One evening, in the autumn of 1989, while returning home from school in Karan Nagar, Srinagar, I stopped by Bashir’s hardware store some 20 paces before Safa Kadal, the seventh and oldest bridge over the Jhelum. Bashir had supplied all the hardware for the renovation of our house. My parents and grandparents hoped to live somewhat in style in the coming years. For years, my father collected artwork to decorate the house.
But a foreboding that the political and law and order situation was going to take a terrible turn kept us in a state of dilemma.
What should we do, in case…? we wondered.
"If you ever find yourself in trouble, just take my name," Bashir had said to me earlier. Besides being a storekeeper, he was also my father’s student. He was grateful to my father for the tuitions. But studies didn’t interest Bashir. "Studies are useless," he would joke. "Real education lies in political struggle for our people."
Bashir claimed to have been appointed the area commander of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). "This part of Downtown Srinagar," he said, "is under my command." But Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) lured the youth more than JKLF – it had risen to be the most feared of the insurgent outfits, given its links with the Jamaat-e-Islami that professed Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan.
JKLF founder Amanullah Khan (centre) with Abdul Majeed Dar (second from right). [Credit: Natureblogger342/Wikimedia Commons]
Activists of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) shout slogans during a procession in Srinagar on April 18, 2015 [Credit: AP photo]
Bashir, however, dreamt of Azadi. "My heart bleeds for Pakistan, but I shall live and die in Azad Jammu and Kashmir," he would say.
That evening, I confided in Bashir about a troublesome incident involving some miscreants near my school. I didn’t tell him the reason for being singled out. On the previous day, in school, I had blurted out about being in possession of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. My uncle had got the book for us from Melbourne. Little did I know that my foolhardy disclosure would put me in harm’s way. Some classmates leaked the news to outsiders and I found myself surrounded by people who threatened to punish me for the sacrilegious act.
"Do you want me to show it to you?" one man said to me, lifting the hem of his pheran and pointing to the nozzle of a gun. Putting his hand in the pocket of his pheran, his partner, who, people said, was his younger brother and a "HM boy", fished out a pistol. I told the two fellows about Bashir and I was let off with a warning. "Don’t ever spread such lies. And don’t brag about the blasphemous book. You know the punishment for speaking against our Prophet?" they warned.
Bashir laughed and said I had committed a blunder by lying. "These Hizbul boys are dangerous," he said, "But they would not hurt you as long as your big brother is around. Good you told them about me."
Luckily, no one believed my truth about The Satanic Verses.
Later, Bashir came home to inspect the progress of the renovation of our house. The following afternoon, I stopped by at his shop again. He spoke of his ambition. "I am going to be made the Regional Commander soon," he said, elatedly. "And, Inshallah, if I do well, I will become the Divisional Commander of JKLF some day." Heroism, idealism, utter contempt for school education, loyalty for his teacher, and fondness for his teacher’s son characterized Bashir.
Bashir had said that we would have to leave Kashmir soon.
"But until that time, no harm will come to Sir and you."
He laid out an ambitious vision for Kashmir. "It is going to be a long struggle for Azadi. It could take years, maybe decades."
"What if it doesn’t happen?" I asked, knowing fully well that most people were made to believe Azadi was around the corner. Belief gave people hope. The propagandist broadcasts from Pakistan were encouraging. "We will sip kehva in Shalimar Garden in Azad Kashmir in March," blared the voices on radio and TV.
Euphoria prevailed in Muslim households.
Inside Pandit households, men, women and children battled fear and trembling.
"Azadi is a matter of days, you will see," some of my Muslim schoolmates said.
But Bashir thought otherwise.
That day when I asked him what if Azadi didn’t happen in his lifetime, he spoke of a second wave. "Amanullah Khan has spelled it out in his vision," said Bashir emphatically. "The second wave will be more determined and primed for action than the present one because it will fight a battle on the soil smeared with the blood of their elders."
It’s been 29 years since and Bashir’s prediction has come true. The second wave is here. It seems more menacing than the first. The first had battled an ill-equipped military force. But the second is up in arms against the best of the forces.
