In the second and the last part of the essay, the author takes a road to the North of Srinagar (to Baramulla) and in doing so connects the past with the present. She observes some stark similarities between "Operation Bhoot" and the recent "Braid chopping" incidents in Kashmir. Our traveller friend makes a promise of returning again.
...I return in September. Marriage season. 2016 hasn’t seen many weddings. This year four friends of mine become wives and husbands. Everyone seems involved and busy with this or that task. From the section where wazas, the cooks are working, sounds of the pestles pounding meat float over to the big wedding tent: air holds the scent of fennel. Two men simultaneously apply filigree dark red Mehndi colour patterns on the bride’s outstretched hands and feet. Another person is holding a mobile to her right ear - last minute arrangements with a smile, and all seems in her control.
Family and friends roam inside and outside the tent. Short instructions back and forth, the bubbling of samovar, laughter, clanging dishes, here and there children’s whooping. The groom with his following is expected by tomorrow. But already today many guests will gather. A room inside the house, hands on drums and the lights turn low. To prepare for the long night—mainzeraat, four of us share the first traem. Not easy to convince her not to push too many meat pieces towards my side of the plate. The beats of Tumbaknaer increase. One of the younger women takes the lead. Songs for the farewell of their friend, for another family making space for a new member, for two families’ idea of becoming one.
I can’t understand all the words, but her high pitch voice’s slight ironic undercurrent feels like a sub-text to the lyrics. Dancing starts. Spinning tops around two pairs of hands holding tight. Mothers are into it. Some end up lightheaded on the floor, tittering. Another girl gets up to improvise a freestyle. Looking a bit nervous at first, but then precise moves follow. Her arms and legs form a relaxed choreography. All of a sudden the Tumbaknaers’ rhythm change. More accentuated. Faster. Many voices join in. “Hum kya chahte?” The open door and window frames fill with curious men and boys of the family who are still busy outside making sure everything is prepared. “Hum kya chahte?” “Aazadi”. The sounds of the roads resonate inside the homes. From the other side of the room the girl who did the freestyle winks at me.
Indo Kashmir Complex. Downtown Srinagar, Nawa Bazar.
The premises used to harbour a carpet factory. Sunlight throws a skewed reflection of high, narrow windows on the concrete floor of the big hall. In the early 1990s the Indian army turned factories, town halls, guest houses, colleges, and hundreds of schools everywhere in Kashmir into detention and torture centres to control the villages and city neighbourhoods; to tortured men abducted from various places. Landscapes altered through violent cartography – the carpet factory was one of such places. Some years later a fire incident took place. People from the locality claimed responsibility, I hear. The centre got closed. These days the long-stretched grey two storey building in the backyard of the compound hosts several start-ups in the ground floor and half of the second floor. The other half for a few weeks during this September exhibits the work of an artist from India. Around four dozen drawings and paintings cover the bare walls. Ten years ago the artist’s engagement with Kashmir started. After some time, she got involved with local artists and journalists and an organization of families who keeps confronting the Indian governments with questions about the thousands of enforced disappearances of the now nearly three decades of Emergency State. Several elderly women have accompanied the painter and stand next to her while the exhibition is opened.
How do you memorialise something that is at the same time still on-going? People start walking along the walls. I look at the artist. How these last ten years must have been for her? She is in conversation next to the frame with pencil sketched stone pelters and soldiers made from news clippings. Somehow, despite the fact that they are created through realistic technique, the soldiers appear like templates to me. Why does one continue working on one place for so many years? Yet the first time she travelled to Kashmir is only now, together with her daughter, her mother, and the paintings. I stop in front of the skeletons in the forest. Did she have the unmarked mass graves in mind with several thousands of bullet-ridden or mutilated bodies that could be located all over the valley, and in Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, and Reasi districts in Jammu province, next to fields, schools, and homes, just some years ago?
The findings of years long investigative work of lawyers from a Kashmiri civil society organization forced the Indian state and its army to at least provide a few confessions. When I tried to find the further legal follow-up, nothing is to be found in the Indian media. People for sure laugh at you when you try to imagine a world without armies. Do they also laugh when you wonder about the implications of a marketing concept like that of ‘incentives’ applied in the context of state-employed army personal whom through impunity laws we have assigned authority over death and life? Counting bodies? I look at the painting again and wonder who for me would be the ‘real’ skeletons in a place like Kashmir.
