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What Angers The Kashmiri...
It is dusk in Srinagar and the curfew has just been lifted in the old city. We have to step out of the car—any vehicle here is a sure magnet for stone-pelters—and walk the streets of Saraf Kadal. Smashed glass and stones line the pavement, the windows of most houses are now mere skeletons of wood frame and hinges. Men and boys just allowed to step on the roads stare at us with a mix of curiosity and hostility.
It is, however, the CRPF bunker in the distance which is the focus of all eyes. Even as we watch, a young boy runs into the main street, hurls a stone at the CRPF men and disappears into a little lane. Barely a minute later, four more boys, slight of build but serious of intent, materialise from the bylanes, chuck stones and take flight with all the alacrity of youth. The security personnel in helmets and riot gear respond in kind, firing even bigger stones through catapults that are more likely to find their mark. It is these catapults that have smashed the windows.
In mourning... Sara Bano holds a picture of her son Muzaffar Ahmad Batt, who was killed in police firing on July 5
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
This is urban warfare in downtown Srinagar. The young and restless are on the frontline. It has nothing to do with guns and militancy. This is a spontaneous outburst, a renewed call for azadi. What is driving their rage and what is the azadi they speak of? For an eight-year-old boy, wearing a headband screaming ‘Freedom’ and shouting azadi, it is little more than a game. Little Rafiq is more enthusiastic about answering our questions, unlike the older boys and men. What do you mean by azadi, we ask him. “There is no school now and India must go away,” Rafiq answers. So you have azadi from school. “Yes, yes, but we also want the policeman to go away.” His childish responses elicit a smile from us, but there is nothing light-hearted about parents letting their children play a game they can get killed or maimed in.
“How could Omar Abdullah call the army? A politician’s powers may be limited with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, but you must be seen to want to do justice.”
An older group enters a home near Srinagar’s largest hospital where the injured and dead are taken. Many of them have worked and lived in mainstream India but have now joined what they call a freedom movement. For instance, Irshad (name changed), 25, runs a handicrafts shop at a resort in Kerala. Returning home to the Valley after the strikes, curfews and bandhs began a fortnight ago, he was stopped at Jammu along with six other Kashmiris by security personnel. Amarnath yatris were allowed to go with escorts but when the Kashmiris argued, they were beaten up. As evidence, Irshad displays his bruises and cuts. An old man with a beard was thrashed mercilessly, he says. Injured and humiliated, the group reached curfew-bound Srinagar. Irshad reached home to find his mother had slipped and injured her back. But they were not allowed to take her to the hospital. “That day, the army had been called in to patrol Srinagar after a decade. I fell at the feet of a major, begged him, but he refused,” says Irshad. The next day, he picked up stones and started hurling them at security personnel. “It is not about Indian people,” he says, “it is about what the army/CRPF/police have done to ordinary Kashmiris.”
Death and humiliation can be random in the Valley and it is that which is fuelling the rage of the young Kashmiri. Omar Abdullah, contrary to media perceptions, is not so much the issue in this latest eruption of azadi sentiment. The slogans on the streets are ‘Indian dogs go home’ and ‘Freedom Now’. When massive protests broke out over the Amarnath land transfer issue in 2008, some slogans were in favour of the Lashkar-e-Toiba; yet others supported Pakistan. There was a subtle but unmistakable Islamic articulation. That has changed. Now it’s just about Indian oppression and azadi. Faheen, who teaches journalism at the Kashmir University, says it’s the Indian media that has made the entire narrative revolve around Omar Abdullah’s success or failure. “Had Mehbooba or Ghulam Nabi or anyone been here, the same thing would have erupted. Periods of peace in Kashmir are enforced periods of silence. Indians don’t like to hear it, but it is brute force that keeps Kashmir with India,” he says.
Youth strolling near the Dal lake (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
You could well wonder why 23-year-old Rashid, hailing from a well-to-do Srinagar family and having spent two-and-a-half years working at a call centre in Gurgaon, would join the protest. “I had fun in Delhi,” he says, clad in Nike shoes and Adidas handbands, and donning a scarf on his face with practised ease before being photographed. “But I am sick of being stopped on my bike in Srinagar and being asked to show my ID card.” His friends and fellow stone-pelters join in to ask us if anyone shoots at the protesters when there is an all-India bandh. Why do Kashmiris get shot at when they have given up the gun? “Why bring the army here to fight civilians whose only weapons now are stones when you hesitate to do so in Chhattisgarh where entire companies of CRPF men are blown up? Is it because New Delhi thinks that Kashmiris are not part of India?” The random death of 16 civilians at the hands of CRPF and police personnel has reopened all the old wounds in one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world.
Unlike the army jawans, CRPF personnel are chatty. It is mid-afternoon in Khanyar, in old Srinagar. Four CRPF jawans stand on one side of the road, while some Kashmiri youth loiter on the other side eating mangoes. Graffiti on the street screams ‘Indian dogs go home’. A jawan munching on an apple jokes with the Kashmiris: “We are eating your fruit.” The Kashmiris laugh and walk away. But S.S. Yadav of the CRPF is not fooled; they will be back with stones in an hour, he says. At the martyrs’ graveyard, another CRPF man complains of a 14-hour shift wearing a heavy bullet-proof jacket. “Elsewhere in India, entire companies of ours are getting blown up, here too we are getting beaten with stones,” he says. As the Outlook team displays a pass to get into the old town during curfew hour, another CRPF jawan from Bihar jokes—“You are pass, we are all fail.”
