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First Person

Days In Srinagar

Undeterred by the 'cycle of violence', on a sabbatical from his job as an academic in a US university, our correspondent flew into Srinagar to visit his mother. His daily diary: July 29, 2010 - August 3, 2010

Days In Srinagar
Days In Srinagar

Thursday, July 29

I fly into Srinagar to visit my mother, who is spending a long summer in our ancestral home away from the heat of Delhi. At Delhi airport, I am startled by the number of army men waiting to catch the hopper flight to Srinagar via Jammu: I had not thought that jawans flew on commercial airlines, but there they were, their presence a foretaste of things ahead. My direct flight is made up of Kashmiri families, many visibly settled abroad, visiting home, and several Amarnath yatris. Three of them, all young men, large tikas on foreheads, are thrilled when they share the bus to the airplane with four European women tourists—they chuckle, nudge each other, and fondle themselves in sheer joy at this early payoff on their pilgrimage.

Srinagar has turned into a city of shutters. The taxi home makes quick progress as there is virtually no civilian traffic on the streets. We pass a four-vehicle army convoy—my taxi driver makes careful eye-contact with the gun-toting jawan at the back of the last jeep in order to get permission to overtake. A nod in reply allows us to zoom ahead, and I make desultory conversation while reading the occasional hand-written wall-slogan that says “GO INDIA GO” or the harsher “INDIAN DOGS GO BACK.” That makes me an unwanted visitor, I suppose, but then, not fifteen minutes ago, as I walked to the airport pre-paid taxi stand, one driver called out to his compatriot who had taken charge of me: “Haiyo yi chui local” (“Hey you, he is a local”). Poised between an Indian citizenship I wear with pride in my professional life abroad, and a “localness” which has learned to fear the cynical might of the Indian security apparatus, in Kashmir and elsewhere, I wonder what my time in Srinagar will bring.

Watching television in the evening reminds me of the fundamental absence of interest in the Indian media in the situation in Kashmir. Major news channels report on protests here, particularly if protestors are shot or property is damaged, but there is no attempt whatsoever to ask if these protests are a continuation of two decades of political unrest, and not simply random acts of violence instigated (as our Home Minister would have it, by the Lashkar or some such convenient scapegoat). Last year’s assembly elections, and the installation of Omar Abdullah’s government, was celebrated as a reminder that Kashmiris were not alienated from Indian democracy, and thus that no political initiatives were necessary to address their demands, articulated for five decades now and supposedly guaranteed by Article 370, to define for themselves the forms of their autonomy. But the last few weeks have seen renewed protests in Kashmir, with stone-pelting and demonstrations recurring in Srinagar, Sopore, Anantnag (Islamabad), and elsewhere. The military has been called out once (only a “flag march,” is the official word), but the CRPF and J & K Police have fired upon and killed protestors already, and are in any case on edge in the streets. The Hurriyat announces a weekly calendar of protests, but there is widespread awareness that they no longer initiate or control these demonstrations, which seem less orchestrated and planned and more the product of rising anger amongst people brutalized by the daily humiliations of living under a security regime.

Television this evening also brings a reminder of the ways in which public debate within Srinagar is censored. Two channels, Sën Channel and Sën Awaaz (“sën” means “ours” in Kashmiri), are off the air, and the former broadcasts the legend: “The Transmission of Sen Channel has been Banned by Government, under order no: DMS/PS-MISC/10/840-52, Dated: 29-07-2010.” I ask my mother if she knows why these channels have been banned. Her answer is succinct: they discussed local political events, covered street demonstrations, and told the truth.

Every evening at 7 pm we turn to ETV, an Urdu language channel, to listen to their half-hour news bulletin on Kashmir. This is the fullest and most accurate account of all that happens here, and their local correspondent, Manoj Kaul, is measured in his reportage without omitting major details. Kashmiri news channels have been coerced into trimming their news bulletins into vapid coverage of government events, and it is ironic—but precisely symptomatic—that the best source of information operates out of Hyderabad.

In the evening, my neighbourhood is preternaturally quiet, and I cannot help thinking of the silence of a mausoleum.

