How Kashmir's Fraught Political Journey Led a Young Sikh Man Into Activism

Nirmaljeet Singh was doing a cinematography course away from his J&K home when the communications' blockade was announced in the aftermath of the Article 370 move. Events since then made it impossible to stay off politics.

Srinagar: The video is grainy, shot seemingly outside the gurdwara near Amira Kadal, a bustling commercial enclave off Jhelum river in Srinagar.

Twenty-one-year-old Nirmaljeet Singh (popular by his social media name ‘Angadh Singh Khalsa’) is lounging by the roadside when a Kashmiri woman, dressed in loose black garment, approaches him. “Mashallah, your speech from yesterday was very nice,” she remarks jovially. “We were watching. God bless you with eternal success. You are fighting for the truth.”

Streets were not the only venue where he became the subject of adoration. “#Salute #Respect,” wrote one user on Twitter, sharing a picture of Singh.

“Much love and respect to @ASKhalsa84 bhai,” posted another, mentioning his Twitter handle. There were similar updates on Facebook as well as Instagram.

This month, tempers have flared in Kashmir Valley again. Two weeks ago, police said they carried out an anti-militancy operation at Hyderpora near highway in Srinagar in which a militant, his associate and two civilians were killed. The deaths have sparked outrage, with the families of two slain civilians alleging that the police recklessly forced their kin to participate in the operation. It appears that the civilians may have attempted – upon whose instructions it is not clear – to unlock the rooms where a purported Pakistani militant was hiding.

This was followed by a round of gunfire. There are competing claims on whose fire resulted in the killing of Altaf Ahmad, a businessman and Dr Mudasir Gull, real estate dealer, both residents of Srinagar. Police insist that the third deceased person, Amir Latief Magray was a militant associate. His family vehemently denies this claim.

Families members of Altaf Ahmad Bhat and Dr Mudasir Gul, who were killed during an encounter between security forces and militants at Hyderpora on Tuesday, shout slogans and hold placards during a protest demanding a probe and return of the dead bodies, in Srinagar, November 17, 2021. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan

The anger over killings catalysed the kind of collective protests rarely seen in Kashmir since Article 370 was read down and a political crackdown imposed.

In the last two years, the Modi government has rapidly uprooted power niches in Kashmir from where political influence once emanated.

Newer ones have been carved out and are being awarded to individuals whose relationship with BJP is anything but confrontational. Members of civil society have faced the wrath of central agencies, old timers in politics are being reinvestigated for cases that have long been dormant while media houses are subject to evictions.

Broad security measures, including unprecedented use of laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, are growing apace even as the former state finds itself in the midst of a sweeping rearrangement brought by fusillade of executive orders.

It was in this backdrop that family members of Altaf held protests and a candlelight vigil that stretched late into midnight in the freezing cold with all the media in attendance. Then, the police swooped in, put out the candles and whisked away the family.

Among those huddled into the police vehicle was Singh, a standalone turbaned figure, who had been camping at the protest site for hours that evening, sharing the grief with the family and trying to comfort them.

Unlike the gestures of Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, who too staged a protest of their own, Singh’s display of solidarity had no political tones. In fact, this is not the only protest where Singh has registered his presence.

Last year, during a similar demonstration for the mortal remains of 16-year-old Athar Mushtaq Wani, who was killed during a gun-battle at Srinagar outskirts, Singh was seen sharing the space with the father of the slain boy who appeared devastated by the sorrow.

Also read: J&K Police Book Father of Pulwama Teenager Shot in ‘Encounter’ Under UAPA

It is no accident therefore why his participation stood out conspicuously among many others and elicited a touching response all over the Valley.

As one Kashmiri user wrote on Facebook, “At this time when we are staying in our cosy rooms watching cricket this guy chose to stay with the families…He can be seen on every news portal.”

A Kashmiri Sikh from Srinagar, Singh has become an embodiment of intersectional solidarity, drawing on the shared sense of loss and bereavement in the valley where communal amity has previously frayed under the travails of the conflict.

Singh describes himself as a disciple of ‘social activism’ which he also pursues academically as a bachelor’s course from Indira Gandhi National Open University. Had Kashmir not been a scene of endless political unrest, he might have been a cinematographer.

“In 2018, I went to Amritsar to study cinematography at OLX Multimedia,” he told The Wire.

“I studied there for some time but suffered as my contact with my family was cut off due to the communication blockade in August 2019,” he said.

Barbed wire is seen laid on a deserted road during restrictions in Srinagar, August 5, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The common experience of suffering with Kashmiri Muslim students allowed him to connect with them and take part in protests holding banners and placards, demanding an end to the communications blackout that Modi government had imposed on August 4, 2019. He fraternised with activists of Akali Dal Mann and Dal Khalsa, Punjab-based political parties and acquainted himself with the art of articulating political aspirations through protests.

