Long days, longer nights and unanswered questions
Yunus Dar | Kashmir
I decided not to cancel my ticket to Kashmir, which I had booked a few days before the fateful day of August 5. I arrived at the Srinagar airport on the morning of Eid-ul-Zuha. As I stepped out of the airport, I had no idea about how I would reach my home in south Kashmir. In the absence of all communication I had not been able to share my flight details with my family.
But there, outside the Srinagar airport, reclining against the pillar was my younger brother. Based on our telephone conversation of two weeks ago when I mentioned to my parents that I plan to come home for Eid, he had taken a chance. He came to the airport in time for the arrival of the first Delhi-Srinagar flight, a time table that all Kashmiris with families outside the Valley know by heart.
I hugged my brother. Not wishing to start any awkward conversation in a public place crawling with security forces I asked the most innocuous question, ‘How long would you have waited?’
‘Till the last flight,’ he said.
In normal circumstances we would have cracked a joke, as brothers tend to do to avoid any display of sentimentality. But we just hugged each other once again.
We left the airport on our 40-minute journey home. Paramilitary personnel lined up the airport road, armed with full crowd control gear, closely watching all the vehicles crossing the road. My brother told me how he had been stopped at least six times while coming to the airport, despite having started at the crack of dawn, when the security is a bit lax and traffic sparse.
We were stopped at least a dozen times on our short journey. There was a check point at every kilometre, secured with concertina wires, leaving a tiny gap for vehicles to squeeze through. The deserted roads brought to mind the disaster, end of the world kind of Hollywood films, where empty streets stand testimony to the times gone by.
The imagery changed as we exited the city boundaries of Srinagar. Unlike the city, there was movement of people here; walking silently, as if going for a funeral. Minding their business, faces downcast, every one seemed like an island to himself. I looked quizzically towards my brother.
‘Eid namaz,’ he said.
In sharp contrast to the mood on the streets was the welcome I received at home. Having been unable to communicate with me for nearly a week, my parents treated me as a soldier returning from an important mission.
If it wasn’t for the ritualistic animal sacrifice carried out by a few, there was nothing to remind one of Eid. The mood was sombre and the conversation in the neighbourhood muted. Only one question loomed large, to which no one had any answer.
‘What does the future hold for Kashmir?’
Eid and remoteness of my village ensured that people could collect outside the shuttered shops in the market and talk. Despite this rare liberty, fear was the overriding sentiment. The nightly crackdowns, detentions and disappearances formed the subject of that brief conversation. Somebody recounted the story of the disappearance of one moulvi a couple of days back.
‘In the day he prayed that Allah relieve Kashmiris of their pain. At night he was whisked away. No one knows where he has been taken to.’
‘He is not the only one. I have heard that several imams have been taken away,’ said another. ‘They feel that imams with access to the mosques can instigate people to protest.’ A few kilometres from my village, the security forces had conducted a raid on a family and taken away two boys. They were allegedly charged with ‘planning to organise a protest.’
Kashmiris are voracious consumers of news. According to the erstwhile government of Jammu and Kashmir’s department of information and public relations, before August 5 at least 171 government-approved publications came out from the Valley alone. These included daily, weekly and fortnightly publications in both English and Urdu.
However, since August 5, news is available only through word of mouth. And it is all local. Only those who satellite television connections can watch national and international news. Ironically, they are up to date with the developments in the US, Europe and the rest of India, but have no clue about incidents outside their neighbourhood. Strangely enough, the government of India allows streaming of breast-beating jingoistic news channels which only add to the rage of the Kashmiris.
On my third day at home, I needed to make a phone call to Delhi. The only way to do that was by going to the closest police station. I persuaded my cousin to drive me to the police station in the nearby town, about four kilometres from my village. We made our way to the besieged town, heavily guarded by the paramilitary forces, with not a single civilian in sight anywhere. It was a ghost town, not a single shop was open. Only the vehicles were being allowed to pass through. Inside the station, the police personnel were in civilian clothes and without any weapons. In uniform and in control of the police station were the CRPF personnel.
As one policeman helped my cousin put the call through, I hesitantly started a conversation with another.
“Is it true that the weapons of the J&K police have been forfeited?”
He shrugged with a faint smile, “Well, we are the enemies for both sides. Nothing is up to us anymore. It’s them in charge now (the army and the paramilitary).” With that he clamped up.
I weighed my options for a few seconds before deciding. I told the policeman that I was a journalist and wanted to speak with the SHO (Station House Officer), who I had noticed was sitting inside. Bad decision. The policeman immediately stiffened.
‘If we had known that you were a journalist we wouldn’t have allowed you inside. Make your call and leave immediately.” By this time, my cousin had finished and I took the phone from him.
