THE OTHER IN MY LAND
In our school, we had a subject called ‘Atlas’ where we learned about different countries, every intricate detail, even their rivers and mountains. As I began to grasp the vastness of the world unknown to me, the circumstances of my place started conspiring against me, limiting me to a small shell.
It was 1989 when the armed insurgency against India broke out in Kashmir. I was nine.
Like my mother, I was the only daughter born between two sons. My brothers and I spent our early childhood at my grandparents’ home while my mother worked, not unusual in our culture. My grandmother gave me a love for books. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was her first gift to me, and she gave Puss in Boots to my brothers. Shortly after, my shell began to crack.
Each winter vacation I would accompany my grandparents somewhere to escape the Kashmir chill. My vacation trip became the first casualty. The insurgency was into its third year, and my home in the old city of Srinagar was in the thick in the action.
India gained independence from colonial Britain in 1947, and the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. Both claimed Kashmir and controlled parts of it, divided by a ceasefire line -- the Line of Control. Even China has managed to take a bite in subsequent years.
I lived under Indian control, volatile ever since, with demands that ranged from merging with Pakistan to becoming free. This is how I began learning about local politics, as a child, still mostly protected. When violence sparked between security forces and armed insurgents while I was in school, someone would come get me. In hushed tones, I would hear about someone’s son, someone’s nephew, someone’s grandson gone ‘apour’ - across the line.
People romanticized the popular armed insurgents, known as mujahids. Every youth wanted to cross the line into Pakistan administered Kashmir and return with a gun on his shoulder. My parents and grandparents were watchful lest my brother or uncle might cross. The Indian state weaved a web of military posts all over the valley. Nearly every lane in the old city ended in a sand bag bunker.
But with the bunkers came restrictions. Days ended early because people couldn’t move after dusk. Even now, it still does, just a little later. I became aware of crackdowns, curfews, disappearances, and custodial killings. Cross firings, grenades, and bomb blasts, frequent body searches in the heavily barricaded city became the norm. Proving identity at every step to uniformed personnel became familiar, especially to men.
Built into the daily routine of breakfast was my mother checking that the men in the family left home with their identity cards in their pockets.
Adolescents triggered danger and sadness for mothers instead of guidance and concern. On the day puberty reflected on my brothers face, my mother frowned. He could no longer stay in the house with the women during a crackdown. Crackdown: When at daybreak people were awakened by a mosque loud speaker calling not for prayers but for men to assemble into an open space in the locality. The assembled men and boys would then be paraded in front of masked informers. Men and boys would be picked up, some on the instructions of the masked informers, some on mere suspicion. The crackdowns were mostly day long but often extended.
As a girl, I remember huddling in the kitchen with all of the children and women, fear ravaging their faces, as security searched our house. I rushed to our room to find everything scattered and my pens gone -- the imported ones brought by my uncle and the two that were the first gift from my father, hidden behind a ceramic doll in the cupboard. I cursed them for taking them and myself for not using them.
There were always stories. From a man released from jail, my father heard about an inmate who laid on the ground with a blanket over him. Stinking and defecating, he could not move, and ate from a plate with his mouth. No one went near him. I was devastated and angry wondering why we all were so helpless.
Slowly, reality and the history of my people and my homeland sank in. Things were changing. As a child I would often rush to the baker’s across the street from our house. Through a small window connecting the oven in the back room to the front shop, the baker’s wife peeped out to attend to the customers. The short, stout lady with a round face would nod and greet me as we exchanged the bread and money. One day we heard that gunmen killed her youngest son, a suspected police informant. I could not gather myself to go near her shop. I didn’t want to see her face. I couldn’t look into that chubby face again or meet her eyes, which I knew would never be the same. I stopped getting bread.
From the long list of women affected by insurgency, she was the first one I knew.
I remember Gul’s wife. Gul Muhammad, was a butcher and our neighbor. I remember Gul as a God-fearing man, teaching his sons the intricacies of kite flying on the roof of his house during the winter. My brothers and uncles would be on our roof, also flying kites. I didn’t like to fly kites, but I loved to soak in the sun and watch the kites dance to the tunes of the wind. Many families would be on the roofs, watching kites. When a kite would be in trouble, anxiety levels on the roofs soared. Instructions would roar from rooftops, so would encouragement or compassion when someone’s kite was lost.
I liked Gul for being a good father. Then one day I returned from school to find his house empty. Someone told me Gul has been killed. A juice pack had burst, and a panicked trooper reacted by shooting Gul inside his shop. Gul and the guard had been friendly. His wife confined herself to her house. I dreaded seeing her as I knew her face too, would never be same.
The list of affected women in Kashmir is endless. I knew as a child, that with every blast and bullet a Kashmiri was affected – a widowed wife, a wailing mother. Missing people were increasing leaving half widows in their wake. There is no figure for the number of orphans this conflict has produced. This was Kashmir, my land. And these were my people. These were also my first brushes with the consequences of conflict. Yet this was new to me.
No one taught me to think in terms of us versus them. No one spelled out to me that the security personnel were the other. I knew they were not there for my safety. They were there to protect themselves from us, that was how I saw it even as a child. I thought the resentment against them ran in our blood as I watched a
neighbour’s nephew, barely able to talk, point his toy gun at them and pretend to fire.
India does not reveal the actual number of its troops in Kashmir. Some estimate more than 700,000, making Kashmir the highest militarized region in peacetime. A trooper can shoot a person on mere suspicion, and he cannot be tried in a civilian court for any allegation.
Human Rights Watch says, “The Indian government's failure to end widespread impunity for human rights abuses committed both by its security forces and militants is fueling the cycle of violence in Jammu and Kashmir.”
We have adapted. In 2008, peaceful protests in the region turned into some of the largest pro-freedom protests. As the rallies grew, the state responded with brutal curfews, and fired on unarmed protestors. Even beating up people inside their homes, to instill fear. 60 people were killed. Thousands were injured, many inside their homes.
After a lot of upset and outcry this summer, fueled by the rape and murder of two women by security officers, talk of demilitarization and the removal of special laws are making
the rounds again.
But not for long. I just cannot wish away the other from my land.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.