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.