Bilal Bhat

My understanding of the world is rather convulsed and complicated. It is because of the difficult conditions I live in. Or more accurately, that I’m forced to live in. For me, dreams began with notions. These notions were created through assumptions and assumptions through tales.

I live in a conflict-ridden occupied region sandwiched between two rival nuclear powers both of which claim the land. Crammed between these two countries, my voice is choked. So are my people. I live in a territory where notions are shaped to suit the interests of the colonisers. I have lived most of my 25 years in Kashmir. I have also travelled across India – a country we don’t accept as our own though it calls this piece of land, and not the people, its ‘integral part’. I had always wanted to travel to Pakistan and discover the other half of my existence. Pakistan has always exercised a strong emotional pull on the collective psyche of Kashmiris.


I got an opportunity to visit Pakistan in June this year along with some friends. Overjoyed I was, but also had a deep fear. The current wave of enmity had not yet broken out between the two countries. But India and Pakistan have always been perennial bitter rivals – politically, diplomatically, militarily — even in ‘normal’ times – whatever that means in the Indo-Pak context. The question that had been troubling me at the onset of my journey to Pakistan was, therefore, natural. How can India allow us to visit Pakistan and move there without any hassles? There must be people shadowing us all the time? My fear soon grew into reality. After reaching the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi to get our visa, the first person we met outside was a person from an Indian spy agency.
“Why are you going to Pakistan? Who has invited you? What is your profession?” There was a volley of questions from this man. I thought the person is part of the group visiting Pakistan as he had introduced himself so. It was now clear it’s not that easy a journey as I had assumed.
It was 45 degrees, thirst and hunger had already worn us down. Somehow we managed to get inside the embassy. Pakistan has always given Kashmiris its shoulder and sympathy. Or so goes the popular notion among Kashmiris. I have always been disappointed with Indian officials and their attitude towards Kashmiris. It was for the first time I was facing a Pakistani official. I expected warmth and a helpful approach. But I never thought he would be no different from his Indian counterpart.
“So you are going there for a conference,” the Pakistani official said. “Fill this form and get it back quickly. For how many days do you want to stay there?”
I pleaded for 15 days visa so that I could explore Pakistan, a country Kashmiris have always preferred over India in all matters — be it a cricket match or sighting of the Eid crescent. Instead, he gave me a visa just for seven days. It was very disappointing but I decided to move on. We had planned to leave earlier. We wanted to avoid being part of a former militant commander Zaffar Akbar’s group who was also travelling to Pakistan for the same conference we were going for.
But thanks to Zaffar, it was through him we were provided lunch at the Pakistan embassy. It was now obvious that if you want to get good treatment at the embassy and in Pakistan you’ve got to have good separatist contacts or you need to be in their close company.
Zaffar was one of the special guests invited to this conference in Pakistan. He wanted us to be part of his delegation. He insisted us to travel together. “I’ll provide you everything — travel, accommodation and you will get a warm welcome. People are out there waiting for our arrival,” he insisted.
No doubt, we will receive a special treatment if we accompany him but this would be like inviting trouble for ourselves, I thought. “We are journalists, let’s make this trip on our own without involving anyone,” I told my friend Sajad who was part of the delegation.
Like me, other Kashmiri journalists, scholars and activists who were part of this group were rather overexcited. Pakistan usually gets Kashmiris hyper over a range of matters. I believe it is because while India occupies our territory, Pakistan occupies our grey matter. And tales of India-Pakistan rivalries have dominated our narratives right from childhood.
As we met at the Kashmir House in Delhi for our forward journey to Wagah, I was stunned to see the same agency guy in Kashmir House who had questioned us outside the Pak embassy a day ago. It was like he was particularly following me and my friend. That made me very anxious. His blue-coloured eyes were fixed on me; I somehow mustered some courage and asked him, “Can I have your real introduction now?” “I am working for CID; I have been deputed by SM Sahai Sahib for the past ve to six years to accompany Hurriyat leaders. I was actually assigned to accompany Zaffar Sahib from the airport.” I listened intently as the man continued.
“Boss (Sahai) finds me as one of his best men to accomplish such tasks. He knows it’s me who will recognise them at the airport. I am mostly assigned to follow Geelani Sahib. Last time when he fell ill in Delhi, it was me who took care of him. I took him in my arms while ferrying him to AIIMS,” he claimed with an air of pride, while portraying himself to be pro-Kashmiri. Senior police officer SM Sahai who was recently shifted out of Kash- mir is known for successful counter-insurgency operations and his big role in crushing 2008 uprising in Kashmir.


