THE TRIGGER: Burhan Wani’s killing on 8 July sparked a pan-Kashmir uprising bringing lakhs of people on streets Photo: Faisal Khan

A shopfront is usually a pretty gossipy spot. Here the risqué and polite and the political and personal repartees are woven into each other with surprising effortlessness. But the mood outside this Budgam town shop, where I was standing, suddenly changed on this sunny late afternoon of 8 July 2016. The news was too big. Too shocking. A young lad sitting on the shop front hit a few buttons on his mobile and dropped a bombshell, the splinters of which soon hit all corners of Kashmir. “Burhan Wani has been killed,” the boy announced. Everyone looked skywards, perhaps in prayer, I thought. A wave of silence swept across. But only just.

Young boys flashed pictures of Burhan Wani’s body on their phone screens to each other. They looked at the pictures in disbelief. They looked closely at the pictures scrutinising the face, the eyes, the beard, the teeth, the clothes — everything. Soon they were downloading older pictures of Burhan and comparing them with those of his body. “This is not Burhan Bhai. They have shot someone else and passed him as Burhan Bhai. The pictures do not match,” one young boy said, jumping with joy in a naïve belief that somehow the news of his death was a lie. “He has a longer beard and his eyes don’t match with the dead body,” another boy seconded him.

Again the pictures were compared, looked at from different angles, zoomed in, and minutely examined. No one wanted to believe Burhan had been killed.

It took a while for the facts to sink in.

And then the eruption began. Public fury flooded the roads, alleys, lanes, by-lanes across the length and breadth of Kashmir like molten lava from an angry volcano.

In my town Budgam, shop shutters rattled down and closed shut. A crowd began to build up on the main street. I too joined it. What I didn’t realise is that this was a mass all-out uprising in the making that would soon spread across Kashmir and push the State almost over the precipice.

“Hum kya chahtay?” someone in the gathering crowd suddenly cried. The obvious answer rang across. “Azadi, azadi, azadi.” The roar amplified. Fists punched the air in defiance. The azadi cry was soon all over – the main roads, alleys, housetops, mosques. The fire had been lit again, it won’t go off now – I thought to myself as I sensed an unusual audacity in the mood of the people around me.

People from the adjoining villages poured in and marched through our village. What started as a motley crowd turned into a huge procession within an hour. The azadi slogans became louder. The protesters more de ant. The feelings intense. The atmosphere weighty. There were people from every social class — daily labourers, students, businessmen, doctors, teachers, old, young, and women.

WOMEN POWER: The azadi fervour brought out women in the streets in droves Photo: Muneeb ul Islam

The procession passed like a stream. Then into this village. And that. As night fell the people halted at a village Choon, some 3 kms from the main town. The azadi slogans turned shriller as they tore through the night sky. A local resistance leader appeared on the scene, addressed the people and asked them to be “steadfast and brave.” The people applauded in response. And then retreated to their respective villages in small boisterous processions.

At around 12 in the night, people from my village assembled at the main mosque and boomed azadi slogans from the mosque loudspeaker. This continued for an hour. Then people went home and an uneasy night silence took over. Nobody knew what will happen tomorrow. Cell phone connections had already been snapped. The internet had been taken off. In the news blackout, everybody only imagined what might be happening elsewhere. And what might happen tomorrow? Nobody knew mayhem and murder had already broken out elsewhere.

In the morning when I strolled out, familiar graffiti had grown everywhere like an invading ivy – on walls, shutters of closed shops, roads. “Go India, go back,” “Freedom for one, Freedom for All,” “We want freedom,” “We are all Burhans,” and the like screamed me in the face. It was mostly in red. I asked a young boy about it. “Red is the colour of blood and we are writing these slogans as if with our blood,” this 13-year-old reasoned to me. Curiously, ‘India’ was written in black spray paint.

By noon men from the CRPF and local police had gathered in the outskirts of the town. They were ready for a showdown. Rifles, tear gas and pellet guns slinging from their shoulders and batons in their hands. There were boxes of tear-gas shells. The soldiers looked edgy but all pumped up for a battle. I could sense there would soon be blood on the roads.