Friday, July 30

The authorities have banned the weekly Jumma namaz at the main Jama Masjid, and several other large masjids, for five weeks now, and each Friday brings about a declared or undeclared curfew. Today is no different. My mother tells me that the local paper has not been delivered for several days now—it is being printed, but the delivery man lives in Maisuma and cannot make his rounds. Maisuma is a neighbourhood that has seen sustained public protests and is thus kept under virtual curfew at all times. Only government employees who carry appropriate identification and those who have curfew passes are allowed on to the streets, and even those passes are not always respected by the police or CRPF constables who patrol Srinagar’s barricaded streets. Government employees have been told that they must report for duty, but the government offices in our neighbourhood are more or less deserted. (Incidentally, a house close by sports a signboard that would be witty if it was not an example of the growth of high-level bureaucratic offices: Chairman of the Committee to Examine Proposals for New Administrative Units.

To my mind, these empty administrative offices represent one of the worst forms of collateral damage suffered by Kashmiris over the last two decades. An astonishing number of Kashmiri men (and some women, of course) are on government payrolls, and here I do not include the many (some estimate up to 100,000) who receive regular stipends from various intelligence agencies and secret services. Civil services and local administration have been systematically hollowed-out over the past two decades; there is virtually no accountability at any level, and receiving a government salary is tantamount to being on the dole. If nothing else, the Indian state has revenged itself on Kashmiris by teaching them how not to work while still drawing salaries. This salariat functions as a vast buffer between the Indian state and the elected J & K government and the mass of people whose livelihood depends on daily work and trade, and, like government servants everywhere, they constitute a bulwark against political movements that mobilize common people. This is not always the case, and there have been times when some sectors of government employees have taken to the streets to protest different facets of Indian rule, but they are, for the most part, at peace with their salaries.

By the evening reports of demonstrations and the shooting of protestors are confirmed: three dead (two in Sopore) and many injured, including a score wounded by bullets. It is now clear that tomorrow, a day on which the Hurriyat calendar encouraged people to resume normal activities and stock up on supplies, is going to be another day of curfews and mounting tension. There seems to be no official response other than the police action on the street; no ministers or any other government officials are on television to explain the day’s events and to offer some account of plans to de-escalate violence. In the absence of official explanations, rumours provide information: a substantial number of the dead and injured sustain head and chest wounds, and it seems that the security forces are shooting to kill rather than to injure or main. Conversations about cynical politics abound: is it possible that these street protests are not being halted because their random, unsupervised quality undercuts the Hurriyat’s claim to being the political leadership of the mass of Kashmiris angry with life under military occupation? Some argue that precisely because there are no known leaders of these demonstrations, can they really be said to serve a partisan political purpose? Some weeks ago, a group of young men in Sopore—leaders of street action—ignored Geelani’s call to avoid stone-pelting and rejected the appeal made by Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based head of the Hizb-ul-Mujahidin, to not precipitate confrontations and disruptions that will get in the way of a longer, more sustained struggle. But there is also the crucial fact that the largest mass of people respond to the Hurriyat calendar, and Geelani is the man with the greatest public heft here.

I read a local English-language newspaper that, on its front page, prints in Urdu a revolutionary poem by Sahir Ludhianvi under the caption, “Bol ki labh azad hain tere” (which incidentally is a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem). The final lines of the Sahir poem are worth transcribing here, for they take on an uncanny urgency in Srinagar—this most progressive Indian poet now speaks for those subject to the unthinking muscularity of the regime: 

“yeh kis ka lahu hai kaun maraa
ham Thaan chuke hain ab jii meN
har zaalim se takraaeNge
tum samjhaute ki aas rakho
ham aage baRte jaenge
har manzil a azadi ki kasam
har manzil par dohraenge
yeh kis ka lahu hai kaun mara.”

Saturday, July 31

We have a young neighbour who steps out at 5 am every morning to see if he can buy lavasas or girdas (local rotis made in a tandoor) and milk, and he does the same for us. Bakeries and other stores shut by 6 am so that people can be home before the curfew is enforced, but today he comes back to say that the bakery has not opened. Given how wedded Kashmiris are to their lavasas, this is as pronounced a symptom of civic disorder as any.

The curfew, we are told, is to be enforced more closely today, but that does not seem to stop people from taking to the streets all over the valley; the list of towns and villages in which people mobilise knits together North and South Kashmir, as well as Srinagar, in a network of protest: Sopore, Pampore, Naidkhai Sumbal, Pattan, Handwara, Kupwara, Kreeri, Varmul, Bijbehara, Kakpora, Ganderbal (the Chief Minister’s constituency). Two (or is it 3?) more are shot by the police and CRPF, many more injured, hospitals in Srinagar report a shortage of blood. The pattern of daily protest and firing is now firmly in place: people gather to raise slogans and march towards government buildings, the young throw stones, the CRPF retaliate in kind (including, in a species of collective punishment, by breaking the windows of homes in the urban areas where protestors originate), use tear gas, and then, after they fire warning shots, shoot to kill and maim.

