Thursday, September 22, 2016

The First Day of Autumn

This is the first day of autumn. The autumnal equinox occurs today.

I have too many questions on my mind. This is one of them. When do we write off a city?

When the floods came in 2014, there was a certain amount of despair in Srinagar. A certain amount of gloominess that comes only from watching ruins. Large parts of the city were deserted. People used to sit outside ruined homes, trying to salvage whatever little could be saved. Mostly Srinagar stared blankly into the void and the void stared back at the city.

Autumn brings in the chaos in our lives. This is nature’s Instagram account where everything is sepia toned and shaded. It is not very cold yet, but we are heading towards that.

Autumn may also bring in war in Kashmir, at least, if you believe a lot of Indian news channels. The naiveté surprises me, thought the rhetoric doesn’t. For many of the war mongers, it will be an excursion – listening to tales of bravado which they can pass on to generations and brag about for years. As much of things to do with Kashmir, it will not effect them. It will not be fought on their streets, among their people.

Before we realize time the chinars will be covered in red and gold leaves. I am waiting for that. In the barren city of Srinagar, it will be quite a show. I doubt if the people have given up yet.  It will be dishonest to say that this year has been just difficult, it has been devastating. There has been a war, and all humanity murdered. I just completed Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”. For Hemingway, war is an occupation where humanity survives only on the hope of its end. And this is emblematic of Kashmir today – we are hoping for one war to end before they wage another. I doubt the soldiers on either side want to fight a war, but it will be imposed on them just like on us, if the powers that be decide so.

There has been a complete shutdown for almost three months now. Almost all of it under curfew imposed by the government. The government is on the other side of the fence; they are not from among us and I have no good words to say about it. I, like everyone on this side of the fence, want people to not be arbitrarily killed. 86 people have died in this summer. The whole city is a war front which the media does not see and show. People, locked up in their homes, have given up work, money and opportunity to survive this war and see the end of the conflict. Enough, I hear my sighs whisper. Enough of the summers of bloodshed.

When the floods subsided, and the city rose from the ruins like a person lost in the sudden brightness of the day, there was much loss to wail over. On a bright day of that autumn two years ago, I walked to Amira Kadal Bridge. It was few days to Eid that year, and the city was, much like this year, barren. Piles of mud were being thrown out of shops, all stocks had turned to mush in the flood waters and the floors of many shops had cracked. The shopkeepers looked around with hollow eyed desperation. On the bridge, there was a small mob of people gathered around a hand cart. I wondered what the hawker was selling. A man held out a watch, a simple dial with a plastic strap. Its face slightly dirtied by flood, but ticking. The times were still changing, as they always do.

I, like everyone else, don’t know what will happen next – and I will not speculate about the future. Will we be caught in a senseless war between India and Pakistan on our territory? Or will be be occupied by autumn’s revelry? We have had enough of both India and Pakistan in our homes. I wish the unwelcome guests go back and cease the war among us. There is no dignified argument for war, but there is every possibility in this autumn – war or otherwise.

This time, more than ever, I am waiting for the chinars to change hues. For the clocks to tick a little bit more.

Lets not write off Srinagar just yet. Not yet.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Another Postcard from Srinagar

Yesterday, I went to the shrine of Ghousul Azam Dastgeer at Khanyar.

Khanyar looks like a ghost town. The roads were completely deserted as if the residents had fled somewhere else.

A few boys sat on the footpaths, talking among themselves. A policeman was eating an apple from a cart. I was scared someone will throw a stone at me, no one did. I was scared someone may shoot a bullet or pellets, no one did that either.

At Khayam I saw a few cars and bikes pass by. Then as you go down the Nowpora bridge, there are only Indian armymen and a few stray dogs around the dustbins and nothing much else. The CRPF men looked bored carrying bamboo frames and glass shields. I always wonder what they talk about among themselves - about the people they have left back at home, or the ones they shoot to kill, or the people left behind by the ones the kill. A CRPF man shuffled his feet, another adjusted his paunch on the shield. A man sitting outside his house selling petrol in a Fanta bottle looked at me. (Petrol pumps open only at six on some days when the rest of the bazaars open.)