As youth gathered around, a protest was on hand. They marched on shouting slogans until they encountered the soldiers. The air was filled with tear-gas smoke. It was choking. There were pellets red at the crowd. The youth hurled stones at the soldiers as a final act of defiance and resistance. And probably the only act possible considering how all forms of peaceful dissent have been shut down here. The tear-gas shells and pellets rained in. Some youth ed. Some stayed their ground challenging the soldiers with stones and slogans. In the chaos, it was dif cult to say who was right and who was wrong. Expletives, sledging and smoke filled the air. The fog of war had taken over. Soon the real story would be lost somewhere in this fog, I told myself as I saw the remaining youth melt away in the tear gas smoke. The soldiers were left alone. But only for now. They knew the public protests in Kashmir are like a genie out of the bottle. Their fury only grows with every killing, every injury, every blinding.

I am a farmer; I till my own land. I realize the Kashmiri farmer and his land are in danger. I don’t want any money from India. All I want is that they should leave Kashmir. My friends, our land is under threat, our dignity too

Later I heard the fog had engulfed all of Kashmir as soldiers tried to put down protest marches – killing, maiming, blinding whoever came their way, and with absolute impunity. State propaganda and obfuscation provided a convenient cover as victims of State violence came to be blamed for their sufferings. Insensitive statements from the power corridors like ‘the youth getting shot are not out there to get toffee and milk’ made the people’s blood boil. I sensed a deep rage welling up in every person I spoke to. I was worried the rage would meet a bloody end at the hands of a brutal State which has time and again shown its immense capacity to indulge in punitive violence.

The processions and marches continued in my hometown and surrounding villages. There was a brief halt, though. Some elders planned a funeral in absentia for their fallen hero – Burhan Wani. It was quickly held. Later a local Hurriyat leader Bashir Ahmed Bhat addressed the people after the funeral. He asked the people to organise protests. He called upon them to maintain peace during demonstrations and abstain from stone pelting. I found this was in strong contrast to what the government and state media had been telling us that the Hurriyat leaders were provoking youth to pelt stones. “We will protest peacefully and we will test Indian democracy how it deals with peaceful protests,” Bashir said as he signed off.

The people scattered. Here and there, inside the Eidgah, groups of boys began to “organise” protests. It was interesting how they were doing it.

They assigned “duties” to each other. Some were to paint the roads with graf ti, some were to write slogans on placards, some were to hold the placards, some were to lead slogan shouting, and some were to carry water bottles as refreshment. There were others who were asked to keep an eye on the police and inform others immediately in case they approached. Some others were assigned to keep their motorbikes ready in case the police red at the processions and injured people.

As is obvious, with emotions running high and wild, these protests hardly went as per the script.

Protests that broke out after 8 July were spontaneous and largely leaderless. The traditional pro-freedom leadership had almost been sidelined by the tens of thousands of common folks who were voluntarily participating in the azadi demonstrations. I asked an elderly man about this trend in the resistance politics. “I haven’t experienced this in my entire life. This is new. Anyone can speak now and no one is the leader,” the man told me. A new resistance forum Ittehaad-e-Millat had begun to emerge to mobilise and organise the people. It was managed by elders and religious leaders. This out t organised conferences as a show of solidarity and more importantly to discuss the uprising. This was also a display of community at work, an organisation of a people demanding azadi at work, a platform for discussing political ideas, a people’s parliament to debate what to do, how to organise the movement. It was the manifestation of the idea that the people are the leaders. It seemed the Ittehaad people had done some solid homework and worked out a plan to keep the azadi protests going.

THE FURY: With every killing the street protest intensified, bringing out more and more people Photo: Abid Bhat

In the initial days of the uprising, people mostly marched through towns and villages shouting slogans. And then there were regular conferences where Ittehaad people addressed. As days went by, invitations were sent to the people through posters — the posters were an answer to the phone gag by the government — the invitations were either handwritten or printed on pulp paper. Usually, the village that decided to hold the conference would send the boys to different villages who would paste the posters on walls, electric poles, shop fronts and mosques.

For the conferences, the school buildings, panchayat buildings, public parks, open fields, streets of the village were occupied by the people. I attended a dozen conferences over a month. The conferences would begin in the morning, rest making sure that all the roads leading to the venue were blocked and a dozen boys were put on ‘duty’ to inform the people in case the forces arrived on the roads. The boys were also tasked with ‘engaging’ the forces with stone-pelting so that the Ittehaad assemblies were not disturbed.

In one such conference a grand platform was raised, festooned with Pakistani flags and flowers. People, in thousands at some places and in hundreds at others, sat quietly in rows. Women too came out to participate. A separate place had been reserved for them, just behind the men. The volunteers moved through the rows of people and distributed water and fruits.

A dozen men, mostly in their late twenties, gathered on the platform and one among them grabbed the microphone and shouted pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan slogans.

