Pushed to the brink by the insanity of life in a land on military lockdown, one mysterious resident embarks on a decidedly bizarre piece of performance art.
On a clear and sunny Sunday afternoon in December, a man wearing a pheran — a traditional Kashmiri loose overcoat — creates an amusing sight while walking through Lal Chowk, the most popular square in the city of Srinagar. At his side, propped up on special rollers: a cabbage on a leash.
Srinagar is the summer capital of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is the largest city in Kashmir Valley, known for the beauty of its Mughal gardens, Jhelum River and lakes — and for its violent unrest. A famous hangout spot for youngsters, Lal Chowk square is also the part of town where people go to make political statements. In the popular 2014 Hindi movie “Haider,” adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and set in Kashmir, the protagonist disrupts a function in honor of his corrupt uncle and stages a protest in Lal Chowk. Separatist militants have also chosen the square to stage violent attacks. There are both strolling visitors and members of the armed forces present in Lal Chowk at any given time, including now when the strange man with the cabbage on a leash navigates through them all.
The charade could cease to be amusing at any moment. Kashmiri Cabbage Walker, as he calls himself, could be mistaken for a mischievous character with a toy bomb — chances of being detained are higher than being considered a fool. Detention stories out of Kashmir are generally not pleasant, yet Kashmiri Cabbage Walker wants eyes on him to raise awareness of a cause that has ruined countless lives in the state. “I walked my cabbage in Lal Chowk amidst armed personnel,” he says later in an interview, “and they could have beaten me, shot me, or taken me in for interrogation and whatnot, and I was mentally prepared for all those consequences. That reflects what Kashmiris have to face in Kashmir.”
When India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, the countries suffered through a brutal partition. In the largest mass migration in human history, about fourteen million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced between the two countries. Most Hindus and Sikhs stayed in India, while a huge number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands, if not more, were killed in bloody clashes over land and borders. Kashmir was caught in the middle. Maharaja Hari Singh, then the ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, wanted the region to become its own independent nation. Attempting to absorb the land, Pakistan attacked Kashmir, and Singh was forced to ask India for help. Assistance was provided only after Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, agreeing to become a part of India on October 26, 1947. Nonetheless, Pakistan laid claim to Kashmir because of the Muslim majority there. The countries have since engaged in several wars over this dispute. The territorial conflict has been debated at the United Nations many times and peace treaties have been signed and broken by both India and Pakistan. It remains disputed land, with India ruling the Muslim-dominated region while Pakistan still claims sovereignty.
The Kashmiri Cabbage Walker, who, for his own security, declines to show his face in photographs or reveal his name, age, occupation or other details that may hint at his identity, has lived under the rule of Indian armed forces throughout his life. The performance with the cabbage on the leash is meant to ridicule the state of things. “By incorporating an absurd act into the realm of the Kashmiri quotidian, and subsequently normalizing that act,” he says, “I am trying to expose something that is far more absurd to the point of perversion.”
He also strives to highlight the alleged atrocities committed by the Indian army under the protection of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. AFSPA grants powers to the Indian Armed Forces in “disturbed areas,” including Jammu and Kashmir and seven northeastern states. As explained in a report by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “the declaration allows security forces to fire on any person to ‘maintain law and order’ and to arrest any person ‘against whom reasonable suspicion exists’ without informing the detainee of the grounds for arrest. The law also gives security forces immunity from civilian prosecution for acts committed in regions under the AFSPA.”
A 2011 report by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission detailed the existence of 2,156 unmarked graves, confirming the allegation made by independent human rights organizations that civilians and not only insurgents had been slain. The Kashmiri Cabbage Walker, like many locals here, says he lives in fear of the security forces.
“I have had the state’s guns pointed at me on various occasions when I was simply trying to get home from a friend’s house or from the market past six p.m. in the evening,” says Kashmiri Cabbage Walker. “As a Kashmiri, as a human being, how do you make peace with that fact that if an armed personnel is having a bad day or get annoyed, they can just kill you within seconds?”
