.I was sure that this time on my leave, I will change my look and get my hair curled. Instead of going to my usual barber in my village, who only charges thirty bucks. I thought of trying some fancy salon in Chandigarh. I went to various salons but each Barber told me that my hair was too short to be curled. Alas! I finally decided to get my regular crew cut (you can never go wrong with that). Unlike the village barber, this one had his arms full of tattoos and was quite inquisitive about my hair care. He started with a hair wash and asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was in the Army and that this was my first cut at a styling salon. He admired the Army and started telling me about his work with Bollywood stars, the likes of Priyanka Chopra, after which he decided to start his own business. The barber told me that my hair was thin and suggested me the most suitable cut.
Then he shot his first question at me. “Have you ever killed someone? “This was not an unusual question. I have been asked this several times by my friends, relatives, and even by some faujis. I said that I haven’t killed anybody yet but also told him about the desire of every soldier to be in the middle of combat at least once. He found it bizarre. I explained to him how a soldier undergoes training to kill the enemy since his first day in uniform. Therefore, the ultimate Aim is to eliminate the enemies who put an evil eye on our mother nation. He nodded in affirmation and talked more about my hair. “Do Kashmiri people like the Army?” was his second question. This question was not difficult but it was also not very simple.
The relationship between the Army and the locals is not in black and white but in shades of grey throughout the state. The infestation of terrorism and radicalisation in the valley during the 80s and 90s demanded a ruthless proposition to its supporters. The state saw blazing guns and blood of their own misguided kin. For over two decades, the Indian Army has been maintaining an iron fist in a velvet glove approach in the valley. The Indian Army has constructed 46 Army Goodwill Schools across Kashmir. The Army conducts around 100 “national integration” tours for young Kashmiris every year, where they are introduced to the history, culture, and development opportunities across India. The Army also works to promote the youth’s interest in sports, music, and arts and also encourages them to take central and state civil service examinations. The process of winning hearts and minds is gradual but unyielding.
The part of Kashmir I am serving in, loves the Indian Army. They have been dependent on the Army for their livelihood and security. They invite us to their family marriages and we pay homage to their bereaved ones. They wish us a Happy Diwali and we have Iftaar with them during Ramadan. The young children salute the Army patrols and sing patriotic songs on Independence Day. Our unit doctor goes on foot for a ‘khairiyat patrol’ in the remote villages. I remember, a few years back when an army patrol was stuck in an avalanche, the local villagers nearby were the first respondents to rescue them. This pure relationship cannot be assumed to be a transactional one but rather of mutual respect and understanding.
My barber couldn’t believe all that I said. Certainly everybody else outside Kashmir has a different image of the valley scribed in their heads. There has always been a constant attempt by the adversary to bring disharmony and disconnect in Kashmir from the rest of the nation. The statements we hear on television and the social media forces us make scary preconceived notions. The reality stands apart. I then suggested my barber a few offbeat places in Kashmir where he can plan his next vacation and experience the valley at first hand. My haircut was almost finished when he asked “So, when are you getting married, Sir?” The most difficult question after all. “30th February next year, please do come” I said. We both laughed and my haircut finished with a good head massage.