The people responded to every slogan. After about ve minutes, the sloganeering stopped and a man from the dais announced those who want to speak should enlist their names. A paper and a pen were passed on from row to row, and in the end, twenty people enlisted to speak. Among them was a farmer, a former school teacher, a shopkeeper, and a dozen young boys, mostly college and university students.

They asked me to stretch out my hands and a policeman brought out pliers and pulled out the nail from my index finger. It was terrible. For a moment I could see nothing. I thought I will die

The farmer spoke first and he spoke in Kashmiri. He insisted other speakers also speak in Kashmiri. He cleared his throat, greeted the people and began his speech. The people listened appreciating what he said.

CAUGHT IN ACTION: Police whisk away a youth who was part of a protest Photo: Faisal Khan

He began by going into the history of the place, counting the atrocities the Indian state has been committing in Kashmir since 1990. He narrated an incident of his own torture. He implored people to be steadfast and show integrity. His speech was full of energy, full of expectation. “I am a farmer; I till my own land and work hard to survive from it,” he said as he moved to the political part of his speech. “But I realise that the Kashmiri farmer and his land are in danger. I don’t want any money from India. All I want is that they should leave Kashmir. Our land is our dignity and today, my friends, our land is under threat, our dignity too.” The farmer’s speech sounded to me coming from some deep political consciousness. There were cheers all around. The gathering was energised. Slogans calling for freedom, “Hum kya chahtay? — azadi,” reverberated.

Next came the former school teacher, a diminutive man in his late sixties. He had a paper in front of him; he put on his glasses and began a long “lesson” as he called it, on the history of Kashmir. He traced back the occupation of the land to 1586 when the Mughals invaded Kashmir, and went all the way through to the Afghan, Sikh, Dogra periods and eventually to India’s occupation since 1947, laconically.

“Our history is the history of betrayal. We have always been betrayed right from the beginning, and the time has come that we become aware of the deceits and pursue our cause with clear mindedness,” he said, as he wrapped up his lecture. Others also spoke with one common thread running through their speeches: an end to the Indian rule.

On 14 August I travelled to a village Wagar in Budgam, some 7 Km from the main town, to attend an Ittehaad conference. I knew this one would be special as Pakistan celebrates its independence day on this day. The people had assembled in a public park. Pakistani flags draped the fences of the park, and two to three young men were standing on a platform. As the people assembled, one of the young boys took out a mobile phone from his pocket and directed the people to be silent. He was to play the national anthem of Pakistan. A Pakistani flag was hoisted and the national anthem of Pakistan played. People listened putting their hands on their chest and hummed along with the tune. One young man, standing behind me was weeping. Later I asked him why he broke down. “I was wondering when we can play the national anthem in the free airs of Kashmir,” he told me.

After the flag hoisting ceremony, the people were asked to assemble at the gates of the park for a public inauguration of the park. The park had recently been constructed by the PDP MLC from Khan Sahib, Saif-ud-Din Bhat and was yet to be officially inaugurated.

A red ribbon was tied horizontally across two adjoining poles of the park and a local elderly man stood in front of it. A scissor was brought out on a plastic plate and the old man picked it up and cut the ribbon. There were loud cheers and slogans.

“The park is now open to the people and its name too has been chosen,” the old man informed the people. “From henceforth it will be called Shaheed Burhan Wani Public Park,” he declared. The people rose and slogans lionising Burhan Wani went up again. “Burhan teray khoon sey inqilaab aayega.”

With every round of slogan-shouting, the mood of the people buoyed. They felt they were finally on the road to azadi — freedom. Memories of how the Indian state had crushed them over the past 25 years didn’t seem to deter them. Or, there was no time to think of it in the heat of the azadi moment.

In the following days, the toll of the civilians killed by Indian forces was steadily climbing throughout the Valley, especially in south Kashmir. On one of those tension-filled days, I was walking down a street in my locality when a middle-aged man casually asked me, “What is the score?” I couldn’t understand what he meant. A man sitting nearby said aloud, “The score till today is 40.” [Around 60 people had died by then, but since communication was blocked, the locals did not know the actual death toll]. They were both talking about the “score” of dead civilians up to then.

I was disturbed by this terrible dehumanisation that Kashmiris, as a society, have gone through. Probably the people aren’t to be blamed for this. The killings have been happening with such frequency that they are almost compared to an update on the score of a T20 cricket match. Perhaps that has also become a way with the people to live off part of the burden of their bloody tragedy – an emotional defensive mechanism of sorts. Deaths had been reduced to numbers. People only talked about numbers— “Two more have been killed a while ago,” “And three more,” “And one more,” – that’s how people kept themselves updated about the situation – through the numerical record of killings.

