Monday, January 21, 2013

Blood on the Bridge

It was cold as stone in Srinagar. January is a numbing period in the hills. Kids often get frostbites. Many grown-up men and women had gotten mild goose bumps the previous night when a balding man in big, thick-glasses declared — with a diabolical grin — that he will let go off some invisible cards from his hand if things don’t go his way. No one could anticipate what was to come but the unmistakable wickedness in the voice, broadcast at 7:30 pm on Radio Kashmir, Srinagar was not lost to many.

Just like Rome sent Pontius Pilatus to tame the outpost of Judea, Jagmohan came with a premeditated mindset to put the fear of God in Kashmiris. A depilated bureaucrat, he was infamous for being Sanjay Gandhi’s sidekick, who threw Muslims out of Delhi’s Turkman Gate. That was during India’s Emergency. In his second innings as Governor, he was dispatched to the valley, all dusted and deodorized, to tame the great unwashed, the rank and file, in short anyone who attempted to look human in that January chill.

Before he got an excuse to throw his invisible cards on the floor, Governor Jagmohan decided to bare his fangs. Suddenly the administration started to come down hard on people. A new winter curse called crackdown was unleashed upon unsuspecting folks. The rude intrusion into homes, where women were sometimes violently pushed around and young men walloped for no reason, shocked Kashmiris to no end. It was the beginning of brutalization of an entire population. The poor men, who marched to Gawkadal that afternoon, protesting against house-to-house searches in Chota Bazar, had no idea what was to befall them.

Rearing its ugly face by imposing harsh curfew for weeks at a stretch, the administration meant to send a strong message to Kashmiris. The official machinery wanted to bust the popular sentiment by resorting to completely undemocratic, arbitrary and harsh measures. It only ended in hardening of stances and a churn of a different kind. Jagmohan became ‘Jage-Khor’, an ugly cartoonish caricature in the collective conscience of the citizenry. Of course he couldn’t break the spirit, forget about taming it.

While mini-massacres continued to take place at regular intervals all over the valley, what astonished many was the degree of obfuscation by India. No one in New Delhi’s intelligentsia ever uttered a word about Gawkadal. But for notable exceptions, the national press relegated the incident to inside pages. There appeared a method to suppress memories and remembrance. In the absence of any proper reflection, naturally there was no cognitive closure either. The images and recaps kept coming back. Willfully, people may attempt to move on with life, but flashbacks are often involuntary.

The truth is that no one was ever punished for the Gawkadal massacre. No enquiry was ever conducted. Twenty-three years on, no one has been charged. No CRPF walla, none of the authorities who issued the orders, not Allah Baksh (who passed away recently) and of course, not Jagmohan, the venal old man, who must be whiling his time away in some sarkari library in Delhi, content at the age of 87 to initiate a policy that sent 16-year olds to graves.

Two decades later Gawkadal stands as a silent testament to the depravation of Kashmir’s brutal oppression.