Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Shame

After days of dithering over how to go about Kashmir and apparently not finding a way out, New Delhi finally found the talisman. Some smart ass in the South Block probably suggested a punitive crackdown to deal with the situation. So three days ago, India flexed its military muscle in Kashmir. Everthing since has been gasping for some air.

I met Arundhati Roy today. She agrees it is the cruelest curfew ever in the chequered history of the valley. Ms Roy retains a beautiful sense of satire. She said, “You know, I was in Kashmir recently and I witnessed the million strong marches. The most striking thing about them was that they were all very peaceful”. This curfew is the government’s way of telling the people that we would tolerate no non-violence, she said with a chuckle. I couldn’t agree more.

The curfew has been a total clamp-down. The security agencies were perhaps given a clear brief. Not a soul should exit their homes. Not a single silly slogan must echo. It matters not that someone could be sick and would want immediate medical attention or someone may need to travel urgently. There are no concessions. It was like the big brother finally coming down heavily on its small pestering cousins. And the para-military forces acted exactly as was expected of them, like mechanical creatures, completely insensitive to human plight.

I cringe with dejection to think of this hobgoblin. One of my friends was supposed to fly to the middle-east where he works as a surgeon. He had a connecting flight to catch from Delhi. Stuck in curfew in Kashmir, he tried arguing with the troopers manning the curfew-colored roads. All in vain. He missed the flight and his schedule went haywire. This is nothing. I read in news-papers today that even emergency services were disallowed. As a result ambulances couldn’t ply. A girl, from south Kashmir, withering with stomach ache, died in the ambulance while her aged father trying to convince the mechanical creatures. Again in vain.

The curfew is so cruel that it looks like a revenge exercise. A collective punishment is being meted out to people for daring to look at the state in the eye. I see no other reason why local media must be gagged. Why national/international media should be barred from reporting. Why doctors who show their curfew passes are asked to back-off and return home. On the humanitarian side, bodies of people who have died in hospitals over the past three days -- due to natural causes -- are lying in morgues for the want of transportation. No ambulance driver wants to risk his life. There are reports that water tankers couldn’t reach orphanages. This is a dire and deliberate agony.

There are times in history when states act nasty. A very few states treat people -- they never tire to call their own -- in such high-handed fashion. I asked Arundhati -- one of the best living writers of English -- about her article, espousing Azadi for Kashmir. She was candid in her response. “India is giving the same arguments that the British once gave us -- That the natives are not yet ready. We shall send the Simon commission.” New Delhi, Ms Roy added, continues to live behind glass walls. I throw these stones at the wall so that it develops some cracks and they wake up to realize that there is a problem in Kashmir.


One can immediately draw parallels between Arundhati and that great Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre --who once famously refused the Nobel prize. Sartre would exactly poke the administration of the legendary French President Charles de Gaulle over French atrocities in Colonial Algeria. Intellectuals and writers, wherever they are, always speak up the gospel truth.

Dissent and debate is part of any democracy. While India's self-righteous leaders never fail to highlight our democratic credentials, they remain ignorantly indifferent to the misery of more than six million people, who have been cooped inside one of the world's biggest and the most beautiful prisons. The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime, Max Stirner the German philosopher once averred.

The Kashmir problem shall remain.

Sameer.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What Frenzy is this?

Freedom is never free
~An old European maxim

Kashmir is irate like never before. A new-found furor floats around. Fresh slogans -- ingenious and irascible -- have been coined. They call their processions, freedom marches. A million people converge at the slightest notice. These marches have now been successfully repeated as many as four times in the last one fortnight. The youth fight the state in spirited battles -- with whatever is available to them: half-bricks, petite stones or slippers. Even the audacity is new. People stand still like frozen statutes when fired upon. Bullets have failed to cut the exuberance. I can’t make out, in all honestly, what is this frenzy! They call it the yearning for Azadi [Freedom].

Arundhati Roy -- one of my fave authors -- in a brilliant article calls the latest uprising Kashmir’s epiphany. I don’t think people outside Kashmir may ever understand it. The land row [which fuelled the present situation] has been forgotten and relegated to the back-burner amidst slogans for Azadi. Why was a mountain made out of a molehill, my journalist friends keep asking me in Delhi. Why should Kashmiris object to a mere chunk of land been given to the shrine board? When it is terra Kashmir, I try to vainly argue, meanings often go beyond the obvious. It is complex and confounded.