One young man, standing behind me was weeping. I asked him why he broke down. and he said: I was wondering when we can play the national anthem in the free airs of Kashmir

During these days, I met an elderly man, Ghulam Ahmed, 86, who had been a hunter in his youthful days, hunting mostly migratory birds in the paddy fields that surround his village. In the nineties, when an armed struggle broke out in Kashmir against India, he, according to his own admission, would provide food, shelter and ‘training’ to militants. He told me that he has seen death from close quarters, carried dead militants on his shoulder and buried some of them himself.

“It was a different time; people couldn’t eat for days when they saw a bullet-riddled body. There was fear of the gun and the awful things it could do. But that all has changed, for good, of course,” he said contrasting the decade of the nineties with today’s time.

He paused, spat on the ground and picked up his line again.

“These times are unfortunate. The death of Kashmiris has become very cheap. It doesn’t matter anymore.” He paused again. “Too many people have been killed in the past thirty years and it has hardened us as a people. There is only one emotion that death brings now: revenge,” he added.

I found a sound psychoanalytical understanding of the situation in this man’s words though he wasn’t that educated.

I spoke to some young boys and saw a strong reverberation of the old man’s words in their thoughts. Youth, who have been at the vanguard of this uprising, have not only overcome their personal fears of their own death but have also accepted the death of any fellow Kashmiri as ‘normal’. And as the former hunter pointed out, with every death their feelings of retribution be- come all the more intense.

“It is a cycle. Today it was someone’s turn to die, tomorrow it can be me. So why should we mourn?” a 17-year-old protestor told me with a nonchalance that rather surprised me. He continued to deliver some more chilling shots both in tone and content. “Dying is the logical end of our struggle. Better be prepared. It is better to remember the dead and fight on.”

Meanwhile, the toll of the dead civilians was creeping up. For some time the people lapsed into silence. I thought the 17-year-old protestor, I had spoken with earlier, was perhaps wrong in his assessment. But then the protests broke out all over again – more intense than the preceding ones. More and more youth put themselves in the line of fire as they battled it out on the streets with the soldiers who showed no mercy in killing and blinding with live ammunition and pellets.

The current spate of organised crackdowns had not yet begun, but protesting youth were randomly captured during forces’ action against street demonstrations. It was only a few hundred then. Today the figure of arrested youth stands well over 12,000, and counting.

I met a 26-year-old youth, Sahab Ahmad, snatched away by the soldiers during a protest march. Sahab is a worker of the ruling PDP. He narrated a disturbing account of what he had been through while in a two-day police custody. When he was released, he could barely walk. His relatives carried him in their arms to the hospital. “We thought he will die any moment. Such was his condition,” a close relative of Sahab told me.

When I went to see Sahab he lay coiled in a quilt, his legs outstretched and his left hand bandaged thoroughly. He was violently shaking his hand out of pain: the nail of index finger had been pulled out with pliers. He was talking with a group of boys about his experience in lock-up. When he finished he gave them a chilling advisory, almost whispering it to them. “Get killed but never get arrested. It is better to carry poison with you so that when you realise you’ll get caught, all you have to do is to swallow the poison. It is hell in the lock-up.”

I was nervous to ask Sahab about what he had been through while in lockup. But he was cooperative. He said once inside the police station, a dozen policemen pounced on him and others and mouthed obscenities at them. “Then they beat us with batons, pulled us by our ears and yanked us on the door,” he said. “The beating went on for about 20 minutes. For the next three hours, we writhed in pain. All I could hear was moaning.” Another round of beating followed later in the evening.

By morning Sahab’s family had contacted the police for his release. But before releasing him, Sahab said that he was taken into a room.

PEOPLES’ PARLIAMENT: The Ittehaad-e-Millat group mobilised the masses and organised huge rallies across Kashmir Photo: Muneeb ul Islam

“They asked me to stretch out my hands. I stretched out one hand and a policeman brought out pliers and pulled out the nail from my index finger,” he recounted. “It was terrible. Blood was oozing and for a moment I could see nothing. I thought I will die.”

After that, they left him there, with blood oozing from his finger. Sahab said he tore his shirt and tied it to the finger to stop the bleeding.

