KR OnlineNonfiction

Vote or Die

My mother told me to lie about my age when I became eligible to vote in Kashmir.  Instead of encouraging me to exercise my freedom, she took me to the back room of my grandparents’ house. We laid there hidden, with my aunts and uncles, for the entire election day.

It was 2002, and the conflict between Kashmiri Muslims and Indians was thirteen years old. Two Indian paramilitary men in camouflage uniforms and green helmets stood by our front door with rifles, tapping the butts against the cobblestone sidewalk.  The Paramilitary men were hunting for votes, looking for Muslims to support a country and election that had long treated them as second-class citizens.

In protest of the elections, pro-freedom rebels and separatist groups called for strikes.  Failure to follow their orders could also be fatal.

From the backroom, the voice of Indian military officers rose from the deep silence of our neighborhood. We heard our neighbors being dragged to the polling station, their skulls clanking against the cobblestone.

This is what it’s like to vote in a war zone: with a gun to your head.

• •

I have lived in the US since 2008, and the years of the Trump administration have often resembled what it’s like to be a Kashmiri Muslim. I have been labeled a terrorist and been banned by the president. I have hidden behind doors, fearful of the cops that frequently patrol my Tallahassee neighborhood. I have changed my name on Uber to a Christian one. With my lighter skin tone, I can almost pass as Spanish.

By not voting on India’s election day in 2002, my mother was on the right side of history, even if that feels wrong to the American in me. Voting in Kashmir is like voting for Trump, a misplaced ballot for what poet Jerome Rothenberg calls “the Cruel Minority.” Rothenberg’s poem, originally written for the majority of Americans who voted for Reagan, has been edited to reflect the changing tide of Trump’s America.

The history of Kashmir is both of Rothenberg’s versions; our history is one of subjugation. Shortly after India gained independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, the largest monarchist state under British sovereignty. The Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir sought help from India and signed an agreement of accession. The fighting between the two countries over Kashmir stopped after the UN intervened in 1949. The UN endorsed a plebiscite for Kashmiris to determine which country they wanted to go to, but no consensus could be reached. The reason? The plebiscite was never held. Rather than becoming part of Pakistan, some Kashmiri Muslims wished to become independent from both countries. This pro-freedom movement, a fringe political position in 1949, has since become the preferred choice for most Kashmiris.

But the push for independence through a plebiscite has not come without its drawbacks. Conflicts between pro-freedom rebels and Hindu nationalists have marred the region.  According to a New York Times Article from 2018, an estimated 70,000 people—civilians, pro-freedom rebels, and security forces—have been killed since 1989. Thousands more have ‘disappeared,’ and tens of thousands more have passed through torture chambers. Kashmir’s population, nearly seven million and the majority Muslim, has nearly one million Indian troops patrolling its streets. These troops are mostly Hindu and kill with impunity, fearing neither arrest nor prosecution.

The government under Prime Minister Modi has further exerted its influence in Kashmir. Just last August, Modi repealed Article 370, effectively stripping the region of its semi-autonomy. Many top Kashmiri politicians were taken into custody for several months. The move has made the last fifteen months the most dangerous period since the onset of the conflict, causing me to cut short my recent trip home, my first in about a decade.

• •

After hearing our neighbors being dragged to the polling station, we draped scarves over us. Another layer of ‘protection.’ I cuffed my left hand with my mother’s purple chuni. She bit her nails. Seeing her like this pricked something inside of me, a new cherried organ carved into the old one. What if the soldiers yanked me out of hiding? What if my scarf couldn’t cushion the blow of a rifle?

Everyone hid except for my grandfather. With the Indian soldiers still on guard, he stepped out into the morning light to buy chut from a baker. He returned a few minutes later, half mumbling and clicking his tongue, chatting with the Indian soldiers and offering them chut. The rest of us silently sipped pink salt tea, noon chai, listening intently.  The two Indian soldiers declined and drifted away from our house. Behind the locked doors of the back room, I heard my grandfather repeat Khuda kare sahali: God will protect us, over and over.

Minutes passed and the polling hours arrived. Everyone except grandfather remained hidden. The steady gurgling of his hookah, grrrr, grrrr, grrr, was the only sound. He stood on the kitchen chuek and looked out into the cobblestone lane. Our watchdog.

He turned on the TV, hoping to give the appearance of normalcy. The government channel—the only channel—was broadcasting the election from our polling place. I cracked open the door and saw both men and women covering their faces with scarves.

My mother told me why: fearing retribution from rebels who believed they were supporting the Indian government, these Kashmiri voters did not want to be recognizable on TV.

• •

A friend in my PhD program recently asked me if I thought Kashmiris could expect freedom in my lifetime. It’s a question I’ve asked myself hundreds of times, but I still don’t know the answer.

What I do know: The polling day made us feel like we existed. When I joined my aunts and uncles in that back room, I felt important. By not voting, I was doing my part.

I am reminded again of the Rothenberg poem:

The poor lie hidden in the darkness?
The maimed no longer come to show their wounds?

On that election day in 2002, we lay hidden in the darkness. We were the maimed. But we felt important.

I wonder if the others felt similarly. Did my family lose the conviction to resist India’s occupation of our land? But my vote was fresh, filled with the faith of having a voice.

And my voice remained silent.

• •

But I have experienced freedom before. A freedom that protected the minority. I was a student at the University of Hawai’i, sitting in Keoni Auditorium at the East West Center in Honolulu, waiting for President Obama to take the stage. This was the university where his parents had studied. They had met a few yards from the auditorium. Perhaps his mother or father had sat in the same chair that I was in. It was the first time that any election harbored a feeling of hope, tender as the mesh of my chair’s back cushion. Intimate for its proximity. Sparkling like the faces of President Obama and first lady Michelle on the LCD projector.

We all walked to President Obama’s grandmother’s house after his speech. I was surrounded by strangers standing on the patio. I looked at their faces and thought I recognized freedom. Freedom was the winning minority. We stomped our feet, and a we will win symphony rose from the patio’s rough concrete.

In the darkness of the night, freedom had turned the concrete green for us.

• •

My family was fortunate on my first election day in Kashmir. Indian soldiers didn’t come to our house, but many of our friends weren’t so lucky. I remember my uncles cursing as they returned from the kitchen with chut for us to eat. Two soldiers had knocked through the window of our next-door neighbors, grabbing them by the throats and beating them down with clubs. In the backroom, we could hear them yelling the whole half-mile to the polling station, their skulls smashing into the cobblestones.

My mother pricked my skin. It was a reminder that I still remember: This is how to live with war.  Be strong. Turn the dark inside to light.

Looking back, I can’t help but think that each one of us in that cramped room had been searching for our absent plebiscite. Hidden within the old chunks of red brick walls, but out of our reach. We couldn’t just take a hammer to the walls and pull off the concrete. That would have been freedom.