What Kashmiris are trying to demonstrate at this point in time has gone beyond the 40 hectares of land. The masses are desperately trying to hang onto the faint glimmer of hope that the land controversy has thrown to them and in doing so they are demonstrating a very unusual, raw power, which is both dangerous and defiant. Politically very well versed -- unlike many average Indian’s -- Kashmiris understand that in a world of 24 X 7 media attention, their old pent up anguish and emotions -- will not go unnoticed. If India is disturbed, it clearly has a huge reason to be.

Going back to the land row, Kashmir is anything but communal. For once Kashmiris resisted the land transfer because it would have diluted the special status of the state that the constitution of India confers to it. The land was being given/transferred/leased out/ordered/whatever to an autonomous body, which was not Kashmiri. The yatra, Kashmiris opined, could very well be managed by the state government and people, as has always been the norm. Handing over the land to a non-state entity compromises our position, they maintained. I guess there is nothing remotely communal about it. Debatable yes. Exclusivist yes. Nationalism yes. Communalism no.

This greatly dandered up the Hindu right wing in Jammu. They forced a punishing economic blockade of the valley. This peeved Kashmir no ends. Kashmiris maintained that they indeed did resist the land transfer order but only because certain elements -- in this case a fat ex-governor -- were deliberately trying to undermine Kashmir’s special status. The scheming right-wingers in Jammu rather mischievously painted the issue in overtly religious colors. The average Indian was made to believe that Kashmir has purposely denied land to the cave-god. Nothing can be more farther from truth.

It was actually somewhere during this time, that the almost-forgotten yearning for Azadi again stirred. Soon it had a ripple effect, which caught everyone unaware. Including India’s myriad intelligence agencies in Kashmir. Cities and villages poured out -- in the open -- in one huge show of civil disobedience. The panicky police and para-military resorted to naked aggression. People dug in deep. Multiple duels ensued. Crimson blood spilled. People got bolder. The movement, as I’ve previously posted, is solely powered by people.

There is no love lost for India in the dell. Apparently there is a lack of trust in Kashmir. A huge deficiency of credibility exists. Kashmiris say that they trusted India when the Indian troops landed in Srinagar for the first time in October 1947 [Kashmir was a princely state before Oct 47] but they never held the much-promised plebiscite. One elderly person I spoke to -- this time in Kashmir -- without batting an eyelid said, ‘Pandit Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the UN and told us that we shall be free to decide our fate. I heard him myself on All India Radio. Well I’ve been waiting all these years.’ They haven’t forgotten anything in 62 years.


The alienation sentiment lives on. People remember the 90’s when the armed struggle -- variously called militancy or terrorism -- began in Kashmir. As a kid I didn’t like the violence. A decade and a half later, as a contentious citizen of this country and as a humanist, I think it was utter devastation. Kashmir used to be a surreal, magical place. The conflict turned it into a phantom land. However India perpetuated terrible human rights violations during those years and - yes - people forget nothing. When you try telling them, India is a leading democracy, they point to the martyrs graveyards, full of innocents, killed in cold-blood. Not really, the sad glint in their eyes suggests.

India admits this much, that except for may be two or three elections, most elections in Kashmir during the last 50 years were rigged. There never was true representation. Alas people were never allowed to elect their real representatives. Don't you think they will ever feel dis-enchanted?

Sample this: One gentleman who lost to a rigged result from Srinagar’s Habba-kadal constituency went on to become the commander in chief of the most dreaded militant outfit in Kashmir. Presently the same guy, Mr Yusuf Shah, is the boss of United Jehad Council [an amalgamation of major militant outfits in Kashmir] and calls himself by his code-name Syed Sala-din. His polling agents, I must quickly chip in, Yasin Malik, Javed Mir and Hamid Sheikh all went on to become top militant leaders. While Sheikh was killed, Mir is in Hurriyet, while Yasin Malik, is the single most loved leader in Kashmir now.


