Sunday, September 20, 2015

Whose martyr is this?

“And the CM prays for his jannah” reads the last line of the press communiqué. That is the official elegy for the three-year old Burhan, who was killed in his father’s lap the other day in a village near Sopore. I, quite frankly, had pledged to tear myself away from whatever keeps happening in our neck of woods on a day-to-day basis and instead keep my focus entirely on some creative endeavors that I am undertaking but the senselessness of it drags you right back in. There is no escaping this.

By now I’m utterly convinced that we inhabit a very broken world. Those who perhaps took a call to bump off the kid’s father might not have anticipated the new situation but the wickedness of Kashmir’s dirty wars is such that anything goes. There would be condemnations and the press will run a few stories and then it is back to square one. The debate on beef shall resume.

Here is the catch though: As a society we fail to understand that something profound is happening to us. We think, Oh! As long as we are in our comfort zones — in our big brick-and-glass-homes, as long as it is some poor kid in the countryside, it is perhaps OK. Can’t happen to us, for sure. The problem with this sort of logic is profounder than what we might even anticipate. Our complacency clearly points to something deeper. At an emotional level we have ceased to be tender, to be human.

It does not require telling but we need to do more than express cynicism. Yes, life must go on but what we must not fail to remember is that empathy is the most essential characteristic of a civilization. The silk carpets in our homes, our shiny new roofs or our new-found fascination for full-length beards don’t necessarily make us cultured. We must instead ask ourselves why is this happening to us, to our future?

Most of this talk around ‘unidentified’ and ‘identified’ is bunkum. We are politically intelligent enough to understand who pulls the trigger. The slaughter and hard knocks have gone on for too long. And it has taken the shape of what wise people call reductio ad absurdum. How can we allow this to be carried on to such an absurd extreme? How can toddlers be allowed to become casualties in some senseless agency warfare?

And then we have the gall to wish everyone ‘heaven’. Let’s not blame the CM or our pro-freedom ideologues but honestly this entire concept of martyrs at pearly gates and paradise’s milky streams has gotten a little daffy. Life is precious, especially if it is a three-year old’s and does not deserve to be snuffed out anywhere — neither on a Turkish beach nor in a Kashmiri village. Burhan must have been allowed to live and wonder. He must have been allowed to see the world, explore and make his own mark. His killing — any innocent’s killing — is not normal. It must make everyone — our political class across the board, our citizenry, everyone — intellectually and morally uncomfortable.

That discomfort is humanity. Let’s not lose it.


Toon: Suhail

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

When Nature strikes

Destruction, hence, like creation, is one of Nature's mandates.
~Marquis de Sade, French thinker

Something is really the matter with our world these days. Heavens are refusing to let up. There is water everywhere in Kashmir. April used to be an utterly pleasant time, as far as I can remember, but not anymore. These days everyone and his uncle is watching over the flood gauge at Ram Munshi Bagh. Sure, there used to be rain earlier too but fear seldom prefixed Jhelum.

Carrying their big black umbrellas, people used go about work gingerly in Duckback shoes in those years. You would still find laborers, with inverted burlaps on their heads, waiting to be picked up in Lal Chowk. Women would usually make razma at home, which somehow, almost magically, tasted better with hot rice and pickle, during rains. Not anymore. Looks like the idea of a romantically wet spring is lost.

These days with the first hint of rainfall, everything goes under. Water has replaced CRPF men -- with twirled moustaches -- in our nightmares. May it be that we have entered into a phase of collective fear-psychosis, exacerbated by social media? Sadly one of the downers of living in information age is that bad news travels fast. Good news is like that tortoise in Aesop's Fable. Rumors run like hare in Kashmir.

Unfortunately there is no Omar Abdullah to blame this time. The new dispensation stays away from social media as if it were plague. One has to make do with the good old Radio Kashmir for its calm and sedate updates about the unfolding flood situation. Apart from putting out reliable information, they play good music too. It is only during political broadcasts that something happens to them. Suddenly they become government parrots.

Jokes apart, this is about serious stuff. Forget about finding faults with the government. With hardly enough money to pay salaries to its employees, where is the money to upgrade the infrastructure? Authorities do have responsibilities, loads of them, but people need to soul-search. Temperamentally we are a knee-jerk nation. In a super panic-mode right now, a month down the line, when the rains stop and situation stabilizes, everything will be conveniently forgotten.

