August 2011: It's 2 am and pitch dark. The silence is only pierced by the reverberating drums that Manzoor Ahmad Sheikh, 45, a sehar khan, beats about the city streets.
Sheikh's drums are a wake-up call to people for their sehri, the meal consumed before dawn by Muslims before staring their fast, during the holy month of Ramzan. And, Sheikh's persona as sehar khan is an old Kashmiri tradition that had taken a bullet during militancy.
Sheikh recalls a Ramzan night in 1996, when he tried to revive the age-old tradition and instead, the night turned into a nightmare. "I was detained by security personnel manning a huge bunker at Islamia College Hawal, for moving about in the night and was asked to remove stone barriers off the road. I could hear gunshots in the distance, but was made to continue. Had the firing been aimed at that bunker, I would have died in the middle of the road," says Sheikh.
For the first time in 20 years, Sheikh and his ilk feel free to move about in Srinagar city from one colony to another. Phased removal of bunkers by security forces in the last one year and unprecedented low levels of militancy in the city of 17 lakh has brought sehar khans back on the streets with their special drums and sticks.
After five turbulent months of 2010, Union home minister P Chidambaram in October last had issued directions for a systemic removal of bunkers. More than 40 bunkers on major crossroads, roundabouts and inside residential colonies were removed in a phased manner.