It’s mourning in Kashmir
My confusion regarding whether the explosions were Eid crackers or gunshots was short-lived; slogans followed the shots, which are a rarity in the uptown area of Srinagar, where I live. I rushed downstairs to hear my father announce that Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, had been killed in an encounter. My mother looked at me in a way that suggested she needed to hear it wasn’t true. I didn’t know yet.
I quickly checked my phone and saw missed calls from my friends and fellow journalists. Sheikh Saaliq, who works with Hindustan Times had called. Kyah chu karun (what do we do). Between the shock and our professional responsibility as journalists, it was difficult to decide what to do exactly. Burhan’s killing might mean a thousand different things for Kashmir.
The gunshots and tear gas shells outside my house had become more frequent by this point. Another fellow journalist and friend, Haziq Qadri from Barcroft Media, got in touch. He was stuck some three kilometres from my house.
“They’re firing live bullets here. I’m on the road and there is no possibility of reaching your place,” he told me.
Haziq and Saaliq, both, had come from Delhi a few days earlier to celebrate Eid.
We debated whether to leave right away for Tral, the hometown of Burhan Wani, some two hours away from Srinagar, or whether to wait for some news from the people in Tral first. ‘Out of coverage area’ the voice said as I desperately called everyone I knew in Tral. It seemed as though the phone lines had been snapped there. I checked if my camera batteries were fully charged just as the electricity was snapped. I wanted to leave before the mobile phone services would be snapped in Srinagar too. That is usually the government’s first response to anything in Kashmir. Press cards give a false sense of security at such times. I am a freelance journalist – I don’t have one.
We spent the night waiting for any confirmation that would provide us with the excuse we needed to leave; we got none. The news desks of various news organisations in Press Avenue told me that it was not advisable to leave without a press card. I charged and recharged the batteries, cleaned my lenses thrice, checked if my pen worked and then repeated the steps all over again. The skies were thundering and the rain was pouring by now, so we waited impatiently till the morning.
I did not get to the main road and met Haziq in one of the by-lanes instead. It is much safer.
“Saaliq couldn’t make it, he is near Dargah right now, the situation is very bad there,” he told me.
Haziq was with another journalist, Inzamam Qadri. The three of us got on his scooty and left. The roads were deserted, no soul in sight. In order to reach Tral we would have to take the bypass road till the main highway. Our first dose of reality came at the very first chowk on the bypass. Infamous white armoured jeeps called the ‘Rakshak’ were firing tear gas shells into the colony on the left. Young boys were daring the forces to come towards them where they would either attack or disappear into the by-lanes. We took the service lane on the right and sped past, our eyes burning with pepper gas in the air. The funeral would be taking place at two; we did not want to miss the event.
We went a few kilometres ahead and saw that the road was blocked at the first bridge. Being familiar with navigating in such situations, we stopped the vehicle a few metres before. I got down and spoke to the protesters who had placed huge logs, some whole trees, and big boulders on the road. Just as I had started talking to them, one of the protesters got aggressive,
“It was our brother who was killed! Was he not your brother? Why are you out? Is this a picnic for you?” he shouted as some others tried to hold him back.
After a few minutes of convincing the more sensible ones amongst them and stating the fact that we were going to Tral, they agreed to let us pass amidst cries of,
“Tum kitnay Burhan maaro gey? Harr ghar se burhan nikle ga.”
(How many Burhan’s will you kill? Every house will unleash a Burhan.)
Inzamam and I signaled Haziq to come. But, as soon as he got near, the aggressive protester snapped and started getting violent again. Haziq received a punch to his shoulder and we decided to turn back from this point.
We couldn’t just go back; we decided to try another route.
Same story – it was the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) this time. On another route, in a direction opposite to where the road that joined the highway lead, we failed again. We started driving towards Pampore; a town that connects to the highway, much further away from Srinagar, via a road that traced the west side of the Jhelum river. The highway runs on the eastern side but there was no way we could reach the highway in this situation. Passing through colonies and blockades by people in every centre, we finally stopped to analyse our route at a spot where 10-year-olds had staged a protest. We were away from Srinagar now, but not in the right direction. One of the boys, Yaseen, said that Pampore could be reached from the road ahead, but there were huge clashes there,
‘Quran ki kassam’
(I swear on the Quran) he added.
I believed him.
