We stop, first at Nowpora. A crowd of boys is gathered. They could be pelting stones at the police vehicles in the distance but it is hard to see things clearly.
Miniature clouds from tear-smoke shelling hang mid-air like monuments of ether. We veer off the highway into a by-lane and wait for some minutes.
A faint moon rises, held above the stilted poplars and electric lines, submerged in the cobalt of the evening light.
The police leave, the boys disperse. The moon follows us for the rest of the night past Pampore, Pulwama, Haal, Pinjora into Shopian.
Faint impressions of Pakistani flags drawn on shop shutters emerge from underneath the erasure attempted with black paint. Go India!… made into Good India. After some point, the flags emerge clearly, seemingly too many to paint over.
Milestones by the roadside are painted green as well, as if to speak to the scale of contestation to geographies and orientations made normative by statist narratives.
Arrows point in the direction of “Lahore”, “Karachi” and “Abbotabad”. The road, I am told, merges with the Mughal Road further ahead – another approach to Poonch and Jammu.
At Pinjora, the road is littered with half-bricks; a mass of rusted concertina wires sprawls the entire breadth of the eight-foot-wide road.
It is usual to find tangles of concertina everywhere in Kashmir, especially around army camps and police stations. It also finds its way into domestic landscapes – enclosures for orchards, homes and kitchen gardens.
In-depth: The pursuit of Kashmir
We arrive in Shopian, home to my maternal family. By the evening, news reports confirm the killing of eight protestors in Budgam and Ganderbal; seven of them — Faizan Dar (15), Abass Jahangir (22), Shabir Ahmad Bhat (22), Nissar Ahmad Mir (25), Akeel Ahmad Wani (22), Amir Ahmad Rathray (20) and Amir Farooq Ganie — killed by being fired on; Adil Farooq Sheikh (19) died of so-called pellet injuries. Election Day is past.
The next morning, my cousin Habeel Iqbal — a lawyer based in Shopian — and I leave early to visit two women at the forefront of protests following the killing of a 22-year-old rebel, Burhan Wani, commander of the Hizbul Mujahidden in July last year. The women, a 23-year-old engineering student and her cousin, a 26-year-old teacher, ask me not to use their names.
“Gun kateh chu? / Where is the gun?” The mother of one of the girls is looking for a spray gun as we enter. Apple trees are to be sprayed with insecticide this time of the year. My mother says the bitter scent of the leaves of the walnut tree embodies to her, her childhood in Shopian. Now, there are few walnut trees in “Apple Town”.
– "It just happened yesterday. Eight people are dead. This is not insignificant. My family was talking of my marriage yesterday night. 'What are we doing?' I said to them. In these circumstances, even routine things are different. We have cancelled the tent… it should be as simple as it can be… how do I start?
[I ask her about the protests] "Yes, I remember, it was the third day of Eid… I was ironing upstairs. We keep the iron and the television at the same place. My brother came in, he told me to turn on the television.
“'Burhan has been killed'… I did not register it…'Burhan has been killed', he said again.
"I must have sat at the same place for an hour with the iron in my hand. The cycle of protest, which is still ongoing, started after that. In the first three days, 35 people were killed."
–"That was the first number we heard – 35.
I told one police officer that it is you who lecture us on the merits of peaceful protests but they started shelling tear-gas at us.
– "There was a day in a week marked on the calendar issued by the Hurriyat for women to protest. We prepared in advance… the first thing we did was to make flags. We made them from our clothes, whosoever had anything green, we took it; we made crescents and stars. I have a young niece, when I would give her a star she would say... 'Make a full Pakistan!'
"We made a lot of this samaan, shopkeepers wouldn’t sell spray paint to boys… even with women they would ask what we needed it for… later the military came to this area looking for flags and banners… we hid them well…[laughs]."
–"On the day of the first protest, we left following the afternoon prayers for our grandparents house… there were eight or 10 of us. From there we carried the flags and gathered by the masjid. Slowly, more women came in. There must have been 1,000 women sloganeering that afternoon. Go India, Go Back! Kashmir Banega Pakistan! / Kashmir will be Pakistan! – which it will be… these were our slogans.
"The atmosphere is hard to describe. I cannot say what it was that gripped people. Announcements were made in mosques for men to be at the peripheries of the protest. The police picked up the boys who were protesting with us from their houses the same night."
“We must come out for the cause, men and women, at the same time. Otherwise we keep getting martyred, one by one, dying a slow death.”
–"As women, we have limitations, there is fear. Being a woman means knowing that condition of vulnerability all the time. It is not possible to go beyond that.
"There was a case in 2006 I think… in our district… there was a crackdown in which all the men of a village were taken outside their homes… a mother and child were in a house… the military raped them both. It is not that women are afraid to die. No one is.
