"Don't you know what is happening here? It is for 'Azaadi' (independence)," the guy responds when I ask him what is happening, seeing a large number of CRPF personnel armed with guns and protective shields, on my way to Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. It was a Friday and I was in Srinagar trying to soak in everything I could in one day as I planned to spend the rest of the my three days of vacation travelling through the valley.
Kashmir is a state which has captivated and intrigued me since my school days, when the violent turmoil in the valley was much more in the news. I remember writing an essay in the seventh grade on the situation faced by Kashmiris. My feelings were drawn from the experiences shared by the Kashmiri shawlwalas who would visit my family every winter to sell exquisite shawls. My concerns and questions were related largely to what the people from the valley wanted, coming from a very superficial understanding that land and its people are inseparable and I failed to understand why the governments couldn't do what the Kashmiris wanted.
When I look back at my thoughts I don't think I have come too far. The shawlwala's words still reverberate in my mind: "Beta, we are caught from both sides; the Indian army comes and harasses us as they think we actively support militants and provide them with hide-outs. At the same time, the militants harass us for food and shelter and if we refuse we are called Indian army informers and supporters."
It is indeed difficult to say if things have changed when I look at the situation in 2011. The turmoil was right in front of my eyes on that Friday.
Reacting to the situation, my auto-rickshaw driver refused to take me to Jamia Masjid until someone in the crowd showed him a different way to the mosque. The moment the rickshaw started moving, I clicked a few pictures of the CRPF personnel but that scared the driver and he said "Madam, are you going to get me into trouble? You and I, both will get beaten up!"
On reaching Jamia Masjid, I encountered the other side of the conflict, the stone-pelting young Kashmiri boys. I was witnessing something I had only read about... Around 50 to 70 boys were throwing stones at the CRPF and many more were standing there to support them. I was unsure of what to do and asked the driver to take me to the main gate of the mosque.I went inside but couldn't resist and within 30 seconds returned to the stone-pelting crowd.
People looked at me suspiciously. I asked the boy standing next to me if I could take photos. He said yes initially, but by the time I could switch my camera on and focus, he had spoken to a few others and told me not to take pictures. I started observing the boys who were pelting stones instead. It looked like a well managed activity -- they were maintaining a fixed distance from each other and were going back and forth in a practised manner. Also, they were changing the positions at the front, as if giving everyone a chance to get into the action! The boys who were throwing stones and the people standing at the back displayed a strange mix of pride and fear. The first line would throw stones and run back and the next line would take over. A few were wearing masks made out of black cloth with holes for eyes, some had tied handkerchiefs on their faces, but most of them had not covered their faces. My heart was beating very fast and I was debating whether to leave or stand for some more time when suddenly the whole crowd in front of me turned and ran to the other side. I couldn't understand what had happened and then saw that the CRPF was trying to scare them off by chasing them. Clearly the young boys' intentions were just to confront the CRPF and show protest, not to get into any violent or bloody struggle. Being caught up in a situation like this for the first time, I had no clue how to react. I started running with the crowd and suddenly noticed an open gate from where the members of the house were discreetly trying to observe the situation. Without asking, I pushed someone aside and entered the house. I also quickly turned and managed to click a picture of the running crowd. A male member of the household said: "You press reporters earn a lot out of this, isn't it? But you hardly care what goes on here." I quickly told them that I was a tourist and was only trying to take pictures. His whole family looked at me strangely. They were surprised by a lone woman traveler and softened a bit when I told them my name. They immediately asked -- "Are you a Muslim?" and seemed to relax when I said yes. Then I was asked a question which I was going to hear many more times (in different ways) in my three and a half day stay - "Do you live in India? Are you from India?" Despite knowing the context, it took me by surprise and I said yes, I am from India, New Delhi.
That was the moment when the rift between the Kashmiris and the rest of India struck me. I was looked at as a person from another country, not someone visiting from a different state.