Kashmir is witnessing a 90s redux minus the Azadi-seeking JKLF that stands disbanded and defunct now. The dreaded Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba that have successfully altered the meaning of "Islamic Jihad" form the core of the second wave in Kashmir. If at all the second wave is contained, or even eliminated in the years to come, what assurance do we have that a third wave, which perhaps will inflict damage at a catastrophic level, won’t rise? Indoctrinated by ISIS ideology, the present-day Jaish or Lashkar militant operating in Kashmir is willing to tackle the forces, spread havoc, put people’s lives at grave risk, take a bullet and die for the sake of a lost cause — Pakistan or Islamic State or Jihad.
Suspected militants brandish guns and shout slogans during the funeral of a slain comrade killed in a shoot-out with the police, in Kulgam, south Kashmir. (Credit: PTI File Photo)
In recent times, Jaish and Lashkar militants have killed hundreds of security forces and civilians including journalists, politicians and bureaucrats. Hundreds of commoners have committed suicide for unknown reasons. Several thousands are suffering from mental disorders. People continue to get killed during encounters, combing operations and crackdowns. Children are the worst affected. People living in the border areas of Jammu fear for their lives on account of shelling by Pakistani forces. Infiltration remains unabated.
A man looks at the wall of his house that locals say was damaged by firing from the Pakistan side of the border at Kanachak, Akhnoor Sector, Jammu. [Credit: Reuters file photo]
The Dogras of Jammu and the Muslims and Buddhists living in Ladakh are disenchanted — no one is concerned about them. The Gujjars and Bakarwals don’t even care what the fuss is all about for they are better-off migrating from one mountain range to another.
No one's looking at you, kid — Young monks in Ladakh. [Credit: Reuters file photo]
Kashmir, for the present-day militants, is an unfinished business worth fighting and dying for. For the security forces, Kashmir is just a posting to guard the "crown". For the ordinary folk who wake up in the morning and leave their homes to earn a living, not even bothering if it’s safe to go out or not, Kashmir is just another hopeless day. For those who’re unable to make ends meet, Kashmir is a lacerating wait for a better tomorrow. For those who can’t return to their long-lost homes even after a quarter of a century, Kashmir is a memory or a photograph. For the political parties, Kashmir is a scramble for power.
"Kashmir is a blank cheque in my pocket," Jinnah had boasted. Clearly, the people living in Kashmir are a dispensable lot. But the exiled Hindus of Kashmir, the Dogras of Jammu and the Buddhists of Ladakh are the real trump card in the hands of crafty politicians and arbiters.
The Joker, as they say, in rummy — when it comes to any talks with those advocating separatism, the Joker will be dealt.
There are vested interests in India, Pakistan and elsewhere that don’t want a solution because keeping the problem alive has, over the years, been incredibly profitable. A burning Kashmir generates a lot of academic funding in India and abroad. It keeps getting people to power. It keeps the security apparatus well-oiled. It keeps the coffers of zealots full.
What will the let-Kashmir-burn people do when the fire is doused?
How will they derive sustenance?
Kashmir is not the Indian state’s biggest problem — it never was and, possibly, never will be. It’s not even a problem for Indians whose only view into Kashmir is through endless debates on primetime TV in which Kashmir has been reduced to a mere refrain.
The conflict has cost common Kashmiris a way of life and rendered them bereft of hope. Over the years, more people have died in streets, in hospitals and in migrant camps than inside their homes. Nothing is known about thousands. Society stands divided on religious, sectarian and political lines. Suspicion, mistrust and betrayals have created partitions within society and human relationships have lost their meaning. No one knows who’s working for or against whom. No one knows what to believe and what not to believe. Daily life itself is paradoxical and full of absurdities and contradictions. To live there is to have your freedom snatched and remain trapped in an intricate web of insurgency, counter-insurgency, espionage and counter-espionage.
