"The conditions here are exactly like those of 1990," Guddi, my wife's childhood friend tells her over the phone from down town Srinagar.
"We have not been able to sleep for last two days as the loudspeakers from nearby mosques have been continuously blaring out Azadi slogans during the nights. We are worried as our daughter is scheduled to appear for a medical entrance test next week."
As I write this, tears swell up in my eyes. It happens every time I recall those dark and dreadful Kashmir days in the winter of 1989-90. For most of my generation, the memories of those days remain an inalienable part of our psyche. Many of us still have nightmares thinking about the thin line that divided a gruesome death and our escape to safety.
I don't have any relations left in Kashmir. I don't have many friends living there either. Twenty seven years of exile have buried relations with my erstwhile neighbours under the debris of distrust, suspicion and apprehensions. We have lost all contact with them.
They didn't bother to enquire about my welfare then. I don't care for them now. But there are a few people in Kashmir, though a handful, for whom I worry. We may now be on the opposite sides of a social and political divide, but we have taught ourselves to respect our individual beliefs.
Their safety and welfare is a matter of concern for me and the concern is mutual.
"Did you call Baijaan?" My wife asks me over a cup of morning tea as the TV beams sad images of a terror attack in Nice.
Baijaan is an old friend who lives in a relatively safe area of Srinagar city isolated from the tribulations, but in the times like these, the comfort of a secure neighbourhood is hardly a guarantee against any mishap. Nobody knows that better than me.
"We have locked the main gate from inside and haven't ventured out for many days now," Baijaan tells me, "our only contact with the outside world is through mobiles and landlines." We exchange pleasantries, enquire about each other's welfare and are about to hang up when an involuntary question slips out.
"What is the general feeling among the people these days?"
"It is a replica of 1990. India is at its brutal best and people are ready to die." I can only muster a "Hmm".
"India is committing grave atrocities on the innocent people of Kashmir," he continues. "There is a definite plan to wipe out an entire generation of young people; that is why they are targeting only the 15 to 25 age groups boys."
There is an old Kashmiri saying which, if literally translated, means: "One must slit his brain when confronting absurd arguments."
I don't interrupt him; he continues, "These boys are determined to make it a final battle of consequence and are systematically removing all impediments in their objectives. That is the reason why a sudden spurt in attacks on the local policemen and their families. Just think even Burhan's maternal uncle was not spared."
I have seen the news reports about the torching of the house where Burhan was killed along with his associates. The house belonged to his maternal uncle and the locals suspect that he directed the security forces to the hideout. Not only that, his orchard was also torched, reportedly by a mob of around 500 people.
"But, why should they have done such a thing with Burhan's uncle?" I ask him, feigning ignorance.
"He is a Mukhbir."
It has been hours since I spoke to Baijaan, but I have lost the jest for indulging in my routine affairs scheduled for today. It is not too hot outside and the sky is overcast with dark clouds, but I feel like somebody has scratched a long, festering wound deep inside my heart.
"He is a Mukhbir" continuously ricochets in my thoughts and comes back to haunt me. I am painfully reminded of how the term "Mukhbir" (Informer) was used by religious fanatics as an instrument of delivering judgment on more than a thousand harmless innocent Kashmiri Pandits before being inflicted with inhuman torture and death in 1989-90. I am also reminded about my own providential escapes twice after being branded a Mukhbir.
Rainawari, the place where I lived in Srinagar, is a large suburb situated off the Lal Chowk - Hazratbal - Sonamarg Road. Once you enter the suburb from the highway, you are lost to the city outside. My house was on a key road. We had a phone connection, a rarity those days.
During the initial period of militancy, the patrolling vehicles of security forces would skip the narrow inside lanes of the suburb and restrict themselves to the main highway. Everybody was happy till one day, a BSF vehicle entered the locality.
The next day, a large violent group of young men armed with sticks and petrol cans led by Majeed, my next-door neighbour, assembled outside our house to set it on fire, eager to lynch me. A sudden burst of confidence coupled with presence of mind and a bit of good luck saved our family that day.
My fault? Since we had a phone in the house, somebody ordained I was a "Mukhbir" who had called the security forces to enter the locality.
A couple of weeks later, a fierce exchange of fire took place between the security forces and the militants in front of my house, while I was visiting a friend just five hundred yards away. The encounter lasted more than an hour and hundreds of petrol bombs, stones and bullets were exchanged.
The narrow labyrinthine lanes of our locality offered a perfect cover to the attackers; thus there was no casualty. Later, when peace descended on the street, I decided to make a dash for my home. It must not have taken me more than three minutes to cover the distance on the deserted road.
I found the road looking like a war-ravaged zone, with the windows of homes, facing the street, firmly bolted from inside. Not a single soul was visible. Early next morning, we received a knock on our door and a kind neighbour suggested I better take care of myself as the local mosque had declared me a "Mukhbir".
Somebody had seen me rushing to my home. They were certain only a "Mukhbir" could dare to come out into the street immediately after such a fierce encounter.
Is there any truth in somebody being a "Mukhbir"? One can't assume the fallacy of the allegation, but no sane person would believe the figures projected by gun-toting terrorists as justification for murders and loot. It is usually a command by a person dictated by prejudice, not sound logic.
It exactly fits the description given by acclaimed American journalist HL Mencken: "Demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to the men he knows to be idiots."