‘They gave us blood and hate / Then wondered why we all are rebels.’ – Why We Rebels, MC Kash.
A band of rebels had shed the tradition of anonymity. It was around the June of 2015. Dressed in combat fatigues, holding Kalashnikovs, hiding deep inside the jungles of southern Kashmir, they posed like a team of winners, and set the social media afire.
BurhanWani, the militant commander, sat poised at the centre of the picture, closely surrounded by ten of his men, leaning towards him, all facing the camera, shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek.
That India—a nation always considered foreign, boddzaelim, the big oppressor—could be outdone and freedom won was never a serious hope, except in the heady days of 1989 when the armed revolt began. But Burhan’s, to most Kashmiris, was just a fearless, glorious defiance that, however symbolically, challenged the big oppressor and charged a captive people.
Indian soldiers had little hope of competing with the militants for public sympathy, a top military commander had lamented. “We’re losing the battle for a narrative,” the Indian general had said. Modest battles that Kashmiris wage against their captors—and win, often in blood.
Like motley groups of stone-pelting youth throwing rocks at the gates of Indian army garrisons. Like masked teenage boys running fearless after armoured vehicles, beating them with sticks. Taking bullets in return. “When we throw stones, we aren’t throwing them at the Indian soldiers,” a masked stone-pelter said. “We throw them at India’s occupation of Kashmir… at the policy that keeps us under India’s control.”
Like women calling Omar Abdullah, one of the region’s top pro-India politicians, ChirwiChooanth—Toffee Mouth—whenever they spot him on the television. Like men calling his father FarooqDaand—Farooq the Bull, as in studip. Like girls calling Mehbooba Mufti, the current chief minister, KanneChhaet—Cut Ears. The legend, evidently untrue, goes that she was cruel to her husband who cut her ears off, and hence her permanent scarf. These names, and many such others, are part of Kashmir’s language.
So when AS Dullat—a former chief of India’s spy agency—told a petulant Karan Thapar—the famous Indian television interviewer—about Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, Mehbooba’s deceased father, being known in Kashmir as Mufti Whisky, the conversation sounded nonsensical for a Kashmiri audience. In all probability, the pun had totally been missed: a besieged people taking cheap revenge by giving collaborators demeaning names. A modest battle of narrative waged and won. Like people “visiting Hindustan” every time they visit the loo. Like people dancing and bursting crackers in front of Indian soldiers every time India loses a cricket match.
Like the Indian police are forced to guard round the clock the grave of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, Farooq’s father, lest people dig him out decades after his death. As a towering leader, Sheikh in 1947 had willed his endorsement to the then Dogra ruler’s accession of Kashmir to India even as the people Sheikh represented overwhelmingly willed against it. They still rallied in his name—under the Plebiscite Front—when he remained imprisoned by his old friend, Jawaharlal Nehru. Over 20 years of incarceration later, however, the Sheikh disowned the self-determination movement. For most Kashmiris, it was all a breach of the contract most sacred—that a people delegate their authority to the leader, not their will. Since 1989, his guards haven’t slept a wink.
Like bloodlessly disowning the dead Mufti, even when he died serving as chief minister: not more than a few hundred people joined his funeral. Half of them were journalists, said a viral message, the other half his cabinet.
Like youth running to embrace death in bloodied funerals of shohda—martyrs. Indian soldiers shot 21-year-old BurhanWani dead on 8 July 2016. His legend, however, was only reborn. Over 300,000 people attended Burhan’s funeral the next day in his distant hometown Tral, in southern Kashmir, mourners offering 40 back-to-back prayers. Thousands of funeral prayers in-absentia were offered across Kashmir, soon under a military siege.
A spontaneous general strike followed immediately, and Kashmir convulsed in the most powerful pro-independence and anti-India protests in recent history, all met with familiar, deadly violence by the state. In about two weeks, Indian soldiers shot dead about 50 civilians and injured thousands in one of the most ruthless military crackdowns the valley has witnessed, evoking images of the anti-India uprisings of 2008 and 2010. Hundreds of civilians were sprayed with “non-lethal” shotgun pellets, including in their eyes, leaving macabre tales of blinded and mutilated young boys and girls—even children.
It’s Tuesday 26 July in Srinagar…
This is an excerpt from a longer story. Read the full story on ‘Juggernaut’.
Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based journalist. Follow him @nawazqanungo.