Sunday, October 31, 2010

Autumnal nightmares

Srinagar is a busy outpost this autumn. The interlocutors have just wrapped up their maiden visit and promised to be back next month. In Delhi, sources confirm, they told Palaniappan Chidambaram (PC), India’s sharp-as-a-tact home minister, that he requires to arm himself with just one thing before flying into the valley: A topcoat. PC nodded gravely. In the autumn of 1964 Nehru’s chief troubleshooter Shastri landed at the Srinagar airport without a coat, clad in a Kurta-pajama. The shivering gentleman was immediately given a military coat by the army top brass at the tarmac. History. Such a mindful mistress.

October 30 afternoon. Srinagar is a ghost town. Omar, in a two-day stubble, is waiting for PC to descend at the airport. He has had recurring nightmares in the last few days. An old man in green Karakul appears in his dreams. The figure attempts to snatch the plough from Omar. The young CM doesn’t let it go. He calls out for Devender in his sleep. There is no response. Devender is a heavy sleeper. Omar sees stones chasing locks and hummingbirds dropping bird-shit all over the boulevard. He lets a sleep-scream out: Papa. Farooq is raising the roof in Delhi: freedom of expression is dangerous.

The ivory-color Air India [again renamed, I hear. Indian airlines to Indian to Air India again] touches down. PC appears on the door. Fresh. That discerning look in the eye. Omar quickly gets on his feet. He looks at his Swatch. There are firm hand-shakes and condensed pleasantries. They disappear into Omar’s waiting SUV. A million sirens blaring. Lights blazing. The security detail jumps in their respective cars. The cavalcade takes off.

PC to Omar: You don’t look good. What happened?

Omar: Nothing, just having these nightmares.

PC: What do you see?

Omar: Geelani trying to snatch my plough.

PC: OMG. Terrifying.

Omar: In another dream he appeared with a key around his neck.

PC: Key?

Omar: All locks open with that key here.

PC: Ah, yes yes. Such a sad story.

Omar: No one listens to me. It looks like a joke now.

PC: We didn’t book him for that speech.

Omar: No point, Sir. He has been saying that since ages.

PC: Do you think we can gag him with tax threats?

Omar: I don’t think so.

PC: You know Nalini is a tax lawyer.

Omar: You mean Mrs PC.

PC: Yes.

Omar: We are asking shopkeepers to vacate government property?

PC: You will be unpopular.

Omar: How popular do you think I am?

PC: Don’t loose hope, please.

Omar: Arundhati Roy is not helpful.

PC: We are concerned.

Omar: Concern too is not helpful.

PC: Before we could even think of what to do about her, international media got interested.

Omar: Ah, autumn makes me gloomy.

PC: Put some Kashmiri music on.

Omar: You want to listen.

PC: Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life. Was it Sartre?

© Sameer

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 27, 1947: Dakota in my dell

Autumn wind rustled in the terrified vale. In the chimneys of Srinagar, nestling birds shuffled. A DC-3 Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Airplane (called Dakota in brief) was heard in the sky around 8.15 in the morning. The dull camouflage paint suggested that the propeller-driven plane belonged to the Royal Air Force (gifted to the newly formed Dominion of India). Commandeered by Biju Patniak (who later went on to become the CM of Orrisa), the DC-3 had 17 soldiers of 1-Sikh regiment on board. The bumpy flight had just crossed Pir Panchal and was going to significantly alter the course of history in the subcontinent. Its first attempt to land on the ramshackle Srinagar airstrip was not successful.

Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, the commanding officer of the party was getting edgy.

He asked the pilot to fly low on the airstrip again, this time, to ensure that no raiders were around. Also since the first hasty attempt to land was abortive, Plan B was to turn back to Delhi. Instructions from PM Nehru’s office were clear: If the airport was taken over by the enemy, you are not to land. Taking a full circle the DC-3 flew ground level. Anxious eye-balls peered from inside the aircraft – only to find the airstrip empty. Nary a soul was in sight. The raider party – also called Tariq’s raiders (after Gen Mohammad Akbar Khan of Pakistan’s 13 Frontier Force Rifles, codenamed Gen Tariq) were busy distributing the war booty amongst them in Baramulla.

