Our Mohalla clings to the Jhelum at the far-end of the town, bound on the other side by the bypass road of the main highway of the region. On either side of the Mohalla, the catchment area of the town had sent across two bridges to feed it, but now the bridges largely transfer doles from the Indian government in the opposite direction, which many believe is a colonial scheme to keep the local economy on crutches and integrate it into the mainland’s financial system. The Mohalla has, by and by, come to be densely packed with houses, especially near the bridges. The main street of the Mohalla, parallel to the bridges and almost equidistant from them, is therefore a cul de sac.
The banks of the river are low and slope gently up to the level of the town. Heanz, the Kashmiri community of fishermen, reside in the lower part of the Mohalla and the upper part houses a mixed population. The lower part is infrequently flooded. Kameez and shirts, yazaar and trousers, an occasional pheran, stick to the pikes and gaps in the attic walls, the roofs and the TV antennas of the largely wooden houses in the lower part like so many flags of claim laid by the ravaging water. The thinner of these rags flutter during strong winds like sails atop mastheads, evoking Noah. It is as if the river is reminding the fishermen from time to time who the real boss is, and that if they can steal fish from it, in return it can rob them of everything.
We can, if we want to, retrace every flag of a shirt, kameez, trouser, yazaar or pheran upstream to tales of love, horror, comedy, romance, lust, error and whatnot, right up to the cul de sac of their origins, but since we have already chosen to focus on the story of the main street of the Mohalla, let’s return to it. At any rate, one story done well is every story, at least of a time and place.
The street, as I have already mentioned, is a cul de sac. In the beginning, it was little more than a dirt track with a tanga-stand at the end, on the slope of the banks, a few meters away from where the fishing-boats used to be anchored. Entering from the bypass road, the shrine of the patron saint of the Mohalla lies on the right side of the street. Behind it is the Mohalla’s graveyard. The courtyard of the shrine, a long strip of land adjacent to the street, doubles up as the jinaazgah. Across the street was the district office of the Department of Fisheries, a forlorn structure whose architecture, and the fact that its left flank was left incomplete, stood testimony to the half-heartedness of the effort which went into its establishment. The department had been dysfunctional for a long, long time, its staff interested only in the shade of the chinar tree in the garden in summer and the warmth of the bukharis in winter. The only fish the department concerned itself with jumped from one page of the official paperwork onto another page. Some had climbed up the chinar and shone in the form of neon light-bulbs among the branches of the tree.
The Heanz of our Mohalla are politically a very conscious community, rallied in the late 1950s against the license-regime of the Indian government by Abdul Ahad, a distant uncle on my mother’s side, with the slogans "qol seain, tsol seain" (The river is ours, and so will be the hearth) and "Aes ham te aessee naav, hindustaan kyaze karree graav" (We work the oar, we work the boat, why should India gloat). In the years the Kashmiri leadership was still experimenting with the electoral politics as a means of obtaining azadi (freedom) from India, the people of the Mohalla consistently voted for anti-India candidates. We cared nothing for the tap-water which was introduced into the Mohalla, or the electricity, or the macadamisation of the main street, dismissing these as governance issues even the worst imperialist had to take care of. When a change of strategy was effected in the late 1980s and militant means were employed, many young boys of our Mohalla were in the first batches that went to Pakistan for arms training.
After their return, the boys, now mujahid, kept themselves to the Mohalla, at least in the beginning. They would ambush army and paramilitary patrols on the bypass road of the town and then seep into the neighbourhood, vanishing within minutes. Later, they would re-emerge to attack another convoy of soldiers, who at that time were being poured like the water of the Indian Ocean into the valley.
This continued for some months. The Indian response, when it came, was swift and brutal. On the morning of the 22nd of May 1991, the Indian army and the Border Security Force (BSF) executed a joint operation “to flush out undesirable elements from the Mohalla.” In all, twenty persons were killed, three of them due to drowning. Five of the dead were armed militants, the rest civilians. Eight women, including the seventy-four year old mother of a mujahid commander, were raped. More than half the Mohalla was burnt down. Fire-fighters were not allowed into the settlement and the brilliant flames dazzled the waves of the river at nightfall. A beam of light went across the river to the other bank. It is said that Mohammed Ramzan’s three young daughters, aged 7, 8 and 11, had tried to cross this bridge of light but were claimed by the cruel water. Some others say that the girls drowned while trying to escape from the lustful clutches of the soldiers. Cries of men, women and children, and shrieks of “ha Khodaya”, “hatto Ghatkaroo”, “ha myani Nabiya”, “hatto Dasgeera” mingled with the moos of the cattle and the cackles of the fowl right through the night between the 22nd and 23rd.
