Kashmir’s Forever War
On an early December morning in 2009, I was on a flight home to Kashmir. It doesn’t matter how many times I come back, the frequency of arrival never diminishes the joy of homecoming – even when home is the beautiful, troubled, war-torn city of Srinagar. Frozen crusts of snow on mountain peaks brought the first intimation of the valley. Silhouettes of village houses and barren walnut trees appeared amid a sea of fog. On the chilly tarmac, my breath formed rings of smoke.
The sense of siege outside the airport was familiar. Olive-green military trucks with machine guns on their turrets, barbed wire circling the bunkers and check posts. Solemn-faced soldiers in overcoats patrolled with assault rifles at the ready, subdued by the bitter chill of Kashmiri winter. The streets were quiet, the naked rain-washed brick houses lining them seemed shrunken. Men and women walked quietly on the pavements, their pale faces reddened by the cold draughts.
In Kashmir, winter is a season of reflection, a time of reprieve. The guns fall silent and for a while one can forget the long war that has been raging since 1990. In the fragile peace that nature had imposed, I slipped into a routine of household chores: buying a new gas heater for Grandfather; picking up a suit from Father’s tailor; lazy lunches of a lamb ribcage delicacy with reporter friends; teaching young cousins to make home videos on my computer. Yet I opened the morning papers with a sense of dread, a fear of seeing a headline printed in red, the colour in which they prefer to announce yet another death – the continuing cost of our troubled recent history.
Political discontent has simmered in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir since partition in 1947, when Hari Singh, the Hindu maharaja of the Muslim-majority state, joined India after a raid by tribals from Pakistan. The agreement of accession that Singh signed with India in October 1947 gave Kashmir much autonomy; India controlled only defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications. But, in later years, India began to erode Kashmir’s autonomy by imprisoning popularly elected leaders and appointing quiescent puppet administrators who helped extend Indian jurisdiction. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir since then. In 1987, the government in Indian-controlled Kashmir rigged a local election, after which Kashmiris lost the little faith they had in India and began a secessionist armed uprising with support from Pakistan. The Indian military presence rose to half a million and by the mid-nineties Islamist militants from Pakistan began to dominate the rebellion. The costs of war have been high: around 70,000 people have been killed since 1990; another 10,000 have gone missing after being arrested. Although there has been a decline in violence in the past few years and the number of active militants has reduced to around five hundred, more than half a million Indian troops remain in Kashmir, making it the most militarized place in the world. India and Pakistan have come dangerously close to war several times – once after the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and more recently after the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.
And the attacks continue. A few weeks after I left Kashmir again, on the cold afternoon of 7 January, two young men walked through a crowd of shoppers in the Lal Chowk area in Srinagar. They passed bookshops, garment stores, hotels, and walked towards the Palladium Cinema, which once screened Bollywood movies and Hollywood hits such as Saturday Night Fever, and was now, like most theatres in Kashmir, occupied by Indian troops. As they neared the Palladium, the two men took out the Kalashnikovs they had been hiding and fired several shots in the air. One threw a grenade at a paramilitary bunker. Passers-by rushed into shops for safety; shopkeepers downed the shutters. Hundreds of armed policemen and soldiers drove from the military and police camps nearby, surrounded the hotel and began firing. The hotel caught fire.
The fighting continued for twenty-seven hours before the two militants were killed. The police announced that the militants were from the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Pure), which had also been responsible for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. One of them was from Pakistan. Although most of the Kashmiri guerrillas who had started the war are either dead or have laid down their arms, the second militant, Manzoor Bhat, was a twenty-year-old from a village near the northern Kashmir town of Sopore. I was curious about what had led Bhat to join one of the most dangerous Islamist militant groups, many of whose members are from Pakistan.