Every once in a while, by asking for directions from whosoever we came across, we reached the spot where a bridge crossed the Jhelum river over to the eastern side and connected to highway. It was a bad idea; there was a pitched battle going on with protesters on one side of the bridge, and armed forces on the other.
We moved ahead, near a footbridge. We would either have to leave the vehicle behind and cross, or keep going in the same direction in the hopes that something would play in our favour. We drove along the bund of the river to a point where it appeared as though de-silting was underway. There were a few boats but no person in sight. None of us knew how to maneuver such a huge boat over flowing water. It was impossible to reach Tral. Our frustrations heightened with every minute that passed; there seemed to be no end to this.
Even now, our phones were still working, which meant we hadn't even made it 15 kilometres out of Srinagar. Every desperate attempt would fail and we seemed to be going nowhere. There was no way we could reach Tral like this and we couldn’t go back and face all those blockades again. Inzamam’s phone rang; someone said that Saaliq had been shot in Srinagar while making his way towards us.
For the next few minutes, things remained unclear until the phone rang again. It was Saaliq this time. He said that we shouldn’t be worried as he was fine. He clarified that some other Saaliq had been injured; not my friend, no. Some other Saaliq – injured, maybe killed.
Journalism seemed like the worst career to have by now. We kept moving. The phones stopped working and we found ourselves in unknown territory. A group of men gathered outside a mosque said they were offering funeral prayers for Burhan Wani, in absentia, since they could not go to Tral.
“A hero was martyred,” they told us.
One of the men suggested that we go towards the town of Pulwama. He instructed us to take the road to Tral that comes just before reaching Pulwama. He further assured us that this road passes through Awantipora and crossed both the highway and the river at very safe spots. This seemed like a good idea, until we saw another blockade. It looked like the army; one can’t really tell.
As soon as we got near, four masked men in army fatigue ordered us down. We complied.
“Hum patrakaar hain” (We are journalists) Haziq said.
My gut told me this was a good idea – using hindi words.
“Sir, dilli se hain. Hum wahan naukri karte hain. Patrakaar hain.”
(Sir, we are from Delhi. Our jobs are based there. We’re journalists.)
“Haath upar kar!”
(Put your hands up!).
He blurted out, unconvinced,
“Patrakaar hai, saala. Haath upar rakh!”
(Son of a gun’s a journalist. Put your hands up!)
Inzamam and I both shut our mouths and raised our hands above our heads. The vulnerable feeling of having your body exposed, your own flesh against a metal bullet; that piercing feeling, a man in front of you who holds a gun towards you and cocks it, the sound of a bullet loading into place, just behind a spring waiting to be wound, and the idea of you dying in a ditch where no one weeps over your dead body – these sensations I felt altogether, in slow motion.
Haziq had pulled out his press card, or in our case it could’ve even been a ‘get out of jail card’, or rather a 'please don't shoot me' card. One of the four men lowered his mask,
“Haan baaki bhi dikhao,”
(Yes, the rest of you show it as well) he instructed.
Inzamam pulled out his card too, with one hand in the air; it reminded me of being punished at school, only that this was no teacher. I pulled out my drivers' licence. He looked at us and matched the photos only.
“Aur kya hai bag me? Sabh talashi karo inki.”
(What else is in the bag? Everyone, search them).
They frisked us top to bottom.
“Sir, hum jaa sakte hain?” I asked.
(Sir, can we leave?)
“Chalo, chalo. Bhagho yahan se,”
(Go, go. Scurry off from here) he replied and let us go.
I heard him say to his associate as we left.
Pathar nai marenge toh goli nai khayenge,”
(If they’re not stoning, we’re not shooting)
I was almost two o’clock now; the burial was supposed to be at 2 and we were still far away from Tral. At two we crossed the highway and the river Jhelum, finally, as if into a new world. From this point on, the journey took a new turn.
There were no blockades, there were no check posts. There were no empty roads anymore but buses carrying people on the roofs. There were rallies upon rallies of bikes with men and boys “Phir kyun na doge, azadi,” (how can you not give us our freedom) and trucks upon trucks of women, “Sharmaana chodo, azadi.” (Stop being shy, freedom). It was a wave of colourful scarves, flags, and people. The world seemed free here and the chants for azadi grew louder and louder as we moved forward, towards the Eidgah, the burial spot of Burhan in Tral. The other side of the highway felt like a different world; two very different societies, one controlled by the army and government and one by the people – and the differences were stark.
