The 53rd Day-Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

a 100 pieces of me

53rd day in Kashmir.

 

Pakistan slogans in Kashmir 2016

53rd day on the Kadals.

 

Calling the CRPF for engagement, Kashmir Unrest 2016

Calling the CRPF for engagement.

 

The older children try to entice the CRFP, while P.K. watches them. P.K is a 5 year old boy, who engages in this activity because he wants 'freedom'. Ask him what his name is and he says 'Mera naan Burhan he.'

The older children try to entice the CRFP, while P.K. watches them. P.K is a 5 year old boy, who engages in this activity because he wants ‘freedom’. Ask him what his name is and he says ‘Mera naam Burhan he.’

 

53rd day of Unrest in Kashmir

53rd day on the Kadal.

 

Saadiya Kochar

53rd Day of Unrest in Kashmir.

 

a 100 pieces of me

The forces make their way back to the area.

 

Saadiya Kochar

A boy checks on the lane behind me to ensure, I don’t get hurt.

 

53rd day of unrest in Kashmir

Removing the Blockage

 

Pellet guns kashmir

The Chase

 

Pellet injuries

The Search

 

Kashmir 2016

An older man takes me to his house to show me the wreckage after a nocturnal search. Damaged windows, appliances and a stench so terrible, that from the moment i stepped in, I had a hard time controlling the cough.

 

saadiya kochar, pellet guns kashmir

‘Aa maar hume pellet’, yell the boys, while the one with an already existing injury, advances forward.

 

a 100 pieces of me

Kaini Kadal-‘Non-lethal’ methods of crowd control. While the boys yell out ‘kalia, kokur-ch%#dh’ as insults, the armed personnel retort with ‘CRPF ki aulado’.

 

Saadiya Kochar

‘Tu police walli he’, asks this boy, incredibly agitated by me. ‘Na’. ‘Phir itna jigra kaise he?’

 

Retreating the boys run inside the smaller lanes and the armed personnel begin pelting stones.

Retreating the boys run inside the smaller lanes and the armed personnel begin pelting stones.

A couple of boys move towards the Karan Nagar side.

A couple of boys move towards the Karan Nagar side.

 

Karan Nagar

Stone Pelting in Karan Nagar

 

Habba kadal stone pelting

After the crowd has dispersed, on their evening rounds the JK police pelts stones on a house. A girl screams from the adjoining house,’ Ma’am when you go back, please tell them we are not terrorists but freedom fighters, like Gandhiji.’

 

After spending an entire day, watching what they called 'chua-billi ka khel', I head back. As I do, the armed personnel try to remove the blockage.

After spending an entire day, watching what they called ‘chua-billi ka khel’, I head back. As I do, the armed personnel try to remove the blockage.

‘It has happened and it goes on happening and it will happen again if nothing happens to stop it.

The innocent know nothing because they are too innocent.

The poor do not notice because they are too poor.

And the rich do not notice because they are too rich.

The stupid shrug their shoulders because they are too stupid.

And the clever shrug their shoulders because they are too clever.

The young do not care because they are too young.

And the old do not care because they are too old.

That is why nothing happens to stop it.

And that is why it has happened and goes on happening and will happen again.-Erich Fried.

 