I left my parents’ house on a calm May morning of no news and began driving out of the city to Bhat’s home. The village of Seer Jagir is a palette of apple trees and rice paddies, brown wood and brick houses. Old men smoked hookahs and chatted by shop fronts in the village market. Schoolboys in white-and-grey uniforms waited for the local bus. Everyone knew where Manzoor, the martyr, lived. On the outskirts of the village an old man and a boy sat by a cowshed. The sombre-faced boy in a blue pheran was Bhat’s brother. He led me past the cowshed to an austere, double-storeyed house. His mother, Hafiza, a wiry woman in her late forties, joined us a few minutes later. She wore a floral suit and a loosely tied headscarf. ‘I was feeding the cows,’ she said in apology. Hafiza and her husband, Rasul Bhat, had three sons: an older one who worked in a car garage; the youngest son, the student who sat with us; and Manzoor, the dead militant. Though the Bhats lived amid a great expanse of fertile fields and orchards, they owned only a small patch of land, which produced barely enough rice to feed the family. Bhat gave up his studies after ninth grade and began work as an apprentice to a house painter. He learned fast and had in the past few years painted most of the houses in the neighbouring villages. ‘He made around 8-9,000 rupees (US$200) a month,’ Hafiza told me. ‘He bought the spices, the rice, the oil, the soap. He ran the house.’ She fell silent, her eyes fixed on a framed picture of Manzoor: a round, ruddy face, shiny black eyes and a trimmed beard. I was struck by the younger brother muttering something, repeating his words like a chant. ‘He bought me clothes and shoes. He bought me clothes and shoes.’
On 1 September 2008, Bhat left home in the morning, ostensibly for work. He stopped in the courtyard and greeted his mother as usual. It was the first day of Ramadan. He didn’t return in the evening. Hafiza and Rasul assumed their son had stayed with a friend. They got another friend of his to call the phone Bhat had recently purchased; it was switched off. They tried again the next morning; the phone was still off. ‘We feared he might have been arrested by the military,’ Hafiza said. Rasul went to a police station and filed a report about his missing son. Then he went to several military and paramilitary camps in the area, seeking information. A police officer told him that his son had joined the militants.
And here we have a familiar story. Two weeks before Bhat signed up, he had joined a pro-freedom march from the nearby town of Sopore towards the militarized Line of Control, the de facto border. The protests were provoked by a land dispute with the government and quickly morphed into a call for independence.
On 11 August, Bhat and his fellow protesters marched on the Jhelum Valley road which had connected Kashmir with the cities of Rawalpindi and Lahore prior to partition, before the Line of Control stopped all movement of people and goods between the two parts of Kashmir. When the protesters – riding on buses, trucks and tractors – reached the village of Chahal, fifteen miles from the Line of Control, Indian troops opened fire. Bhat saw unarmed fellow protesters being hit by bullets and falling on the mountainous road. Four were killed at Chahal, including a sixty-year-old separatist leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz. In the months that followed, the scene in Chahal was repeated as hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris responded, marching in peaceful protests. They were often met with gunfire. By early September 2008, an estimated sixty protesters had been killed, and up to six hundred reported bullet injuries. Kashmir was silent and seething, crouching like a wildcat. Indian paramilitaries and police were everywhere, armed with automatic rifles and teargas guns.
Many of the injured from across Kashmir had been brought to the SMHS Hospital in central Srinagar. The hospital complex is surrounded by pharmacies and old buildings with rusted tin roofs. The surgical casualty ward has a strong phenyl smell, the cries of the sick and the wails of relatives echoing against its concrete walls. Here I met Dr Arshad Bhat (no relation to Manzoor), a thin, lanky man in his late twenties. The night before Manzoor Bhat, the would-be militant, saw protesters being shot near the Line of Control, Dr Bhat slept uneasily on a tiny hospital bed in the doctors’ room. The next morning he walked into the surgical emergency room with five other surgeons at nine thirty. He and his colleagues were expecting an influx of wounded protesters. Within two hours, streams of them, hit by police fire, were pouring in. He summoned every team of surgeons in the hospital; some thirty doctors arrived and by the end of the day they had treated a few hundred people with grave bullet wounds. ‘We might have saved more,’ he told me, his voice full of regret, ‘if they had not tear-gassed the operating theatre.’
Several young men I interviewed pointed to the killings during the protests of 1990 to explain their decision to join militant groups. Yasin Malik, then a wiry twenty-year-old from Srinagar, worked for the opposition during the rigged 1987 election campaign. After the election, many opposition activists, including Malik, were jailed and tortured. Malik and his friends decided to take up arms against Indian rule and cross over to Pakistan for training after their release. By the winter of 1990, Malik was leading the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a guerrilla group that became the focus of overwhelming popular support.