Everyone stared at the cars that passed by, trying to judge why would that person be out at this hour. We are only a short distant away from death.

At Shiraz Chowk, there is a thin razor wire separating this side of the city from that side. There is another razor wire a few meters away before the turn for Nauhatta. A CRPF man was playing with his baton. (If you have never been in the city, this all may sound very confusing. But if you have, you'd know this is at a distance of hardly five minutes on foot). There was only a  small company of CRPF men stationed over there.

A beggar sat behind the archways of the shrine gate and a man on the raised platform outside the shrine.

The door of the shrine was locked and an iron gate pulled across. A hundred threads were knotted to its bars - a hundred wishes yet unanswered.

The man sitting outside told me that me that there have been no prayers at the shrine and the adjacent mosque for more than a month. Almost a month an old man sitting there had said that the shrine was closed because the police and CRPF used to enter the shrine chasing the boys.

Its been closed since.

Returning back, I saw an old man riding a cycle with his grandson sitting on the crossbar. He was perhaps out to take the little one for a ride.

Later, on in a different part of the city I saw huge buses moving about with tin sheets tied to the windows. More policemen perhaps. The city is trapped in razor wire coils manned by CRPF and police. Double lane roads have been converted to single lanes for no apparent reason. Traffic policemen are busy, fining bikers for violations (or otherwise, I have no idea).

There are no traffic jams anymore in the city except at six when the markets open. The bazaar opens at six, shortly before the maghrib prayers and close down soon after the prayers. By nine, the city is shut again. They lock everything and take the keys, uncertain what tomorrow may bring. You know, I so want to tell you how the sun shines these days in the afternoon when its bright and warm, and how cool the shadows are, how the leaves rustle as the breeze comes up in the evening - but I know that in times of war the skies are red at night. Later I came to now that some boys had been arrested and many miles away a twenty year old had been killed.

When in 2012 the shrine was burnt people used to come outside its still standing walls and pray. The new structure was almost complete now and redone to resemble the old one from my childhood where I used to visit with my grandmother.

I tried to imagine all the prayers locked up behind the door of the shrine. The weeping and wailing women who used to pray with such resignation. And now me, a lone figure standing outside the doors I had never thought would be turned on me.

But I still prayed because faith transcends closed doors. And because my hope for this city is eternal. Beyond the endless barricades, beyond the garrisons and guns, Srinagar is still a beautiful city and I am still in love with it. One day the doors of the shrine shall finally be opened and we will return to untie the knots from the iron bars. One by one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

To the Voice of Falling Leaves

Today brought in a very definitive image. The BSF moved into SP College in Srinagar

Kashmir has been under curfew since after Eid-ul-Fitr (Eid was on 6 July, curfew started on 9 July). So, the last time children went to school was during Ramazan. That was when the universities and colleges held their last classes, and that was also when offices were open. Since then we have been under curfew. Holidays have ended. Tourists have packed their bags and left. The tourist reception center looks out of place, 90s like. College students returning home for Eid from India, have returned back to college. But Kashmir has not had a day of business since. 

People in the free world usually have no idea what a curfew feels like. But that is beside the point here. I return to the image of army moving into a college campus and BSF being brought back into Srinagar. We live in extraordinary times. People love and hate simultaneously. There is hope and hopelessness in the same event. In this autumn, the mingling of summer and winter, the contrast has become staunch and steadfast. Our facts evoke fiction. Probably they make sense. I am starkly reminded of Mirza Waheed's book - The Book of Gold Leaves at this time when life seems to mimic fiction. It is a return back to the 90s.

There may be some spoilers in the following paras.

The first direct connection with the book is of course the girl’s school being occupied by the army. The move is temporary and the army will vacate we are told. During the 90s when Srinagar was doomed to become a garrison, not just schools but also hotels and homes were occupied by the army. The Boulevard road, which is a major tourist hub, was lined with dirty hotels with broken window panes where armymen lived. Giant trucks were parked in the yards and underwear hung on the lines. The army had tucked itself into the very centre of the city’s spectacle. In the book, Waheed describes the school where the army moves in one day and the consequential parleys of the army commander with the school principal. The principal – authoritative, strong and yet worried; the armyman – vengeful, angry yet restrained (with her). 

