Heroic Deeds of Ordinary People: a Commemoration

The Burghers of Calais at California, United States
Photo: Freny Manecksha

On an October afternoon last year, as trees flaunted their most spectacular show of colours, I stood amidst six bronze statues at Stanford University, California. Known as The Burghers of Calais, the famed statues were sculpted by Auguste Rodin. The original casts had been commissioned by the Calais authorities in 1881 to commemorate six burghers or citizens, who in 1347, volunteered to leave the defeated city barefoot and offered up their lives to king Edward III of England to prevent pillage after a devastating siege.

The plaque, at this site, notes that for Rodin this episode was an opportunity to celebrate the idea that heroic deeds may be performed by an ordinary people. It adds that Rodin did not idealize the figures. Rather he was uncompromising in his depictions of “faltering steps, despairing gestures and anguished expressions” detailing the “inner turmoil of each man struggling in his conscience between fear of dying and devotion to their cause.”

I am reminded of another land where the leaves will also be changing colours, turning gold or perhaps, even blood- red, as if in consonance with the 101 lives lost and more than 12,000 wounded. A land where its ordinary people have been resisting for decades and where acts of exemplary heroism have been taking place this year  since that fateful night of July 8 and a brutal crack-down.

Much has been written about the way in which Kashmiris have wrested control of their narratives and effectively used the social media as “counter culture” since 2010. The magnitude of their efforts in 2016 becomes even more significant given the manner in which the internet and mobile connectivity are continuously snapped, the relentless spells of curfew that have prevented physical access and mobility, the censorship of newspapers and even banning of the Kashmir Reader, the disabling of Facebook accounts and surveillance, and the incarceration of some 8000 people including noted human rights activist Khurram Parvez  and lawyers including Hassan Babar Nehru of Doda.

It is the collective efforts of thousands that have informed me of daily acts of quiet heroism, of dignity and honour. Each status update, tweet, bit of writing, visual image or comment has contributed to layer the narratives, to give a human face to statistics. Such detailed documenting and memorialising has made palpable and visible what the state and nationalist media seeks to obliterate or even mangle out of recognition.

In the first few days one powerful image stood out and seared my consciousness. It was a simple one – just a silent unending row of people marching through fields towards Tral – the spontaneous and utterly natural mourning of lakhs of people. The image “spoke”to me. It complemented what journalist Parvaiz Bukhari wrote in an essay of how despite the lining up to vote for elections “the struggle for Azadi, freedom is never forgotten or given up.”

The funerals were followed immediately by the cycle of protests and killings that then escalated with alacrity. The toll rose first in single figures, then double and accompanied by an exponential increase in number of the wounded.

As a bitterly ironic Facebook post by a Kashmiri journalist Baba Umar asked:

Are we dead or alive?

Am I the 30th or 34th?

One evening on my feed I saw an urgent appeal for blood. I shared it only to be informed by a post the next morning that the youth was dead. Another post informed of the killing of young Nazir Lattoo, an M Com student from Delhi University, who had come to his home in Bijbehera for Eid. These details brought the realisation that these were not just cold numbers. Here was a story about a young man’s homecoming for Eid. A man on whom the family had pinned its hopes.

It was during these early days too that one heard the name of a young woman among the dead. Yasmeena. It was Kashmir Reader that later pieced together her story even as a bland announcement made by the army merely said it regretted killings in South Kashmir, whilst another official report claimed people were out on the streets attacking a police station.

Yasmeena Wani of Damhal Hanjipora, Kulgam, was indeed out on the streets. But it was to help free her brother Moeen from the clutches of armed personnel. She was fired upon and received a hit on the head before falling into an open drain. So died a young woman who had funded her own education doing tilla work.  The Kashmir Reader report used substantive facts to demolish the claim that the people had been attacking the police station.

Over the next few months, women’s names and their images began popping up on my news feed with regularity. If 2010 was said to be the uprising of the young, 2016 saw a far larger cross-section of society actively demonstrating and protesting out on the streets out on the streets. Indeed a noteworthy feature has been the increased participation of women – stones in their hand, nothing but raw defiance even as the security forces began to use their pellet guns deliberately and ruthlessly to blind the youths. There have been all women rallies and protests in Abi Guzar, Srinagar, on August 2, at Bijbehera and Batamaloo and Chee village on August 6 and in districts all over the Valley.