Sensing trouble, I told my friend to leave. I didn’t want to miss the chance of visiting Pakistan. After reaching Red Fort road in Delhi where we had decided to board the bus we were duped by the travel agents as usual. Duping and deceiving a customer is a general affair in north India. In fact, we met the same fate in Pakistan. If there is so much common between the two countries why do they keep gunning for each other’s blood all the time, I later thought rather amusingly.
While at the Wagah border, my fears followed me. I thought the intelligence guys may come up with some excuse to deny our entry into Pakistan. We had already conveyed our travel plan to the host university authorities who we supposed were waiting for us on the other side to receive us. My main concern was Indian agencies like IB.
At Wagah border, the first IB official we encountered was a Kashmiri Pandit. While talking to us in Kashmiri, he took full details of our purpose of visit, our home town and other credentials. After entering the immigration check, we were further questioned by IB officials. Our emails, phone numbers and Whatsapp numbers were noted down.
Despite being non-political and neutral we were being closely watched and monitored. I was suddenly haunted by memories of all those Kashmiris randomly picked up, framed in fictitious cases of terrorism, imprisoned and later acquitted after 15 or 20 years. Will they label us as Pakistani spies or something like that and throw us into some faraway jail? I kept on asking myself. I don’t know whether this was some unfounded psychosis or a genuine fear – a fear the genesis of which comes from this convenient labeling of Kashmiris as ‘enemy agents’ or ‘terrorists’.
Meanwhile we reached the border and were ferried to the other side. I felt relaxed and overjoyed while reaching the Pakistan immigration. It was like, “Ab koi chinta nahi, now I’m in Pakistan.” I was looking for a phone, I wanted to make a phone call to the people who we were told would be waiting for us at the border. I pleaded before Pakistani officials for a making an urgent phone call but everyone declined. “Security reasons,” was what all of them said. Pakistan has also been a victim of the network of spies from its arch-enemy India, I reasoned to myself. For them, I came from India and technically I’m an Indian.
I approached some coolies pleading for a cell phone. I thought if I would introduce myself as a Kashmiri, we would receive a positive response. My pleas hardly bothered them; they looked like dumb heads giving no heed to my concerns. This cold and unhelpful approach really got me. I began cursing myself for visiting Pakistan. I shouted “Kya Kashmir, Kashmir bolta hai Pakistan. Yahan koi hamari madad nahi kar raha. Kya salook hota hai yahan ek Kashmiri kay saath. Kahaa gayae woh jhootay daway?” After listening to our woes, a well-built man with equally well-kept moustaches offered
us his cell phone. Finally we were able to make a call. But the man on the other side of the line supposed to receive us was a disappointment. “Pick up a private taxi which will take you to Lahore bus stand and from there you board a bus to Rawal- pindi where a person will be waiting for you. He will pick you up,” the man who identified himself as one of the organisers of the conference told me. This cold response shattered my expectations and so did my perception regarding Pakistan.a
We were hungry and helpless. We were left nowhere in a strange place where no one seemed bothered who we were. Somehow we boarded a taxi as we had been told.
Due to these awful incidents, I was least interested in exploring Pakistan – my dream destination. We want- ed to reach Islamabad, have rest and some food. The taxi driver seemed a good person at first sight. But only just. We couldn’t make out his filthy greed, though he offered us some cold drinks. He dropped us at a general bus stand. It was again in the middle of nowhere. It was one of the worst journeys of my life.
We thought that after telling people we are from Indian-administered Kashmir we will be treated as guests. It seemed to work with the driver and conductor of the bus who were polite with us. “No problem, they will reach Islamabad in four hours. We will make them eat in the midway. We will take good care of them, bus is going to leave in 15 minutes,” the bus conductor told the taxi driver as he left us.
Lahore was very hot and expensive too. A simple cold drink costs 55 rupees, a packet of potato chips which is worth 10 rupees in India costs 30 there. It was now almost an hour and the bus hadn’t still left. It was scorching hot as the summer sun beat down mercilessly. Everybody in the bus was busy watching Bollywood movies. I lost my temper and had a heated argument with the driver. The others in the bus followed me but it was of no avail. The bus which we were told would leave in 15 minutes stood there for 2 hours. Finally, it left but the worst was yet to come. The bus was taking too long, frequently stopping and cramming in passengers like cattle. It was suffocating and reeking. A passenger in the bus kept on pleading with the driver on behalf of us to stop for lunch. We were hungry, he knew; he provided us his cell phone. We kept on calling the concerned person but he was dictating to us. He was abusive and angry, blaming us for choosing the wrong bus. Is this the welcome treatment we were supposed to receive, I asked myself.
It was 3pm and we had not eaten a morsel since last evening, I started shouting at the conductor, a man in his 30s, tall, clean-shaven, thin with long hair and moustaches. He was accompanied by two more people, possibly co-conductors. I yelled at them with rage, “Is this the treatment you give to Kashmiris? Tu hum ko chu***a bana raha hai subah say?.” I was about to punch his wily face but my friend stopped me.
Finally, we reached Skyline bus stand in Rawalpindi and hoped our troubles were over. There was no sign of the man assigned to receive us. He was still driving when we called him up but pretended he was already there. We grew tense and nobody seemed to help. A person sitting along with us offered us his phone and some ice creams.
Some half an hour later our man was there driving in a black Honda City. He took us to Kashmir House in Islamabad. Islamabad is very posh, green and clean. It looks very beautiful during evening hours. The
colourful streets of Islamabad somewhat changed my
depressed mood.
Morning in Islamabad was quite refreshing. The city looks very picturesque at any time of the day or night. I and Sajad decided to take a stroll through the city. It was boiling hot, but the beauty of Islamabad was enough to ease this unbearable heat. Back home, while surfing on the Google, I had read Islamabad is the second most beautiful capital city in the world. It seemed a bit overblown then. But
here was Islamabad in front of my eyes with all its grandeur justifying the Google claim. Lush green with neat and clean streets, the city is well-maintained through modern design and engineering. Well-built roads, flyovers and buildings make you feel like one is travelling in a developed country. “This is not the Pakistan we are shown in Indian media,” I told myself.
Islamabad’s beauty aside, other things seemed depressingly South Asian.
For the next three days no official from the university, where we were supposed to convene, bothered to see us. We were badly in need of SIM cards to contact families and friends back home. Sitting whole day in our rooms, we were losing precious time to explore Pakistan. We made umpteen efforts to contact officials, but in vain. We somehow managed to get a Wi connection at Kashmir House. Connections were weak but enough to use Facebook. Thanks to Facebook, after posting the present status and my latest picture in Pakistan I received a lot of invitations from Pakistani friends. They wanted to talk to us, but the problem was I had no contact number through which they could communicate with me. An old FB friend, Malik was the first to meet me at Kashmir House. Well-built and tall, Malik who is in his 30s, this was the first time I saw him face to face. I underestimated Malik, I thought he’s like other general Pakistanis, a middle class, casual-going guy. But he was beyond my expectations. I thought of a just casual meet, but he offered his heart. He gave two SIM cards and drove us out in his new swanky Corolla. Suddenly we were experiencing a new Pakistan that was beyond our imagination. Through Malik we were able to meet locals and know their opinions about Kashmir.
The local response was awesome and warm. I had never imagined we would feel that important in my life. What was that which was making us so special among locals? Which force drove them to have such strong emotional bonding? Perhaps, it was too early to come to any conclusion. We had few more days to explore the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan.
I began comparing my interactions with Indians with those of Pakistanis. I have travelled to many states of India. I have worked and lived outside Kashmir. I have met hundreds of Indians and debated Kashmir with them.
Driven by the nationalistic fervour, the Indians see Kashmir through the prism of national integrity, sovereignty and prestige of India rather than a humanitarian case which is based on history and the people’s right to decide their future. I vividly remember those fanatic lines that Indians parrot to you when you broach the issue of Kashmir’s freedom with them — “Kashmir hamara hai, sara ka sara hai.” “Doodh maango gay, kheer daingay, Kashmir maango gay, cheer daingay.” “Kash- mir hamara taj hai…”

