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.