In and a difficult out of South Kashmir
We left early, crossing the towns of Sangam and Anantnag – the locals call it Islamabad – to reach Bemdoroo while the air was still cool. This is where the militant separatist Burhan Wani was killed on July 8.
Kashmir has been on lockdown ever since. The government has called a curfew, the security forces enforce it in the cities and the towns, and the Hurriyat has called a strike, which the people enforce vigilantly everywhere else. Makeshift roadblocks, manned by gangs of young men, some of them masked, have been put up every few kilometres.
Nobody is allowed to pass, especially if you are media. There is a fierce anger here against journalists, especially towards what in local parlance is called the “Indian media” – the Indian TV news channels.
The Kashmiris say they are fed up with saying one thing into a TV camera and then finding it “distorted” that evening.
The ferocity of the backlash has left even Kashmiri journalists reeling. “It wasn’t like this earlier,” they say. There have been reports of journalists being roughed up and abused, especially those wielding cameras or camera phones inside hospital wards where the 50 mostly-young Kashmiri men have died or the close-to 4,000 injured are being treated. Even the Hurriyat had to call for calm a few days ago, making an appeal to the people through the local papers that journalists be allowed to go about their work.
We got through because we left at half past five in the morning, while the people of Kashmir were still asleep and there was no one on the roads to enforce the strike.
Bemdooro, Burhan, and a burnt orchard
I stayed inside the car at Bemdoroo. For my own safety, said my Kashmiri colleague Anees Zargar, while he first recced the village, and then returned some minutes later for his camera and Shahid, a schoolmate of his from Srinagar who was driving us.
I remained in the car.
Shahid owns a travel agency in Srinagar, two taxis, and a souped-up Tempo Traveller. One of his drivers, said Shahid, was back at his village. He had the other taxi with him, and no way of coming back.
Shahid and Anees returned a half-hour later, saying the house Burhan had been killed in had been burnt down, that angry men from nearby villages had looted the homes of the Bemdoroo villagers, that they remained fearful of a further backlash (see accompanying story), and that the angry mob had also burnt down a nearby apple orchard.
I was allowed out at the orchard, which obviously belonged to a wealthy man. Young trees were laid out in neat lines and were covered by netting. But the orchard lay in disarray now, some trees had been felled, and an outhouse, what appeared to be a walking tractor, and two motorcycles had been burnt.
A few villagers had guided us to the orchard, more followed on foot. They told us that the mob that looted their homes had kept a getaway lorry running, and had made off with every single valuable they could find, including shower heads. They added that one man had had an axe put to the back of his neck, and been ordered to burn his house down. (The mob had been angry because of rumours that the Bemdoroo villagers had tipped-off the security forces about Burhan’s whereabouts. See accompanying story.)
“Did he?” I asked.
“What else could he have done,” I was told.
We left, stopping some way ahead at a lone, partially-open shop for cigarettes, biscuits, and juice. This might seem trivial, but I mention it to make the point that virtually nothing is open in Kashmir at the moment. Last Thursday, when the Hurriyat relaxed its strike for a few hours post 2 pm, the government responded by strengthening its curfew. The people who had stepped out to replenish their larders were told to go home by the security forces – the only reason people are able to survive in Kashmir, have enough to eat, is because they stock up on supplies for as much as six months.
Nobody really knows when trouble might break out.
Plus, in our case, cigarettes killed hunger.
A spontaneous protest and an offer of chai
People began to stream out of their homes and a large crowd soon gathered at Hillerbahai Kokernag.
We met the first of the people-enforced roadblocks a little outside of Bemdoroo. The young men, boys really, assembled there told us to drive back to Hillerbahai Kokernag, where they said a man had been shot dead the day before (Saturday, July 23) by the CRPF.
We got there, and Anees got out to talk to the locals. Shahid stayed back in the car with me. A few minutes later, an announcement rang out in Kashmiri from the mosque. I caught the word “media”, looked worriedly at Shahid, and asked him to translate.
“They’re saying the media is here and everybody should come out of their homes, and talk about everything they want to,” he said.
People began to stream out of their homes, and a large crowd soon gathered. As more people arrived, I began to feel more and more conspicuous inside our Toyota Innova and asked Shahid whether we should step outside. Just as we did, a thin, kindly-looking man appeared and asked us whether we would like a cup of tea.
It seemed surreal.
Ishtiyaq Rather's father, and cousin Shahnawaz Magray speak to WION. Shahnawaz says Ishtiyaq was shot by a Central Reserve Police Force patrol while trying to protect a girl the CRPF men were harassing.
In the din, we heard piecemeal what the villagers claimed had happened the day before. A CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) patrol had been harassing a girl when a villager, Ishtiyaq Rather, tried to intervene. When he did, the policemen shot him.