Ji khabar aee he…pathrav ho raha he Keni Kadal me,’ says the voice on the phone. It’s 10 a.m on the 30th of August, the 53rd day of Unrest and I have decided to miss my flight. The government has lifted the curfew but the shops are shut and according to the calendar the women are supposed to gather at the crossings.
Though, there  are autos on the road, not a single one is willing to take me there. A little further away from the Police station, a ‘kani jung’, has been dispersed and the CRPF are searching for the protestors. I wait a while and then ask a passerby how to get to Kaini Kadal. He’s kind enough to walk with me. ‘Aap akele na ghumme yahaan. Aadmi ke saath chale. Haalat kharaab he,’ he says concerned about my well-being. ‘Aadmi kyaa karega? ‘, I ask him. ‘You could get lost, it’s best to be with a man who can guide you. I will take you till there but be careful.’ We walk for a bit, people ask him who I am and where he’s taking me. ‘She’s just a lost tourist’, he replies in spite of knowing, otherwise.
We reach the area, which is close to Habba Kadal and Karan Nagar. As we reach the bridge, he stops next to a few boys and says, ‘Ye aa gayaa aap ka Kaini Kadal. Khudda Hafiz.’ Since there faces aren’t covered, it takes me a minute to realise that I’m standing in between the protestors.’Aap uss taraf jao. Photo nahin kheechna, yahaan se,’ says a ten-year old boy. I walk across the road towards the CRPF. Now I’m on the Habba Kadal, side and there seems to be an entire battalion there-rakshak cars, police vehicles, Jk Police and the CRPF. ‘So many for a handful of children’, I think to myself. I walk around and wait…I wait and wait. It’s around 11.30 in the morning. The ex assistant calls to ask if I’ve found my way and to call as soon as I reach the hotel. The forces ask me where I am from. ‘Delhi’. ‘ Where is the rest of your team?’, they ask. ‘ I’m alone.’ ‘Darti nahin ho, kyaa?‘ they ask in disbelief.  ‘Kyun aap nahin darte?’,  is my only retort to the silly question. Everyone feels scared, whether they admit it or not!
I sit down on the steps of one of the closed shops. A middle aged Kashmiri man joins me. ‘ Chotti yahaan mat beth. Humare ghar chal. Chai pi.’ Kashmiri hospitality at its best. I politely decline the offer. After the basic introductions, we sit around chatting about the state of affairs. ‘Tu jis cheez ki wait kar rahi he, voh jaise he ye gadiyaan jangee tabhi hogi.’, he informs me about the impending circumstances. A family cautiouly steps out from the house, opposite to where I have unceremoniouly parked myself. ‘ Please come to our house, incase you need anything. Bathroom, jana hoga to, aa jana. Just because the circumstances are such doesn’t mean we have forgotten how to take care of our guests.’
 Slowly the Rakshak cars and seventy percent of the troops head back to the camp for lunch. As they make their way back, one asks me to come along. ‘ Madam, chalie khaana khaeye.’ I decline the offer, though in retrospect I think it would have been an experience breaking bread with the men, who spend their lives trying to protect us.
 If you’ve never been to Kashmir, you can’t imagine what a sight a woman wearing cameras around her neck, sitting alone on the steps of downtown is. By the time the Zuhar Namaaz is over and the troops have left, it has been mentioned in the Masjid and half of the locality comes to check me out. I meet all kinds-the kind ones, the hospitable ones, the agitated ones, the curious ones and the suspecting ones and I am truly intimidated.
In between all this, I am handed a cup of tea and roti by the family. The usual questions  ‘Where? Why? How? Saadiya what?’ The standard reply- ‘Kochar..I’m  not Muslim. I’m a Sardarni!’. Nowhere, do I  ascertain my Sikhi more than in Kashmir only due to the unfair advantage my first name grants me. A loudmouth starts to articulate his displeasure with me in English and some of the sceptics cheer at his fluency.  ‘I don’t appreciate your tone’, is all I say when he begins to ask me for my I.D. ‘Don’t stammer…don’t stammer!’ I tell myself. Right on cue, an older gentleman appears and asks me to come to his house. ‘Kal se press valon ko phone kar raha hu. Koi nahin aaya.‘ Thankfully, the ex assistant calls. ‘Someone wants to take me to their house. I’m going, ‘ I tell him. ‘Let me speak to them’, he says panicking. ‘ Please take care of her,’ he tells the boy who escorts me. ‘Don’t worry she is our sister,’he replies.
Off I go, through the lanes with a small group into a house. As soon as I enter I can’t stop coughing. There are broken appliances and clothes on the floor. ‘They came to search for our sons, saying they are pelting stones. When they couldn’t find them, they broke everything. I don’the know why the SHO is targeting  just my family. The Jk Police tortures us more than the CRPF,’he claims. A few short interviews later there’s a panic.  ‘Police..police!’ yells someone outside and a member of the group runs down with my bag. I run after him but I am blocked. Within a few minutes, my bag is returned and there are no cops.
I am escorted back to the Kadal ( bridge)  where I wait in anticipation. A five year old boy in a green shirt, glides towards it and starts to block the road. ‘Wo aa gaya P.K. Iska bhai 10 saal ka he aur jail me he. Iss ko bhi le ke gaye the station. Chaud diya,’ an adolescent informs me. ‘Ask him what his name is?’ I call P.K and ask him what his name is. ‘Mera naam Burhan he!’, he says. ‘Humare naam roshan karega!’, smiles the adolescent proudly.
And then suddenly everything starts moving at a crazy pace. They appear from nowhere…5 year old..10 year old.. .15 year old…20 year old boys. They all seem unfamiliar. ‘Jo jahaan ka hota voh wahan par nahin karta, protest’. They block the roads and then the younger ones run across the bridge to entice the CRPF and sure enough they appear. Fully covered in front of fearless, abusive children.
There are various groups divided between Habba Kadal, Kaini Kadal and Karan Nagar-each only a kilometer away from one another. I glide between both the Locals and the armed personnel..arousing the suspicion of both. By the end of the day, the boys have had enough of me. One of them sends me off to sit with the ladies under the bridge. They fuss over me. Thankfully my phone doesn’t quit ringing and I hand it to them to answer and inform people of my whereabouts. It’s just a precautionary measure.
The boy in the red mask appears without his mask. He enquiries from the ladies (in Kashmiri) if I have been taking pictures from that particular spot…have I been asking them any questions about the boys. They reply to the negative. Then he begins to question me…ultimately he gets agitated. ‘Tu police walli he kyaa?’ I nod. ‘To phir itna jigara kese he?’ ‘Sardar hu iss liye!’ But he’s unconvinced. My meekness doesn’t help so I do what I do best- Behave like a drama queen- ‘Ye le mere I’d.  Mere ghar ka pata he, agar police walli nikli ghar me aa ke maryo mujhe.’ That’s too much for him to hear. ‘Do you think I want to hurt you? Nobody will say anything to you but go away now. Stop taking pictures. Enough.’ Actually, after spending a day there, I have had my fill!

52nd Day-Normalcy between pellet injuries and kani jungs.

 

 

IMG_0215

An ambulance makes its way through the kani jung.

 

Clashes in Batamaloo

Clashes in Batamaloo

 

Boys against the force

Boys against the force

 

52nd day- Clashes in Batamaloo

52nd day- Clashes in Batamaloo

IMG_0245

One of the most volatile localities in Srinagar.

