August 11, 2008 will remain ingrained in Kashmir’s psyche, the day Kashmiris responded to the blatant economic blockade by right-wing Hindu nationalists in Jammu to break the resolve of a people. Showkat Nanda offers a first person account of how lakhs marched towards Muzzafarabad braving bullets.
The ‘other’ side never seemed so close before. For some, who had left home early that day, coming back didn’t really matter. To reach Muzzafarabad was a ‘matter of minutes’ only if they were given a safe passage. If not, they could face death and they knew it.
In Baramulla the journey began in trucks, buses, cars and motor bikes. Hundreds marched on foot too. Vehicles were honking. Everyone was celebrating. It was a truly popular rebellion, mobilizing the entire society to protest and build a parallel leadership – the leadership of the people. For the first time in my life, I could see people in control of their own destiny.
Women and children lined the sides of the road; some throwing food packets, water bottles, fruits and biscuits at the marchers, some praying for their safety and a few others trying to synchronize with the roaring slogans of Pindi Pindi, Rawalpindi.
A long serpentine line of about 1000 buses and trucks spread over almost five kilometers, driving through the mountainous terrain near Khadinyar, looked as if people were on a pilgrimage. Faces were jubilant, people were screaming with excitement overtaking each other impatiently.
The moment we took a the blind turn near Chahal, a small township nearly 20 kms from Baramulla, I could see a crowd of paramilitary soldiers sitting in a similar manner we would sit for a group photograph in our school- the first row resting on their bellies in a typical firing position, their guns pointing directly towards the anticipated marchers. The second row stood on one of their knees using the other one as a resting stand for their guns. The third line of soldiers confidently stood in a standing position as a backup, I suppose.
The road behind them had been dug deep with bulldozers making a big rectangular crater across it. A couple of huge tree trunks had also been placed across the road to prevent vehicles from going further.
The vehicles drove slowly towards the soldiers. People had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Their sheer number had given them an unshakable confidence.
After all, from Sopore fruit Mandi to this village of Chahl, people had already dared half a dozen paramilitary camps, even braved bullets and cleared hundreds of meters of concertina wire spread at a distance of every five minutes as road blockades. As vehicles and marchers moved forward, a blast on a hill on left side of the highway created a huge ball of cloud ripping off the leaves from the trees. It looked like an IED blast that had already been planted by the forces apparently to intimidate the crowds.
Suddenly, teargas shells and gunfire rained into the crowd. A bus that was leading the huge procession got hit several times. People fell out of it and scrambled, crawling towards its tyres. They ran for cover amid a dense mixture of tear smoke and dust which almost blocked the sunlight making the whole atmosphere somber and ghostly.
Some climbed up the hill on the left side of the highway hoping to hide themselves behind huge pine and deodar trees while some others jumped off the road on the right side down the river banks. The atmosphere had turned foggy and there was anger everywhere. The drivers drove backwards but there was hardly anything they could do. It was too difficult to negotiate through an unimaginably long line of vehicles spread over almost five kilometers. They had already crossed the last turn and were straight into the firing line of the soldiers.
A few young men were trying to pull the wounded towards the bus that had already been targeted. People were screaming. Gunfire rattled on.
Inside the buses that stood behind the first one, frightened faces were pressed against the windows. They remained cuddled in their seats. Anyone stepping off the bus risked being shot.
A group of people I was a part of were in the middle of the road trying to look for a cover. We had really no place to hide. The two sides on our left or right were too steep to either climb the hill or jump down the paddy fields near the river banks. But a huge rock on one side of the road stood between us and the soldiers; it actually stood between our survival and death.
There were two of us left of the group – me and a boy who hunkered down behind me sharing the cover of the rock. I don’t know how long we stood there. But we could continuously listen to the rattle of gunfire. Many a time he would try to leave the place lured by his anger to throw stones at the government forces, but every time I held him back . There was no point in trying to be bold. We were, at the most, 30 meters away from the spot where several people had already been hit; bullets tearing though their bellies and chests.
When the firing stopped, I, along with dozens of other people, tried to get close to the spot where the firing had actually taken place. Nobody knew how many marchers had been hit. There was no count really. I could only see a trail of blood and a few pairs of shoes lying on the ground. On the other side, the soldiers remorselessly looked at the protestors collecting the dead and the wounded.
People, while carrying the injured, from the crowd were screaming, “this is my cousin,”…”that’s my friend’s brother”. It looked like a massacre. One of the young men who was hit several times was lying on the floor of a truck. He shouted, “I want to go home,”. His brother who sat next to him repeated, with tears rolling down his cheeks. “I want to go home too. We will. You just bet we will,”. Half an hour later, on way to Baramulla hospital, he lost both – the bet and his brother.
Between 2 and 3 p.m, nearly 15 people had been hit with bullets. By the time the dead and the injured had been evacuated, people again decided to march ahead. It was surprising that despite three men already shot dead and dozens wounded, people just didn’t stop. In my life I had never seen people marching directly into a hail of gunfire.
The slogans began roaring again, this time even louder. I could see fearless faces all around me. As hundreds started marching ahead, I heard a series of teargas blasts in quick succession. While I was running for cover, I found people behind me glued to the ground. They didn’t budge an inch. Suddenly, a rumble of gunshots followed. I scanned my body to see if I had been hit. My body was trembling. “This time it’s definitely a massacre”, I thought, because the intensity of the gunfire was enormous.
Minutes later, someone shouted from the crowd, “Sheikh Aziz has been hit with a bullet,”. All of a sudden, hundreds of people stepped out of the vehicles and began shouting “ shaheed ki jo mout hai, woh qaum ki hayat hai’, not knowing that Sheikh was still alive, and talking. Amid a dense cloud of dust and tear smoke, I could faintly see an injured Shiekh Aziz being lifted up into a truck that began racing towards me, dozens clinging to its sides and hundreds chasing it shouting “Sheikh Aziz ka kya farmaan, Kashmir banega Pakistan”.
I couldn’t believe myself. Moments earlier, I had seen him grabbing the hands of two young protestors each on either of his side and heard him saying, “We will march on. Let’s see how many more will they kill”. Honestly, I hadn’t seen him from so close ever before that. I could see no fear on his face. There was a strange seriousness on it.
What I could hear that moment was the cries of people carrying the dead and the injured. Yells, screams and slogans resonated in the air. Ambulances and trucks carrying the dead and injured raced away from the scene.
Till 5 p.m ,four sessions of targeted firing had passed. Four people had already died. And many more were injured. But still people didn’t give up. As the death toll reached five, rest of the valley was already on fire. In Baramulla town where the injured were initially referred for treatment, the rumors of more than a hundred marchers being killed had already broken backs. The situation had turned riot-like. Bunkers were flattened, vehicles burnt, and every single symbol that even remotely represented the idea of India was razed to the ground.
I came home that day. Emotionally exhausted but grateful – I had survived.
As I sit in my office writing this, I am haunted by a question. How could they shoot people like that. Just watch a crowd march on; sit in a firing position, wait, watch and fire.
Showkat Nanda is an Assistant Editor with Kashmir Life