As policemen ready with tear gas shells and guns watched in silence, the war cry raised a million times in Kashmir over the past 20 years resonated again on the nippy November morning.
Hum kya chahte
? (What do we want?) shouted dozens of furious women and teenage girls with fists clenched, cheeks flushed, eyes flaring.
At the moment when even three-year-olds know to respond with "Azaadi!" (freedom), the women screamed: "Transformer!"
In a small village about 30 kilometres north of Srinagar, the women had decided to take things in their own hands. They had dragged out part of a tree trunk, bamboo poles, metal sheets and other junk and stepped out to block the highway, doing what many Kashmiris are beginning to do for the first time: ask their government tough questions.
Nearly Rs. 50,000 crores have been sent by New Delhi to Jammu and Kashmir over the past two decades for development, yet there is very little to show for it across the state. Even security-related expenses have had questions raised by the Comptroller and Auditor-General – money meant for security was found to have been spent on renovating kitchens, and buying guest houses and pump sets.
While Kashmiris frequently stage political protests, few raise questions of governance.
"We need hot water in the winters. We need electricity so that out children can study. We want to watch TV," said Haseena Bano, 32, pointing wearing a traditional pheran (tunic) and a scarf around her head.
Don't you need azaadi (freedom), a bystander teased.
"We don't need
, we need a transformer," she snapped.
They had skipped breakfast. They had skipped lunch. They had been shouting on the road constantly for more than three hours. Policemen paced around anxiously, and watched patiently. This was unprecedented.
Everyone had a complaint.
"There is no power so I can't see what I am writing and I do my homework all wrong. Then I make mistakes and my teacher beats me," said 8-years-old Iqra Sultan, with short boyish hair and a frown on her face.
"I can't watch TV serials," said homemaker Fehmida Bano.
"I can't watch films. And I have to study with a candle," said 14-year-old Razia Sultan.
Buses, cars and military vehicles piled up on both sides. Men stood on the side. People watched from windows. No one dared face the women.
"What all do we tell you? We get mud in our water. Our children drink it and get jaundice. The health centre is far away and the doctor comes one day and sits at home for four days," said 45-years-old Sultana Bano.
"There is no power supply. The lineman is always more busy flirting," she said, to laughter from the others.
Some more policemen trooped in. Wireless sets crackled.
"Sir why confront them? It will get worse," a subordinate told Superintendent of Police Shahid Khursheed, the officer handling the situation. Still, the officer walked up.
"You are like my mothers and sisters, I am one of you," Khursheed said. "I have been watching patiently for hours now, you must disperse."
Wrong move. He was overwhelmed by the cackle of a dozen women all pointing fingers at him and talking at the same time.
"Please, we do not want to use any force. You must understand," Khursheed said. Two policemen with boxes of menacing tear gas shells walked up nonchalantly, as if giving a glimpse of what could come.
The next round of talks was lost in the din, but when it quietened, a pact had been reached.
"I swear on Allah the almighty, you will have the transformer by 5 o'clock today," the officer said.
The women slowly removed the blockade and dispersed.
"If we do not get our transformer, we will beat up the police next," said 40-year-old protester Fehmida Bano.