As we stepped out of the police station, we noticed a battered police jeep, which looked like it had been pounded with a million stones.
“Can I take a picture of this,” I asked the policeman escorting us to the gate.
“Don’t you see the CRPF men,” he said pointing to the roof. “If you even try to take out your mobile, they may open fire on you.”
My cousin pulled at my elbow and we made a quick exit. On the drive back, in addition to manoeuvring through the concertina wires, we also had to negotiate rows of Casspir vehicles. Despite having grown up in Kashmir and witnessing several curfews, shut-downs and cordon and search operations, I had never imagined anything like this before. This was a complete military rule, I thought to myself.
The next day I decided to visit the neighbouring villages. I had heard a lot of talk about them in the three days that I had been home. One village, some eight kilometres from ours, had witnessed several crackdowns. Apparently, some boys had pelted stones on passing government vehicles during the day. At night, security forces swooped down on the village and rounded up all the young boys. They were asked to collect on the main road where they were beaten up.
I met one of them, Zubair (name changed on request). He lifted his shirt to show me his back. It was streaked with angry purple welts, some deeper than others. His hands were bruised too. He claimed that he was given electric shocks.
“Our house happens to be along the road, so I and my brother were randomly picked up. They wanted us to give the names of those who had pelted stones. I told them that I was not there that day and didn’t know of the incident. But they didn’t believe me. They kept hitting me till I fell unconscious. My brother got it worse. He is bed-ridden now.”
He led me to the house of another youth, Nayeem (name changed on request). Nayeem came out to meet us, hobbling, taking the support of a stick to walk.
“They dragged us of our homes, and beat us up for no reason. They said we had pelted stones on the government vehicle. When I told them that I did not do that, they asked me to give the names of who did it. I had no names to give.” Nayeem was repeatedly hit on his legs. He claims that he was also given electric shocks.
“It’s been nine days and I am yet to recover. I am the only bread-earner in the family. Whatever money we had saved has now been spent on my treatment. I am told that complete recovery may take five to six months. I don’t know how we are going to manage.”
With my cousin for company, I continued my journey through more villages — more eerie silences, more fearful faces and more personal tales of horror. Particularly disturbing was the surface calm. The Kashmir youth, who is usually quick to pour on the streets to protest smallest injustice was quiet and huddled inside their homes. The only mechanism of venting was hushed conversation with those they can trust.
“Everything had been planned as long as a year back,” said one. “The central government had identified all the potential leaders and influential youth. They were picked up months before this announcement. Night raids continued to ensure there was not a single voice of dissent. The youth were whisked away to locations as far as Agra. Thousands have been detained, leaving the resistance headless and helpless. In such circumstances, how does one even plan a protest?”
Another added, “They pick up people and send them to locations as far away as Agra. Even Omar Abdullah is in jail, so what do you expect of a common man?”
“Today anything can happen. There’s no accountability. And there is no knowing that those detained will ever return home,” said yet another voice.
At home, satellite TV is the source of distraction, news and mounting frustration. “Look at this propaganda about ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir. Have they no conscience?” my uncle said waving the TV remote at me. He made a half effort to turn off the news, but didn’t do it. What else is there to do, except watch TV? Maybe, there’d be some positive news.
This was also the time when many Kashmiris had gone to Saudi Arabia for Hajj. There was anxiety, often bordering on panic, on both sides. The families in Kashmir were going from pillar to post to talk to their loved ones in Saudi Arabia. Around Eid, the government had opened some landlines at the district headquarters. But none had ISD facilities. They were conscious of the fact that those in Saudi Arabia would be going crazy with worry about the developments in Kashmir. Like Rip Van Winkle, the Kashmir they left when they went on the holy journey would not be the one they will return to. Everything would be unrecognisable.
The government decided to ease some restrictions and open the offices and schools in the Valley around August 20. Now it was time for the civilians to impose curfew. The reports emerged of youth blocking roads and pelting stones on anyone making an effort to go about their businesses. A self-imposed hartal call made rounds one day prior to the government announcement of opening schools. No one knows where the call came from. It was just a message conveyed door to door by people. And so it continues. People refusing to embrace government-imposed normalcy.
As the time for me to return to Delhi drew close, my mother who had seen me moving around with my notebook warned me about writing anything that may get the family in trouble.
“Don’t forget that we live here,” she said. I promised to be careful. And sensitive.
On the day of my departure, my brother and I left home around sunrise, the time when there are least hindrances on the road. This time we left on a bike, as we intended to drive most of the way through narrow lanes to draw least attention to ourselves.
In a couple of hours I was in Delhi. In a different world. I switched on my phone and instinctively called my brother to check if he reached home safely. His phone could not be reached. The long distance to Kashmir has become even longer.