Mother prays while I write: A journalist’s journey through villages and towns south of Srinagar

Photo by Faisal Khan / Effects: Wande Team

The rattling sound of our motor cycle cracked open the silence of the streets and small crevices of light signaled the dawn of a new day as I, along with my senior colleague at Kashmir Reader, drove towards the districts south of Srinagar city in the later part of July. Our aims were multiple. We wanted to understand how and why the villages of this region had become the epicenter of the raging anti-India uprising in 2016 - in contrast to the turbulent years of 2008-10 when protests were active largely in the city and towns of Kashmir valley. We wanted to know the response of people towards the state crackdown and their defiance following the killing of Burhan Wani, and two of his associates in an encounter by Indian armed forces on 8 July 2016.

The continued government imposed restrictions and blockade of communication meant that very little was known about the restive districts which had erupted in an unprecedented revolt. In fact the blocking of private mobile networks had meant that my colleague had to resort to constant honking of the motorcycle horn for me to come out of my home.  

The biggest impediment, however, was not the curfew or the Indian armed personal on the streets, but my mother. She had expressed her displeasure when I had confided my intentions. Her anxiety was understandable given that 40 people had already been shot dead by Indian and government forces and thousands had been injured. Even ambulance drivers and journalists had not been spared of beatings by government forces. I, myself, had narrow escapes even though I was armed with the curfew pass of the district magistrate.

On July 9, the first day of what was to become a six month long uprising when lakhs of people offered funeral prayers for Burhan,  I, along with my other journalist friends who were going to cover a protest were stopped by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men at Rainawari square. I asked them how they were going to respond to the stone pelting.  

“Iss sey pehley main unn pay action karoon, mai tum pay action karoon gaa agar tum yahaan sey nahi nikley (Before I begin to act against the stone fighters, I will first hit you if all of you do not leave from this spot),” one CRPF personnel shouted at me and my friends.

On another occasion when there was curfew, half a dozen personnel of CRPF again stopped me near Rainawari square. The display of an identity card and a curfew pass proved useless, they firmly said nobody is allowed to move. Their officers, according to them, had ordered strict restriction of people’s movement. I persisted and told them that the pass was issued by the district magistrate and clearly states my movement during the curfew period. One of the CRPF men angrily responded, ‘I am the district magistrate, and I won’t allow you. Go and tell them about me.’ The other one said that it was because of the curfew pass that they (CRPF) were even bothering to talk to me. ‘So what if you have a curfew pass?’ he said.

I asked the CRPF men to repeat what they had said on camera. This infuriated them.

One of them shouted, “Leave! “ When I said I would complain and began calling the PRO of CRPF they got enraged and threatened to beat me with their batons. I had no choice but to leave. Later over the phone the then CRPF spokesman in Srinagar, Bhavesh Choudhary, said that “there is deployment of CRPF from outside the state these days” and promised to inquire into the matter. I did not know what happened to that inquiry.

One Friday evening (around 9 pm), on my way to home from the office (Batamaloo), an assistant sub-inspector of Jammu and Kashmir Police stopped me at Karan Nagar square.

“Yo koto chu gasun (Where are you going?),” he asked me in a threatening tone. “Be chus media woal. Gar haez chu gasun, daftar pathi. (I am a media person. I am heading towards home from office),” I replied politely.

He rolled the fibre-baton in his hand and shouted,

“Chali kha yapeer kin kadat… (Will you run from here or will I make you run?).”

I began to take out my press card and the curfew pass. But before I could show him any of the two, he hurled invectives at me. His subordinates, who were sitting on a shop front, joined him.

“Thavi yi card pateh kin… (Put this card in your ass…),” he yelled.

A cocktail of rage and helplessness ran through me. I wanted to take him on but knew it was useless. A khaki-clad officer who is meant to uphold the law of the land had shown little respect for it.   

I decided to visit the Superintendent of Police (SP) Faesal Qayoom’s office, to register my complaint. I drove through an alley that connects Batamaloo to the middle of the municipal road where access was not restricted.  Why was there this difference?

Inside Qayoom’s office I complained about the cop who had stopped me. The good mannered officer assured me he would look into the incident to prevent it from happening again. He also told me to inform the concerned SP South Sandeep Chowdary. ‘I hope it won’t repeat. But in case you face any such situation again, do call me. One of our senior was waylaid also by the CRPF. I am looking into all these issues,” SP Sandeep Chowdary told me over phone.

These daily confrontations with the CRPF and JK Police had naturally disturbed my mother and now she was anxious because I wanted to go into the more volatile areas of the Valley.  

I left home, slightly distraught as mother’s consent wasn’t forthcoming. Before departing, I heard my mother’s tone getting anxious and sullen. “You know everything about me yet you do what you like”, she hollered at me.

Sitting pillion we left Srinagar in the dark as we had planned to reach our destinations before the deployment of forces. We had decided to skip all the routes where a military camp falls.