‘Self-determination is our birthright!’ – all of Kashmir was on the streets shouting it. In those heady days, an independent Kashmir seemed eminently possible. But India deployed several hundred thousand troops to crush the rebellion; military and paramilitary camps and torture chambers sprang up across the region. Indian soldiers opened fire on pro-independence protesters so frequently that the latter lost count of the casualties. Before long, thousands of young Kashmiris were crossing into Pakistan-administered Kashmir for arms training, returning as militants carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers supplied by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). Assassinations of pro-India Muslim politicians and prominent figures from the small pro-India Hindu minority followed, leading to the exodus of over a hundred thousand Hindus to India.
Pakistan was wary of the JKLF’s popularity, its demand for an independent Kashmir, and chose to support several pro-Pakistan militant groups who attacked and killed Malik’s men. Indian troops killed many more. Malik spent a few years in prison in the early nineties; his body still carries the torture marks as reminders. In prison, he read works by Gandhi and Mandela. On his release in 1994, he abandoned violent politics, turned the JKLF into a peaceful political organization and joined a separatist coalition called the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, which pushed for a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
By the time Malik came out of prison, however, a pro-Pakistan militant group called Hizbul Mujahideen dominated the fight against India. Its leader was Syed Salahuddin, a Kashmiri politician turned militant who had been a candidate for Kashmir’s assembly in the 1987 elections. By the late nineties, most of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmiri fighters had either been killed in battles with Indian forces or arrested, or had spent time in Indian prisons and returned to civilian life, like Malik’s men. Pakistan’s ISI began backing jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had no roots in Kashmir politics and were motivated by the idea of a pan-Islamist jihad. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a Lahore-based former university professor and veteran of the Afghan jihad, heads the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Most of Saeed’s recruits came from the poverty-stricken areas of Pakistan’s Punjab province. The jihadis from Pakistan introduced suicide bombings and took the war to major Indian cities – most dramatically with their attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of full-scale confrontation.
Yet by late 2003, after vigorous American and British diplomatic intervention, a peace process between India and Pakistan was under way. The insurgency began to wane. Pakistan reduced its support to insurgent groups and India’s long campaign of counter-insurgency appeared to be a success. However, Kashmir remains heavily militarized, and the abuse of civilians by Indian security forces continues, fuelling more rage and attracting recruits for Islamist radicals like Saeed.
The dead speak in Kashmir, often more forcefully than the living. Khurram Parvez, a thirty-two-year-old activist, is part of a Srinagar-based human rights advocacy group, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), which produced a report in 2009 exposing hundreds of unidentified graves in the Kashmiri countryside. We met in a garden cafe in Srinagar. Parvez, a tall, robust man with intense black eyes, walks with a slight limp. In the autumn of 2002, he was monitoring local elections in a village near the Line of Control. As he drove out of the village with a convoy of military trucks ahead of him, a group of militants hiding nearby detonated an improvised explosive device which blew up under his car. The driver and his friend and colleague, a young woman, Aasiya Jeelani, died in the attack. Parvez lost his right leg. Several months later, with the help of a German-made prosthetic, he began to walk again and returned to work. ‘I couldn’t give up,’ he said softly. His engagement with the pursuit of justice in Kashmir has been personal from the beginning. His grandfather, a sixty-four-year-old trader, was one of the protesters killed by the Indian paramilitaries on the Gawkadal Bridge in January 1990. For months, Parvez had thought of taking up arms in revenge, but was persuaded to stay in school by his family. They lived on Gupkar Road, where the Indian security forces ran some of the most notorious detention and torture centres in Kashmir. Almost every other day, he saw desperate parents walking to the gates of the detention centres in his neighbourhood, looking for their missing sons.
Parvez’s cousin and mentor, the lawyer Parvez Imroz, co-founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, along with a Srinagar housewife Parveena Ahangar, whose son, Javed, had been missing since early 1990, when he was seventeen, after being taken from their home in a night raid by the Indian Army. Ahangar and Imroz campaigned for information about the whereabouts of 10,000 people who had disappeared in Kashmir after being taken into custody by Indian troops and police. Parvez joined them full-time after graduating from college; by late 2005, when a devastating earthquake struck Kashmir’s border areas, he was a veteran of civil rights activism. ‘We were doing relief work in the earthquake-hit areas when we began hearing about mass graves of unidentified people,’ he told me. His group placed several advertisements in Kashmiri papers requesting that people contact them with any information they had about the unidentified graves. Parvez, Imroz and a few other activists travelled widely, documenting this information. Their report, ‘Buried Evidence’, startled Kashmir.
