Srinagar: On a warm morning a few weeks ago, the city was uncharacteristically serene. The previous night’s protests had died down, giving way to a tranquil dawn. But outside my home in an old part of town, a loud bang woke me up. I thrust my head out, eyes half-closed with sleep. A knot of young men, their heads and faces wrapped in cloth, had gathered around a grocery store whose owner had been tending to a line of customers. In a flash, one of the men lifted a thick lathi into the air and brought it down with full force. It struck hard. The first blow was furious, as was every blow after.
The reason? By opening his shop, the grocer had defied the state of collective defiance in the Valley. His act was seen as an affront to those who willingly incurred losses, inflicting harm on themselves in the hope that it would push India into giving up Kashmir. From a distance, I saw his wife running towards him. Sobbing, she pleaded for mercy with the assailants before herself passing out. The men left. The neighbourhood women eased her into their arms, offering her water, while the men watched impotently, muttering curses between their teeth.
For over two months, the Valley of Kashmir has been convulsed by chaos. The trigger was the death of a popular militant leader. Though it is said that he had not mounted a single attack, the purpose of his killing is being questioned. He had been part of a media blitz for over a year, yet the security forces never sought to close in on him. The month before he was killed, he released two back-to-back video messages. In one, he aspires to carve Kashmir into an Islamic Caliphate and in the other, he promises attacks in case Jammu and Kashmir policemen don’t come over to his side.
Whatever the reason, the decision to kill Wani turned out to be a terrible error of judgment. It mobilised thousands and thousands of people, spurring both peaceful protests and widespread instances of rioting – leading to the death of over 80 people, and injuries to 12,000, of which more than 5,000 are police and CRPF personnel.
The government is facing protests of the kind it does not know how to bottle. In trying to, it ended up committing terrible acts of brutality upon the civilian population using pump action guns, firearms, clubs and what have you. But then, there is a reason why I began my essay with an incident so out of keeping with events as we know them.
A few days ago, Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani reiterated his message that azadi was round the corner. He asked people to keep steadfast and persevere until it drew nearer and nearer. The more roads we fill, the more rocks we hurl, the closer it is getting.
But is it? On the contrary, we have embarked upon a great slide into a dead-end and azadi is yet to show up across the horizon. It hasn’t and in fact, never will. Not at least till another cataclysmic event embroils South Asia, dismembering the powerful nation states of today, leaving a fertile ground for smaller states to seek their separate nationhood. Britain did not relinquish control over India until it felt the crippling pain of World War II – never mind how “steadfast” was India’s struggle for freedom.
The current groundswell in Kashmir is spontaneous. There can be no two views about this. Separatist leaders have wielded formidable influence but they can do so only as long as they don’t stop mouthing platitudes that are palatable to a large section of the pubic. For instance, if the Hurriyat even tinkers with its protest calendars – to make them more flexible for daily wagers and businesses, perhaps – protesters will cut them down to size. That is perhaps why even on Eid, the compendium of hartals followed the same course as on other days.
Spectre of public fatigue
The truth is that even the separatists are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they cannot show so much as the merest sign of exhaustion. On the other, the spectre of public fatigue has risen all around them. The craving for a normal life is beginning to take hold among a cross-section of people as they come to terms with the futility of self-harm. Anger against India is fine. Nursing dreams of azadi is too. But how long can one do so at the altar of one’s own livelihood?
The police will succeed in breaking the cycle of violence. They did so in 2010, allowing the anger to dissipate, rather slide, beneath an illusion of normalcy – only to turn effervescent again and re-emerge out through the cracks, drowning Kashmir afresh. All it needed was a trigger and there were always plenty of those.
The fatigue couldn’t be more apparent when recently, despite announcing that fruit growers have sworn allegiance to the Hurriyat and are ready to bear losses, it suddenly turned out that 8876 metric tons of fruit had been hauled off in 953 truckloads outside the state in the first half of August alone. There is no telling what mark it touched thereafter.
The separatists have channelised public anguish in a direction into which it is destined to peter out. Had it not been so, the situation of the 1990s would have reigned till today. The violence that flared in 2008 and 2010 would not have ended either.