In 2009, during the agitation following the rape and murder of Asiya and Neelofar by the forces… we protested… it was like that in 2016 as well… we didn’t think about being fired upon. Women went with fire in their kangers [traditionally made earthen pot used to keep warm in winter] even though it was summer, with chillies in the pockets of their pherans [long tunics worn by both women and men]…"
–"We did not go out of compulsion, neither can one say we went out of frustration. We went because we don’t want to be plunged into an abyss from our suffering. Now when we see there are still a few people voting in these elections, we think it is they, not those hit by pellets, who must be blind."
Sabeeta Ganaie is a resident of Memendar, Shopian. Her father, Tariq Ahmad Ganaie, has been in jail under provisions of the Public Safety Act (PSA) on and off, since the 1990s. He was arrested most recently at the beginning of the 2016 summer uprising.
Under the PSA, the due process required before a person can be jailed or arrested is severely curtailed. A person may be detained without trial for a period of three or six months, which may later be extended to up to two years. Often, persons of interest are named in multiple First Information Reports [FIR], effectively keeping them “out of circulation” for decades.
–“Starting from when I was born, I am accustomed to this… yesterday it was someone else’s fate, today it could be mine. This is the norm here. A student was martyred yesterday… he was in seventh class.
"I recently passed my 12th standard exams… I am 17 years old. If I remember anything, it is these unspeakable cruelties. I have seen a lot… I don’t know my father much because he was never able to be at home. He has not been involved in pelting stones, he is a political prisoner… yes we want freedom… we are pro-freedom but we believe in non-violence. My father was first affiliated with the Hurriyat in the 1990’s, now he is the Area Head of the Muslim League. We are fighting for the cause of history.”
"When we see there are still a few people voting in these elections, we think it is they, not those hit by pellets, who must be blind."
–“They [the police] know my father is not here, yet they come in the dead of the night. There are three of us in the house — my mother, my 10-year-old brother and I… my elder brother is not here… they knock at one in the night, they smash our windows and dent our trunks with their guns. I tell them, 'You are also Kashmiris… don’t you see what is happening here?'
–“This year I took my 12th class exams. I want to attend Jawaharlal Nehru University or Aligarh Muslim University but I wasn’t able to study as much as I wanted to. I wasn’t able to concentrate. More than anything else I regret how my father’s arrest has affected my education… the education of my siblings… my father says he hasn’t come away with much in life but he wants his children to be educated well. During my exams I wasn’t allowed to stay at home, my mother feared for my safety… I stayed with one relative for a month, then with another. Even if I were to stay at home… the police destroyed all the electricity transformers in the area, what would I read in the dark?”
–“It is difficult to not have your father around. You receive a lot of sympathy, sympathy that I don’t want. Nobody comes forward with anything else. I cannot share what I am going through with anyone… keeping it inside makes me unwell… my father was not here for Eid [starts to cry]. We had Eid without him. Where else does this happen?”
The next morning, we travel from Shopian town to Sedow, a picturesque village en route to the Aharbal waterfall. We are here to meet 14-year-old Inshah Mushtaq — whose face became symbolic of the mass blinding of Kashmiri youth from the use of bird-shot by the Indian military following the uprising last June. A transformer outside the house, perched on four bare deodars — a makeshift trellis — is buried in sandbags. I am told this is to protect it from army firing. Darkness, like blindness, is a collective punishment too.
We find Inshah’s mother, Afroza, sitting by the stairs to her house.
–“There are many who have come here since my daughter lost her eyes. The doctors grafted the wound in her head at the All India Institute of Medical Science… we spent the winter there… Dr. Natrajan operated one of her eyes in Mumbai but her eyesight has not revived. We have been told the other eye is beyond repair. I have narrated the events to many.”
–“Inshah is not here. She has gone to Srinagar for treatment… her aunt is accompanying her. Her teeth [she points to her own front teeth] were broken when the pellets hit her. Parents want their children to be independent at a point, to walk without the support of their parents… even those closest to you may not do this.”
–“Shaheed Asiya, Shaheed Neelofer – In donoon ne azeem shahaadat paye / Martyr Asiya, Martyr Neelofer – Both have attainted the highest martyrdom”, reads the epitaph of the grave of Asiya Jan (17) and Neelofer Jan (22), sisters-in-law who died on the 29th of May, 2009.
She says she is an ordinary housewife, a mother to four children. When she was younger, her father encouraged her to speak at congregations of the Jama’at-i-Islami, of which he was a member, but she hasn’t addressed a gathering in a while. She asks for her name to not be published.
“Though my family is affiliated with the Jama’at-e-Islami, I don’t want Pakistan. What have they been able to do for themselves? I want independence for Kashmir."
–“… When in the Battle of Badr, men were being martyred, women said to themselves, 'Why are we not martyrs?'… 'Why can’t we seek the heavens?' The women came to see the Prophet Mohammad, May Peace Be Upon Him, and said to him, 'Men have the opportunity to be martyred in battle, but we women don’t go to battle, are we sinning in our inaction?'… The Prophet told them that they may attain martyrdom from their home too… carrying on the day-to-day struggles of domestic life is in itself valuable though this not the same as putting one’s body on the line... that is the highest martyrdom. As Muslims, we are not allowed to spend our lives as victims…we must raise our voice against zulm… when Indian forces enter our houses and beat our men, how can any self-respecting woman be silent? The oppression is such… a young girl from Sedow has lost both her eyes…what greater sacrifice can there be?”
