Notes on Friends and Family

20.10.2016 Hamburg, Germany

“Burhan govv nah Shaheed” (Burhan got martyred), declared my 8 year old cousin when I asked him, on phone, why he had not been to his school for the last four months, precisely since Eid ul Fitr. I have not seen him for the last 4 months, neither have I seen my family–whom I would call once in a couple of days on Skype–when the internet was working that is. Hanaan and his elder brother often do role-plays in which one of them plays a policeman and the other a protester. They go around in the courtyard running after each other, with one of them occasionally throwing small gravel stones at the other who acts as a policeman firing imaginary bullets. In the end, however, the alleles of resistance become dominant and they both end up singing the songs of freedom they inherited during the previous uprisings. “Go India, Go Back”, “We want Freedom”. It is now normal for them – and they know what is in the air at a particular time – tear gas or pepper gas. In an era, when children of their age talk about football, cricket, Xbox, PlayStation, and LEGO all the time, children in Kashmir have to talk about guns and the military.

“There is no joy”, says a young girl from Kashmir, who is otherwise always full of wishes and covets new things, adding “nothing makes you happy anymore here”, on phone when I asked if I should send something home from here with a friend who was flying to Kashmir. When asked what they are doing, my parents sigh and say, “Eat, drink and sleep...what else can we do!” Telephonic conversations are held in an air of suspense. The belief that state repression has ingrained itself into almost everything people do is evident in every sentence they speak–or don't– on the phone. “We cannot talk about this thing on phone. It is dangerous”. They have told me to call less frequently, since the siege began.

I was in Kashmir in May-June this year. Although no one expected an uprising of this sort to unfold in the next months, there were ominous signs present in the way people were talking, in the way armed freedom fighters were being talked about in the shop-front conversations and the living room conversations alike, in the way Indian-ness was being forced upon Kashmiris from railway stations to airports. In the village I come from, people had not yet finished mourning Shaista, the 23 year old young student who was killed by Indian forces when she was standing in the courtyard of a neighbor.

The Turkish Airlines TK-716 must have been flying over Pakistan at the time, coming from Istanbul on the way to Delhi, when Kashmir finally came up in the conversation between me and the passenger sitting next to me. Sitting on the window seat, he probably had Pakistan in sight, when he asked me about Kashmir. Although he stated, when dinner was being served on-board, that religion had nothing to do with his choice of a vegetarian meal, I think, the wallpaper of Hindu gods on his Samsung mobile phone, which was always in his hand, belied his statement. This fellow passenger of mine couldn't probably digest it, when I said the solution to the 'Kashmir problem' is to give people the right to choose, and hence retorted, “Those who don't want to be with India can migrate to Pakistan.” Why are Akhand-Bharatis (people who dream of an 'undivided India' from Afghanistan to Myanmar, from Nepal to Sri Lanka), I reckon in their display of acute Bharatiyata (Indian-ness),wont to sending people who don't agree to their ideas, to Pakistan, when, in their dreams, Pakistan is a very part of Akhand Bharat, I came to wonder. As if to mitigate the damage he had possibly done with his statement, he added that he had told his son the same, “if you don't like India, go to America or Germany or wherever!” He further added that if the people of Kashmir are given the right to choose, many more groups (he meant nations?) would demand the same and secede and hence India would disintegrate. That would be a likeable solution, not a problem, I managed to imply in my reply.

In the journey onward, as the airplane landed at Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, near Srinagar, the happiness of landing in Kashmir after a year overseas was somewhat lessened with the flight attendant-announcer seeing the passengers off, saying Jai Hind (Hail India). In the next 7 weeks I would encounter a barrage of Hindi hoardings in public squares, railway stations, and educational institutions. This forced presence of an unwanted and foreign 'national language' in Kashmir looked repellently ugly and people are not unaware of this imposition of Indian-ness in Kashmir. In Ramadan, as I was walking towards home from the mosque, talking to a distant cousin of mine, who studies in India, an elderly person overheard this cousin of mine using the Hindi word 'vishwaas' and rebuked him for this. This behaviour, which some may term an unnecessary hate for a particular language, the elderly person explained, was needed to preserve our identity at this time when India is trying its best to impose Hindutva in Kashmir.

The house where Shaista lived with her family is a 5 minutes’ walk away from the mosque. But if one would avoid a detour and pass through the courtyard of a neighbour, the one in which she was hit by Indian bullets, the walk becomes even shorter. I remember her father as a person who always loved to endlessly talk to people, taking longer walks back home from the mosque. I remember, he once advised me, when I was still in school, to avoid taking short-cuts to home through neighbours' courtyards and to take the long road instead. But, now, after every visit to the mosque, he takes the way to home that passes through that courtyard where Shaista fell, opening and closing the gate multiple times each day. The visit to the gate from where Shaista was taken out alive (to hospital) for the last time ever has become a daily ritual for her father.

Shaista and Danish - killed in government forces action in Pulwama on Feb 14, 2016

The neighbourhood is a living narrative of state repression that is in vogue in the whole of Kashmir. “Didn't you see the holes in the teen-fence, near the entrance?” an elderly neighbour asks me as I asked him if the Indian forces had fired indiscriminately in the locality on the day when Shaista and Danish were killed there. The huge green field in our village serves as a cricket ground where scores of cricket matches are played at the same time on a given Sunday. People from places as far as Srinagar and Shopian come to play cricket in this playground which has the Vasturwan mount in the backdrop. Danish played his last match in this ground before falling to Indian bullets on 'Valentine's Day' this year. There is a special Kashmiri word for extreme or inexplicable sadness; it is called 'boam'. This is exactly how a friend of mine described the way he feels, or for that matter how the village feels, since that fateful day. Scores have been arrested since then during or after protests, tortured, interrogated, and booked under laws described as 'inhuman' by international rights organisations.

“We chased them all the way”, declared a teenaged neighbourhood boy as he began explaining how they, a group of stone throwing demonstrators, had chased away pickets of Indian army and police that had come to the locality looking for armed fighters in the evening, adding, “They don’t dare to patrol during the day anymore”. We were sitting together at the engagement reception of a neighbourhood girl who had been my classmate during our primary school days. Pepper gas, used against the demonstrators, was still in the air and people were coughing throughout the dinner. At home, presence of pepper gas was still in the air in my bedroom, which is on the road-side of the house, and I contemplated shifting to the drawing room for the night, but in the end I stayed put.

I spent the first week of Ramadan in Kashmir this year. Never before have my parents disallowed me to go out to the mosque alone. And it was not just my parents; almost all of us felt a strange sense of brooding fear hanging in the air. It has gone worse since I returned from Kashmir in June.

Previously, there used to be this strange feeling of connectedness with the family and friends, who I would be in contact with throughout the day – on phone and internet. During the siege of 2016, it has not been possible to reach them, except a phone call to my parents every few days with suggestions coming from that side not to call often as it could be very much possible that the lines were being tapped. I experienced this strange distinction in the words being spoken on phone during the siege that were never there before, a deep chasm of disconnect between friends, within families; “we are all fine here, please take care of yourself there”.

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