But there are variations in these seemingly established patterns, new participants in these protests. In several instances, women are at the forefront, and we see images of young women throwing stones at the security forces. Today also sees a demonstration at Uri, which is close to the border and home to a great army presence; but mercifully, they do not intervene as protestors make clear that their protests are directed elsewhere. Today also sees substantial damage to government property: a building at the Amargarh station at Sopore, police vehicles, two Air Force trucks. And where larger crowds gather, as at Kreeri, they burn a camp of the Special Operations Group (the SOG is a police auxiliary recruited locally, including surrendered militants, and is loathed because they are often used by the security services to do their dirty work for them). One story that makes the rounds—no news channel in Kashmir or elsewhere confirms this—is that two army vehicles were burnt when the soldiers in them refused their officer’s order to take action against the protestors who had stopped them. We will not fire on the unarmed, they are supposed to have said.

Kashmir has never seen such widespread anger and mobilization, say those who lived through the worst episodes of armed militancy in the 1990s. Then state forces fought those equipped to fight back, and civilian casualties (and there were many) could be blamed on insurgents and counter-insurgency tactics. Now there are no armed militants, only people, their voices, and their bodies on the road, and of course there are stones. Policemen do get hurt, and isolated government officials are thrashed, but the only people who are shot are civilians. A Delhi-based news channel used the word “miscreants” to describe the protestors who burned a building, and once again I was reminded of the chasm that divides opinion-makers in Delhi and events on the ground here. Would we ever call those who marched for freedom against the British “miscreants”? Even those who torched the police station at Chauri Chaura? (It is another matter that Gandhi called a halt to the movement in the face of that incident; but this is another time and place, and there is no Gandhi here).

And that is an important part of the problem in Kashmir. If the British had insisted that Gandhi was not to be dealt with as a politician, that he and his politics had no locus standi, a different map of protest would have emerged all over India. Our Home Minister’s line on Kashmir has been clear: emboldened perhaps by the election results in 2009, he had declared the separatists irrelevant. But they have never been that, and in fact are the only set of politicians who have consistently argued the need to re-examine Kashmir’s status within the Indian Union. There are those amongst the Hurriyat who are amenable to the development of political systems in J & K that will in fact put into practice the autonomy, the special status, constitutionally available to this state. There are those who are much more independentist in their aspirations, and there are a few (and increasingly fewer) who think of a merger with their Islamic neighbour, if only because that was the principle of the merger of majority populations that was supposed to govern the allotment of territories during the Partition process of 1947. Successive regimes in Delhi have sought to delegitimise this entire range of political opinion, and that has been a huge and arrogant miscalculation. Kashmiris have seen too much suffering over the past two decades (and before) not to see themselves as at the receiving end of the policies of an imperial state. The security apparatus is too visible and intrusive on a daily basis to be understood as anything other than a reminder of an occupation force and a subject people. And there has been no justice offered for even the most egregious acts of violence committed by the military, the paramilitary, or the police. There have been spectacular instances of murder, torture, and rape, and no immediate moves to bring criminals to justice, and that has been the case all of this year too, from the killings at Macchil to the unprovoked shooting of boys in Srinagar.

Sunday, August 1

I read about a statement issued by the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist) offering an “Inquilabi Salaam” to Kashmiris who, in their pursuit, of self-determination, are being crushed by their common enemy, the Indian state. The enemy is the same, they say, in Dandakaranya as in Kashmir. What they self-servingly omit to mention is that their political and military methods are not those of Kashmiris today. And this is an important distinction, and crucial to understanding why the valence of the state “crackdown” is not the same in each theatre of conflict. Some Kashmiris have a different comparison for their struggle: their resistance is like the Palestinian Intifada (minus Hamas), and the visual analogy—stone-pelters versus armed state forces—is compelling.