The focus -- to upgrade our disaster management system and fix the shaky infrastructure -- is likely to waver. Everyone will basically continue with making new homes, railway tracks would be cut through natural barriers, flood channels would be encroached upon, wetlands will keep shrinking, pilgrims will ride in hundreds of thousands to glaciers and sewage will continue to fill up Dal. This shall continue till it rains again and suddenly we would be jolted into thinking that we might all sink. Over again.

How long shall we keep fooling ourselves? Every time I fly to Kashmir, the widespread disfiguration of its landscape astonishes me. It is a shame that hillocks in Srinagar should be blasted away to make way for more quarry sites and concrete structures should come up on ridges in the countryside. When we fell trees indiscriminately, crazily, the soil is bound to slip some day. And lo and behold, it is slipping now.

Nature, for which we often pat ourselves in Kashmir, has destructive powers. The same Jhelum, our lifeline since ages, can carry away structures poorly equipped to withstand its might. Bridges, houses, trees, and cars can wash away like detritus in its ferocious waters. The erosive force can easily drag dirt from under shaky foundations. Our homes, along with our greed, can quite easily take a tumble.

We must wrap our heads around the fact that we cannot afford to screw with nature because if we do that nature often has a very strong comeback. Disasters, lets not forget, are divine interventions in disguise. We, the people, are both the cause and the remedy.

Lets fix us.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Arnoub, Alam and other Amusements

It appears that Arnoub Goswami, India’s insulter-in-chief, is getting more converts than poor Mother Teresa could ever dream of. Every single night, day after day, this outgrown schoolboy invites guests to his high-decibel show, only to put them out of countenance.

One wonders if there is wisdom in accepting an invite from a somewhat bizarre host, if you know that he might spit in your coffee. Still people flock to him. Whoever said that ‘sensation’ is intoxicating must be bestowed an Order of the Night Hour.

Not surprisingly, the very mention of the word Kashmir sends Arnoub on a hallucinatory trip, as if he was a grumpy farmer and Kashmiris, collectively, have stolen his cow. So this past week the insulter-in-chief was besides himself, delirious with rage, because Masrat Alam, a Kashmiri separatist leader happened to complete his jail term.

Along with his flunkey, a very sad-looking gentleman called Maroof, the anchor drowned his guests, as usual, in tons of pure nonsense. They got a hasgtag #ProPakCM trending on Twitter India. In the end the only take-away was this: If Arnoub has verbal diarrhea, Maroof has got mental diarrhea.

Since Kashmiris have forever romanticized anything that exhibits a degree of nuisance value, his show is a hit in the valley. Recently on a press trip to the island of Cyprus, I instinctively asked the concierge if they get Times Now in the hotel. ‘What is that, sir? A monthly magazine on watches.’

I smiled at the chap, who perhaps grew up around the Mediterranean Sea, and imagined him in front of India’s judge, jury and executioner – all rolled into one. “What? You don’t know Times Now. Isn’t that an insult to 1.2 billion Indians and viewers in 57 countries? You shameless little bugger. The nation demands that you should be lynched. Right away.”

Everyone watched in amusement as the anchor grilled, first a somewhat uneasy Zafar Mehraj of the PDP, and then Haseeb Drabu, J&K’s Fin Min, the next day. Both gentlemen tried to reason, unsuccessfully, with a man who has built an edifice of bullshit and who regularly talks down to people from its putrid balconies.

It is almost comical how he pontificates unsuspecting people not to get ‘worked up’ after launching a tirade against them. It is akin to someone dragging the ‘freedom of expression’ by its pigtails to the attic and molesting both freedom and expression, while a highly aroused audience watches on. Like reality TV on Viagra. Only that the host himself is a dick here.

As if we didn’t have a million worries already, now we have an ex-top cop, known for his notorious policing ways, saying that he was asked to ‘bump off’ Masrat way back in 2010. Strangely, the busy handle that just doesn’t stop tweeting, has fallen silent since yesterday. Let’s just hope, for the sake of Dastageer, that the Nuisance Merchant at Times Now doesn’t speak before our ex-CM does.

@Mini blogs

Friday, February 27, 2015

Love in the times of swine flu

These days nothing much happens to the liking of Kashmiris. There is swine flu in Srinagar and no one has a clue why. If that is not a worry big enough, those juvenile Pakistani cricketers are not helping with their lousy performance Down Under. Anxiety levels are up. For the first time ever – since Kalhana wrote Rajtarangni – more people are buying tobacco than mutton. This is bloody alarming.

