Politics

In Kashmir, an Eid of Confinement and Pellets, Death and Mourning

What Eid is this, ask people in the Valley as an unprecedented curfew and communication blockade cut them off from each other – and from the spirit of a much-loved festival.

A policeman fires a teargas shell towards demonstrators during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar September 13, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

A policeman fires a teargas shell towards demonstrators during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar September 13, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Srinagar: It was a silence of mourning. A population of hundreds of thousands, forced to stay indoors on a day when the Kashmir Valley would otherwise be bustling with people wearing new clothes – and smiles on their faces. In the last two months, colours have acquired a different meaning here: white is for shrouds, green for flags and red is blood.

For Kashmiris, this Eid was a day of mourning.

The Mehbooba Mufti government imposed the strictest curfew ever in the Valley on the day of Eid Ul Azah. A day before, all mobile phone and internet networks were snapped for 72 hours. Across the Valley, Eidgah grounds – where congregational prayers are offered every year – were deserted, with security forces contingents dotting the fences.

For children, Eid would always mean new clothes, food, receiving Eidi from elders and playing with friends. But this time, children watched TV, slept in the afternoon, played games on their parents’ ‘no network’ mobile phones or attempted in vain to locate news about Kashmir on the national channels.

Nothing moved on the streets of the Valley except the armoured vehicles of the security forces. In several areas, people marched after Eid prayers, but were shot at with pellets, tear gas shells and even bullets by edgy paramilitaries. The pro-azadi leaders of the Hurriyat Conference had asked people to march to the United Nations office in Srinagar. The area around the UN office was sealed with barbed wire and guarded by troops. At around noon, near that spot, a few men from the paramilitary forces stopped me at the barricade and asked, “You want to go that way? You want to pass through that? Today there is a march to the UN. You want to visit the UN?”

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar September 13, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar September 13, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

By afternoon, two civilians were killed on Tuesday in north Kashmir’s Bandipora and south Kashmir’s Shopian, while dozens had received injuries across the Valley. Eighty-three people have been killed since July 8 in protests following the killing of the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, in south Kashmir. More than 11,000 civilians have been injured, including 700 who have wholly or partially lost their eyesight to the pellets fired indiscriminately by paramilitary troops on protestors – those throwing stones and those not – and on bystanders, including, in many cases, young children. Despite curfew, the civilian upsurge shows no signs of abating. According to the government, some 4,000 security forces personnel have sustained injuries in the protests.

Monday, the day before festival, should have seen the markets abuzz with customers, shopping for Eid. Instead, the bakers had put up notices in bold letters: “No bakery available.” The evening before Eid, Mohammad Hussain and his wife were returning from their relatives’ house in downtown Srinagar when a group of young demonstrators stopped them. “Are you returning from a bakers shop? Had you gone shopping?” the young boys had asked. “They told us to open our car trunk and checked if we were  carrying any shopping bags,” said Hussain, a businessman.

At Srinagar’s Eidgah ground, where sheep and goats are sold to people as sacrificial animals every year, only the government forces were visible this Eid. The ground is also the main venue for Eid prayers and from where thousands of people had marched towards the city centre at Lal Chowk during the 2010 uprising.

A protester throws a stone towards police during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar September 13, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

A protester throws a stone towards police during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar September 13, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

With no mode of communication other than landlines, people couldn’t wish each other this Eid. Breaking away from their long family tradition of visiting the Eidgah for the festival, 16-year-old Abrar Ahmad accompanied his father for Eid prayers at a nearby mosque outside their house in Srinagar’s Nawa Kadal. Outside, four armoured police vehicles were parked, along with a contingent of forces. Walking briskly, people went back to their homes, where they remained confined. “I have been at home all day. In the afternoon I slept. What Eid is this? There was nothing. Only the curfew,” said Abrar.

Every Eid, children burst firecrackers to celebrate. But this year, the sound of firecrackers was replaced by tear gas shells, pellets and bullets. Abrar said, “Who will buy firecrackers this time? Where will anyone get them? We can’t even go out of the gate.”

A few kilometres away from Srinagar’s Eidgah, Abdul Majeed Khan and his son Umar Majeed Khan had gone to offer prayers at 8:30 am in Batmallo, following the timing given by the pro-azadi leaders for everyone. But Umar, 17, didn’t get to return home. He is now lying on a hospital bed wearing blackout sunglasses in the ophthalmology ward of SMHS hospital in Srinagar.

“After prayers, we took out a peaceful march led by the Imam,” said Khan, a car mechanic. “My son and I also joined and the police was watching us. Everything was peaceful; we went to one end of road and turned back. But suddenly the forces started firing pellets. In the chaos, I couldn’t hold on to my son.”

By then, Umar was hit by pellets in the eyes and chest. Standing next to his son at the hospital, an angry Khan said, “I have no regrets that my son was hit. He will be better and will now go out to protest with faith on Allah and his Prophet. We shall win one day. India has to leave from here, today or tomorrow.”

At the hospital, for volunteers like 25-year old Basheer Ahmad Lone, Eid was just another day, when the injured were expected. A bus conductor on normal days, Lone has been volunteering at the hospital since July 8. “It was no Eid for me. I arrived at the hospital at 6 am like everyday and around 20 injured were brought,” said Lone.

Among the injured, was 15-year-old Yasir Ahmad, from Handwara. After offering prayers, Yasir had returned home. He had left to visit his uncle who was going to sacrifice a lamb, but also met a small procession along the way. “A cop directly shot at him. When the first bullet hit him in the crotch, he was still standing. But then, when the second bullet hit, he fell down,” says Haseena Banu, his aunt who has been looking after him since his mother had passed away when he was only 18 months old.

While Yasir’s testicles are damaged after being hit, his relative, 44-year-old Ghulam Mohiudin Waar has a bandaged right eye and is lying on a bed in the same hospital. A father of four children, Mohiudin was going to offer noon prayers when the forces started firing and pellets hit his eyes. “What government is this? They kill people. We want freedom, we don’t want development, or anything, but freedom,” he said.

Back home in Handwara, Mohiudin’s children and wife were waiting for him to return for Eid lunch. But their wait ended with news of his pellet injury. His neighbours brought him to the SMHS hospital. “My family hasn’t seen me yet. And I don’t even know if they are alive or not. There are no phones so I can’t even speak to them,” said Mohiudin.

Fahad Shah is a journalist who is the founder and editor of the Kashmir Walla, a digital magazine.

Editor’s Note: This story was written the day after Eid but could not be filed until Thursday because of the government’s communication blackout.