In our school, we had a subject called ‘Atlas’ where we were taught about different countries of the world, even their rivers and mountains. As I was getting an idea of the vastness of the world unknown to me the circumstances of my place were conspiring to limit me to a small shell. The armed insurgency against India broke out in Kashmir in 1989. I was 9.
I spent my early childhood at my maternal grandparents place. Like my mother I was the only daughter between two sons. I was special for them, more so because I was their only granddaughter. My uncles had two sons each.
As my mother would attend work, her family took care of me and my siblings. It is not so unusual in our culture as most children spend a lot of their childhood with maternal grandparents and uncles.
My grandmother gave me love for books. Snow White and Seven Dwarfs was her first gift while my brother got Puss in Boots. Every winter vacation, (three months) I would accompany my grandparents to some destination outside the state to escape the Kashmir chill. For convenience I was admitted to a school near my granny place.
For me one of the first casualties of the armed insurgency was my vacation trip.I moved into my father’s place after grandfather’s (paternal) death. Insurgency was already into its third year. My home was in the old city of Srinagar, a place in the thick of action.
After India gained independence from colonial Britain in 1947 the subcontinent was divided into two countries India and Pakistan. Both claim Kashmir in full and control parts of it divided by a ceasefire line called the Line of Control (LoC). China has also managed to take a bite.
Pakistan was carved out of the Muslim majority areas of then India. Kashmir by that count would go to Pakistan, but a turn of events left it controlled in parts by both countries. The Indian controlled part, where I live, has always been volatile since, with demands ranging from merger with Pakistan to freedom.
I was getting aware of the politics of the region, though as a child I was mostly protected. There was always someone to take care of me. When there would be an encounter between security forces and armed insurgents or any other trouble while I was in school someone would come to pick me up. Life is not so simple anymore as I am on my own now.
In hushed tones I would hear about someone’s son, someone’s nephew someone’s grandson gone ‘apour’, across the Line of Control.
The armed insurgency enjoyed widespread popular support. Insurgents known as mujahids were a romanticized lot. Every youth wanted to go across the Line of Control into Pakistan administered Kashmir and return with a gun on his shoulder.
My parents and grandparents were watchful lest my brother or uncle might cross the line as well. The Indian state weaved a web of military posts all over the valley. Nearly every lane in the old city of the state ended in a sand bag bunker. The old city has quite an intricate network of lanes. With the bunkers came restrictions on movement. One couldn’t move after dusk, so the day ended too early in the 90’s. It still does but not that early.
With cross firings, grenades, and bomb blasts, I also became aware of crackdowns, curfews, disappearances, and custodial killings.
Frequent body searches in a heavily barricaded city and proving identity at every step to uniformed personnel became the norm to people especially male folk. With breakfast my mother made sure that the men of the family left the house with their identity cards in their pockets.
The day puberty reflected on my brothers face mother frowned. He could no longer stay in the house with the women during a crackdown, so the worry.
Crackdown: When at daybreak people were awakened by a mosque loud speaker calling not for prayers but for men to assemble into an open space in the locality. The assembled men and boys would then be paraded in front of masked informers. Men and boys would be picked up, some on the instructions of the masked informers, some on mere suspicion. The crackdowns were mostly day long but often extended.
I remember being huddled in one room usually kitchen with all the women and children of the house as the security personnel would search our house. Once after the search ended I rushed to our room to find all things scattered. As I checked my things they had taken away my pens, the imported ones brought by my uncle as well as a set of two, the first gift from my father, which I had kept hidden behind a ceramic doll in the cupboard. I cursed them and myself, them for taking, myself for not using them.
Stories of people who were interrogated made me understand why mothers were not happy to see their sons grow. I remember dad narrating the account of someone released from a jail. He had talked about a man there who was laid on ground with a blanket over him. He could not move and ate from his plate with his mouth. He was stinking as he defecated there. No one went near him. I remember being devastated and angry as I drew a mental picture of the man wondering why we were so helpless.
So many innocents were brutally beaten, tortured and killed. Cross firings and encounters especially when the military had suffered some causality ensured death and beating to a good number of people.
As graveyards began filling people were getting more and more dejected. People had got alienated with the government whose every action was directed to suppress and stamp the voices of people rather than address the issues.
At times I couldn’t believe I lived in my homeland. It was a strange land with stranger rituals. But slowly reality and history of my people my homeland was sinking in. Things were changing in and around me.
As a kid I would often rush to the baker across the lane in front of our house. The shop in the ground floor of the baker’s house had an oven in the back room. A small window connected the oven room with the front shop. Mostly the baker’s wife would be at the window, peeping out to attend customers. A short, stout lady with a round face, she would nod in greeting as we exchanged the bread and money.
Then one day we heard that some unidentified gunmen have killed her youngest son. Rumour had it that he was suspected to be a police informer.
In the following days I could not gather myself to go near her shop. I didn’t want to see her. I felt I couldn’t look into that chubby face again or meet her eyes, which I knew would never be the same again. I stopped getting bread.
