A insightful personal account of Hilal Mir of Hindustan Times clearly describing how circumastances can force you to change you into a different avatar. Thought of sharing it with my friends as it hints our senses about something that we already possess within. What it takes to be in the most beautiful but hostile Kashmir
I left Kashmir a year ago to preserve my sanity. Moving to Delhi, with its pace of life and 'normalcy', I felt stable at last. I would now be able to maintain a safe distance from that place, I thought to myself. And, to a large extent, I did.
On July 4, I went home on a vacation. Driving me home from the airport, my friend and Outlook's Kashmir correspondent Showkat A. Motta told me about the horror he and some other journalists had to face the day before. While following a procession on its way to Sopore, they had been fired at by a policeman on the Srinagar-Sopore highway. They had shouted out that they were reporters. Only a hail of abuses was returned. Taking cover in a nearby field, they were wondering how the bullets had missed them. I don't blame Showkat's wife for asking him to quit journalism and raise chickens.
The first day was the only one during my 20-day holiday to Srinagar where shops were open and traffic was going about normally. The next day, things went wrong again. I went to the funeral of two people. One was a 17-year-old blue-eyed student, who looked not too unlike Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. The other was a 35-year-old father of two children. According to the protesters at the gathering, the teenager had been hit on the head and then thrown into a flood channel by the police. The older man, they told me, had been shot at during the procession that was bearing the boy's body.
The crowd was loud. The women wailed, pulled their hair, beat their breasts and slapped their faces. The men shouted pro-indepedence slogans as the two bodies were lowered into their graves. This wasn't anything new. I had seen this far too many times. But here again, there was something different.
This time, I realised soon enough, people want, for the lack of a better word, revenge — being totally aware that their acts of revenge will result in more deaths. It's a rage more directed towards one's helplessness than towards any armed soldier or policeman. Why else would, as the national media describes them, these "frenzied mobs sponsored by the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba" not kill a soldier they had cornered on a road? Why would they just beat him up, strip him and let him go?
It turned out that I, too, wasn't immune to this potent cocktail of rage and helplessness. I was moving around with a few other journalists in the curfewed, deserted city when a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)soldier stopped us in the Old City. A reporter of a local daily showed him a curfew pass issued by the government. Without a flutter, the soldier tore it up and shot back, "Where's your bloody curfew pass now?" I had no time to get a pass. I just showed my Hindustan Times identity card. I presume the word 'Hindustan' did the trick.
The next few days were spent in exhausting discussions on politics in parks and in the Mughal Gardens. The calm instilled in me by Delhi was wearing thin. For the first time I felt like an 'ordinary Kashmiri' and wanted to react like them. Along with several journalists, I went to Kawdara in the Old City where separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was leading a demonstration. This soon morphed into a clash between youngsters and CRPF soldiers who had been camping in a bunker.
I picked up a stone from the debris of a housing cluster burnt by CRPF soldiers in 1990 and hurled it at the soldiers, a few of whom were filming the stone-throwers with mini-cams. Caught, I could have been booked under the Public Safety Act and jailed for two years without a trial. I would have been jobless because no news organisation would have a felon on its rolls. But I threw more stones.
As I was hurling the stones it felt like this was the only legitimate thing to do in that cursed place. And after being restrained by my fellow journalists, disoriented, I walked to Nawab Bazar. In the Old City, where I was born.
Nawab Bazar was as furious that day as it was 20 years ago. Angry youngsters, whom I had seen growing up, were pelting the CRPF bunker with stones. The bunker was built on the spot where a man sold phirni and children would line up for the sighting of the crescent moon announcing Eid.
Twenty years ago, militants were attacking this same bunker with AK-47 rifles. A short distance away from it, the Dogra king's soldiers had shot my great-grandfather dead in 1931. Twenty years ago, when the bunker was being constructed, my father's best friend, a fanatical Congress supporter, prophesied that "your eyelashes will turn grey, but the bunker will still be there". He died last year. His eyebrows had started to grey and all his hair were silver.
Old demons stirred inside me in the 20 days I was holed up in Srinagar. During the nights, I would look out of the window of my room, holding a digital recorder to catch the songs of freedom blaring from mosque loudspeakers and wafting through the quiet air.
Twenty years ago, I had heard and sung the same songs. Today, the bunker in Nawab Bazar has grown bigger and uglier, with all those loops of barbed wire, fences, gaudy paint and slits to show that it hasn't grown tired. But then, neither are the people of the city where I was born and from where I had run away again.