A Withered Witness

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Witness to the ups and downs in Shehr-e-Khas, Siddiq Sodaghar remembers all events between the Nala Mar filling to the worst of Sher-Bakra feud. His attempts to join rebels were frustrated by his father but he could not save him from the neighbourhood garrison and the jails. After years of struggle when he was happily earning, a paramilitary man destroyed his eyes one by one forcing him to live in perpetual darkness for the eight years now, reports Durdana Bhat

Mohammad Sidiq Saudaghar looking towards Jamia Masjid from his home. He can not see it though. KL Image: Durdana Bhat

On his window which opens into a panoramic view of Jamia Masjid and a new shopping line coming up on an obliterated torture centre, Mohammad Siddiq Sodaghar sits in a distraught state. He intermittingly breaks into a disturbing monologue, mapping his own tragedy as a witness and a hothead disciplinarian in the defiant square, Nowhatta, which has been housing the footfall of dissenters since long back now.

With his fading eyesight, he has now grown as a loner, who comes across as a madman. Inside his ramshackle room, he takes a sage’s pauses to comment how he became expandable in Kashmir’s contemporary history.

He holds his walking stick to his chest. That’s how he sits after pellets rendered him sightless. With a stony pair of eyes, he incessantly scoffs upon recalling his repeated assaults on the streets below.

Siddiq first walked on those streets as a child in the tumultuous sixties when hoards resounded it with the slogans for a plebiscite. Somehow, those passionate cries are still afresh in his tormented mind. But being a witness and sufferer of the history at the same time has already taken a toll on him.

For many around him, Siddiq is already the K-history’s ravage. But he refuses to accept the victimhood—even when he has already become destitute.

With his fading eyesight, Siddiq takes one to the period when hundreds of people were deployed for filling the Nallah Mar, the navigational canal that was running through the old Srinagar city and for centuries had remained the main source of water transport. The channel was filled up and converted into a road in the 1970s. “With some friends, I remember going to the spot and shouting anti-Abdullah slogans,” Siddiq said.

Those days, Nowhatta used to be the competing war-turf between the followers of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and the slain Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq. “Every other day,” he flashes his toothless smile, “the followers of those two leaders would compete to raise their banners. The entire square at times would turn into a battlefield.”

Growing in such times had its own grooming for the boy whose father would earn his living by selling fresh fruits on a roadside cart around. By the time Siddiq, locally known as Gudah hit his preteen stage, the mood in his backyard turned militant.

All of a sudden, he says, the disgruntled masses turned up in the Nowhatta square to raise the slogan that would become the war-cry of Abdullah’s detractors for years to come: Raj Shumarie Barik Dabas, Aalve Babas Mubarak (Hail the man who asked his followers to live on potatoes for supporting the Plebiscite Movement and ended up binning it).

Following that event, Nowhatta was no longer a supposed ‘Sher Chowk’ for Abdullah’s supporters. Now, Mirwaiz Farooq was the lock, stock and barrel. That was the peak of Sher-Bakra feud in Srinagar.

Witnessing a new wave of defiance in the politico-religious space post-1975 forced the young Siddiq to react in a certain way. He could no longer maintain his father’s ‘neutrality’ for the sake of putting food on the table of his family. By the side of his father’s cart, he would regularly saw some familiar boys of the locality turning Nowhatta as a confrontational zone. Years later, many of these boys would be crossing the frosty heights of Line of Control to get arms and training for waging a war against Indian state in Kashmir.

Mohammad Siddiq Sodaghar | KL Image: Durdana Bhat

“I was bound to cut loose,” he turns his stony eyes to the front of his wall. “Maintaining neutrality in the times of deceit and treachery was thought to be sissy in this part of the world.” He stares the wall in a considerate manner, before turning his head to the bustling square to say, “And I wasn’t sissy. No, I wasn’t!”

His direct exposure to the high-voltage dissenting activities around made him some kind of street roughie and toughie. Messing with him was to invite the trouble. Being a one-man command post, he had his own fan following — some of whom would later become jail birds, a few of them would vanish while crossing LoC and some were found dead in Police Control Room during the early nineties.

“We didn’t see it coming,” Siddiq says, as he rises up to take walk around. As he walks down the rundown stairs, he keeps recalling his friends, now scattering in graveyards across the valley. Pacing through the medieval neighbourhood, he steps into the side of the square and sits down to vacantly stare things around. That’s his paranormal routine now.

Back in the day when Siddiq was spotted for his die-hard allegiances to the Mirwaiz family, he was promoted and became some kind of ramrod of Jamia Masjid, the default nerve-centre of the Mirwaiz family.

By the late eighties when a particular situation was taking a shape in Kashmir, Siddiq was no fence-sitter. His street exploits had already made him one of the sparkplugs of the armed uprising in Kashmir. But while his neighbours like Mushtaq Zargar and other downtowners known for their street protests responded to the emerging political situation, Siddiq took his time.

“While cooling my heels around,” he says, as passersby occasionally greet him, “I would watch the entire Nowhatta square rocked by Mirwaiz supporters with clashes and stone pelting. But after the Accord, the square began hosting a new arrival.”

Suddenly some militant gatherings would recreate the binned demand of plebiscite. He recalls a group who would gather around to chant, La Sharqiya La Garbiya, Islamia, Islamia (No East, No West; Only Islam). He remembers it well how the slogan was first raised in Kashmir after the Islamic revolution in Iran and during the visit of Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei and the Imam of Kabba in Jamia Masjid, marking Shia-Sunni unity.

