Srinagar: On a bright Saturday morning last month, ahead of India’s 70th Independence Day, I was feeling restless inside my apartment in Srinagar, the picturesque summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
Stung by the sheer magnitude of rage that has swept the region since the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, the authorities have imposed a virtual communication blockade by snapping broadband services and shutting down private mobile networks, depriving seven million people of the means to communicate with each other.
My phone, powered by the state-owned BSNL network, the most-sought service provider in the region these days, rang. It was my brother from Baramulla, a volatile town in northern Kashmir which has surprisingly witnessed little violence in the ongoing unrest.
“Muneer has been hit by pellets in eyes,” he stammered frighteningly. “Adnan has been hit too. He couldn’t open his left eye. They have been referred to Srinagar. Please help them.”
Adnan, I later got to know, is eight years old. Muneer is his first cousin. Both are from my extended family in Baramulla where I have hardly lived.
My mind turned to a conversation I had just with a businessman, a father of two teenaged boys. One recent morning, when his eldest son was making his way out of the house to participate in azadi protests, the businessman tried to stop him.
The son, he went on, brought out a knife from the kitchen, “It felt as if he was going to stab me. Or perhaps he would have stabbed himself. I was stunned. My shocked wife pushed me away from the door and then he ran out”.
The children who are pelting stones are the fifth generation of people who have grown up and perished under the shadow of guns in Kashmir. Their memory is populated by the gory folklore of this war. Unlike their predecessors, however, they are brutally honest. Engage them in a chat and they will declare they are ready to take up arms, without giving a thought. When they leave their homes in the morning, they know that out on the streets, the battle is not evenly poised. They are fully aware that their stone is no match for bullets and pellets. But they still prefer to fight the fight.
To say Muneer was not part of the protest that day would be to deny space to an idea which five generations of people in Kashmir are fighting for. He was not naïve. Like other Kashmiri children on the streets these days, Muneer knew what he was getting into. No matter what the Indian state and its media calls them – paid stone pelters, agitational terrorists or Pakistani sponsored agents, such labels don’t matter to them. For them, it is azadi or nothing.
Before I could recall who Adnan is, my brother hung up. I rushed to Srinagar’s SMHS hospital which has witnessed an unprecedented flow of patients with pellet injuries in their eyes over the past three months. There was a curfew in place. No one was allowed to move towards Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar, where separatists groups had urged people to gather.
We crisscrossed through barricades and checkpoints where fatigued but angry soldiers looked nervously at any sign of movement, as if ready to pounce. Outside the hospital, it was surprisingly quiet.
Since the day I arrived in Kashmir – after a fellowship in New York and the uprising broke out – I have been a frequent visitor to this hospital. A remarkable sense of camaraderie has gripped Kashmir’s medical fraternity.
No matter the circumstances you are in, people here are always ready to help out. Volunteers, dozens of them, ferry everything from bottled water to medicines and even meals for patients and their attendants. Doctors and paramedics, many of whom became targets of security forces and even protesters, have cancelled leaves and offered selfless service in this hour of crises without complaint.
A blaring ambulance arrived outside the emergency department, shattering the moment of calm. Before I could move, dozens of volunteers clung to the gate and brought out three boys on stretchers. All in their teens, their eyes were perforated by pellets. I learnt that security forces took pictures of the wounded before allowing them to reach the hospital. Muneer was the last one to be brought down from the ambulance.
He lay motionless on the bloodied stretcher. His swollen eyes had turned a deathly blue. I took out my camera and tried to click his picture but my finger struggled. When Muneer was born, we were thrilled. He struggled in school with mathematics. One day, when he had scored badly, I scolded him. That was the last I saw him. Life took me to different continents. During my occasional visits home, we never got an opportunity to hit up a conversation.
After an hour or so, his motionless body was brought out of the OT. Upon inquiring, a doctor told me pellets were embedded in his both eyes. They had cleared the blood and closed his wounds. It would take multiple surgeries, he said, but Muneer’s chances of regaining his eyesight seemed bleak. Officials say of 635 persons admitted in SHMS hospital since July 8 with pellet injuries in their eyes, at least 308 are less than 20-years-old, 60 have been less than 15-years-old. In addition, over 100 pellet injury victims had been given treatment at SKIMS Medical College Hospital.
The thought of breaking the news to his parents terrified me. Throughout the night, I imagined Muneer, blind, confined to the darkness of the four walls of his home. I just couldn’t sleep.
That night, the idea of a country called India and its people I have loved, the sore unwillingness of its majority to speak up for their supposed fellow citizens, and the reluctance and arrogance of its leaders to acknowledge the aspirational rage on the streets, challenged the very foundations of the world’s largest democracy in my mind.
After he regained consciousness, Muneer told me he left his home to witness (read: participate in) a protest demonstration in the Azad Gunj area of Baramulla. He climbed to the second story of a shopping mall as protesters, most of them children wearing school uniform, gathered in the square below. He had an aerial view.
The police and paramilitary troopers gathered on the other side of the bridge over the Jhelum, which connects the old with the new town of Baramulla. Pro-freedom and anti-India slogans resounded in the air. Muneer was taking in the scene when the forces pounced on the protesters with pellets and teargas. He and Adnan were hit too.
“Everything turned black. I couldn’t see anything. Then I crashed into a wall or something and I fell down,” he told me on the hospital bed after regaining consciousness.
Friends and family often complain that I am unmoved by the plight of my people; that I have developed some kind of resistance, that there is a threshold of pain which is never breached in my case. But on that day, I cried.
A doctor friend, who operated on more than 80 young boys at the SMHS hospital, told me a story. He had operated on a 13-year-old kid who lost one eye. “When I went to see him later,” the doctor said, “the kid grabbed my hand and said, ‘Did your hands tremble when you stitched my eyes.’ After a pause, he again asked: ‘Would you also operate on a CRPF soldier’s eye?”
I struggled to write this piece. I stared at the blank screen of my laptop for days, choosing to write anything but this piece. Writing every word was like getting hit by a pellet.
Sameer Yasir is a journalist based in Kashmir. He covers Kashmir for Firstpost.com and had reported for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, among others.