An unending, tortuous war in Kashmir

by Majid Maqbool

KASHMIR’S STORY IS, for me, a personal history of unresolved pain and grief. Once called a paradise on earth, Kashmir is my wounded homeland, a much-contested geography torn between India and Pakistan.

Growing up in Kashmir during the 1990s meant living in a state of war, staring at the prospect of death that could arrive anytime. We, the children of conflict, were deprived of many freedoms enjoyed by children elsewhere as battles between militants, the Indian army, Border Security Forces and counter-insurgents erupted around us. Our world was filled with the sound of gunshots, the roar of military convoys, the sight of frightening crackdowns, dead bodies, tortured youth, disappearances and grieving mothers.

A few memories of these years stand out for their vividness and left a lasting imprint. Other memories compete and merge – flashes of the stark imagery of brutality return to me at odd times during the day, fill my dreams at night and when I am alone sometimes these memories completely invade my thoughts. There’s no escaping my childhood years. Kashmir’s past still weighs heavily, threatening to overcome the present lived in a state of perpetual unrest.

One of the images from my childhood that keeps returning is the sight of the dead body of a rebel, his blood-soaked shirt perforated with bullet holes. He was dragged on to the street after being shot dead in an encounter in the nearby open maize and rice fields close to my childhood home. The dead body lay on the roadside and I could see it by peering out from behind the curtains of the second floor window of our home. The anxious troops kept guard over their prized kill. A few press photographers arrived on bikes. They clicked pictures of the dead rebel with his rifle placed horizontally on his chest, surrounded by BSF troops who posed for the photos, which would appear in the local newspapers next day. After the photographers left, the body was driven away in a police truck to be kept in the nearby police station until his family claimed him, if they dared admit their relationship to the dead rebel.

Some of my memories of the summer of 1993 are of our small northern Kashmir hamlet on the banks of a tributary of the river Jhelum. On either side of the river, conical-roofed houses, apple orchards and vast rice and maize fields stretched into the distance. The orchards glowed, pregnant with ripening fruit, while rice and maize crops flourished. At the end of that summer, as leaves fell from the trees, the villagers reaped a rich harvest to store for the long harsh winter ahead. Different varieties of apples were picked, carefully packed in wooden boxes, loaded in trucks and then sold in far away markets.

 

THEN THE WAR arrived. Military forces moved closer and closer to the fields and homes of our villages. Army convoys became a regular sight travelling the dusty, unsealed roads. Troops riding atop army trucks waved batons and guns threateningly at us, whistling as they drove through the villages. The military ruled the streets and followed their own rules. There were consequences for civilian vehicles breaking into the long line of military trucks, or speeding past them. The offending vehicle usually ended up pushed on the side of the road, its windshields smashed and the driver beaten with gun butts and batons. Military bunkers and checkpoints proliferated.

When the Indian government sent armed forces to Kashmir to fight rebel forces, we were told it was for our own good. Yet our lives, our former freedoms, were steadily curtailed.

Everyone had to return home by 6 pm, before the troops started night patrols. Breaking the curfew meant arrest, on the spot beatings, or both. The darkness was frightening.

The army began ordering all the village men and boys to assemble on the open fields, sometimes summoning them in the harsh winter months at sunrise. We waited for our turn for interrogations about suspected militant activities nearby. Troops searched our houses for weapons. They confined women and children to a single room, entered the bedrooms and searched beneath the beds, inside water tanks, locked trunks, briefcases and cupboards. They found nothing of consequence, but left household items and personal belongings tossed haphazardly all over the floors.

Military searchlights continually beamed from the army’s bunkers at night, searching for any suspicious militant activity in the fields. These sudden flashes of light scared kids like me, signalling that something was wrong. We had to switch off all the bulbs, draw the curtains and try to sleep. We were too scared to peep out the window lest the searchlights expose us to their suspicion.

My family and our friends were afraid to venture outdoors even in daylight, and they returned home from the fields well before the sun went down. At night, we sometimes spotted a roshandan (a sudden rocket flare) piercing the night sky. It exploded in a burst of bright light in the darkness, illuminating everything on the ground below. The army used these intense flares to expose a rebel on the run or hiding on the ground. It was as if the troops summoned the daylight to stun the dark.