WION was unable to corroborate this with police; repeated phone calls to the seniormost policemen in Kashmir – the director general of police and the additional director general of police – went unanswered. But WION does have Ishtiyaq’s father, and his cousin Shahnawaz Magray on camera (see video) making the claim. Shahnawaz does the talking, the father looks too grief-stricken to say anything.
The gathering, suddenly, turned into a protest. A young boy was lifted onto the crowd’s shoulders, and he began to lead the chanting. He would shout a line, and the crowd would shout another back in unison.
The chanting went on for a long time. When it finally began to lull, the women joined in, and it picked up again.
How does a crowd chant for so long? What keeps it going?
One doesn’t have to look far for answers. In 2008, after the government handed about 100 acres of land over to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, 60 Kashmiris were shot dead in the protests that followed. In 2009, 35 Kashmiris were killed in the protests that followed the abduction, rape, and murder of two young women, allegedly by the security forces. And in 2010, after the army killed three villagers and tried to pass them off as militants, 120 people were shot dead in the ensuing protests.
50 people have died this year so far, and close to 4,000 have been injured, many of them grievously. But the people continue to protest.
The chanting ended with cries of “azaadi”, “we want freedom”, and “India go back”.
A weeping girl, and an older woman walked past us.
“Who are they?” I asked Shahid.
“Probably his sister and his mother,” he said.
A local boy comes to talk to me and I take out my phone to write down his details – his name, his age, what he does – but the minute I do, the attention focuses on Shahid and I and the crowd around us begins to get bigger.
It is time to go, says Shahid, and all three of us make a beeline for the cab.
Just as we get in, the kindly-looking man appears with cups on a tray and a thermos of tea.
We drink the tea sitting in the cab. A man knocks on my window, saying he wants to take a photograph of the newspaper I am reading. Then he says, “You have to tell them what is happening to us. It is your duty.”
Another says, “These (pellet) guns are used on wild animals. And they’re using them on us.”
We leave, trying to inch our way past the protest.
“Just don’t hit anybody,” I say.
“This is how it starts,” says Shahid. “A spontaneous protest erupts, and the police come and begin to shoot at people.”
An encounter with masked men and our luck runs out
We hit roadblock after roadblock. We are now trying to get to Tral, which is where Burhan’s home is. Each time the boys manning the road say turn back, and then Anees and Shahid begin to talk them down. Shahid always ends with touching the good-luck charm hanging from his rear-view mirror, and saying “Allah kasam”.
I am grateful to have him with us. He has a certain manner about him, one that doesn’t give offence. And he has a believable face.
I keep telling him he should open a hotel, he would do well in hospitality.
A plethora of excuses are used to keep us moving forward. We give lifts to a number of people – the buses are not plying because of the strike and curfew – a lady who is unwell and needs to get to the next hospital, and from there a man who needs to buy medicine for his son and hasn’t been able to get it at the hospital, a family, a couple, a woman and her daughter walking through a town patrolled by the security forces. Having a woman in the car makes it easier to get through the roadblocks.
While the unwell lady is in the car, I spot a youth holding a large stone in his hand put it behind his back and wave us on.
At Bandayalgam, we are stopped by especially militant-looking, young, masked men. They hold sticks menacingly and tell us to “go back” but even they are talked down.
Our luck finally runs out at Chursoo.
The boys here tear off our makeshift Press sticker, and force us to turn around. Then, suddenly, a whole bunch of them clamber aboard and on top of the Innova. Anees steps out in the melee and Shahid and I find ourselves driving in the wrong direction with the boys. They make us stop after a few kilometres and hop off – thankfully, they had just wanted a lift.
We turn around looking for Anees, and we are again stopped by a group of boys looking for a lift. They too clamber aboard and make us turn around. After a while we cross the first set of boys, who again climb onboard and on top of the vehicle.
After we have dropped everybody off, Shahid and I park by the roadside to take stock. He looks stressed. I’ve been better too. We smoke a cigarette each to calm our nerves.
A passerby tells us not to park by the roadside, that there is a mosque back the way we came and we should shelter there. Shahid crosses the road and enters a blue-coloured house with a large gate to ask if we can park inside the compound. We are told yes – Kashmiri hospitality is legendary I was told some years ago by a lady from Jammu – and we enter Ghulam Mohammad’s home.
Two strange conversations and talk of becoming a militant
We sit on his carpeted verandah, make general chit-chat (by which I mean we talk about what is happening in Kashmir at the moment, nobody really talks about anything else) and I catnap.
I wake up to find a sweet, cool drink next to me. A little later chai is offered.
