Monday was just another day in office when we witnessed tear gas shelling in Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar. My phone’s SIM card had crashed and Tuesday being a holiday, my husband suggested I get it changed.
We just had to cross the main road up to the BSNL office where my husband’s friend had promised to activate my SIM card. Both of us being journalists, we thought we could get it done amid the stone pelting, but we were wrong.
As we reached the shop, girls in white uniforms had rushed out of a nearby girls’ higher secondary school. They picked up whatever they could lay their hands on in the street and started hurling the projectiles at the police vans. They chased the vehicles, booed the policemen while raising ‘azadi’ (freedom) slogans. For the next two hours we had no choice but to take refuge inside a newspaper office next door.
By then, Srinagar’s commercial hub had come to a standstill. Eyewitnesses said they had witnessed nothing like this in the militancy-torn Valley in the last 25 years. For me, however, it was deja vu of a different kind.
In the early ‘90s when I was in school, Kashmir witnessed anti-India protests for the first time. Our classroom was half empty as most of the Pandit girls had left Kashmir. The boys from our school in Lal Chowk, which has a separate wing for girls, came running and asked us to join the protest. ‘Nara-e–Takbir, Allah U Akbar’’ (God is the Greatest) slogans resonated in the air.
All of us left our classrooms and joined the crowd that was chanting ‘azadi’ slogans on the streets. As a teenager, the feeling was mixed. The anger against the state was at its peak as Kashmir had witnessed series of civilian killings. No day would pass without newspapers publishing reports of the deaths. Full of emotions, we joined the chorus, but the fear of consequences was palpable.
The moment, the first teargas shell burst in the air, the students moving with the crowd ran for cover. I remember entering a bylane with my classmates and knocking on the doors of locals. A middle-aged woman let us into her house and offered water. I was crying and howling with fear. I just wanted to reach home safely, vowing to never join a protest again. Once things calmed down, we made our way back to school to be picked up by our parents later.
On Monday everything looked similar till the first teargas shell was lobbed at the protesters. But unlike us in the ‘90s, these girls took on the forces. Instead of running for cover, they picked up stones and targeted the police. Every shell was countered with a scream for ‘azadi’.
This was unprecedented. Like their teenaged male counterparts, these girls too seemed to not fear death. A few days ago, a photograph of a burqa-clad college girl kicking a moving army vehicle had gone viral, making the young girls the “new face of protests”.
Last year’s images of teenagers with pellet injuries seems to have pushed this generation to the wall. And no one seems to be asking why young Kashmiris have lost the fear of `death’. They know a stone can get them a bullet, but they are not running for cover.
Till this issue is addressed, heart-wrenching images will keep coming out from Kashmir.