“Welcome to the ghost valley”, (Greater Kashmir, 29th August 1993).
My fingers turn a brittle page. On the left side of the desk rests a pile of folders with Kashmiri daily papers from 1993, June till October. The archive’s racks are cluttered, chronology maintained in large parts. On the right side a window front. Wind fizzes through a gap. Down in the courtyard, I see the chairs circle, where earlier I had coffee with some members of the Kashmir University student union. Soon after the beginning of the Emergency, the Indian state has officially banned the union. “Our school is the road,” one of them told me. And on the road, they and others are often. These days, for example, to protest against the on-going illegal detention of hundreds of fellow students and (school going) boys who are in prison since last year’s mass uprising.
From the table diagonally opposite an employee of the Allama Iqbal Library, checking something on the monitor in front of him nods in my direction over pulled up shawl. Now and then he turns the front of his gas heater with his foot slightly towards me.
Another folder, June 1993.
There seems no day with no crackdown by the Indian troopers, looking for Kashmiri rebels, while alongside using the opportunity to loot and vandalize many of the houses they barge into and search. Again I come across an “Operation Bhoot”. Bhoot means ghost in Urdu and Hindi. In the papers of summer 1993, I find Kashmiri journalists reporting from across the valley about the “appearance” of what they describe as long-nailed, shrouded, uncanny sound making figures, trying to barge into people’s houses after dark and molest the residents. Apparently, for weeks neither the government nor the general public could make any genuine catching of these nocturnal ‘ghosts’. This is a place with 700000 stationed soldiers and curfew-bound nights, where normally the tiniest movement on the road attracts the attention of the bunkers. On the following page, an article about the brigades people started forming to patrol their neighbourhoods themselves. An image comes to my mind from last year’s newspaper. A group of armed forces marching on the road on the way to work, the soldier closest to the camera wearing a Skeleton mask. “Whenever some persons amongst the affected localities have tried to wrestle down and capture the ‘Bhoot’, it has managed to get either inside a security forces bunker or boards a security forces gipsy readily available for him”, (Greater Kashmir, 19th August 1993).
Their front gate is not like usually open. The bell reacts with a faint ring. Steps coming closer, accompanied by a ‘clack’ sound. He peers through the crack in the door. Unlocks.
“Are you a braid chopper?”
We both laugh and hug.
“There is a door code now normally”.
When we walk the short distance through the yard towards the house, the long stick in his hands goes clack, clack over the ground. On the veranda, the cat that lives with them and usually gives everyone a hard time entering the house without him whizzing in, does he today somehow look alert as well? Inside, the mother welcomes me with this familiar humour. “Didn’t you write three weeks ago you will come over in two days?” I make her let me prepare the salad for the dinner.
Accounts of unidentified assailants breaking into houses and chopping off women’s hair had reached from Delhi and neighbouring states during the summer. Till September, the ‘phenomenon’ had travelled all the way up to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. During the last weeks here I have seen dozens of newspaper and social media pictures of fists clasping braids. There has been another incident in this locality day before yesterday, reported by a young woman. Her description of the intruder: a black masked figure, black trousers, black pointed boots. Apparently, the person had managed to enter the family’s house. The woman said she had fought back. He wasn’t successful in cutting her hair. But she showed the marks his blade had left on her cheeks and lower arms. According to one Kashmiri daily over 240 cases have been reported in the valley alone. “One was hiding under a bed, imagine. Bloody pigs”, the mother curses through clenched teeth, while pulling out wet clothes from the washing machine. She wants me to accompany her for hanging out the laundry. When she leaves the kitchen she grabs a stick. Upstairs she tells me to check all the rooms. My first reaction: I want to grin and console her. Then while doing what she asked for, going through room after room, I imagine how in a lot of places all over Kashmir, people might do exactly the same thing, keep checking their homes, rooms, inside wardrobes, under their beds, in the evenings, or also during the day, armed with sticks or other tools. Till now police could not identify a single perpetrator. And people have started patrolling the neighbourhoods on their own. Gates and doors remain shut. What there is to this phenomenon, people keep discussing different courses of events. Effects though are clearly visible. Later in the night, the father is out on the road. Noise has woken him up. We rush to the windows. A few minutes later he returns. No braid choppers, but army out for their night raid. The soldiers pick up several people whom they had seen protesting during the day in the mohalla. Afterwards, I lay awake listening. The solid clay walls all of a sudden feel thin enough that one can hear the hair off the outside roaming dogs scratching along the house.