The army never leaves. The girls stop coming to school.

Military occupation is incompatible with children’s education. For some time the school and the army try to  feign coexistence but when two armymen are caught peeping into the girl’s bathroom, the tempers flare up and the upright principal confronts the army major even though she is ultimately powerless.

This powerlessness has now seeped into the Kashmiri structure and, I dare say, the psyche. There are new structures and new ways to disarm the Kashmir struggle. Even the words which we chose to describe Kashmir seem to hold consequence in that what we see its result might be – an uprising, a revolt, crisis, unrest, or disturbance. What is it?

While the army has been on a killing spree, there emerges another parallel with the novel. Waheed talks about Zaal, a metaphorical vehicle which captures Kashmiris and kills them. The Zaal was the mechanisation of a lot parallel structures in Kashmir: the audacity with which the militarisation functions, its impunity, its secrecy and its sheer brutality. The Zaal has morphed into the pellet guns in the current scenario. Its open and indiscriminate use has already blinded more than a hundred kids since July 2016 and killed almost seventy as of this writing. Rayees, a 20 something ATM guard, was killed with 300 pellets when returning from his night duty – none of the internal organs in his body was found intact. In the 90s there were torture chambers functioning in Kashmir – where people would be brought in and interrogated – often killed, their bodies would sometimes be found later. Sometimes they were never found. Now, there are no prisoners taken. The victim of the pellet guns are mostly teenagers – school children and college goers.

And it is the youth again that evokes the most pitiable sentiments so deftly captured in the novel. Faiz is a young artist, barely literate, but decidedly talented. Roohi is the bold heroine of the novel. Both instinctively wait for the war to end. They speak of it as a phase, in which they must play their part and emerge victorious, because defeat is not an option youth entertains. In highly troubled ways, we are back to the same time. The past 45 days have been filled with rage and anger against an enemy which is hard to define. India is recognised by its might in Kashmir, of which it has plenty and keeps refurbishing. Any primate with a weapon can kill – it is not that difficult to follow the official lines in Kashmir. But is not easy to be on the other side – a collective victimisation of the population. Everyone is a part of it. The ones on the street, the ones at home. The siege makes everyone a captive. May be Faiz wont cross over the mountains this time, but he will die close to home.

And death has been swift to come in today’s Kashmir.

Saying that these are troubled times hardly holds much water or weight. There are no indicators as to where this trouble started brewing. We are retracing the lines of violence and systematic failure that brought us here and pursue us further. We are moving in circles of uncertain radii and the powers cascade differently each time. For the violence that erupted in Kupwara in April, the power largely vested with the Indian forces. Now, the Indian state has sent in its border security forces – war trained personnel – to fight amidst the civilian population. Is there a shuffle in the power cards? We will only know either too soon or too late – we know by experience, there are no moderates in Kashmir.

I will move back to the book. There is a moment when the commander of the forces in the school, Major Sumit Kumar, launches into a sort of a monologue about the enemy he faces – the Kashmiri people. His dilemma is to fight people he does not care about – is meeting for the first time and has no personal vendetta against. Given a chance he would perhaps let them be, or crush them permanently. Again there are no moderates. The same high handedness coupled with disdain is how the forces go about doing their daily work, fully assured that their actions will have no consequences for them. They may kill, maim or spare – there will be no questions asked. Hospitals have been raided, people beaten on the roads, a five year old had needles poked in his eyes – and there is a history that goes back to the 90s again.

Safe in this concoction of legal warps the Indian state seems to be clueless what to do with the morass it has created. Its ministers, civilians, journalists have come and gone and come again. The hospitals have become museums of repression.  There is perhaps no decency left. It is a dirty war in every sense of the word. Day in, day out we are bombarded with pictures of children with bloodied faces, eyes swollen shut. Half naked men with torture marks crisscrossing on their backs. In one picture, doctors were sewing up the penis of a man. There has to be some humanisation to this war. There has to be some humanity left somewhere, though it is hard to say where to find it. Kids as young as ten stop cars in Srinagar today demanding identification cards and checking of vehicles – much like Indian army men do. Is this a fight to be become the other? Certainly, it is difficult to find it in the other side which has been asking for more blood from the very beginning. India answers stones with pellet guns and there have been voices to use “real” guns.

