Kashmir diary: In and out of a state under lockdown
We left early, crossing the Kashmiri towns of Sangam and Anantnag — the locals call it Islamabad — to reach Bemdoroo village in South Kashmir, while the air was still cool. This is where Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed on July 8.
Kashmir has been on lockdown ever since. The government has imposed a curfew, the security forces enforce it in the cities and the towns, and the Hurriyat (a group of political entities that advocate independent Kashmir) has called for a shutdown, which the people enforce vigilantly everywhere else. Makeshift roadblocks, manned by gangs of young men, some of them masked, have been put up every few kilometres.
Nobody is allowed to pass, especially if you are from the media. There is a fierce anger here against journalists, especially what in local parlance is called the “Indian media” — the Indian TV news channels. What we say to a newsperson is “distorted” that very evening, they tell us.
The ferocity of the backlash has left even Kashmiri journalists reeling. “It wasn’t like this earlier,” they say. There have been reports of journalists being roughed up and abused, especially those wielding cameras or camera phones inside hospital wards where 50 Kashmiri men have died, or the close-to 4,000 injured are being treated. Even the Hurriyat had to call for calm a few days ago, making an appeal to the people through local newspapers that journalists be allowed to do their work.
At 5:30 in the morning though, the people of Kashmir were still asleep and there was no one on the roads to enforce the shutdown.
Bemdoroo, Burhan and a burnt orchard
I stayed inside the car at Bemdoroo. For my own safety, said my colleague Akmal. He scouted the village and returned minutes later for his camera with Salman, his schoolmate from Srinagar who was also driving us around.
Salman owns a travel agency in Srinagar, two taxis, and a Tempo Traveller. One of his drivers, he said, was at his village. He had the other taxi with him, and no way of coming back.
I remained in the car.
Salman and Akmal returned a half an hour later, saying the house Burhan had been killed in had been burnt down, that angry men from the local villages had looted the homes of the Bemdoroo villagers, that they remained fearful of further backlash. The mob had also burnt down a nearby apple orchard.
A few villagers had guided us to the orchard and more followed on foot. They told us that the mob that looted their homes had kept a getaway lorry running, and had made off with anything of value they could find, including showerheads. They added that one man had an axe put to his neck and was ordered to burn his house down.
“Did he?” I asked. “What else would he have done,” I was told.
The mob had been angry because of rumours that the Bemdoroo villagers had tipped off the security forces about Burhan’s whereabouts.
We left, stopping some way ahead at a partially corner shop. Virtually nothing is open in Kashmir at the moment. Last Thursday, when the Hurriyat relaxed its strike for a few hours post 2 pm, the government responded by strengthening its curfew. The people who had stepped out to buy essentials were told to go back home by the security forces — the only reason people are able to survive in Kashmir, have enough to eat, is because they stock up on supplies for as much as six months.
A spontaneous protest and an offer of chai
We met the first of the people-enforced roadblocks a little outside of Bemdoroo village. The young men, boys really, who assembled there told us to drive back to Hiller Bahai Kokernag, where they said a man had been shot dead on July 23 by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
We got there and Akmal got out to talk to the locals. Shahid stayed back in the car with me. A few minutes later, an announcement rang out in Kashmiri from the mosque. I caught the word “media”, looked worriedly at Shahid, and asked him to translate.
“They’re saying the media is here, and everybody should come out of their homes, and talk about anything they want to,” he said.
People began to stream out of their homes and a large crowd soon gathered. As more people arrived, we stepped out of the vehicle to be met by a thin, kindly-looking man who offered us a cup of tea.
In the din, we heard piecemeal what the villagers claimed had happened the day before. A CRPF patrol had been harassing a girl when a local, Ishtiyaq Rather, tried to intervene. When he did, the policemen shot him.
WION was unable to corroborate this with the police; repeated phone calls to the director general of police and the additional director general went unanswered.
Ishtiyaq’s father and his cousin, Shahnawaz Magray, have claimed so on camera. While Shahnawaz speaks, the father looks too grief-stricken to say anything.
The gathering, suddenly, turned into a protest. A young boy was lifted onto the crowd’s shoulders and he began to lead the protest shouting. Later, the women joined in and picked up the tempo.
How does a crowd shout slogans for so long? What keeps it going?
One does not have to look far for answers. In 2008, after the government handed about 100 acres of land over to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, 60 Kashmiris were shot dead in the protests that followed. And in 2010, after the army killed three villagers, and tried to pass them off as militants, 112 were shot dead in the ensuing protests.
Fifty have died this year so far, and close to 4,000 have been injured, many grieviously. But protest continues, with cries of “azaadi”, “we want freedom”, and “India go back”.
A weeping girl and an older woman walked past.
“Who are they?” I asked Shahid.
“Probably his sister and his mother,” he said.
A local boy comes to talk to me and I take out my phone to write down his details — name, age, what he does — but the minute I do the attention focuses onus and the crowd begins to grow.
It is time to go, says Salman, and all three of us make a beeline for the cab. Just as we get in, the kindly-looking man appears with tea.
We drink the tea in the cab. A man knocks on my window, saying he wants to take a photograph of the newspaper I am reading. Then he says, “You have to tell them what is happening to us. It is your duty.”
Another says, “These (pellet) guns are used on wild animals. And they’re using them on us.”
We leave, trying to inch our way past the protest.
“This is how it starts,” says Salman. “A spontaneous protest erupts, and the police come, and begin to gun people down.”
An encounter with masked men and our luck runs out
We hit roadblock after roadblock. We are now trying to get to the town of Tral in Pulwama district, which is where Burhan’s home is. Each time the boys manning the road say “turn back”, Akmal and Salman begin to talk them down. Salman always ends with touching the good-luck charm hanging from his rear-view mirror, and saying “Allah kasam”. I am grateful to have him with us. He has a certain manner about him, one that does not give offence.
