Towards the end of January, on a day the sun chose to flirt with the snow of a chilla-e-kalan, Kashmir’s deep winter, Mirza Waheed (36) read out from his novel, The Collaborator. The audience huddled in a Srinagar auditorium like siblings summoned by a crisis.
“Please Wahid,” an elderly man said, “this is too painful for a public reading. Let people read it in private.” Sounds of muffled sobbing choked the air. Waheed apologised but completed the reading. Later, he told me how the novel, a first in English by a Kashmiri, was born out of the “silence” that stifled him for 20 years. Sample his “anger and despair” in the book: “The governor looked more hideous than he had seemed in newspaper photos. His lips were tightly pursed and looked like two fat worms in a tight embrace.”
Waheed was among the thousands who had left in the 1990s because of the debilitating conflict that has snuffed out 70,000 lives. Every house in the valley has been touched by tragedy and time is measured in bitter chapters. Waheed tried to capture one such. It was the first book release in the valley since the conflict. That’s not the odd fact. What made it singular was that it happened during a chilla-e-kalan, a time for hibernation, when “people find it difficult to smile”. This winter has been unusually busy in Kashmir.
This winter vacation was cut short by schools to make up for the lost summer. Despite snow and rain, the valley was a hub of activity making up for the mass unrest that resulted in curfews and kani jung (stone war). Pitched battles between the youth and the paramilitary led to the loss of at least 112 lives, most of them teens. The two preceding summers, too, were lost to protests. Summer is knocking on the door again and “frightened pigeons” is how a middle-aged man described the anxiety for what’s to come.
A Facebook status message that metamorphosed into a slogan — “Khoon ka badla June mein lenge (Come June, we’ll take revenge)” — pushed the administration to a paranoia. The popular uprisings in West Asia are feared to be an inspiration. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the government was keeping its “fingers crossed” about the summer. The state apparatus is leaving nothing to chance. The crackdown that started last June has resulted in 5,225 arrests of stone pelters, according to the state government. “Some 1,153 incidents of violence have been recorded in FIRs. We will be arresting more people,” said SM Sahai, IG, Kashmir range. According to sources, the police are now looking for at least 1,160 more young men. In this panic season, preventive arrests and illegal detentions have become daily news.
The lawless law
On what seemed like a normal day, I reached Zaina Kadal in downtown Srinagar and met the family of Umar Hameed Hanga, a 17-year-old booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) for stone pelting. His father, uncle and 10 other elders had gathered to convince me of his innocence.
Hanga, who worked in his father’s shop and was preparing for a management exam, was arrested on the basis of a photo of a youngster with a covered face beating up a CRPF constable. “The guy in the photo looks 5-foot-10, but our Umar is 5-4. He was tortured into pleading guilty,” said his uncle Abdul Majeed. “All you Indian journalists are sold out, we know.”
Yet the uncle pleaded with me to talk to the IG on the case. “If innocents are picked up, it will become worse than Naxalism,” said Hanga’s cousin, looking into my eyes as if to check if I understood the gravity of his words. Others continued to plead. An hour into the conversation, I couldn’t say who felt more helpless — them or me.
Till February end, 180 youngsters had been detained under PSA. According to a recent Amnesty International report, the PSA is being used against people to keep them “out of circulation”, in cases where there’s little evidence.
Not far from Hanga’s house, Yasin Malik, chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, was on hunger strike in Maisuma protesting the illegal detentions. Malik had given up guns like many of his generation.
A senior journalist explained the difference between the two generations: “In the 1990s, when a shot was fired in the air, we used to run for our lives. These kids just sit down where they are.” They have seen no peace and know only wounds, he said. If Nobel-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz is right in saying “there is no memory other than the memory of wounds”, then with everyday humiliation spurring them on and no fear of the gun, kani jung is always an insult away.
Last week, when Malik was arrested during another non-violent protest against detentions, people spilled on to the streets. In Kashmir’s close-knit society, illegal detentions are bound to have a cascading effect this summer. “They are trying to control the situation with the PSA, but the situation is getting worse,” said Zafar Shah, an eminent lawyer. “There is no accountability of the police in the misuse of the PSA. A lot of youngsters have been booked after 8 months. Why now?” he asked. The PSA violates the UN Human Rights charter because it allows long periods of detention for young people under a criminal law.
Hope amid despair
Despite all this, many people of a previous generation who had left the valley in the 1990s are choosing to come back now. They are coming back to stories of innocent people caught in crossfire ending up with blinded eyes, ruptured spleens, punctured kidneys and comatose lives.
“The children can’t go to school. The pregnant woman can’t give birth at a hospital. The farmer can’t plow his fields... The professor can’t teach her class. For civilians, war becomes a relentless accumulation of can’ts,” writes Annia Ciezadlo in Day of Honey set in Iraq and Lebanon. It could have as well been Kashmir the past three summers.
So why are they coming back into this mess? A boy from Pulawama who had left in 1990 has come back to teach in a local university. He was a scientist at the Harvard and Boston universities for 12 years. Requesting anonymity, he said, “Friends told me it would be a big mistake, but it was a commitment to myself.” He has started an education initiative for poor kids and wants to encourage them to be scientists. I asked if he wasn’t worried about the situation. “We have to live with it,” he smiled.
Khurshid Ahmad Dar (34), who had left at the age of 16 came back a few months ago as a doctor, though he has no hope of a normal practice.
Sana Bég (27) of Anantnag has come back for the first time after leaving as a child. “I feel like I have become more Kashmiri by experiencing the life here under curfews and fear,” she said.
Many such people (see profiles) returning now want to contribute in their own ways. Dar wants to improve medical treatment; Bég wants to set up a news channel.
“Every society has an immune system, a silent army that tries to bring the body politic back to homeostasis,” writes Ciezadlo. The valley’s silent army, it seems, is on its way back now.