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Illustration by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla

Like young people across the world, teenagers in Kashmir are worried about examinations and friendships, and are caught in a negotiation with their parents and society for more freedom.

However, unlike the rest of the country, many of them also know the difference between a TAR-21 and a Kalashnikov. While their schools have been shut for the better part of the last year, they were born and brought up under martial law.

Kashmiri teenagers are coming of age today in a country that is increasingly being shaped by regular events of violence. The series of decisions taken by New Delhi have shaken the already weak bridge between young Kashmiris and the rest of the country.

These are a few of Kashmir’s young, who will mould their Valley’s identity in the coming decades.

ZEENAT ASHRAF, 19

Ms. Ashraf is not a boy. No one lets her forget that.

On the field, she defends the goalposts for Lonestar, the first private women’s football team in the valley of Kashmir. While her teammates live in Srinagar, the capital city, Ms. Ashraf’s home is on its hilly outskirts, in the neighbourhood of Harwan. Two days before Lonestar’s match with the state-sponsored team in August last year, she suddenly found herself cut off from everyone else.

In a political blitzkrieg, the Central government had shut off all internet and phone services, and clamped down on transportation before its surprise decision of stripping the region’s special status under the national constitution.

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Photograph by Kuwar Singh for The Kashmir Walla

With public transport at halt on the morning of the match, Ms. Ashraf kickstarted her scooter. Major roads had been barricaded. “Some of the lanes I had to drive through, I was seeing them for the first time,” Ms. Ashraf says. She was the only player to reach the stadium that day. The match was called off.

“The only thing to know about Zeenat is that she was probably a boy in her last life,” says her mother, Haseena Bano. Ms. Ashraf constantly walks the tightrope between gender roles. She is pursuing a bachelors course in home science at the women’s degree college in Srinagar, which she attends on and off. Her parents have two daughters and no son. So she also grew up working with her father on the family farm and doing everything else “that a son does”.

She had always been more athletic than other girls, but played her first match only in twelfth grade, when a teacher put her name down as goalkeeper for a school tournament organised by the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF).

Ms. Ashraf fractured her right wrist saving a goal, and had to get a plaster cast in the middle of the tournament. When her coach told her that she would not be allowed to play further, however, she pulled the cast out. Till this day, the fracture has still not properly healed.

But she went on to qualify the trials and represent Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) in national tournaments the next year. It was a reality check. “I used to think of myself as good, but there I shut up,” she says. “When Bala Devi (playing for the state of Manipur) would take the ball, we could not even see where she was going with it.”

“Everyone knows J-K women’s team is the worst, but no one asks why,” says Nadiya Nighat, the women’s coach at Lonestar. Training is often disrupted due to both the conflict and the weather, she says. The ground at Amar Singh College in Srinagar, where Ms. Ashraf practices, is filled with water throughout much of the winter, while the only synthetic turf in the valley, TRC Turf Ground, has been hosting a national men’s tournament.

When I leave for training, we fight. When I come back, we fight. My family has never been to any of my games.

Whenever tensions boil over and schools shut down in Kashmir, boys throng their training ground. They sometimes catcall the female players, Ms. Ashraf says. “I keep my head low. If I respond, there will be no difference between me and them.”

Parents are also reluctant to send their daughters out of the house to train. Ms. Ashraf appreciates that she is at least “allowed” to play football, a rarity in their neighbourhood, but her relationship with her father has grown increasingly fraught. “Playing sports is a waste of time,” her father, Mohammad Ashraf Bhat, declares. Football doesn’t pay, and Ms. Ashraf’s father pays for her sports gear and transportation.

“When I leave for training, we fight,” she says. “When I come back, we fight.” Her family has never been to any of her games. “When other girls talk about who is coming from their family, I just stand at the back, hoping no one asks me.”

Time is running out for them to show up. Because she began playing late, Ms. Ashraf’s football career may not last long. She is unlikely to play for the national team, Ms. Nighat admits: “A player who we focus on from early teens has a much better chance.”

As an alternative, Ms. Ashraf is aiming for one of the job spots the Indian Army reserves for candidates who have demonstrated an excellence in sports. She grew up admiring Army personnel stationed around her locality, and has dreamt of wearing the cap herself one day. “I have always wanted to join the Army. The officers are very strong,” she says. “And right now, I am very weak.”

SURAJ BHAT, 16

“It feels weird living in a temple,” says Mr. Bhat, “especially when your friends visit.”