Even if the current uprising fades out over the next few months, it should be remembered for the large scale participation of women in the uprising

Next day he was released from lock-up. Before leaving, a policeman who tortured him told him, “We tortured you because we knew you were going to get out. Others are here to remain. So you had to finish your quota of beating in a day.”

In the weeks that followed, a relentless use of force by the State against demonstrators somehow blunted the intensity of street protests. The State now shifted gears to mass arrests. What followed were nocturnal raids across the Valley by State forces to arrest protestors from their homes. An extensive and punishing crackdown was soon on across towns and villages. Newspapers reported it was the biggest since 1990 when an armed uprising against Indian rule broke out. I spoke to those who had lived through those dark times. They told me in those days people didn’t know how to cope with those crippling punitive crackdowns. “The past 25 years of curfews and crackdowns have taught people how to deal with such testing situations, although you can never be sure what the men in uniform will do with you, your family and property,” a former university teacher from Srinagar who saw the worst of the ‘90s told me, and “actually survived one piece.” “Mass crackdowns have over the decades become the State’s tested instrument to crush uprisings in Kashmir within which a range of stratagems are employed to break the will and solidarity of people.

A scene outside a police station in Budgam gave me some understanding of how a defiant population is systematically brought down to its knees. The place presented itself as one of complete chaos. There were queues of men and women – parents and relatives of the arrested youth. They were pleading with the policemen to let their boys off. Some of them told me they were being asked to pay Rs 40,000 each to get their boys out. “They have set up a price for every arrested youth,” Ghulam Qadir, a resident of Nasrullahpora, Budgam, whose son Javid Ahmed was then in police custody, alleged. Qadir is a daily labourer and told me he was finding it difficult to arrange the money. “I’m planning to sell my cattle and other livestock to get my son out,” Qadir said. “Is this life? I had kept the livestock to marry off my son, but instead, I have to pay it up to get him out of jail.” Such allegations of extortion were commonplace but there was no way I could confirm them. The police has always been in denial of such charges.

Qadir’s son was released two days after he spoke with me. I don’t know whether he paid up or not.

Boys who were held and later released had harrowing tales to tell about their time in custody. They alleged abuse and torture Fayaz Ahmed has just been out of lock-up. He has been unable to sleep since. “They torture you mentally. They abuse your female folk to break you and constantly tell you what dirty things they will do to our mothers and sisters. The humiliation is beyond your tolerance,” Fayaz said.

Fayaz also alleged some boys were sodomised, a charge dif cult to verify. From the police side except for denial, there is nothing else forthcoming on this allegation. Another released youth Gulzar Ahmed also spoke of custodial sexual abuse. I pressed him for more details, but he just shut down. “I don’t want to talk anymore. What will you do? It only brings pain to be reminded of the faces of those boys,” Gulzar said before trailing off.

Even if the current uprising fades out over the next few months, it will be, and should be, remembered for some striking features. An aspect that hasn’t got the kind of attention and appreciation it deserved was the large scale participation of women in the uprising. I saw hundreds of rural women marching alongside men in the azadi processions, shouting slogans and even hurling stones if a clash with men in uniform broke out. That was special considering how violently State forces handle protests in Kashmir. I saw women fighting it out with policemen to stop them from arresting the protesting boys. There were women waiting on the roads with buckets of water for the protesting boys. I even saw women attending to the wounded when the forces would open re and most men would run to safety. “Men can get and we can at least back them by giving water and food. This is my contribution to the movement,” a woman, in her early forties told me.

At the Ittehaad conferences, young girls and women participated in hordes, singing folk and revolutionary songs to keep up the spirits of the men folk.

At some places women braved the soldiers and literally snatched away the arrested youth from their clutches. In a village at Siobugh, police were moving out after packing up some youth in their jeeps. Some women got a whiff of it. They quickly blocked the road. As the police jeeps approached, they launched themselves into a verbal duel with the policemen. Soon a tussle followed. The women freed some arrested youth while others were driven away as the police beat a quick retreat from the spot.

With such extensive participation of women in the uprising, I was eagerly looking forward to some international coverage of these brave women who dare the military might of the Indian State. There was none. I was also wondering what the current Chief Minister might have to say about such women since she presents herself as a ‘hardnosed daring’ female politician in a system that is chokingly patriarchal. But then I forgot that the Chief Minister and the Gobells on her left and right see no more than 5% of the sea of people on the roads demanding azadi. They don’t even see a 10-year-old girl Insha standing at the window who should be permanently blinded so that the State gets a clear vision of the situation.

(Some names in the story have been changed to protect identities

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