A Transitional Tale


After growing up in the shadows of the gun, journalist Gowhar Geelani details the transition that it brought in the new generation. In Rage to Reason that Rupa published early this month, he offers the first-hand details of the changes that are still changing

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Book launch of Rage and Reason
Book launch of Rage and Reason

During my annual visits from Bonn to Srinagar, I’d find myself in the misery, pain and hardship that I remembered from my growing up years. In 2008–10, the entire Valley was on the boil. It was terrible in 2016 post-Burhan. My entire time in Kashmir was spent under strict curfew, amid massive pro-aazadi protests and a rash of civilian killings. These visits gave me the opportunity to draw parallels between life in Kashmir and the outside world. It began the moment I landed at New Delhi’s international airport, where I’d get the first intimation of what was to follow.

In 2008, a dashing young officer at the immigration counter at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport asked me a strange question while examining my travel documents: ‘Are you a relative of that firebrand Kashmiri separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who’s seeking freedom from India?’ For a moment, I was speechless. How does one respond to such a query? Soon, though, I saw its funny side. ‘I’m related to Syed Ali Shah Geelani in the same way as India’s off-spinner Harbhajan Singh is related to the (then) Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh,’ I replied with a sarcastic smile. The young officer smiled back, eventually; the matter ended on a cordial note.

This is what a Kashmiri faces on a daily basis. You are a suspect. Your credentials are questioned and you are judged. It doesn’t matter how many times you stand up and say, ‘I’m Kashmiri, I’m also a Muslim, and I’m not a terrorist. But I do have legitimate political aspirations!’ A Kashmiri living and working in Delhi or anywhere else in India has to often prove who he or she is and who they are related to. A Kashmiri living in Kashmir is forced to prove his or her identity every day to an outsider.

Growing up in Kashmir in the horror-filled 1990s was nightmarish. It was a battle for survival, as if a sword was constantly hanging over one’s head. For a child, the constant sight of the gun, whether in the hands of Indian military personnel or Kashmiri militants, was a constant reminder of the harsh reality of the times. The sloganeering during massive anti-state demonstrations was tempting, but the bullets piercing human bodies and the wails of mothers and sisters forced one to be pragmatic. Mourning had become a routine affair, as if it was Kashmir’s destiny.

The fourth and fifth generations of Kashmir since 1931 have a new vocabulary, a new idiom. In the early 1990s, as school children, we quickly learned terms like ‘curfew’, ‘crackdown’, ‘cordon’, ‘catch and kill’, ‘torture’, ‘interrogation’, ‘custody killing’, ‘arrest’, ‘detention’, ‘hartal’, etc. When it was time for us to learn ‘A for Apple’, ‘B for Ball’, ‘C for Chocolate’, we learned ‘A for Army’, ‘B for Bullet’ and ‘C for Curfew’! The circumstances we lived in were horrific.

Ours was a generation destined to learn a distinctive terminology. As we grew older, other terms nudged their way into our vocabulary, like ‘fake encounter’, ‘extrajudicial killing’, ‘mistaken identity’, ‘custodial disappearance’, ‘mass graves’, etc. Our literature was bloody. It was not our choice, though. Some choices are not our own. We hardly had any choices. Boys of my age were inured to daily doses of violence. Anger at those who marched in our streets with their weapons held high came naturally to us. We were angry at the government forces personnel who frisked us, asked us to prove our identity in our own land, threw our schoolbags away, ordered us to do push-ups and squats, and hurled the choicest invectives at us. This daily humiliation made fear a staple of our lives. For them, we were ‘the other’. For them to exert control on Kashmir’s streets and to exist as a dominant force, they needed an ‘other’.

An identity card became the most important document in one’s life. Moving out without one could mean a severe thrashing by government troops; in some cases, it might even lead to detention, interrogation, arrest, and death. During the 1990s, during what became routine frisking in private and public buses, government forces personnel would ask for identity proofs. If someone had forgotten to carry their I-card, it meant a catastrophe.

Mohammad Amin Bhat—a well-known theatre personality in Kashmir—had written a play about the importance of this document in Kashmir and how a piece of paper came to be valued more than an individual’s life. ‘Shanaakhti Card, Kashmir Aur Drama’ (Identity Card, Kashmir and Drama’) was screened at Srinagar’s Tagore Hall in 2006.