IMG_0371

‘Behanji aap me dimaag nahin he. Jao yahaan se.’- I get yelled at

 

Mr T came over this morning. This was his first visit, so over a cup of tea we discussed the ‘haalat‘ and how stubborn I am to be stepping out by myself. ‘ Where can I take you, today?’ he asked. ‘SMHS’, I replied. So off we went in an auto to the hospital, where I was threatened on my last visit. I didn’t want to go there alone, to be honest-so I was glad for the company. We took the back entrance, to avoid any unnecessary attention. Before we could enter the building, I heard a familiar voice, ‘Kesi hain aap?’. There stood the lady who forbade me to enter the wards, on my last visit. With her arm stretched out, she gave me the sweetest smile. I shook her hand hoping we wouldn’t be stopped again. It was my lucky day.

Considering that there are talks of replacing the pellet gun, it’s shocking that even now fifty-one days later, the situation at SMHS, is still grim. The papers claim that there are a fresh round of pellet injuries and more than thirty people have been hit by the pellet in their eyes. We enter the ophthalmology ward and from little children to young boys can be seen wearing those dreadful black glasses, masking their eye injuries. I keep my head bowed, my eyes to the floor and my head covered. T does the talking. When they ask him where I’m from in Kashmiri, he just replies ‘Times Of India’. They leave me alone but continue to question him. For about ten minutes we move from bed to bed as quickly as we can, barely interacting with the subjects and leave.

Injured children and injured adults.

Injured children and injured adults.

 

A child tries to sleep through his pellet injury.

A child tries to sleep through his pellet injury.

I come back to the hotel and he leaves, saying he will call if anything happens. A little while later, I go back to SMHS. This time to see what is happening on the volunteer front. By the time I reach it’s lunch time and all the organisations that had been there over a month ago, are still there providing-food, medicines and water . I speak to a few people who say, it’s still quite terrible. A lot more people have been admitted in the past week and everyday it seems someone passes away.

On the way back, I’m dropped off by a very friendly twenty four year old auto driver, from Safa Kadal. ‘The CRPF uses us as human shields in our area. I leave the house early in the morning because I’m tired of being confined. You all keep saying that the Hurriyat pays these boys to stir trouble. Do you know it’s the opposition parties that pay their people money to stir trouble? They all just want money and power. The only person who gets into trouble is the sixteen-year old boy, who doesn’t belong to any party. The ones who are affiliated  even if they are caught are set free in just a few days . We have a jail, we have our own law and yet the boys are sent to Tihar. Punish us if we are guilty but first at least file a case and prove that a person is, don’t just keep him in lockup for years! ‘

After his passionate monologue, all I can say is ‘may God make your tomorrow better than your yesterday.’ Get dropped and I’m informed by my people that there’s trouble in Batamaloo. As soon as I reach there, I find Mr T and a few other members of the fraternity. T is taken aback. ‘ How did you get to know’, he asks. ‘I have my sources, T’, I reply grinning sheepishly. There are stones on the street but no boys and no JKP around. Within ten minutes they start trickling in. As soon as I start taking pictures they ask, ‘Apne boyfriend ko dikhaee gee?’ In no other part of Srinagar, has any stone pelter done this but these guys love me. ‘Ye dekho madam, aap kehti he bacche he. Suno inki bate,’ the armed personnel are pissed. T is embarrassed by their behaviour, ‘you stay back’.

Maybe I am too close or they are way too agitated but for the first time in nine years the stones touch my body. I suffer absolutely no injury, one fall on my foot…the other hits my leg, gently and one whisks past me, twenty inches away from the head. The only reason it bothers me is because I can’t figure out if it is accidental or intentional. One of them eventually yells out ‘Behenji aap me dimaag nahin he. Jao yahaan se.’ Since T has left, the SHO is yelling and so are they, I decide to split.

 

51st Day-Rain, Rain Go Away.

IMG_0176

51st Day Of Unrest In The Valley

51 days after Burhan Wani was killed.

51 days after Burhan Wani was killed.

 

Boulevard Road On The 51st Day Of Unrest In The Valley

Boulevard Road On The 51st Day Of Unrest In The Valley

On a rainy day, through a quiet city a woman in red walks around with a bag on her back, occasionally closing her eyes to feel the rain drops on her face. She opens them just as quickly because her heart pounds in her chest. As she does this continually, for a few minutes she feels her self float above to get a bird’s-eye view of the poetic scene. ‘If only it weren’t this tragic!’, she thinks to herself as she meanders through the familiar terrain.

Madam, bade dino baad aee he!’, says the security personnel. I’m a bit taken aback but it is their job to notice people like me. I chit-chat with them as I take shelter from the rain. ‘We were sent to Amarnath for a little bit but I’ve just been here ever since.’ ‘Do you think the situation will change around Eid?’, I ask him. ‘Never know with these people…do you know they don’t think of themselves as Indians?’ He’s aghast. ‘I know they don’t!’ That’s my exit. ‘You can’t force them to’, I say as I walk away. A few years ago, I wouldn’t be caught dead chatting with an uniformed man. A few years ago, I wasn’t disrespected by random strangers as I walked around, Srinagar either. In a volatile situation like this-tact is of prime importance and not being a prisoner of your own opinions, is another.