In Kashmir’s long list of women affected directly by conflict, the baker’s wife was the first I knew personally. I also remember Gul’s wife. Gul Muhammad, or Gul to us, a butcher by profession, was a next-door neighbour. I remember Gul as a God fearing man, teaching his sons intricacies of kite flying on the roof of his house in winters. My brothers and uncles would be on our roof, also flying kites.
I didn’t like to fly kites but I loved to soak in the sun and watch the kite dance to the tunes of the wind. Many families would be on the roofs, watching kites soaring and severing. When a kite would be in trouble, anxiety levels on the roofs soared. Instructions would roar in the air from rooftops, so would encouragement or compassion when someone’s kite was lost.
Gul and his two sons gave us regular company. I liked him for being a good father as he taught his little sons the nuances of the game. We often exchanged tips. His wife would sometimes come and sit with him
Then one day I returned from school to find an empty house. There was a hue and cry all over the locality. Someone told me Gul has been killed. A Frooti (juice) tetra pack had burst and a panicked CRPF personnel had retaliated by shooting Gul inside his shop. People said Gul had been friendly with the trooper who shot him. That day when mom returned she said Gul’s thumb had been severed as he had caught hold of the iron hook used to hang meat, while falling. Dad said he had chewed a candle, as there was no one to offer him water while dying.
I rarely saw his wife since, as she confined herself to her house. I also dreaded seeing her as I realized the face wouldn’t be same anymore, neither she.
Then there was Halima the wife of the peon of my grandfather’s school. one day a grenade explosion brought her to the front gate of her house to meet a tragic end. It took just a scolding from security personnel to induce a fatal cardiac arrest.
Yawer a year senior to me in school was killed in a grenade explosion. The list of such people is endless in Kashmir.
I was just a kid but I knew by then that with every blast and bullet a Kashmiri was being affected – directly or indirectly, a widowed wife, a wailing mother, a broken father a dumbstruck brother/sister, orphans. The number of people reported missing was going up. Theses disappeared people left half widows in their wake. Half widows; women whose husbands were missing. There is no figure for the number of orphans this conflict has produced.
This was Kashmir my land and these were my people. These were also my first brushes with the consequences of the conflict on my region. Yet this was new to me.
I always felt the presence of that other in my land. No one taught me anything about it no one spelled it out to me but I always saw the security personnel as the other. Not once did I felt he was there for my safety (their actual purpose). They were there to protect themselves from us, that is how I saw it even as a kid. What were they here for? Why don’t they go home? There was always this unbearable resentment against them? I thought it ran in our blood. A neighbour’s nephew barely able to talk pointed his toy gun to a scrutiny picket and pretended to fire.
But there presence was overwhelming. India does not reveal the actual number of its troops in Kashmir, but some estimates put it at more than 700,000. That makes Kashmir the highest militarized region in peace times. The troop presence makes life in Kashmir what it is - a hell. They enjoy impunity under law. Under Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Disturbed Areas Act, two of the so called draconian laws a trooper can shoot a person on mere suspicion, and he cannot be tried in a civilian court for any allegation of violation.
Human rights watch says “The Indian government's failure to end widespread impunity for human rights abuses committed both by its security forces and militants is fueling the cycle of violence in Jammu and Kashmir” “It’s absurd that the world's largest democracy, with a well-developed legal system and internationally recognized judiciary, has laws on its books that prevent members of the security forces from being prosecuted for human rights abuses”
People however have adapted to live, and even to resist the pressure. Things have changed from the gruesome nineties, when rights violations were at its highest with no accountability. But it doesn’t take much for the ghosts to return.
IN 2008 a public land low stirred huge public peaceful, yes peaceful, protests in the region turning soon into some of the largest pro-freedom protests. As the public rallies started growing, the state responded with brutal curfews, and firing on unarmed protestors. It even beat up people inside their houses, all to re-instill the diminishing fear of state police and troops. 60 people were killed in police firing on civilian protestors. Thousands were injured, many of them inside their localities.
In the early nineties I recall how people found novel ways to protest. They would beat tin roofs at night, and arrange complete blackouts for certain hours. If anyone would dare switch on a bulb stones would rain immediately on the house. I remember rushing to the roof of the house with cousins to hear the beats. I experienced a sudden unforgettable adrenaline rush. For unknown reasons the beating reminded me of a Hindi movie song.
Mangti hai pyasi darti begunah janu ka khoon pani to nahi hai yeh hai insaanu ka khoon. The thirsty earth is asking for innocent blood This is not water but blood of people.
Too many people were dying in those days. Unofficial estimates put the death toll at over 80,000. Officials stick to half of that.
Death rate has come down, but Kashmir remains volatile as ever. It only takes a few minutes for protest on a long power cut to turn into a march for freedom.
A lot of talk goes on around Kashmir, but a long-lasting solution is hard to come by. India is even reluctant to clip the powers and immunity to their armed forces.
After a lot of hue and cry this summer fuelled by rape and murder of two women allegedly by security personnel, talk of demilitarization and removal of special laws were making rounds again. But not for long. Indian officials maintain that both troop presence and special powers to them is important to fight insurgency in Kashmir.
I just cannot wish away the other from my land.