At Kupwara in northern Kashmir, miles of lush green paddy fields spread out from the fringes of the run-down, cluttered town square. A short walk from the market, Shabir, a young shopkeeper, and I climbed up to a small plateau of walnut trees, willows and vegetable gardens, which was also one of the biggest graveyards described in the report Parvez’s group had produced. Unmarked graves covered with wild grass stretched ahead of us in neat rows. Shabir and others from the neighbourhood had placed a tiny white plaque on each grave, with a number and the date of burial. The number on the latest grave read: 241. ‘The police would bring the bodies and say they were militants killed in encounters or on the border,’ Shabir told me. ‘A lot of the faces would be disfigured. Some were mere teenagers, some older.’ I had heard similar accounts on visits to other such sites in the area. ‘We have no way of knowing who these people really are,’ Shabir continued. Parvez had sent a copy of the report to the head of the Kashmir government. Nothing happened.
Civilians continue to be killed and described as terrorists. In April, a spokesman for the Indian Army announced that the troops had killed the ‘oldest militant’ operating in Kashmir. Aged seventy, Habibullah Khan was from the village of Devar on the slopes of a mountain range by the border in the Lolab Valley, an hour and a half from Kupwara town.
Khan had had a tiny patch of land, not enough to feed his entire family. He and his three sons worked as labourers and sold timber they gathered in the forest to make ends meet. In the early nineties, one of Khan’s sons crossed the border into Pakistan and stayed there. In the summer of 1999, his oldest son, Ahmedullah, left to fetch wood in the forest; Indian troops patrolling there suspected he was a militant and shot him.
By 2003, Khan couldn’t work any more because of ill health. In desperation, he took to begging in the nearby town of Sogam. ‘I couldn’t stop him,’ his remaining son, Raj Mohammad, told me. On the morning of 11 April, Khan left for Sogam, where he would normally spend the day in the market, outside a mosque, returning in the evening with whatever generous strangers had given him. He never returned home.
On the fifth day of his father’s absence, having made enquiries in the neighbouring villages, Raj Mohammad travelled to Kupwara. He heard talk about the army killing of a seventy-year-old militant in the forests of Handwara District, a couple of hours from his village. In a press release, the Indian Army claimed that they had shot him in a joint operation with the police and that an AK-47 rifle, four magazines and sixty-seven bullets were recovered.
Raj Mohammad went to the police station closest to the shooting. ‘A police officer we met showed me a picture of the dead man on his cellphone screen,’ he said. ‘It was my father.’ He was granted permission to exhume his father’s body from the graveyard where he had been buried as an unidentified militant.
Two decades of insurgency and counter-insurgency have resulted in the creation of a state of affairs that provides incentives to troops and policemen to show ‘kills’. Those involved in counter-insurgency in Kashmir receive fast-track promotions, as well as monetary and other rewards for getting results. In February, the Indian government awarded one of the highest civilian honours, the Padma Shri, to Ghulam Muhammad Mir, a notorious counter-insurgent who worked with the Indian troops in central Kashmir and has several urder and extortion charges still pending against him. One of India’s top bureaucrats, Home Secretary G. K. Pillai, told a television channel, ‘Mir had done yeoman’s service for the national cause.’
Two highly controversial Indian laws, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act, which have been in operation for twenty years, give the troops stationed in Kashmir the power to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat, and guarantee impunity from prosecution. To bring a soldier before a civilian court, India’s Home Ministry has to remove his immunity and grant the Kashmir government permission to prosecute him. More than 400 such cases are still waiting for that permission.
All this has taken its toll. Srinagar used to be a city of elegant latticed houses, mosques and temples on the banks of the river. Srinagar was people strolling on the wooden bridges and wandering into old bazaars or stepping with a prayer into a Sufi shrine with papier-mâché interiors. Now it is a city of bunkers, a medieval city dying in a modern war. One of the most prominent landmarks of war is the sprawling Martyrs’ Graveyard in north-western Srinagar; several hundred Kashmiris killed in the early days of the conflict are buried here. Among them is a well-known politician and head cleric of Srinagar grand mosque, Moulvi Mohammed Farooq, who was assassinated by pro-Pakistan militants on 21 May 1990. More than sixty mourners were killed when Indian paramilitaries fired upon his funeral procession. The cleric’s eighteen-year-old son, Omar Farooq, left school to inherit his father’s mantle. He is now one of the best-known Kashmiri separatists, heading the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference coalition.