Since childhood, most of his friends have been of Muslim faith. They study and play video games—“it increases focus,” he tells his mother—and cricket together. But confrontations, though rare, are not absent. In ninth standard, he says, one of his classmates told him Islam was better than Hinduism. A few other classmates joined in. They spoke of how women in their community modestly wear the burqa, “while your women roam around naked.”

“I don’t push back because I’m the only one,” he says.

Mr. Bhat lives with his parents in a two-room residence inside the premises of a Shiv temple in downtown Srinagar. Theirs is among the less than 800 Pandit families still living in Kashmir, down from 77,653 in 1989, according to figures compiled by Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), a non-profit based in Srinagar.

I want to see what it’s like to live with members of my own community.

Following an anonymous letter threatening them, the family of his mother, Bhavna Bhat, had migrated from their Srinagar home to Jammu in the Pandit migration following the rise of militancy in the Valley in 1990. She returned back to Kashmir after her marriage in 2001. His father had meanwhile abandoned his ancestral home in a village in the northern district of Baramulla.

Under various government programmes, the offspring of those who migrated out of Kashmir are offered jobs and residential flats in the Valley. Mr. Bhat is not eligible for these as his family still lives in Kashmir. But even a job and a flat could not keep him in Kashmir, he says.

Mr. Bhat is in his final year at school, after which he plans to leave the Valley for good. He is enrolled in two science tuition classes, and wants to study mechanical engineering in Mumbai. His mother, on the other hand, wants him to go to a college in Chandigarh, to keep him away from Mumbai’s nightlife. But what is clear is that “I want to see what it’s like to live with members of my own community,” he says.

During 2016 civil uprising following the killing of Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander, the family says a few boys wearing face scarves threw stones at the temple, barged into the premises, and took religious paintings of Hindu gods out on the street and urinated on them. The temple is among the very few in Srinagar not being guarded by government forces. “My husband was at home. He ran after them to get the paintings back,” recalls Ms. Bhat. “I started crying. I didn’t know if he was going to come back alive.” 

Sanjay Tickoo, the president of KPSS, said he called the local police station as soon as he heard about the incident. “The police came and collected the neighbours, and calmed the matter on the same day,” he says.

“Minorities are suppressed around the world. In Kashmir too, the Pandit students are not able to grow to their full potential,” Mr. Tickoo adds.

Though Mr. Bhat is certain that he will find a new home somewhere else, volatility in the region has also affected his studies. His school remained shut for months amid heightened tensions following the government’s decision in August. Mr. Bhat took his eleventh grade examinations with his coursework incomplete, and has not scored as well as he had hoped.

Embarrassingly, relatives who have migrated to Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune did not fail to call on the day his results were announced last month. “Agar ghar mandir, toh rishtedaar chappal chor (If home is a temple, relatives are the shoe thieves),” he says. 

ASRAR MIR*, 18

In the popular video game PUBG Mobile, Mr. Mir’s “kill-by-death ratio” is a formidable seven. When the plane flies over an island at the start of the game, he chooses to parachute down to the school building. He roams its halls with a gun, from classroom to classroom, the cafeteria to the gymnasium, on the hunt for targets.

The Jammu and Kashmir police surrounded and locked down his school in 2017, he says, while he was writing his ninth grade mathematics test. Teachers tried to keep Mr. Mir indoors for as long as they could, after other students had left the premises. But the cops nabbed him when he stepped out eventually, and put him into the back of an armoured police van.

When he looked back from the window glass, “I saw more than a dozen police vans had come, as if they had to arrest a Hizbul commander,” he says, not without pride.

For Mr. Mir and his friends, who have been brought up in the Soura neighbourhood of Srinagar and have spent their entire young lives under martial law, stone throwing is a rite of passage into manhood. The boys sit in open grounds and play PUBG together, work out in the gym together, smoke illicit cigarettes together, and throw stones at the government forces together.

At the station, the police had shown Mr. Mir protest videos and pushed him to identify other stone throwers. “They were all our own,” and Mr. Mir wasn’t about to turn “mukhbir”, or informer. When his father, who runs a woodworks business, visited him in jail, he threatened his son to not come back home if he gave out any names. The police retaliated, beating him with a metal ruler, Mr. Mir says, till his school shirt turned red.

He spent over a month in detention. He was released only after the Imam of the local mosque pleaded the cops on his behalf. By the end of his time there, Mr. Mir himself was leading the Friday prayers for inmates.