We planned to go to Kulgam first and then proceed towards Shopian and halt at Anantnag for the night. For the next day, we had planned to cover Anantnag in the first half and Pulwama in the second and then back to home.

Under an azure sky and through naked streets blocked by razor wires, stones and tree trunks we rode out. There was no movement of people. No public transport or a newspaper vendor could be seen. An eerie silence was hanging in the air. The only morning sounds was of chirping of birds and the sound of buses in which forces were ferried for deployment.

After an hour, the two-wheeler suddenly came to a grinding halt. The plug was damaged. As we were pondering the next move, an old lady came out from a nearby alley. She directed us to a mechanic’s house. He showed us how to clean the plug and remove the dirt and warned that the plug would not work for more than fifty kilometers distance.

Our destination was still more than hundred kilometers - back and forth. Another discussion followed. We decided to ride ahead. After riding nearly for 40 kilometers, the motorcycle stopped twice but each time we cleaned the plug to make it functional again.

At 7:30 am we arrived at the entrance of district Kulgam. A lane connecting the highway to the district was blocked by youth. They did not allow us to go in. We headed towards Shopian and met the family of the first martyr Sayar from the district, then the family of Asif Iqbal, the second martyr.  The locals in Shopian, after a brief conversation, told us that they fret about loss of momentum.

By now the sun had begun to blaze. But the streets were bereft of any economic activity. We decided to go to Kulgam and the elders of the village guided us through a road that connected Shopian with Kulgam.

As we neared a curve leading into Kulgam a posse of angry youth stopped us. Several cars and bikes were waiting there, their drivers pleading with the youths to be let in. I scanned the crowds to look for an older face, someone who we can talk to. My eyes met the sight of a middle aged man. I alighted and went to him to show my press card.  He understood that we had come to report but explained politely that these youths had seen their friends getting killed and injured in front of their eyes. For them letting anybody pass through the barricade is tantamount to treason with the martyrs, he said. I went towards a boy who looked fiery, angry and spirited. I attempted to make him understand too but he had questions and I had no answers. I talked with three other guys, two of them agreed to let us go. When they began to lift the tree trunk from the road, the angry boy shouted ‘no.’ He asserted that the media’s reporting was meaningless because it shows only the state’s version. Finally, after I showed him copies of our newspaper, he agreed. He asked his friend to accompany us and take us through a different route. We drove past only to come to a halt at another barricade. Another posse of boys in control didn’t listen to the boy who was riding with us. It felt useless to talk with them. We went back.

The boy accompanying us said he could not do anything.  This angered my colleague. He furiously told them, ‘I am from downtown but was never subjected to this kind of treatment anywhere where I went to report.’ The comment infuriated the youths even more and they starting hurling invective's at media.

“What media? You show what pleases India. You call our Mujahid a terrorist. We won’t let you pass whether you are from downtown or any other town,” an angry boy who must have been less than 14-years-old hollered at us. He was supported by his comrades who were directing their hostility at us because of the hyper-nationalistic reportage of Indian news TV channels like Times Now, NewsX etc.

We now changed plans and decided to converse with people wherever possible and not to stay for the night. We met some thirty people from whom we learnt about the exits, the topography of the villages and the situation. There was not a single street we took or decided to take on which there was not a military camp. We began looking for exit streets or roads ahead of which there is no protests. There were none. We had to take our chances.

“This is the result of not listening to your mother. Now I am bearing the brunt. Anyway, God will help us,” my colleague interrupted. I smirked. He shrugged and drove on.

At an unknown location, the motorcycle once again came to a halt. We tried the mechanic’s formula, it didn’t work. An hour went past and fixing the problem proved useless. I sat on the road side, pulled out a newspaper from my backpack and began to read. A motorcycle pulled over.

“Khaereat (All well?),” shouted the man sitting on its pillion seat.

“Aaa, bike gayi kharaab (Yes! The motorcycle has broken down),” I replied back.

The duo turned towards us. They asked us what had happened and who we were. After revealing our identity, the pillion guy alighted.

“Tuhundu yoath akhbar chu poz lyekhaan winkkes (Only your newspaper writes truth these days),” he said. The words were a sign of relief. Somebody unknown recognized our work. For half-an-hour, he attempted to fix the problem. He burnt the plug many times and the bike was functional again. He escorted us to a nearby mechanic shop where the broken old plug was replaced with a new one. He also ensured a smooth passage for us at one place where youth had blocked roads.

“Tuhindis qalmas takat (power to your pen),” he told us and bid adieu. I didn’t catch the kind man’s name.

It was the happiest moment of the journey.

Random riding delivered us into Behi-Bagh in Kulgam. The village connects Kulgam district with Shopian. A youth was standing near a shuttered down medical shop. He asked for our identity card. We showed it to him and he relaxed. He invited us to his home but we refused politely. He rushed to his home, which was nearby and he brought apples and offered them to us.

“Yatihaes gov qayamat. Yathi chuni yi zah gomuti (Doomsday occurred here. Nothing like this has happened here before),” he said.

