A little over fifteen years ago, while holding my mother’s arm, I looked out from a window of my house in Srinagar. The sight though blurred now, my memory bears an indelible impression; men shouldering the dead in shrouds, women wailing and the air resonating with slogans of Hum Kya Chahtay? Azaadi! (What do we want? Freedom!) I vividly remember asking my mother, “When shall we get Azaadi?” I didn’t know what Azaadi meant, though I knew that the people of my land desperately wanted it. A long silence had followed my question.
No matter how hard our elders tried to shield us from the trail of destruction outside, their efforts failed. My generation grew up listening to terms like Curfew, Crackdown, Martyr, Tehreek. Azaadi was in the air – at the bakers’, in dining rooms, in buses and on the streets.
My childhood passed under the shadow of a gun. Dreams were interrupted by the deafening sound of gunshots and grenades. I remember my brother’s favourite past time was to make wooden toy-guns and play what he called ‘encounter-encounter’. During cricket matches no one around me would cheer for India. As a child, I failed to comprehend the sentiment, however, gradually in those small but strong signs I started to find my identity as a Kashmiri.
On a sunny afternoon, I remember walking home from school with my friends. The roads were barricaded, the troopers stopped us and one of them frisked our school bags. He even frisked my friend’s lunch box, which made me angry. I snapped back saying, “We are school going children and this is a lunch box. How can you expect…” He was red in the face as I looked sharply at him and walked away. Anger and excitement gripped me at the same time as I hurried back home to narrate what I thought was an act of gallantry. But, my mother was scared. She scolded me saying, “They could have shot you there and then.”
At educational institutions books conceal our history, even maps are distorted. But planners of such tactics forget that children here live in conflict and life is the greatest teacher.
The heavy presence of troopers, the army pickets at every nook and corner, the barbed wires and barricades, the frisking – it all seemed ‘normal’ until I stepped out of Kashmir and found a different world. It was then I realized that my home was not ‘normal’.
Debates surrounding us made me inquisitive and I found that in the United Nations, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was registered as a dispute after litigation made by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The UN suggested a plebiscite, which was accepted by Nehru and promised to the people of the state during his speech on All India Radio in 1948 and also while addressing a mammoth gathering at Lal Chowk in Srinagar. Nehru made this promise time and again.
But instead of holding to the promise, New Delhi indulged in systematic abrogation of the special status guaranteed to the state under the Treaty of Accession. Till 1987, observers say not a single state election could be termed ‘free and fair’; such doctored democracy could only breed rebellion. Two years later, an armed uprising erupted and New Delhi’s response was repressive, to say the least. The number of people killed is disputed, but the widely accepted figure is 70,000.
Since childhood I have only known the inhuman face of India’s presence. Victims of torture, rape, forced disappearances, unmarked graves, widows, half widows, orphans – their common address is Kashmir.
In 2005, a bomb blast outside Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson girls’ school, where I studied, left me uneasy for days. Disturbing images of my classmates and children yelling, crying in pain; blood soaked uniforms and blood spilled floors. My helplessness at not being able to locate my younger brother in that huge crowd of media men, ambulances, OB vans and troopers still haunts me.
The picture perfect Kashmir, is not only about the picturesque Dal Lake and Mughal gardens it is also the most densely militarized zone in the world. Here minors are booked under draconian laws like the Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows people to be held without trial for up to two years. There are no juvenile homes here. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives Indian troops free hand to search, arrest, shoot and also provides them with immunity from prosecution. Human rights violations, a plagued justice system and bad governance are what people are protesting against.
With my childhood memories hoarded, 2010 only reinforced my identity as a child of conflict. And, it also came with a yearning to express our collective pain. For me writing became a consolation and a need.
Marked as the year of Innocent Killings, 2010 began with the killing of Inayat Khan, 16, who was shot by troopers on his way to tuition on January 8. Days later, Wamiq Farooq and Zahid Farooq, both school going boys like Inayat, became victims of the government forces’ actions. Worst was yet to come; on April 29, the Indian Army killed three Kashmiri youth in a fake encounter near the Line of Control (LoC) in the Machil sector. The situation became aggravated after 17-year-old, Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, who was returning from tuitions, was hit in the head with a teargas canister inside the Gani Memorial stadium in Srinagar’s old city. After that our days passed counting the dead; in total 118 people were killed during the summer unrest of 2010.
The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz sum up our miseries. “The executioner’s hands are clean, his nails transparent. The sleeves of each assassin are spotless. No sign of blood: No trace of red…”
Kashmiris have been alienated for decades. With every case that is forgotten, the memory sharpens. With every act of injustice a new stone thrower is born. The government has failed to reach people. In a volte-face, the government charged dead Wamiq, 13, of causing injury to a cop instead of bringing his murderers to book.
“There are countless pending cases and everyone knows the fate they meet. We don’t have any hopes. We can’t push it to the court for long. We are common, poor people and can’t afford the costs. Allah is the witness and that is the only consolation.” These words of a brother, whose sister was among those killed, speak volumes about the faith common man has in the judiciary.
Terms like healing touch, negotiation table and dialogue have been used and abused by the government repeatedly. In reality India’s answer to stones has been brute force. Though India’s diagnosis has always entered on development and employment, intentionally shoving the real issue under the rugs of oblivion. Labelling the unrest as part of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) backed is seen as yet another desecration of Kashmir’s sentiment.
A 5th grader in my neighbourhood secretly comes out of his house, without letting his mother know, to pelt stones and register his protest. Is he, a boy in grade 5, funded by ISI or LeT or is he crying for employment? I will let you be the judge.
I saw 9-year-old Sameer Rah in shrouds, his tiny body on a stretcher, being carried for the burial. He was ruthlessly beaten to death, and when his body was found he still had a half eaten toffee in his mouth. I can’t forget the face of his wailing mother and my own helplessness as I stood on the street testifying. The tearful voice of Sameer’s friend from a mosque loudspeaker still echoes in my head, “Sameer your blood will bring revolution!”
Concertina wires, barricades, burning tires or its leftover, crushed glasses, scattered stones – these have become signposts on every street in Kashmir. The graffiti Go India Go, We Want Freedom – a message loud and clear, is what every street in Kashmir says.
While the idea of Azaadi remains dear to the heart of Kashmir, there has been a clear transition from guns to stones and slogans and many other forms of dissent. While peaceful protests on the streets are quelled, they have reached cyberspace. Videos and pictures, depicting the gory realities of New Delhi’s troops have been shared across the globe.
In these times, when the mind is busy in damage control and when everyday brings with it new ordeals, we have to keep our head and wage war against our memory lest we forget. Our memory is the strongest weapon in such times.
As a Kashmiri I don’t hate Indians; I have many Indian friends. The protest is against the impotency of the Indian government to understand our sentiment. It is over 60 years and India should respect the ideals of the democracy that it claims to uphold, otherwise, its global image of being the world’s ‘largest democracy’ might be dubbed as the biggest PR scam in history.
Iram, a forty-day-old baby girl, died just because she couldn’t make it to hospital as government forces did not allow her family through during curfew. Iram’s 5-year-old sister, when asked, innocently said woh margayi, military walon ne jaanay nahe diya (she died because troopers didn’t let her go). Iram’s sister will find her identity as a Kashmiri in these signs, the way I did when I was a child. And when she grows up she too will sing the songs of Azaadi.