Why Kashmir Burns
It's our inability to talk about Kashmir outside the framework set by popular media, government propaganda and the rhetoric of nationalism, that fails us in the eyes of Kashmir today
Smita Singh Bangalore/ Srinagar
I was 13 in March 1991 when I reached Kashmir. My father was posted as part of the Army's Corps of Signals. I looked out as our convoy crawled through the empty streets of Srinagar, silent but for the graffiti screaming from a wall here, a poster there - 'Indian Dogs Go Away', 'We Want Freedom', 'Hizbul Mujahideen Zindabad', some incomprehensible scrawls in Urdu - until we entered the cantonment. Bungalows and beautiful lawns, tree-lined pavements and the olive green of the uniforms - comforting, familiar and welcome. The images of the ghost town receded, but not for long.
It was the year of the Kanun Poshpura rapes. Kashmir was ablaze with anger at the alleged mass rape of women in the village by army soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles. According to the villagers, on February 23, 1991, the men were rounded up for questioning while the soldiers entered their homes and raped the women. Women: anywhere from 23 to 100 in number, 13- to 80-year-old, married, unmarried and pregnant. After many complaints by local and international media about the lack of proper investigation, massive agitations, and more violence, a committee set up by the Press Council of India, at the request of the army, was sent to investigate the case.
The Press Council is neither a government body nor an investigative one. The case was never investigated by the police because ASP Dilbaugh Singh was first said to be on leave and by July had been transferred out of the region. In its report, the committee called the allegations a hoax to malign the army, instigated by militant groups and, of course, the ubiquitous foreign hand.
I returned to Kashmir 18 years later to another summer, another agitation. On May 30, 2009, the bodies of 22-year-old Neelofar and her 17-year-old sister-in-law, Asiya, were discovered in a stream in the apple town of Shopian. Their family and locals suspected foul play even as early post-mortem reports suggested rape and murder. It took no less than six months, three post-mortems, an exhumation, four suspensions of state police officers, besides the charge-sheeting of six doctors, five lawyers and two witnesses - and hundreds injured in agitations - for the CBI to conclude that there had been no rape or murder.
The CBI indicted 13 people for falsifying evidence to malign the security forces. The deaths were attributed to drowning in the Rambi Ara Nallah - first of its kind in living memory. No one had ever drowned in the stream before.
June 2009: the call for bandh was clear - only nervous, tense groups of browns and greens assembled, stop¬ping, checking, watching from behind bunkers, sandbags and bullet-proof glass. For the first time in my life I passed an army checkpoint without a salute to the vehicle; this time I was in a 'civilian' vehicle. We were asked to step out while an armed soldier demanded that all four wheels be taken out for a thorough check. It started to sink in that I was married to a Kashmiri Muslim and what it means to travel as a 'civilian' on this side of the cantonment.
Life within the perimeters of shutdowns, curfews and agitations is a strange experience - everything comes to a standstill except the mind.
With nothing to do, nowhere to go, family and friends gather around for talks and tea. A pretty college student remembers the Amarnath land row agitation. "There was a complete shutdown for a month - no TV, no news, no school or college, ration supply cut off, plus shoot at sight orders... It was like we would go mad for not screaming. Only when the protesters came out braving the security forces did we feel alive - we would make food for them and drop them in packets from windows and balconies."
Traders lose money and businesses, students fail degrees, the old and sick suffer without treatment, and yet, support, from moral to material, pours forth from every corner for the call to shutdown the valley for the two girls found dead in the small town of Shopian. "The girl who died, Asiya Jan, was very good at Mathematics. I read it in the newspaper. Did you know?" the student asks. I shake my head. The names had not made it to my newspaper back in Bangalore.
A neighbour drops in with video clips of anti-India sloganeering to everyone's general amusement. They are on his cell phone. "Ragdo Ragdo, India Ragdo," shout men in a frenzy, sending the girls into peals of laughter.
1990s: Shafiq, now 33, remem¬bers his teens - living through cordon and search operations. "I was 14 when a cousin and I were prodded in the back by rifles all the way to the school ground where identification parades take place. You had to walk down this path, past military vehicles inside which an informer sat. Even with loudspeakers blaring Hindi film music, you could hear screams. We'd know an interrogation is in progress. Someone has been identified. I remember getting slapped by my father once for wearing red. Colours got you in trouble, made you more noticeable... After you have been paraded, you sat down watching uncles, brothers, cousins, friends doing the routine. Rich, poor, old and young - hundreds squatting on the ground through rain, snow or sun for hours.
During Ramadan, when the masjid gave a call for Iftar, we would still be sitting huddled together like cattle. Some old men would lick the sweat off their palms to break the fast. We knew some of us would never see our families again... or loud colours or music for that matter."
Thousands disappeared forever and many more appeared in unmarked graves over the years since then.
Srinagar opened to business as usual the next day and we felt compelled to make the perfunctory trips to the Dal Lake and the gardens. Every picture had a bunker in the background, every garden full of gregarious Indian tourists, some happily posing with the armed forces, whom we carefully avoided looking in the eye. "Picnic in Palestine," quips a cousin. I pass the gates to the cantonment - the old familiar comfort, alien and out of reach today.
While returning, we get stuck in a traffic jam caused by some lal batti (red light) staff cars. A minister seems to be in a hurry. The self-disparaging Kashmiri sense of humour is never better than when the talk turns to elections and governments. "There is this anecdote that's quite popular here. A father and son on a scooter stop at a red light adjacent to Farooq Abdullah's lal batti vehicle," an uncle tells me. "To the son's enquiry, the father replies, 'That's my chief minister sitting in the front,' and pointing at the back at Omar who is then only a boy, he says, 'and that's yours.'"
Back home, it's news time. Kashmiri youth call Indian media BLINDIA. "They should come here to host their panel discussions and talk shows. While our newspapers are gagged, their reporters have a free run. Even then they don't report on our rapes and murders. Why are there no vigils and investigations on Shopian?" asks Sheeba, a medical student. "It's like we don't exist till we throw stones or are killed."
This screaming, writhing non-existence is not new to the Kashmiri. Its landscape, just like poverty in India, has been used for centuries to work through different narratives. It fits well in most, albeit minus its inhabitants who smudge the scene. From conniving and treacherous to hapless victims and pawns, many epithets, many portraits of the Kashmiri - none valiant, none spirited. In this mirror, they must decline to recognise themselves, as they do every day.
My husband tells me of a great grand uncle's wish on his death bed, "Yile aes azaad gatchow maine kabre peth ieezew van-ne." (When Kashmir is azaad, come to my grave and let me know.) He died when Kashmir was ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh.Indefinable and fast receding, freedom may be a very distant dream for this generation, but their urgent demand is acknowledgment of the existence they have and of our complicity in it. It's our inability to talk about Kashmir outside the framework set by popular media, government propaganda and the rhetoric of nationalism, that fails us in the eyes of Kashmir today - both the land and its people.
Based in Bangalore, Smita Singh is a freelance television writer working for BBC World, National Geographic, and national networks