Yes, as a Kashmir these lines are irritating and make me angry. They never make such claims about Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar or other territories of India. It was like a house belongs to me and some outsider is making a claim on its ownership. Aren’t these claims meant to give false legitimacy to an illegitimate occupation? “Yeh Kashmir tum logoon ki baap ki jageer nahi hai,” I would murmur and ensure they wouldn’t hear this. Somewhere deep down it always pinches my heart whenever I see any Indian talking about Kashmir. He talks mostly about Kashmir’s beauty, its beautiful women, shawls and the famous Kashmiri apples. Nobody ever talks about the pain and yawning scars they have inflicted on the people of Kashmir.

“Kashmir is the jugular vein of Pakistan,” Pakistan too claims this to drown India’s atoot ang chorus. I thought I will meet the same narrative here as in India. But, to my surprise to whosoever I spoke, they would say, “Hum Kashmir ko azad dekhna chahtay hain, aap logoon nay bahut zulm sahay hai.”

Moreover, they cursed their governments for the dwindling stand on Kashmir issue. Indian people hail their governments for inflicting atrocities on Kashmiris to keep them subjugated, while as Pakistanis criticised their government for its weak policy on Kashmir. I found Pakistanis more concerned over human rights violations in the Valley than its beauty and rich resourceful land.