I make my way to the ex assistant’s house where I’m covered in a blanket and fed by his family. People keep walking in and out. There are chickens, kittens and little children in the background. ‘You shouldn’t have come to Kashmir. We worry about your safety. Haalat pehle jese nahin he. Rising Kashmir ki reporter se bhi badtameeze ki he.‘ They show me an article which states that a female reporter was verbally assaulted by the security personnel. I try to change the topic. ‘If the shutdown continues, how will people survive?’ I ask them. ‘ In Kashmir we are always prepared. We keep enough ration in our houses and everybody helps each other out.’ replies my ex assistant’s father. ‘This time around they have to resolve the issue…too many people have been killed. ‘ ‘ Many were killed earlier too and yet it returned towards partial normalcy.’ I reply. ‘ This time it won’t! Go to any area, speak to anyone we all want the same thing.’

An auto drops me in front of the hotel. I cross the road to speak to some fruit vendors. As I do so, my friend Ocean calls. While I chat with him I take a shot of a passerby. The minute I finish my conversation, I am face to face with a cop. ‘Are you a tourist?’ asks the Jk police man politely. ‘No’, I reply. ‘ Then what are you trying to do?’ ‘Nothing,’ I reply. A few customary questions later, I have a question of my own for him. ‘ Sir, why the questioning? There is no curfew today.’ ‘ First we need to know where you’re from. If you’re a local-which you are not, which organisation do you belong to? For all we know you could be from the Millat. If you’re an outsider we need to ensure your safety and inform you to not trust anyone. These days you don’t get to know who is who,’ he replies.

51 days later, there's partial normalcy in the Valley.

51 days later, there’s partial normalcy in the Valley.

The conversation continues and I am given an insight into the lives of the Jk Police. He shows me an identity card with his photograph on it but it states that he works in a pharmacy. ‘This is for our safety…when we return to our districts we pretend to be someone else. Do you know if I walked into a local hospital, the doctors  will not treat me because I am from JKP? We are sitting over here to protect the fruit vendors, so that no one harasses them. But your people can also write that we don’t allow them to work or that we take money from them. ‘ ‘Why the resentment towards the media?’ I ask. ‘Your profession demands that you should be impartial and fair. Show both sides equally but you all don’t do that. Especially, the Kashmiri press always wants to portray us as the bad guys, even when we are trying to help they misconstrue entire episodes. You know all five fingers are not the same. Some uniformed man could be rude to you that doesn’t mean that you will generalise and think we are all the same. Carry on with your work.’ Though, he’s polite and we’ll spoken he seems a bit weary of me. He takes my number and I give it to him knowing not doing so will just arouse his suspicion.

The common man who tries to survive through it all.

The common man who tries to survive through it all.

 The fruit vendors sit at the crossing outside my hotel window. I see them bustling with energy despite the present circumstance. One agrees to chat with me. ‘For the past few days we have resumed work. We leave our houses at 5.30 in the morning, so that we don’t get into any trouble. The only people who don’t want azaadi are the 5% of the rich, who have houses outside Kashmir. The rest 95% want freedom!’ he states.

A couple of hours later, I receive a message from the cop, asking if I need any help. ‘No thank you,’ I reply politely. My natural instincts forbid me to trust, in haste.

 

 

The 50th Day

50th day of unrest in Kashmir.

                   Since there was a call to march to Badami Bagh, the area was cordoned.

 

 

 

Lal Chowk on the 50th day of the unrest of 2016.

                                               Lal Chowk on the 50th day of the unrest of 2016.

 

 

50 days of unrest in the Valley.

             50 days of unrest in the Valley.

 

A Rajasthani man busy with his occupation while most parts of the city are under curfew.

A Rajasthani man- busy with his occupation while most parts of the city are under curfew.

 

 I wake up with a tremour. The fear of flying coupled with a general anxiety about visiting the Valley at this time (after last month’s sojourn..do you blame me?) makes me incredibly nervous. The cab is a little late…the parents are awake and for the first time in a long time, the entire entourage (parents, the help and the dog) come outside to bid me adieu. My hands start to tremble in the cab. ‘It’s a sign…my final goodbye’. ‘Madam T3 jana he?’ asks the cab driver. ‘Haan’. And of course that’s not where I’m supposed to go! Get dropped at T3 and as I get off the cab, I realize I’m at the wrong terminal. Hail another cab…reach the airport, on time thankfully and just keep walking around in a daze. I just can’t seem to calm the nerves. One of my greatest fears in life is…fear. It’s a vicious circle, the minute I start feeling afraid, I become so nervous about the fact that I’m scared that I start behaving incongruous. Trip a few times and only after I buy a few books do I calm down. A few more faux pas later,  I am convinced the universe is giving me a sign but I have already boarded the flight. 

After visiting Kashmir continually for the past nine years, you would expect more from me, as I would from myself. But over the course of the past year, one has witnessed the growing suspicion towards the Non-Muslim in the Valley. Plus, I’m arriving all alone fifty days after Burhan Wani was killed. So it ain’t going to be a walk in the park. Anyway, share a cab and land up at the same hotel where I stayed last time. After all, I need to be near trouble. 