Shareef-ud-Din Shehri, the lead character, is a middle-class state government employee who makes ends meet with great difficulty. One day, while on his way to office, Shareef-ud-Din’s pocket is picked and he loses his wallet, which had his identity card along with some money and other documents. As fate would have it, the pickpocket meets with a road accident and dies on the spot. His face is disfigured, beyond recognition. After finding an I-card, wallet and other things in his possession, the police personnel investigating the case conclude that the deceased is Shareef-ud-Din. His family is informed and the body handed over to them. Despondent about his lost wallet, Shareef-ud-Din reaches home. He is shocked to find his family, friends and relatives mourning his ‘death’. He tries to convince them that he’s alive, but no one believes him. ‘We’ve seen your I-card and dead body, why should we believe you, you impostor!’ Disappointed, Shareefud-Din decides to arrange for his own burial despite being alive.

Kashmir’s award-winning artist and sculptor, Masood Hussain, came up with an artistic portrayal of the civilian uprising after Burhan Wani’s killing. He told Barkha Dutt on NDTV 24×7, in a programme aired on 18 August 2016, that he remained a silent spectator for a month, but once he saw pellet-hit children lying on hospital beds in distress and pain, something stirred within him. He saw the future of the young steeped in darkness and their dreams crushed. As a result, Hussain decided to protest through his artwork. His most striking artwork includes a Kashmiri child holding a schoolbag full with stones; two boys, who have been blinded by pellets, walking together, a long shadow cast ahead of them; and a boy and a girl with pellet-marked faces, wearing oversized sunglasses. His images are self-explanatory, and he calls them ‘silent images’. These have replaced the beautiful landscape, social life and culture of his earlier paintings.

That’s how one grows up. This problem got magnified after the Pulwama suicide attack. Several Kashmiri students, traders and professionals were attacked by right-wing mobs in various parts of India, forcing many to return home. Hate and revenge attacks against Kashmiris took place in northern, southern and eastern parts of India. Outside India, one carries multiple identities within him/ herself: an individual whose mother tongue is Kashmiri, loves his or her culture, is proud of his or her traditions, and who could be a Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. Kashmiris born since the 1980s have dealt with the overwhelming presence of Armed Forces in civilian areas. They are brought up under the shadow of the gun in an overwhelmingly militarized zone.

There is, however, a deeper issue related to the politics of identity that goes back to 1931, when J&K was a princely state under the Dogra Maharaja’s tyrannical rule. Being a Kashmiri and a Muslim does not mean that you want to necessarily establish the Caliphate in Kashmir. Since the early 1930s, multiple identities have played a role in rallying public opinion in J&K. The first significant political mobilization of Kashmiri Muslims against Dogra rule is said to have happened in 1931. Earlier agitations against the Dogra ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, were not politically centred. The first such recorded instance is when a group of Kashmiris gathered at Khanqah-e-Molla in downtown Srinagar. A young man called Abdul Qadeer is believed to have delivered a fiery speech against Dogra rule, which predictably resulted in his immediate arrest on the charge of ‘sedition’. Public outcry forced the judge to hold Qadeer’s trial within the premises of the jail on 11 July 1931. On 13 July, it was rumoured that Qadeer’s case would be heard before a magistrate at the Central Jail. In solidarity, hordes began marching towards it. Historians say that, faced with the crowds, the sessions judge ordered people to disperse, but they made a request to be allowed to offer prayers first. The police arrested some of those assembled, which infuriated the crowd. One of them is said to have recited the call to azan loudly. He was shot dead by a policeman. This resulted in angry reactions and stone pelting. The Dogra forces got unnerved and opened fire, resulting in the killing of twenty-two civilians. Scores were injured. Ever since, 13 July is observed as Martyrs’ Day in Kashmir. The victims of 13 July are claimed as martyrs by both pro-India and pro-Azadi leaders. A previous agitation by Kashmir’s silk weavers, shalbafs (shawl weavers) and artisans, demanding better wages and humane treatment, had been crushed by Dogra soldiers in 1924.