Disappointment comes to Kashmir like Omar Abdullah’s tweets. Those thousands upon thousands who defied old boy Geelani, the padre of resistance, and came out in droves to vote during pre-winter assembly elections, were faced with a big downer aka fractured mandate. In a major what-the-hell scenario, they were to soon learn that Mufti Mohammad Sayed, the ageing groom from Bijbehara, is to take Narendra Damodardas Modi of Vadnagar, in a political marriage.

No, Modi’s sense of fashion didn’t steal any hearts here (he scores self-goals on that count anyway by wearing silly pinstriped dresses); it was the months-long courtship that surprised everyone. While everyone tried to discourage Mufti and Co from wooing the wrong set of people and notwithstanding some serious trolling by Omar, nothing could stop the inevitable. The wedlock has happened. In a few days we will have the PDP walking down the aisle with BJP.

In a comical anticlimax of sorts, the same mademoiselle, who was supposed bring bad luck to the household, became the bride. Kashmiris, by and large, are witnessing the celebrations with a ring of consternation and amusement. When I asked a senior PDP neta over phone the main reason for this liaison, pat came the reply: ‘Marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy’. One cannot completely disagree with the wisdom, at least figuratively.

True the two creatures – PDP and BJP -- have very little in common (South Pole and North Pole, confesses the groom). While the former peddles a mild strain of soft-separatism in Kashmir, the latter has a pan-India presence, thanks largely due to a very shrill form of nationalism that is somewhat antithetical to all things Hum Kya Chatey. It would be interesting to see how, and by what alchemy, will Mufti Sayed manage this alliance. After all persuading Kashmiris to dip the nib of their collective fate in saffron ink (incidentally in a green inkpot) is no mean feat.

Coming back to the wedding, ofcourse like all weddings in the subcontinent there is an exchange of dowry, give-aways and largess involved in this one too. In plain speak it is called quid pro quo. Basically both the bride and the groom have agreed to behave and shall not bitch about each other (and the in-laws) on complicated stuff like Article 370, AFSPA and the like. Self-rule and other such romantic talk will be considered kid stuff henceforth.

The famous Kashmiri custom of flattery is expected to kick in any day now. Muzzafar Baig, who once unsuccessfully attempted to save Maqbool Bhat from the gallows, has already started quoting Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of Jan Sangh. Who would have thought that those promising us autonomy and self-rule would one day deliver sermons in the name of those who would deny us those very freedoms?

Meanwhile having perfected the art of not speaking out of turn, unlike his detractors who talk nineteen to a dozen, Mufti will –- in all probability -- try to recreate that Midas touch, variously called healing touch, that he is famed for. Now that he has trucked with an incredibly influential set of people, one should expect some of the dowry to be used in our neighborhoods.

Known to throw lavish wazwans, where local journalists are also invited, Mufti has finally ascended the throne that evaded him all along. Even as guests struggle to dichotomize tabakmaz at his grand feast, the wizard of Bijbehara will have little respite. He shall constantly be on the look, cautiously tiptoeing the jungle, making sure that the witches and werewolves on prowl don’t mix his drinks.

If Amit Shah be the djinn, Mufti is the peer.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Elegy for a bridge

It has been 25 years since the massacre on Srinagar’s Gaw Kadal, one of Kashmir’s worst human rights violations

You are an afternoon,
a memory that hangs together, 
a half-eaten pear, a winter, 
a chopped off arm 
and a healthy stray dog chomping off that arm. 
Nobody can eat winter like a pear. 
Nobody can live inside a pear like winter. 
You are a dying voice drowned by a shout “Don’t waste your bullet. I’ve pumped enough rounds into his body. He’ll die on his own”.

Gaw Kadal is a small bridge that leads you to the fashionable Residency Road in the heart of Srinagar. A small strait from Jhelum flows beneath it. Street vendors sell dry fish on the bridge during winters. Shikaras, laden with collards or haak, Kashmir’s staple diet, can be seen anchored below the bridge as people and auto rickshaws scurry past. There used to be an old world feel to Gaw Kadal’s balustrades, trusses and curbs. Although much water has flown between its decrepit pillars, the memories of what happened on this bridge -- this day -- on a cold winter morning, 25 years ago, refuse to go away. Memories, like wood, seldom sink.

Sure quarter of a century is a long time. Democracies are usually good at wearing make up and going about town in the hope that people disremember. It would be a shame if we fail to bear witness to what happened to our neighbours, our friends and those who perished at Gaw Kadal. For the dead and the living, we must bear witness, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, whom the Nobel committee called ‘a messenger to mankind’, once said.