A few days before the twentieth anniversary of his father’s assassination, I walked past the Martyrs’ Graveyard to an old wooden mosque nearby, where Farooq was holding a meeting with his supporters. In an elegant brown lambskin cap and delicately embroidered beige gown, he deftly mixed his roles as a modern politician and the head cleric in Kashmir’s Sufi tradition, leading his followers in a sing-song voice humming Kashmiri and Persian devotional songs and then moving effortlessly to the question of Kashmiri politics. He spoke of the memory of the thousands who had died in the battles for Kashmir, including his father. He spoke of preventing further deaths. And then the old Kashmiri slogans for independence followed. ‘Kashmir is for Kashmiris!’ Farooq shouted. ‘We will decide our destiny!’ the people replied. He was about to lead a march through the city. Outside, excited young supporters were revving up their motorbikes and raising flags on cars.
Over the years, Farooq has engaged with both India and Pakistan and sought to rally the Kashmiris towards a peaceful agreement, often at a high personal price. In 2004, after failed peace talks with India, pro-Pakistan militants assassinated his uncle. Farooq had become cautious but participated when the Indian and Pakistani governments started secret talks to find a way to resolve the Kashmiri crisis. ‘I met both Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh and argued for demilitarizing Kashmir. Musharraf was sympathetic to Kashmiri concerns and Manmohan Singh said most things were possible except redrawing the borders,’ Farooq told me. India and Pakistan agreed to withdraw their troops from the region gradually, as violence declined. It would be a great leap for the two countries, who had been stuck with their competing, aggressive nationalisms for around sixty years. This framework for the resolution of the dispute was due to be announced in 2007. In the spring of that year, Farooq was preparing a campaign in Kashmir to build public support for the deal. ‘It was supposed to be an interim arrangement for the next five or ten years and then the people of Kashmir, India and Pakistan could make a call and move towards a final arrangement,’ Farooq said.
However, things fell apart as Musharraf lost power and Pakistan was bogged down in a series of bombings by the Taliban and the takeover of the Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province. In November 2008, while India was struggling to curb the biggest wave of pro-independence protests since 1990, a group of terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai. The peace process came to an abrupt end. In the two years that followed, hundreds of lives were lost in Kashmir and the tales of repression and protest drowned any hope of any settlement.
Since then, Kashmir’s youngest generation has started a Palestinian-style intifada against Indian rule. Young Kashmiris, who are coming of age with war, cable television, mobile phones and the Internet and are exposed to political images from other conflicts, see echoes of the Israeli occupation of Hebron and Gaza in India’s military control of Kashmir. Palestinian stone-throwers become their inspiration. The nucleus of the intifada is the vast square and maze of lanes around Srinagar’s grand mosque, an elegant structure of fine brick and filigreed wooden columns which rises like a trapezium to meet its pagoda-like roof. Two summers ago, when the stone-pelting battles between Kashmiri teenagers and Indian paramilitaries and police were nascent, I spent a few days hanging out around the grand mosque. One Friday afternoon, after the faithful had left, and the shops had closed for prayers and remained closed, fearing kani jung, or the ‘war of stones’, I stood behind an arched gate. Paramilitaries and policemen carrying assault rifles, tear-gas guns and bulletproof shields, stood in a semicircle staring down at the growing crowd of teenagers and young men in their early twenties, wearing jeans, stylish T-shirts, trainers and Palestinian scarves and masks, armed with lumps of brick and stones.
A sudden volley of bricks tore through the nervous silence and struck an armoured car that charged at the boys, firing a burst of shells. Pungent tear gas filled the square; the stone-throwers scampered for cover. The soldiers made a ferocious charge, waving batons and raising a roar. The stone-throwers had melted into the houses, alleys and nooks they knew by heart. Soon a barrage of rocks came flying from balconies and narrow lanes, sending the soldiers retreating to their earlier positions. Stones, tear gas, stones, tear gas. And so it went on. I stood there watching the clashes, until the sun was about to set and the police officer in charge called it a day. A celebratory roar rose from the rebellious crowd. In a brief moment of reprieve I had asked a police officer what he made of the stone-throwers. ‘It is a blood sport; it gives them a big kick,’ he said calmly. ‘When they push the police back, they feel like they have pushed India out of Kashmir.’
