Thursday, November 25, 2010

The agony that is Kashmir


A five-month agitation in which more than 100 young people were killed by security forces has come to an end. Author Basharat Peer talks about the pain of being a Kashmiri and why the people want independence

By Shevlin Sebastian

On August 2, a day curfew had been imposed in Srinagar by the security forces. But eight-year-old Sameer Rah stepped out to play, along with other children, in the lane outside his house in the Batamalloo neighbourhood. Imitating the adults, Sameer shouted separatist slogans. He did not realise that there was a group of Central Reserve Police Force soldiers standing nearby. Angered by what he was saying, they beat Sameer with bamboo sticks. Then they threw the boy on some poison-ivy bushes nearby.

Sameer was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. He had become a martyr, another addition to the growing number of deaths of young people this year. In the last three months, 106 youngsters have been killed by the security forces.

“His father, Fayaz Rah, was shattered,” says Basharat Peer, the author of 'Curfewed Night', a searing account of life in Kashmir. Fayaz, 39, is a fruit vendor. He has three sons. “The police said that my son died in a stampede,” Fayaz told Basharat. I ask Basharat whether the father has become radicalised.

“People make the wrong assumption that when something like this happens, the family becomes militant,” says Basharat. “The point is that you have to put food on the table. You have to buy medicines for a father who is old. There are sons whose school fees have to be paid. Living is more difficult. Fayaz will continue in his job as a fruit vendor.”

Today, Kashmir has become quiet after months of disturbances, when young people threw stones at the paramilitary forces, and the troops opened fire. “It is very difficult to sustain the intensity of an agitation for five months,” says Basharat. “So, things have petered out, but the questions remain.”

These include demilitarisation, the revoking of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, better governance, and accountability. So far, there has been no official investigation as to how Sameer was killed. This lack of justice triggers violent agitations. Unfortunately, the government has spectacularly failed, over the decades, to soothe the wounded psyche of the people.

“The youngsters are very angry,” says Basharat. “They have grown up seeing people being arrested, tortured or killed. And when they see somebody from their school, or the neighbourhood being shot, it makes them angrier. This is one generation which has grown up seeing nothing but death.”

But Basharat also says that because of the fragility of human life, people care a lot more for each other. “The bonds are stronger,” he says. “This year, when there was curfew for months, the poor had nothing to eat. But once it was lifted, everybody helped each other, whether rich or poor. It fostered an intense sense of community.”

But it is clear that the majority in the community want azaadi (independence). “Yes, the people desire freedom,” says Basharat.

At the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Basharat is a featured speaker. Even though he is articulate, Basharat looks tense and nervous. He is taken aback when a girl, a college student, comes up, with tears in her eyes, and sympathises with him over the recent killings in Kashmir.

A freelance journalist, Basharat writes for international newspapers, like the 'Financial Times' and 'The Guardian'. He is also a fellow of the Open Society Institute at New York, where he lives for six months. The rest of the time, he is in Kashmir or in other parts of India. As one who has travelled all over the country, I ask him the reaction of people when they come to know that he is a Kashmiri.

“It is different with me because I am a journalist,” he says. “So they talk to me as a reporter. But for other Kashmiris, there is a mixed reaction.”

Sometimes, when they want to rent a house and the landlord realises that they are Kashmiris, he will say no. This happens often in Mumbai, Delhi, and other parts of north India. “Things are much better when the Kashmiris go to Bangalore, Chennai, or Hyderabad,” he says. Basharat looks amazed when I tell him that there are a few hundred Kashmiris living in Fort Kochi. “That’s great,” he says, smiling for the first time.

Meanwhile, Basharat is busy at work on his next work. “My role is to tell the stories, so that people have a clear understanding of what is going on in Kashmir,” he says. From the audience reaction at Thiruvananthapuram, it is clear that he has succeeded admirably.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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