I recently travelled to Kashmir valley in the month of October of 2018. And this must have been the nth time that I was in to this troubled zone. The first journey was way back in the year 1992. And ever since have logged miles and miles moving the length and breadth of this beleaguered geography.
However, this recent travel a few days back was my second, after hanging my uniform. And it is this that makes it different and interesting.
When I had first crossed the Banihal tunnel in January 1992, the valley towns looked very familiar to those seen in the movies and television news of Afghanistan. A general sense of scare and anger prevailed all across.
Indian army troops were all over along the road as I moved up to Srinagar in the convoy. The battle ready positions of the troops narrated the situation prevailing in the valley. Each town and the village we crossed bore marks of the conflict. Burnt houses and destroyed temples, each told the horrific tale of loot rape and plunder at the hands of Islamists. These were the real architects of this deadly narrative. The Jamait backed by Islamic Republic of Pakistan, both financially and militarily. It was part of a larger game-plan.
With the Kafirs driven out of the valley, now the next task at hand of these Islamists was to defeat the infidel army. These Kashmiri separatists encouraged by the turn of events in Afghanistan were so convinced that they would achieve this goal rather simply. The propaganda machine across in Pakistan and their representatives here made believe the local Kashmiris of their immense strength flowing out of Quran and Islam. They propagated this myth by quoting the Afghan war, and how the Mujahedeen brought the world’s super power to its knees in there. And when compared, Kashmir was just a cake walk, a low hanging fruit. After all India was not a super power.
During the nineties what I saw all along from Banihal to Panzgam in Kupwara, was the abject poverty. All clearly visible every where. The common people could largely be seen in dirty clothes. There depleted houses and broken roads with a very few cars told the development story. None of the medium and small villages had any shop other than that of mutton. Being governed by the Ranbir Penal Code, cow slaughtering was banned in the state, thus the shops could only sell mutton. Cows were slaughtered in closed doors with no visible traces outside. Each village had a mosque that blended with the general architecture in these Kashmiri villages. Though the electricity was to each house, however the voltage use to be so low that a candle would appear brighter.
Largely the Kashmiris wore their traditional attire, men could be seen with their conical skull cap, salwar kameez and ferin. The ladies donned the beautifully embroidered ferins and a head scarf that covered their heads, with a knot tied behind. The school going children of course wore the white shirt and khaki trousers or a sky white salwar, sky blue kameez with a white a dupatta. This was in fact a common sight all across the country of government school children during those days. The extent of poverty was such that even during the snow, a very large numbers just wore that cheap plastic and rubber shoes. The Gujjars who often were spotted on the slopes cutting wood wore the handmade jute slippers in that biting cold. During the cordon and searches we had to bear with an intolerable body odour or the Kashmiri stench as we called it. Telling lies and swearing by Allahand Quranat the drop of a hat was another common Kashmiri trait that I realised rather very quickly.
When I finally left the valley in the year 2000, I promised to myself, never to return to this hell on earth ever again. But then it was never to be so. I returned again in the October of year 2017 and this time more as a tourist, rather than, as a veteran soldier in search of some nostalgia. A lots of water and blood had flowed down the Jhelum ever since I first stepped here in January of 1992. The landscape had completely changed and it was unrecognisable many a times.
Now there was a lots of economic activity seen around as compared to the nineties. Almost each village along the National Highway had a mini bazar and noticeably the Mutton shops now were lesser and stood outnumbered by the shops selling beef hanging by the hooks.
The traditional mosques were nowhere to be seen as they had been replaced by the beautiful multi storied Mosques. Society appeared highly radicalised. The schools girls could be spotted in burkas and the hijabs. Gone were the iconic Kashmiri conical skull cap, now replaced by the regular ones, seen in the subcontinent.
Lots of hoardings dotted the road sides, promising affordable higher education at various institutes. Interestingly there were some advertisings for Bangladesh’s medical and engineering colleges at affordable fee promising good Islamic culture.
Fifteen years is a long time since I first saw the valley in 1992. The perspective in 2017 had completely changed. The economic growth and prosperity was visible. It had manifested in all spheres. At public places the horrible body odour from Kashmiri folks was gone. They now wore good deodorants and perfumes. Youngsters were voguish and were captivated by the Mideastern fashion trends.
The common Kashmiri looked more confident and secure. There was a general desire to do well, do well for their next generation and their society.
During those five hectic days, I interacted with people from the border villages to those in the hinterland. From the surrendered militants to stone pelters and the Islamists. From Kashmiri policeman to Kashmiri soldier. From Kashmiri pandit families still living in the rural Kashmir, to those staying in Srinagar.
And above all, the numerous meetings and talks held with junior to very senior military officers. Not surprisingly, they too held an opinion that I hold in this changed paradigm.
This perception is different from what is generally held by the masses; a narrative, driven by our political parties and the private media.