In the ensuing years, many friends, relatives and loved ones were tortured, killed or disappeared. The atmosphere of cumulative fear inevitably sprouted seeds of rebellion, particularly among young people, who began wanting to resist the forces occupying their lives.

 

ONE OLDER COUSIN – I’ll call him Altaf – became a militant rebel after finishing school. He chose to become a Mujahid, as he later came to be known, instead of pursuing the engineering degree his father wanted him to do, or medicine to fulfill his mother’s longing to see him wearing a white doctor’s coat.

I had just turned twelve years old when the surprising news of Altaf taking up arms was broken to our family. We kids were not supposed to know this, but eventually we all learned about it. Altaf’s decision was discussed in hushed whispers by the older boys in the family. He’d made an independent choice, we were later told, and he hadn’t discussed it with any of his family.

Altaf was tall and charming, a young man who excelled in sports and other outdoor activities more than at his studies. Now he acquired the status of a modern day rebel, heroically taking on the military might of the Indian state. For the state, however, he was a ‘terrorist’ who had to be captured and either imprisoned or killed.

In the weeks before he vanished, Altaf was away from his home regularly, telling his parents he was practising for an important cricket tournament to be held in the district. They believed him; Altaf’s parents knew that cricket was his passion. He would even skip school, much to their displeasure, to play all the scheduled matches in his local club. I remember following him to the ground and watching him play from a distance. He was engrossed in the game, both on and off the field. He was always in the thick of the action – running around, battling, throwing the ball, fielding, as if his life derived meaning from the game.

He was the youngest player, a fast bowler, famous for his toe crushers and long run-ups. He was also a gifted batsman, but when he went out to bat he didn’t stay at the crease for long, getting out after hitting a few quick fours and sixes. But when he bowled, his spell was fast and furious. He had the reputation for clean bowling some of the top batsmen of opposing teams by smashing their wickets to smithereens. Altaf would erupt with joy when the wickets flew in the air. The crowd loved it.

Cricket cannot have been at the front of his mind when he finally left home on the pretext of playing in the big tournament. Instead, he must have been playing secretly with an idea that was far bigger than the game he loved. The idea of an independent Kashmir, without the suffocating presence of Indian army troops and their bunkers and checkpoints and crackdowns and army camps, had gripped his imagination.

At the age of twenty, Altaf transformed into a larger-than-life figure for those of us who knew him. With the power of his gun, he represented the promise to change the fate of his people.

His family became accustomed to living in a state of perpetual anxiety. His mother mentally prepared herself to hear bad news about him at anytime. She consoled herself with faith in Allah and her belief that someone who struggles against injustice and fights tyranny acquires a higher status in the hereafter. Altaf would attain immortality after death, members of our extended family assured her. She still prayed endlessly for Altaf’s safety.

Sometimes her eyes brimmed when the family assembled on the dastarkhwan (floor cloth) to eat dinner. Even in Altaf’s absence, his family kept his room neat and clean, all his cricket gear and uniform in order. His room became sacred. No one entered while he was away. His father didn’t talk about his son in front of his mother, though he wondered aloud to others whether Altaf would end up in some dark dungeon, or simply disappear. But, like Altaf’s mother, his father prayed for his son’s return. The only
way to live through and survive those dark days was to hope and pray for better days.

Altaf’s decision to join the rebels inspired both admiration and fear among his friends. Sometimes, only fear. A few who used to hang out with him no longer wanted to be seen in his company. He was discussed and prayed for in his absence. In this way, Altaf remained present long after he’d gone.

I would sometimes see him, uncharacteristically showing up in the inner alleys of his neighborhood. He’d flash a smile of secret recognition, as if he didn’t want me to see him, as if everything was fine, including him. Then he would hide his AK-47 rifle, knowing I would ask to hold the gun. Before I became too inquisitive about his activities and his gun, Altaf would ask me about school and studies and everyone at home. Then he’d ask me to convey his salaam to all the relatives and then quickly disappear. He didn’t like being questioned. He had a stock answer: ‘I’m fine...everything will be fine, Insha’Allah. Pray for me.’

Altaf’s physique, his imposing height and the AK-47 inspired awe in boys like me, all of us trying to make sense of what was happening. He let his hair grow until his dark tresses fell over his ears and covered his long face. He grew a beard and his image began to evoke mystique and bravado, a mix of youthful revolutionary energy that promised much resistance in the face of the overwhelming military power.