Check in and an hour later I step out into a mild drizzle. The weather is perfect for a nice walk. Though, there’s a lot more vehicular movement most areas are cordoned. It’s an odd mix of normalcy and captivity. Walk towards Yaseen Malik’s territory and get into an argument with an armed personnel. He tries to flex his muscles and I try to pretend I ain’t scared of nobody. We argue for a few minutes and then his companions break up the party. ‘Madam aap aage jaa ke kaam karo.’ I try again and succeed. In the corner sit two men at work. I chat with the Rajasthani workers who have been working in Srinagar for the past sixteen years. ‘ Hume koi kuch nahin kehta yahan par. December tak rahte he. Phir March me vaapis aate hein.’ 

Take a quick glance at Lal Chowk, which looks as deserted as it did last month and start to make my way towards Badami Bagh. The Joint Resistance leadership was supposed to walk towards the 14 core of the Indian Army at Badami Bagh and though, it’s a little late, I want to go there to see what’s up. Autumn is almost here, the weather is beautiful and without the conflict it would be the perfect place to live. The light drizzle turns into a mild shower and I hail an auto. The movement of traffic is restricted but there are a lot more people around this time. A few pictures here and a few pictures there and I ready to go back. ‘Madam kaun se channel see he aap?’asks the auto driver. I inform him that I am a free lancer. ‘Humari awaaz pohachti he ke nahin?’. ‘Yes, people know what Kashmiris want,’ I tell him. 

By this time we have reached my destination but he wants to chat. So  while it rains we have a heart to heart sitting in an auto parked outside my hotel. This forty year old auto driver, from the territory of the Mirwaiz has completed Msc. Four of his friends have been missing for over a decade and he himself was imprisoned for a few. ‘Unhone itna mara poocha militant he, mene bola hu,’he confesses. ‘We just want our freedom because we were free in the first place. Both Pakistan and India just want our land and they don’t care about the people. But at least Pakistan doesn’t torture the people of Azad Kashmir. I leave my house at six a.m so that I can earn some money. What can I say to you? Look at our people. Madam is saying the people who were killed didn’t step out to buy milk and toffee. NC, tortured us for many years but I never felt as bad as when I read this. This is the worst kind of betrayal.’ We eventually say goodbye.

I come back to my room and wonder why I was palpitating. That’s till, the announcements, the whistling, the yelling and the hum kya chahte begin. So for now, the light remains on the entire night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday the 18th- Kaani Jung

'Rakshak ko bhejo'

                                                                                      ‘Rakshak ko bhejo’, yell the protesters 

My highly evolved defence mechanism maybe self-destructive for my relationships but it serves me well, in Kashmir. Start getting a terrible feeling in my stomach at six in the morning. ‘ I shouldn’t go to SMHS, today.’ I fall back to sleep. Wake up…it’s drizzling..type my blog post for the previous day least I forget something.

‘It’s raining and there is a tight curfew in our area,’ Mr T informs me. I head off to Nawhatta in an auto. ‘These auto guys are as crazy as I am!’, I think to myself as I sit in one which is willing to take me till, ‘Jahan tak apko jane denge Madam.’ There are a number of autos that have borne the wrath of the stone pelters as well as the security forces. At the first check point we are sent away. We take another route. We are stopped in front of Dastagir Sahib. A look at the id and once it’s determined, (after some confusion about the name) that I am not Kashmiri, (sir papa ka naam dekho) I am given the go ahead. After the ban on newspapers, my peers are looked at unfavourably.

Auto ride through a city under curfew

                                                                Auto ride through a city under curfew

The whole of downtown is cordoned off.There are barbed wires everywhere and unlike the other parts of town there’s no vehicular movement. We don’t get to reach the territory of Mirwaiz but in an auto we’ve gone far enough.

When I reach the hotel I’m told that there’s stone pelting taking place in Chanpora. I send a message to Mr T to reconfirm. ‘It’s over and please don’t go there. It’s Mr Geelani’s area. An MLA has also been attacked’.  I send a message to the former assistant informing him, just incase I need to be bailed out. Off I go in another auto with the condition, ‘Madam auto door rakhenge.’

After the stone pelting in Chanpora

After the stone pelting in Chanpora

 

The lanes are tiny and I am glad I’ve missed the ‘kani jung’. It looks horrific. I take pictures of  JK Police, speak to a person from the locality who shows me the broken window panes of a masjid. ‘We don’t know what to do! The boys are destroying their own property. We are asking them not to. They ask us to speak to the security forces but we can’t. We can only try to stop our own…we are stuck in the middle.’ 

A rickety rickshaw ride back to the hotel and a couple of hours later I get a call from the front desk. ‘Madam, shelling ki awaaz aa rahee he (tear gas shells). Pathraav ho raha he. Dekh le agar jaana he to.’ ‘Shukriyaa Janaab’ , I thank my informant. Batmaloo is the where the trouble has stirred. A boy from that locality has passed away the previous day.

KASHMIR 2016

KASHMIR 2016

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Kashmir Protests 2016

Kashmir Protests 2016

I head off with a new auto driver. Something about the stone pelters has changed. All these years in Kashmir, having covered so many protests, I’ve never faced a scenario where the boys have heckled me. Infact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure my safety. I can’t count the number of times, bystanders as well as protesters have given me shelter in their houses, when the situation became uncontrollable.

