Curfewed in the vale
It’s been almost two months since we’ve been under curfew in the Kashmir Valley. It’s not the echoes in the empty streets decked up with razor wires that are disturbing, it’s the rising of the sun that brings with it the news of deaths by tear gas shells or bullets.
As journalists we are issued curfew passes by the government. Sometimes, the local police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), India’s paramilitary, rip the passes to bits and prevent us from working. Getting past every street is an achievement, with the police and the paramilitary playing God. Last month, when the government imposed a media gag, the CRPF stood outside media offices, preventing us from moving out. Journalists were beaten and fired upon.
Getting past every street is an achievement, with the police and the paramilitary playing God
Since this January, the police and the CRPF, for ‘stone-throwing’, have gunned down over 60 unarmed protesters – mostly children as young as eight and teenagers. Doctors say that the injured have been shot mostly in the head and chest. No security personnel have perished in the fierce clashes. In the past month, the violence has intensified, with up to eight deaths a day. Just as the people mourn for one death, another one follows. What will happen next is a question on everyone’s minds.
Funeral processions, ambulances and bystanders have been shot at – their weapon of choice is an AK 47. Their reason: self-defence.
The killings have caused even more people to pour out on the streets to protest, because the justice mechanism is not in place.
Certain sections of the local press have reported that in the last month, 1,400 people, mostly teens, have been booked under draconian acts that the state uses as an instrument of suppression. Kashmir does not have juvenile homes, so the minors share cells with hardened criminals far away from home.
Nightmares follow them upon release, a lawyer tells me.
For journalists, to confirm a death and report it is tricky. The Police Control Room rarely shares information. The authorities block the cellular phone signals of the area where the killing has taken place. The government has banned SMS service for the last two months. Busy doctors in hospitals, who have their hands full, help us confirm the killing. Law enforcement authorities withhold information, fearing a backlash.
On a recent trip to a village where a young protester had been shot, we managed to accompany his body from a city hospital. As the car swerved to avoid rocks put up by protesters on the road to south Kashmir’s Pampore, we did our best to try and keep up with the ambulance that was carrying the body of 24-year-old Rayees Ahmad, who had been shot by police and CRPF during protests. At that point, we were unaware of the fact that 19-year-old Nayeem Shah, shot in the same protest, had succumbed to his injuries.
Groups of young boys, with their faces covered, guided our three-car convoy to the hometown of the deceased. In the ambulance, Rayees’s friends wailed from the back of the vehicle, screaming to the pedestrians that his death must not be forgotten.
Indian media attributes this stone-throwing to Pakistan and the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba. My compatriots, because of this propaganda, have always misunderstood Kashmir
We entered the town to find streets lined with wailing women and angry men waiting to receive his corpse. Young boys reached out to walk with Rayees on their shoulders for one last time. The town rallied around them, chanting pro-freedom and anti-India slogans.
As helplessness turned to rage, residents threw stones and burnt tyres to vent their sadness at the death. Indian media attributes this stone-throwing to Pakistan and the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba. My compatriots, because of this propaganda, have always misunderstood Kashmir.
Anticipating retaliation by the forces, we decided to turn back before the violence trapped us. We changed our route as we heard reports of the forces firing on an ambulance. We finally made it out of the picturesque village and into the city, bearing witness to yet another day of grief.
Back in the city, calls from friends fill up the day as hardly any news manages to trickle out. The national media, on the other hand, chooses to demonize the stone-throwers, blaming the violence on ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. This aggravates the locals.
With the internet as their only vent, youngsters post all kinds of messages on networking sites such as Facebook – angry, sad, frustrated, determined, but not confused. Everybody here wants freedom from India. This is Kashmir’s first intifada – young, fearless and spontaneous.
With people being cooped into their homes for long spells, tempers are running high. Families are finding it hard to get along
I requested a friend in the media from New Delhi to cover the unrest. With story ideas that ran in contradiction to state propaganda in mainstream media, her editor approved.
She arrived and we started shooting before sunrise to circumvent the curfew. Covering ground was difficult as we’d be stopped and asked to turn around everywhere we went on our way back before noon. The fact that we were not local media helped us commute.
After burning the midnight oil, and putting together four very difficult packages that covered the recent turmoil, she headed back only to be told by her channel’s head that the stories could only be screened on a Pakistani news channel. Nationalism and conforming to the state’s rules are two qualities that the Indian mainstream media excels at. After all, the fourth estate is one of the state’s arms – its propaganda tool, I learn in Kashmir.
With people being cooped into their homes for long spells, tempers are running high. Families are finding it hard to get along. Friends are more irritable, highly strung, sleepless, restless, depressed, helpless and very angry. They all want to step out of their homes. Some can’t even peep out of their windows as they hear gunshots. People have been killed putting up curtains in the safety of their homes. I manage to visit most of them, negotiating my way through groups of protesters, security personnel and empty streets. Some of my friends look like they just got released from jail. Others are unusually quiet. Some cry. Some even curse, saying that we should all get bombed together, instead of a few being shot every day. Anger is hurt turned inside out, said one.
Meanwhile, people in India are wondering why parents can’t keep their kids at home. Little do they know that when a teenager gets shot outside his home, and for a people who have never experienced justice, peace will always remain a far cry. As a teenager said, ‘I am living for nothing under this occupation, at least I will die for something.’ His friend, also a stone-thrower added, ‘I have nothing to lose and everything [freedom] to gain.’