Book Review | American slams J&K policy but doesn’t factor Islamist militancy

The Asian Age.  | Indranil Banerjie

It took the author 15 years to rustle up a book on his Kashmir experiences.

Cover photo of 'Desiccated Land: An American in Kashmir' by David Lepeska. (Photo by arrangement)

Between 2006 and 2008, a young American, David Lepeska, found himself in Kashmir where he ultimately secured a job as correspondent in a local newspaper. As a reporter he had the rare opportunity of witnessing the distress of ordinary Kashmiris. Most of what he saw appalled him.

For, as he explains in the book, the “mission of a foreign correspondent, as I see it, is to move beyond one’s origins and latch onto a new narrative. The fears and concerns of the local population become your own, to an extent. My goal was to see through their eyes, while maintaining my own perspective so as to connect with readers back home.”

It took the author 15 years to rustle up a book on his Kashmir experiences. His assessment of Kashmir’s troubled history is quite fair and displays a clarity rare among Western writers on the subject. However, the timing of the book is intriguing as is its trenchant criticism of the current government’s handling of Kashmir. It is almost as if the author has been told to cobble together a book to slam the present government on its Kashmir policies.

The book is structured in a somewhat unusual manner with each chapter more like a stand-alone magazine article. The author has selected a few topics, each of which constitute a chapter, given a broad introduction to each and, thereafter, held forth on each of them. Much of the matter is a collation of old articles written during his stint as a correspondent in Kashmir.

The result is a book that is easy to read but is, in the ultimate analysis, one person’s rant. Lepeska at times looks at Kashmir through atypical prisms, which is interesting, but mostly he disapproves. In one chapter, for example, he examines the state of scholarship and learning in Kashmir. Here he writes about a visit to a school in one of the most backward areas of the Valley and holds this up as an example of the terrible neglect of Kashmir. The reporting is accurate but its lack of perspective is appalling: India is a poor country where the state of its education system is terrible not just in Kashmir but all over. A primitive school in Kashmir cannot exemplify all that is wrong in a problem area.

Lepeska believes that Kashmir’s problems stem from India’s lack of concern and barbaric treatment of its people. A constant theme in his writings is that Kashmir has through the ages been oppressed by a succession of regimes, including those of the Mughals, Pathans and Dogras. Now it is under the yoke of an illiberal democracy full of barbaric, uncaring citizens.

“And unless more Indians take the risk of responding to the troubles in Kashmir and across their country, India looks set to become to the 21st century what the US was to the 20th — a democracy born with great promise and blessed with great influence that suddenly finds itself submerged in darkness.”

It is this constant preaching that makes the book tedious, especially for an Indian reader, who might contest the author’s central view that all problems in Kashmir stem from the government’s actions and negligence rather than from militant Islam and their attempts to break away from the country.

Even on the Pandit issue, the author tries to justify the mindset in Kashmir by writing about how Muslims are badly treated in other parts of India, how the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat were a blot on the country, and how blatantly anti-Muslim the BJP is. It is like arguing that the Al Qaeda needs to be viewed in the context of the Western oppression of Muslims. The chapter on Pandit problems is mostly about the Gujarat riots and other issues, virtually nothing on their tragic exodus.

The author’s conclusion is that Kashmir is slouching towards disaster and yes, it is entirely the Government of India’s fault. For, he writes, the Kashmiris have long decided to end violence but Delhi has only answered with bullets. In one place he quotes a Kashmiri who says, “We want a peaceful resolution to our struggle. India keeps telling the world about the militancy here, that we are terrorists. But look around, there is no violence here today. There are no terrorists. We are a peaceful people.” Tell that to the hundreds of ordinary Kashmiris who have been assassinated and the hundreds of Indian soldiers who have died trying to curb the violence.

The author continues in the same vein: “With the United Jehad Council announcing it will refrain from violence to allow this mass movement to take its course, so too have the militants. Who’s missed the bus? Delhi. Portraying the heavy, the Indian government has imposed a curfew and, as of 25 August, taken to shooting violators.”

It is a bit of stretch to suggest that terrorism is over in Kashmir and it is the Indian government that is perpetuating the violence. But clearly the author would not concur. The fault, he is convinced, lies with the Indian leadership and not Kashmir’s stone pelting hordes, its self-serving politicians, its militants who have assassinated thousands of their own brethren over the years or Pakistan which continues to send in guns and drugs to feed the conflict.

The author feels the root of the problem lies elsewhere. “I’ve learned that the greatest threat to Western liberal ideas is not Islam or the Muslim world, but Western liberal ideals. Mostly free democratic elections have given us Modi and Trump, Brexit, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro and more… the nadir of illiberal democracy is likely still to come — possibly at the hands of Modi.”

Those who know little or nothing about Kashmir might find the book interesting but for anyone familiar with the subject, Desiccated Land is yet another pedestrian addition to the enormous and constantly growing corpus of works on the topic.

Desiccated Land: An American in Kashmir

By David Lepeska

Vishwakarma Publications

pp. 281; Rs 425