At the heart of Kashmiri youth's rage lie daily humiliation and bodily scars
[From the 'Introduction']
It was a warm July morning. Sunshine streamed over Srinagar city through a mild haze, but the sun was not as sharp as it sometimes can be in the mountains. Srinagar, the centre (and capital) of the Kashmir Valley, is at about 6,000 feet above sea level. At the centre of a relatively flat and very fertile valley, the city contains more than a million people. The Dal Lake to the east of the city is lined by gorgeously carved houseboats and is flanked on the other side by the picturesque Zabarwan range. It draws sightseers from far and near. That summer too large numbers of tourists were in Srinagar. To most of them, Kashmir seemed like a beautiful, serene place.
I was out that morning with a research assistant and a visiting scholar. We did not focus on the beauties of the place. In my grey Maruti Suzuki Wagon R, we turned off the arterial Maulana Azad Road towards the old city of Srinagar—Downtown, as most residents of the city call it. We drove down Nallemar, the broadest street in Downtown. Nallemar winds along the course of what used to be a canal through the city. It is lined with concrete shops and a few old brick-and-wood houses, some of the latter deserted. On either side are the narrow, bustling lanes of Downtown, densely packed with shops and houses.
Not always bustling, to be sure. For, there could be a clampdown, or a shutdown—curfew or a hartal in the local parlance. Over a couple of decades of driving down Nallemar, daily in certain periods around the turn of the millennium, I had got used to keeping an eye peeled for trouble ahead. One might spot boys hurling stones at passing vehicles, to enforce a hartal. There could be policemen wielding long, thick batons at protesting boys, and at anyone else caught in the melee. There could be tear gas, or bullets from the guns of police or paramilitary forces. In fact, there were periods when one would routinely ask before taking that route: ‘Haalaat chhu theeak?’ (Are conditions okay?).
We turned right at the Rajouri Kadal crossing, then left, away from the Jamia mosque, towards the Islamia College of Science and Commerce. That is the largest college in Downtown Srinagar and I was going there to ask students about their experiences, and their aspirations for their state. For my earlier book, I had spoken to large numbers of those who had led Kashmir’s freedom movement, including the senior-most leaders of the Hurriyat Conference and many who had taken up arms as militants. After the agitations of 2008 and 2010, when stone-pelting crowds of young boys took to the streets with riotous rage, I had realized that interviewing so-called leaders had limited value now. Kashmir had a very large proportion of young people. Substantially more than half the population had been born in a time of violence. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, young Kashmiris had taken up the leadership of their resistance struggle.
So, that July of 2011, we travelled across the length and breadth of the Valley to survey and interact with thousands of young Kashmiris. Most students were very happy to fill our questionnaire. In fact, at the Bemina Degree College to the west of the city, some students who passed the rooms in which other students were filling our questionnaire asked what was going on and requested to be allowed to join. At the women’s college at Nawa Kadal, even deeper in the folds of Downtown than the Islamia College, some students were waiting for me at the gate when I left their college. Thank you, they said, with great fervour. Nonplussed, I asked why they were thanking me. They said it was the first time anyone had asked them what they thought or want. ‘Nobody asks us.’
At Islamia College, on the morning I went there, the atmosphere was raucous. Hundreds of students were packed into the large conference hall with me. As elsewhere, I had asked the teachers not to join us. There did not seem to be any windows and, under the white artificial glow, we might have been on a different planet from the sunlit beauty of the Valley outside. The cavernous hall was full and overflowing. Hundreds of students stood closely packed behind those who sat around the conference table. Some of them spoke loudly, simultaneously. Others raised slogans. Soon, the place was echoing with ringing cries for freedom.
My two companions disappeared, frightened by what appeared to be a riot. One of them was a Kashmiri student from another college. The other was a scholar from the US. Both decided that discretion was the better part of valour, at least for the visitor. The Kashmiri student soon returned, having left our visitor with a group of friendly students who interacted more calmly with him for the rest of the morning.
Their slipping out of that room was not surprising—so high-pitched was the rage that filled it. In fact, some of the college teachers came to rescue me from what sounded like an aggressive mob. I told them I was alright and that they should leave me with the students. I took a microphone and managed to calm them down, then suggested that those that wanted to talk to me should come out into a college garden. Those who wanted, and could find places to sit around the conference table, could fill the questionnaire. Leaving my Kashmiri student assistant in the conference hall with the questionnaires, I went out into the garden. Like a Pied Piper, I was followed by more than a hundred students.
We sat there in a large deep circle, and talked. Rather, they talked, animatedly, and I listened. I remained at Islamia College till late that afternoon. For, later, those most intensely interested in the discussion spoke to me in smaller groups. At that stage, some of the boys showed me torture marks, and told me what they had experienced—their reasons for the riotous rage I had witnessed in that conference hall. A few days earlier, boys at the Baramulla Public School too had shown me torture marks after filling my questionnaire. They were but schoolboys. Their skin looked delicate and soft; those welts and burn marks incongruous and shocking.
Those Baramulla boys were quiet as they took me into an empty classroom to tell me what had happened to them and to show me their scars. Filling the questionnaire at desks in their own classroom earlier, they had looked sedate, properly turned out in their uniforms of white shirts, grey trousers, and striped ties. If they had not spoken to me separately, it would have been difficult to make out what ugly torture they had suffered. Some normally liberal Indians with whom I have shared this experience have reacted with dismissive disbelief, as if I was sharing malign propaganda. I am not. It is what I witnessed. It is important to explore the nuanced truth beneath neat uniforms. Even at Islamia College, it was only when I had listened to the raucous yelling and then to the large numbers who gathered around me in the garden that small knots of young men told me what they had suffered, and showed the scars on their bodies. One has to look way past the placid beauty of the Dal Lake to understand what ordinary people have experienced. The apparently humdrum ‘normality’ of everyday life can be deceptive.
Many students and others expressed deep resentment at being frisked, at being humiliated, sometimes abused, manhandled or molested. Very often, those feelings were seamlessly mixed up with grief. I recalled my shock while chatting with a Kashmiri friend around 2002. He had taken me to his ancestral village a couple of years earlier. There I had met his eldest uncle, who was in his nineties at the time. This uncle was revered as a seer, a spiritually evolved Sufi Pir. He had sat propped up in bed, surrounded by people who had come to seek his blessings. When I asked about him a couple of years later, my friend said his uncle had died the previous winter. He had fallen ill after a midwinter journey. In a matter-of-fact tone, as if it was normal, he explained that, during that journey, his nonagenarian uncle had to walk some distance along with everyone else in his vehicle to be frisked at a security checkpoint. This was routine. Soldiers often did not bend the rule for the aged, the sick, or even for pregnant women; they all had to pass through those checkpoints. That nonagenarian spiritual seer had fallen ill and died after walking through snow in freezing air.