Republic Day with a difference
SRINAGAR, Jan 26 : January 26 has got to be one of the most dreaded days for Kashmiris in Srinagar. The previous day, well-meaning colleagues at work and concerned friends warned me to stay home like it was the Ides of March. “Don’t come to work. It’s not safe,” said one. Seniors were slightly more encouraging, “Are you bravely going to set foot outside tomorrow?” To this, I replied, “Most journalists do, don’t they?” – puzzled at the fact that everybody was expecting the worst. Another colleague cracked me up when she said she would show up only if I sent a chopper for her! After I stepped out of the office, I asked a friend, what exactly it is that people here fear on India’s Republic Day, he said, “It’s just not safe. Anything can happen anytime.” Is that not true of any given day in Kashmir? My friend added after observing my obstinacy, “If you have decided to go to work, leave home after noon – around 1 or 2 pm – after the parade.” Meanwhile, people continued to narrate their experiences while stepping out for household chores on that day years ago. I still was not able to get the point. All through Monday, we heard sketchy reports of house searches and stop-and-search operations all over the city. Still, I wasn’t feeling edgy. That evening, a friend and I trudged over the footbridge in pitch dark, and were warned about the barbed wire on it by the security forces. “They will all go back to their barracks tonight and will be deputed on the streets after midnight,” he mumbled. The rest of the walk was nothing out of the ordinary. Finally, January 26 had arrived. 8 am: Both my cell phones don’t work. Jammers activated, I guessed. I had to call home to tell them I would be attending office today and not celebrating Republic Day like them. The family I reside with was surprised that I was actually attempting to step out. In fact, a fresh hot water bottle was ready for me after tea, as they assumed I’d stay indoors. I told them not to worry and soon, I left around noon. As I stepped out, and the streets didn’t look too bad – empty, yes, but not eerie. Saw some people on the streets, 99% of the shops were shut, there were even some vehicle owners who were driving on the empty roads. See, not that bad, I said to myself. But at the same time, I made sure I wasn’t listening to music, as I usually do on my way to work every day. All those warnings by colleagues and friends had not gone unheeded. Some kids were playing cricket just outside our lane. My logical explanation to myself was, if it was that dangerous, then the parents would have made them sit at home. So, with a haversack and a camera dangling from my shoulder, I set off for work, which is a 30-minute walk. By the time I reached the river, I was relaxed. Still, not relaxed enough to put on my ear phones and listen to music. No forces in sight, no problem. Saw some more teenagers playing cricket. Thought I’d put my camera to use. Took some shots and the got shoed away by the batsman, who was a gawky teen. When he signaled me to leave, I walked on. I rarely take pictures of unwilling subjects – the aim being not to annoy. I know that would make me a lousy news photographer. Thank God, I’m not one. “Hey, stop,” I heard and stopped. The bunker at the bund, I thought. I had not even pointed my camera in that direction. What did I do, I wondered as took a deep breath and turned to find the batsman sprinting towards me at full speed. He caught up, breathless. “Delete karo photos,” he said. I asked him what the problem was. He said, “Problem hogi”. I replied, “You saw where I was standing, it was very far. Can’t see your faces so don’t worry.” This gawky teenager swung his bat on his shoulder and would not give up. I offered to show him the photos I had shot, “See, no faces, like I said.” “OK,” he said, running off to his anxious team mates. I smiled, thanking God for this transitory moment of sweet resistance of the day. Unfortunately, in Kashmir, not every one is let off so easily – people are humiliated, beaten, maimed and killed on the streets by the use of brute force. This oppression might have broken bones, extracted confessions and inspired an eternal fear (that I am unused to) but never hindered the spirit. Having experienced the day in a new light, I think I am lucky. It remains to be seen for how long!