Why did the Indian paramilitary forces kill those innocent people on the small bridge that cold January morning? Fifty people, all civilians, wearing pherans and holding kangris, innocent. Killed at point blank by the CRPF. There could be many answers. The cop version, the CRPF version and the standard government press note (I often wonder the press note guy must keep his heart with devil for safekeeping while he peddles all those lies). The issue with truth, however, is that it shines through all interpretations.

Early that morning people had been anxious about reports of nighttime raids conducted by the CRPF in several areas of Srinagar on the preceding night (January 20, 1990). Close to 300 ordinary people were detained in these operations, most of them innocent. In areas like Chota Bazar, reports came that the paramilitary forces misbehaved with women in some homes. There was a pattern to it. The harassment and intimidation appeared part of a new government policy to break the spirit of Kashmiris.

The newly elected governor of J&K, Jagmohan, a well-known communal character, had recently been dispatched to Srinagar to break the uprising that enjoyed popular support. Soon an atmosphere of fear was introduced, which started with humiliating crackdown operations and ended in a systematic brutalisation of an entire population. Those poor men, who marched to Gaw Kadal that afternoon, protesting against house-to-house searches in Chota Bazar and adjoining areas, had no idea what was to befall them. No efforts were made to stop the march until it reached Gaw Kadal. Once they got to the bridge, bullets swiftly cut them down.

The historian William Dalrymple, who visited Srinagar the next day wrote about the horror thus: “When I got to Srinagar the following day, I went straight to the city hospital. Every bed there was occupied and the overflow lined the corridors. One man, an educated and urbane city engineer named Farooq Ahmed, described how after the firing, the CRPF walked slowly forward across the bridge, finishing off those who were lying wounded on the ground. When the shooting began, Ahmed had fallen flat on his face and managed to escape completely unhurt. “Just as I was about to get up,” he told me, “I saw soldiers coming forward, shooting anyone who was injured. Someone pointed at me and shouted, ‘that man is alive,’ and a soldier began firing at me with a machine gun. I was hit four times in the back and twice in the arms.” Seeing that he was still alive, another soldier raised his gun, but the officer told him not to waste ammunition. “The man said I would anyway die soon.”

The engineer lived to tell the tale. There were several other eyewitnesses to the massacre who recounted the brutality and horror of what happened on the bridge. Through psychological bruises, they spoke of the torment, of having to recall what could have been their end. Suddenly Gaw Kadal stopped being a wooden bridge. In the mental landscape of countless, it transformed into a memorial. It became a totem of the occupation. It began to be identified with everything that India represented in Kashmir.

The incident sent shockwaves across the valley. In the wicked sense of humor that Kashmiris are famous for, Jagmohan quickly became ‘Jage-Khor’ (the baldie), an ugly cartoonish caricature in big, thick glasses, who wanted to punish the entire classroom because a few kids in the back said boo. Of course he couldn’t break the spirit of people, forget about taming it. The resolve may appear weary after all these years but aspirations have been known to outlive cartoons and bridges.

“How many bridges do you have in Srinagar?” a friend asked me in London recently. It used to be the city of several bridges, I replied, while walking with him on the Millennium Bridge that links Bankside with the City of London. There used to be seven or perhaps nine bridges that connected the Srinagar city of our childhood. Unsure of which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn, they marked some with ugly sand bunkers and others with the red of our blood. The Londoner thought I was being philosophical. The truth is that the recent history of our bridges (and rivers) is full of unspeakable crimes.

No one was ever punished for the Gaw Kadal massacre. Twenty-five years on, no one has been charged. No CRPF walla, none of the authorities who issued the orders, not the top cop Allah Baksh (who passed away a few years ago) and of course, not Jagmohan, the venal governor, whiling his time away in comfort, perhaps content at 90 to initiate a policy that sent 15-year olds to graves.

Gaw Kadal stands as a silent testament to the depravation of Kashmir’s brutal oppression.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

How to avenge a cartoon?

You can’t possibly avenge a cartoon. You can’t take vengeance at visual art. That is because no one can physically fight an idea, however ugly, however profane, and however sacrilegious.

Yes, we do feel offended. Humans are programmed that way. But here in lies the rub. The moment you feel provoked, you allow all the crazy, provocative arguments to make sense. That is any rabble rouser’s dream come true.

Islam is a faith that straddles the entire planet. It requires no character certificates from anyone. On TV or Twitter. If some nutcase Muslim or a section of them continue to behave like psychopaths -- with blood on their minds – the stereotype only gets emboldened.