Gowhar Geelani
Gowhar Geelani

Dr Allama Iqbal, renowned philosopher and poet, during a visit to Kashmir in June 1921, had observed and reflected on Kashmir’s socio-political conditions and abject state of economy. He described the miserable condition of workers in Srinagar’s silk factory in a Persian poem, ‘Saqi Nama’, written at the Nishat Bagh, in which he calls for a socio-political awakening in Kashmir. In the first half of the poem, the conventional imagery associated with Kashmir is beautifully rendered. In the second half, the Kashmiri is portrayed as one who is used to servitude and unaware of his selfhood. Besides showering immense praise on the majestic beauty of the Nishat and Shalimar gardens, the last lines of the poem describe the misfortune of Kashmiris, their economic dispossession, the Dogra oppression, and the exploitation of silk weavers by the tyrant ruler. This poem lit a spark that would soon grow into a raging fire. Three years after ‘Saqi Nama’ was written, the Kashmir Valley witnessed a rebellion of sorts against Dogra rule at the silk factory in Srinagar. This crisis marked another important stage in the evolution of political resistance against the Maharaja’s rule. The workers launched an agitation and organized a strike against their low wages. An earlier strike, in 1917, had been brutally crushed. The second uprising, too, was suppressed, but it had set the stage for the economic awakening among the common people of Kashmir. Political awakening would follow soon after. In October 1932, Kashmir’s first political party, the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC), was formed. At this time, Left-wing intellectuals were also reasonably influential in the state. A young Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah was emerging as an educated leader. Born in December 1905, he had shot to instant fame for spearheading the agitation against Maharaja Hari Singh’s rule, which was perceived as repressive by the majority.

In 1989, when the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, a popular anti-state armed rebellion broke out in J&K, then backed by Pakistan. This was to change the lives, stories and literature of Kashmiris forever. The generation that grew up at the time was supposed to treat abnormal as ‘normal’. Curfews, strikes, arrest sprees, torture and killings became part of our daily vocabulary, our sense of ‘normalcy’. We were caught between the guns of the state and non-state actors. And people could not even talk about the state of their hearts and minds. What happened in Kashmir in 1989 did not happen in isolation. There was a regional context and also a global framework. The decade in question was the 1990s and the event was the battle for Bosnia. At the start of the decade, Yugoslavia was crumbling into chaos and civil war. Germany witnessed the historic fall of the Berlin Wall. Kashmir too had its own context of various vibrant political movements (The Plebiscite Front; a transitory armed struggle, al-Fateh, after the Partition in 1947; and the Quit Kashmir movement launched by the Sheikh in the early 1940s against the despotic Dogra regime). Along the way, there were many ruptures.

Kashmir’s society has traditionally been politically very conscious. It continues to be so. Usually, the youths would get their first lessons on global politics, the Kashmir conflict, and classic and modern literature at ‘waane pyaend’ (shop fronts). Normally, at a young age, a Kashmiri is exposed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mirza Ghalib, George Orwell, Mevlana Rumi, Hafiz Shirazi, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Saadat Hasan Manto, Albert Camus, Frantz Fanon, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Orhan Pamuk, Ben Okri, Annemarie Schimmel, Haruki Murakami and scores of authors, poets, mystics and sportspersons during the lively and insightful discussions at the shop fronts in downtown Srinagar and in the suburbs and ruburbs of the Himalayan Valley. Among other things, the onset of militancy and counterinsurgency negatively impacted this rich tradition of perceptive and passionate conversations on world affairs in the once vibrant social settings. But then, the conflict also taught one how to reclaim the lost intellectual and social spaces through creative means. In this situation of a choked social atmosphere and political uncertainty, Kashmiris are finding new and innovative ways to talk, to share tales of tragedies and triumphs, to construct a narrative, and to produce knowledge and literature with the aim to tell their story in their words and document history for posterity.

In the last few years, Kashmir appears to be developing a new culture of resistance, a new language of resistance—intellectual resistance; narrative resistance; a culture that, Kashmiris hope, can produce an Anne Frank to document their misery and resilience. It is an attempt in which the narrative of victimhood is not the main contention. The main contention remains Kashmir’s memory and dignified resilience through creative forms of resistance.