I’ve to concede this much: I get put-off by the bike-protestors, waving green flags and shouting their allegiance to Pakistan. I don’t think Pakistan has to ever be an option for Kashmir. It is a failed state after all these years. The country, despite the apparent good-will they still command in the valley, is struggling to rise on its own feet and is crowded by a corrupt elite who will suck in Kashmiris for their own ulterior, shallow motives.

I don’t know when will India get its act right in Kashmir. Till now flawed, stultifying policies have resulted in old wounds being ripped open. Like an old active volcano Kashmir has seen it all growing inside her. Broken promises, deceit, rigged elections, corrupt leaders, armed struggle, bullets, bombs, blood. Tulips. Land grab.

It suddenly erupted on a summer morning.

Sameer

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What ails Kashmir

And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
Shakespeare Hamlet


There was an angry stir in Kashmir this time. Rebellion was rife in the August air. People hollered quite a lot. Newspapers wrote in wolfish Urdu. There were protest marches and corteges. Flags were fiercely fluttered. The rage was alarming. What began as a minor land row has snow-balled into a major controversy. It has split the two main regions of Kashmir and Jammu across communal lines and galvanized the entire populace of Kashmir into almost hysterical calls for Azadi [Freedom]. All of a sudden!

So what went wrong. And so suddenly.

For once India’s Kashmir policy is flawed. Two, the Indian leadership is plain dumb. They should never have allowed things to come to such a pass. The rot could have been stemmed right in the beginning. But hindsight is always 20/20. Yes I can say these things now but the truth be told, one just can’t fathom why India gets it so wrong in Kashmir, always.

Not withstanding the diplomatic language -- that Kashmir is an integral part of India, we need to do a little introspection here. The valley is -- almost always -- on a slow sauté. India understands that but deludes itself in choosing to ignore it. There is a history to the disenchantment of the Kashmiris, kept alive in their memories by a string of rigged elections, broken promises and a spate of terrible human rights violations. Tulip gardens can’t meliorate the hurt. It is quite deep and dark.

Rather than talk to the people of Kashmir, New Delhi got busy with gloss work. Energy was spent on conducting the national games in the winter resort of Gulmarg and erecting lush parks in Srinagar. The sentiment was left unaddressed. Unattended it festered and festered. The Amarnath spat provided the spark. Kashmir was suddenly on fire again.

Being in Kashmir during the latest rounds of protestations, I was caught completely off guard by the people’s power. So was the administration. They ordered the police to fire on un-armed people. 29 innocent people lost their lives. Tempers frayed and emotions swelled further. The Hurriyet grabbed the God-sent opportunity to channelize the sentiment. They are the one’s who call the shots now.

New Delhi, lackadaisical as ever, should have reined in the right winger hoodlums in Jammu and never allowed an economic blockade of the valley, for however small time, in the first instance. The blackmail sent a very wrong signal. Politicians played politics, as they are often wont to, in that small time span. The separatists swiftly made plans for Muzzafarabad. The effort was more symbolic than practical but it was a political masterstroke. That one single call for march undid a lot of achievement. All good-will went down the drain.

Whoever is responsible for administrating Kashmir is a bad administrator. I think the current governor -- a good old retired civil servant -- fumbled. Either don’t let the people assemble at all [easily achievable] and if you do then don’t allow your cops to fire in their chest. Brute force was used to quell protests and that is not done. You can't afford to do that, as a democracy and you don’t do that on people, some of whom think that you are an occupation force. If the intention is to win hearts then you don’t fire on the heart, right?

So how do you fix the blame? Who do you blame? Is it Azad, the supremely dis-connected congressman, who failed to read the writing on the proverbial wall? Is it the Abdulla’s who created the shrine board problem in the first place? Is it Mufti with his dual stances? Is it the stupid fat ex-governor? Is it the wily separatists who upped the ante? Is it the Jammu based Hindu right wingers who are non-players in the entire issue? Who is the culprit? Who do we blame? Perhaps none.

Methinks there is no alternative to dialogue. New Delhi should talk to the leadership in Jammu and Kashmir, across the board. It should have a bold, progressive Kashmir policy. Alleviate some unfounded fears that they harbour. The gloss work should be halted and the main issue addressed.

For once, the sentiment, however irrational, must be considered. Junk the damn funk, as they say.