Countless Kashmiris whose voices matter aren’t even in the frame. [Credit: Reuters photo]
Is it ever possible that the common people of Jammu and Kashmir come together and work towards reclaiming the lost way of life, notwithstanding their distinct identities, ideologies, perspectives, experiences, compulsions, aspirations, etc.? This, even at the risk of continued violence on the frontier and in the streets of Kashmir? We should even be prepared for a possibility of not ever finding a lasting solution to the conflict and terrorism in Kashmir. The recent history of the state is nothing but an amalgamation of successive socio-political deceptions, distortions and blunders.
If people are able to set up violence-free localities or zones, however small, where they feel empowered to cultivate peace and harmony. If people are given a sense of ownership in matters related to governance. If people are able to safeguard free speech, reconcile ideological divergences, and advocate religious and cultural diversity. If communities can take up vigilance and peace-building. If ordinary masses that have suffered immensely over the past three decades rise against violence and terrorism, and cocoon their community from those seeking its destruction, then the old way of life that stood for harmonious co-existence can be reclaimed.
But such an act should be of the commoners, by the commoners and for the commoners.
Countless people whose voices matter aren’t even in the frame. Nobody knows about them and their dignified struggle for basic, simple things of life. How they have lived. What they have gone through. What they have lost. The spotlight must be put on them. They are the ones who have experienced humanity in its purest form. Despite having lost a lot, they have quietly suffered – and given others hope. The humanity of such people must be placed before the world so that the generations to come will know the cost these people paid to live simple lives. The humanity of these people should not be held hostage to the misadventures of those seeking to curb freedom and the right to live peacefully.
It is this humanity that might restore hope and happiness in the hearts of people, and make Kashmir a peaceful place once again.
It should be salvaged before it is too late to even know that it ever existed.
In January this year, I went to Kashmir for a day and saw our old house undergoing renovation. Several other houses in Safa Kadal were being renovated. "We Downtowners have been rebuilding our lives for years now," quipped an elderly woman who didn’t take even a fraction to recognise me. "This is what we do. It is a perennial process here." She pointed to our old house with tears in her eyes and said, "That house is still yours, and will always be."
The author's old house in Safa Kadal. [Credit: Siddhartha Gigoo]
Swanky hardware stores dotted the road leading to the bridge (Safa Kadal). Bashir was nowhere.
Mir Khalid, author of Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir, a haunting memoir of growing up in Downtown Srinagar, was waiting for me at the bridge. "What has happened to Downtowners?" I asked him upon seeing gloom and disillusionment written upon the faces of people there. "Everything is floundering here," he said, pointing to a row of desolate houses along Yarbal, the embankment along Jhelum. We talked about the irreconcilable paradoxes of human existence in Kashmir. Khalid’s book profiles the old city and its residents with their infallible capacity to rise from the ashes.
Susheel Panju, an old neighbour and friend from Safa Kadal, took me to his home. His family is the lone Kashmiri Pandit family living there. His father, who’s well known for having curated the only two one-day international cricket matches ever held in Kashmir in 1983 and 1986, is battling dementia. The October 1983 match between India and the West Indies is still remembered as the turning point in the history of Kashmir — the political leanings of the Muslims and their hatred for India came to the fore for the first time during that match. Every Muslim in Kashmir cheered for the West Indies, and India’s loss was celebrated for days.
October 13, 1983. India played the West Indies at the Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium. Teams aside, Kashmir lost after this match. [Credit: Greater Kashmir]
Cricket continues to be Susheel’s passion. He runs the Safa Kadal Cricket Club now.
"Dad vacillates between islands of memory these days, but when you talk to him, he might remember some things," said Susheel about his illustrious father. His father’s memory sparkled when he saw me after years. "You must return," he said to me, looking intently into my eyes. History flashed in his grey, misty eyes. It is that human history of living a life in isolation that I wish to examine.
Before bidding goodbye, I expressed the hope of seeing him again next year. "I have something rare and precious to show you," he said enticingly, with a glint in his eyes. "You must return home in spring when everything is bourgeoning."