A/N: This was written at different points of time during the government-imposed curfew and popular protests/strikes in Indian-administered Kashmir that lasted from 8th July to mid-November. I stopped writing after August, so the figures may be more than what’s written. Some edits were made in December, but there are many things I didn't update.
The situation seems to have calmed down now, the Internet has been partially restored, mobile networks are working again and newspapers are back in print.
Silence weighs down on everything – even the air is heavy with it, disturbed only occasionally by pro-freedom slogans from protestors a few blocks away, which are then silenced by the echoes of gunshots, teargas shells and pellet-guns from the other side. There’s not much to do indoors but eat, read and sleep and hope that you have enough food to last you through the curfew or whatever is to come. The hours drag on unreasonably during a curfew, but the days… they go by fast, like seconds.
I haven’t heard the whizz of the newspaper boy’s motorcycle for days now, nor the rustle of the day’s newspaper unrolling mid-air before landing on the grass in the lawn with a soft thump - printing of local newspapers has been restricted. I haven’t, for days, heard the distant sound of traffic either - there are restrictions on movement. I want to see my friends but that can’t happen – assembly of more than four persons is illegal. My phone sits unused on my study desk – all outgoing and incoming calls have been barred. I want to use the Internet but the government has decided to block that too. I want to watch the news but all local news channels have been banned. I want to go for a walk outside but that wouldn’t be safe, with all that’s happening.
As I write this, there’s curfew outside. There has been curfew outside for days, it has been that way for a week now. More than a week? Probably yes. Probably twenty days. I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’ve lost track of time. When life has been paused, and everything suspended, what is the use of keeping track of time anyways? Five years ago, in 2010, there was a four-month curfew, I survived that. I hope I survive this one too (that is if I don’t get shot by a stray pellet or some God-knows-what canister from a soldier, or get hit by a stone from a sixteen year old stone-pelter) during my cautious walk to the bazaar, which has, not surprisingly, been closed for days now.
I want to call my sister to check if she’s alright - she’s a doctor and she has to be at the hospital even when it’s war on the roads - but a phone call isn’t possible right now. The last time I talked to her (before the government decided to snap all communication lines), I came to know that many of the injured people were being rushed to the hospital with projectiles from pellet-guns lodged in their skulls, faces and eyes. Some of them permanently blinded. Some defaced. Many of them just kids less than ten or twelve years old.
I also want to tell her how much I hate the fact that I couldn’t be there for my niece’s birthday because of the curfew. But there are worse things happening, other, larger things that drown out any morsel of happiness that one could possibly get out of the little subtleties of life.
Local news channels are still banned. National news is too much noise. The only source of news is the old, archaic radio with an awkwardly long antenna that sits on a shelf in the living room. Every day, during the evening bulletin, I hear the death toll rising like a counter going up and though it’s nothing new to me, something inside me keeps breaking and breaking into pieces, one by one.
In the last few days, more than forty people lost their lives to security forces’ firing on protestors all over Kashmir. More than three thousand were injured. Some are still critical. The protests are still going on, the count is still rising.
People get killed all over the Valley every now and then – in ones and twos and tens. It’s horrible. Periods of strikes and curfews are punctuated with desolately ‘peaceful’ intermissions for a few days, sometimes weeks, sometimes stretching on for months - during which people try to return to normal life. Then something horrible happens again, and back they go to the start.
I’ve being witnessing this alternation of ‘peace’ and ‘conflict’ ever since I was a kid. It is a wavy, sinuous chain of events - made of up of these little crests of hope and deep troughs of disappointment, that are seemingly perpetual. Peace and conflict - the two intertwine. Sometimes I go out during curfew to see if any grocery store is open behind its half-closed shutter, sometimes I’m frisked - head, toe and crotch - by an otherwise well-meaning soldier on a very normal, non-curfew day. It gets hard to tell the two apart until, eventually, they both merge together into a singular reality – an uncertain picture of the future. It’s something hard to get used to. And it’s hard to reconcile your faith in democracy and its institutions with its practiced paradox all around you. It’s pathetic. It tests your sanity.
I think I once heard someone say, ‘They deserve it, those militant-loving, anti-national, terrorist Kashmiris’ on a national news channel, I’m not sure, maybe I heard it on the TV, maybe someone actually said it to me in person, to my face. Memory is smoke, not to be trusted. While the art of clubbing together so many adjectives one after the other in a single sentence is impressive, the list keeps growing longer and longer: thankless, separatist, anti-national, seditious, unpatriotic and what have you. Maybe rightly so – maybe we are all of those things.
I agree strongly to the fact that Kashmiris aren’t the nicest people on earth. Sometimes, some of us can be biased, unreasonable, a little narrow-minded and occasionally ignorant. But we are people too, like all other people. Our lives are lives too.