On the morning of 23rd, the survivors of the Mohalla were forcibly assembled by the troops and informed by the commanding officer of the operation that our Mohalla had been “cleansed of terrorists for now,” so we could return to our daily routine “free from fear”. We were dumfounded, straining our eyes and ears to detect any irony in the commanding officers speech. We found none.
After the soldiers left, we surveyed our loss and gathered the dead bodies. Word of the apocalyptic violence committed in the Mohalla, which was fast becoming commonplace in Kashmir, had spread and people from all over the town and other parts of the valley had started gathering to offer the funeral prayers of the martyrs. It was decided that a portion of the courtyard of the shrine would be converted into shaheed-mordeguzaar, the martyrs’ graveyard.
The events of the two days had an obvious effect on the survivors. We became even more determinedly active in the freedom struggle. Every few months, a small group of boys of the Mohalla would cross over to Pakistan Administered Kashmir, called Azad Kashmir, and to the Pakistani mainland for weapons training, then return to live and die the life of a guerrilla. The severity of the Indian response in the form of killings, rapes, enforced disappearances and the policy of overwhelming the daily life of the residents with fear and humiliation kept increasing all the time. But after every attack by the soldiers, the rebels would regroup and mount a counter-attack. The Indian government felt a need to have a permanent presence in the Mohalla. In the spring of 1995, to the great delight of the staff who no longer needed to pretend fish and could get their salaries sitting idly at home, the district office of the Department of Fisheries was converted into an army camp.
The army revamped the whole structure. It marshalled all the able-bodied men of our Mohalla to work free-of-cost. The height and width of the perimeter walls were doubled. Seven watch-towers were constructed, four at the corners of the perimeter, one at the centre of the side opposite the main street and two placed at equal intervals on the side facing the main street. Two large bunkers were built on either side of the main-gate of the camp. The incomplete left-flank of the main building was lined with sandbags and converted into a torture centre. A tree-house holding a number of sniper weapons was put up in the chinar, the logic being that it would be difficult for any intruder to spot the snipers through the glare of the fish-shaped neon light-bulbs.
There were many attacks on the camp. The buildings, the chinar and the perimeter walls were scarred by bullet-marks. Many fish hanging on the chinar were blown to smithereens. The army responded with more counter-attacks, surpassing its own records of brutality and violence. The torture centre of the camp gained notoriety among us as a place from which nobody ever returned. The death toll rose steadily. The martyrs’ graveyard was filling up fast.
The army had put barricades on the main street in a fashion which had become typical in Kashmir. Half the road was blocked with large stones, bricks and metal contraptions with sharp spikes. Then, a few metres on, the other half of the road was blocked in a similar manner. Another few metres ahead, the first half of the road was blocked again, and so on and so forth. There were twenty such barricades. The rationale was that it would prevent the guerrillas attacking the camp from a fast-moving vehicle. The guerrillas never carried out such attacks but what the blockade achieved was letting the residents experience the giddy feeling of travelling over winding mountain roads every time they came out of or went back into their Mohalla. Frequently, people were made to get down from vehicles near the main-gate of the camp and were subject to frisking. Women were constantly aware of the soldiers’ gaze when they passed under the watch-towers on the main street, reminding them of the rapes of 1991 and the more recent ones. Bearded men tip-toed nervously, trying to avoid attention. The soldiers used to enjoy the effect they had on the residents.
There were only two situations in which the army would step down from the watch-towers and give us some relief from their panoptical watch. One was the urs held at the shrine of the patron saint. It is a three-day event. Local artists sing Sufi folk songs like "Khoon jigras yemm wazoo korr, tass taharet kya karre" (What will ablution do for a person who has cleansed herself with her heart’s blood) and "Marnaey bronthe, marr darweesho, sarr kar panui paan" (Die before you die, oh seeker, transcend your self) while people pray and chat and generally buzz around. The air is full of festivities as vendors set up candy and snack stalls on the main street. Children are brought along, to introduce them early to the traditions of the search for the Eternal and the Ultimate as well as the simple pleasures of everyday life. The soldiers didn’t have the faintest of idea what was going on. They found it comically absurd that the locals could celebrate and rejoice even in the harsh circumstances they were living under, and for such an archaic experience. For them, it was more foolish eccentricity among the locals. They took the day off for boozing.
The other situation in which the soldiers used to step-down from the watch-towers and cower behind the walls was when a martyr’s body was brought for burial. On such occasions, angry slogans of “We want freedom,” “Indian dogs go back,” etc., interspersed with the grief of laments like “Saani Kasheeri kya baneo, alvida saani shaheedo” (What evil has besieged our Kashmir! Farewell our martyr!) would reverberate across the street. Some young men would pelt stones on the main-gate, the watch towers and inside the camp. In one such gathering, a guerrilla commander who had been given the title Ibn Sakhafat (Son of Culture) gave a thundering speech at the jinaazgah.
