A child looked up at me and asked, “Aunty, aap India se aayi ho kya?” (Auntie, have you come from India?). Before I could revert, his mother interrupted him and said, “Nahi, yeh apne hi hai, Kashmiri!” (No, she is a Kashmiri, our own.)
I was at a funeral in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. A crowd had gathered to mourn a 26-year-old man. He had been killed by the government forces while they had been attempting to disperse another crowd. Everybody knew that opening fire at a crowd in order to disperse, is against the “Standard Operating Procedure.” But it happened. It happens. Or as people say, “It is Kashmir.”
I’m a Kashmiri, a Kashmiri Pandit. I also happen to be a journalist, and I was witnessing the violence of conflict for the first time in my life. Growing up in Jammu, the stories that I had heard, and the conflicting versions of history that I had read, gave me another narrative.
Kashmiri Pandits, I had been told, were the people who were forcefully evicted from the Valley when militancy gained prominence in late 1989. Since then, Kashmiri Pandits have been living in different parts of India, scattered and alienated.
I’m one of them.
I bear an alienation in my heart and my mind since the outset, since my birth. Being a Kashmiri Pandit, it is assumed that I would be a follower, even if not an ardent follower, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This is what people think of me. But it has proved to be otherwise.
The first funeral that I had witnessed in Kashmir was that of journalist Shujaat Bukhari, a journalist assassinated by unknown assailants. It marked my first visit to Kashmir as a conscious person. It happened while I was beginning to understand what Kashmir means to me. I had heard of journalists writing obituaries. What I did not know was that I, a young journalist, would one day write the obituary of a senior journalist.
What I saw in that funeral is been the same in every other funeral – the fierce eyes, the slogans that seemed to issue from dry but untiring lips. And I kept writing, until my writing was drained of all emotions other than anger. I had never been to funerals before, and the bare fact of death was potent enough to startle me. But here I was, a daily visitor at the funerals.
I made friends at funerals. And met those new friends again at the very next funeral. Funerals became social gatherings; edged by anger, dissent, tears and convictions. Death, no longer the same startling reality, became strangely familiar.
At the funeral of the 26-year-old man, I saw women kneeling before the body. The body itself was perched like a tall building; like one of those in which all Kashmiris aspire to live. The body stood as it was a mansion which would hold those living in it with dignity, and offer them comfort and ease. The lament of mourning gave way to the rhythm of a familiar chant – “Are hum kya chahte? Aazadi!” (What do we want, Freedom!).
Sadness turned to rage, again.
When asked, a young man in his late 20s told me, “Where in Kashmir is there any space for dissent?” He replied to his own question in the same breath. “It is only here at the funerals that we can hear ourselves cry out for justice. Anywhere else, we would be shot dead for doing this. It’s not Jantar Mantar, madam, it’s Kashmir.”
I nodded my head in agreement, and moved forward to witness the women in the crowd of rebel, in a way I had dreamt of. They beat up their chests and cried out for Aazadi. A woman standing right at the head of the crowd, leading a chorus of women to ring the rhyme of ‘freedom’. A few steps ahead was a throng of children, Aazadi on their tongues, with a fierce knot of voices. For a moment, it felt that the Aazadi, that they were dreaming of, was not a distant dream – such was the conviction that I saw ablaze in them.
The news of yet another youth joining the ranks of the militants had become staple. It did not surprise anyone when this happened. Deaths had become a part of their lives. Injuries were regarded as inevitable. And yet their hearts sang in unison after the Friday prayers in Jamia Masjid – “We want Justice. We want Freedom.”
Every Friday there would be stone throwing after the prayers at the Jamia Masjid. First, a small group of boys would pick up stones to throw, followed by more, and by more, taking the count to a few hundreds.
A tear gas canister would be lobbed. But the crowd would melt and then come together again. I learnt every trick of not letting the the tear gas affect me.
The war has marked both the sides, but in different forms. The conflict could feature – armed, unarmed and the unarmed on the brink of becoming armed. Everyday, somewhere, a member of the government forces, or a militant, was killed. Every other day news of pellet-gun injuries would make the headline. At least once a month a picture of a youth teasing an army man would go viral on social media. Political parties, even after knowing that they have failed, would talk of dialogue, would condemn the killings as they do by default, and would try to play the farce that democracy had become in Kashmir.
Crumbled between the falling walls of nations, Kashmiris stand tall, challenging every new reason given to them. “We no longer fear death. We can’t just act as mute spectators. We just want justice,” said a woman, full of anger. And her son asked me, “Aunty, aap India se ho kya?”
Sagrika Kissu works as a reporter at Newsclick.
Feature Photograph by Sanna Irshad Mattoo