Maybe the misfortune of geography has placed us in the middle of two warring countries of India and Pakistan, the border separating them tearing Kashmir into two halves of Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, maybe that’s why Kashmiris are such an agitating mess, protesting for civil rights and freedom all the time, unwilling to throw in our lot and go with the flow. Living in a heavily militarized conflict zone does that to you – it makes you ticklish; it makes you overprotective of your rights, more aware of your surroundings - because you’re pretty much on your own – Little Red Riding Hood, with strangers offering you candy all the time.
There’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I first learned words like ‘curfew’, ‘dead’, ‘militant’, ‘civilian’, ‘army’, ‘killing’ and other words that Kashmiri children learn too early in their lives. The question – ‘when will it all stop’?
There’s also that other question – ‘does anybody care’? That one is hardest to answer. It also leads to another, simpler question ‘does anybody know?’
Although there’s no way that I can watch the news right now, I can speak out of experience: not much is reported about this sort of horror in the national media, and whatever little is reported, is tailored to fit into the “nationalism vs. separatism” narrative – because that’s a convenient narrative. There is never a direct, explicit mention of “killing of civilians” in Kashmir by security forces or the excesses committed by them in the name of national security and integrity, but the word “unrest” is preferred because it is safer, more sanitized and less likely to shock the viewers to action, less likely to make them start questioning the mainstream narrative about Kashmir.
Here, we often wonder why no one in the country ever shows any concern about the issues we face. There is never a single solidarity event held in any city, village or town in the country over even the most non-political, humanitarian issues of Kashmir.
But I do somewhat understand why it’s that way. I’m a believer in the fact that the people of India would stand up for the right thing if they knew the facts, but as of yet, little is reported to them about this far, frontier country in the north. That’s why many of them still find it shocking that the region they believe to be a part of their country is full of people who don’t really identify as Indian; that there’s no widespread sense of belonging to the country to be found here; only a restless existence within the tight clamp of a militaristic clutch. Misinformation allows the fault-lines to deepen, instead of allowing people on both sides of the divide to come to an understanding about the issues without experiencing a culture shock.
It’s often said that humanity in this country goes only as far as nationalism goes. Once someone is proven to be ‘anti-national’ or even remotely advocating anything resembling secession from the union or freedom, they deserve everything that’s done to them. That’s the logic used by many to justify the human rights abuses committed by the security forces in Kashmir. Even questioning the army’s track record in Kashmir has now become an act of blasphemy.
I apologize if my tone or my way of speaking is accusatory or biased, but if it’s so, it’s probably because I don’t get to have the convenience of having a neutral opinion, or the comfort of being at a certain distance from the conflict. It’s outside my door. I was born and bred in its shadow. It’s hard to be objective about something when you’re in the midst of its mud-puddle. That said, I confess to being biased, but it’s the kind of bias that comes from raw, first-hand experience; not the kind born out of conjectures and suppositions.
The past week, like so many other weeks and months of my life, has been a week of curfew, a week of waking up to all that I’ve mentioned above, of counting civilian deaths like counting broken clay-dolls, of patrols and barbed-wire barriers all along the main roads, restrictions on movement that make even stepping out of your room difficult, the Internet blocked, even all incoming and outgoing phone-calls blocked for days, all local news channels permanently banned. Cable television snapped for many days. Printing of newspapers prohibited. People virtually imprisoned indoors for weeks.
It’s not a healthy way to live; everyone deserves to be treated with a basic amount of dignity. You can’t treat people like that and expect them not to rise up.
I often feel like militancy in Kashmir is a gigantic mango that everyone likes to juice for their own political purposes. The fact of the matter remains that certain vested interests in Pakistan fund, arm and equip these militants because that allows them to engage in a sort of a proxy war with India. On the other hand, there are certain forces in India that use militancy as an excuse to justify their crimes and excesses in Kashmir on the ‘exceptional situations’ they face.
However, a million Wildlings aren’t coming for The Wall. Even official government figures place the number of militants currently active in Kashmir at around 150. They’re a scattered group, mostly local, young people who get their hands on rifles and hand grenades (procured from across the border from Pakistan) and believe that attacking individual Indian Army camps, bunkers and local police establishments is a way to resist.
In any case, I think that armed militancy in case of Kashmir is a destructive cycle that hasn’t and won’t formulate a decisive, long-term solution. A lot of Kashmiris tacitly sympathize with militancy. I’m not one of them. 1990s was an era of militancy; it yielded nothing but tragedy and horror.
But I do try to analyze the whys and whats behind the rise of armed militancy in Kashmir with the detachment of an observer. And I know for a fact that today, the dominant form of protests in Kashmir today is demonstrations and marches. But even those are strangled by the state.
Democratic spaces of dissent have long been closed to the people. The fact that soldiers and cops can fire bullets at protestors and even non-protestors and get away with it is a fact that doesn’t shock anyone anymore. That’s what’s scary: when people are barred from methods of dissent such as protests and demonstrations, what will they eventually take to?
It is in these spaces that lawlessness and terrorism is born, it is in these pockets of alienation that phenomena like militancy and violence start to thrive.