These clashes have grown increasingly violent. Hundreds have been injured. Many have died, including bystanders. The police launched a serious crackdown earlier in the summer and arrested around three hundred stone-throwers between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. But the news of death is frequent in Kashmir and so are occasions of protest. Another generation of young Kashmiris is being consumed by war.
I met up with some of this new generation in a college not far from the grand mosque. Wary of police informers, they refused to talk in the college cafeteria and led me instead to an empty classroom. They sat on wooden chairs, in a semicircle facing me, textbooks jutting out of their bags. As we made small talk, a wisp of a boy with curly gelled hair, wearing a white linen shirt, blue denims and black Converse trainers, played with his mobile phone. ‘He is the commander of our group,’ one of them said, half joking. The boy smiled. ‘You can write about us, but don’t use our real names. We will be arrested if we are identified.’ His voice was measured, grave. I agreed. ‘Call me Shahbaaz,’ he said. Shahbaaz – the falcon. The boys laughed.
A friend of Shahbaaz’s passed me his phone. ‘That’s him in a protest after Wamiq was killed.’ I had read about Wamiq Farooq, a fourteen-year-old student who was killed when troops fired at a crowd of boys after a clash in January. I looked at the picture on the phone: a masked boy lunging at a bulletproof police car with a stone in his right hand. The memory hardened Shahbaaz’s face. ‘I was very sad and very angry the day they killed Wamiq. If I had a gun that day, I would have . . .’
Shahbaaz was born in the autumn of 1988, a year before the war began, in downtown Srinagar in a middle-class home. His father, a bureaucrat, worked for the local government. In 1991, one of his uncles who had joined a militant group was killed by the military. He did not remember the uncle. His first memory of the war is coming back from school when he was in fourth grade and seeing a big protest pass by his house. The military fired. A boy from his neighbourhood was hit by bullets and died outside his door. ‘That was the first time I saw someone being killed,’ Shahbaaz said slowly. He remembered feeling angrier after an incident in the autumn of 2000, when he was preparing for his eighth-grade examinations at his maternal grandfather’s house. Protesters fired at the paramilitary and killed a soldier and angry troops began house-to-house searches, barging into Shahbaaz’s family home. ‘A soldier pushed my aunt around and asked where she had hidden the militants. Another soldier began beating my grandfather and asking him questions.’ His aunt and grandfather repeatedly told them that nobody had come into their house. A soldier grabbed Shahbaaz by the neck and put a dagger to his throat. ‘Tell me where the militants are or I will kill him!’ the soldier shouted. After a while, the soldiers left. Shahbaaz stood there shaking in fear and anger. ‘I still remember the cold edge of that dagger,’ he said, lighting a cigarette.
We left the classroom after a while and walked to Nohata Chowk, the square where Shahbaaz and his friends often clash with the soldiers. Every street corner was a reminder of a battle. ‘Here I was hit by a tear-gas shell,’ Shahbaaz said, pointing to a communal tap. ‘Here I was almost arrested,’ said one of his friends, pointing towards an alleyway. We passed the square near the grand mosque and Shahbaaz signalled at a crumbling, empty house by the road.
‘This used to be a BSF [Border Security Force] paramilitary camp,’ he said. ‘Two of my friends were taken there and tortured.’ We crossed a small roundabout and the boys stopped and pointed at the plaque on a electricity pole: Martyr Muntazir Square. Date of martyrdom: 7 July 2007.
We walked through a labyrinth of lanes and reached an old bridge over the River Jhelum. Shahbaaz talked to me about a boy named Muntazir. ‘I was with him when he was shot,’ he said. ‘We weren’t close friends but that day we shared a cigarette before the fighting began.’ He didn’t remember what had led them to come out on the streets that day. Shahbaaz, Muntazir and a few others were leading the attack on a group of paramilitaries outside the grand mosque. The paramilitaries ran for cover and the boys followed them. Then police came out of an alley and fired. ‘Muntazir was hit in the abdomen and shoulder and fell on the street,’ Shahbaaz said. ‘Two of us picked him up and ran back towards the rest of the boys. The police fired tear-gas shells. The other boy was hit and fell.’ Shahbaaz carried Muntazir to the alley where their friends waited. ‘I saw some boys run towards us and they took Muntazir. He was bleeding intensely, dying. I fainted.’