Four days ago the fiercely combative Afridi tribals with active help from the Pakistan army, galvanized by reports of the mass murder of Muslims in Jammu, attacked Kashmir. Codename: Operation Gulmarg. Everything went according to plan for the Pakistanis. A few hours after the daredevil blitzkrieg was launched on October 24, 1947, Muzaffarabad fell. On October 25 the tribal militia, backed by regular army troopers, reached Uri. By evening the tiny town was captured. Mirpur and Poonch looked vulnerable. The Maharaja’s troopers were absolutely no match. The Pakistani onslaught was ferocious, sudden and swift. By the morning of October 26, 1947 the advancing squad was knocking at the doors of Baramulla. By afternoon the most important township in north Kashmir was taken. The same evening a feeble Hari Singh fled Srinagar, anticipating savage raiders – any moment -- to drag him out of his Hari Niwas palace to impale him.

Ofcourse the moment never came. The uncouth raiders in the words of Gen Mohammad Akbar Khan (Brigadier-in-Charge, Pakistan, in War for Kashmir in 1947) himself: ‘Delayed in Baramulla for two (whole) days for some unknown reason’. The loot and orgy in Baramulla continued well into the morning of October 27, 1947. Around that same time the DC-3 hovered over the airspace of the still independent Kashmir. Later Indian claims that its forces landed on the Srinagar airport -- only after signatures on the Instrument of Accession by Maharaja and the Indian government were obtained -- is riddled with some confusion and disputed. Be as it may the Dakota quietly touched down, almost unnoticed at 8.30am. For the first time -- ever -- India was in Kashmir to help. Sometimes in history friends can cook up a storm.

A total of 704 sorties right from the morning of October 27, 1947 till November 17, 1947 meant that the tribals were totally routed by the more professional Indian army. PM Nehru was ecstatic. On November 2, 1947, the PM spoke to the nation from All India Radio. Nehru was pointed: [Quote] We are anxious not to finalize anything in a moment of crisis and without the fullest opportunity to be given to the people of Kashmir to have their say. It is for them ultimately to decide -- And let me make it clear that it has been our policy that where there is a dispute about the accession of a state to either Dominion, the accession must be made by the people of that state. It is in accordance with this policy that we have added a proviso to the Instrument of Accession of Kashmir. [Unquote]

The matter went to the UN which announced a ceasefire of hostilities, pending a plebiscite. Pakistan still holds onto a part of Kashmir. The Indian army continues to increase its footprint in Kashmir and at present constitutes the highest military-civilian ratio anywhere in the known world.

63 years later, the battle for Kashmir wages on.

PS: Col Rai was killed in Kashmir a day after he landed. Gen Tariq was jailed under the Rawalpindi conspiracy case but was later released and went on to become the chief of national security under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

© Sameer

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Kashmir witnessed the season’s first sprinkling of snow. Clean as Geelani’s Khan-dress. Since I don’t get to be in the valley for most parts, I feel quite nostalgic about getting into a Pheran in Harud [Fall]. There is something quite timeless about being home around this time. I might be missing an exact expression for it but it is a very mixed feeling. Harplike. It hits you bang in the brow, mostly on autumn dawns.

And you want to steal apples. Suddenly.

Harud itself means loads of work. Farmers get real busy this time of the year. The grangers of our destinies [read our leadership] too get over-worked around the same time. So here is a quick stack up of what is making news in Kashmir at the onset of this autumn~ the year's last, loveliest smile.

Geelani: At 82, this man is to Kashmir what Omar Mukhtar was to Libya at 69. Ofcourse the latter was executed by Italian fascists in 1931 making him a Muslim resistance icon. India might never want to make an icon of Geelani but the old fellow – singularly -- gives the second largest growing economy in the world, and their kissing cousins in Kashmir, sleepless nights. Minus his calendars, he totally rocks. Unselfish and uncompromising. Most Kashmiris do not read his pro-Pakistan booklets but unanimously adore his oh-so-grand-fatherly demeanor.

