Since July 2016, unrest has become the new normal in Kashmir. As violence escalates, so does the rebellion against it, some of it taking newer forms and some, the oldest kind – love.

Little is written about social life and courtship in Kashmir, particularly in times of conflict. Needlesss to say, romance in and around Srinagar has come a long way from the early Bollywood montages of lakes and houseboats, or shy Kashmiri boys waiting in the streets to catch a glimpse of the girls they like. Just like the internet has had a major role to play in activism in the Valley, it has acted as a catalyst for love and relationships too.

Traditional match-making

Like most of South Asia, marriage continues to be extremely important and is seen as a transition into adulthood in Kashmir. Traditional marriages are arranged in the Valley by manzimyors or matchmakers who have for years, gone from home to home, carrying with them a roster of names of eligible young men and women – their diaries loaded with detail.

The manzimyor can be a man or woman, but since they occupy feminine spaces within the household, male manzimyors go to great lengths to act effeminate and appear non-threatening. They look for all the essentials: age, khaandaan (family), ponsa (wealth) and shakal (looks). Even today, despite the curfews, the rage and the violence, manzimyors are responsible for most of the matches in Srinagar.

Ghulam Mohammad*, a manzimyor, has been arranging suitable matches since the 1980s. “In the early 1990s, it was impossible to even find an auto to get around town,” he said. “Now it is much easier. We’ve had curfews for so long that we have times we can freely move around in. We adjust our schedules such that we got everything done before 9 am and after 8 pm.” He has managed to earn a little more than he used to by reminding his hosts how dangerous it is for him to look after matters of the heart during times of unrest.

Cellphone to the rescue

Mohammad also said that he has had no problems since he got himself a cellphone – most conversations now happen on the phone, he said, and boys and girls are willing to simply speak to each other and work things out. Despite the fact that more people are finding their own partners, Mohammad said his business is only growing.

While the unrest does not seem to be taking a toll on matchmakers, it does have an impact on weddings, many of which have been cancelled, postponed or hastily conducted in the past year. Angry neighbours have interrupted celebrations saying they were inappropriate given the unrest in the Valley – to celebrate at a time like this was to disrespect the cause. Most weddings are low-key and do away with the weeklong fanfare which was once the norm. Some have even done away with the famed 32-course wazawan meal. In the spirit of Kashmiri jest, these brides and grooms will be remembered as “curfewmahrin” and “curfew-maharaza” for a while.

Rendezvous at tuition centre

Middle school onwards, you see a surge in the popularity of private tuitions in Srinagar. As a business model, they are lucrative. Young students across the city attend classes from dawn until late in the evening. This popularity would suggest that the school education system is lacking, but in fact, most educational institutes in in Srinagar are segregated by gender – so the tuition centre is the only place where teenagers can mingle.

Here too, mixing of the sexes is not overt – boys and girls are required to sit on either side of the room. Insha*, a college student in Srinagar, who attended one of the few co-educational schools in the city, now finds the atmosphere of her girls-only college in Srinagar stifling. “I find it almost impossible to speak to male classmates like I did back at school,” she said. “Many of them are not used to speaking to girls comfortably to begin with, and then it is almost a taboo to be seen walking around or talking to boys because people notice and people talk about you; this is not just students but professors as well.”

So how do young people meet or court one another? A casual sighting at tuition class can turn into more – phone calls, in some cases, introductions through friends. Still, according to Insha, the public intermingling of singles is rare and frowned upon.

Danish Ismail/Reuters
Danish Ismail/Reuters

The ones who can afford to, go to restaurants – others find parks and gardens, often risking moral policing by self-proclaimed activists. Given the city’s conservatism combined with the curfew, mobility is further restricted. Most of the romance in Srinagar, therefore, happens on the internet and over the phone. Unfortunately, this breeds an underbelly of unsafe cyber practices which often have dangerous results: stalking, cyber bullying and harassment.

Stalking is believed to be the root of how many romances begin – obsessive proclamations of love are seen as the way to woo girls. Many express their concerns at this seeming norm. Speaking of a friend who had succumbed to similar advances, a young woman named Sarah said, “I don’t understand how she can claim to be in love with the person who literally stalked her all the way from tuition to school every day for months, but it’s not my place to intervene.”

Most girls admitted to having been victims of such behaviour but never reported it for fear of causing a scene. Others naively enter into associations they soon regret – immediately after things turn sour, fake profiles are created in the name by jilted lovers, private photos leaked and emails hacked. Only then do the girls resort to contacting the police. Once reported, the police do track many of the men who create fake profiles, but there are far too many cases to track quickly and effectively. Given the political climate, cases of stalking and cyber harassment are given scarce attention.

Dating on the internet

The internet and social media ban, therefore, has a direct impact on courting and relationships, but people have learnt to adapt. “The government bans WhatsApp, we have Hike,” said Akbar*, a young professional in Srinagar. “They ban Snapchat, we use Instagram. The ban is quite pointless, really. The only thing the curfews and bans do is give us more time to kill and actively use social media. This is why online dating is becoming so prevalent.”

Increasingly, a large number of young people use dating apps (though few use their real identities). Akbar and his friends have an entourage of girls they are “dating”, a few from Kashmir, but largely from other states in India whom they meet when they travel. Quite a few young men are in intercontinental relationships, “Cheeni to Arabi” or East Asians to Arabs, said Akbar, and some across the border, Pakistanis.

Of course, the rules are different for girls. They are much more reluctant to use their actual identities on dating apps, so besides using fake profiles, most girls said they were on dating apps simply for a good laugh.

A scroll through popular dating apps reveals there are several who choose the “men looking for men” option – judging by this, it would seem that online dating apps have proved to be empowering for the small group of LGBTQ youngsters in the Valley, although this is something rarely spoken of publicly.

While the hijab and burqa are usually seen as a sign of rising religiosity, many young girls admit they wear scarves for the anonymity it brings them. Scarves enable women to date or go out to meet friends without the fear of being spotted or labelled immoral. It also means you can protest without your identity out in the open.

* Some names have been changed to protect identities

Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

This article was originally published in the Scroll.