Wednesday, 24 August 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.