Friday, September 18, 2009

In the Valley of Mist by Justine Hardy

While corruption is part of the Indian way, in the Kashmir Valley it is a nuclear-charged version, literally, heightened by conflict, and exacerbated by the position of the state as a possible nuclear trigger between Pakistan and India. The Central Government of India pours in money to soothe the constant insecurity of the place, so the pickings are rich, the bureaucrats lining up to take the jobs and all the backhanders come, too.

Corruption has been a secondary infection digging into the wounds of the insurgency. In a culture that accepts corruption as part of the machinery of life, the insurgency has been a wonderful and all-encompassing veil that has blurred the accountability of the state.. It has allowed many to get fat and rich on money allocated by the central government in Delhi for housing, education, basic hygiene and medical programs, support packages for the victims of the conflict- it is a bulging list. Every government and ruling body in Kashmir since the early 1980's has been tainted with corruption charges, both officially and unofficially. The charges range from the lowest levels of petty bribery through to what seems impossible, the trading of human life.

Whether I have been sitting with shepards, ex-militants, soldiers, militants, village people, city people, the old or the young, the subject will come up with the same regularity as the weather. In Kashmir there is a continuing conversation about the state of the sky, the blueness of it, the depth of its gray, the brillance of the sun, how close the stars seem, a velvet night, a saturated morning, the colors of the mist, or the silence of falling snow. Corruption enters the conversation with the same regularity, as ugly to people as their sky is beautiful, and as overarcing in their lives.

"There was a housing official. He was responsible for one part of the city. He was given huge amounts to build a whole set of buildings in one place, housing for people who were being moved from an area that was being cleared for a shoppping mall."

Ibrahim blew a smoke ring as he warmed to his theme.

"Then it was the end of his time in the post and he was handing over to someone new. This new man comes and he is being very attentive to his work. He looks at the records of the building work completed, and he goes to see some of the sites. He finds there to be no buildings, just one big nothing, not even a pile of bricks. And he seeks out the man who was in the job before him and asks him what weas happening.

And the first man says to the second, 'so what can I do to help you with this, what can I give you to make this easier?' And the second man did not know what to say. The first man then had an idea. 'I know, you apply to the government for funds to pull down the building and you tell them that you have seen the structure and that it has been built on poor foundations, that it is unsafe and must be demolished. Then we will have both benefited.' Can you believe, this is the very thing that happened. Money was given first for a building that was not built, and then more money was given for a building to be pulled down that was never there."

We both laughed at the joke of it, the lunacy.

"And if anyone asks them what happened to the money these people just say that the militants stole it from their department, or that they extorted it from government offices with threats against lives. No one challenges this. And this is how it is. Nothing chnges. Too many people are involved in this and we all know about it but no one is big enough and with power enough to say 'stop this thing.'

Of course, even though the corruption is pandemic, the government cannot always just turn away as the crores (tens of millions) of rupees are thrown out an ever-open window. Sometimes the extortion or bribery is too obvious, and then someone is arrested and charged. Intermittently it is someone in the position of minister. There is no great show of surprise, little indignation, apart from the highly dramatized shock played out by the family of the accused, and the man himself. People accept it, shrug, carry on regardless. These occasional arrests do not set an example. They are neither preventive measures, nor apparently even particularly effective in stopping the culprit, once the charges have been dropped, or a small price paid for the graft committed.

"The worst of this is that people like me and my family', continued Ibrahim (a textile merchant), "we can deal with this. It is our choice not to pay these bribes, but we could also choose the other way, we could pay them. The people who are most damaged by this are the poor. They cannot afford these bribes".

It is the poor who are destroyed, whether it is the vegetable seller who has to pay a bribe to the police so that he can put his cart in the same place each day, or a wife selling her wedding jewelry, her only insurance, to pay a police mukhbir who has promised her information that does not exist about her missing husband... The brave few who try to stand their ground are simply left to struggle alone. The poor cannot afford the luxury of taking the high moral ground...the mechanism is entrenched. It will crush anyone who dares to confront it, alone and tiny, in the face of this gargantuan machine that plows over almost every bud of progress and change that as to raise itself up out of the dirt of the conflict. Too many are invested in the status quo of the corrupt system.


  1. In the febrile environment of the Kashmir Valley it was inevitable that the formation of local counterinsurgency forces would be a breeding ground for bribery and extortion. Behind closed doors, and in private, most Kashmiris agree that paramilitary forces and specialist counterinsurgency groups have taken corruption to new highs. They will nod, agree, and tell stories that you hope have been made up, are rumors, or appalling exaggerations. But they will not go on record. It is still not a time when peple can talk freely and openly of what they have witnesses or been subjected to, and the hands of both the security forces and the militants. There have been many" incidents". People refer to them, they tell stories, but they also ask me not to retell them. People have spoken out over the years but they have also been further brutalized for doing so.

  2. "In the Valley of Mist; Kashmir: One Family in a Changing World" by Justine Hardy; Free Press, 2009

    Postscript: "Since I finished writing this book, there has been a state election in Jammyu and Kashmir. There is now a new leadership under a young man whose family has been inextricabbly involved in Kashmiri politics since the 1930s. Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, has brought an optimism that has not been felt in the Valley for a long time. The task of economic re-structuring and trust-building that he faces are monumental."