In the Killing Fields of Kashmir (aka Paradise on Earth)

The scene at the Srinagar airport was as fraught as it was baffling outside. The Kashmir policemen lolled in the chairs, one stood up lazily as the passengers filed in, with a careless point of the baton he instructed anyone a shade lighter to go to the immigration desk. For a good fifteen minutes I tried to establish my Kashmiri-hood (or –ness, or –yet), although my dress and face did not hint otherwise. My spoken Kashmiri meant nothing to the person behind the desk handing me a pen to fill the form, “no big deal, you must have learnt it, America is always sending spies here”. Finally he let me go. He was as weary of doing his work, as I was of his unusual zealousness. I wormed my way out of the passenger flurry. The reception area was almost empty.

The driver of the taxi-cab gave a muffled overview of the events over the last month, clicking his tongue ever too often, his weather-beaten face puckered, shoulders drooping; he chewed forcefully at the cigarette end. Leaving the heavily barricaded and military ridden ramparts of the airport, the city began zipping past, the taxi-cab was too fast for the road but then there was zero traffic. Piles of garbage lay strewn, licked by an occasional cow, a hungry dog rummaged, around what is usually a relatively clean part of the city. Since visitors enter Kashmir along this way, the administration walks an extra mile to keep it looking good or too good, for a place that has been war-torn since 2 decades. Everywhere you looked around in the valley unsightly military installations, haphazard concrete contraptions in other words known as new buildings, dilapidated roads, unending smoky traffic jams, and countless razed structures rammed into the hearts of its denizens.

Driving through the city of Lal Chowk, called the heart of Kashmir, everything was eerily quiet. Globs of trash, stones, garbage bags, and a forlorn shoe stuck to the sidewalk. A few boys lingered near the lamp post, behind them a bigger group noisily advanced from the alley, their fists, flailing above. The Indian troops patrolled on, their AK-47’s gleaming. The embattled bunker oozed into the road, a bottleneck that doubled as a checkpoint, nozzles of guns peered out through tiny slits, trained. A blue-grey armored vehicle stood on alert with a soldier atop, machine gun ready. Sensing danger, the driver sped up, leaving behind the growing noise of slogans. Looking back a safe distance away, the crowd had spilled into the main road, the troopers running towards them and photojournalists descending from the sides. A few minutes later gunshots rang through air.

Such scenes repeated over and over throughout my stay and continue as of writing this. In June this year, a fresh uprising began after the killing of a young boy, Tufail Mattoo, in down town Srinagar by the Indian police. It is widely believed that the boy was innocent and not part of protest against the extra-judicial killings by the Indian army in Machil, a border village, which the troops were trying to quell when a tear gas shell fatally hit Tufail. The new cycle of protest resulted in the Indian army unleashing brutal force, flag marches and curfews. There are shortages of food and medicine; schools, offices, and businesses are closed.

Although Kashmiri struggle for self-determination today is marked by political protest and peaceful forms of resistance with militancy relegated to fringes, the policies of Indian state remain unchanged. Civil unrest is no doubt peppered with incidents of stone pelting and rioting (which have since abated); however, the harshness of crowd control methods used by the Indian army surpasses the stones thrown by the crowd. So far over 105 have been killed and over 2000 injured.

Since 1947, the Indian controlled part of Kashmir has had a strong military presence which increased during counter insurgency. The laws implemented resulted in summary executions, custodial killings, torture, detention, and disappearances. The death toll to date amounts to somewhere above 70,000.1 According to the Asian Human Rights Commission there might be between 8,000 to 10,000 cases of politically-motivated disappearances especially including non-combatant Kashmiris.

In the past 20 years, Kashmiris who survive today have negotiated their daily lives with tactful brilliance in trying to sidestep the wrath of Indian troops which fell on militants and civilians alike. A little failure even as little as forgetting an identity card at home, meant a beating if you were lucky, or incarceration, even death during routine frisking at countless checkpoints which the people have to pass through to and fro from work. Today they are visibly defiant; despite the curfews, cordons, arrests and killings, they spurt forth into the streets, protesting, and pelting stones. At times they do not hesitate from getting into verbal altercations with the troops. Most visible and public spaces are scrawled with “GO INDIA GO BACK” and slogans like “QUIT KASHMIR”, “WE WANT FREEDOM” reverberate in the air and from the loudspeakers in Masjids, leaving little to imagination.