 

 

Madam ko bhejo!‘, they yell from the opposite side.  ‘Ghar me Ma nahin he teri,’ yells a JK police sub inspector. ‘ Rakshak ko Bhejo‘, they yell again. ‘JK police hame kuch nahin kareege. Ye hamaare bai he!’. ‘Now we are their brothers,’ he turns around and says to me. The Jammu and Kashmir Police department has recently had to deal with the wrath of the protestors.  It’s a terrible position to be in-going against your own.(to be continued)

 

Kashmir 2016

Kashmir 2016

Sunday The 17th-SMHS

Graffiti on the shutters of shops.

The Legend Of Burhan Wani

 

Kashmir 2016

Kashmir 2016

Two nights later I’m feeling terribly homesick. Wake up at 5 a.m. in a city where suddenly everything seems unfamiliar. I can’t call home, since the hotel staff couldn’t pay the landline bill. Even if I could, I wouldn’t!  I’ve lied to the Mother about being in Agra with my friends. She’s recovering from a neurosurgery, the last thing she needs is to hear  the truth. The Father and I react the same way, feigning  indifference. The last thing I want to hear is, ‘I don’t care.’

SMHS

SMHS

 

Janaab M, my auto driver from the previous day is waiting for me. He’s going to accompany me inside the hospital. We smuggle my camera in, avoiding the few attendants who are outside. The torturous images that have made their way into the papers are all from SMHS. Images of the four-year old Zuhra, whose body has been pierced by pellets, the twenty year old unknown boy whose head was pierced with bullets, shattering his entire brain. The photograph of a 14-year old Insha Malik, who has lost vision in her right eye, a photograph of 31 year Parvez Ahmad who has lost the vision in his left eye.

We enter ward no 8, where the majority are suffering from ophthamalogical injuries. At six in the morning, almost everyone is asleep and totally bent out of shape.’What is a boy who has been disabled going to do in Kashmir? We’ve successfully worsened the Kashmir conflict by doing this.’I think to myself.

 

Darul-Atta

Darul-Atta

On one of the beds sit two attendants with a patient who is awake. I ask the patient if I can speak to him but he politely declines. We quietly move out and step into the adjoining ward. An attendant steps out to speak to us. As I am introducing myself, he sees two men and abruptly cuts me short. ‘Madam camera andar rakho aur jaan bachcha ke bhaago.’  The urgency in his voice makes my movements swift. The man who is part of the collective- Murawat centre, the recently released from prison bully, is walking towards us. I walk past him without making eye contact. Janaab M, looks at me and says,’ Jail se nikal kar abh ye volunteer hein. Ladko ki madad karte hein.Tabhi uss ladke ne bola, jao.’

The situation at SMHS, reminds me of something Andrew Thompson,

A patient who has suffered eye injuries, being taken to the ward

A patient who has suffered eye injuries, being taken to the ward

who served at one of the U.S run detention centers in Iraq wrote. ‘At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any crime….This provided a space for extremists to spread their message. The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention. Unfortunately, few military leaders did.” We really need to pay attention to this circle of violence and it’s consequence.

 A few minutes later, the same attendant joins us. He now only addresses my companion in Kashmiri. ‘There are a number of government agents in the hospitals. That’s why no one wants to speak to her. The men are being bashed up.It’s best if she avoids this place.’ I catch up with the 

IMG_2952

Tawheed Forum Jammu and Kashmir

We leave, I get dropped outside my hotel. Switch autos as a precaution and head off to see what’s happening in downtown. The new auto driver has much to say. 

By 8, I have done whatever I could. I’m scared and lonely in a city which has felt like home for almost a decade. Get dropped to my  former assistant’s home where everyone is pleased to see me. I apologise for barging in this early, unannounced. They insist it’s not too early. I’m fed and fussed over. Kashmiri hospitality at it’s best.I leave within an hour  before the curfew becomes strict and the few autos on the road also become unavailable.

Bemina

Bemina Youth Welfare Committee

Reach the hotel and miraculously, the staff hook me on to the very dodgy wifi. Blog entry posted…whattsapp status updated and I start replying to all pending messages. Mr T, my photojournalist friend from Srinagar, has been trying to get in touch with me. I inform him of my whereabouts. ‘Don’t step out alone’, he writes . Within an hour he lands up. Am I glad to see him!

We head off to SMHS, yet again but this time without our cameras. At the J&K Yateem Trust counter inside the hospital we chat with Zahur Sahab, from the Darul-Atta, Rainawari. ‘The government is providing cheap medication, not the kind that is required to heal pellet wounds. We’ve been here ever since, providing medication to the people in the wards.If the government was taking care of the patients why would all of us be here? ‘ I take a few pictures with my phone.

As we move towards the wards we cross paths with the bully. I’m glad to be with T, who looks like a typical Kashmiri boy. Though, there’s a hostility towards Kashmiri photographers too, being local is better than being ‘Indian’. On the way out, we come across a group of men, slapping someone and screaming ‘Card dekho iska, card dekho!’ ‘They are accusing him of being an agent. I’m glad we didn’t bring our cameras.’ says T. It’s total mayhem.


 

Saturday the 16th-8th Day Of Curfew In Srinagar

Protests in Kashmir after Burhan Wani killing.

                 Graffiti in Kashmir after Burhan Wani killing.

