I left Kashmir a year ago to preserve my sanity. Moving to Delhi, with its pace of life and 'normalcy', I felt stable at last. I would now be able to maintain a safe distance from that place, I thought to myself. And, to a large extent, I did.
Romancing the stone
A protester throws stone at a policeman during a protest against the killing of a man and to oppose elections due in October. Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of angry demonstrators.
May 2: The Machhil fake encounter near LoC takes place. Three civilians are killed in a fake encounter by the Army.
May 10: The stone pelting begins. Goes on till May 29.
June 11: Schoolboy Tufail Mattoo dies in a teargas shelling. Mass protests erupt all over. Even Geelani's protest rally is pelted.
June 14-25: Peace prevails.
July 12: Shabir Ahmed Wani, a Hurriyat hardliner is arrested after security agencies intercept his call with Ghulam Mohammed Dar, a former Hizbul Mujahideen militant. Wani claims they are behind the stone-pelting protests.
July 14: BJP assures CM Omar Abdullah that they will support the government to bring peace to the Valley and not demoralise the security forces.
July 27: Omar addresses people of Handwara and says that violence is not the answer to the problems and that it has only hampered children's education
August 2: Omar holds press conference in New Delhi. He stresses that the cycle of violence needs to be broken and that law-breakers will face charges.
August 4: In Parliament home minister P. Chidambaram appeals to stop the "cycle of violence" in the Valley, and urges parents to ensure that children do not participate in violent activities.
August 5: Government claims that 36 civilians were killed and 1,266 security personnel have been injured in different violent incidents in the Kashmir Valley in the last three months.
August 7: Geelani rejects Chidambaram's talks offer, calls it "sheer hypocrisy".
On July 4, I went home on a vacation. Driving me home from the airport, my friend and Outlook's Kashmir correspondent Showkat A. Motta told me about the horror he and some other journalists had to face the day before. While following a procession on its way to Sopore, they had been fired at by a policeman on the Srinagar-Sopore highway. They had shouted out that they were reporters. Only a hail of abuses was returned. Taking cover in a nearby field, they were wondering how the bullets had missed them. I don't blame Showkat's wife for asking him to quit journalism and raise chickens.
The first day was the only one during my 20-day holiday to Srinagar where shops were open and traffic was going about normally. The next day, things went wrong again. I went to the funeral of two people. One was a 17-year-old blue-eyed student, who looked not too unlike Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. The other was a 35-year-old father of two children. According to the protesters at the gathering, the teenager had been hit on the head and then thrown into a flood channel by the police. The older man, they told me, had been shot at during the procession that was bearing the boy's body.
The crowd was loud. The women wailed, pulled their hair, beat their breasts and slapped their faces. The men shouted pro-indepedence slogans as the two bodies were lowered into their graves. This wasn't anything new. I had seen this far too many times. But here again, there was something different.
This time, I realised soon enough, people want, for the lack of a better word, revenge — being totally aware that their acts of revenge will result in more deaths. It's a rage more directed towards one's helplessness than towards any armed soldier or policeman. Why else would, as the national media describes them, these "frenzied mobs sponsored by the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba" not kill a soldier they had cornered on a road? Why would they just beat him up, strip him and let him go?
It turned out that I, too, wasn't immune to this potent cocktail of rage and helplessness. I was moving around with a few other journalists in the curfewed, deserted city when a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)soldier stopped us in the Old City. A reporter of a local daily showed him a curfew pass issued by the government. Without a flutter, the soldier tore it up and shot back, "Where's your bloody curfew pass now?" I had no time to get a pass. I just showed my Hindustan Times identity card. I presume the word 'Hindustan' did the trick.
The next few days were spent in exhausting discussions on politics in parks and in the Mughal Gardens. The calm instilled in me by Delhi was wearing thin. For the first time I felt like an 'ordinary Kashmiri' and wanted to react like them. Along with several journalists, I went to Kawdara in the Old City where separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was leading a demonstration. This soon morphed into a clash between youngsters and CRPF soldiers who had been camping in a bunker.
I picked up a stone from the debris of a housing cluster burnt by CRPF soldiers in 1990 and hurled it at the soldiers, a few of whom were filming the stone-throwers with mini-cams. Caught, I could have been booked under the Public Safety Act and jailed for two years without a trial. I would have been jobless because no news organisation would have a felon on its rolls. But I threw more stones.
As I was hurling the stones it felt like this was the only legitimate thing to do in that cursed place. And after being restrained by my fellow journalists, disoriented, I walked to Nawab Bazar. In the Old City, where I was born.
Nawab Bazar was as furious that day as it was 20 years ago. Angry youngsters, whom I had seen growing up, were pelting the CRPF bunker with stones. The bunker was built on the spot where a man sold phirni and children would line up for the sighting of the crescent moon announcing Eid.
Twenty years ago, militants were attacking this same bunker with AK-47 rifles. A short distance away from it, the Dogra king's soldiers had shot my great-grandfather dead in 1931. Twenty years ago, when the bunker was being constructed, my father's best friend, a fanatical Congress supporter, prophesied that "your eyelashes will turn grey, but the bunker will still be there". He died last year. His eyebrows had started to grey and all his hair were silver.
Old demons stirred inside me in the 20 days I was holed up in Srinagar. During the nights, I would look out of the window of my room, holding a digital recorder to catch the songs of freedom blaring from mosque loudspeakers and wafting through the quiet air.
Twenty years ago, I had heard and sung the same songs. Today, the bunker in Nawab Bazar has grown bigger and uglier, with all those loops of barbed wire, fences, gaudy paint and slits to show that it hasn't grown tired. But then, neither are the people of the city where I was born and from where I had run away again.