On February 15, I went out for breakfast, as I often do, to a small restaurant near my home in Hyderabad’s Panama area. The establishment’s owner is a Rajasthani Hindu and his staff is from various parts of India. As is our routine, I greeted him with the words “Jai Shree Krishna”. He always replies, “Asalamu alaikum.” But that morning, he had another response: “Jai Hind.”

The atmosphere felt heavy. Loud murmurs seemed to come from both the staff and customers. I thought that every eye was on me. “You too are a Kashmiri,” they seemed to say. I felt like the most hated person on the planet. They were angry with me for a crime someone else had committed. I returned home quickly.

The incident made me recall conversations I’d had in August, when I thought about travelling to Hyderabad with my friends to find a job in the media. My parents were wary of the idea. They think that no place outside the Valley was safe for Kashmiris. I fought with my father. “No place or its people shouldn’t be judged without actually visiting that place and meeting those people,” I contended.

For most of my first month in Hyderabad, I tried to avoid people who might start conversations about the situation in Kashmir. But my features gave me away as a Kashmiri. Many people asked whether I was a stonepelter, if I loved Pakistan, whether I wanted freedom from India. They also wanted to know whether I thought that Kashmir was an integral part of India and if I believed that every bad thing happening in the Valley was because of Pakistan.

To be honest, I didn’t have answers to many of these questions. “It’s all politics,” I would say diplomatically. “I don’t believe in politics and in the concept of nations and boundaries.”

Settling in

Despite this, in two or three months, I began to feel comfortable in Hyderabad. I made friends with people who came from around India, who had various political ideologies, religions, languages and castes. I made them friends with them because they never asked me about the Kashmir issue. Our discussions about the Valley were mainly about its beauty. Everyone wanted to visit Kashmir. They would seek advice about which places in the state they should travel to. Whenever an incident occurred in the Valley, they did not discuss it – but their eyes would be full of questions

On October 11 when news broke about Phd scholar Manan Wani being killed in an encounter, it was clear that their silent questions had started to make a noise in their heads. Before they could pose them to me, I decided to ask them the questions that they wanted to ask me.

“What is happening in the Valley?” I asked. “When will this end?”

They were quick to respond.

“It will only end when Pakistan will stop funding terrorists,” said a hardcore right wing supporter from Uttar Pradesh. For him, it was clear that the only problem Kashmir has is Pakistan.

A friend from South India, a left wing supporter, didn’t quite agree. “Not only Pakistan, but our own government as well,” he contended.

Srinagar's Dal Lake, one of the many sights that tourists visit Kashmir to see. Credit: pixabay.com

The discussion soon shifted from Kashmir to the general elections, electronic voting machines, scams and scandals. My role changed from anchor to spectator. Over the next new months, I grew increasingly comfortable with these freewheeling conversations. I started to believe that all the fear Kashmiris had about the violence they would face in other parts of India were untrue.

But with Pulwama attack, we are back to where we started. Initially, everyone was so preoccupied with the news, they even did not even notice that I was Kashmiri. I could feel their pain. They were in that place where I have been many times. They were feeling what has made us numb. I tried to cheer them up.

This was received as a sign of betrayal. They thought I am making fun of the tragedy. Soon, news began to emerge of Kashmiris being beaten up in other states. My friends were pleased at this and defended the assailants. They did not spare a second thought for me as a Kashmiri.

My Kashmiri colleagues gathered for a discussion. We decided that we would not go out unless absolutely necessary – and even then, we would travel in a group, only at night. We would keep checking our phones to make sure that we did not have any photos of anyone who had died, whether they were civilians, militants or security personnel. We would not post anything on social media. We would not participate in any discussions. We would not get provoked or lose our cool. We would not even smile. We would be smart. “You are intelligent only if you are afraid,” I told my friends.

Unsettling silences

The next day, on the office bus, all my colleagues were busy – or pretending to be so. It was clear that they did not want to engage with me. That was probably the best option. I put my head into my book. But what I was actually trying to read was their minds. At the office, I could feel the anger. No one smiled when they walked past me. There were no handshakes, no high fives, no invitations to join them at lunch, no friendly conversations.

Worried calls began to pour in from friends and relatives. They were more afraid than I was. They wanted me to come back home. “We should also do the same with non-Kashmiris here,” said one anxious Kashmiri friend. “Then only they will understand.”

I didn’t argue but I know he’s wrong. After all, violence only begets violence. There should be a clear difference between them and us. I fervently request all fellow Kashmiris to ensure that all non-Kashmiris in the Valley are kept safe. This is the time to prove the world that Kashmiriyat is not just a word, it is a feeling. If there are safe there, we will be safe here .