People were sitting on chairs alongside the roads distributing water and food to those moving towards Tral. There were those who were managing the traffic. They had put up signs and were guiding people towards Burhan. Not from the main roads but from lanes, by-lanes, fields, orchids, streams and through houses. There were families with their trousers rolled up walking through paddy fields with babies in their arms. There were women singing songs that are sung in Kashmir when the groom arrives. Rows upon rows of people (equally inclusive of men and women) marched towards the Eidgah. Those returning were guiding others who were heading there.
A man distributing yellow coloured rice informed us,
“There have been 20 janazas (funeral prayers) till now and groups are still coming, go fast and pay your regards.”
We reached the spot long after the burial. People by this time were covering the grave with handfuls of soil as a ritual. We had missed witnessing a historical event as it happened, but were witnessing a phenomenon as it played out.
We went to people and talked to them, got the quotes for the stories we had in mind and clicked pictures – but the aura of what we witnessed cannot be articulated in a news story. No reports talking about ‘these many died’, ‘those many were injured’, ‘police said this’, and ‘the CM said that’ can convey to the world the reality of the situation. No headlines saying ‘Millions Visited Despite Restrictions’ can explain to the reader how people struggled to get there and how adults sat down and cried beside a grave while their expressionless children looked at their faces.
A bearded preacher reciting prayers on the grave of Burhan Wani asked for martyrdom to be accepted in the court of Allah, to which the people replied with ‘ameen’. Some broke down and sat on the ground, others tried to console them. I asked one of the young men, who cried silently as he decorated the grave with a few branches, if he was all right. He said that he had lost his cousin three years back to the bullets of the CRPF. He said that his cousin’s body was also brought home like Burhan's. He had been there since morning when Burhan's body was handed over.
Another older man, sitting on the fence of the Eidgah, said that the skies cry when innocent blood is spilled; that is why Burhan also cried, that is why he picked up the gun.
Youngsters outside the walls of the Eidgah compound told us that they had never seen anything of this scale and magnitude. Some of them added that Burhan was their hero and they would not let his sacrifice go in vain. Another young boy that we talked to took us to his house. We were low on fuel and there were no petrol pumps so he gave us some petrol in a bottle from one of the shops. He wanted us to stay in Tral for the night as going back would be very dangerous.
I asked him what he thought about the whole scenario. He didn’t reply straight away. After a few minutes he looked at me and said that when zulm (injustice) exceeds all limits, someone emerges to fight it. I wondered if he wanted to be politically correct in what he told me. He then added that Burhan was him, that he himself is a Burhan and that everyone in Kashmir can also be Burhan.
We had to get back; no reports for the day could be filed past nine. The journey back to Srinagar was just as frustrating as the journey to Tral. When our phones finally had reception, we learned that 11 people had been killed in the last few hours. The hospitals were being surveyed and those bringing in the injured were being profiled. The situation had spiraled out of control in the cycle of killings and protests.
On our way back we took a wrong turn and ended up on the highway near Pampore. A group of around 50 men from the army, the CRPF and Special Operations Group (SOG) had blocked the road. It felt like we drove straight into a death trap. There were some boys being ruthlessly beaten up in an alley. Our cameras were seized.
“Burhan ko dekhne gaye the? Dikhao kya liya hay.”
(You went to see Burhan? Show us what you have brought).
Our phones were also checked. Haziq had asked me to remove my memory card, which had the pictures. Our hands were checked for marks of stones. Inzamam was being taken into the alley, maybe his hands were dirty, and the school punishment came to mind again. It felt like the hangman was taking a convict to a dark place - the gallows.
The job of the men in the alley was to start beating up whoever was brought in, as the officer announced that we be let go.
It felt like snatching a friend back from the clutches of death. One of the CRPF men threw stones at us as we left. Negotiating and pleading our way back, we saw groups of security personnel at various spots, which were being challenged by the youth.
By the time we got back, it was too late for any report to be filed. I filed one anyway but it was too late for it to be carried. At every spot we played the card we thought we had to, being a journalist can get you those skills, but in this part of the world, it might just work enough to let you pass. Just – or sometimes not.
I could still hear tear gas shells being fired somewhere as I wrote this.
Maybe someone would get shot, like the cousin of the boy I met in Tral. I just hope it’s not Saaliq, not my friend, someone else maybe.
Then I remembered what another person in Tral told me: we are all the same in Kashmir, maybe someone else this time, maybe me some other time.
This post originally appeared here.