Even after all this, there is the police to deal with. Inventories are maintained of the injured and their attendants at city hospitals. The police then questions them. If there is a parable in absurdity, it has to be this. Angry protesters are first shot at, and then arrested. In one case, the police went out on a limb and booked a man they had killed.

In his war novel, Utz, Bruce Chatwin comments “Tyranny sets up its own echo chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic: so, in the end, the machinery of repression is more likely to vanish, not with the war or revolution, but with a puff, or the voice of falling leaves.”  There have been silent signs in Kashmir for long now. Every cycle of violence has made the people think – the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, have been clearer. More opaque. In this what the books like Waheed’s do is open up a door of expression to enable articulation of complex ideas – they show us how it is done. With every new song, every novel this idea of Kashmir gets a new voice and a new expression. Everyone cannot have the same way or words to communicate – the language we use defines us because it comes from within. In that the purpose of language is not just to express but to create. And in the smoke filled air of Kashmir, there is a silent army steadily creating the puff required to blow this oppression away. A lot is written about Kashmir now, a lot is heard. But it is the slower, subtler expression of grief that has emerged over the past few years. Its a sub plot in a long story. The graffiti on the walls of Kashmir is now so anarchic that the Indian forces have to paint them over. There are no memorials or museums to the civilian casualties of Kashmir, but artists have given voice to something more intrinsic in Kashmir – the fear or the experience of life under duress. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Where Do We Go Now?

I am finding it hard to return to my blog every time with news this sad, this unbearable. So, I must get it off my chest.

A five year old kid has been blinded by India's CRPF in Kashmir "for abusing them". Now hold your arguments and let this sink in.

A five year old kid. Most 5 year olds I know are not able to speak properly. Language is still foreign at that age.


Blinded by inserting something sharp into his eye. Something like needles, steel pellets, or a bicycle spoke. Let that gore sink in.

You will not find too many lovers of India this side in the darkness.

I am sure some Indian media-wallah or walli will soon get you the righteous CRPF perspective on how justified this attack is.

At the risk of repeating myself I must say that India is a violent country that has no moral standing on Kashmir.

This depressing epiphany of Kashmir only ebbs and flows. I was talking to a friend and couldn't place it in the mind. What did these kids die for? The 50 killed in 2016 and the hundreds killed in 2010. This batch in our school of death. In the grand scheme of things, where do these kids - born at the wrong place, at the wrong time - fit? The enemy is still here, the weapons are the same, the excuses too. Where do we go from here?

Sometimes, I am reminded of a death in a village - somewhere in south or north of Kashmir and I cannot remember the name of the dead. He is just, I dare say, a shadow in my memory. I never knew him (or her) personally, and  was grieved by his death for some time and for a little longer by the  tragedy of Kashmir. But, I don't have to live with his death - Kashmir has to. And as a Kashmiri, he is now a painful stake in that part of my conscience. He is an entity who didn,t exist for me till he ceased to exist, and now we, as Kashmiris, must live in this dolour and add more fuel to the collective fire of our anger. I don't maintain a diary other than a few blogs here of the deaths in Kashmir, but knowing of the fine young men who died in the state's vendetta is an introduction I would rather not have. I don't even put a face to this recollection of death. I can't.

Kashmir brings out the best and worst in people. I've been shocked at the vitriol directed at the innocent dead. At the whole of the Kashmiri Muslim population. At me. At Asif, by extension, who just wants to earn money "to be happy" - and live in Kashmir to support his family. In a free Kashmir. But, there are others in India, and this time I am surprised by their numbers, who spoke up for Kashmir. For Kashmiris. For us. This is perhaps the best time for Indians to speak up against the actions of their nation in Kashmir. It is possible to be perfectly patriotic without having to be against that idea of another population's.

