Festival of Freedom
The slogans of azadi rent the air at Idgah
By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Friday at Idgah in Srinagar’s downtown was like Id. Celebrations after a month of fasting and abstinence. All roads leading to the mosque reserved for Id prayers (and there were many of them) were choked. Leaving the main road, we swerved our car into a narrow lane to avoid the traffic jam caused by mini buses, packed to capacity with people perched on the roofs as well, only to be halted by hordes of people on foot, forcing the Toyota Qualis in which we were travelling to move at the same pace as those walking on the road. Taking advantage of the absence of speed and to escape the scorching heat of the sun, several foot-travellers jumped in the car. Brandishing of the Press placard by the driver to deter them only added to their excitement. “Which Press?” some asked and without waiting for an answer offered options, “BBC? Reuters?” Answers were not important, as the title Press opens most roads in Kashmir.

In the babble of cacophonous conversation nobody knew who was saying what. With everybody talking at the same time, it was impossible to tell which voices were coming from inside the car and which from outside. Everyone was high-pitched, including the driver who seemed overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion. From one lane we lurched into another pulled by the marchers. Small children carrying bottles of water and soft drinks ran towards the car thrusting the beverages on the occupants. Competing among themselves as to who was giving more bottles, they were not happy that we accepted only one. Running back they surfaced with small plastic glasses of milk sherbet. “Take one more, take one more,” they arched their tiny hands trying to reach inside the car.

Every now and then, the marchers shouted ‘Azadi’, especially whenever a group of youngsters on bikes zipped past precariously balancing three to four boys as pillion riders screaming, ‘Hum kya chahte hain? (What do we want?). Wherever the lane broadened a bit young men formed circles, holding each other’s shoulders to do an impromptu dance by thumping their feet and going round in circles singing some combination of the freedom song. While green was the colour of choice as far as flags were concerned, a few carried Pakistani ensign. In fact, most flags had ‘Allah-O-Akbar (God is Great) emblazoned on them. One excited group collected around a man who was holding a two-year-old toddler. Holding a loud speaker to his face he would shout, ‘Hum kya chahte hain?’ prompting the kid to say, ‘Azadi.’

After driving at about 10kmph for 30 minutes, Idgah loomed in the distance. A group of young men acting as traffic police men (in the absence of all security forces, who had decided to remain invisible) directed the car to an unpaved stretch on the periphery of Idgah and we joined the crowd of cheering Kashmiris in their march towards the mosque. At every turn, small boys and girls, prompted by their mothers and other women, scampered around with glasses of milk sherbet and orange juice. Breaking the general air of festivity, a frenzied group of men wearing green sashes on their foreheads briskly tore through the crowd, carrying a Jamaat-e-Islami ensign shouting anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. It was unnerving only for a moment because no sooner had the group moved on, small children, not more than eight years, surrounded us. Raising his hand in the imitation of the grown-ups, one said, “Hum kya chahte hain?”. His friend shyly prompted, “You also say azadi,” but before one could react, the third boy dismissed the whole exercise by saying, “They are foreigners,” and all of them ran away.
It was a long walk to the gates of Idgah. But despite the crowd, there was no jostling and shoving. The air was rent with cries of ‘azadi’, ‘Allah ho Akbar’ and ‘La ilaha illalla’, with sporadic slogans hailing Pakistan, but essentially it was the festival of freedom. Those who had come in early were sitting on the dusty grounds, while others were inching towards the pulpit. Many solitary worshippers were offering nafil (optional) prayer while waiting for the Hurriyat leaders to appear. As the afternoon wore on, those from outside Srinagar started pouring in and the crowd swelled. The following day the local media reported that for the first time, since the current unrest, a few people from the Doda district of Jammu also came.
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