My family, Kashmiri Hindus, migrated out of the disputed valley in the first month of 1990, after the minority community was targeted by militants. They packed what they could and left for Jammu. They have never visited Kashmir since then. For me as well, the decree was set in stone: “Kashmir is not safe. You can’t go there.”
Somehow still, I managed to visit Kashmir in August 2019—for the first time in my life.
My first instinct upon landing was to get out of the airport and feel the ground beneath my feet. However, my resolve was to witness what really was happening in Kashmir since since August 5, when the Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, revoking the autonomy of the region. Kashmir has been in a state of strict curfew and communication blockade since then.
Article 370 was adopted to negotiate a special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian federal structure. According to it, the state government’s approval was needed to implement any federal laws in the state, except for laws concerning defense, foreign affairs and communications. Apart from that, the state had control over some laws, including those regarding citizenship and property rights.
Since the abrogation of Article 370, without any participation from representatives of the state, the people in the valley are protesting and showing their resistance towards the government’s moves in the aftermath, which includes the detention of many local political leaders.
Having read of claims of “normalcy” in Kashmir by the federal government, I and my colleagues at StoriesAsia chose to visit the Soura area in Srinagar, the scene of some of the biggest protests and ensuing violence in Kashmir, on August 30, a Friday.
Inside Soura stands the shrine of Aasaar Sharief Jinaab Sahib, a mosque which holds 14 relics of paramount importance to Muslims and Islam around the world. The people of Soura are bound fast by their devotion to this shrine.
The neighborhood had barricaded themselves to prevent India’s federal armed forces from entering. However, we were welcomed. Before dawn, we entered through a huge gate with a small inlet. The streets had been dug up to hamper the movement of vehicles. The people inside were planning protests after the Friday prayers. The youths were guarding the area in shifts.
The entire area of Soura was one in its resistance to the Indian government’s move, as well as to attempts by Indian armed personnel to breach it.
It wasn’t unusual to find women crying on the streets, praying for their sons who had renounced sleep to guard their neighborhood. A local woman, on seeing us with cameras, started flailing her hands in the air and yelled at us: “Are we going to live with this India, an India that has snatched our sleep and our food? What can we do, how can we fight them? Only God is on our side; neither Pakistan nor India will do anything for us. God will do justice to us, He will bring disgrace and ignominy upon those who have tyrannized us.”
She was walking around the shrine, whose white and green walls were complementing the lawn in the front. Beyond the lawn was unused land, serving as a buffer between the shrine and the entry to the neighborhood where the barricades were.
At around two in the afternoon, after the namaz, boys, men, girls and women gathered in the lawn in front of the shrine. Slogans for azadi (freedom) and against the Indian government emerged. A drone appeared, hovering above. The women and girls waved at those drones and shouted slogans of “azadi,” in defiance, knowing that it was to spot protesters’ exact location.
A sudden loud bang followed. Indian security personnel had arrived, making yet another attempt to get inside Soura. A whole swathe of people ran towards the barricade, about 100 meters from the shrine. Men, women and children, everyone started running to the front. One after another, tear gas shells and chili grenades whizzed past the crowd, and us, following explosions. The whole street leading up to the shrine was in mayhem. People were running back and forth, some running to the front carrying piles of stones and others retreating after suffocating due to tear gas or getting hit by pellets.
Tear gas was shot indiscriminately. As shells landed, the whole street from the mosque to the barricade was covered in clouds of thick smoke. The few journalists who were covering the event, apart from the protesting masses, were affected by the tear gas and had to take cover for a while. The locals were giving salt to apply on the face and water to drink. If it was not for their generosity, I would have been left in the middle of nowhere with burning eyes, coughing and suffocating.
Journalists had to hide their identities because Indian forces did not want any information to come out of Soura. It seemed like an attempt to hide the gruesome picture of silencing protests through brute force behind pictures of celebration that had been put up by the largely pro-government national media in India.
Inside the shrine, the injured were being given first-aid, by volunteers. One after another, young men were brought, with bodies strewn with pellets — little red holes all over the torsos. Sisters and mothers wailing, cursing India. “What have we done to beget this hell?” one of them yelled. Many were holding rags to their eyes, possibly hurt by the pellets.
On a little porch that led to the main building of the shrine, about a dozen women could be seen crying and thumping their breasts. Some raised their hands to the shrine and bent down to their knees, praying for mercy. A young girl got the news that the tear gas shell had probably burned a part of her house near the barricade. As she broke down in a burst of sobs, I knew how the nation had broken thousands of children to the point of no reconciliation. I remembered the groups of children in the streets, earlier in the morning, shouting in unison, “Naare Takbeer, Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest). These are the children of Kashmir, carrying pain in one half of their heart, anger in the other.
Locals told us that the armed forces raided their neighborhood whenever they felt like. This was why the need to barricade themselves in had arisen. After the attempts to breach, in the furor, there were widespread speculations that houses had been vandalized. “They break into houses, loot and pillage, and damage our property. We have lost our sleep. There is always fear of a raid. Our lives have become a living hell: guarding and anticipating violence by the Indian forces has become the only routine,” lamented an old man holding his head in his hands.
After around three hours of clashes, with around 50 people injured, the evening came with a little respite. We took shelter in a home nearby and discussed ways to get out of Soura. Due to the lockdown, it had been difficult to reach the place, and now we were stuck there with no means of transport back. At last, we decided to walk to a place where we could find an auto or a taxi.
The sun was down and the track was bordered on one side by houses. On the other side, there were small fields that contrasted with the sky. The air was macabre and my first experience of my homeland was of a crying populace that had sacrificed its life at the altar of resistance.
A local man offered to drive us back to our hotel. It was of utmost importance for us that what was recorded should not be lost. At a security checkpoint, the car was stopped. The personnel lit a torch on us and asked the driver, “What is your name?” “Irfan,” he said. “Where do you live, and what do you do?”
“I live in Delhi. I am a property dealer.”
“Property is really costly there. Get us some land there,” chuckled the armed and uniformed man.
“Now I’ll start my business here. With the Article gone, people (from outside) should come here and breathe the pristine air of Kashmir.”
“Yes, yes, we’ll buy,” laughed the guy.
“However, it is going to be a lot costlier here (than in Delhi). And with the situation, who do you think would want to live here?”
The personnel’s face fell. He agreed and let us pass. We drove on with the confusion of a smile and sadness mixed together.
Who will want to live in Kashmir? What is the pristine air of Kashmir? Crying women and children, and tear gas and pellets is all that comes to mind.