This is not because fellow Kashmiris are prone towards treachery or that their conscience is shallow but because human beings are hardwired to not want to live by violence for too long. The bedrock of the secessionist movement has always been the angst stemming from atrocities Indian soldiers commit. When the excesses halt, so does the angst and every other consequence it had branched off into. The movement is intrinsically unsustainable once the dynamic of the “oppressive military presence” is taken out of the equation.
A case in point is what happened on August 29, when the authorities lifted curfew for the first time since it was imposed on July 8. The response surprised everyone. Besides the re-eruption of protests across Kashmir, people came out in hordes in those areas which saw incredibly lower levels of violence – such as Srinagar. Traffic trickled past the streets once again and store owners lifted their shutters. By evening, the situation had all reversed. Frequent mob attacks coerced people into scaling back. So scandalised was Geelani by what had happened, he openly warned shopkeepers the next day that if they acted “traitorous”, they would be “wiped out like straw.”
In one fell swoop, the ageing leader also alienated thousands of taxi drivers and auto-wallas when he accused them of acting on India’s behest and receiving bounty for taking out their vehicles to commit an act no less sinful than scraping together a living.
I asked an ardent pro-azadi friend to show me this stash of money which the ‘deviant’ and ‘corrupt’ taxi drivers were drawing cash from. “I will tell a couple of auto-walla acquaintances so that they don’t have to starve,” I told him, tongue firmly in cheek. He smote his brows together before mumbling a few unintelligible words and leaving in a huff. I smiled inwardly, both at his naivety and the utter irony of the moment.
For India, Kashmiri protestors can only be provocateurs driven by Pakistan and Hurriyat to instigate trouble. For their part, the Hurriyat see ordinary Kashmiris who are desperate to make a living in trying times as “Indian agents” – entrusted by Delhi to “derail the movement.” Both sides see events though their own black and white vision, overlooking the real people out there with aspirations spanning a million shades of gray.
To assuage concerns about the downside of prolonged shutdowns, separatist leaders floated the nebulous idea of ‘bait-ul-maals’, where volunteers collect resources food, clothes and money, offering them to the poor. But how far is this going to give succour?
I witnessed the rather extraordinary zeal with which people tended to this business. One of my relatives, Muqadas, presides over one of those in our locality in Srinagar. The other day, I happened to snoop into a bagful of stuff he had put together. I saw rice noodles, loaves of bread, milk cartons and biscuits. I admired his spirit. He had spent so much time putting together this assistance – that will last little more than a day before miseries come full circle.
Muqadas has two sons. Currently, he is jobless. Outside his house, he might have held his head high with an august air, but inside, his wife’s mind is a jumble of worries. She is grappling with the rising torrent of needs she finds hard to meet. “I worry about him,” she tells me, casting a glance at her son.
I realised she was pulling things off with the skin of her teeth and soon would have to give up whatever little “luxuries” she had for the grudging embrace of a new life, harsher and austere. She may be sliding into poverty on account of the unrest but is not yet poor enough to feel entitled to charity. Her mind often alternates between abiding wilfully to the shutdown programmes and feeling plagued by thoughts of the grim prospects awaiting her children should the turbulence prolong. She has a great passion for the Pakistani cricket team. She will brook no word against Geelani saab, yet in this “jubilant” ride towards azadi, she hadn’t signed up of her own accord. Never mind though, her consent doesn’t matter. It never will. Muqadas’s may be the story of one family but it is also a microcosm of the entire situation playing out around him.
Besides, bait-ul-maals have not been immune to criticism. Kashmir Images, a regional English daily in Srinagar, published a story about drivers unable to make the monthly instalment on their vehicles as the unrest had out their livelihood on hold. Apparently, the idea of living on somebody else’s dole didn’t sit well with them.
There is no telling how many attacks by “protesters” of the kind I saw have ensured that people observe the shutdowns. The assailants are partly emboldened by their leaders’ refusal to denounce violence in its entirety. Since the attackers don’t wear their identity on their sleeves, it is easy to disown them once they engage in acts of vandalism. They spring out of thin air, assault those they feel are not compliant enough, and then recede in the vacuum into which no hand ever reaches them. They embody Victor Hugo’s ‘miserable guillotine’ which, he once wrote, is “furtive, uneasy, shameful, which seems always afraid of being caught in the act, so quickly does it disappear after having dealt its blow.”