And the situation worsens today: 8 more are killed, including a young woman, scores wounded, another SOG camp is burned, as is a Tehsildar’s office. Villagers who live adjoining the Jammu-Srinagar highway are blockading sections, which invites swift reprisals, since that is the primary road link between India and the valley. The range of protests widens, and it is clear that no official response, however swift, is working. There are ministerial delegations visiting districts in North and South Kashmir, but members of the government have no credibility at all, and their meetings with local officials seem to be exercises in futility. Mehbooba Mufti of the Opposition PDP is refreshingly honest when she says that there is no point in mainstream politicians like her attempting to speak to the people now—they will not listen, she says.

The conversation here shifts increasingly to the imposition of Governor’s rule, and the handing over of roads and major installations to the Army. However, a friend points out that Delhi is able to perform this sort of deployment even when there is an elected government in place, so why would they remove the fig leaf that Omar Abdullah provides them? In any case no political activity of any sort is feasible before this cycle of violence—demonstrations and official reprisals—is broken, and no one, least of all the government, seems to know how to enable that. I am reminded of Jayaprakash Narayan’s comment on the imposition of the Emergency: “Vinaash kale vipreet buddhi.” It is true that in difficult times, when you need them most, the buddhi, the mind and the imagination, work least well. In this case, the political imagination has been caused to atrophy, overtaken entirely by the polarized power of the state and the single-minded separatist slogan of “azadi.” I ask a wise friend here what he thinks might happen if tomorrow the Centre says that they would talk to the entire range of Kashmiri political opinion without preconditions, that is, without insisting that Kashmir’s future necessarily lies within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. I don’t know, he says, and in any case in these moments of heightened violence are not a good time to begin to think about such future possibilities. Times of peace, or rather, times when daily violence is absent, those are the right moments to initiate political dialogue and action, but those are precisely the moments when governments, lulled into a false sense of security and complacence, do nothing. In any case such inaction suits government, whose actors seem to believe that economic development and employment, thin as they are in practice, will be the magic wands that will wave away political aspirations.

There is no peace, not today. In fact there has been enough violence for the Prime Minister to call a late-night meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security. Every one waits to hear what will emerge, and the results are predictable. Omar Abdullah’s government is asked to intervene more personally and capably, punishment is promised to all those who take the law into their own hands (that is, all those on the streets who disobey curfew restrictions, and worse, revenge themselves upon those elements of the administration they have come to hate). Abdullah has also appeared on television to make a tepid appeal for calm, but it is too little, too late. His pained face and tone lack conviction.

We hear the sounds of massed people in the first half of the night, and occasional shots. But our neighborhood, like so many others in Srinagar where the well-off live, is quiet, quiet enough to let the sounds of struggle elsewhere waft indistinctly but ominously into our homes.

Monday, August 2: 

The action on the street shows no let up, and Omar Abdullah is in Delhi for a meeting with the Prime Minister and others. He emerges and makes an eloquent appeal for peace (the police have been instructed to be restrained, but violence will have consequences, he says) in his English-language press conference after. He repeats his request in Urdu later in the day for local consumption here. He calls for a calm that will allow the proper education of children and young adults so that they can be competitive in the job market. He also promises the massive recruitment of young people to an unspecified set of jobs—once again, the government offers its payroll as a solution to the problem of political disenchantment. But he does offer a phrase that should be remembered at all times, not just in this moment of crisis: he has told the Center, he says, that Kashmir needs a “political,” not just an “economic” package. There are no details offered, but at least there is now a phrase to work with.

Phrases to work with, a new and respectful semantics—a journalist friend tells me that that is what both the government and Kashmiris need. The government plays strategic games in which the vocabulary they use for the political (not the parliamentary) opposition is charged and designed to belittle: they are the instigators of unrest, they are irrelevant, they are obstacles in the path to development. Small wonder then that Kashmiris see the government as colonial, mainstream politicians as stooges, and the military and paramilitaries as an occupation force. In the absence of a new, more innovative, more polite idiom, there is going to be no way of climbing out of the deep rut in which we find ourselves.

Sadly, eight more people are shot dead, and people have lost track of numbers of the wounded. I keep thinking of the multiplier effects of such violence: for each person dead or injured, there are a score personally affected, and each funeral cortege reminds larger groups of past losses. But then these are the most recent, intense episodes in a longer history of violence. If 70,000 Kashmiris have been killed (regardless of by whom) in the last two decades, then there is virtually no family exempt from the eddying effects of such loss. This is the reservoir of grief, anger, and frustration that produces the flood of emotion that moves people into risking their lives on the street; and sometimes, as we know, floods overwhelm the thickest embankments we build to contain them.

