Kashmir Diary: “It’s tear gas. Can’t you feel it?”

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Shutdown Kashmir

One evening, when I got back to the hotel, I got a call from a friend asking if I had managed to reach safely. He had found himself in the middle of protests and stone-pelting around Lal Chowk area. For the last few days, people in and around Lal Chowk had begun to defy the ‘hartal’ call. Shops had started keeping half their shutters open even during ‘hartal’ hours. There were more and more street vendors each day selling essential commodities. By the time it was evening, Lal Chowk area would be full of people.

In the stone pelting incident, my friend mentioned, some street vendors and auto-wallas were targeted. This was coupled with a stricter calendar issued by the Hurriyat for the next week starting Friday (i.e., day after tomorrow). In addition, today is the 27th of October which is considered by many as a ‘Black day’ because that was the day in 1947 when the Indian Army landed in Srinagar. This date sees protests in the valley even during the best of times. Consequently, the next few days are expected to be quite tense and the police has announced curfew in certain parts.

I had been interacting over phone with the families of a couple of pellet victims for a week, trying to convince them to meet me. They were reluctant and I had all but given up hope. At 4.45 in the afternoon, I was in Lal Chowk and received a call from the father of one of the boys. He said that the family had agreed to meet me. I was thrilled. But, I needed to get to the downtown area which is the most volatile area in the city and around 5 pm is the most volatile time during the best of days, and today was not the best of days. I quickly asked an auto-walla if he would take me to the area. He said no. But then agreed to drop me to a certain place from where he said, I would have to walk as he feared his auto being smashed with stones.

He dropped me at one end of a bridge and told me the direction to take. As I crossed the bridge, the change was palpable. The side on which I was dropped, while not bustling with activity, had some semblance of it. The other side was deathly quiet, several CRPF jawans stood in front of closed shutters. They were armed with various weapons, one being the pellet gun. They also carried shields, wore helmets, bullet proof vests, knee caps, and shin guards. There were a few civilians seated on raised platforms, while some curious eyes looked on from the windows above. The graffiti on shutters and walls read, “Burhan Town”, “Azadi”, “Go India Go back”, and “Pakistan”.

As I walked around trying to find my way without google maps for assistance, I could sense the tension in the air. I saw two columns of 20-30 CRPF personnel each, making their way purposefully in the direction I came from. One of them said something offensive to a woman who was walking by. The father of the boy I was to meet, spoke to me several times, trying to give me directions. Soon, it was obvious to me that I will have to find this place on my own. I asked around and was sent in through a maze of narrow winding lanes with sewage flowing down in the drains on either side. Having gone through multiple lanes, I could see a larger road about 100 yards away. There seemed to be some activity on that road. As I got closer, I discovered that youngsters were throwing stones and the elders had gathered around to watch. The boys would pick up stones, run a short distance with them and then hurl them with a pronounced movement of the arm, accompanied with a scream. Some curious women stood at various corners, trying to peep and look in the direction the stones were being hurled in. From the distance, I could hear what sounded like gun shots.

The predicament I found myself in was that I was supposed to cross this very road to reach my destination. Soon, I found a young man who was headed to the same place. He took me through another maze of tiny lanes and I reached my destination, which was a chowk. Here too, the situation was tense. A lot of people, young and old, had gathered at this chowk. On my right, some youngsters were trying to block the road with boulders, tyres and concertina wire. On my left, in the distance, stone pelting continued. It was around 5.30 in the evening and light was fading fast. I met the father of the boy and he led me to the second shop on a lane which broke off from the chowk. He asked me to sit on a rickety chair that had been placed for me on the platform adjoining the shop. Seated on this chair, I could still see the chowk and trouble fomenting on one side of it, while I could hear slogan-chanting and stone-pelting on the other side.

The shop had a small tandoor and some rotis kept by its side. The boy came in from a room on the other end of the shop. I realized, that this shop doubled as home for this family of five. He walked in confidently wearing dark glasses to hide his wound. He was hit by pellets in one of his eyes a month ago, while playing cricket. His elder sister offered me some noon chai (salt tea) with tandoor baked bread. His father sat next to me on the platform, while his mother sat inside next to the tandoor.

The family is of meager means and is devastated by the loss. The boy himself is confident that he will regain vision in his eye soon. As we spoke, we could hear multiple rounds being fired not too far in the distance. They could have been bullets, pellets or tear gas. The boy’s father said, “It’s tear gas. Can’t you feel it?”. I couldn’t feel it then. But soon I could. It was getting difficult to speak. Whenever I did, I had to cough and tears would roll down my eyes. We braved it and continued to talk. But the boy had to be taken inside as his eyes were more sensitive to the gas than ours. They said they have to go through this every day. As I spoke to the family, I saw youngsters stopping cars and bikes, lighting fires to branches and tyres, and blocking the road. This was the very road I was to take to get back. I wondered how I would get back.

It was pitch dark when I decided to leave and had gone a few paces when they called me back. The women of the family insisted that I be dropped as they thought it would not be safe for me to go alone, especially because I was new to the area. The boy, his father and I set out on a bike. The boy was keen to accompany his father and drop me to a safe place, despite experiencing more trouble due to the tear gas than any of us. At the spot which I had been watching while I was talking to the family, we were stopped by a group of young men wearing white masks. They were not keen on allowing vehicular traffic to pass. The father of the boy convinced them in Kashmiri and they let us pass. As we did, I turned my gaze below and saw a tree branch which was on fire. We ran over it. As we made our way through narrow lanes, ours was the only vehicle on the road. We were made to stop at two other points by groups of young men keeping vigil. The boy and his father dropped me close to the Roza Bal shrine and said that they could not go further as there was police presence ahead and curfew had been imposed. I thanked them for helping me out and wished the boy well for his recovery.

As I walked, I could feel the tension in the air. The street lights were off, policemen stood on the corners of streets, and I could hear shouts coming from the lanes running perpendicular to the road I was on. I was the only one on this road. But, there came a point when I crossed a chowk and felt that the tension had eased. There was some vehicular traffic on this road and a few people walking around. A couple of shops even had their shutters up.

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