Despite the rich records of resistance—the romantic and mystic literature from the past (in Kashmiri language by Lal Ded, Sheikh Noorud-Din aka Nund Reshi, Habba Khatoon, Abdul Ahad Azad, Amin Kamil, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Rehman Rahi, Mushtaq Kashmiri, Basheer Dada, Zareef Ahmad Zareef and hundreds of other writers, poets and short story writers)—the Kashmir story is now being told by Kashmiris themselves in English and Urdu, besides the native Kashmiri language. This is a visible change. The generation of the 1990s, which lived in conflict, has grown up to tell its story to the world. In this endeavour, Kashmir’s young writers, novelists, poets and chroniclers have produced riveting memoirs, novels, literary non-fiction, prison diaries and numerous poetry collections.

For some decades now, thinkers in Kashmir have been expressing their unhappiness over a narrative vacuum in English language. The Kashmir story has usually been told by outsiders. The Valley of Kashmir by Walter Lawrence, Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy by Alastair Lamb, The Meadow by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Kashmir: The Unwritten History by Christopher Snedden, Kashmir in Conflict by Victoria Schofield, and The Vale of Kashmir by John Isaac are some examples. This narrative vacuum has hurt the cause of Kashmir. However, there has been a significant shift in the last two decades or so. Now, some sincere and serious efforts are in full swing to fill this narrative vacuum— particularly the literature of resistance—though the Kashmir story in English language still remains a work in progress. Given the angst of being constantly under surveillance by the state machinery and the different wings of its security apparatus, Kashmiri youths have found it extremely difficult to contribute adequately to conflict or resistance literature.

Habba Kadal (Photo courtesy: Shamoon Mir)

How do people make the transition from living in constant fear and a culture of silence and suppression, to visible forms of resistance against it? How rich is the literature of resistance in Kashmir? How effective are the different forms of resistance? Unfortunately, the answers to all these questions are not easy. Times are changing fast, as are the dynamics of resistance. Young Kashmir is intelligent and assertive. It refuses to rely on crafty and manipulative one-sided narratives from either New Delhi or Islamabad. It has begun narrating its own story, telling its own tale. It is shouting to the world, ‘Listen to me; it is my story—experienced, felt and narrated by me. No one else.’ Srinagar-born Mirza Waheed has written three novels, Collaborator (2011), The Book of Gold Leaves (2014) and Tell Her Everything (2019). Before him, Basharat Peer had written his memoir, Curfewed Night (2009). These books have perhaps become trendsetters and possibly also lit the spark to motivate other Kashmiri youth to document their stories. Mir Khalid’s Jaffna Street (2017) is another addition to Kashmir’s conflict literature. Author Khalid, a surgeon by profession, appears deeply influenced by Western literature. In his work, he has made an attempt to put Kashmir in a larger global context. Dr Rumana Makhdoomi, a senior doctor at SKIMS, has written White Man in Dark, which documents the suffering of doctors and paramedics during the years of conflict. Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit economist, author and poet based in London, wrote a novel, Residue. There are several other novels, such as The Half Mother by Shahnaz Bashir and a short story collection, Scattered Souls, by the same author. Other young writers are Feroz Rather, Insha Malik, Shaheen Showkat Dar, Huzaifa Pandit and others. Their writings bring out the different layers of the conflict to the fore. New Delhi-based senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani, who was briefly jailed under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923 and who is the son-in-law of Syed Ali Geelani, wrote his prison memoir, My Days In Prison, to document his time in Tihar jail. Gilani’s book has been translated in Urdu as Tihar Main Mere Shab-o-Roz. Another book, Of Gardens and Graves, by Suvir Kaul, a Kashmiri academic based in the US, thoughtfully examines the disruption of everyday life in Kashmir in the years following the restive region’s militarization in 1990. His investigative essays are a blend of political analysis, literary criticism, memoir and observation. A book named Witness by Sanjay Kak is a collection of the photographic documentation of troubled times, by nine Kashmiri photojournalists belonging to different generations. Siddhartha Gigoo’s books, The Garden of Solitude and The Long Journey Home (co-written with Varad Sharma), and Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots wrote about Kashmir from the Pandits’ perspective.

(The long passage was excerpted from the book with author’s permission)


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