Should your faith be so frail that a cartoonist’s curved lines must shake it? Should the great God of Adam and Moses and Jesus and Muhammad want you to draw first blood because a little known, trashy, weekly mag, somewhere in Paris lampoons the divine? That would be a very narrow, fragile understanding of faith itself.

The truth is that we inhabit a crazy world. Freedom is like a hooker that is not available to all. Ideally there should be reasonable limits to what passes as freedom but since nothing is deemed sacred anymore, we need not fret or blow ourselves up. There is a virtue called tolerance. Quran talks about it quite a bit.

It is an incredible tool because not only does it insulate us from ignorance, tolerance often leads to real emancipation. It allows us to fight ideas with counter ideas, greater ideas, and greater art. If you are tolerant, you will -- in all probability -- not get multiple orgasms at these calls of baying for blood.

Killing someone because you dislike his or her version of the story, however gross, however repugnant, is a moral defeat of our own viewpoint. We must debate and express our opinions, vociferously. The right to feel irate is all too human. We must outrage when we feel slandered and offended but the answer should never be sword. It must always be the pen.

History, and the course of it, is always about ideas.



Wednesday, January 07, 2015

There is a new Pasha on Fairview

Who would have thought that the BJP, known to most Kashmiris as Jan Sanghis before the advent of satellite TV, would one day come to form the government in Srinagar? It would seem beyond question that the same BJP, called by the PDP as ‘foreigners’ in TV debates (perhaps to score quick brownies) during election time has now transformed into a lovely bride, wearing saffron earrings. PDP, ofcourse being the prospective groom.

God knows Muzzi Beg, Drabu and Co could be gearing up for dastar poshi, as we get ready for the big fat Kashmiri wedding. Don’t be surprised if a certain Mevlana Gun Joo Rumi, who used to teach philosophy in another age, is seen dancing in the wedding party. Politics, especially the flighty variety practiced in Kashmir, can be nutty as fruitcake.

If Syed Ali Geelani is the big Peer of the freedom-loving generation, Mufti Sayed is no little Peer. In his 80s, the prodigal from Bijbehara is all set to be anointed as the valley’s new majesty. All his active life – in various political avatars and combinations – the elusive high chair played hide and seek with him. No more. It is time to glue him to it.

In between Mufti did manage to crown himself for three brief years, which was never going to be enough. For a man of his ambition, who is always well-turned out, wearing immaculate Sacoor suits even in Chillay Kalan and someone who spent a lifetime doing maths of getting to the top, three years is loose change. Kashmir needs a new healing touch and Mufti is the Midas.

For years old boy Geelani taunted the mainstreamers, calling them ‘daily wagers’ of New Delhi. While it hurt them in private, publicly they put up a brave face, attempting to reverse-mock Geelani, calling him an agent of Islamabad.The mainstreamers were however left with little excuse when Geelani began blasting Pakistan too, not too long ago, accusing it of over-passing the Kashmir cause.

It was in this context that pro-India parties began flirting with the idea of soft-separatism. While they would never enunciate the Azadi word in TV debates, occasional mouth-honor would be accorded to issues like AFSPA et al. When a certain General (now a federal minister) let the cat out of the bag last year, saying the mainstreamers in Kashmir are on army’s payrolls, everyone cried foul but no one had the balls to impeach him. So much for tokenism!

In the winter of 2015, the mighty National Conference of Sheri-Kashmir is discombobulated. Down to 15 seats, it is all but finished in large parts. The most Omar Abdullah, the erstwhile Czar of Gupkar, can do to salvage his honor is to taunt the Pasha of Fairview on Twitter. While it may have irked the PDP spokesperson somewhat, expect Mufti to stay unruffled and calm, holding cards close to his chest. Amit Shah or Saifuddin Soz, you never know how the Pasha will play his hand!

At the appointed hour, when soothsayers and Peers say that time is ripe and the stars are in perfect alignment, the groom shall wear one of his smart suits and a tie (done in Windsor knot to rub it in Abdullahs, proper).

Barkha Butt will be air dropped on a shikara at night, somewhere near Dal, where she will hold fort with nothing but a solitary Kangri and Nazir Masoodi's smirk. Her guests will be hauled from their hammams and a midnight debate shall ensue.

Mufti Mohamad Sayed would step out of Fairview to be the 9th CM of J&K.

Till then, lets just eat Harisa and stay calm.