I wake up to the sound of vehicles. Try to make a call but I’m completely disconnected from the world. Grab a quick breakfast… try to check out the news but the cable is down. Try to find the newspaper but they have been seized so I just start walking towards Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital- the hospital which has received the maximum victims of pellet injuries, since the killing of Burhaan Wani, the twenty-two year old Hizbul Mujahideen commander,  a week earlier. The funeral that was attended by two lakh people spearheaded the protests of 2016 in Kashmir, with many taking to the streets to stone pelt.  The pellet gun which was used as a non lethal weapon to combat the crowd has backfired on us. Around a hundred young boys have suffered injuries to the eye. An unidentified man has died of pellet injuries to his skull on the 9th of July at SMHS and on July 10th Altaf Ahmed from Rajpoora passed away due to pellet injuries to the chest at the same facilities. Kashmir is burning, yet again!

The curfew is a bit relaxed, a few vehicles are seen on the road. A kilometer later, I find an auto. I’m dropped with instructions on where he can be relocated.

I hope the things I mention next aren’t seen as a reflection on Kashmiris but as a reflection of the circumstance in which they find themselves.

As soon as I walk in through the gate of SMHS, I know I’m in trouble. The people of Kashmir have gathered to help their own. There are volunteers running helter skelter, assisting the wounded. The camera and the fact that I’m alone attracts everyone’s attention. Suddenly I’m surrounded by, I can’t even recall how many men. I’m in the middle of a mob and I am their enemy. ‘Vapis jao. Andar nahin jane denge. Humse kuch puchte ho, wahan par kat kat kar kuch aur dikhate ho.’ They don’t want me to enter and I tell them I won’t till they don’t permit me to. But I will stand in a corner quietly, by myself. They leave me to my own devices for a few minutes. Then a man from the Bemina Youth Welfare Committee, strikes up a conversation with me.  ‘Where am I from? What do I want? Why does the media misquote us? What do I want to portray? Have I ever interviewed  the Pandit migrant? Yes! Then why not show the plight of the Kashmiri Muslim migrant?’

By this time I’m sitting on a chair in front of this man and I lose my marbles. His tone and manner, the people around me every thing makes me feel cornered. The truth is – I’m terrified and thankfully I’m most aggressive when I’m most afraid. ‘You’re not the first man who has tried to intimidate me. Please don’t talk to me about Hindus and Muslims. The first time I came here a man such as yourself called me a kafir. In fact, ten percent of the people I meet over here are like you. But I return every year for the ninety who are not like you. The ones who are kind, the ones who invite me into their houses when I am in trouble. If I felt scared I wouldn’t be walking around alone. If you treat people such as myself as enemies, you’re going to defeat the purpose. You have to engage with us.’

I don’t know if it’s the pressure from colleagues in the adjoining tent ( The  Umeed-e-Kashmir), which has been providing water to the attendants of the injured) who are incredibly kind,  my tone or what I now feel is my over sensitivity  but he quickly changes his tune. ‘I was trying to help you and you got angry. I just wanted to understand what you do and help you in any way possible. Go in through the door without stopping and nobody will say anything to you. Aap ne kuch khayaa nahin’, he says as I hand back the cup of tea and biscuits which have been given to me by his colleagues.  ‘Aap jaanti nahin hum Kashmiri khilaa pilaa ke marte he,’ he says grinning sheepishly. ‘Haan Ghushtaba Hospitality kehte he usko.‘ ‘Khaana kha ke jayeega, humare saath,” he says as I wave him goodbye.

By the time I enter, I’ve realised that I should only speak to the women. I ask a few where to go. I reach ward number eight, where some of the patients are recovering. There’s a long line in front of the ward. ‘I ask a woman if I can enter. ‘No we are asking you nicely not to. Please go away from here. Kal media valo ko maad pari he.’ ‘No problem, I will just sit in a corner and not say anything to anyone.’ A man approaches me. ‘Idhar aaiye. Did you not read what is written over here?’, he says pointing to the graffiti  on the wall. ‘Damn my camera bag!’ I think to myself. ‘Endian media and dogs not allowed,’ I read out aloud. ‘No problem. I will not enter. Can I sit over here?’ ‘Sit but don’t approach anyone,’ says the man who is a volunteer and has been recently released from custody (he’s boastfully announced this to me).

A warning, outside the wards.

A warning outside the wards.

 

I don’t need to. People start approaching me. I’m sitting alone on the floor of a hospital, in silent protest. A number of people tell me how the Indian media, edits and misconstructs their statements, that’s why they are weary of me. A young boy from Tral who is recovering from an eye injury and has come for a follow-up, tells me that ‘ iss time azaadi le kar rahenge.’ Another man tells me that I am a few days late. My predecessors (Zee news) have done the damage. I can’t comment, I’ve never watched the channel. All kinds of people approach me, many gentle, many offensive. A man offers to take me inside the ward without my camera. I readily walk in.

It’s sad and scary. Hospital beds lined with boys in their late teens and early twenties, bandages tied to their eyes, some disabled for life. I am escorted out by my companion. Outside the gate a few people strike a conversation. It again becomes a large group. An elderly man comes and disperses everyone who has gathered around me. ‘Mere jigar, agar kuch dikhana he to dikhao ke log kese ek doosre ki madad karte he. Government kuch nahin kar rahee humare leyee, ‘ he says to me as I walk away.

