state, the question of Kashmiris returning to their normal lives simply becomes a "when?" instead of an unknowable "how?". Every sip I take of Kashmiri Chai during Eid will serve to remind me of the privilege and ability I have to join this fight Kashmiris are enduring, and just as I finish my cup, I have no doubt in the ability of Kashmiris and their allies to finish this quarantine, this fight for autonomy. Akh te akh gayi kaah — as the Kashmiri people say, “unity is strength”; certainly we must be the ones to unite, to stand in solidarity, to elevate the voice of those being subdued in hopes of strengthening the snowy peaks of the Himalayan mountains; the lush, green valley; the picturesque scene which Kashmiris call their own.
Special thanks to Dr. Benazir Drabu, whose guidance as a Kashmiri activist and personal mentor has enabled me to reflect upon this crisis with much insight.
Alysha Siddiqi is a member of the Class of 2023 at Yale College.
Graphic: Aimanness Harun / Unsplash