Oliver Goldsmith wrote a wonderful essay about loving your own country without hating others. I used to wonder if it is possible in the Indian context. Whether Indians can fathom Kashmir a separate entity without having to send their army to force an "integration"? But social media has shown me that it is possible. Ordinary Indians, not Arundhati Roys, have commented, come out in protests, shown solidarity - either with the idea of Independence or saving human lives in Kashmir. This to me is a start. Of course their number is small and insignificant, but it is the power of the idea that interests me. It is the acceptance of a people's right. It is a step for Indians to sympathize with Kashmir and look outside the twisted tales of their televisions. And listen to the ordinary Kashmiris, like Asif. Most (or many more) I am sure will be willing to move over the history and geography lessons of a standard high school and accept the new realities of Kashmir and its relation with India. A friendly divorce over a forced marriage. How many more Kashmiris to be blinded before Indians open their eyes?

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. - Anne Frank

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

To Save Ourselves

My thoughts are all over the place. And there is no coherence.

The aftermath of killing of Burhan Wani has been met with the usual Indian response to everything in Kashmir. When the government of India hanged Afzal Guru, this was exactly what Omar Abdullah’s government did. When the government banned beef and then RSS mob killed a Kashmiri trucker, same. When the Army killed two boys in Kupwara in April 2016, guess what the government did?

Now its been three days, we are still under curfew. And it is expected to go on for at least two more days. What is a curfew? It is the disquiet which is propagated as peace by India. It is the subjugation which goes silently in the night of oblivion. It is painful breathing in air of pepper gas and smoke – and despair.  India is a violent country that prefers to shut down an entire population with the might of its army to curry a sadistic nationalist pleasure. All over social media, people ‘celebrate’ the death of Kashmiris – not the ones who took up arms against the Indian nation, but the ordinary civilians. Lost faces in a crowd.

What kind of people celebrate the death of people they never met, never knew and whose existence does not impact them at all – for better or worse. But that is the whole Indian sentiment about Kashmir, isn’t it? Its forced appendage to the Indian nation is a matter of pride for some and statesmanship for others; no one is quite clear how its severance will impact them, if it does at all.

Meanwhile, we have curfew immediately following Eid. The markets haven’t opened since Eid, offices, schools, colleges, universities are all shut – and people are counting the dead. Every few hours there is a boy dead or blinded. Every time this happens there is some sort of announcement from the Indian establishment to use “restraint” and “nonlethal weapons/measures”. This jingoism was adopted in 2010 and has continued since – leading to pellet injuries which cause blindness and death. Most of the people, who are shot, are shot at above the waist. Failure looms large, but the establishment has been ignoring it.

The Indian media and journalists were quick to jump onto the news of Burhan being killed calling him anything from “a terrorist” to “pig”, some even calling for mass murder of all the people who attended his funeral. Clearly, we are on the other side of the Pir Panjal. There is no India here. In this valley, Kashmir is held hostage not just to herself but to the undefined conscience of a nation she seeks freedom from. After years of misrepresentation, we cannot rely on others to tell our stories. We cannot be spectators to our own stories. Nor wait for a significantly large number of people to die, before the world takes note.

Everything about Kashmir is problematic in India. If Kashmiris speak up for Kashmir, they are asked to leave and go to Pakistan (or anywhere else). This is symptomatic again of the Indian understanding – the people can leave; the land they can take. Again, reflected in their discomfort with Article 370 which grants special status of Kashmir, and is in most cases like this one is irrelevant. There is a callous disregard of Kashmiri lives. 120 killed in 2010, 30 so far in 2016. And that does not even include the people who have been killed in incidents during the six years. There is hardly a number – no one is certain.

When we talk of death on such regular basis it is easy to forget that they were people, like you, the reader and like me, the blogger. They had aspirations just like us – and most probably did not want to be shot dead. They too had families and lives going on. And this morbid talk is not made easy by the jargon used in the media. When the government spokespersons choose to address the media – and surprisingly when the police head spoke to the media – they all lament “loss of lives”, “incidents”. No one in the establishment says that police/CRPF killed the unarmed protestors. This narration is slowly morphed into the even gentler “30 33 people died in the protests” – holding the perpetrators blameless, not even mentioning the killers, reducing the guilt.