“What will they do, kill, let them, I do not care, so many have died, what is one more death” said a young demonstrator who is getting his Diploma in computers with a faraway look in his eyes. This was a refrain that I heard so many times. A young girl about 21, who is an activist with a human rights organization and a well known demonstrator in her area, as is her mother and her 14 year old brother, quips “What difference does it make” when posed the scenario of her falling to bullets, “we are like living dead, no honor, no future, just military holding the gun down our throats, this is not a life”.

The lock-down under curfew, extreme military brutality and autocratic retaliation by the administration, funerals and violent tirades was a litany that permeated the muggy summer air. When not sitting huddled poring over newspapers which are often censored, to mark the events, counting the dead or injured, halfheartedly flicking through TV channels knowing how well India gags the media, one would keep pricking ones ears to any and every sound outside. The voices coming from the loudspeaker in the Masjids, shouting for freedom and justice, and then the bullets, and soon you see ardent faces of young boys running away from the Indian troops, hiding in the alleys, rocks in hand, their passion bubbling along with the blood they soaked with their sleeves. Some, who are arrested, beaten to pulp; their mothers beating their chests, run after the gypsy that whisks them away. A crowd of women stage a protest in front of the bunker, demanding their release. They plead, lament; stand what seems like forever in the blazing sun, directing their slogans to the well armed soldiers ensconced in the bunker whose finger stand alert on the trigger. As if the macrocosm of India, the women direct their hatred towards the bunker and its human contents, “Hindusatan hay, hay” (Indian, shame, shame), “Hindustan Murdabad” (India die forever), they chant. They get no information about the boys; a group of elders which had made rounds of the police stations nearby return, brow-beaten and empty handed. The neighborhood is abuzz with rumors, but nothing comes to light.

A few hours later the men in the Masjid shout they have been beaten by the troops and ask for help; they want men as well as women to come out on streets. A little later a brave neighborhood contingent gathers in the alley and they begin a hurried march. “Aye zalimo aye jabiro Kashmir hamara chod do” (O cruel tyrants leave our Kashmir). First the women and men walk separately a little distance away they merge as soon as they spot a contingent of soldiers and state police. A little while later the cries, shouts, and swearing fill the air. Tear gas begins to bite the eyes. People close their doors and windows, the crowd runs helter-skelter, the injured are dragged in. Someone is crying, while a soft motherly voice offers thanks for “no one is fatally injured”. But the gratitude does not last too long, as the day ends reports pour of deaths and injuries elsewhere in the valley. Sighs, silence and then some swearing, meaninglessly hangs around the dinner.

By late night the loudspeaker in the Masjids are blaring again. It seems like no one will sleep. The grapevine is abuzz that a big demonstration is in the offing tomorrow. The milkman knocks at the neighbor’s door. Everyone hushes each other, ears pricked, ‘it’s the army”. Well, there you have the midnight knock syndrome, an informal diagnosis of the phobia of nocturnal sounds, that may or may not be an army raid or crackdowns that Kashmiris have been subjected to for so many years. It’s just the milk-man, making a rare delivery. There would be fresh milk after a long time, but the situation would remain as stale as ever.

The cycle of deaths and injuries continues. It seems every alley and nook however big or small is spurting forth with anger. Youth, old men and women alike are hell-bent in doing their bit to tell India that they have had enough, and this time sans guns on a ground that is higher than the nation which they resist, stands on.

  1. Dead But Not Forgotten – Survey of Death Toll in District Baramulla 1989-2006, A Special Report, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), Kashmir affairs. []

Ather Zia is a Kashmiri journalist, currently pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology at UC Irvine. She is the Editor of Kashmir Lit, and she can be reached at: editor@kashmirlit.org. Read other articles by Ather.

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  1. John Andrews said on October 1st, 2010 at 3:46am #

    Interesting piece Ather. Thanks.

    Kashmir is a place we hardly ever hear about on our non-news – that Pilger so accurately describes as cartoon-like. I wonder how many other Kashmirs there are around the world we don’t get to hear about.