Kashmiris will get beaten if we do something, and we’ll get beaten if we do nothing.

In January, General Bipin Rawat, the chief of defence staff, talked about setting up anti-radicalisation camps in Kashmir. But Mr. Mir says that inmates that he met inside were more radicalised — “You learn a lot from them,” he says.

Mr. Mir threw his first stone in 2016, soon after government forces killed Burhan Wani. It was around the time of Eid-al-Fitr, and he had emerged into a curfew after spending ten days inside the mosque observing the repentant practice of Aitiqaf. Only a few days later, he says, he had stepped out of his house to buy snacks when a policeman stationed in the neighbourhood hit him with a lathi. “I got angry, and talked back,” at which point he says he was abused and beaten further.

When he went back home, Mr. Mir thought, “Kashmiris will get beaten if we do something, and we’ll get beaten if we do nothing.” With his friends, he painted two flags: one of Pakistan and another of the Dawlah. He began hitting the frontlines of protest outside Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid after every Friday prayer. Following his arrest in 2017, the station house officer Ayaz Geelani had shown Mr. Mir a video; he had been unleashing himself far ahead of the protest crowd, swinging an iron rod and breaking the headlights of the officer’s vehicle.

“Don’t you get afraid?” Mr. Geelani had asked him then.

In a way, the pellet was only a matter of time. In July 2018, at a Friday protest outside the Masjid, Mr. Mir says station house officer Wasim Ahmad fired the pellet shot at him within close range — less than two metres away.

Twenty-seven pellets hit his skull — one of them in his right eye — knocking him unconscious. His eye was badly mutilated when he woke up in the hospital, but the first thing he asked for were his flags, says a friend who was the first to reach the spot.

Mr. Mir underwent four surgeries before the doctors gave up on his right eye. Growing up, he had topped school examinations more than once, but during his treatment, he missed his examinations, falling a year behind his classmates.

He can no longer play cricket or stay out too long in the sun. To prevent water from entering his wounded eye, he showers with swimming goggles in the morning. “My family tells me not to live my life as just a pellet victim, but how can I not? When I look into the mirror, don’t I see it?” he says. “This is my life now: me and the pellet.”

He is aware of how the blinding has altered the course of his future, but says that it has also made him more brazen to take on the government forces.

The police again visited his house one night to apprehend him after protests broke out in Soura following the government’s August decision. Mr. Mir heard the sirens, and escaped through his house backdoor to a relative’s place out of Srinagar. The cops instead beat his father, arrested his elder brother, “who has not thrown a stone in his life,” Mr. Mir says, and filed a case against him before they released him.

Yet, when he returned and met with friends, Mr. Mir slipped back into old routine, naturally and — at least in his conscience — righteously. “When they are in trouble, the Indian forces pray to Bhagwan,” he says. “Will Bhagwan help those who oppress? I don’t think so.”

*Name changed to protect identity

IBRAH HUSSAIN, 17

Ms. Hussain would often play with her father’s stethoscope in his chair at the clinic he ran out of their home in Vilgam, a town on the outskirts of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Whenever the Valley’s bouts of curfews and shutdowns made visits to the far-flung hospitals impossible, patients from the town and surrounding villages — even those who needed surgery — would turn to the local doctor.

Ms. Hussain grew up wanting to follow in her father’s stead. With that aim, she moved into a girls-only hostel in the neighbourhood of Rajbagh in Srinagar last year, where she attends Aakash Institute, a cram school that coaches students for various Indian college admission tests, most notably for medical courses. She is also enrolled in a government-run school in her hometown, which she visits only to take tests and continue her formal education.

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Photograph by Kuwar Singh for The Kashmir Walla

Inside her shared room, she spends the snowy winter with only a traditional kangi’r (firepot) brought from home. Her hostel won’t allow the use of room heating appliances, which would lead to a hike in the electricity bill. “I don’t even want to take out my hands from the blanket. I turn the page of the book with my nose,” she says. Evening curfew is strictly enforced. “If I take a few breaths outside after class, I’ll get a call from the warden.”

In June 2019, after celebrating Eid-al-Fitr, her mother joined Ms. Hussain on the trip back to Srinagar. She had to take a few medical tests in the city, and thought she would also wash her daughter’s bedsheets.