Mirwaiz Umer Farooq recently issued a press release condemning vandals who attacked business owners at time when the protest calendar permits “relaxation.” In his telling, the assailants were naturally “Indian agents”, since real protesters are incapable of wrongdoing. There was no word against attacks that happen when “relaxation” was not in effect, implying that the ‘guillotine‘ had their full backing.
Curiously, in the run up to Eid, the attacks registered a sudden uptick. On September 11, driver Parvaiz Dar of Lalad, Sopore sustained grievous head injuries when a furious mob taught him a “lesson” for defying the shutdown near Batengoo in Anantnag. The following day, young Mehraj-ud-din Chopan tried to plead with lathi-wielding young men to let him through an impromptu barrier they had erected at Booru Nagam road in Chadoora, Budgam. The attackers swung their clubs on him. Grievously injured in the head, Chopan was later hospitalised.
On September 14, a protesting mob gutted a tourist cafeteria at Awantipora town. The next evening, they torched a Panchayat garh at Pinglish village in Tral. On the same day, commuter Shabir Dar was intercepted by young “protesters” at Kunzer near Tangmarg. Furious at his disregard for the shutdown call, the boys set themselves upon him. Dar’s skin was swollen pink, his car smashed. Infuriated, his father Mohammad Sultan later slammed his fist at the table of a police officer, demanding sterner action.
The previous night, the mob had also set ablaze a government school at Kanjikullah in Yaripora, Kulgam. Interestingly, this came just days after minister Nayeem Akhtar faced mounting criticism for stationing the army in schools and colleges. But in this case, nobody could summon nerves enough to utter so much as a whimper of protest. There is no knowing how far the anarchy has deepened. These are just a handful of incidents that made it to the news.
In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain writes, “The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that’s what an army is – a mob; they don’t fight with courage that is born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass.”
I have seen people giving in to this surrogate courage that is “borrowed from the mass.” But a discord against it is beginning to rear its head, nonetheless. Recently, protests spread throughout Lal Chowk when some reports claimed that locals fished out a “pellet-riddled” body of a “teen” from the Jhelum. Not unsurprisingly, the news was enough to send bands of young men out from their streets and gullies to have it out with the police while demanding storekeepers and businesses down their shutters. In fact, the protesters vowed against permitting a “relaxation” ever again. But later it turned out that the body belonged to a “non-Kashmiri, non-Muslim” victim, who did not bear any pellet injuries but had a bloodied, disfigured face.
I wondered where the impetuousness came from. What drove it? Had people waited an hour more for clarity, we would have been spared another session of clashes with the police and another multitude of injured children. But then, who is interested in steering clear of violent means anyways?
Kashmir’s child soldiers
On Teachers Day, two weeks ago, Javaid Trali, a friend and affiliate of the ruling party, jocularly took to his Facebook, writing, “#HappyTeachersDay to @sageelani, @MirwaizKashmir & Co from children on streets for teaching them how stone age looks like, practically.”
Trali opened a can of worms. His comment was not off the mark, but given the truth that it was under the government’s orders that the police fired pellet guns, it was a morally tenuous line to simply exculpate the authorities while alleging that separatists were solely to blame. He received an angry comment from a person who wrote, “And thanks to you and your government teaching kids what darkness looks like because they’re blinded by you.”
There were also others who wrote as much. I could not disagree with their point of view. Their words were profound and truthful. But when they tried casting all pellet-hit children as mere passive victims of the “offensive raged by the Indian state”, it became problematic.
The other day, I happened to walk past a famous crossroad in the old city. I saw a troop of children not more than 7, hurling stones and shouting pro-Pakistan slogans at policemen. The cops were merely lounging against the balustrade, grinning in their dismissal of the little, harmless protesters. Their task was something else – to not let the real assailants assemble. A little while later, a group of older boys joined the kids, seething with fury and in no mood to play around. Anticipating a threat, it was then that the police snapped out of their reverie and prepped their anti-riot regalia. I left the scene. I don’t know what happened later. The same evening, I came across a Facebook video in which children pumped their fists in the air, wielding ‘guns’ and sloganeering while marching past a police station near the Shaheed Gunj area of Srinagar, barely two miles away from the secretariat.