“The buildings across the street should be a constant reminder to all of you of what colonialism means. If files have to travel from here to Srinagar and Jammu and from there to Delhi and then come back, you can only have a Department of bullets in place of a Department of Fisheries...But more than that, you should keep the shaheed-mordeguzaar constantly in mind. It bears witness to the fact that the only type of Kashmiris India is okay with is dead Kashmiris. As long as India continues to occupy us, we can only survive if we become Indian – lose our language, our culture and our religion – for the only place the Indian state has for us is to showcase us as exotic specimens in its cultural programmes and events...Azadi is a cul de sac. Progress can only be made by moving ahead. A U-turn to slavery will suffocate everything we love and cherish, for at its conclusion there is a dead end.”
The veterans among the crowd did not miss the slight ring of frustration in Ibn Sakhafat’s voice. The frustration was a result of the new turn events were taking. By this time, the autumn of 1999, the guerrillas were on the back-foot as the Indian military apparatus strengthened its grip over Kashmir. In any case, the guerrilla movement, by itself, was bound not to succeed because Pakistan, in pursuit of its own “strategic calculus,” had been equipping the guerrillas with AK-47s, pistols and hand-grenades, instead of sniper weapons, and giving them the training of a regular army instead of guerrilla warfare. The local boys, despite their idealist sentiment for freedom and their legendary valour, had therefore become more cannon-fodder than a liberation army.
There was another reason for the frustration expressed by Ibn Sakhafat. At the start of the guerrilla movement, the government of India had unleashed a sly programme of ex gratia relief in Kashmir. Deceit was embedded in the very name of the term, implying that the soldiers were absolved of the crimes committed and the state was benevolently offering compensation for human and material losses for which it was not responsible in any way. The legal nature of the relief was deliberately kept veiled from the residents and confusion was allowed to riot in their minds. Some believed that ex gratia relief was blood-money, taking which meant forgiving the state. Others held the opposite belief; ex gratia relief was recognition of the culpability of the soldiers and the state. Still others thought providing ex gratia relief was a universal principle of governance followed everywhere in the world.
In our Mohalla, unbeknownst to anybody, Mohammed Ramzan was the first to accept ex gratia relief, because after the death of their three daughters, his wife had developed heart trouble and needed expensive medical attention. Over the years, hardly any household in the Mohalla had been left untouched by the destructive Indian military occupation and the guerrilla movement fighting against it. So it came to pass that the money of ex gratia relief accumulated in a majority of homes in the Mohalla. The residents were awkward around large amounts of hard cash. They did not know what to do with it. Tentatively, they began to spend the money on things they traditionally used to spend wealth on: Building new houses and educating their children. Some invested in small businesses or opened new bank accounts. This was the time when the Mohalla started becoming overcrowded with houses and smaller streets spread like roots from the main one.
This was also a time of great change within India. Beginning in the early 1990s, huge businesses with gigantic office buildings and colossal industrial projects, including big dams, were the new order of the day. Small became a shame and a curse. Pizza, burgers and shawarma latched onto people’s tongues before sinking into their stomachs. Chinese food conquered large parts of the Indian empire. In sufficiently big cities, new coffee-houses brewing foreign beans sprouted up. Skirts and tank-tops, jeans and other body-hugging clothing encapsulated people’s imaginations and bodies. The tired middle class developed an affinity for driving the ever-widening range of new cars on the market. As money began to play a more central role in people’s existence, not many things were left whose value could not be calculated in monetary terms. It became easier for people to live their lives without caring for others.
Since Kashmir was organically linked to India as a colony is to the mainland, many of these developments were replicated in Kashmir, and in turn, in our Mohalla. The seductive power of easy money, even if it came in the form of enforced compensation for the brutal killings of loved ones and the violent destruction of homes and lives, combined with the fact that residents could not foresee Kashmir getting azadi in the near future and felt abandoned by the world’s conscience, initiated an ugly transformation of the natives into a cannibalistically consumerist society. An army of cars invaded the place and a large battalion was recruited in our Mohalla as well. Traffic multiplied manifolds and the main street of the Mohalla became congested. Under a new policy of giving India’s military occupation a facelift, the army had removed the barricades from the street. Still, the street suffered frequent traffic jams. The fact that it was a cul de sac did not help matters. People were really unhappy with the state of affairs. Finally, the government came up with a solution.
While expressing its inability to remove the army camp, or to at least acquire the roadside part of it, which, it declared, was “still needed for security purposes,” the government offered widening of the road by eliminating the shrine and the martyrs’ graveyard.
Arif Ayaz Parrey is a Kashmiri writer, researcher and activist. Trained as a lawyer, his work has appeared in the collections Until My Freedom Has Come and A Tangled Web and various publications including Economic and Political Weekly and the Honour newsmagazine, to which he is a regular contributor. He strongly believes that a free Kashmir is the key to peace in South-Asia.