Nobody knew where the place was. The best answer I got was at a little convenience store, where I bought a paper and asked my question. The man looked puzzled, then pointed vaguely across the road. “Think it’s down there,” he said, “but I’m not sure. Take that street and ask.” So I did. As I walked, odd stares pursued me from behind fences, behind lacy curtains. I thoroughly baffled two schoolgirls with my question. Somewhere along the way, a muscular young man strode up and asked in that lilting brogue, “Where’re you for, then?” I told him. “Just cruisin’ the ‘hood, eh?” he observed, and walked off.
I still had no idea.
My quest really started some days earlier, when I read these lines in a book:
- [H]eavy military searches in the Kashmir area in February provoked a bitter reaction from local women. This escalated into serious rioting.
Sort of routine, maybe? Well, yes, if you’re an Indian. I might have read these lines in any of hundreds of reports over the last decade or so, and the sad thing is that I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Where I did not expect to read it was in this book: a history of the troubles – of course I should say Troubles, must give the proper noun it has become the respect it deserves – in Northern Ireland. Over the years, some serious troubles of the Troubles in Belfast have been in the “Kashmir area” of the city, somewhere in the almost entirely Catholic quarter of Falls Road.
Now there’s irony, I thought. I began reading about the Irish Troubles because it seemed to me there were parallels there, links, to our own Kashmir. I was in search of those weighty, pregnant parallels: religious hatreds, the partition – or Partition, that other proper noun – of countries, the idea of self-determination, the use of terrorism. Who would have thought that while looking for those esoteric sociological concepts, a mere name would stop me short? Who would have thought that the parallels begin with the word “Kashmir” itself?
And why that involuntary shudder as I read the word? Probably because it was something as trivial as a name, and that very triviality carried a lesson: much as we like to believe our particular problems are unique, they are not. So perhaps there are more lessons to be learned.
Nothing remarkable about those lines that describe a 1971 Belfast episode, really, not even the mildly curious idea that there are Indian names to be found in that city. After all, there are also roads there by name Cawnpore and Bombay, also reasons for mild curiosity. But “Kashmir” hit the really loud note. For the two sentences might have been written about our Kashmir, and they would be just as true. And something is indefinably unsettling there: that two Kashmirs have seen such similar misery; that the language used to describe misery is so easily interchangeable.
In broad brush strokes, the Troubles have roots in the religious divide: Protestant vs Catholic. Britain is largely Protestant; the Republic of Ireland is largely Catholic; Northern Ireland is a mix of the two, though Catholics are in a definite minority. With some substituted words, much the same can be said about where we live: India is largely Hindu; Pakistan largely Muslim; Kashmir is a mix of the two, though Hindus have always been a definite minority. As in Ireland, the tension in our Kashmir has its roots in religion, in the ancient hostility between Hindu and Muslim.
Even the ways all this came about run parallel. In the 1920s, Ireland had a Boundary Committee that drew the border between North and South. In its cynical arbitrariness, it had echoes in Radcliffe’s similar efforts with a pen in the subcontinent before 1947. The calculation was purely numerical: from this largely Catholic island, how do you carve out a viable country that’s still dominated by Protestants loyal to the Crown? Nine counties was a reasonable chunk, but that would have given the new state a nearly even balance between Protestants and Catholics. Goodbye, domination. Take just the Protestant areas? That would be just three counties small, with non-contiguous pockets as well. Goodbye, viability.
Thus the six-county compromise: generally Protestant areas in the northeast, plus Catholic areas reaching out to Derry to the west and Fermanagh to the south. Two-thirds Protestant, enough to leave them with the memory of the Crown-bolstered domination they had over the entire island for centuries and knew they would lose in independent Ireland. Large enough to sustain statehood.
That was Ireland’s own Partition in 1921. How similar a process must we have seen a quarter-century later? There was the same fear of non-contiguous regions: a fear that the bloody birth of Bangladesh proved right in 1971. There was the problem of ensuring Muslim dominance in Pakistan, thus allowing some the easy assumption that Hindus – by default, if not officially – must dominate in India. There was the unthinking way that the line cut through villages, even houses.
And in our part of the world, there was no way to draw that line so that people would not need to cross it as the two countries were born. The migration that followed spiralled into the worst bloodshed the subcontinent ever saw. There is no need to remind any Indian of the place that word “Partition” has in our history and imagination, the hatreds it set in motion and yet in stone. Figuratively but also literally, its wounds haunt us to this day. Just as they do in Ireland.
Most of these thoughts hummed in my mind as I arrived in Belfast to search for Kashmir. From the airport into the centre of town and to my B&B, it seems much like any other European city. The same shops, the same restaurants, the same relative – for a visitor from India – sense of order. Who would guess what lay beneath that surface? And yet I knew from my reading about the Troubles that a monster of sorts lurked here. I wanted to glimpse it, there below the surface. I wanted to explore the things here that would remind me of the situation of my own country.
Shankill Road – or just “the Shankill” – is the Protestant area (“One hundred per cent Protestant,” said Norman, my taxi-driver, with more than a tinge of pride), and nothing comes subtle here. British flags hang everywhere. The edges of pavements are Union Jack red, white and blue. So are major traffic signs and lamp-posts. But obvious and eye-catching as these are, they are not the dominant sights in the ‘hood. That distinction goes to the wall murals. And the wall murals speak most directly of all that has happened here.
For it is no normal thing, certainly no work of art, when an entire side of a building is painted with a man in a black mask, holding a long and deadly rifle. Sometimes two men. These are images that come to mind when you hear the word “terrorist.” Yet here they are, ten times larger than life, up on these walls and in your face, examples to a generation.
Someone likes terrorists, always. In these post –WTC days, a useful thing to remember.