I marveled at how callous the enablers of violence can be in letting those children push closer to the vortex of death. Granted that cops fighting protests are just angry bulls let loose, but where is the word of caution? Why is it we feel sorry for children only after they turn into a lifeless mass of pockmarked bodies? Why not do something to stem this possibility beforehand? I have never come across a single instance where separatist leaders issued counsel, dissuading children from joining violent mobs. Had they done so, the children would have been alright today. And reading and studying. And preparing for exams. There was always plenty of room to get our act together and preclude the possibility of children falling prey to the security forces. Unless someone, somewhere calculated that dead children, bloodied children, wounded and disfigured children are a potent way of transmitting a political message.
The last person to try sounding a word of caution, Maulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah, found himself blown up by an IED in 2011. Geelani tried to describe this as the Indian army’s doing but was forced to eat humble pie after a militant group owned up the “mistake.”
This enlisting of children within the ranks of stone-pelters led a Kashmiri friend Rajesh Razdan to post this profound anecdote on Facebook:
“In the nineties African despots pushed children as young as eight into their dirty civil wars and the word ‘child soldiers’ entered the lexicon.
What we see today on the streets are the child soldiers of Kashmir.
- In 2006 Thomas Lubango Dyilo, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, was charged with three counts by the ICC [International Criminal Court] related to the military use of children in Congo. The charges were:
Enlisting children, constituting a war crime in violation of article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) of the Rome Statute of the ICC;
- Conscription of children, constituting a war crime in violation of article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) of the Rome Statute;
- Using children to participate in hostilities, constituting a war crime in violation of article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) of the Rome Statute.
In 2012, Dyilo was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Yet, our Dyilos remain free and are openly enlisting every day. About time those who invoke the UN day in and day out are frog-marched in front of the ICC.”
Spontaneous protests, calibrated violence
Another curious aspect of the current unrest is the pattern of violence. While the peaceful protests happen of their own freewill, large violent confrontations have borne the unmistakable imprints of fine-tuning.
Take for example the first week of September, when the all-party delegation arrived. The very day the MPs landed in Srinagar, there was a sudden ratcheting up of the violence. A staggering 600 protesters sustained injuries, 500 in south Kashmir alone whereas just three days earlier, only 20 injuries had been recorded. What happened in the intermediate period that the number of injuries rose so swiftly? If the Hurriyat’s allegations are to be trusted, the police and military had vandalised the venues where rallies were scheduled to take place, which fanned the anger, stoking clashes. But the police had been dismantling such preparations for almost a week prior to that. On September 2, the police raided a similar venue in Badasgam village in Kokernag. The number of injuries was much lower. Two days after the delegation left, the police raided many more venues At Kellar in Shopian it intercepted one where ensuing clashes left 24 injured, and another at Lassipora village in Pulwama where 30 people sustained injuries.
So what exactly happened on September 5 when more protesters sustained wounds than they normally would? What were the orchestrators trying to demonstrate on the very day that the grand delegation of MPs was visiting, and to whom?
The time for justice
Great caution ought to be exercised before somebody prescribes solutions for ending the bloodbath in Kashmir. There is no one singular perpetrator in the current crisis whom we can simply restrain in order to restore calm. If there is a sincere endeavour to end violence in Kashmir, the effort has to be a mutual one.
Soon enough, Kashmir will have to retrace its steps towards fragile normalcy or slide into anarchy, devastation and gloom. And when we finally wake up, the extent of damage fully registering itself on our consciousness, we will realise the debris surrounding us is no one else’s but our own. This is not to say that I am giving the Indian government’s murderous actions in Kashmir moral sanctity. I would not have written this essay had the need not pinched me enough. The atrocities that the security forces commit are too many to train focus on anything else. But when the struggle against the tormentor becomes a torment itself, it is imperative to speak out.
My narration is not intended to stake claim on absolute truth telling. It is meant to cast light on an aspect of the unrest which is deliberately ignored. It is not intended to efface, falsify or minimise the brutalities committed by the government in the name of fighting violence. It is in India’s own interests to restrain its security forces and mete out justice. To fully stamp out the protests in Kashmir, it has to do so. Therefore I believe it was in vain that Delhi sent an all-party delegation to Srinagar. The only way it can placate protesters is by ensuring justice and ending the culture of impunity. But for now, it must save Kashmiris from their own kind.
Shakir Mir is a journalist from downtown Sringar