In the visitor’s book of the ‘Panaroma View Tower’ on the castle-end of the Charles Bridge in Prague, my friend scribbled in blue ink, “Salman, Asra, Sumbal – Pakistan; Tavseef – Kashmir”. In the politics of identity, in the struggle to get yourself associated with the preferred identity and not the one that is forced upon you, the sociology of the same plays a quintessential role. By sociology here, I mean the way we present ourselves and our identity in our social circles. We let ourselves be defined by the way we believe.
I have a dubious distinction of having witnessed every major upheaval in Kashmir from the sidelines – I never got to be in the midst of it all. In 2008, during the First Bharat Ragda, I was in NIT Srinagar, which was out of bounds for anyone from outside NIT. It was a patch of land isolated from the outside world – it was a la Indian enclave in Kashmir. There was one protest rally, however, that was organized by the seniors but I did not take part, partly because of my political naiveté at that time. In 2010, during the 2ndBharat Ragda, I was still at NIT Srinagar and we were in the midst of semester exams – the date-sheets were changed more than a couple of times until finally the day scholars were accommodated in the hostels and the business resumed. Then, from 2013 onwards, I have been continuously out of Kashmir for my studies.My first vacation, in September 2014, was spent on the run in Kashmir amidst the catastrophic deluge.
In the summer of 2015, I came back to Kashmir once again to find that many of the boys of my age or even younger with whom I used to play cricket had joined the armed struggle against the Indian rule. I heard the tales of young boys chasing away Indian army and paramilitary forces during protests. I heard about nocturnal raids by the Indian forces and how youth were arbitrarily picked up and put behind the bars – some of them joined the militant ranks after being released. In Kashmir, everyone feels humiliated at some instance at the hands of Indian forces, but some felt it to the extreme and decided to take the most difficult step one can take within human prowess – fight against a brutal occupation with their lives.
In summer 2016, I was in Kashmir for about 2 months. On the way to home from the airport, I saw the gutted structure of the Entrepreneurship Development Institute that was bombarded by the Indian forces when, after three days of fighting, their hundreds failed to subdue two armed fighters that had taken refuge in the building. My 7 year old cousin made it a point asking me if I had seen ‘the building’ on the way where mujahids were killed.
I heard tales of selfless courage of young boys securing safe exit for armed fighters in instances when Indian forces had cordoned off a particular area. Often the armed fighters would be the local boys – cricket teammates, schoolmates – who had joined the struggle only weeks or months ago. In my neighborhood, my friends described the gloom that had descended on the neighborhood after a 24 year old girl student was killed by Indian bullets when she was standing outside another neighbor’s house. Somehow, I felt the anger in the people – the young and the old – had become complete, the resentment full, and the resilience inveterate. Many youth I met had already spent some time in jails and a few were still in jails when I arrived home. I came back from Kashmir a couple of weeks before Burhan was martyred, weeks before the start of the 3rdBharat Ragda. And, again, I had to witness a mass uprising, a people’s revolution from the sidelines.
Even while being on the sidelines, the last 8 years have shaped the way I identify myself, how I view the nation I belong to. Resilience is not a cliché, as some would want us to believe; it is something I have seen in the Kashmiri nation through these years. The uprising in 2008 taught me what it meant to be a Kashmiri, and it laid bare the truth behind the tall claims of the Indian state’s “democracy” in Kashmir.
So, in hindsight, when in 2008, young people were killed in the streets of Kashmir not for having taken up arms but simply for protesting, taking out demonstrations, and singing the songs of freedom and justice, the monstrosity that the Indian project in Kashmir is came out unmistakably to the fore. This was a moment of truth, not just for me, I believe, but for a large part of the generation that was born around the time when the first songs of freedom against Indian rule were sung in Kashmir in 1989.
If the response of the nation to the deluge in 2014, the efforts people undertook to serve those in need and the courage shown by the youth who saved thousands of lives risking theirs, made me feel blessed to be a part of the nation, the maturity the people of Kashmir showed during the crippling siege during the 2016 uprising made me feel proud.
The same people in the village that lost their friends in the armed struggle, or whose brother or a cousin was slapped with the dreaded Public Safety Act were volunteering to teach the village kids in the absence of schools. The same people who would otherwise be bickering every now and then over all issues under the sun were now putting their heads together on how to help those in need in the village and the neighboring villages. Every phone call home was no doubt a memo of suffering under the siege but also a dispatch of hope.
There is a saying in the Islamic tradition attributed to early scholars in which it is asked of the believers to “cling to the faith of old women” in reference to “age of confusions”. This delegation of definition of faith to a third person was not completely understood to me till recently; I found myself making perfect sense of this when, in a ‘Bohemian Crystal Shop’ in Prague, I chanced upon, in addition to Kafka bookmarks, Prague magnetic stickers, and snow crystal balls, a crystal globe. With strict instructions of ‘do not touch’ being followed inside the store, I couldn’t possibly turn the globe around even if wished to. As I glanced on the globe, however, I saw Asia looking straight into my face, with the Indian landmass colored light green, Pakistan in a shade of red, and Kashmir – as distinct as it could be, separate, independent – colored grey. So, the next someone asks me about my identity, I can very well reply, “my identity is the same – distinct, independent, azaad – as on that crystal globe in that Bohemian crystal shop on the street, which opens into the Charles bridge, named Mostecka.”