A kilometer later, I start feeling  rather uneasy. I’m being tailed. A Maruti with four men in it is following me. I stop. They stop. I wait they wait. I run to the opposite side and wait. A few minutes pass by. They wait and then leave. I cross the road again, afraid they’ll take a U-turn. I come across two elderly gentlemen sitting by the side of the road. I ask their permission to sit with them. ‘Paanch minute kyaa, pandra minute betho’. As we chat about the situation, a scooter with two boys on it crosses by. They keep staring at me. Again and again and again, they go in circles. ‘I’m just being rather paranoid,’ I think to myself. I turn around to ask the Uncles, if it’s unusual. ‘There are all sorts of people in hospital. Don’t feel afraid, just hit them. Jo dar gayaa voh mar gayaa. If you need to call up someone come to my house and use the landline.’ I politely decline. I wait around for what seems like forever. The boys disappear. I hate walking on the streets of a curfewed city, by myself, catching more attention than is necessary.

I find my auto guy who finds it shocking that I haven’t managed to get anyone on record. I beg him to take me to SKIMS in Soura. He agrees under the condition that I will return with him during prayer time. We cross our first check point. The security forces leave us but ask us to drop a man and his pregnant wife close to our destination. There are many check points on the way but we manage to pass through the deserted city. I breeze in out of SKIMS, with the voice records of a few injured boys and their relatives.

I’m still apprehensive about going back to the hotel. I walk around Lal Chowk and am repeatedly asked by the security forces to find company and stop gallivanting alone. ‘Galliyon mein mat chalo Madam, yeh log kuch bhi kar sakte hein.’ ‘Mujhe kucch nahin karenge sir,’ I say hoping  what I believe is true.

Friday the 15th-Jummah

7th day of curfew in Srinagar.

7th day of curfew in Srinagar.

Apko dar nahin lagta didi?‘, asks my father’s rather chatty chauffeur as he zips me to the airport at half seven. ‘Lagta he!’, I reply distractedly as I play with my phone. ‘Phir kya zarurat he jane ki?’ ‘Maut jahaan aani he, vahi aayegi. Waise bhi- humara kyaa he? Na koin uppar niche, ronewalla na koin ronewalli, janabe alli!’ (Incase you’re wondering, the dramatics are the consequences of my childhood crush on the Angry Young Man).

 

It’s the (in)famous Jummah day in Kashmir. The day when the clashes between the armed force personnel and the protestors are intensified by religious fervour. The killing of Burhan Wani, has had a devastating effect on the people of the Valley. The aftermath of that – more than 37 dead, hundreds injured and blinded due to pellets. This count doesn’t even include the loss of life or the number of injuries suffered by the Armed Forces. Those of us who frequent the Valley, could sense something unsettling was coming this way.
Curfew continues in Kashmir

Friday the 15th-Curfew continues in Kashmir

 

I arrive to a deserted city. It’s eerily peaceful. There’s a curfew but boarding passes are curfew passes, so we are let off easily. The cabbie drops me off in front of the hotel, which is walking distance from trouble. I check in and get to work. The Friday prayers commence. People pray and then leave. I wait around with the men in uniforms, who are kind enough to offer me a chair. I have never been on this side of the fence – no questioning, just politeness and courtesy. Over the walkie talkies it’s ‘alpha’, ‘charlie’ and ‘romeo’.

 

A couple of hours later- the word on the street is – the city has been peaceful. I head back to the hotel. In the evening, the curfew relaxes and I head out to buy some beverages. The hotel is running short of ration supplies. Thankfully, the ‘doomster’, has munchies  to get her through the next few days. I ask a few people but every thing is shut. Right then a scooter stops. ‘Pehchana?’ ‘Haan, photographer hein aap?’. Not that I remember but has to be. Turns out he is. Mr Z, introduces himself and offers me a ride. ‘Did you manage to shoot?’, he asks as I hop on. I give my standard reply to most questions, ‘No.’ ‘But I might go to the hospitals tomorrow,’ I continue. ‘Nahin waha nahin jana. Maar raheen he waha par press ko.’ ‘Since when have kashmiri men started hitting women?’, I ask him. ‘No they won’t look at you as a woman but as a photographer. It’s really bad over there.’ I’m very confused by the time we exchange numbers and say our goodbyes.

 

Buy some stuff from my regular guy at Rajbagh, walk for a few kilometres and find an auto. I ask the auto guy if I will get bashed up by the locals? He’s aghast. ‘You’re our guest, please come and stay with my family. No one will hurt you.’ I thank him profusely. When I reach the hotel, I ask the manager if he’s heard of any such instances. ‘Ofcourse not! No one will do anything to you.’ By dinner time the news has spread. The waiter who comes in to hand over the omelette, is very concerned. ‘Ma’am mene suna he aap ko kissi ne bola ke aap ko maar padegi. Hum aurato ki bohat izzat karte he. Mein aapke saath jaoonga, koi kucch nahin karega.’
I reassure him that I’m aware of the decency of the common Kashmiri man.

 

Right on cue I get a call from my former assistant. He’s one of the few people who is aware of my whereabouts. Since the mobile networks are jammed he’s been unable to get through. ‘Mein ghabra gaya, subha se apka phone nahin mil raha he. Somehow I managed to get through to the hotel. I’ve informed my family that you’re in Srinagar. Go to my house. They’ll take care of all your needs!’ Somehow,  I convince him that it’s important for me to stay put. By the time we say ‘khudda hafiz’, I’ve decided to continue as per my original plan.