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“We want freedom” ~ Kashmir, a photo essay

Photos and text by Nitasha Kaul

A view of Srinagar city, garlanded by concertina wires, from the incline up to Hari Parbat / Koh-i-Maran (Mynah Mountain, also known as Mountain of Serpents). Uniformed personnel camp at the fort ramparts, which receives few visitors. Nearby is the revered Makhdoom Sahib shrine.

The name ‘Burhan Wani’ is a shibboleth that determines identity and politics for people in India and Kashmir. For an overwhelming number of Kashmiris, he was a Hero, an immortalised figure, who continues to live in people’s hearts. The 2016 uprising following his death was massive and spontaneous, and the pellet-blinding response from India made it clear how Kashmiri sentiments are incomprehensible to Indians.

Large and small militarized vehicles in gray, dark green or white are a standard feature of Kashmiri landscape. They often have soldiers atop them who have their fingers on the trigger of a gun. Such convoys represent a show of brute force. Kashmiris can often name the specific kind of vehicle (‘One Ton’, ‘Rakshak’ and so on).

This wall is not far from the renovated Zero Bridge in the city. The face on the far right is that of Maqbool Bhatt, a Kashmiri martyr, who was hanged and buried in Indian prison in 1984 (like Afzal Guru in 2013). Underneath ‘Indian assholes’ are the words, ‘This is not the Ungli Gang, this is Kashmir’. Ungli Gang was a 2014 Indian movie about crime and vigilantism.

On this wall, underneath the ‘Go India’ slogan, are the words, ‘Kala Kala CRPF Wala’ (‘Black Black CRPF man’), which have been amended to add ‘Ya Wali (‘Or Woman’). Indian CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) paramilitary personnel are called ‘Black’ in reference to the internalised stereotype of Kashmiris as ‘fair-skinned’.

This is a picture from the Batmaloo locality in Srinagar on a Friday afternoon in 2017. The area is famous for stone-pelting protests. These policemen are going towards a group of young men further ahead. There is deep-rooted resentment against India and no political space to accommodate the voice of the stone-pelters.

The infrastructure in Kashmir is poor and reflects the twin realities of conflict and corruption. Indian soldiers stand with guns right beside slogans that say ‘Indian Dogs Go Back’, or more often ‘Go India, Go Back’. Even the footsoldiers of Indian occupation generally understand that this is a ‘political problem’, which cannot be solved militarily.

A view of the innards of Srinagar city from a downtown bridge. The ramshackle buildings are piled upon each other and reflect a dizzying panorama of complex religious and social histories.

‘We Want Freedom’ is the writing on the wall everywhere in Kashmir. It is routinely erased but reappears with a resilience. Sometimes, the slogan is bowdlerized, as on this shopfront, where it is changed to read ‘We want Jio Sim free’. Jio Sim by Indian company Reliance (owned by Ambani) is freely available in Kashmir.

Indian soldiers (military, paramilitary, and armed police) are ubiquitous in Kashmir, which is one of the world’s most militarised zones with emergency powers like AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) having been in force for over two and a half decades. There is a long history of human rights abuses and the ordinary soldiers themselves often face harsh conditions.

Graffiti is easily visible everywhere in Srinagar, except on the road from the airport and at the tourist hotspots. This is a telling statement on a wall near the grand historic Jama Masjid in the city.

These billboards are at a traffic roundabout in Sonawar, not far from the offices of the UNMOGIP (United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan) and Doordarshan broadcasting service. There are numerous posters welcoming Amarnath yatris (pilgrims) in the city and many eateries that are (Gujarati/Punjabi) pure vegetarian.

Keychains on sale outside the Botanical Gardens that combine two significant passions in Kashmir – Freedom (‘Aazadi’) and Cricket. The victory of any team over India is widely celebrated, especially if it is Pakistan. In 1983 and 1986 at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium in Srinagar, the crowd famously booed the Indian team and cheered for the opponents. International cricket matches are not played in Kashmir since then.

For most tourists, Kashmir is a byword for ‘exotic’. This is a Pakistani woman dressed up in traditional Kashmiri costume posing for photographs on a shikara at Nehru Park island on the Dal Lake in Srinagar.

This little girl was looking out from her taped-up window in the vicinity of Downtown area at the heart of old Srinagar. Upon seeing me with a camera, she waved and came downstairs to speak to me. The frustration of spending long periods of time indoors during curfews is a significant part of life that affects the children and youth especially severely.

These are impoverished migrants from north Indian states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, who travel to Kashmir to make a living in the summer months. Their living conditions are miserable and they can be seen begging or sleeping on the pavements or near shrines in the city.

This picture is from a vigil held by APDP (Association of the Parents of Disappeared persons) at Pratap Park in central Srinagar on the 10th of every month. APDP is a collective of families victimized by enforced disappearances. The figure dressed in cyan is that of Parveena Ahangar (‘Iron Lady of Kashmir’, chairperson of APDP). 

Dr. Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, economist, and an associate professor in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster in London. Her publications include the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlisted novel Residue (2014) and the scholarly monograph Imagining Economics Otherwise (2007). See and @NitashaKaul


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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