It was cold. The winter haze seemed to have set in. As I was going down the makeshift stairs of an Air India airplane, my face could feel the chilly winds that are characteristic of the typical northern winter. The last time I had been here — in Kashmir — it was a state under the Indian dominion. Now I was entering a union territory. But little seemed to have changed. At first glance, at least.
As I moved out of the airport, I saw swarms of armed personnel around, as they used to be. In every lane and by-lane. At rooftops. In playgrounds and dilapidated structures. Barricades and spools of barbed wires still decorated every nook and corner of Srinagar city. Camouflaged army bunkers with rusty tin tops on the road sides, seemed to be an addition though — the Union Territory status ‘gifts’? But people have seen these makeshift bunkers earlier also. As late as the mid 2000’s, I reckon.
Kashmir’s ‘Promised Integration’?
At home too, everything seemed to be the same. Maa still cooks the best Rogan Josh, Abu as usual is at his skeptical best — about the intentions of the powers that be. My brother’s beard has increased drastically though. He religiously prays five times a day now. That perhaps to me was the only discernible change. Until I began listening to the late evening radio news broadcast. ‘Ye All India Radio Srinagar hae’ (This is all India Radio Srinagar). Station ID of ‘Radio Kashmir’ has been replaced with ‘All India Radio Srinagar’. Is it the promised ‘integration’ the government speaks of, I wondered?
Integration by erasing words? By erasing memory?
My professor at journalism school often used to tell me that memory is a tool of resistance. As long as people remember, they act, they dissent.
So I thought of the new branding of the radio channel as an attempt to make people forget — forget their troubled past. But is it so easy to crush collective memory? On one side, 200 metres away from my home, some 60 white slabs are embedded on a dome-shaped memorial wall — with each slab carrying the name of a person who was killed three decades ago when barrels were emptied by security forces on a funeral of a prominent pro-freedom leader.
On another side, some 400 metres away lay a playground on whose boundary was an epitaph which read Shaheed Tufail Matoo. Tufail, a 16-year-old boy whose killing by the Indian armed personnel in 2010 led to a Valley-wide agitation, had claimed at least 100 more lives. At the rear end, half a kilometre away, was the martyrs’ graveyard. Each grave there had a name suffixed with ‘Shaheed’. Each grave there is a memory. So how can someone wipe off all these memories? By changing names?
A Pall of Gloom & a Deafening Silence in J&K
As I sauntered through my mohalla lanes the next day, I found someone else in manning Wakeel’s barber shop. Wakeel was a non-local barber who had been “asked to leave,” my aunt told me, despite having spent much of his life in Kashmir. Although some elders in the locality were of the opinion that he shouldn’t be forced out, the younger generation seemed adamant. “He (Wakeel) had managed to get a ration card. What if he tries to buy land tomorrow? They (government) have cleared the way for non-locals to settle here,” an agitated boy from the locality told me. Even if Wakeel had worked for all his life in Kashmir, he may have never even managed to buy the small shop he had rented from the mosque. Conflict often punishes the most vulnerable. Kashmir is no exception.
No one has managed to remain unscathed, though. The rich, poor, doctors, patients, businessmen, street vendors, urban dwellers, villagers all wear a dejected look.
Yet no one vents. Throughout the Valley I find an eerie silence — some sort of organised chaos. Everyone seems to be hurt but very few talk about it. Most people put on a brave face. Hearts are bruised and minds are fatigued, but nobody has conceded defeat. Nobody is willing to give up. Not yet.
(Hanan Zaffar is Associate Editor, ‘Muslim Mirror' and Editor 'CricSwarm'. He has written extensively on politics and sports for national and international organisations like DailyO, The Diplomat, The Quint, Albilad Daily, The Citizen etc. He tweets @HananZaffar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)