Sameer

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cooings on a Curfew morning

Day Three

Third consecutive day of curfew in Kashmir. Movement was mostly trammeled as people remained confined to their homes. There is news though that curfew was defied in a couple of spots. The cops fired upon protestors in several places. Many were beaten up mercilessly in full media glare. The death toll in three days has now gone past 25. The toll of the injured is countless. Hospitals are inundated with the wounded. In Sopore the gun fire just does not abate. It is a perpetual reminder that all is not well and despite the apparent calm, a storm is brewing in the distance.


The local news papers are full of obituaries and tributes to Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a top rung Hurriyet leader who was gunned down Monday as he led a two hundred thousand strong procession during the march to Muzzafarabad. The general strike against the incident is expected to continue till the weekend. Prez Musharraf praised Mr Aziz today. Pakistan has suddenly gotten active after a sinister silence and has passed a resolution condemning the excessive police action in Kashmir. It is preparing to report the matter to UN. India is clearly peeved.


One of my friends managed to click some amazing pictures of the Monday march to Muzzafarabad. In this rare picture, the Hurriyet leader Mr Aziz is seen sitting atop a tractor -- on the right hand side in white Pathani dress -- leading a peaceful demonstration.


This may well be one of the last images of the slain leader because moments later the police shot him dead from point blank. People accompanying him say that the leader was deliberately targeted. The government, of course, refutes the charges.


On a much social level, the changed political climate has altered established norms. With all educational establishments closed for the past one week, children are making merry. No school means the kids are home to pester their parents 24 x 7. There is also an acute shortage of food stuff here. Vegetables are in short supply. Villages have however risen to the occasion. Cartfuls laden with fresh veggies are being brought into townships and city peripheries from the countryside to help the urban populace tide over the hard times.


Staying in Kashmir in these times is riveting and draggy at the same time. These are extraordinary circumstances and each passing day is dramatic. I don’t know how people manage to survive in such settings -- amidst strikes, strife and the suffering. Still they live on! Call it the indomitable human spirit.


Sameer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Midsummer Mayhem

Day Two


Kashmir continues to simmer. I woke up to gun-shots today. Curfew has been imposed in the valley and everyone is confined to their homes. I am also cooped inside. Cell phones just don’t stop ringing and each ring is a constant reminder that yet more violence has taken place. It is evening time, as I post, and I can still hear crackle of gunfire nearby. I am being told that the police and para-military troopers -- deployed all over the place -- are firing intermittently in the air to stop people from coming out. This is a major clamp-down, as the establishment looks for desperate measures to control the situation, which is clearly slipping out of their hands.

Trying to make most of my fallow time I managed to have a word with some neighbors, my friends and a couple of acquaintances over the phone. The general mood is somber and tempers are clearly on the roil. Almost everyone talks of double standards adopted by the government. While the authorities were lax in Jammu when the Hindu right wing hit the roof there, brute force was used in Kashmir from Day one.

Sample this: While the Jammu agitation was controlled by hooligans, who torched public property and resorted to mass violence, brandishing weapons and tridents, only three people were shot in more than 37 days in the temple city. Two days of protests have already left 20 dead in Kashmir. More than 500 injured. Why the iniquity? People ask. What happened to the famed democratic scruples of India? For once, I have no ready answers.

The separatist leader gunned down yesterday has been buried in Srinagar in the afternoon. A hundred thousand people marched in Srinagar today. They managed to free two prominent Hurriyet leaders -- Mirwaiz Omar and Syed Ali Geelani -- from their respective house-arrests. There have been reports of confrontation between the people and cops from across the valley. Sopore, where I live, witnessed similar scenes. All hamlets around the township are on a slow flame. Emotions are alpine high and curfew is being breached with impunity. For the moment it looks like there is no solution in the sight.

There is a mix of fear and bravado among the people. The defiance is new-found and alarming. Incidents of mob fury are continuously pouring in. Military bunkers are being razed, politicians’ homes are being stoned, police posts are being attacked with a never before ferocity. People justify their acts by citing police’s naked aggression. The government, which bundled in handling the situation initially, is finding it difficult to control the mobs. The flower blossom in the garden of paradise appears abruptly shriveled up.