TV: Kashmiris do not read. Urdu newspapers are skimmed through by the 40+ crowd and the retired gentry. In absence of any major source of entertainment and sans a book culture, people turn to the idiot box. Every single TV journalist, belonging to, reporting in or speaking on Kashmir – articulation is no criteria -- is a huge hit. Journalists are alternately dubbed as pro-India, anti-Kashmir, pro-Omar, anti-Tehreek and so on. On TV everyone loves Sajad Lone’s speechcraft. And all Kashmiris unanimously hate Arnoub Goswami. Personally I reckon he totally sucks – oily hair and all. Greasy loser. Who uses oil these days?

Deal: Deal means a different thing in Kashmir. It is not like closing a deal. You ‘get’ a deal in our neck of the woods. And deals are as rare as nuns in bikinis. Curfew and Hartal -- both competing weapons in the ‘longest conflict in south-Asia’ come with a set of deal periods. It can stretch from a few hours to a few days at one point in time. You learn to respect the deal by stocking things up, meeting friends, visiting a sick relative in the hospital, buying vegetables before any one of the two pronouncements is made: Thou shall not move. Halt, the oxygen taps are shut. Consequently everyone awaits their slice of deal.

FaceBook: When you are confined indoors for longish spells and the world looks like a big Kokur [chicken] coop, the best thing to do is to open a FaceBook account and lord over the world. Kashmiri youth is doing exactly that. Everyone and his uncle is clued in to all things Kashmir and beyond, thanks to the power of FaceBook. From the confines of baithakis (drawing rooms) they engage in political debates (sometimes constructive), post pictures (sometimes disturbing), make pro and anti pages and put links up (sometimes eye-opening) while the curfew continues. A lot of gossip mongering and mediocre stuff too happens but that is just the dross. FaceBook is one good indoor addiction amidst the outdoor fury.

Interlocutors: No one thinks they can make a difference. The set of three have their task cut out: Engage with Kashmiris. And not just the separatists or the already converted (read the NC and PDP chaps). One dialogist I know asked for a suggestion a night before she flew into the valley. I recommended a warm coat. Kashmir is a very complicated puzzle and though I earnestly wish that ordinary people help them solve it, I fear it is still sometime before that might happen. Given the Kashmiri argumentative nature I thought we could have completely overwhelmed the interlocutors with our list of arrogates and aspirations. Shut mouths rarely get heard.

The Valley upshot:

What's cool: Early snowfall in the hills, Danyi-thaepri [rice crop artistically thatched away in small chalet like formations], Eid anticipation, Kashmir Pandit Sangarsh Committee, Chinar leaves, Arundhati Roy.

What's not: Traffic jams, Masarat Alam, Three-week long curfews in countryside, Text ban, Roots in Kashmir.

© Sameer

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Azadi -- The Only way!

We may be different political beings but we are all human beings.
~Syed Ali Geelani
Delhi, October 21, 2010

The auditorium was filled to the rafters. Geelani sat calm as a mid-summer's sea. I don’t quite subscribe to the man’s politics but you can’t help grudgingly admire him. Apart from sounding total convincing, he is frighteningly intelligent. He speaks in a disciplined, clipped dialect and makes Haryanvi cops jostle with one another to pluck their cell phones out and click him. The Little Theater Group audi, next to DoorDarshan, located in the heart of Delhi, was Kashmir’s very own Broadway this Thursday. Syed Ali Shah Geelani was the sole protagonist.

Even before Geelani got up to speak, those perennial dorks from BJP’s student wing ABVP and their ideologically intolerant brothers-in-arms which go by fancy names like Panun-Kashmir (our Kashmir) and Roots in Kashmir began their distasteful sloganeering (Crude swear words, cusswords, expletives all). In the melee some buffoon attempted to throw paper missiles at Arundhati Roy, sitting next to Geelani. Something was hurled at the rostrum but it missed the 82 year old leader. Trespassers have such poor mental trestlework.

Kashmiri volunteers immediately threw themselves around Geelani. Students formed a human shield. The man betrayed no emotion. He continued to beam a beatific smile – in intervals -- as if scoffing at the frenzy subliminally. Eventually two men helped him to the lectern. Geelani began on a wispy note and just two minutes into his speech, given in flawless, genteel Urdu, interspersed with Kashmiri-accented English, everyone was in raptures. There was rapt attention. He constantly shook his head (could be age) and recalled historical dates like a farmer’s calendar. No wonder he churns those calendars with such ease back home.

