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The end of innocence in the valley

Prompted by the historic decision of 5 August, which altered the status of J&K, a Delhi-based doctor recounts a Kashmiri boyhood interrupted by strife and betrayal

Kashmiri children on the banks of the Jhelum river in 2005.
Kashmiri children on the banks of the Jhelum river in 2005. (Photo: Alamy)

Ek lamhe mein simat aaya hai sadiyon ka safar

Zindagi tez, bohat tez, chali ho jaise.

(A journey over generations is over in a second.

Time can travel fast, very fast, it seems.)

These lines from the Hindi film Tum Bin were reverberating in my mind throughout Monday, 5 August. This often happens to me, each event bringing to mind a song or a line from a song.

In a matter of hours, I went from being a person of a special state, with a separate constitution, flag and privileges, to a person from a Union territory (UT). In one swoop, I was stripped of my uniqueness, as it were.

It was an assault. There was no way to contact people back home in Srinagar. There were no exceptions. No mobiles, no internet, no landlines, no radio, no cable. A complete communications block, with a strict curfew.

Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without A Post Office came to mind. “Look Shahid, we are a petty UT now," I spoke to Ali in my mind. “Stripped of even the last shreds of dignity. It’s good that you didn’t live to see this—you loved Kashmir too much."

I was 8 when the conflict started. I remember the time it hit me very clearly—when I realized things were not normal. It was evening and we were returning from one of our extended family trips to the popular weekend destination of Pahalgam. Papa was listening to the radio and he became very disturbed. A gloom seemed to descend in the car. I asked Papa about it. He said there had been a grenade attack somewhere, and now “haalaat gachan kharab" (the situation will turn bad).

And it did, though not immediately. The next thing I remember is a lot of soldiers. I used to imagine—and I was sure of this—that they would go back when winter came. How would they tolerate the snow? I was sure they would leave.

Appaer kya halaat (how’s the situation there)?" one would ask of a person coming in from another place, or over the landline phone.

I remember the huge pro-azadi processions in Srinagar. We used to climb over water storage tanks to watch them through the attic window. Did I want azadi, or Pakistan? No, I wanted to be with “progressive" India. An India which was secular and “free". I did not know exactly what it meant, but that is what I had heard and seen (mostly on TV) and I liked it.

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. I still know it by heart. Ek Gilehari, Anek Gilehariyan .

Those were my anthems. They inspired me.

Then there was the overnight exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. My mother didn’t sleep that night. She was very upset.

In the newspapers, deaths were reported every day. Some were killed by unidentified gunmen, some by militants, and others in crossfire. Funny thing is, I thought crossfire meant bullets fired from a gun with a cross-shaped barrel.

A young boy looks out of the window of his house in Srinagar in October 2017.
A young boy looks out of the window of his house in Srinagar in October 2017. (Photo: Alamy)

There were long periods of enforced holidays from school. My cousins and I played chess and carrom. We couldn’t go to the street, you see, because of the curfew.

I took to gardening and fell in love with it. I loved watching things grow. I experimented with new varieties of fruits and vegetables. I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up.

I was a teenager with privilege in the 1990s. I could ignore a lot of things and still try to live as “normally as possible". But, some things couldn’t be ignored. Like the time a grenade went off in a car park right in front of my eyes, a few metres away. Or when there were “incidents of firing" right outside our house. Or when relatives were picked up by “unidentified gunmen" and disappeared for days together.

Our mother evolved a code of behaviour to ensure we were safe. I had to tell her where I was going, when I could expect to come back, and she would say pudhrowmakh khodayas (I give your responsibility to God). If I was going to be late coming home, I was to call. No matter what. There were no exceptions.

I was still “Indian" but things didn’t seem right. Were the forces operating with impunity? What was AFSPA, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act? Was the 1987 assembly election rigged? These were difficult questions. One began to have doubts, but the idea of India still seemed the best course for Kashmir.

As I read more, I realized the gravity of the betrayals the state had witnessed and the betrayals of our politicians. Our innocence crumbled to dust. We clung on to hope. But then history repeats itself. It interrupts hope.

Living through constant conflict teaches you many things —patience, resilience, defiance. It teaches you to be wary of the government, of anyone in a position of authority. Every day is a new day, you tell yourself.

I arrived in Delhi and found that the Kashmiri Muslim, no matter how “Indian", is always a suspect, whatever the crime. The crime could be patriotism or a terror attack, the finger first points to you.

It hurts when you love Bollywood like it is life itself, and then some Bollywood actor comes on Twitter to demonize your community. You learn to channelize this anger to something else. You practise empathy as a behaviour. It gives you solace too. You learn to identify more with the marginalized and oppressed.

How do we move on from here? Can there be closure after such casual cruelty, or will the wounds continue to fester? Where are our allies? Are we truly alone in this? I have no word from my parents in Srinagar yet. I hope my mother knows I am safe. Pudhrowmakh khodayas.

As told to Natasha Badhwar. The doctor does not wish to reveal his identity.

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