In that series, I had an amazing interaction with Janab Shafiq Mir Sahab. Discussed issues confronting the Kashmiri people ranging from democracy and public participation in present situation, role of main stream political parties, the separatists to changing the perception of locals viz a viz the security forces.
Interestingly the role of national media and issue of internally displaced Kashmiri pandits was also discussed.
I could gather a sense from him, on, how the people at grassroots level view the things.
A perception not so different from what I already had. I feel it is time to re-discover Kashmir away from Abdullahs, Muftis, Geelanis, Gandhis and nationalists. It is time to prod the heart of Aam Kashmiri Awam.
It’s time to discover that division of opinion and isolate the idea of terror and talk about Azadi. Azadi from the proxies of Islamabad and Azadi from the dynasties. It is time for real democracy to percolate down to the grassroots. It’s time to give that tricolour in to the hands of stone pelters.
A herculean task that that can be achieved by simply creating a Nizam, “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
Exactly after one year on the same very dates I visited the Kashmir valley again. This time my visit was not as a tourist but as a military veteran to celebrate my battalion’s 52nd raising day.
Interacting with the commanders on ground right from the company commander to the General Officer Commanding, I got very good insight and sense of the situation prevailing in the Kashmir valley.
Some of my nagging queries got addressed, by those in contact and on ground. I was in search of answers to very basic questions. Like, why has there been a drastic reduction in the stone pelting incidents since the imposition of the Governors rule? Is the Hurriyat leadership our compulsive necessity, why can’t they be neutralised? Once the situation was brought under manageable control during the period of 2007-10, why did it slip out of control, escalating the violence levels to those of the 90s? And so on and so forth. I was keen on the military’s perspective.
The candid and forthcoming replies to each question was largely encouraging. But then the interpretation of some of these answers was a little frustrating as well.
In an interesting story narrated by one of the army officer, on how they had brought an end to the weekly Friday ritual of stone throwing at the army post at Soibugh village. This is the infamous village of Syed Salahudeen, who is the head of the terror outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen.
The officer said that it had become a routine. Come Friday and the crowd gathered around the post, shouted slogans and pelted stones. The exasperated and helpless troops inside their post had no option but to suffer this physical and psychological trauma to no end in sight. This business of stone pelting had developed into a very well-orchestrated affair. It had been rehearsed over the years and months to near perfection. These scenes gave fantastic visuals to the media and prompted fiery debates on the television prime time. It brought in a lot of publicity to the separatist cause. The logic got buried under the rhetoric.
The officer told how the gang of stone pelters would gather at the same time and place every Friday. Their exercise was supported by logistics loaded on a light vehicle. It included food and beverages. Stone throwing was followed by drinks and snacks. There was always an emergency medical assistance dedicated. It was kept handy, should the troops decide to retaliate, causing injury to the gang member.
As the political scenario changed in the valley so did the military hierarchy. This change was merely a coincidence. The new military commanders were now in charge of the situation that was under the Governors rule. This had a bearing. The civil police was more cooperating and forthcoming and so was the civil administration. The commander got on their job that they knew the best, conduct operations more military like.
So, it was decided by the military bosses, “let’s put an end to this weekly ritual and agony once for all”. A plan was drawn. It was decided to go step by step. Step one was to ask the villagers to stop this stone pelting, narrated the army officer, giving an animated account.
He told, how that meeting was organised between the village elders of Soibug village and the local military commander. And how the villagers putting up an innocent front, stuck to their stance, that these stone pelters were not the village boys. On the contrary they were the victims of the siege every Friday by these gangs. As per the villagers, these boys came from outside.
However the army maintained that these boys were from this village itself and the elders must step in to control this menace. No concrete conclusion emerged out of this meeting. The army officer delegation left after giving a stern warning of action, if the stone pelting was repeated on the coming Friday.
The army pulled out some old videos from their archives. The videos recorded each Friday were to come handy,not only in identifying each stone pelter individually, but also their leaders. This exercise completed, revealed that the majority including the ring leader were actually from this notorious village. Then came ‘the’ Friday, that these soldiers of this post were waiting for, for months.
Loud speakers were activated to warn the villagers from pelting stones. Simultaneously a marksman detailed for carrying out action as enunciated by the SOP in aid to civil authority. The stone pelters gathered soon after the prayers at the mosque. And advanced towards the post shouting Azadi slogans and Allah o Akbar.
While the troops in the post warned them over the loud speaker, the gang ignored the warnings and continued throwing stones. With no respite, company commander gave a go ahead to the marks man. By now the stone pelting was in full-spate, the marksman in position had fixed his crosshairs on the identified ring leader.
With an aim to incapacitate and not to kill. One shot was fired that hit the leg of the gang leader, injuring him. As he dropped on the ground, rest of the chicken hearted stone pelting gang ran for their lives leaving behind their leader. They peeped from the sides of the village huts and houses, as the army personnel came out of their post with the stretcher and evacuated this injured miscreant to the nearest hospital.