He then showed us a mosque that was ransacked by the forces. The mosque’s floor was strewn with broken window panes and a twisted broken fan hanged from the ceiling. The boy told us that government forces here went berserk after a protest demonstration had erupted in the area on the evening of Burhan’s funeral. He remembered with vivid detail how 19-year-old Shahid, who was the sole bread winner for his seven member family, was killed that day outside the police station. That evening a big pro-Burhan march was taken out - in which protesters from about a dozen neighbouring villages participated. The protesters had thrown stones at the solid, concrete building. The police had fired into the crowd of protesters. A single bullet had hit Shahid on the face and killed him on spot. About twenty meters away from the spot where Shahid was killed, I counted four bullet holes on shutters of four shops.

The youth took me to Shahid’s home.

Nearly thirty guys, most of whom are witnesses to the killing of Shahid, joined us at the young martyr’s home. They sat around Asadullah, Shahid’s father and occasionally supplied bits and pieces of information about the martyr’s life. Shahid was the sixth child of Asadullah’s eight children. Asad’s eldest son and three daughters are married. His youngest son is a student and another daughter manages household chores after the death of his wife some ten years ago.

“He was a modest boy without any desire for material things. He was deeply pro-freedom,” said one.

“He was sociable and humble. If ever he got into trouble with others, he strived to resolve issues with maturity,” said another.

Asadullah joins the chorus: “He never gave me any trouble the way children of his age do. He left studies so that he could earn and I would survive. Allah will reward him for that.”

We left for Srinagar after the conversation at Shahid’s home.

It was late afternoon and the sun had begun to set when I reached home. A journalist friend on phone told me that JVC hospital, a branch of SKIMS, had patients with multiple injuries. I was very tired but still left home to meet the injured. In its orthopaedic ward eight boys were admitted; five with bullet injuries, two physical assaults and one with a pellet injury. First I met Mukhtar Wagay, whose left femur had broken into two pieces – visible from his X-ray report and his tongue was sliced too. Another patient named Mehraj had his left leg’s Tibia and Fibula broken into shattered pieces. Doctors had plugged his wound and shattered bones with external fixator. Another injured had to undergo a hip replacement surgery. He was in the hospital since Burhan’s funeral and had lost his four friends.

The visit was a routine of sorts; of meeting injured people every day, who were hopefully waiting for media to arrive and share their stories, while undergoing treatment in hospitals. Waiting for injured people to arrive and seeing their shattered bodies was painful, suffocating and choking. For hours after the meeting, their agony left me anguished.

The most terrible moment came on July 13, when Amir Nazir - whose abdomen was pierced, liver shattered and lungs damaged by a bullet - succumbed to his injuries. I was in the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital when he was brought. On the same day’s evening, I received calls from doctor friends who said Amir’s body needed blood. Blood donation banks had exhausted all supplies that day. I called the Superintendent of the hospital who assured that he would manage the blood. Friends called again only to tell me that there is no blood available. I told them that I would donate. I am a universal donor with blood group O-negative that can be matched with any other blood group. It was 11 pm. I began to leave my house when a friend called again. He informed me that the blood had been arranged. Four locals from a locality nearby the hospital had come to donate after announcement from a mosque.

Next morning, a friend’s call roused me from sleep informing me that Amir had achieved martyrdom.  I immediately rushed to the hospital. Amir had been discharged. An hour later, Amir’s relative told me over phone that his body was hijacked by police outside the hospital. Nazir Ahmad, Amir’s uncle told me that two policemen, dressed as civilians waved at the ambulance for the lift. While seated in the ambulance, a police vehicle followed. The men in civvies ordered the driver to take the body to the police control room where he was kept for hours. A senior police officer at the control room later told me that the body was taken to complete ‘some formalities’. 

Back at the newspaper office, I was grieved and frustrated. I could not figure out whether to mourn or to write. I sat before my laptop, stood up and then sat again. I again stood up, went inside the washroom and returned without doing anything. I sat again and resolved to write but became more restless. I wanted to sink into my knees and weep. I called my friends who discouraged me not to write. I called my Ammi to listen to her voice. She said, “Khuday karnai kamyaab, panis maqsadas manz, (May Allah make you triumphant in your efforts).”

I left the office without filing the story when the last words of Amir’s father came to my mind.

‘Byaakh shaheed kor khudayas hawali (Another martyr sent to meet God!)’

The words inspired me. These words were from a father who had just lost his young son. The father did not show any sign of defeat. The father’s word’s made me think and I thought I shouldn’t lose myself to the horror of pain and instead document the martyr’s journey. 

From the JVC hospital, I returned home. My mother was not in the dining room. The day’s tiredness threw me into quick sleep. A kiss on my forehead roused me. Through the edge of my eyes I saw my mother.

“Wechthi mean khodyan kithken anonakh wapas (Did you see how my Allah brought you home),” she murmured.

Her pose and manner conveyed to me that it was through the will of the God that she brought me back home.

She asked me how my day was. There was only silence from my side.  I closed my eyes, killed any imaginations of the day, and slept.

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