–“Yeth kyaha che waen wanaan/What is it called now?” asks my aunt, a native of the area, to which my cousin retorts, “Janoobi Kashmir/ South Kashmir”.
My aunts have come to see me. We have lunch together. Afterwards, I go to meet a young woman whom I have been told is someone I must meet. She says she is happy to talk but asks not be named. 27, she has recently completed her MPhil.
–“That I will be in a protest here is a given. When the event with Burhan saeb happened… the next day I heard a woman call out 'Nara-e-Takbeer!/Allah is the Greatest!' in the streets… I went out. From two, we were 2,000 women. I covered my face up to here [pointing to her eyes] and entered the nearest mosque. I told the men in the mosque that I needed to make an announcement there. I went in, switched on the loudspeaker and said, 'An appeal is made to all women to come out and protest'. Five or six women came out.”
"I am 17 years old. If I remember anything, it is these unspeakable cruelties. I have seen a lot."
–“The night before, the police had broken doors and windows of the houses in the neighbouring locality. They caused a lot of damage. One woman… the police had torn her pheran. They were looking for a boy… a stone thrower… who was leading protests in the area. People didn’t give him up so the police beat them. A woman was hurt… police personnel slapped her five or six times. She received multiple stitches in her leg.”
–“I also made announcements in the mosque at the Main Chowk. In some time a sea of women gathered. We told the police, this is a peaceful protest. They wouldn’t allow us to move further than the Chowk. I told one it is you who lecture us on the merits of peaceful protests but they started shelling tear-gas at us. During the shelling, the women dispersed… some left behind their veils… others their purses… still others their footwear…”
–“Later, I gave a bag full of stones to boys from our neighbourhood. I must have emptied a whole truck of construction materials this way [laughs]… I picked up one for myself and hurled it at the police. A large group of women-police came hurtling towards me. God! how they beat me but I too must have gotten a few punches on them [laughs]. I was bed ridden for the next 40 days. My leg was broken. Even then, though my parents would bolt the door from outside, I would clamber out of the window to join the protest, supporting my limp leg with my hand…”
–"The police have destroyed the windowpanes of our house several times. My family understands this is because of me. The entire neighbourhood says this girl is out of the control, that her family has let her be this way. They call me names. They cannot understand… thankfully I am engaged already… [laughs] if I am called to the police station, it is considered shameful. It is not so for boys. For the sake of my sanity, I don’t tell my parents anymore. Sometimes, they don’t know what I am up to. When a militant from the neighbourhood was martyred, I was at his funeral… my parents kept calling my phone but I wouldn’t take their calls.”
"When Indian forces enter our houses and beat our men, how can any self-respecting woman be silent"
–“I don’t have the patience to bear zulm… especially from military men. I swear by God, if I had the support of my family… I feel for the cause so deeply… if there were a place for ladies militants, I would be the first to join them. I want to attain martyrdom. Unfortunately, there is no tehreek of women. A lot of women… my friends in university feel this way too. As far as my point of view is concerned, I believe women can attain martyrdom through struggle but because of society… society is something… we are behind in the attaining our freedom.”
–“Though my family is affiliated with the Jama’at-i-Islami, I don’t want Pakistan. What have they been able to do for themselves? I want independence for Kashmir… I believe we can survive that way. It may be difficult in the beginning but our future generations will be safe. We must come out for the cause, men and women, at the same time. Otherwise we keep getting martyred, one by one, dying a slow death.”
I head back to Srinagar. Narrow rivulets inch their way through a vast field of stony soil, which is the Ramb-e-aar. Into this Asiya and Neelofar were purported to have drowned in narratives of officialdom.
At Pulwama, a large group of students is gathered outside the Degree College. They scatter at the Rakshak's siren. Cars pick up pace. Later, a video emerges of a student, reportedly of the same college, held under jackboots by military personnel while being beaten, apparently shot from the edge of a military jeep.
Two days later, students – boys and girls – from colleges and universities all over Kashmir are out on the streets in protest. Unafraid of being bloodied, they are seething. Iqra Sidiq, a protesting girl student, suffers a fracture to her skull from a stone thrown from a paramilitary bunker. Dozens others are injured. Schools have to be shut. In a protest streamed live on social media, students from Women’s College, Maulana Azad Road are chanting…
– “Yeh cheez nahi hai, Azadi!
Hai haq hamara, Azadi!
Hum le kar rehenge, Azadi!
Bharat se lenge, Azadi!
Hum lad kar lenge, Azadi!
Hum gun se lenge, Azadi!
Inshallah lenge, Azadi!
Burhan ke sadke…”
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