Children raising slogans
(Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
It is easy for the non-Kashmiri to banter with the men in uniform but there is nothing humorous about an entire population being at their mercy. With so many soldiers and police present, things go horribly wrong at times. Like on July 6, when Faiyaz Ahmad Wani, a government employee at the floriculture department, got hit by a stray bullet while on his way to work. His wife Parveen, holding their two little girls close to her, can only despair at this cruel repeat of history. Her weeping mother tells us that Parveen’s father too died from a random bullet in 1990. On July 6 itself, young Fancy too was hit by a bullet the police fired in the air. She just happened to be leaning out of the window of her house in Srinagar to see the protest. But the police is not filing firs in these cases. And it’s not just ordinary folk. On July 2, CRPF personnel manhandled a judge, damaged his car with rifle butts and injured his security officer but the police refused to file an fir later saying they were not aware of any CRPF movement in that area.
“Those who say we can live without the CRPF and the army are living in a fool’s paradise. We should raise 15 new battalions of well-trained police to avoid mishaps.”
Violence is random and the rage choked up as there is no redressal. Mehbooba Mufti, seen as Omar Abdullah’s principal opponent, says that, in the face of such repression, the space for mainstream political parties is shrinking. The azadi sentiment, she argues, was always present in Kashmir, but it has increased now. She accuses New Delhi of mutilating democracy in the name of national interest. “How can you deny the people’s right to protest? New Delhi must do something to address Kashmiri sentiment. How could Omar Abdullah call the army into Srinagar? I accept that with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in place, a politician’s powers are limited, but you must appear to want to do justice, not increase firepower on the people. When there is no militancy, why should people get killed?” Would she be willing to replace Omar, given that the PDP, along with the Congress, has the numbers to form another government? “No, the situation is so bad that you require a period of healing,” she says.
Indeed, democracy appears a farce in a theatre like Kashmir where the armed forces call the shots and New Delhi pulls the strings. Senior Congress leader Saifuddin Soz says the government’s priority should be to train the J&K police. “I believe we should suspend all development and raise 15 new battalions of well-trained police so that we don’t have mishaps. Because the reality is that those who say we can live without the CRPF and the army are living in a fool’s paradise.”
Young Kashmiri boys walking on Lal Chowk: Heart of Srinagar
(Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Paradise has long been lost in Kashmir. Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist at the only government mental health facility in the state, says the hospital got 1,700 patients when militancy began 20 years ago. In the past year alone, one lakh visited. It is estimated that 17 per cent of the population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “When you take away young kids from parents, they can’t be without mental health problems,” says Dr Hussain. “Suicides were unheard of in the Valley—the Kashmiri language has no word for suicide—but now they’re routine.” Reluctant to over-psychologise the children’s behaviour, he believes it clearly emerges from the socio-political environment. “If you want to modify the youngsters and children’s behaviour, you give them open space, give them alternatives; you certainly don’t give them a thought police. In Kashmir, on the contrary, they live in a virtual police state.”
Later that day in Srinagar, we find about 300 teenagers in an open field playing football. But they are reluctant to talk to what they call “the Indian media”. “We will be photographed and picked up,” a young man says. “You could be an Indian agent or a police informer,” another man explains politely.
“New Delhi doesn’t want to address the problem, just buy time. First they said the guns came from Pakistan. Will they now say the stones come from Pakistan too?”
The anger is visible even outside Srinagar. The vehicle we are travelling in is attacked on the outskirts of Sopore with sticks and stones in front of an army convoy. “You think you can come here because you have the protection of the Indian army,” a young man screams. Our driver turns the car around. Even locals are attacked if they are seen to be disobeying the people’s curfew (bandh) in Sopore, which has one of the bigger army camps in the Valley. On the drive back to Srinagar, we are stopped by the army and questioned for taking photographs and then quite politely asked to leave by a major. Being from Delhi helps when dealing with the army but the Kashmiris are certain they would have been slapped a few times had they been alone.
It’s a warped reality the Kashmiris find themselves in. A young government employee explains the mindset. “There is a collective psyche in India that believes you should hang Afzal Guru. The collective psyche in Kashmir believes India does not care and has trampled over us. We either see Indian security forces or Indian TV channels that ignore us or distort our news. Add to that, high unemployment figures, corruption of elected politicians and you have great disenchantment.” Dr Shad Salim, the Valley’s top cancer specialist, says when militancy ended, they thought the azadi sentiment too would die and the next generation would buy Bollywood movies and pop culture. “But here we are, the burning desire for freedom intact,” he says.
All rice Locals collect their foodgrain quota after a 20-day gap
(Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, deemed the most moderate Hurriyat leader who made several attempts to talk to New Delhi, now says the disenchantment is total. “Till 2007, we had some hope and went to talk to Delhi,” he says. “Now we have realised they don’t want to address the problem, they want to buy time. First they said guns came from Pakistan. Will they now say that the stones come from Pakistan too?” Given the current mood and the politics within the Hurriyat, it will be difficult even for the Mirwaiz to engage in any dialogue now. In this paradise lost, complete freedom is the perfect dream. But what could cool tempers is a movement towards soft borders, greater autonomy and removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The trigger for protest would wane if the Kashmiris did not have to suffer daily humiliations. If people felt that New Delhi really cared to address their concerns, the rage would not be so potent. Right now, it is a helpless anger. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
By Saba Naqvi in Srinagar with Showkat A. Motta