According to the family, the boys were pelting stones in protest against some young boys getting arrested on false charges. Since last year after around 100 boys had been killed during stone pelting, it has become a symbolic protest, especially on Fridays near Jamia Masjid. That particular Friday being the last one of the month of Ramadan, was very auspicious -- which explained the huge numbers of boys. When I told them that I was not allowed to take pictures, they told me about reporters handing over pictures to the CRPF who then identified and jailed the boys. However, they pointed out that the police and CRPF also do not want strangers to take pictures of them retaliating against the crowd -- two weeks back they had beaten up a foreign journalist and broken his camera.
After my conversation with the family, I left for Shahi Hamdan, Zaine Kadal, Nishat Bagh and Hazrat Bal. All these places were enchanting and had rich historical and cultural significance, especially Zaine Kadal, which has retained the old city charm with its 100 year old wooden houses, small bridges and narrow alleys. However, my mind was disturbed by what I had witnessed at Jamia Masjid, and more so by the question -- are you from India? Are you an Indian?
That evening when I was sharing my experiences with a British couple staying in the same houseboat as me, my houseboat manager Hilal who was listening in the background said that he should have told me about Friday being a sensitive day for Srinagar, especially this Friday being the last in Ramadan. He then told the British couple about the Kashmir conflict. Somehow I knew (and have heard from people well versed with Kashmir's conflict), that he would have his own story. And he did! The lady was very concerned about young boys being involved in such activities and asked innocently if it was because they didn't go to school...They wondered if it was the poverty, lack of education or lack of career opportunities which led them to react in this way. Hilal very patiently explained that it was much more complex, that the issue was political and had a disturbed historical background. "You see," he said, "it is very painful to see the Indian army in Kashmir. We have faced so much in all these years and the kids have grown up seeing this turmoil. It's very difficult to stop them from not getting involved in the larger struggle against the Indian army's presence and Indian occupation of Kashmir."
For the second time that day, I heard India being referred to as a different country and also the term "Indian occupation". Hilal continued: "We have no problem with India, we like Indians and we want tourists and want to do trade but having the army here has left a bad taste..." He then shared, how when he was 10 years old it was very common for the army to conduct search operations in the city of Srinagar, during which all the members of a particular neighborhood would have to leave their houses to stand together in one place so that army could search their houses for militants. During one such search operation at eleven in the night, Hilal was sleeping and refused to go out even after his parents insisted. Thinking that the army wouldn't mind one sleeping child not coming out, they left him there. After a few minutes Hilal felt a cold thing being poked at his chest. He woke up and saw two army men with rifles and one of them was poking the tip into his chest. Seeing him awake the army man said: "Coming out, or should I shoot you right here?"
I had heard and read about these incidents a lot but was hearing it in person for the first time. Hilal said it was the most terrifying moment of his life and he still got goose bumps and his heart beat fast thinking of that night. He then told us that if he talked further he might start crying. Facing a gun -- many Kashmiris must have experienced that and many more must have gone through worse. However, what terrified a ten year old had remained with him all his life.
In the coming three days, I would not meet a single Kashmiri without a political opinion, be it Owais, my auto driver on the first day who shared that stone pelting wouldn't solve anything and cynically felt that things would remain the same so why not just accept the reality that they would have to live with this army... or Shaukat, my taxi driver who would show me the beautiful Lolab valley in Kupwara district and tell me that his father was jailed by the army on charges of militancy because he refused to sell them carpets at throw-away prices... or Yousuf bhai, who gave me the most beautiful shikara rides and openly supported the demands for separation from India and vented his hatred towards the ruling party...or Rafiq, who gives pony rides for a living in the picturesque Sonmarg valley and who spoke about how his Gujjar tribe stayed away from the protests against the Indian army and chose to remain in background as they neither wanted to stay with India nor did they have the illusion that the separatists would take care of this minority community...
All of them had varied versions and experiences relating to the conflict in the valley, some were very vocal about it, some expressed it in subtle tones. But from the interactions I had with people over three days, despite their varied backgrounds it seemed that their opinions and political stands merged and concluded to only one demand -- Kashmir's Azaadi!
-- Ayesha Pervez works with an aid agency in India.