When the lab results came in, gloom took over her mother. She would not tell Ms. Hussain what was wrong, so “I stole her phone, and read her WhatsApp chat with Abu.” Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The next day, as her parents flew to Mumbai for consultation, Ms. Hussain switched her desired field of specialisation from open heart surgery to radiology.

Living away from family has proven difficult, but “to win something, you’ve got to lose something,” she often repeats. She also feels a responsibility to keep going. Amid her mother’s cancer treatment, “my parents are spending so much money on my studies.”

Despite a massive national youth population, opportunity remains elusive in India. Competition for prestigious college spots, widely seen as golden tickets for students to escape low-paying jobs, is only intensifying, as single-digit admission rates continue to drop year after year.

The cram school business model has found here a perfect opportunity for growth. For three hours of daily classes, Aakash bills Ms. Hussain about 40,000 rupees every year. In 2019, the firm became one of the first cram schools in the world to file for an initial public offering, with a goal to raise 1,000 crore rupees. Similar companies have rapidly mushroomed across the country. In Srinagar’s neighbourhoods of Rajbagh and Paraypora, where several such test-prep schools are located, the Jammu and Kashmir Bank advertises special loans to parents for enrolling their children in these programmes.

Expectations from Ms. Hussain have been high after she scored a promising score of 456 out of 500 in her state-wide tenth standard examinations in 2018. However, even the hardest-working students have to confront the disruptions that have come to characterise the region. On 5 August last year, when the government shut down all communication services all of a sudden, she was unaware of a months-long blackout awaiting her.

“I was irritated that my Facebook timeline was not loading, then we found out that no one’s phone was working.” Even without phones and the internet, rumours of curfews spread fast through word-of-mouth. The girls in the hostel gathered in one room. All nearby markets were shut, except for a grocery store. They bought Maggi noodles for the night, and took off for their hometowns early in the morning.

He refused to tell me the names of the pills. He said if I found it out, I would keep buying them from the pharmacy and get addicted.

Changing four shared taxis, Ms. Hussain reached home after crossing about ten government forces’ checkpoints. When she got home, “no one could believe it. They were shocked that I managed to reach on my own.”

Over the next few days, she tried to keep her studies on track. She approached local teachers to start classes at her home, and lugged a whiteboard from the nearby school. Within a couple of days, dozens of students had joined the classes. A few of them were cycling from far-off distances, and had to pass by an Army camp to reach Ms. Hussain’s house. But it soon became clear that the troops would not let them use the road.

The classes ran for about two weeks before the physics teacher was approached on the road by men claiming to be the parents of these students. They threatened him to stop taking the tuitions, Ms. Hussain says; if their children were not able to study, then why should others get any special treatment? One by one, the teachers stopped showing up.

“I could maybe have managed on Byju’s or Aakash app,” she says. But with no classes or internet, her studies came to a halt.

Ms. Hussain’s mother was undergoing chemotherapy at the same time. Seeing tufts of her thick, waist-length hair fall every day would break her mother’s heart. It was better, Ms. Hussain decided, to shave all her mother’s hair at once. Her mother protested, even hit Ms. Hussain; but she forcibly ran the electric razor down her head.

“I wanted to speak to someone,” but she was completely cut off from her friends. “I would sit in my room all day and stare at the book. My phone would be lying next to me.” As she grew more distressed, her father decided to start prescribing her pills for headache and relaxation. “He refused to tell me their names. He said if I found it out, I would keep buying them from the pharmacy and get addicted.”

As tensions gradually simmered down and classes resumed, Ms. Hussain returned to her hostel in December. To make up for lost time, Aakash handed them recordings of the classes held at its branches in New Delhi. It is also giving them jackets with its insignia, so the students are not misunderstood as anti-India protestors by the government forces.

It is with good measure. Ms. Hussain remembers seeing the troops shoot a boy in front of her house during the 2016 civilian uprising. “The boy’s friends were throwing stones, but he was just talking on the phone,” she recalls.

With her ambition, however, Ms. Hussain may have even more lethal dangers. She took her eleventh grade exams last year with her coursework unfinished. “If I don’t score well, I will literally commit suicide,” she would often joke.

On the day of her results, Ms. Hussain’s mother had to undergo chemotherapy for hours. After she got out and called her daughter, Ms. Hussain broke down. She had not scored up to her expectations, and wasn’t able to pick up her father’s phone and disappoint him.

“But Ammi told me I was mad to put so much pressure on myself,” she says, “all I need to do is study harder.”

Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 2-8 March 2020 print edition.

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