Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kashmir's cry for 'freedom'

It is yesterday once more in Kashmir. From the time I have flown into the valley on Monday, Srinagar has resembled a ghost town, bringing back memories of a visit two years ago. The only signs of life are tetchy security forces manning checkpoints or idly fiddling with their mobile phones, the odd chemist or a cigarette shop that is open, an occasional car with a flashing red beacon or an ambulance hurtling down its empty roads, a "ration truck" bringing in supplies to its besieged residents. The interminable day and night curfews have drained all life out of Srinagar. People have retreated into their homes leaving back graffiti on the walls screaming Go Back India! In the restive old city, surly young men sit outside shuttered homes and shops and glare at the troops peering out of sandbagged bunkers and manning the razor wire checkpoints. People wake up at the crack of dawn to store up on supplies when the grocers open for a few minutes. At night, an eerie silence descends over the city as the moon plays hide and seek with the clouds.
It is another summer of unrest in what is possibly the most scenic valley in the world. Two months of cyclical violence between stone pelting protesters and heavily armed security forces have left more than 50 dead - mostly teenagers. Things are looking grimmer than ever before. It's a summer that could turn out to be another defining point in the valley's tortured history. A whole generation of children of the conflict - Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer evocatively calls it their "war of adolescence" - who grew up in the days of militancy and violence in the early 1990s are driving the protests today. (Seven out of 10 Kashmiris are below 25.)
Growing up in the shadow of the gun and what they say is "perpetual humiliation" by the security forces, they are angry, alienated and distrustful of the state. As prominent opposition leader Mehbooba Mufti tells me when I visit her at her heavily secured home overlooking the stunning Dal lake: "If these young men are not given something to look forward to, God help Kashmir." The valley, most residents say, is in the early stages of an intifada.
Mainstream politicians admit that they have lost confidence of the people. "We can only wait and watch how the situation develops," says Ms Mufti. The hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani appears to be only leader with a modicum of legitimacy, however precarious. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's "give peace a chance " appeal to Kashmiris in a televised speech on Tuesday appears to have left them cold. When politics and the state withers away, it creates a dangerous vacuum. One senses an early beginning of this in Kashmir today.
In the labyrinthine heart of the old city of cone-roofed cheek by jowl brick homes and shops, old "heritage" houses in elegant decrepitude, overflowing sewers and potholed roads, India has receded further from the collective consciousness of its residents. In their homes, mothers are stocking memories of their dead children in trunks, suitcases, cupboards and school bags. Most have died in the firing by security forces.
One mother emptied a cupboard and a suitcase full of of her 14 yr-old boy's belongings for me. Wamiq Farooq had gone to play in the neighbourhood when a tear gas shell fired by the troops exploded on his head. Doctors tried to revive him for an hour at the hospital before declaring him dead. Now, sitting on a brown rug in a modest family home, his mother brings out Wamiq's red tie, red belt, white cap, fraying blue uniform, half a dozen school trophies, report cards, school certificates and then his pithy death certificate. "He is sure to be a face in the crowd," writes his school principal on one certificate praising Wamiq, the Tom and Jerry cartoons and science-loving teenaged son of a street vendor father. Then she slowly puts back Wamiq - his life and death - back into the suitcase and the cupboard and tells me, her eyes welling up: "I never understood why Kashmiri people demand freedom. After Wamiq's death, I do. I want freedom too. So that my children can return home unharmed and in peace."

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