A plethora of excuses are given to keep us moving forward. We give lifts to a number of people — the buses are not plying because of the strike and curfew — a lady who is unwell and needs to get to the next hospital, and a man who needs to buy medicine for his son and has not been able to get it at the hospital, a family, a couple, a woman and her daughter walking through a town patrolled by the security forces. Having a woman in the car makes it easier to get through the roadblocks.
While the unwell woman is in the car, I spot a youth holding a large stone in his hand, put it behind his back and wave us on.
At Bandayalgam, we are stopped by young, masked men. They hold sticks menacingly and tell us to “go back” but even they are talked down.
Our luck finally runs out at Chursoo.
The boys here tear off our makeshift Press sticker, and force us to turn around. Then, suddenly, a whole bunch of them clamber aboard and on top of the Innova. Akmal steps out in the melee and Salman and I find ourselves driving in the wrong direction with the boys. They make us stop after a few kilometres and hop off — they had just wanted a lift.
We turn around looking for Akmal, and we are again stopped by a group of boys looking for a lift. Again they clamber aboard and make us turn around. After a while we cross the first set of boys; they climb onboard and on top of the vehicle again.
After we have dropped everybody off, we park by the roadside to take stock. He looks stressed. I’ve been better too.
A passerby tells us not to park by the roadside, that there is a mosque in the back — the way we came and we should seek shelter there. Shahid crosses the road and enters a blue-coloured house with a large gate to ask if we can park inside the compound. We are told yes — Kashmiri hospitality is legendary I was told some years ago — and we enter Ghulam Mohammad’s home.
Two strange conversations and talk of becoming a militant
We sit on his carpeted porch, make general chit-chat (we talk about what is currently happening in Kashmir; nobody really talks about anything else). We are offered a sweet, cool drink and chai a little later.
At some point, Mohammad looks surprised to learn that I speak Hindi. I have keep quiet over the course of the day, so as not to mark myself out as a non-Kashmiri.
There is this one obvious but necessary question I have to ask: “What do you want?”
“Azaadi,” he says, “woh toh hum le ke hi rahenge” (Freedom, we will take it.) — a usual response in Kashmir.
A Muslim, he says, will want to live with another Muslim. Look at the newscasters in India, he says, they look “naked”. The ones in Pakistan look like that, too, but at least they are better.
The boys and young men from his home appear, and I have another strange conversation with one of them. Tousif, who is 18 but in class IX because he took two years off for religious studies, asks if I will have lunch. There is a high probability of waiting here till almost midnight when curfew will no longer be enforced yet we are reluctant to burden our hosts and refuse the offer.
“Why?” asks Tousif. “Will you not eat food in the home of a Muslim?”
Just like he he won’t eat at a Christian’s home, he says.
“Why?” I ask. “Is that written somewhere?”
Yes, he says, it is written in the Quran.
I ask Mohammad’s much younger cousin, 27-year-old Javed — reed thin, bespectacled, dressed in a black salwar-kameez with the looks of a a techie — about his profession. Javed, smiling constantly, says he has a master’s in political science but that he has been unable to get a job commensurate with his qualifications. So he works as a security guard which pays him little.
“What else will he do if not become a militant?” says Mohammad, laughing.
Lunch and fear
Lunch is delicious. Kashmiri rice, a mash vegetable of brinjal and squash, and a tomato and onion chutney.
We get ready to leave. Salman offered some money but the family refuses to accept it. Javed and another young boy from the family accompany us to the same roadblock that we had been turned back from. There are trucks parked on the road now, blocking egress.
The roadblock is now manned by a large crowd of young men. They surge towards us when they see us approach, and an especially angry young man — rough-looking — pokes his head in through the window.
The questions come in quick succession. “Where are you going? What Press are you?”
“And who is he?” he asks, looking at me in the backseat.
For the first time in the day, I feel afraid. I remember my conflict reporting training, where the former British paratrooper taking the class asked us whether any story was worth risking life and limb. It was an easy question, and we’d all said no.
And a combination of video footage from the morning — we needed to get it to Srinagar and send it out to the world; telephones and the internet have been shut down across most of Kashmir — the Mohammad boys get us through this obstacle too.
Home, a worried policeman, and a young boy armed with a stick
Finally, outside of Awantipora, 30 kilometres from the capital city of Srinagar, we hit a police picket manning the road. So far we have not seen a single police or army vehicle on the road, and it seems that the security forces are marooned inside their camps, that their writ does not run out in the villages. Again, calls to senior policemen for corroboration went unanswered.
The policeman in charge stops us, asking, “Aage kitne log hain?”
A lot, says Salman, and asks him the same question. “How many people are there ahead of us?”
“It’s smooth sailing from here,” he says smiling. “You can put your camera on top of your car and drive to Srinagar.”
A few minutes later, we come across a roadblock manned by young boys. My eyes focus on one dressed in a white salwar-kameez, and armed with a stick. He can’t be more than 12 or 13.
Salman parks some way off, and Akmal gets out to have yet another one of his endless conversations.
“Kids are dangerous,” says Salman. “You can’t do anything to a kid.”
After a while the motion of the boy’s stick, which has so far been telling us to turn around, tells us to come forward. Salman starts reversing the car. The boy runs towards the car and when he sees he’s not gaining on us, he picks up a stone and throws it towards us. We are too far off, and it doesn’t make contact.
Finally, when we see Akmal wave, we move forward.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
Parakram is a writer with WION; he seems to think he writes well. He also aspires — his official designation is trainee — to be an anchor. Parakram has been a journalist now for 15 years but he’s a trainee anchor.