In this corner, a mural dedicated to Billy “King Rat” Wright, “Loyalist Martyr, 1960-1997.” Complete with wreathed portrait of the man, tatooed, goateed and positively benign. The Rat was “martyred” while in jail, shot to death by Catholic prisoners who managed to smuggle in a gun. From the looks of this memorial to him, the Rat was a huge hero to the Shankill.
But why jail? Writing in the Guardian in December 2000, Rosie Cowan noted:
- Billy Wright was shot dead by the Irish National Liberation Army in [jail] on December 27, 1997, where he was serving an eight-year sentence for threatening to kill a woman. Security sources claim that Wright, 37, once the local Ulster Volunteer Force leader and later boss of the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer faction, was behind up to 20 brutal murders, although he was never convicted of any.
“He put the fear of God into people,” said one man. “There is no doubt that as a UVF leader he was blooded in violence but it is difficult to separate the myth from the reality. A King Rat lookalike only had to be spotted somewhere for [Catholics] to go to ground for three weeks.”
People also remember the mysterious killing of a Protestant woman married to a Catholic, and the blood-spattered murder of three Catholics in a shop in Lurgan. King Rat was rumoured to have choreographed those as well.
What manner of martyr, of hero, was this? What manner of man?
And in posing those questions from his mural, King Rat neatly mirrors the dilemma of a thousand civil wars, freedom struggles, insurgencies, all over the world: not least our own battle for Independence, or the birth of Bangladesh, or the daily toll in Kashmir. Your terrorist, my freedom fighter. Your martyr, my blood-spattering brute. Which is it?
There in the Shankill, I wondered: how many King Rats in Kashmir, whether this Kashmir or that other one? Yes, who are the young men that we Indians think are deluded and brain-washed and fed on terrorism, but who believe they are soldiers of Islam, fighting for the freedom of Kashmir? Is my terrorist always going to be your hero?
I found an answer of sorts only a few hundred yards from King Rat’s mural. In an utterly different world from the Shankill, I found a second memorial to him. Just a scrawled comment on a wall: “King Rat gets early parole”.
Which, I suppose, he did. If you’re looking from Falls Road.
Falls Road is Catholic (“Wouldn’t even dream of it”, snapped Norman when I asked him to come with me to a bar here of an evening, and I knew my company wasn’t the issue), and nothing comes subtle here either. Naturally, these murals remember Catholic, mainly IRA, heroes. In 2001, several commemorate the 20 years since the deaths of the hunger-strikers. That’s Bobby Sands and colleagues, who protested so famously and fatally in jail in mid-1981. I remember Sands, and also remember being awed in that my 21st year by his dedication and heroism. What manner of man could stage a protest like his, purely on a matter of principle? Certainly none had, at least since our own MK Gandhi.
And yet, something had irritatingly slipped my mind in the 20 years. What was that principle? For what great cause did these men lay down their lives, so great that I could not immediately recall it as I looked up at them on their murals? It did come back to me eventually. They were demanding to be treated not as criminals, but as political prisoners.
Oh yes, that matter of principle. Right. And seen through the long lens of history, did it really matter? No doubt their demand stood proxy for the IRA’s more profound struggles, but still: did it really matter? Now? Then? What drove these young men to die? What glory was achieved? What glory is celebrated by putting them up on memorials, 20 years on? After all, they were subject to the same equation that applied to the Rat, the one whose weary truth men of their kind all over the world must face up to. Certainly Bobby Sands is a hero on Falls Road, but this is how Maggie Thatcher described him when he died:
- Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice his organization did not allow to many of its victims.
Your hero, my criminal. All over again, which is it? Whether the Shankill or Falls Road or Kashmir, which is it? Are we condemned to live forever on one or another side of fences, our perspectives coloured by our sides and by nothing else? Is Kashmir condemned to eternal bloodshed?
But if so many Troubling questions ask themselves in Belfast, there’s also black wit. A gate leads off Falls Road to the Shankill. Closed when I passed, this explanation was spray-painted on: “Due to the spread of foot-and-mouth disease by Protestants, this gate will remain closed till further notice.”
In a place surcharged with distrust, even a cattle disease can be blamed on those stinking others.
How do you work beyond all this to hammer out some kind of peace, even a fragile one? Somehow, they have done so here. Despite the occasional flare-ups, despite the wells of distrust, it has held for five years plus. “The violence of the Troubles is largely gone”, David McKitterick of the Independent told me as we drove home from a meeting. The hate simmers, but both sides are slowly learning that common cause takes them to new places: Northern Ireland is now the most dynamic economy in the UK.
So for an Indian, this Indian, there were parallels and perspectives in plenty to come to grips with in the Shankill and Falls Road, much to take home and think about.
And the lesson to be learned, in Ireland as in India, is in the murderous and hate-filled cocktail that comes of mixing religion with questions about nationhood and patriotism. And in how convoluted, even perverse, a nationalism it can breed. Protestants assert an identity distinct from the rest of (Catholic) Ireland, founded on their hatred for Catholic ways, and that is the basis of their aspirations to nationhood. That nationhood is expressed by joining the United Kingdom. So if they are not Irish, they are British. But just to retain that distinct character, they must maintain their distance from England. Yet if they are not English, what are they? Irish?
Tightrope nationalism, you might say. Do we walk it on our subcontinent? Are Pakistanis Pakistani just by not being Indian? What makes Indians Indian? Are these questions to ask ourselves as the years pass, as the hostility grows, as the piles of dead mount on both sides? As Kashmir bleeds?
I never found Kashmir, which later struck me as a sort of metaphor all by itself. But I did stop to read the graffiti on the wall that runs long and imposing between the Shankill and Falls Road. “How can we have peace”, asked one scrawled note, “when there’s reason for a wall?”
Any answers? I think Kashmir longs for some.