The Ground in Revolt: an account of Kashmir in 2016

Curfew in Srinagar / Photo by Faisal Khan / Effects by Wande Team

‘They gave us blood and hate / Then wondered why we all are rebels.’ –Why We Rebels, MC Kash.

I

A band of rebels had shed the tradition of anonymity. It was around the June of 2015. Dressed in combat fatigues, holding Kalashnikovs, hiding deep inside the jungles of southern Kashmir, they posed like a team of winners, and set the social media afire. Burhan Wani, the militant commander, sat poised at the center of the picture, closely surrounded by ten of his men, leaning towards him, all facing the camera, shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek.

That India—a nation always considered foreign, bodd zaelim, the big oppressor—could be outdone and freedom won was never a serious hope, except in the heady days of 1989 when the armed revolt began. But Burhan’s, to most Kashmiris, was just a fearless, glorious defiance that, however symbolically, challenged the big oppressor and charged a captive people.

Indian soldiers had little hope of competing with the militants for public sympathy, a top military commander had lamented. “We’re losing the battle for a narrative,” the Indian general had said. Modest battles that Kashmiris wage against their captors—and win, often in blood.

Like motley groups of stone-pelting youth throwing rocks at the gates of Indian army garrisons. Like masked teenage boys running fearless after armoured vehicles, beating them with sticks. Taking bullets in return. “When we throw stones, we aren’t throwing them at the Indian soldiers,” a masked stone-pelter said. “We throw them at India’s occupation of Kashmir… at the policy that keeps us under India’s control.”

Like women calling Omar Abdullah, one of the region’s top pro-India politicians, Chirwi Chooanth—Toffee Mouth—whenever they spot him on the television. Like men calling his father Farooq Daand—Farooq the Bull, as in stupid. Like girls calling Mehbooba Mufti, the current chief minister, Kanne Chhaet—Cut Ears. The legend, evidently untrue, goes that she was cruel to her husband who cut her ears off, and hence her permanent scarf. These names, and many such others, are part of Kashmir’s language. So when AS Dullat—a former chief of India’s spy agency—told a petulant Karan Thapar—the famous Indian television interviewer—about Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, Mehbooba’s deceased father, being known in Kashmir as Mufti Whisky, the conversation sounded nonsensical for a Kashmiri audience. In all probability, the pun had totally been missed: a besieged people taking cheap revenge by giving collaborators demeaning names. A modest battle of narrative waged and won. Like people “visiting Hindustan” every time they visit the loo. Like people dancing and bursting crackers in front of Indian soldiers every time India loses a cricket match.

Like the Indian police are forced to guard round the clock the grave of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, Farooq’s father, lest people dig him out decades after his death. As a towering leader, Sheikh in 1947 had willed his endorsement to the then Dogra ruler’s accession of Kashmir to India even as the people Sheikh represented overwhelmingly willed against it. They still rallied in his name—under the Plebiscite Front—when he remained imprisoned by his old friend, Jawaharlal Nehru. Over 20 years of incarceration later, however, the Sheikh disowned the self-determination movement. For most Kashmiris, it was all a breach of the contract most sacred—that a people delegate their authority to the leader, not their will. Since 1989, his guards haven’t slept a wink.

Like bloodlessly disowning the dead Mufti, even when he died serving as chief minister: not more than a few hundred people joined his funeral. Half of them were journalists, said a viral message, the other half his cabinet.

Like youth running to embrace death in bloodied funerals of shohda—martyrs. Indian soldiers shot 21-year-old Burhan Wani dead on 8 July 2016. His legend, however, was only reborn. Over 300,000 people attended Burhan’s funeral the next day in his distant hometown Tral in southern Kashmir, mourners offering 40 back-to-back prayers. Thousands of funeral prayers in-absentia were offered across Kashmir, soon under a military siege. A spontaneous general strike followed immediately, and Kashmir convulsed in the most powerful pro-independence and anti-India protests in recent history, all met with familiar, deadly violence by the state. In about two weeks, Indian soldiers shot dead about 50 civilians and injured thousands in one of the most ruthless military crackdowns the valley has witnessed, evoking images of the anti-India uprisings of 2008 and 2010. Hundreds of civilians were sprayed with “non-lethal” shotgun pellets, including in their eyes, leaving macabre tales of blinded and mutilated young boys and girls—even children.

II

Srinagar, Tuesday 26 July 2016

For the first time since 8 July, the pro-independence political leadership called for a relaxation—of a few hours—in the strike so that people could buy some essentials in a growing humanitarian crisis. Early morning, for the first time again, the government announced a relaxation in curfew in Srinagar. Many expected at least a few shops to open in town. They didn’t.

Soon after the government announced the relaxation, people under siege for almost three weeks by now, poured out to occupy the city streets in protest. Hundreds clashed with government forces in fierce pitched battles, throwing rocks at them. All was met with customary, brute military force. But news was slow in coming. Mobile services and the internet had been banned. And late afternoon, I somehow reached the city center.