At some point, Mr Mohammad looks surprised to learn that I speak Urdu – Hindi really. (I have tended to keep my mouth shut over the course of the day, so as not to mark myself out as a non-Kashmiri.)
“What do you want?” I ask him.
This is a stupid question in Kashmir. There is generally only one answer, but I feel I have to ask.
“Azaadi,” he says, “woh toh hum le ke hi rahenge.”
A Muslim, he says, will want to live with another Muslim. Look at the newscasters in India, he says, they look “naked”. The ones in Pakistan look like that too, but at least they’re better.
I don’t want to argue with him.
The boys and young men from his home appear, and I have another strange conversation with one of them. Tousif, who is 18 but in class IX because he took two years off for religious studies, asks if I will have lunch. I say no out of politeness. Then, because I know I will get hungry soon and that we might have to wait here till 11 at night when the people go home and the strike is no longer enforced, I say Shahid will take a call on lunch.
“Why?” asks Tousif. “Will you not eat food in the home of a Muslim?”
I say no, that’s not the case. I ask back, “Will you not eat food in the home of a Christian?”
Tousif is a jazzy-looking boy with a funky haircut, his hair cut short but spiked upwards and towards the middle of his scalp from both sides.
He says no he won’t.
“Why?” I ask. “Is that written somewhere?”
Yes, he says, it is written in the Quran. Anees tells him no it is not, the Quran only says a Muslim is not allowed to eat jhatka meat. Everything else is halaal for them.
I ask Mr Mohammad’s much younger cousin, Javed – he is 27, reed thin, bespectacled, dressed in a black salwar-kameez and looks a bit like a techie – what he does. Javed, smiling constantly, says he has a master’s in political science but that he has been unable to get a job commensurate with his qualifications. So he works as a security guard. It pays him little.
“What else will he do if not become a militant?” says Mr Mohammad, laughing and smiling.
I can’t really tell if he is joking.
Lunch, and fear
At about two in the afternoon, I ask Shahid sotto voce if maybe we can buy lunch somewhere, meaning off Mr Mohammad. He says we’ve been offered it. That we were leaving but they insisted we eat first.
Somewhere deep down, I knew that was what would happen.
Lunch is delicious. Kashmiri rice, a mash vegetable of brinjal and squash, and a tomato and onion chutney.
We get ready to leave. I see Shahid try to offer a little money but the family refuses to accept it. Javed and another young boy from the family accompany us to the same roadblock that we had been turned back from. There are trucks parked on the road now, blocking egress.
The roadblock is now manned by a large crowd of young men. They surge towards us when they see us approach, and an especially angry young man – rough-looking – pokes his head in through the window.
The questions come in quick succession. “Where are you going? What Press are you?”
We tell him.
“WION? I haven’t heard of it,” he says.
“And who is he?” he asks, looking at me in the backseat.
For the first time in the day I feel afraid. I remember my conflict reporting training in which the British paratrooper taking the class asked us whether any story was worth risking life and limb. It was an easy question, and we’d all said no.
Javed gets out to argue with the men. “Let’s go back I tell Shahid. How long will we keep doing this for?”
But Anees is insistent we keep pressing forward. He gets out again. And a combination of our video footage from the morning – I think Anees has been saying that we need to get it to Srinagar and send it out to the world; telephones and the internet have been shut down across most of Kashmir – and the Mohammad boys get us through this obstacle too.
We get through yet another roadblock, where a boy we had met on our way out in the morning tells us: “I had told you to go back in the morning.”
Shahid reaches for his good-luck charm.
Home, a worried policeman, and a young boy armed with a stick
Finally, outside of Awantipora, 30 kilometres from the capital Srinagar, we hit a police picket manning the road. So far we have not seen a single police or army vehicle on the road, and it seems to me that the security forces are marooned inside their camps. That their writ does not run out in the villages. (Again, calls to senior policemen to corroborate this went unanswered.)
The policeman in charge stops us, asking, “Aage kitne log hain?”
A lot, says Shahid, and asks him the same question. “How many people are there ahead of us?”
“It’s smooth sailing from here,” he says smiling. “You can put your camera on top of your car and drive to Srinagar.”
A few minutes later, we come across a roadblock manned by young boys. My eyes focus on one dressed in a white salwar-kameez and armed with a stick. He can’t be more than 12 or 13.
Shahid parks some way off from them, and Anees gets out to have yet another one of his endless conversations.
“Kids are dangerous,” says Shahid. “You can’t do anything to a kid.”
After a while the motion of the boy’s stick, which has so far been telling us to turn around, tells us to come forward. Shahid backs off farther. The boy runs towards the car and when he sees he’s not gaining on us, he picks up a stone and throws it towards us. We are too far off, and it doesn’t make contact.
Finally, when we see Anees wave, we move forward.