“Azadi”, “Freedom”, “Free Kashmir” reads the graffiti on the walls in every other street corner. I’m not sure whether the aspirations they symbolize are for the better or for the worse, but they are there – the words. The words are there, written starkly on the walls. I don’t know what to make of them, but I do know that they represent popular sentiments.
Crowd control is one thing. Mild use of truncheons below the torso to disperse protestors is understandable, water cannons are understandable, and firing of teargas shells are understandable if the protestors are coming at you like a resolute Dothraki horde on horseback, unwilling to budge. But when you start shooting protestors dead, with bullets and pellets, that’s something very, very different.
Pellet guns, that the security forces say are their ‘safest’ weapons, are no less lethal. Hundreds of people – men, women, children, and teens have been blinded or paralyzed below the waist by pellet projectiles in Srinagar city alone. The statistics for the rest of Kashmir aren’t known to me, but it’s pretty much the same all over the Valley.
Realize that these protestors are teenagers with stones, not combatants. You’re a professional trained in crowd control; these are people - civilians. It’s a protest, not a battlefield.
Men in uniform can get away with anything in Kashmir. There’s a reason why the Indian armed forces are not loved in Kashmir.
But maybe I am being unfair to a lot of soldiers and cops who aren’t like that. Maybe I’m only talking about one side of the story.
I humbly accept the fact that I may be biased, and hence, I will try to remind myself that soldiers and cops are people too, and not all of them are not how I’ve described them to be. So, I’m not saying that all of these security personnel are horrible, trigger-happy gunmen who like to kill and torture. No. That would be a sweeping generalization that I’m not willing to make. I refuse to analyze people like they’re simplistic, black-box entities with binary, designatory names like ‘soldier’, ‘paramilitary’ and ‘cop’ (or, for that matter, even ‘stone pelter’, ‘anti-national’, ‘militant’ and what have you). These are names, labels. I prefer thinking of people without their labels - as complex beings, with their own stories, breathing and living beings. People with pasts; people, probably with families and loved ones back home, lives, hopes, fears and maybe even their own reasons for being where they are.
But that is the flip-side of any army – it strips you of that complexity, it turns you into a link in the chain of command, it conditions you to follow orders, it airlifts you to far-off places, it’s a machine that doles out uniforms in return for your allegiance, until one day you find yourself very far from your own home, barging in into someone else’s.
I understand the soldier’s predicament; he/she has to, at times, take quick action in a territory where the local population is somewhat uncooperative, and at times, hostile. But the soldier’s side of the story is widely told and known (and should be told and known, just like all sides of a story should be told and known.) But what bothers me is that a civilian shot by a soldier never finds his story told in the national media.
To entertain a thought, to not show it the door…
So what is one to do? I don’t know. I just felt like writing this down. Writing helps.
Things are calmer now, but desolation is often mistaken for peace. I don’t see things getting better anytime soon, but, whatever happens, please keep Kashmir in your thoughts and your prayers. The conflict will take its own course, and although things look ugly right now, I hope that there will be a day when everyone realizes that prejudices and predefined notions need to be shed if one is to arrive at an actual understanding of the problem. One day, hopefully, Kashmiris will get their right to self-determination and get to decide their future for themselves. It isn’t an issue as simple as redrawing borders, it's about giving people an assurance that their voices will be heard and their choices for themselves, respected. Kashmir isn't a 'border', it is about the size of England.
Maybe there’ll be a generation of Indians and Pakistanis with nothing to fist-fight over, and a generation of Kashmiris who won’t have an unhealthy anger towards India and religiously-blind love for Pakistan, but get along with both. That will be a great day indeed.
But today is not that day. Today is a different time - a time when the denial of, and indifference towards this sixty-eight year old conflict is the prevailing norm. India insists that Kashmir is its ‘integral part’ while Pakistan insists that Kashmir is its ‘jugular vein’. No one asks what the people of Kashmir – the real stakeholders, the ones caught in the middle - want and that’s why the situation has kept on deteriorating instead of improving.
This denial of the problems and the issues, this refusal to accept the ground realities – is, I’m afraid, a ticking bomb.
Do keep Kashmir in your thoughts and prayers, because in a time like this - these seemingly fragile and insignificant things… like thoughts and prayers - they matter. It’s a meaningful act – to entertain a thought, to not show it the door, to put it in your mind, to have a monologue with yourself about the truths and untruths of its story, to go deeper into its details. Thoughts and prayers matter – they are how the whole process of understanding begins. We cannot come up with solutions to an issue if we don’t have an understanding of it. Thinking about something is better than consigning it to forgetfulness. In times like these when the powers-that-be want you to look the other way, thinking about the issues in question becomes a brave, meaningful act.
And while we raise our voices against terrorism, as we rightly should, let us also raise our voices against that soundless variant of terrorism – the terrorism that a state wreaks on its own people. It is often the one that often goes unnoticed.