“I was one of those who set the stage for that grand unity,” Siddiq says, in his weathered state. “Those were different times, I would hold sway around.” But the characters like Siddiq were soon to be transformed the moment the AK-47s started dominating the streets. Such was the rousing reception for the new entrants in the square, he says, that it seemed Azadi is inevitable.

But that impression didn’t last long.

Soon a battalion of paramilitary forces arrived to reclaim the square. To enforce its writ, the Border Security Force (BSF) turned a big house facing the square as its garrison, a torture centre, besides establishing sand pickets on its entering and exit points.

With that shift, the square became a new offensive zone between paramilitary and the insurgents.

“I used to watch the happening from the window of my house,” Siddiq says. “Sometimes, they would barge into our house and beat us. No, not sometimes! They barged whenever they wished. Yes, they did. They would come and ransack everything. At times, it was hard for us to even open a window. See those windows above, they still bear the assault marks. We paid a heavy price for living around. When the army arrested one of my uncles, we couldn’t locate him for days, before one day we got to know that he has been killed.” Amid that rampant assault, Siddiq watched his neighbourhood turning a ghost town.

Many in his neighbourhood sold their house at minimal prices and left. Siddiq calls it the distress sale phase that eroded the native population of the place.

Amid all this, Siddiq’s street audacity and ‘militant contacts’ frightened his father, who ‘voluntarily’ handed him over to police. “It was his way of stopping me for joining the rebel ranks,” he says. He was lodged inside Srinagar’s Central Jail where he met some top separatist leaders of the day.

By the time he walked out in 1995, five eventful years had already passed. He was no longer the hothead and could never reclaim his past aura. The situation had thrown new characters, enforcers, protagonists and schemers as well. In parts of Kashmir countryside, the new gunmen sanctioned by the state were ruling the roost. Some of the ‘loose guns’ were even coming after the “rebels” of yore, like Siddiq. But somehow he managed to survive that vicious phase.

On a shop-front facing the long gone torture centre, he describes the jail life as some kind of an exile. He was soon out on Nowhatta with his fruit cart. But the threatening situation frequently made him a target. He recalls a series of detentions, with an agitated mind.

“Even when I stopped responding to the situation around me and decided to sell fruits and corn on the roadside for a living, they repeatedly tried to made martyr out of me,” he says. As suspicion ran amok, he was arrested and rearrested. In the shade of the torture centre, Kowsien Makaan, he found it hard to resume normalcy.

Kawoosa House torture chamber in Srinagar’s Nowhatta

“I was repeatedly taken inside that interrogation centre,” he says. “I still remember how it would reek of alcohol and urine. At times, I would be bundled inside for simply asking the officer to allow me to sell the fruits around.” One day, he walked out of that torture centre with a fractured leg.

“To prevent what was happening,” Siddiq says, shuttling between the sane and insane state of mind, “I decided to move out from this place and went to Goa in 1995.”

There, he applied for a visa, went to Dubai and then to Saudi Arabia. “But I couldn’t understand their language,” he smiles. “For 30 days I tried to get used to it, but I couldn’t speak either English or Arabic, and decided to return with the help of one Kashmiri family.” Back home, the witness who was no longer assertive in his own hometown was to relive the nightmare, all over again.

As he resumed his fruit cart, he paid the costs for being the witness in a defiant space. “I saw so many boys being killed in front of me,” he says. “When the situation got ugly, we left our house for three years and went to stay with our relatives.” When his family returned, the horrors returned to haunt him.

Those horrors would often throw him out of sleep in the night. For the 11 years, he says, BSF occupied the interrogation centre and hell-scared the local residents. “We would sometimes listen to the loud cries, screams and sometimes the victims used to loudly scream their names so that someone would inform their family members that they were taken there,” Siddiq says. “I was lucky to come out, as they recognized me as a fruit seller and spared me, unlike others.”

By mid-nineties, when the last trooper evacuated the torture centre and left, Siddiq burst into tears. All of a sudden, he says, the torment had ended and given a new lease of life to the square, which was soon to be reclaimed by the dissenters. Then, he would travel to villages, buy fresh fruits and sell them in the fruit mandi.

In 2010, when the situation turned militant again in the valley, Siddiq found himself and that of the entire locality grappling with curbs, clampdowns and curfew.

“One day when I heard some noise outside,” he says, “I walked outside to get cigarettes. I went to nearby Khoja Bazar, where I found myself in the middle of protesters and forces. Even before I could run for safety, paramilitary personnel shot me in the eye with a pellet gun. I was knocked unconscious for a minute before another personal standing near me shot me in the other eye. That was it. I was doomed.”

A file pic of clashes in Nowhatta area of Srinagar.

What followed was just the ritualistic medical formalities, coming at a fortune for him and his family. The witness was now the worst sufferer. He forever lost touch with the happenings of the square which shaped his understanding and made him realize that in the times of great hostilities, the worst sufferers are often the commoners who brave and breathe the everyday conflict without making even to the footnotes of history.

Today, in his enforced dark world, Siddiq tries to sum up the half-existence, the past which was being ransacked, he chooses not to marry as if he had already a clue of the storm that was coming for him. The events that kept unfolding in front of him and later, he could have settled his life but when things were getting normal for him, he was blinded.

Living with the intense pain and waking up to life again, Siddiq lives with his brother now. He doesn’t earn any more, he is often seen around the area of Jamia Masjid.

When this reporter went to meet him, he was seated near a shop right outside his house, with a cigarette in his other hand and was mumbling something to his own self.

All that is left of him is the reality of his existence, he remembers it like a living testimony. He described it in the shrouds of words and in a way as if he was separating his self for the reality and visualizing the past in the present, recalling every bit it.

Those words were an elegy, a lament, which had everything to it, the pain, the memoir, the light of life and the darkness of disability and loss.

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