Over the next few days the Kashmiri papers – and FaceBook videos -- are likely to shed light in some detail on what Geelani said at the convocation. The Indian TV has already given it a rotten spin: Kashmiri students heckle Geelani. That is such a cunning slant. The Hindi news channels in this country, and some English channels, their camerapersons (they look like car mechanics) and anchors (IQ levels seriously negative) should all be put on a bus without brakes and send on a paid-vacation (with free Samosas and Chai). The future generations will be grateful. With the kind of TV happening, India may soon be a nation of morons.

In dense Urdu Geelani talked about justice, basic human bonds and democracy. Ofcourse he repeated some of his standard fustian statistics but his speech was never drab. There is something uncomfortably scrupulous about him even if you tend to disagree. He looks injected with truth serum. The manner is uncharacteristically poetic. The inflections are fresh while the delivery is clear. I thought the top cops – revolver grips shining in holsters -- standing on the exit doors were so cued in to Geelani’s one hour long speech that their subordinates, who usually won’t dare stand near their bosses, shoved their way to catch a glimpse. ‘What democracy are you talking of, Geelani thundered? It was never exhibited in the valley. Before 1990’s if they caught you listening to Azad Kashmir radio, they would put you in jail, along with the culprit radio, he told a giggling crowd, which comprised of journalists, intellectuals, writers, students. And sulking badgerers.

I don’t know how big Geelani’s influence is in present day Kashmir or how to measure it in the competing narratives but he has for sure transcended into something big. He does not carry that Jamaati-chief tag any more. He has gone beyond the Hurriyet boss appellation now. I reckon Geelani defines Kashmir’s defiance.

You may loathe him, love him or harangue him, but there is no denying his indomitable spirit. As a parting shot, almost chokingly, Geelani said: You (India) could aspire to be a superpower, perhaps surpassing America some day but frankly we don’t care. Aspirations can’t be abolished. Even by a superpower.

Some spunk this old man has.

© Sameer

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The three tenors

Top cops in Kashmir would be a little less antsy tonight. The assistant commissioner of police, City, was still sleeping when I called him a moment back. The fugitive at large, one who dished out mini CD upon mini CD in flawless Urdu, calling for revolution, was finally nabbed at his maatamal (mother’s folk’s home) yesterday. Heck, Maatamal has been a weakness with Kashmiris. Conversantly when dour teachers (who used to be called master jee’s in good old days) wanted to pull you up for being too chatty with your bench-mate, often invoked thus: Khala ji ka ghar samaj ke rakha hai kya [Is this your mom’s sister’s home?] So quite Omar Mukhtar-style they descended from all directions and bundled away the runaway robin from his Maatamal.

Notwithstanding the sudden harud (autumn) loss the melody isn’t expected to stop. The three tenors are getting ready in Delhi. The home ministry is expected to have a quick rap session with the interlocutors before they land in Srinagar in an effort to get everyone talking to them. Whether on not Kashmiris talk to them is un-germane. Radha is the most elegant of the lot. She has grey hair and a kind heart. Padgoankar loves foie gras (duck liver pate) and all things French (they gave him the Legion D’Honneur a few years back). Ansari, an Aligarh alumni and ex-IGNOU professor, revels in discussions on economics of human resources and education. Anyone can go talk to them. They don’t bite.

Along with Bhim Singh (the indomitable Rajput who rode around the world on his motorcycle in the late 60’s a la Che Guvevara) LK Advani is pretty upset with Omar’s recent assembly speech. A psyched out BJP usually means advantage home turf. However there has been a mixed reaction to Abdullah-III’s now famous turn of phrase: ‘We acceded. We didn’t merge.’ While Bhim Singh et al have reasons for being jumpy, the separatists aren’t much pleased too. So in keeping with the tradition of spoiling the party for National Conference, the padre of resistance, clad in a gown he has gotten much fond of, uttered the ‘Emperor-has-no-clothes’ lexeme: Oh, and Omar’s speech was scripted in Delhi.