He explains in his manifesto of sorts, “I, as a Kashmiri, am willing to recognize walking the cabbage as part of the Kashmiri landscape, but I will never accept the check posts, the bunkers, the army camps, the torture centers, the barbed wire, the curfews, the arrests, the toxic environment of conflict and war, as part of the same.”
The performance is an offshoot of Chinese artist Han Bing’s Walking the Cabbage Project and Movement. Historically, the cabbage has been seen as a parcel of the poor in China, helping them survive eras of scarcity, famine and hunger. Han Bing — who was raised in a poor rural family — went to Beijing to study art, later establishing a career. Han Bing walks the cabbage, a symbol of his upbringing, to create a contrast while others show off their posh pooches on the streets of the Chinese capital.
Kasmiri Cabbage Walker and Han Bing have been friends for a few years, and the former considers Bing a mentor. “The whole thing was improvised within two days,” he says. “I said to my friend Han Bing ‘I am doing the walk.’ He said ‘sure, I am honored.’” The special rollers on which he takes his cabbage out on were gifted by Bing, who had them custom designed for his own performances. There is also a hook that latches on to the cabbage, a metal leash, and a red handle made of cloth.
These rollers were not part of Bing’s initial performances — originally he dragged the cabbage right on the ground — but the recent addition was suited perfectly to South Asian sensibilities, as dragging of a food item would be considered highly inappropriate. Once, when the Kashmiri Walker’s cabbage fell off the rollers in Srinagar’s alleyways, “a shopkeeper jumped out of his shop, placed it back on the roller and said — do whatever you are doing but you must not let your cabbage fall to the ground, it is food and food is sacred, it deserves a certain respect.” He could have been rebuked for the same reason almost anywhere in India.
Though Kashmiri Cabbage Walker’s village is in the middle of the valley and not along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, where it is normal to see the army guarding the border, there are army watch posts he calls “snipers’ dens” within blocks of his front door. He says he worries that, one day, a soldier just might shoot out of boredom. There are five other army structures within a radius of three miles around his village in the form of buildings, check posts, bunkers and camps where soldiers monitor the civilians.
His performance art is a symbol of refusing to accept this militarized existence as a standard part of life. “My response is to walk my cabbage,” he says, adding that he held his first performance at Lal Chowk in front of soldiers armed with guns and batons. “It was confrontational — their guns versus my cabbage on a leash. Their position of war, versus my position of peace.”
There have been follow-up performances by people who have contacted him through his Facebook page, one in another section of Srinagar and the other in Kolkata, the capital of the eastern Indian state West Bengal. Both protested the military presence in Kashmir. The original Kashmiri Walker also believes they are a collective entity — the performance and message more important than the person putting on the show.
Kashmiri Cabbage Walker says he would like to see exiled Pandits (a Brahmin community from the Valley living in refugee townships in the plains of Jammu) to take a cabbage out for a walk to protest against acceptance of such restricted living. He also wouldn’t mind if someone in the northeast took one out to protest against AFSPA. He even suggested a Pakistani commentator on his Facebook page perform in Balochistan, where many locals support a struggle for autonomy from Pakistan.
Although a great number of journalists in India have covered the horrors of the state, Kashmiri Cabbage Walker feels that as the conflict has dragged on for decades, words have begun to lose their meaning and have not lead to consequential action against militarization. He says terms like “human rights abuses” and “human rights violations” are “obfuscating, unspecific and abstract terms to label the colossally severe [and] unimaginable atrocities.”
In a calmer moment, he tries to paint a picture of his parents’ bedroom in the house where he grew up, one of its walls sporting a conspicuous bullet hole. “It is a marker of this conflict, this war that has invaded the private space of our homes,” he says. “I wish I could call it the residue of war, but I can’t…the militarization itself, is ever-present.”