The first time I saw bunkers being built at the bridge named after Mehjoor, one of the greatest modern Kashmiri poets, my priorities began to change. Daata was the last film I watched with my father at Regal Cinema before bomb blasts in Srinagar began shutting the theatres down. I was eight or nine. I was a great Mithun Chakraborty fan. Pyar Jhukta Nahin, Ilaaka, and Elaan – amongst other movie hits from Mithun – struck the big screen in those years. I was perennially angry with the local barber for his failure to set my hair like Mithun’s. Only later would I realise that the nature of my own hair prevented it happening.
As the situation began to worsen in Kashmir, Mithun began to fade from my mind. The most recurring photograph published in the Urdu newspapers of Srinagar of uniformed Azam Inqilabi, a Kalashnikov in either hand, settled in my imagination. Inqilabi issued a powerful message that called upon the youth to join a liberation movement. I too wanted to have a gun and fight like him.
Interestingly, for years after the cinema closed down in Srinagar, life-size posters of Daata with Mithun wearing a bullet-studded waistband over his double-pocket black shirt – one gun hanging off his left shoulder – remained plastered on the city walls.
Many insurgents, I noticed in the beginning of the 1990s, wore their hair like Mithun. Even their moustaches aped the one from the Daata posters. The vengeful posture of Mithun from the movie – both his hands raised and holding two iron rods; the long fringes of his hair draped over his headband – shaped their militant mien.
I had no idea of the politics of my favourite serial Hazaar Daastaan (A Thousand Tales) that was telecast on Doordarshan Srinagar. I loved and imitated the character of Ahaid Raaza. I would sit in front of the television hours ahead of the serial and watch all the Itios-socks ads in the interval. For a long time, I knew Nazir Josh only as Ahaid Raaza, even though he played the character of Juma German in a second serial and Raaza Haaenz in another.
But decades after Hazaar Daastaan was censored by the then National Conference (NC) government, and years after the tapes of the serial were destroyed in a mysterious fire in Doordarshan, I learned from Nazir Josh himself that Hazaar Daastaan was a political satire meant to reflect the corrupt governance of Farooq Abdullah, then the chief minister of Kashmir.
I turned nine in 1989. I began to sense something unusual was happening in the Valley.
I couldn’t comprehend the politics of the events but I understood that the people of Kashmir were agitated from suffering a serious political injustice. From an early 1989 winter evening when my father read aloud from a local Urdu newspaper, narrating how Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s Sheikh Abdul Hamid and his companion escaped on a scooter, after attacking a policeman with a Chinese pistol in downtown Srinagar, to the custodial killing of school principal Rizwan Pandit in March 2019, much has happened in the last thirty years to make one more than a political being in Kashmir.
Much had happened before too. From an October day in 1947, when the Indian Army landed in Kashmir, to this day when there are almost half a million troops in Kashmir to control a population of one and a half million people; much has happened.
History has fascinated me since school. I always wondered why we were only taught Indian history. I wanted to know about Kashmir, particularly about the events that led to the 1989 uprising. Resistance leaders like Syed Ali Geelani talked so much about what was happening in the Kashmir of the 1990s, and spoke very briefly about what had happened before, but they hardly said anything about their own positions.
I always wanted somebody to ask Geelani to narrate his experiences as an MLA of the state. Under what circumstances had he sworn allegiance to the Indian Constitution after knowing that Kashmir had been occupied by India in 1947?
I wanted somebody to ask Muhammad Aslam how he became Yasin Malik. I wanted Yasin Malik to share his experiences as a polling agent for the Muslim United Front, a polling agent who was beaten to pulp by the workers of the National Conference in the 1987 assembly elections. Such narratives of Kashmiris were unavailable.
I would often read history in my university days. I read and loved literature too. The year I was born, Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, the novel that surprisingly foresaw and foretold exactly what was going to happen a decade later in Kashmir. In my university years, I was amazed to read on the second page of “The Perforated Sheet”, the first chapter of Rushdie’s book, how it would all start in Kashmir, how India would begin consolidating control in the Valley:
“In those days the radio mast had not been built and the temple of Shankaracharya, a little black blister on a khaki hill, still dominated the streets and lake of Srinagar. In those days there was no army camp at the lakeside, no endless snakes of camouflaged trucks and jeeps clogged the narrow mountain roads, no soldiers hid behind the crests of the mountains past Baramulla and Gulmarg. In those days travellers were not shot as spies if they took photographs of bridges, and apart from the Englishmen’s houseboats on the lake, the Valley had hardly changed since the Mughal Empire, for all its springtime renewals; but my grandfather’s eyes – which were, like the rest of him, twenty-five years old – saw things differently... and his nose had started to itch...Many years later, when the hole inside him had been clogged up with hate, and he came to sacrifice himself at the shrine of the black stone god in the temple on the hill, he would try and recall his childhood springs in Paradise, the way it was before travel and tussocks and army
tanks messed everything up.”
In my teen years, I noticed that every day before he took his afternoon nap, my maternal grandfather read from a thick, torn, jacket-less book on Kashmir history that was written in Urdu. I became curious. What was he reading in this book filled with photos in which Sheikh Abdullah either posed with his wife or his entire family, or with Nehru and other Indian statesmen – all those who were then employing every diplomatic, militaristic and political method to annex Kashmir to the Union of India? How to reconcile those pictures with the one in which the tonsured Abdullah sits sadly beside the cot that holds the body of a martyr of the 1931 Central Jail massacre?
One day I found the front cover of the book and finally learnt its title: Shabistaan: Sheikh Abdullah Dost Ya Dushman?
On the ashlar hamaam of the local mosque, I once watched an old mason fight with a young man over Sheikh Abdullah. The old man reacted sternly in favour of the Sheikh, while the young man believed he had betrayed Kashmiris and allowed the Indian Army to occupy Kashmir. The debate on the Sheikh as good guy or bad continues to this day.
During my adolescence, I browsed through some dusty and mote-ridden libraries and explored the untouched, mildewed archives. I marvelled at old facts and photographs. The black- and-white pictures that appeared alongside the text strengthened my picture of the years I had not witnessed myself. I traced the history of the land right from the time when, according to primary, mythological sources like the Nilamata Purana, Kashmir was a lake called Satisar – ruled by Pishachas and Nagas – to the early Hindu rule.
I moved from the Hindu rule to the Buddhist conquest, to the formation of the Muslim Sultanate, to the invasion of the Mughals, to the advent of the Afghans, to the brutal Sikh rule, to the accession of the Dogras and finally, to the most crucial year, 1947. Before 1989, the years that were turning points in Kashmiri history were 1947, 1953, 1965 and 1971.
Among them, 1965, the year when titles like Wazir-e-A’zam [prime minister] and Sadr-i-Riyasat [president of the state] were changed to those of the other Indian state titles like Wazir-e-A’la [chief minister] and governor; and 1971 was the year when India went to war with Pakistan. The year 1953 was when a new pivotal party Plebiscite Front was floated by some leaders of the NC; the same year, Sheikh Abdullah was dethroned and imprisoned. I noticed that overall, 1947 had been the most important year, for the most important event had taken place then: for the first time ever, the Indian Army had arrived in Kashmir, and the first seeds of military occupation were sown.
Excerpted with permission from “A Childhood to Insurgency”, by Shahnaz Bashir, from A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir, edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat, HarperCollins India.