It was well past 5 pm. Residency Road stood still as a still picture, most of it deserted even by the soldiers. Looking from a distance, Lal Chowk looked frozen in the middle of summer, as it’s been many a season in the decades of Indian rule.

As I crossed over to the parallel MA Road and approached the Budshah Bridge, driving further through the ghost streets felt increasingly suicidal. I started feeling a chill in my spine. There was no one in the city. There was no one in the city. When I began crossing the bridge, I tried to look across the silent waters of the Jhelum and wondered: were not the floods less devastating?

Driving up over the approaching flyover seemed too risky; imaginary soldiers standing afar would see me clearly at that height. I deviated to the left, driving down the road that gently curves all the way back over the Jhelum through the Amira Kadal (bridge) to head back to Lal Chowk. As I negotiated the curve, I realized I’d gone too far.

A huge black pile of mass lay burning slowly in thick smoke in the middle of the curved road. Fresh pieces of bricks, rocks and their fragments strewn all around spoke of a fierce, very recent clash. Turning back, I thought, would seem like running away from the soldiers—a bad idea in murderous times.

I lowered the window glass an inch to smell tear gas, but there was none. Perhaps it all wasn’t as recent as I thought. I pressed the throttle and dashed towards the deserted bridge. Images of the flood returned to my mind again. Of homeless crowds. Of old women, men, and children. Of young rescuers. And I tried to place them all around me, as I crossed the barren bridge, now deserted beyond belief.

Crossing over the humped bridge, just as I expected to get the sight of Lal Chowk again, soldiers in battle fatigues, darting across the road, blocked the view of the square almost completely. I was at the end of the bridge by now, and I stopped as gently as I could, deluding myself they wouldn’t see me. “Go quick, it’s over,” said a middle-aged male voice from the lane on the left. I listened to him, and sped through as the troops drifted into the alleys, peering around the corners.

Speeding past the square, I pulled the window glasses down again. The desolation of Residency Road suddenly seemed fresh. I tried to breathe.

I drove to the end of the road, and turned towards the tortuous Jhelum and crossed it once again, over the New Zero Bridge. Feeling lucky, I thought of meeting my journalist friend.

~

My friend had a visitor at home: a reporter from New Delhi who wanted to get a sense of what was happening in the valley before he could head to southern Kashmir—the epicenter of the current, unrelenting protests. The conversation went on for a couple of hours.

Before the visitor left, my friend had a word of caution for him: “Do not talk to large gatherings. In fact, avoid groups of more than two or three people. They are very angry.” A brief discussion ensued in the corridor, and the final verdict was not to talk to anyone at all outside closed rooms. Indian journalists were too prone to the wrath of Kashmiris who felt they were, at best, distorting their reality, if not spreading outright lies. The visitor agreed and said goodbye.

Another hour of conversation later, I was back on the streets. I went around the locality, hoping to find at least some half-open shops. There were a few. But I struggled recalling what was required back home.

It was getting dark in the long summer day; I wanted to see Lal Chowk again. It turned out the same, just darker than before. Once again, I crossed one of the Jhelum bridges to see the market across, but only ended up wondering if I’d ever seen the square so completely stripped of human presence.

I crossed the bridge, and stopped by the roadside to think and choose my way home. Turning back for the long route—about 25 km of the boulevard around the Dal Lake—was the obvious option. The boulevard doesn’t have many people living around it, so perhaps it doesn’t require a siege like that of the old city.

But I could also go straight. Home was barely 8 km away. I could drive just around the edge of the old city. It was just dark; there was no fear of ghosts in the ghost town.

A car appeared straight ahead, distancing away and slowly taking a right turn. That was my route too, and I followed.

The next half a kilometer was a smooth drive. A couple of hesitating vehicles drove in the same direction as I, dithering at curves, waiting at sharp turns. I kept my distance, thinking I’d turn back at the first sign of danger. But then, in Kashmir, that’s hardly how it works.

I recalled a similar day during the 2010 uprising when I was driving through the old city. That afternoon, at the turn of Rajouri Kadal, I had landed up in the middle of a clash between the soldiers and teenage boys throwing rocks at them. Discovering me clueless in their midst, the soldiers laughed at me for a full minute. Then they huddled behind my car, and asked me to “slowly” move inside the next by-lane, the car and I their shield against the rocks flying in.

But the boys stopped their projectiles at the first notice. As I moved ahead, they frantically waved at me to hurry up and drive away. As I moved, the car’s rear had suffered a mighty swing of a baton, or was it a rifle butt. And as I scampered into the narrow lane, the boys had stood motionless, sticking their backs to the walls, and pushing my car with their hands as I passed by, “Go! Go! Go!” Others, who stood straight ahead, bent forward swinging their arms from head to knee again and again and again, telling me to rush, rush, rush. I had hoped for their safety while racing through the safe passage, as rocks went flying at the soldiers again.

But that was another day, and this… another dark night…

This is an excerpt. Read the full story on ‘Juggernaut Books’ here: https://www.juggernaut.in/books/254370e0218d4dbb



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