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Return of the Grim Reaper

Srinagar is a conflict zone with cries of azadi in the air. Another thing that hasn’t changed at all is the chicken mama pasta on the hotel poolside menu, writes Soutik Biswas.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2008 22:40 IST

It’s yesterday once more in Srinagar. Cries for azadi reverberate in its smoke-scented air. In grim déjà vu, troops open fire on protesters, and people die. Then, time stands still as an interminable curfew snuffs out life in this bustling city. People run out of food, money, medicines, and baby milk. For the first time in living memory, newspapers and local news channels are shut too. In a newspaper that came out before the curfew, I count 34 advertisements on a single page announcing cancellation of weddings.

Inside claustrophobic homes with shuttered windows and drawn curtains, restless young men vent their spleen at India over milky tea and cigarettes. My deserted hotel with its musty, carpeted corridors and gloomy rooms reminds me of the Overlook in The Shining. When night falls, muffled Bollywood dialogue floats in from a solitary co-guest’s room somewhere. Waking up to warm mornings, I peer through the window to watch a man desultorily cleaning the empty pool every day. Room service is running out of food and ideas. The poolside menu promises butter fried trout and chicken mama pasta from a long time ago.

Outside, on the still and sullen streets, the only signs of life are soldiers in their bullet-proof vests. Everything is shut: the bakery, the meat shop, the Funtun Kids preparatory school, the Kong Posh telephone store. The occasional carcass of a charred building brings back memories of long-drawn battles with insurgents, which often ended with troops burning them down. They even gutted a several thousand-line telephone exchange to flush out insurgents some time ago. With its desolate streets, shuttered homes and businesses, sooty concrete skeletons, and frazzled soldiers, Srinagar is again looking like a burnt-out case.

I sift through some Srinagar newspapers which came out before the curfew during the peak of the protests. The headlines echo the prevailing mood. Kashmir cries for freedom, screams one. Freedom is sweet, no matter how it comes, says another. A local writer says in a think piece: “Resistance is beautiful, resistance is green. And a green revolution is what we seek.” The one I like most is: “India unites Kashmir. No hardliners, no moderates, its Kashmir against India.”

Suddenly, all the ‘good’ news emanating from the Valley seems like a fading memory. The first half of this year had seen 400,000 visitors here compared to 250,000 visitors in 1989 before militancy erupted. Two months ago, there were 15 flights, full of tourists, landing in Srinagar every day. On my flight, they were hardly half a dozen of them, including a group of dazed Tibetans bound for Kargil.

You can still see evidence of the good times in newspaper advertisements: the Dreams Consultancy Services offers taking locals who want to become doctors to places like Romania, Ukraine and Kazakhstan and enrolling them in medical institutes there for anything between Rs 118,000 and Rs 730,000. Despite the economic upturn, people here have been always yearning for freedom, anyway.

Who is Imran Ahmed Wani?
I manage a curfew pass and I drive down to Baghibehtab, a middle-class neighbourhood of wood and concrete homes with tiny, neat lawns. There I meet a group of grieving young men and women. They begin showing pictures of a friend gunned down recently by the troops during a protest. In a picture taken on a mobile phone 10 days before his death, 25-year-old Imran Ahmed Wani fixes a shy gaze at the camera with a disarming smile. As his friends recall, Imran was an average young Kashmiri man who worked hard, played cricket, and enjoyed Bollywood films.

He had recently quit his job as a field officer with a mobile telephone service company to work as a building contractor in Srinagar, which has seen a frenzied real estate boom. His sisters were on their way to what looked like promising careers: Aniza, 27, had begun work as an engineer in the irrigation department; and 22-year-old Shabila, who was working as an accountant. Imran’s big ambition was to finish constructing the family home.

All that was before 13 August, when he died, shot in the chest by the troops on the main road that skirts his neighbourhood. “Look at the bricks, look at the stone chips. These are the last things he bought,” says his friend, Sheikh Suhail, standing on the dusty second storey of the family house. Two unfinished rooms, some bricks, a heap of stone chips — that’s what is left of the last memories of his friend. “He was a sportsman, he was a good worker. He was never interested in politics. But he had to die,” says Suhail, his eyes welling up.

Truth: a casualty
Truth in Kashmir is usually subjective, it is home to a conflict which is, as Stephen Cohen says, “a clash between identities, imagination, and history as it is a conflict over territory, resources and peoples”. Imran’s friends and family say he was shot at by troops while watching protesters who were being chased by soldiers. The security forces say they retaliated after somebody in the mob had fired on them. They confess “some innocents” can get killed when they open fire as a last resort.

So the circumstances of Imran’s death may always be disputed. Like so many deaths in this cursed valley. What is in little doubt that the Grim Reaper is visiting Srinagar. Again.

(Soutik Biswas is Editor, BBC Online, South Asia)