Cul de Sac
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.