There is also the highly intrusive security footprint to think about. I had travelled in Punjab in the worst years of the Khalistan movement, and I remember just how humiliating and fear-inducing it was to be stopped and questioned over and over again, to have your car searched, and occasionally to be patted down. This is how Kashmiris have lived for twenty years now. No one goes anywhere, even in times of relative peace, without being aware of surveillance and check-points. An entire generation—the young on the streets now—have grown up with no other sense of the Indian state. India is the jawan who slaps you because it has been a long day and you are less patient in the checking-line than he would like; India is the officer who is smiles sardonically as you are pushed to the ground and kicked for good measure; India is the force that tears you and your family from your home to stand around for hours as entire neighbourhoods are cordoned off and searched. And this is low-level business. There have been far harsher crimes committed by state agents, but no one has been punished, and that fact alone rankles and will not die.

I speak on the phone to a relative who was a career bureaucrat: utter lawlessness, she says, it needs to be put down firmly, no one should feel entitled to damage property or attack the police. She wonders why things have been allowed to slide in the past few days. I suggest that we have been on this slope for at least twenty years now, and that we have a political rather than a law-and-order problem, but she wants none of that. Various friends and relatives have been calling to ask after us—we don’t leave the house and are fine, we say. No we aren’t planning to leave. This is home, my mother says, and the weather is lovely.

Tuesday, August 3: 

A friend with a press pass escorts me past the razor wire that closes off our neighbourhood from Maulana Azad Road. We are asked a few questions by the police, which I let him answer, and then we step into the shuttered world of the market. On our route, we pass by a government office protected by CRPF jawans. They are used to seeing my mother walk by—she is the only woman in a sari for miles—and they ask my journalist friend about the day’s events. He tells them, and then I say to one of them (miles away from his home in Tamil Nadu): this is all terrible, is it not? He nods wanly, and says, kya karein, aisa hi ho raha hai (what to do, this is what is going on). My mother tells me that these jawans wish her and talk to her each time she walks by them, and that their loneliness is palpable. They are young men, far from home, under-paid, under-rested, and occasionally under-fed, deployed into a situation in which they know that they are loathed for their uniforms. No shining nationalist zeal or commitment brings them here; their poverty renders them cogs in the machinery of the state, and they well know that.

There are only police on the streets—there is after all a “shoot at sight” order in place—and I smile at the young policeman who has been issued a lathi for offensive action and worn out batsman’s pads as defensive equipment. What kind of game do the police authorities think they are playing? What manner of crowd control might be enabled by such equipment? We walk across the market and into the Press Enclave. Reporters and photographers have been spending nights in their offices, since they are never sure that they will be able to make it to their homes at night or back to their offices the next day.

Five more are dead today (27 in the last five days), and, worst of all, an eight-year old boy has been beaten to death. The police issue a statement saying that he died in a stampede of protestors, but there are eyewitnesses who say that he, cricket bat in hand, was raising slogans for azadi and was not quick enough to run away when the CRPF charged. Several jawans beat him, dragged him into their vehicle, and then decided to dump him on the side of the road. He died, not long after, in hospital. Clubbing an eight year-old boy to death? What kind of harm could he have done, mighty with his cricket bat? (Ah yes, perhaps he too picked up and slung stones at the police.)

There seems no escaping the impasse here: more dead protestors, more angry protest, more protestors killed. Upon the Chief Minister’s request, the Home Ministry has flown in 2000 paramilitary men, but it is clear to no one what purpose such reinforcements will serve. They are trained no differently from the hundreds of thousands of uniformed men already in service in Kashmir, so how will their presence be a deterrent? They will join the daily rotation, I’m sure, and allow some others overburdened with duties some respite, but it isn’t more troops that are needed here, but different forms of policing. Some very senior retired Indian police officers have issued statements saying that police should be instructed never to fire above the waist of protestors, but that advice seems likely to be ignored.

And it isn’t only imaginative policing that is missing. People are so stunned by the turn of events here, and the shocking violence, that nothing seems to emanate from the many civil society organizations at work in Kashmir. Many lack local credibility in any case, but the turn of events here has closed off the possibility of any initiatives or efforts at mediation between people and the state. There is a vast population here holding its collective breath, and I am sure many are wondering, as they have in the past, after such knowledge, what forgiveness? And that is what it means to be a Kashmiri in Kashmir today.

Suvir Kaul is A. M. Rosenthal Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA


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