It is another summer morning in Kashmir. Clouds sit in the bright blue sky. On the streets, there is a battle. Following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by the security forces on July 8, Kashmiris have suspended their daily routines and observed a complete shutdown of schools, offices and shops.
My mother told me of Wani’s demise in a so-called encounter that evening, the second day after Eid-ul-Fitr. Outside, fireworks abounded. Perhaps the news of his death had not reached everyone yet. As we turned to the 9 pm news, though, photos of Wani’s dead body were projected on every channel. He lay on a steel stretcher dressed in a T-shirt. The TV cameras zoomed in on his face, his eyes and mouth slightly open, traces of blood splattered on his teeth.
I cannot think of any dead member of the Indian armed forces whose body has been laid bare before the public in a manner like this. For a member of the armed forces, it would certainly have been a passport-size photo, along the lines of the photo of Bhagat Singh I first saw in a textbook in the sixth grade, with a hat on his head. Many Kashmiris like me were taught of the struggle for swaraj – self rule – from the British empire before we learnt of our own.
But then, I suppose, neither the people speaking in such television debates, nor the ones watching them, would ever think of Burhan Wani as a soldier, even though he avowedly fought for azadi, carried weapons, wore fatigues and even laid out a code of conduct for armed operations against the security forces. In a video posted on YouTube, he spoke of how militants would never attack yatris, Hindu pilgrims. Operative in these debates is the unspoken assumption that violence, especially violence that kills, is legitimate only when it is carried out by the state, or in its name. Further, that state violence, in whatever degree or form, is a fair response to youth protests.
The pelting of stones itself is seen as one end of the spectrum of illegitimate violence or “agitational terrorism”, as one senior policeman describes it. At the other end of this spectrum lies what Wani and 150 militants stand for. In this way of looking at things, the youth pelting the stones are “alienated” and “radicalised” while the militants are “jihadis” and “terrorists”.
The next day – the day of Burhan Wani’s funeral – it was time for breakfast and young boys from our neighbourhood had placed branches and other debris in the middle of the road leading to the Chowk. I can tell all of them are in their teens or early twenties; one is particularly young, perhaps not even ten or 12.
His high-pitched voice could be heard from a distance. Most of the boys had their faces covered up to their eyes, others wear something that reminded me of the bags placed over the heads of the tortured Iraqis at Abu-Ghraib, and immortalised in photographs. But here holes have been cut out in the cloth for where the eyes and nostrils would be. I think of how the horrors of Abu-Gharaib would be put to shame with what human rights groups have documented as happening in Kashmir’s interrogation centres.
In the middle of the street was a school bag, a bit swollen, my guess was that it is contained stones. A group of ten boys or so was huddled under the only mulberry tree left uncut on the road, sitting on some cardboard boxes laid flat. They were talking, rather loudly, about how some neighbours lock their doors, blocking possible routes to safety once the armed forces charge. I tried to go across to my neighbours but they too had locked their entrance from the inside.
The personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Police were closer to the Main Chowk, maybe 250 metres away, swinging their lathis. As I returned from my neighbour’s home, the police suddenly fired a tear-gas burst that landed three houses away, possibly in an attempt to disperse the group. There was a loud bang, followed by a burst of light. Smoke filled the air. I rushed inside in panic but I didn’t hear the boys scatter. I peered from the space between the gate and the wall. The boys moved closer to the police vehicles, “Pond-e-police,” they cried out in Kashmiri. Cheapster police.
“Is se kya hoga?” asked one who was rolling up his pants. What will this do? He rolled them slightly above his shins; he was wearing chappals. Pushing back the sleeves of his T shirt, he picked a stone and threw it towards an electricity pole on the other side of the road, then another and then a third, as if sharpening his aim. The chime of stone against metal reverberates in the quiet.
The police moved in closer, walking in a pack. They were covered head to toe in protective gear: helmets with a cage-like attachment at the mouth and knee, arm guards and omniscient bulletproof vests. All of them carried guns or lathis or both. I heard the scatter of footsteps, the heavy thud of iron doors being shut and the sirens of the jeeps trailing the police. In the span of a minute, the police fired several tear-gas shells at the boys. Clouds of smoke rose behind the mulberry tree.
A boy shouted expletives at the police and then the slogan, “Allah-hu-akbar", God is great, followed by “Hum kya chahte, azadi?", What do we want, freedom? Others joined in. This chant, framed as a rhetorical question, is the chorus for many a protest. It’s always chanted in Hindi, never in Kashmiri; it is clearly spoken to power. The boys started pelting stones, the police fired some more. Soon, the protest moved into another part of the neighborhood.
The police are protected for bullets that the protestors do not have, the protestors are shielded against police bullets only by their reflexes. Even then, for a moment, I forgot what the boys were up against: the largest deployment of armed personnel anywhere. The world’s most militarised zone in a place of proverbial beauty, where there is one soldier for every 15 Kashmiris. I wonder how it is that the boys have erased from themselves all fear.