Ironically many say that BJP felt more slighted when someone told them that the somewhat suggestively-named National saffron mission wasn’t infact what they thought it to be. The mission was a Rs 370 crore grant to Kashmir aimed to enhance production of the golden crop of Zafran (saffron). Party workers had bought crackers surmising that a large chunk of Kashmiris had finally understood the futility of throwing stones and shall soon be lining up to join the saffron mission – of abrogating Article 370. BJP now believes that there is something sinister about the amount of grant money of Rs 370 crore. It reminds them of the avowed dislike of Article 370.

On a more nostalgic note October reminds me of autumn. Fall in Kashmir is pleasant. The airs change as if touched by the flapping feathers of a bottle-green angel on his way to the moon. There is mild breeze in the mosque spires, the undulating nets of fisher folk and the quiet branches of the majestic oaks. The leaves, an angry shade of crimson, fall off the trees in abandoned Hindu temples to strew the ground beneath. It is also time to reap the rice crop. The sight is the most breathtaking -- neat rows of assiduous men and women, hunched back, collecting their fruits of labor. They sing songs of love, joy and bounty together. Trousers tucked. Aloud. Hip to hip. Sermons can stay hinged upon mosque knobs sometimes.

The blue-necked cuckoos don’t stop purling. Even in conflicts.

© Sameer

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bub, bunkers and beyond

There is an unseasoned mutiny in Mulk-e-Kashmir this summer. The boatsmen in Dal have revealed to intrepid journalists – clad in bullet proof vests – that the usually calm carp fish have been nibbling away at their oars of late. The defiance, it seems, has drained into the lake. A little ahead of the weed-infested Dal, an entire company of CRPF with chest-nut color guns in their hands, fingers on the trigger, chased a few hundred street urchins through a tulip garden, completely squishing the flowers in the process. As a result the Zabarwan foothills are stippled with mutli-colored floral boot-marks.

The only mills working in the city are the ubiquitous rumor mills and the word on street is that the Gregorian calendar would soon be replaced with a standard Geelani calendar. Heck that Gregory XIII was a pope anyway! Meantime the newest chairman of JK bank is mulling over the 2011 calendar with special green-color numeric for Hartal days and red color numeric for Curfew days. Parleys shall be held with Geelani sahib, when he is a little less angry and Omar, when Devinder, his chief of staff, goes on a sabbatical and leaves him alone, God willing, for a day or two. Besides there are chances that -- with autumn fast approaching -- the CM may finally take his sunglasses off. Eye to eye contact is always better than an eye for an eye.

Kids having a field day till end-September this year [three months of unlimited holidays] thought in their juvenile abandon that the summer holidays [locally, 15 dohan hinz garma-chutti ] might stretch forever. Alas it was not to be! Early October the education minister clad in an ill-fitting suit strode out of his Kokernag home to his Srinagar house and called the media men – who assemble quicker than you can say Jack Robinson – to cut short the forever vacations. Uniforms not washed for 100 days quickly went into buckets, much to the chagrin of teenagers, and lo and behold, the lawyer-minister from Kokernag was giving student attendance stats to media men – who assemble quicker than (okay the joke is stale now!) – the next evening. Only his son didn’t attend school, choosing instead to go by the now-famous Geelani calendar.

Apart from sad politics over body-bags in the last few months there are glad tidings too. Out of more than 1600 small and big bunkers located all over the province (mud and cement, brick and sand, trench and pillbox types – but all unanimously ugly) 16 bunkers shall be removed with immediate effect. Mostly unaesthetic these sandbagged formations pervade the mental landscape of people, apart from littering the stunningly beautiful (but seriously jinxed) geographic landscape of Kashmir. Called Bankers by most locals, these bunkers have a small slit for the gun barrel, serving a constant reminder to the hoi polloi that the Maginot line is not to be trodden upon in Kashmir.16 such monstrosities shall go now! We must smile!

A deadpan face-off is going on (which merits another blog, actually) between Gupkar and Hyderpora. Betwixt these two residential locales the destiny of five million people is calendared -- week after another week. These days the Blackberry Czar is at odds to break the deadlock set up by the Padre of Resistance. There have been numerous brainstorms and smear campaigns but nothing seems to be working. Be as it is, the government has now begun to fast forward Urs holidays, originally scheduled for later this month to Hartal days.

Talk of doing away with the Gregorian calendar, altogether.

© Sameer