Of course, the media has other tricks too. Like the victim blaming – they were shot because they were protesting, and the whole discussion in the public psyche dissolves into whether the protest was warranted or not. Why were they doing it? Who made them do it? They want to disturb peace? Why hold such a large funeral? This was best displayed in April when Nayeem and Iqbal were killed by the CRPF: there was an immediate attempt to discredit Nayeem by calling him names (a stone pelter, mobster etc.) Again, veering off from the crime of the armed forces of shooting unarmed civilians. This time too, the focus is hardly the attacks on hospitals and unarmed civilians – but how to quell the ugly situation that has come to be in Kashmir. Face saving. Of course, people like to question the basis of protests too – why are they angry or sad over the death of Burhan in the first place – they just do not want to listen to the answers. The answers don’t sit well with the Indian nationalism – they don’t want to hear that Burhan is hailed as hero in Kashmir or that even though they may not follow in his footsteps they won’t diminish his bravado and image. The background story why Burhan became a militant in the first place is not an uncommon story in Kashmir.

Quoting from Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s article for Kafila: Kashmir Burns, Again (

“In October 2010, Burhan Wani, then sixteen years old, was on a motorcycle, with his brother Khalid Wani, and a friend. They were out on a bike ride, through Tral, the area that they had grown up in, as teenage boys do, anywhere. They were stopped at a Special Operations Group Picket of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and ordered to get cigarettes for the troopers. Khalid went and got the cigarettes, Burhan and the friend waited. After the transaction, for no apparent reason, the troopers pounced on the boys, beat them up severely, damaged the bike, which had been Khalid’s pride and joy. Khalid lost consciousness. But perhaps it was Burhan who suffered the greatest injury, and that injury, an invisible one, was what any self respecting young person with a sense of dignity might feel when beaten for no reason other than the fact that he is there to be beaten.
It is possible that Burhan the teenager died that day when his brother’s motorcycle was stopped so casually, so callously. It is possible that Burhan the ‘militant’, who grew to be ‘militant commander’ was born that very same day.

Within a few weeks Burhan disappeared into the mists of the forests of South Kashmir. He emanated, over the years, in the form of videos shared over social media, playing cricket, listening to songs through his headphones by a campfire, posing, like a slightly silly macho young man with guns that he should never have had to feel the need for, that were thrust on him by the fact that ‘men with guns’ is the most important face of itself that the Indian state shows to Kashmiris. The militancy that is generated is the mirror of the occupation’s protocols. Armed men beget armed men. Commander Burhan Wani was produced and destroyed by the Indian state, which made it impossible for a young, intelligent, charismatic man like Burhan to salvage his dignity by any means other than that of being an armed combatant.”

The spurge in street protests against India have made this conflict a very individual thing. With continuous blockades in many areas of the city, curfews and crackdowns in villages, every person in one way or the other is a direct victim. There is no escape. The increase in protests, as much as India would like to blame Pakistan for it, is a sign that  too many deaths in the neighbourhoods have emboldened the people rather than deter them – sharpening the hatred like a tack. And the discourse in India does not help. It’s not like India does not want to seen as doing things. After rushing more troops to Kashmir, for some odd reason the Indian Home Ministry called a meeting of mullahs in Delhi to discuss the Kashmir unrest, and the Indian PM chaired a meeting of which the Kashmiri CM was not a part. It does a lot, just not the right things.

Days like today are rare. There was no news of fresh casualties, no news of clashes. In the interim and unrelenting curfew, people have come forth to help others establishing langars and volunteering in hospitals. These are not the things the Indian media would like to talk about. But we must. The biggest residue in a curfew is the despair it leaves behind in the debris of the failing society. What next? Everyone seems to ask. There are no answers. We will open our shops and schools till untimely death come knocking again or India decides to poke the fire. Till curfew is announced again, and the public beaten and battered locked inside homes. There is no giving up. That’s why we must talk more about the small battles won. To keep the hope alive. To save ourselves.