For as long as I have known, the demand of Kashmiris for azadi, for self-determination, for their right to decide their own political present and future, has existed in some form or another. Why is it surprising then that faced with denial and repression when they voice a political demand that is as old as the Indian state, a demand that arises with the partition of British India, that Kashmiri youth should respond to the violence of the Indian state with the call to arms? It seems the language of power is the only language the state understands and Kashmiris have shown they are willing to put limb and life at stake to get a seat at the table on which their future will be discussed.
Early, on the third day of curfew, a Vajra, known colloquially as a “one-ton” appeared. It was pockmarked from earlier stone pelting and fitted with a loudspeaker. As it made a few rounds of the street where the protests had been held the previous day, the policemen inside made a taunting announcement: “Agar dum hai toh samne aa.” If you have the guts, come out. The youth charged towards it, hurling it stones, shouting slogans. The Central Reserve Police Force men fired tear gas and live ammunition at the boys while completely shielded in the hole that is the one-ton.
In the late evening, when the boys and the police have gone, I went out in a car. There were hundreds of CRPF and state police personnel on the streets at Tengpora, Batamaloo and Maisuma. The air was heavy with pepper gas. I heard a boy had been killed in Tengpora, that he was allegedly dragged out of his home and shot in front of his parents in the yard by the Station House Officer because he led protests in the area. Reports later identified him as 26 year-old Shabir Ahmad Mir. I got to the boulevard and found it packed with people – families taking a walk, children tugging at their parents’ pyjamas. Many tourists were walking on the pavement, some with their suitcases. By the Tourist Reception Centre, a billboard said, “See a Kashmir unseen by the world, Tosa Maidan is now open to tourists.”
For 50 years, Tosa Maidan was an artillery range for the Indian army. The army says it has been sanitised of dangerous objects for tourism. It is possible that Tosa Maidan could be the Gulmarg or Pahalgam of the future, where Indians will come to relax, get away from the summer heat and assert their right to picnic without ever having to think about what lies in the ground beneath their feet.
Early the next day, as I made my way to SMHS Hospital, Tata Sumos full of tourists were heading to the airport. At the gates of SMHS, there was a continual flow of ambulances into and out of the hospital. Community kitchens led by locals were distributing cups of tea and some baqarkhani to the families of the sick and injured. The volunteers wore white coats embroidered with their logos in blue and the name of the organisation in cursive. I was here to make a blood donation. On the way to the blood bank, a hospital staffer shouted to another, “Keep your ID card and wear your apron, the police are checking who is who.” At the blood bank I was told they had enough stocks of my blood group: many people had come forward to donate blood in the previous days.
Walking on, I met an internee doctor, a friend from school, with whom I tagged along to Ward 8, the Ophthalmology Ward. There were so many boys with pieces of cloth over their eyes outside the consultants room that there was barely space to stand in the narrow corridor leading to the ward. A few had bandages over their eyes; perhaps the department was out of sterile dressing.
One boy, a teenager, was sitting in the corridor with bandages over both his eyes. Tears streamed down his face, swollen and riddled with tiny holes, where pellets fired by Indian armed personnel had entered. A doctor opened the eyes of one of the injured on a trolley; it was an open wound, the color of flesh. Many with bruised and blackened eyes lined up for consultations, some with faces so swollen that their eyes had disappeared into their sockets. All have been injured by pellets.
An ophthalmologist told me that the hospital had admitted around 100 youth in four days, all aged from 15-25. Ninety had been operated for pellet-related injuries. He is certain that even with sophisticated surgery, every one of the injured would lose their eyesight to some extent, in many cases, completely. He had kept one pellet he removed from an injured youth in his wallet. It is a tiny bead of metal, hexagonal with many sharp edges, much smaller than a grain of rice. Another surgeon spoke of a 14-year-old girl, Inshah Malik, of Shopian whose eyes had been damaged so badly by pellets that the matter from inside the organ was leaking out. “There will be no eyes,” he said.
The surgeon went on: “We don’t just see with our eyes, they are crucial to our imagination of the world, to our memory of the past, to envisioning a future, to seeing ourselves.”
I remember a professor in college asking me, “So, what exactly is azadi?” He knew it was a call for freedom but he wanted, in his words, “something more concrete than that”. So much of what I believe azadi must mean is about imagining our future but is also tied to the memory of growing up and living one’s past in repression, a memory that seamlessly merges into the curfew, in its 12th day, as I write this.
The curfew since July 9 has meant a clamp down not only on the physical movement of Kashmiris but also their use of telephones, internet services. Newspapers have been banned too. The collective deadening of our present is punishment for our demand to decide our own political future, no matter how we voice it.