Altaf’s presence, in his absence, instilled fear in the hearts of the military and police forces who looked for him through a chain of local informers bribed to keep track of his movements in the village. Altaf gave the military the slip several times when they were close to nabbing him. They feared that he and his associates were planning a major attack.

Informers hovered around his home, appearing to be friendly and otherwise engaged in normal conversations, but always keeping watch on Altaf’s friends, family and relatives. We thought he would never be caught and never surrender; that he would fight heroically till the end. We prayed to God to forbid an encounter, for we knew he’d die a martyr’s death.

 

BUT ONE MORNING in the autumn of 1993, his life changed forever. Altaf was arrested with associates from another village – the result of a successful tip-off from a local informer, followed by the swift action by troops who swooped on him and his colleagues within minutes. For some strange reason, none of the rebels were carrying guns. The troops pointed their guns at the captured rebels, fingers on their triggers, but they didn’t fire.

Blindfolded, the young men were taken to an abandoned house owned by a Kashmiri Pandit family who had left when the armed struggle erupted. There, the army began systematically torturing the young men. They tied the rebels’ legs and hands to large wooden logs, beat them with batons and demanded the whereabouts of associates, their weapons and hideouts in the village. For as long as my cousin and his rebel colleagues remained silent, the blows rained down on their knees and elbows, wherever it hurt the most. Their torturers also kept the captives naked, humiliating them and applying red chilli powder and jolts of electric shocks over their bodies, including their genitals.

The men were subjected to frightening immersions in hot water barrels bubbling with chilli powder. Depending on the mood of the torturers, frustrated from failing to elicit information, they’d pull the captives’ nails out and apply salt to their bloodied fingers. After the captives regained their senses, another round of torture followed, always more painful than the last. Sleep was hard at night, with fresh wounds inflicted during the day.

After weeks in such torture centres, young men emerged deranged. Many were unable to walk easily or speak normally. Others did not survive. Some were just thrown on the streets from military vehicles to be picked up by locals who brought them back to their homes. Half dead, the young men were unable to speak or hear anything for many days. It would take some of them years to recover.

 

ALTAF WAS RELEASED from torture and our relatives gathered at his home to welcome him. His parents could hardly believe that he’d survived. Their eyes were moist and they kept hugging him. Although he’d been tortured, they were happy to see him alive. He was a shadow of his former self, weak and unable to stand without support. He just stood, staring about as if the torture had even deprived him of emotions.

For about a week after he returned, he was unable to talk in clear and coherent sentences. At times he would mumble and make hand gestures to ask for things. Even slight movements of his lips pained him. We later learned his injuries extended to the inside of his upper and lower lips. He couldn’t smile. He didn’t want to smile.

In his earliest days after returning when friends and relatives enquired about his recovery, he didn’t talk much and often reacted as if there was no one there. I would sit close, not asking any questions though I’d many. I wanted him to rest and recover fast. He didn’t want to speak about the torture, he told his parents when the guests left. The memory of the ordeal was as painful as his injuries. His torturers had extinguished cigarettes on his body, including his genitals. Emptying his bladder was an agonising exercise that sometimes took an hour. His body hurt terribly when he tried walking, and when he sat down, it hurt him even more. For weeks he could wear nothing but a loose pheran (winter cloak). The wounds needed several different ointments and frequent changes of bandages. There were nights when he couldn’t sleep. He would sometimes shout at his family and at himself when alone in his room. But he was surprisingly calm on other days.

Altaf’s energy and vitality, passion and promise were snuffed out in the days of his torture. Post torture, he was not the same confident young man, brimming with energy, so sure of a successful revolution. Now, he said, he felt discarded with his tortured, broken body; his mind struggling with the memories of the harrowing brutality he’d been through. Now he doubted his ability to fight against the Indian military forces occupying the village. He hated being identified as a ‘released militant’.

Kashmir’s long, brutal submission under occupation completely consumed Altaf’s youth. He felt much older than his age. Multiple wounds on his body had also unsettled his mind. All his injuries continued to fester in his mind, even when his body eventually healed.

Even today, decades later, Altaf is still fighting to be at peace with his memories. He lives in a state of permanent unrest, his torturous past forced into his present. His mind remains occupied with unrealised dreams of a better future.

Altaf’s youthful dreams have become nightmares. There is no end in sight for Kashmir’s bitter war.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.