Rhetoric is flying thick and fast, so are the rumors. Everyone has his own slant and a tale to tell. The curfew, clamp-down and clamor is reminiscent of the early 90’s. Is it back to square one?

Only the other day I saw a tulip trampled on the roadside.


Sameer

Monday, August 11, 2008

March to Muzzafarabad

Day One

Kashmir has been precarious since the day I landed here. My itinerary was rather hectic this time around. I attended a string of fantastic weddings, drove around the famous Dal lake, boated around with pals high up in the hills, took in as much local gossip as possible and breathed in great fistfuls of cold pine air. But more on that later. I start my Kashmir dairy with a distressing note.

First things foremost. The Amarnath land row has completely consumed people here. It has become an emotive and nationalistic issue. The economic blockade of the valley by Jammu based groups has led to much bitterness in Kashmir. In reality the revocation of the land transfer order by the state government is largely perceived as a psychological defeat by the right-wing Hindu lunatic fringe in Jammu. And the mad horde has upped the ante. They have stoned and looted most of the supplies to Kashmir, leading to an acute shortage of essentials in the land-locked valley. Kashmir naturally felt blackmailed and arm-twisted.

Since fuel has run dangerously low in gas stations, cash has dried up in most ATM machines, weddings cancelled en masse, hospitals have gone low on life saving drugs and Kashmir’s famous apple has rotted in the wooden boxes for the lack of transportation, it was unanimously decided that on a pleasant Monday morning, the people of Kashmir shall march to Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistan Kashmir. Hurriyet, it was opined, would lead from the front. It would be Kashmir’s answer to Jammu’s blackjack. The argument was that it would be an alternative means to do business in a substitute market. It was also an extremely desperate and symbolic bid.



Though the move was fraught with much danger, the people of Kashmir marched in their thousands. The separatists had already set the tenor: Muzzafarabad Jayenge, Khooni Lakeer toodenge [We shall march onto Muzzafarabad; we shall breach the bloody border]. Incidentally I was away from the clamor, holidaying in Gulmarg but I kept getting regular updates since morning. Some of my acquaintances were in the procession. They kept calling me up from time to time. One of my kinsman was in the border town of Uri. He gave me live dispatches from ground zero. The grapevine was abuzz for the whole day. A hundred thousand people, two hundred thousand, five hundred thousand. It appeared that the entire valley had converged into one huge parade. The grand caravan was on its way to Muzzafarabad. Amidst conflicting reports we decided to drive back home.



Everyone I spoke to, rambled with a bated breath. My sister, my friends…everyone. People who formed part of the procession were naturally out of breath. While chatting with Raj over the cell I overheard someone talking about plucking fruit from one of the many orchards lining the picturesque way to Muzzafarabad. In between someone wanted to know the price tag of the latest I-Phone. Such talk often keeps spirits high when you are marching on in an important march. Meantime my own band had a tough time clearing small roads blocks -- felled trees and rocks -- as we neared home, criss-crossing small, idyllic, verdant but sluggish villages. Once we hit the national highway [the original route of the march], did the reality dawn upon me. Kashmir had really answered the call to march. All roads led to Muzzafarabad. We saw a lame man trundling on. An elderly woman was shouting at the top of her voice. I reckon the movement is mass based now while the momentum is clearly indigenous. This is dangerous maths.



By evening, as I post, bad news has started to trickle in. They didn’t let them breach the border, finally. On the contrary the march seems to have taken an ugly turn, as was anticipated. A confrontation between police and protestors ensued near the border. A prominent separatist leader -- leading one huge procession -- has been shot dead. Scores others have either been killed or injured. The strike, which has been continuing for the last six days, is now expected to go on. People seem resigned to it. They wait for some divine solution. I saw people squatting in little groups all the way from Gulmarg to my home, exchanging conspiracy theories in very hushed tones. They shot angry glances at our way-faring car. An unusual tension is palpable in the air. Everything is closed down. All one can feel is a deep and shrill sense of rancor.

Sloganeering often becomes both a source of strength and lament in a situation such as this. As I blog the day’s developments, I can hear people shouting outside. Call it Kashmir’s second uprising or an irrational exuberance.

I get a feeling it is going to exacerbate in the days to come. I pray it doesn’t.

Sameer
Photo Credits: Raj