Nothing is ordinary for people who live in the most heavily militarised place on Earth.
We have seen life in Kashmir for more than four years, and have seen how loss is embedded in everyday life: children denied education because their schools are open only four months of the year; farmers lamenting the loss of their livelihood because trade channels are routinely curtailed; youth losing hope as their friends are blinded by pellet bullets during street protests; and mothers in a constant state of mourning for their missing and murdered sons.
Still, nothing could have prepared one for what has happened in recent months in Kashmir, including the days between September 25 and September 27, 2019, when these images were shot.
Since the Central government revoked the autonomy of the region and imposed an unprecedented communication blackout, an unknown number of teenagers have been detained by security forces.
Girls and women wait outside police stations everyday in the hope that they will be reunited with their loved ones, knowing that as many as 10,000 Kashmiris have disappeared under unknown circumstances since 1989. Public services and institutions are of no help.
In some cases, they have become agents of what many now call ‘an occupation’. Fire stations and hospitals cannot be contacted in the absence of active telephone networks, and fire trucks can’t make their way through the cordoned streets.
When people do make it to hospitals, they do so warily knowing that they now serve as extended pick-up points for security forces. Conflict isn’t acknowledged as even death certificates are written without specifying the cause of death.
Amidst this suffering, Kashmiris are taking their destiny into their own hands. The struggle for freedom in Kashmir is now synonymous with the struggle for survival. The latest trauma has overnight washed away any signs of a weakening resistance and resignation in the Valley, replacing it instead with a desperate, blazing resilience. This is particularly evident in Anchar, which is located in Soura, a suburb of Srinagar city.
Pellet victims are treated within their neighbourhoods by volunteers with basic know-how of first-aid. Taking cues from years of experiencing what they say is nothing other an occupation, boys and young men, some as young as 12, dig trenches and fashion fortresses made of concertina, wire mesh, logs, pipes, and asbestos sheets to protect their villages and homes. They rotate in their guard duties between midnight and morning.
The women help by plying them with tea throughout the night and by breaking stones and bricks into smaller sizes. If the resistance of the boys and young men gives way, an army of young girls emerges, banging their fists against the rolled down iron shutters of shops and godowns, alerting the neighbourhood and calling them to defend the street in a matter of seconds.
The international community may be silent, but Kashmiris have no intention of keeping quiet. As Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan spoke before the UN General Assembly in the last week of September, the people of Kashmir took to the streets and spoke too.
All photos by Avani Rai.
Parshati Dutta is an architect and a cultural heritage conservation consultant and Avani Rai is a filmmaker and photographer based in Mumbai.