“Justice for Manzoor and Nasrullah”, she writes in capital letters on a white cardboard. They have gathered in Pratab Park, which is part of Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. Since the beginning of the armed rebellion and subsequent counterinsurgency in 1989 around 8000 to 10000 Kashmiris have been subjected to enforced disappearance. On the 10th of every month, since 1994 family members have organized a sit-in protest in Lal Chowk to remember and claim the whereabouts of the ones disappeared. The Lal Chowk, or Red Square, is one of the central places in Srinagar. Kashmiri freedom fighters in their anti-colonial and anti-Dogra struggle against the last by British deployed governor gave it its name. It is the place where in November 1947 the first prime minister of an independent India promised the people from Kashmir a plebiscite. “The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people. It is not only a pledge to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not, and cannot back out of it.” It is the place where in 1993 around 1500 Jammu and Kashmir policemen staged protest marches against the torture and killing of one of their colleagues by the Indian Army. Through Operation “Police Control Room” the mutiny was crushed by the Indian forces after a week.
Another cardboard. “Where are our dear ones?” Manzoor Ahmad Khan and Nasrullah Khan, two farmers and herders, hail from the frontier district Kupwara, village Diver, overlooked by a garrison of the Indian Rashtriya Rifles 27. People say it is one of the places where you still can find begaar, forced labour, which can mean villagers have to construct and maintain bunkers and residential buildings for Indian soldiers without getting paid. On the morning of 31st of August 2017 both men when moving to the foothill meadows where during summer they graze their livestock, first they had to pass through the garrison to produce their identity cards. They asked them to come in. The newspapers write the Army was looking for information about the hideouts of Kashmiris fighting against the Indian army. Nasrullah Khan was found the same evening outside the camp. “Third-degree torture”, according to a local police official, anonymous. In the hospital, they diagnosed kidney failure. “We sold our cow and horse for our father’s treatment,” according to Nasrullah Khan’s son, 13 years old. The other man, Manzoor Ahmad Khan, till date, remains disappeared.
She continues writing, “Hold the perpetrators accountable”.
The Lal Chowk is also a place where journalists protest in support of one of their young colleague who because of his journalistic work since months is in custody of the Indian National Investigation Agency, on charges of "conspiring to wage war against the Government of India". And today, on an International Human Rights Day, it is a place where the families again try to gather to protest against the practice of enforced disappearance, despite Indian army and Kashmiri police have shut down the whole area. Some people from the media also manage to get through the cordon till Press Colony. Cameras start shooting. “Until my son dies or I die, the search will continue.” When the work is done, people pack their equipment or roll their placards and disperse.
Old trees man the road.
In summers, I imagine them to be like a green tunnel. The highway earlier connected Srinagar with Muzaffarabad. Now a borderline cuts through. Crowded army busses rush by. I stop counting when they seem to become as numerous as the trees. Sleet slides down the windscreen. Baramulla turning to our right. The colony they live in is located a few kilometres west of the town centre. Some years ago, together with others, as part of a government resettlement program, they moved back to the valley from Jammu. A guard opens the gate for us. Arranged in long rows parallel to the river, the flat-roofed, two-room houses are all white and plain. The only one I see which someone has painted in a light blue colour. Most of the entrances are framed by a small garden patch. Remains of pudina, haakh, and makay between dry leaves. It’s the weekend when a group of handymen moves from unit to unit to make the plasterboard walls more winter fit. Window sashes wide open, she hands over the interior of their sleeping room to us standing outside. Her husband and one of the neighbours push the remaining furniture towards the centre of the room. The other room and the kitchen are already cleared. Walls ready for the workers. Their belongings rest in neat piles on several spread out carpets and blankets next to the colony’s fence.
