Lifting the Veil
In Western news accounts, Kashmir is invariably described as an important piece in a longstanding geopolitical puzzle. It is identified as the axis of relations between India and Pakistan, a “nuclear flashpoint” that could spark an unthinkable war in South Asia. While these characterizations are accurate, they overlook the intrinsic value of Kashmir as an entity in itself, as well as the human story of a long-ignored war that is slowly destroying one of the world's most exquisite cultures.
On autumn nights before the insurgency began, Kashmiris would pack teapots and picnic hampers and drive out to the saffron fields, where they watched the moonlight silvering the purple saffron blooms far into the distance. Now, they do not venture out after dark. Kashmiris have a favorite saying, repeated with the regularity of a prayer by taxi drivers and almond- sellers, shopkeepers and schoolteachers: “When I leave home in the morning, I have no guarantee of returning alive.” Since 1989, conservative numbers estimate that at least 80,000 people have been killed in Kashmir. The number of patients at the only government-run psychiatric hospital in the Kashmir Valley has increased more than twenty-fold in the last decade.
The conflict has eroded much that once defined Kashmir. Hindus and Muslims once shared neighborhoods, schools, and close friendships, but nearly all the Hindus fled Indian-governed Kashmir after being threatened by Muslim militants, and are now scattered across the dusty plains of India. Sufism, which exerted a gentle influence on Kashmiri Islam for more than a dozen generations, has been gradually pushed aside by a more radical Islam practiced by militants from Pakistan. For centuries, Kashmir’s Mughal gardens and wooden houseboats offered diversions to weary rulers. But leisure has vanished from Kashmir. No one visits, and fear has tainted the lives of those who make their homes amid its apple and apricot orchards, in its meadows and in the creases of its mountains.
I wandered briefly into the poetry of Kashmir in November of 2001 and could not let go. Whether trudging through the perfectly etched landscape that included rice fields cascading into the valleys like delicately carved staircases, sipping saffron tea in the warmth of a Kashmiri home or being cradled in the tranquility of a wooden shikara, a gondola style boat, on Dal Lake, this place filled me with affection. I wanted to understand Kashmir and delve below the glassy reflections in its still lakes. The mountains were mirrored perfectly until the oar hit the water, a crack rippled through the reflection and one began to sense that all is not what it seemed.
After 21 years of militancy, many Kashmiri’s still want independence, but even more, they want peace. Their land now lies in ruins. Many are dead and young Kashmiris leave if they can. They long for normalcy. but each day seems to bring only more casualties. It was my desire to share the stories of those caught in the conflict with the grace that they had been told to me, in a manner that did justice to the beauty, strength and suffering of Kashmir’s people and to the unique richness of its history and culture. Kashmir’s culture is too rich to be eradicated, its offerings to the world too great to be ignored.
Ami Vitale has received recognition for her work from World Press Photo, the NPPA, International Photos of the Year, and Photo District News, and the South Asian Journalists Association presented her with the Daniel Pearl Award for outstanding print reporting on South Asia.
Her stories have been awarded grants including the first-ever Inge Morath grant by Magnum Photos, The Canon female photojournalist award for her work in Kashmir, and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace.
Vitale's photographs have been published in major international magazines such as National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, Smithsonian and Le Figaro, among others. They have also been presented in international exhibitions including: Visa Pour L'Image, Perpignan, France; Reporters Sans Frontiers, Paris; the FotoArt Festival in Poland; the Open Society Institute and The United Nations in New York.