SRINAGAR, Kashmir — It’s noon on a weekday, but the streets of Soura are empty. There is nothing peaceful about the stillness. The vestiges of the violent protests after India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status are everywhere. Broken windows, the charred ground, and the rocks, which were hurled at Indian security forces in the past few weeks, are as much a part of the neighbourhood’s tapestry as the Kashmiris who live here.
On August 5, 2019, the Indian government unilaterally scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, split the troubled state into two, flooded the valley with thousands of soldiers, cut off all internet and mobile phones, and jailed over 4000 Kashmiris, including the region’s prominent politicians.
Since then, the anger has been rising across Kashmir, occasionally erupting in scattered protests against the Indian state. The Indian government, in the meanwhile, has been eager to convince a largely skeptical populace that most Kashmiris actually welcome this oppressive intervention. At a campaign rally on Sep 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “We have to create a new paradise” and “hug each Kashmiri.”
The people of Kashmir appear unconvinced.
In Soura, a settlement not far from Srinagar, the road to the volatile neighbourhood of Anchar, has been dug up to stop the soldiers and policemen entering in heavy vehicles, daring them to make their way on foot. A large tin sheet has been used to block another entrance. A public garbage bin has been upturned to block the third. Rolls of mesh, tied to electric wires, block the fourth entrance.
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Come nightfall, between 50 and 60 boys will guard each post.
Seventeen-year-old Moussa told this reporter that he was manning one of the posts when he saw security force personnel approaching. He told the “next guy” who told the “next guy,” until someone sounded the alarm from the green and white mosque that rises over hundreds of houses.
Moussa, a wiry teenager who is growing a beard, sounded excited about manning the post again. The tenth grader doesn’t know when he will return to school.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said.
The face of Burhan Wani, a young militant who was slain by the Indian army last year, is plastered on the gate of the mosque and on walls, all over the neighbourhood, along with graffiti welcoming Pakistan, the Pakistan army, and the Taliban, to Kashmir.
In one house, a young man, hit by pellet gun bullets during a protest in August, lies face down on a mattress on the ground. His eyes damaged, he will never be able to make handicrafts — his family business — again. His elder brother, a slender youth with grey eyes, says that he intends to go to the next protest and lead from the front.
“You won’t understand, but this is our reality. This is what we do. This is what we will keep doing until we have freedom,” he said.
Hayat Ahmed Butt, the Srinagar district president of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim League, who has been coordinating the protests week after week, said the agitation will continue until Article 370 is restored. The people of Soura, the heavyset man in his fifties said, want India to hold the referendum that was promised to the Kashmiris way back in 1948.
“The Indian government is talking about development, but we don’t care even if they put gold on the streets of Kashmir,” he said. “We want azadi.”
“It’s not just the men, but women, children and the elderly are coming out and marching in the protests,” Butt said.
Social worker to protestor
One such woman is Shazia, who, has joined the street protests for the first time in her life.
The women walk behind the men, shouting slogans for freedom, said the petite 25-year-old, as she tucked a strand of stray hair into her white headscarf.
“This is not a rational or logical choice. It is an emotional choice,” she said. “We feel helpless. We have become psychologically disturbed.”
The 25-year-old fancies neither the Taliban nor Pakistan, but she feels the need to protest the manner in which the Indian government revoked Article 370, and the violence which has become a fixture in her day-to-day existence.
Her brother Nisar was picked up by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police, accused of pelting stones, and locked up for 23 days before he was released. No case was registered against him.
“You cannot ask how or why,” Shazia said. “ There are no rules here. There is no justice here.
“Imagine, if this happened to you. If it was your brother, who picked up, slapped 20 times, detained for 20 days, and then released with no explanation. No apology. We are just expected to be grateful that he was released.”
Shazia has completed the course to be a physician’s assistant, but has her
heart set on becoming a nurse once she clears her exams next year.
“I have done social work with NGOs from Delhi that we’re working here. I really enjoyed working with them,” she said. “My dream is to be a social worker and to run my own NGO.I want to be able to help others.”
There was a time when Shazia dreamt of being a nurse in Delhi, but her family was vehemently opposed to her leaving Kashmir.
Now, as she navigates her way through protests, stone pelting, concertina wire and shrapnel from pellet guns, her own dreams have started feeling unreal to her.
“If you ask me today, and I’m not just saying this because of my family, I would not go to Delhi. There is no place where I will ever feel safe,” she said. “My real dream is to be a free bird, to fly high, to have a free soul, and to live life on my own terms. Where is that possible?”
Among the many reasons that has led to her joining the protests, Shazia says that she feels safer on the streets than alone at home, when soldiers and policemen enter the neighbourhood.
“I’m a Muslim woman and our society is unforgiving. If anything happens, anything at all, it will be my respect and reputation that will be destroyed forever,” she said. “There is no going back from it.”
Shazia’s mother, who sat listening to her, says that she supports her daughter joining the protests.
If she did not have a swollen ankle, her mother said, she too would have joined the protest.
Pulling her youngest daughter on her lap, the mother said, “She also went to the protest.”
The mischievous 10-year-old grinned broadly and said, “I’m going to go again.”
Throwing apples at cars
A ten minute walk away from Shazia’s house lives a Kashmiri woman with a month old child. She had spent the previous day locked up at the Soura police station for throwing apples at passing cars.
The sight of a fruit seller plying his trade in the midst of this oppression was too much for her to take, she said.
“I did not want to throw the apples, but I got so angry,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We are all suffering because we cannot work. Why was he selling apples?
“Our brothers are getting arrested and sent to god knows which prison, but some people are doing business. That is why I got angry. This is wrong,” she said.
So the police locked her up for an entire day with 12 men, the woman said. There was no toilet for women, so she was forced to use the men’s toilet. The police showed her videos of the recent protests in Soura, she said, and asked her to identify the young men.
“I did not tell them anything,” she said. “I told them that I have a two-month-old baby, please let me go.”
Word spread that a Kashmiri woman from Soura had been detained at the local police station. She was rescued by her neighbours.
The woman is not sorry about throwing the apples.
When it was pointed out that apple seller was probably a daily wager who was earning just enough to feed his children, she said, “There are many people in the same situation. If you have to earn money to feed your family then you have to hide and do it. Some shopkeepers are just selling a few things from the back room of their homes.”
The woman said, “The Indian media make a video of a few apple sellers and say everything is normal. We don’t want that to happen.”
The woman intends to join the next protest in Soura.