I adjust a bundle of school books between some clothes. Behind the wire mesh, a sling of the Jhelum is visible. But this whole stretch of the river doesn’t look like the Jhelum anymore. Grey machines there in the water roar day and night, extracting hills of sand and pebbles and transform the landscape into an edgy, monochrome geology. Grey November sky reflects in a grey river. I didn’t ask them why they chose to move to a colony. They say they might build a small house on the land the family has kept, after some years maybe. When night sets in their son and me light a bonfire and roast pieces of maize from the gardens. Through the open door, we can hear low-pitched sounds of the harmonium. Whenever I came to meet them, I saw him playing, eyes closed. We move closer to the fire. His son turns the skewers. He visits one of the local schools here, two years left till college. His parents think he is still too young to tell him too much about this place. And I wonder if he not already must have come to know more than they assume.
“Aapko mallum hain, Lhasa restaurant kahan hai?” He nods, stows his earplugs in a pocket, and reaching back, opens the rickshaw door from inside. The thick plastic cover pretends to give shelter against the cutting wind. I try to use my sleeves to warm my hands. When he turns round to offer me a basket of coals, his eyes are hardly visible under the pulled down hood. Over the rising warmth, the blood in my fingers starts prickling. I pass the kanger back together with one of the walnuts I have found in my pocket. We chew and drive on. He drops me after Dalgate at one of the ghats where a few shikara drivers are waiting for some last passengers who dare to come out for a boat ride despite dusk and freezing temperatures. His car is already waiting there. Destination Ganderbal. We head around the lake, towards Nishat and further in direction Hazratbal Dargah. My eyes fixed on the window. Where water ends and where the sky begins is today just defined by a thin strip of pale land, which itself looks like it is about to dissolve. A single boat is sailing in-between. His phone rings. I can hear a female voice. “Mey nish haiz chu tuhund battwe” (I have your wallet)]. “Nahenz, mey haiz chu battwe panse nish” (Mine is with me), he replies. He hesitates. And looks at me, slightly confused. “Where is your wallet?” “Hmm? I have it. It’s with me.” My hand checks the left pocket of my pheran. Empty. How? I try to reconstruct. You paid in the haberdashery, also the man with the rickshaw, but then… the wallet must have been there, he must have passed it on.. this woman on the phone? Or she found it? But how then? There is a faint memory of some visiting cards sticking next to the credit card. Also one of a friend in Ganderbal. The friend we are on the way to meet right now. (He later confirms). The woman who helped me out will two days later even refuse an invitation for a cup of tea. “I just returned what is yours.” We drive on. Music sounds from the car radio: „Raat haneri nadi thathaan maardi, ariye ariye haan ni ariye.”
Roadside shops are closing down one by one. In front of us, several young men hop on maybe today’s last bus home. How they cling to the rear of the crowded vehicle somehow reminds me of another Kashmiri man. During the by-election in Kashmir some months ago to keep protesters at bay, an Indian army Major had trussed a civilian to the front of his jeep. For around five hours the man was used by this Major as a ‘human shield’ while driving through the villages of the constituency. "This is a proxy war and a proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. That is where innovation comes in,” says the chief of the Indian army when he honours the same Major some days later with a medal for his “innovation and sustained efforts”.
A Delhi BJP spokesman soon after picks up this ‘innovation’. Via his online business outlet T-Shirt Bhaiya he is selling them into an illustration converted picture of the Kashmiri man tied to the bonnet of an army jeep. Printed on T-shirts. Its caption reads “Indian army is saving your ass whether you like it or not”. Several thousands of them, at a prize of Rs. 495, have been already sold, according to the man “wearing one’s patriotism on one’s chest”. The by-election’s turnout in Kashmir, with around 200 instances of protests and eight people who got killed, was found to be seven per cent, the lowest participation since 30 years.
The bus stops next to a junction.
Some of the men jump down from the rear while we take over. Twilight turns to night. “Kacchiyaan da hunda kacha anjaam ni, eh gal‘aam ni,” the speakers sounds fade out. First lights of Ganderbal appear ahead...
While writing the last paragraphs, the blossoms of the cherry trees outside have turned into the pink-greyish mud like layers on the road. I’m thinking of returning to Kashmir in summers.