The Kashmir valley is wrenched by a terrible hopeless sorrow. It is wearied by 19 unrelenting years of fear, bloodshed and helpless rage. “We are children of conflict more than anything else,” a Kashmir University student tells me. “The conflict defines who we are. It is all that we have witnessed throughout our lives.”
Another student adds: “Our earliest childhood memories are of violence, of gunshots, firings, grenades, land-mines, crackdowns, raids and searches. Death has become normal for us.”
I met a large number of young people: university students and school drop-outs; youngsters from elite city enclaves, slums and the countryside; carpet-weavers, domestic workers, vegetable sellers and farmers
Above all, I was struck by how universal their despair was. I couldn’t find one resident who was not directly touched in one way or the other by a two-decade cycle of violence. I held these dialogues as an invited member of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian Administered Kashmir, convened by Parvez Imroz and Angana Chatterji with young activists like Khurram Parvez. The convenors themselves have been under official attack.
The overwhelming memory of growing up in Kashmir — which every young person talked of — is of fear. Faiyaz, a 25-year-old shawl-weaver elaborates: “We always carry fear in our hearts. Fear that firing will break out, fear that grenades will be thrown; fear that the army will catch up with you and ask for ID cards, ask where you’re from, claiming that you are not a Kashmiri but a militant from outside, that you are giving shelter and food to militants.”
“I am still frightened of leaving my home after six,” confirms one student. “But I am also frightened about what will happen inside my home.” Every home is lined with thick curtains to ensure that not a sliver of light escapes after dark, as it may attract security personnel to their homes.
Another fear is to be on the streets without an ID card. Armed security-men are stationed every few hundred metres ready to ask for proof of identity, often frisking people for weapons. It’s worse if you have a beard. If you cannot show your ID card, you are arrested. And even if you do, they may keep it for ‘further investigation’.
Each day one has to wait for hours outside the army camp, begging for the return of ID card. Sajjad, a young village tailor, is often thrashed even after showing his ID card. Aijaz, a school drop-out who weaves pashmina shawls, says, “We were never allowed to travel far or to play after dark. All our mothers wanted was to see us before their eyes.” It was a cramped and cloistered childhood.
The dread is also of being caught in a crossfire. A young man tells me of how he was walking home from college with his friends, when they were suddenly dragged by soldiers who were ambushing militants holed up in a house. The soldiers used him and his friends as human shields, forcing them to walk ahead as they showered bullets at the house. The militants finally surrendered and were shot dead. If they had not so chosen to hold their fire, the ‘human shields’ would have fallen instead.
An English word that every single Kashmiri knows and dreads is ‘crackdown’. It has a specific meaning for the people of the valley. A crackdown begins with a terrifying knock on every door of a village or urban settlement at dawn. What follows is a rough peremptory command by a menacing contingent of uniformed soldiers to all men, women and children to gather immediately in an open space. The women and men, often still half-asleep, are separated.
Then the young men are formed into groups, and each youth is identified by informers and interrogated, to confirm if any of them are ‘outsiders’. If they are, they are presumed to be militants. No one is permitted to go out during a crackdown.
Hours pass — often without water and food — as homes are searched. Sometimes the terrified women and girls are returned home. Crackdowns were sometimes repeated every week, or even more often.
They continue even today.It’s worse if you are picked up in one of these crackdowns. Aijaz told me how his father was arrested by security forces many times, charged falsely each time as being a member of a militant group. He used to be returned battered but not broken; a case could never be built against him. So Aijaz gave up his dreams of becoming a doctor and joined his mother in carpet-weaving.
As a teenager, Faiyaz was picked up once and driven to an army interrogation centre. For an hour, he sat outside the chamber, his hands tied behind his back, listening to screams of men inside who were being tortured. “I almost died hearing those screams, thinking that it was my turn next. That one hour was more than qayamat (the Day of Judgement) for me.”
Fortunately, he was let off with just a few slaps. He wryly quoted an Urdu poem to the effect that in the times they lived in, qayamat came not once, but every day.