On August 13, 1993, two days before India’s forty-sixth Independence Day, I was traveling by train from Kashmir to a high school near New Delhi. A few hours into the journey, as the maroon Shalimar Express entered the north Indian plains in Punjab, two Indian soldiers entered my compartment. Like me, the soldiers had made a twelve-hour journey through the high mountains of the Kashmir Valley to the railway station in the state’s southern province of Jammu. Ahead of us was a fourteen-hour train ride to New Delhi. The soldiers smiled and dropped their bags in the aisle. “Will you please make room for us?” one of them asked a middle-aged man reading a newsmagazine. “We are going home after a year in Kashmir and don’t have any reservations.” The man was unmoved. The soldier repeated his request, and as I squirmed in my seat another passenger pointed at the dirty aisle floor and said, “You may sit there.”
I was stunned. Unlike people in Kashmir, my north Indian co-passengers had no reason to be scared of the soldiers: they ordered them around and the soldiers obeyed. After a while the ticket examiner arrived. “What are you doing here?” he barked at the soldiers. “Sir, there is no room in other compartments. Sir! Please adjust us somewhere,” they pleaded. He asked the soldiers to leave the coach and began to walk away. They followed him. A few minutes later they returned and installed themselves on the floor. “How much did he charge you?” someone asked. “Fifty rupees each.” My co-passengers laughed and chatted about corruption. “This is India,” declared the man with the newsmagazine.
The India I had seen in Kashmir was different. It was not a shining example of the world’s largest democracy but instead the military arm of an occupying power whose rule we resented. Political discontent had been simmering in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir since the 1947 partition of British India and the birth of the nation-states of India and Pakistan, and more so in recent decades as India curtailed Kashmiri political rights and autonomy. A separatist rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989, and since then more than 70,000 people–mostly Kashmiri civilians and militants, but also Indian soldiers and Pakistani militants–have been killed. After 1990, gun battles, land mine blasts, identity checks, arrests, looting and torture became routine in Kashmir.
When, like thousands of other Kashmiri students escaping the war, I left Kashmir for my Indian school, I was well acquainted with power and fear. In the Shalimar Express, the look I saw on the soldiers’ faces suggested they were as well. Outside Kashmir, without the authority enjoyed by soldiers in “disturbed zones” (granted by India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958) to shoot anyone they deem suspicious; without their armored vehicles and machine guns; surrounded by fellow Indians from the lower and middle classes; confronted by the ticket examiner, a small-time representative of the law–facing all this, the soldiers seemed helpless. And so they made their voyage home sitting on the dirty floor. In that crowded coach, India seemed a more benign place. I ended up spending nearly a decade and a half outside the coach. Living in different Indian cities and towns as a student and a journalist, I came to know Indian democracy as a crowded collage of disparate and often violently clashing realities.