We sat on a ghat by the banks of the River Jhelum under the bridge. Beautiful old houses with ornate balconies and shingle roofs towered over the river. A lonely-looking soldier stared out of the box-like hole in a bunker on the bridge. Shahbaaz suddenly stopped talking and turned to his friends. ‘Look at that!’ They rose from the steps we were sitting on and walked closer to the bank. A brown stray dog was struggling to swim his way across the river. The boys debated his chances and stood there until the dog reached the bank. I stood behind them, watching, and hoped they wouldn’t end up as plaques in a town square.
I asked about their fears. They could be killed, or arrested and put in a prison for a year or two, which would block most possibilities in the future. ‘We too have dreams of a good life. I want to be a computer scientist, but we can’t look away when we live under Indian occupation. We aren’t fighting for money or personal gain.
We are fighting for Kashmir,’ Shahbaaz said, looking directly at me. He insisted he was aware of the price he and his friends could pay. ‘I was arrested last year. They beat me so hard in the police station that bones in both my legs fractured. I wore plaster and couldn’t walk for a few months.’ One of his friends, Daniyal, who had sat quietly all this while, spoke up. ‘I was arrested after a clash with the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force]. They took me into a bunker and . . .’ He stopped mid-sentence, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and held out his bare arms. He had been burned with heated iron rods; each arm had four lines of scarred flesh running across it.
Shahbaaz invited me to his house, a short walk away. A car was parked outside the double-storeyed building. We sat in his carpeted room while he switched on his computer and began clicking through a series of videos on the desktop. He played a video from the early nineties, showing the wreckage of the north Kashmir town of Sopore after its main market had been burned down by Indian soldiers; he played a video of a funeral with relatives crying over the body of a young man shot by the soldiers, and then he played a video of Kashmiri protesters being fired on in Chahal village in August 2008 (the protest that Manzoor Bhat, the house painter turned militant, had been part of). ‘How can we forget this?’ Shahbaaz said, his eyes on the screen. ‘But do you think stone-throwing will make India leave Kashmir?’ I asked. ‘It makes a difference. We show them that we are not completely helpless,’ he replied. Then he lit a cigarette, took a long puff and said, ‘We are not using guns. When Kashmiris used guns, the Indians called us terrorists. Yes, the gun was from Pakistan, but the stones are our own. That is our only weapon against the occupation.’ He wanted to show me something else and played a documentary about the life and death of Faris Oudeh, the fifteen-year-old Palestinian boy who was immortalized by an Associated Press photograph taken a few days before his death: a diminutive youth in a baggy sweater, slinging a stone at an Israeli tank some ten metres away. ‘He was hit in his neck by an Israeli sniper when he bent to pick up a stone,’ Shahbaaz said. ‘His friends couldn’t get to him, he was so close to the Israeli tank.’ As he spoke, Shahbaaz’s voice was low and full of passion.
I returned to New York a week later. My thoughts would often drift back to Shahbaaz, as every other day Indian paramilitary and police fired at young boys like him. Each death brought out more protesters and the uniforms would shoot to kill. In the month of June, seventeen boys were killed by Indian troops and Kashmir was under curfew again. A friend wrote in a newspaper article, ‘The ages of the boys killed in the past few days read like the scores of a batsman in very bad form . . . 17, 16, 15, 13, 9 . . .’ In Srinagar, the troops attacked the funeral of a young protester. Photojournalists, several of whom were beaten, captured the moment. On a stretcher in the middle of a street is a young man killed by the troops as they went about crushing the protests. Behind his fallen corpse, angry soldiers and policemen assault the pall-bearers and mourners with guns and batons. The mourners run for safety, except for a man in his late fifties: the father trying to save his son’s corpse from desecration, spreading himself over the boy, his arms stretched in a protective arc. By mid-August, fifty-eight boys had been killed by the troops, hundreds were injured, and Kashmir remained under curfew.
I called Shahbaaz several times from New York, but I couldn’t reach him. His phone was always switched off.
Photograph © John Vink / Magnum Photos