Sustained anxieties about his family and home prompted Singh to cut his studies short and return. “I have lived in Delhi, Amritsar and Jammu. I realise that normal life continues to elude us in Kashmir,” he said.

Since 2019, Singh has been persistently visible at the scenes of protests. “What’s going on in Kashmir deeply disturbs me. If I don’t speak out about these matters, I am not able to sleep peacefully.”

Sikhs form a tiny part of Kashmir’s demographic. There are hardly 80,000 Sikhs living across the Valley. Historically, they have kept themselves aloof from conflict, cautious about the fallout that choosing any side will bring but always volunteering to lend a helping hand to anyone finding themselves in distress. The massacre of 35 Sikh men in Chittisingpura in 2000 is among those rare episodes which have sown seeds of mistrust and suspicion. There are, however, conflicting claims about the identity of the perpetrators.

Singh’s activism marks a radical break from this history of voluntary detachment. Some events that took place this past year have tested the inter-communal amity between Sikhs and Muslims in Kashmir.

In July this year, a row erupted after a Sikh family accused a Muslim man of forcibly converting their daughter into Islam and marrying her. The uproar over the incident caused a rift to erupt in the relations between the two communities especially after Punjab-based Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders tried to project the incident in generalised terms, inflaming sentiments on both sides.

Also read: J&K Sikh Woman’s ‘Conversion’: Police Fail to Book SAD, BJP Leaders, Court Seeks Status Report

In October, militants shot dead Satinder Kour, a Kashmiri Sikh principal at a government school in Srinagar. Kour’s funeral led to a huge procession in the city which saw many Sikh men.

But Angadh Singh’s reflections on these incidents are quite nuanced. “In conflict regions majority-minority dynamics are not the same,” he told The Wire. “Whenever there are disturbances we suffer just as much as the majority community in Kashmir does. My interaction with locals has been good. Every society has good and bad elements. There will always be those with a broader outlook as well as those with the narrow one.”

A Kashmiri woman feeds pigeons at a street during restrictions after the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the government, in Srinagar, August 11, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The participation in protests in Punjab taught him the vocabulary of solidarity. “Students at most Punjab universities were concerned about Kashmiris,” he said. An estimated 18,000 Kashmiri students are enrolled in various educational institutions in Punjab.

His awareness of politics came very early in his life. “The conflict in Punjab has deeply influenced our sentiments,” he said. “When I was a child it tore me to see the picture of Akal Takht in a destroyed condition. Conflict made a deep impact on our psyche and as a result I could feel a profound connection with what is happening in Kashmir.”

His parents are not very aware of this role as an activist but his sisters do often become fearful of his safety, given his swelling public persona and his tendency of making his way to contentious matters.

“In Kashmir we have diverse religious denominations. We are a heterodox society and yet we have this bad tendency to immediately become enemies over small political differences,” he says.

His politics has not always earned him applause. Singh has also been at the receiving end of trolling and hate. “Ruling party supporters,” he says, smiling. “Somehow we fail to understand that dissent and disagreements are vital to the health of a democracy. I could be wrong at times, no doubt about that. But that should not stop people from engaging.”

Singh was at his home on November 18 when he came across the video appeal by Abdul Majeed Bhat, the slain civilian Altaf’s brother who requested members of the minority community to join him in demanding the bodies. “I promptly joined their protest,” he said. “Had we been wrong, the administration would not have returned the bodies. The thing is if you are not listening to the people, that voice will reach you in different ways. You will have to address the people. When you ignore things, all you’re going to get is an angry, fearful and apprehensive public.”

Singh believes that the government must “restore” civil freedoms in Kashmir. “The observance of democratic values has to be there. We cannot afford to have the same situation for the next 30 years. There’s no security of life in Kashmir. I attend these protests because tomorrow if someone from my community is killed, I expect other people to be there and to stand in solidarity with my community.”

Singh says the killings of members from minority communities that took place this year are intended to damage the interfaith fabric of the valley. “They bring an element of fear. Since childhood, I have been witnessing the silent migration of my community from Kashmir. My fellow Sikh classmates, neighbours, cousins…I have seen people leave in ones and twos whenever such killings took place.”

Sikhs all over the world were celebrating the festival of Gurpurab the night when Singh joined Altaf’s family and joined Altaf’s family to participate in the candlelight vigil, after which he was detained. “Actually, the very act of standing with the wronged is what our faith teaches us,” he says. “I wasn’t away from the Gurpurab celebrations. On the contrary, I was marking them in the right spirit.”