“My aim in life is to fight for Kashmiri people to liberate Kashmir,” a 49-year-old security person who was guarding the gates of Kashmir House told me. All the security guards who were accompanying him spoke the same lines. To clear my doubt about the word ‘liberation,’ I posed a question to them: what does liberation of Kashmir mean to you?

“Kashmir azad hona chahiye. Phir say ghulam nahi hona chahiye.” (We want to see Kashmir as an independent nation and not as the part of Pakistan). “It’s the will of the people of Kashmir whether they want independence or merger with Pakistan.” These and similar statements offered a refreshing departure from the atoot ang, sheh rag discourse.
After the news about our presence at Kashmir House spread, people started coming in. The campaign in Azad Kashmir for assembly polls was already on and some political workers were very keen to meet us. One of the politicians, Sardar Nabeela Khan who was campaigning in Azad Kashmir invited us to her home and wehadalongdiscussiononKashmir. Nabeela strongly believes in an independent Kashmir as a solution to the Kashmir dispute.
I had read in articles about the hospitality in Pakistan and I was experiencing everything in person. From locals to shopkeepers, everybody was generous and hospitable. Our ‘Maqbooza Kashmiri’ tag won us discounts,
gifts, and we were able to cherish various delicious Pakistani dishes.
The two-day conference at Jinnah Convention Centre on Kashmir was very fruitful and enlightening. It also gave me an opportunity to meet people from different shades of life. I started seeking opinions from students, politicians, civil society members and academicians in particular. People in Pakistan have understood the significance of resolving Kashmir dispute to end decades-long acrimony with India.
My assessment is that Pakistan media has portrayed Kashmir as a humanitarian issue while highlighting the sensitivities of Kashmir dispute. In comparison, the Indian media has always maintained rigidity on Kashmir and never looked beyond what the Indian government wants it to say. The prejudicial reporting by Indian media on Kashmir has suppressed the humanitarian angle and played up the ‘integral part’ discourse on Kashmir giving more importance to the land, not the people of Kashmir.
Apart from politics of the world, the night in Islamabad is very soothing. Travelling in Islamabad especially to Daman-e-Koh is mesmerising. I got a chance to visit this serene tourist destination. The visit to Pakistan’s famous tourist destination Murree was really awesome. Well-maintained through a proper bioengineering, the picturesque hill station was abuzz with local tourists.
Apart from visiting various places in Pakistan like Shah Faisal mosque and other monuments, my meeting with Pakistani cricketer Suhail Tanveer was very fascinating. Suhail drove whole night from Karachi to Islamabad to meet us. We presented him a Kashmiri Kangri ( re pot) and Pheran (long gown). He was abundantly pleased to get these gifts. He wore the Pheran and hailed the Kashmiri tradition. He prayed for peace and tranquillity in the region. A young guitarist, after realising we were from Kashmir, sung the symphony of peace for Kashmir.
I also observed that Pakistanis have a tremendous and insatiable liking for Bollywood films and songs.
Our time to leave Pakistan was getting close. It was the time for some last minute shopping. Islamabad was too expensive for that, especially the Centaurus Mall. Rabiya Centre was like a pond in a desert. We were able to buy Pakistan’s nest fabrics on cheaper rates in comparison to other places in Pakistan. My mother had given me extra money to buy earrings from Pakistan. Kashmir conflict has made us so phobic that I skipped some shopping due to fear of Indian customs. We, all the invitees from Kashmir, decided to leave Pakistan together except Zaffar Akbar Bhat. Tension grew among everyone on how we can cross safely because we have heard stories of people being whisked away by the intelligence agencies and then falsely implicated. It’s not that Kashmiris are suspects only in India only, but we were distrusted in Pakistan too. We had to go through police veri cation at Islamabad police station. Of cials at the Senior Superintendent of ce told us not to mind such of cial formalities in wake of the terror attacks and weakening security situation in Pakistan. “Bura nahi maan na, yeh sab just formalities hai. We want to tighten security after Indians and Kashmiris have been caught here spying for RAW.”
Being Kashmiris, we had travelled to the ‘enemy country’. So questioning by the Indian intelligence agencies on our way back was obvious. We reached Wagah border early morning. We feared of being unnecessarily dragged into controversial things by Indian authorities. We were on the verge of missing the flight from Amritsar. It was taking time at Indian customs. We were being questioned and our email, phone number, Whatsapp numbers were taken. Thanks to Indian customs they understood we were on the brink of missing our flight. A Sardarji helped us to book taxis. We reached home safely but in the hearts of our hearts there is always a fear of being questioned again. No matter, how neutral you are, a Kashmiri is always a suspect – an agent of the ‘enemy’.

—Bilal Bhat is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist

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