Photo: Aman Farooq/Greater Kashmir

Evocative images come leaping off from a Google search. One arresting image by Aman Farooq of Greater Kashmir is that of a policeman in Zampa Kadal viciously kicking an unnamed woman who bravely resists their attempts to snatch the body of a slain youth from Kulgam. It reveals the heinous way in which it has become a practice to fire upon and assault a funeral procession. In the struggle to maintain the sanctity of the dead and the right to a funeral, women have fought valiantly and shoulder to shoulder with the men. What words can one use to react to the heart-breaking image of a woman forced to shoulder a body as security troops bear down upon the male members and there is the fear that the body may slip to the ground?

I learn how on November 2, it was the women who strode out of their homes in Anchar and Soura district of Srinagar to prevent security forces from pouncing upon male members in their house-to-house searches.

Besides the women, it is the children in the plethora of images that captures the agony of a besieged people.  Wounded, blinded, and bewildered – their faces and expressions have become the impetus for the creative and artistic endeavour to shock the conscience of the world. The white bandage around their eyes has becoming a badge of dignity, offering a different way of “seeing” as they pose uncomfortable questions. Why is the state and most of civil society blind to such gross human rights violations?

I followed the agony of Insha Mushtaq, the 14-year-old girl of Shopian who was shot in both eyes with pellet shot gun as she peered out of her family home in Shopian.  She first appeared on my timeline with an ugly gaping wound between her eyes that had caused infection in the brain cavity. Images and bytes of information continued as she was moved to a Delhi hospital, then to Mumbai. I see this girl draped in a hospital sheet, a small bandage on top of her head, having undergone the many surgeries performed upon her. Her face appears remarkably serene and sweet, the wound has healed but eyes remain “dead.”

Insha Muhtaq from Pulwama was blinded in both her eyes by pellet shot guns

The subsequent pellet gun eye injuries to 13-year old  Ifrah Jan, Shabroa Akhtar and Shabroza Bhagat of Pulwama, who were protesting in Pulwama against the security forces forcibly entering people’s homes, brings home to me how it is not just one or two but indeed an epidemic of dead eyes as Ellen Barry of  New York Times put it. Or, as the aunt of one of the girls told the Al Jazeera reporter, it was as if the young girls must now be targeted even as the forces were done hitting the boys.

Tending to these children are the doctors who not only have been forced to work under severe and exhausting conditions but, who have gone beyond their call of duty and spoken out against the unconscionable acts of violence perpetrated on their patients. Doctors at the Government Medical College in Srinagar bandaged one eye in a symbolic gesture of protest on August 10 and the Association of Doctors spoke out against a state that has turned a blind eye to its own.

How does one pay tribute to the ambulance drivers bringing in patients even as Indian armed forces savagely assaulted them and vandalised the vehicles. I wish I could recall the name of one such driver, who managed to get his patient to hospital even as Indian armed forces shot and wounded him in the arm.

And then there is Firdousa Rashid of Tangmarg who, at the height of curfew walked resolutely from 7.45 am to 2.15 pm to report for duty at the SMHS hospital where she works as a nurse. Her only concern was that the staff who had done a 48-hour shift could not have continued without rest and who brushed off praise with a matter-of- fact statement. What use is there of an ICU if there is no nurse?

Posts and tweets have also demonstrated that Kashmir’s sense of community remains very strong. Baitul Maal (an Arabic word that means house of money) or a concept whereby the community pools resources, time, labour and efforts to collectively care and nurture one another is flourishing even when curfew brings banking, shopping, supplies and other services to a screeching halt.

I learn of hundreds of volunteers who cooked food for patients and their families and several tweets revealed efforts to help with distribution of medical supplies.

A scene of pastoral life in Kashmir by Masood Hussain

On another day, a friend shared on Facebook the image of a beautiful pastoral scene by Kashmir’s famed artist Masood Hussain. Earlier this year he had used digital art including chilling images of a girl with two eyeless dolls to highlight the pain of his land but, this painting is one of the haunting beauty we associate with Kashmir. It is Harud or autumn. The trees stand tall, shorn of most of their leaves and mountains appear brown and bare. Wande or winter is in the air. But a rich vibrancy of colours bathes the picture. The leaves still on the trees are golden but it is the woman in red, three young boys and three roosters with brilliant red cockscombs that hold our attention. They are ordinary people, robustly accepting the changes of season, ready to bear the onslaught of winter, drawing comfort from being together. Let us salute the heroism of ordinariness.

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