August 29, 2016.
The locality where the “first pro-freedom bullet” was fired before the armed rebellion erupted full-blown in Kashmir during the nineties now needs military consent to get milk and medicine. Mazes of narrow, winding streets in Naid Kadal flanked by two, three storey residences are thickened with ‘jackboot vigilantes’.
Even then, street hustlers are back in the interiors to attend to their preferred pursuit these days. Amid clampdown, they talk politics on shop-fronts. Mosques around them blare with slogans—unapologetically anti-India—while “Go India, Go” graffiti on walls, streets, gates make the mood obvious.
With the 50th day of defiance in Kashmir, the besieged Downtown silently decries callous curbs after years. People say—mostly those who are a part of shopfront debates—that the government has invested much to manage Downtown’s vintage anti-establishment dissent. While mushroomed surveillance towers are seen as Big Brothers, the human intelligence network is equally being accused for the dithered dissent.
Downtowners are holding these discussions away from the militarised Nallamar Road where once a serpentine water-body would make the place the Venice of the East. Years of political instability and security onslaught have eroded the place’s aura. The residents tell tales of political deceit and crumbling legends.
Many of their heroes stand lowered into graves. There is a residential strip in the area where most of the breadwinners were either bumped off “in guise” of the classic militant-military combats or subjected to enforced disappearance in martial drills.
Amid this voiced melancholy, most of these shop-front chats—pregnant with reminiscence, reason, rage—sound like the Reading Room discussions of yore. But as mosques continue to dish out the dissent tunes, Burhan remains the word, blared out of speakers, written on walls and being voiced on shop-fronts. “He [Burhan] proved with his martyrdom that he was for real,” remarks a boy, sitting on a shop-front with his pals in Naid Kadal interiors. “Otherwise, didn’t they project him as some shady guy…”
“You sound outfoxed by statecraft to me,” a stern pal of his cut him short. “Do you need divine assurances to reckon how they hate to see us on the same page? Creating doubts, divisions besides denigrating those who are truly ours is what they have been doing since long now.”
Far away in Nawa Kadal interiors where Omar Abdullah wanted to create a mini-New York, the shop-front regulars are busy doing their signature political mapping of Kashmir. During his maiden visit to Downtown after facing “my chips are down” summer in 2010, the controversial ex-chief minister wanted to host a heritage craft pedestrian trail for tourists on the pattern of America’s Big Apple between Nawa Kadal and Chattabal. But Omar’s words just proved to be another political stunt, the locals scoff.
“I don’t know if Indians realise that they’ve created a mini-Pakistan in Kashmir with a strong manipulative security establishment and weak polity,” a man wearing thick glasses addresses a keen group here. “An army general is talking sense while politicians indulge in delusional rants used to be an inherently Pakistani polity scene. Such efforts have only created Pakistan polity Xerox in Kashmir.”
Not many seem to be pleased with the Pakistan reference, apparently made in a poor light. Perhaps that’s why, for a change, some attendant observer talks about the media.
“Arnab [Goswami] is a rightwing provocateur,” says a fresh-faced youth, “but that Barkha [Dutt]—seen as some ‘Kashmir expert’ in Delhi—is a shill.”
These guys see everything through a Hindu-Muslim binary with sheer realism and clarity. They even make historical references to score a point, quoting Perry Anderson’s arguments in their politically-loaded talk.
“But Srinagar this time around,” one among them says, “isn’t as fierce as it used to be.”
“Srinagar was never ambivalent,” a curt reply comes from a smiling man. “It always had anti-establishment attitude in its DNA. Despite imposing repeated clampdown over the areas falling under its six police stations since the nineties, successive governments never claimed their grip over the City. I think, Srinagar was unprepared and hadn’t gauged that the rural folks would gather in such numbers and cause an uprising. Clearly, it seems that the fulcrum of political upsurge has shifted and achieved its momentum down south. In 2008-10, Srinagar was intense because the epicentre of the rebellion was there. And this time, the epicentre lies in south Kashmir and therefore it appears more intense than other parts. But that doesn’t mean Srinagar is out of the circuit. It is still putting up a fight despite state muzzling its dissent with ruthless force. It was one of the first places where pro-Burhan protests erupted when hundreds of youth staged demos in Nowhatta and other parts of Downtown on July 8 evening itself. Hadn’t police stopped that bike procession heading to Tral on July 8 twilight, things would have been different.”
“Even then,” says a boy, “Srinagar’s fighting spirit is now being increasingly questioned.”
“Yes, that I heard,” says a man sporting pepper beard. “It reminds me of Uncle Sam’s growing gruff about Germany: ‘what is wrong with these new Germans? They used to be one heck of fighters once.’ Germans are still fighters to me. But being war regulars, they don’t seem to be the same now. The thing is, others have become more belligerent than the Nazi progeny.”
Some disgruntled residents are returning with empty jugs. After being barred from buying milk, they are mad at the Indian armed forces. Savage times are on us, one of them quips before disappearing into an alley in a huff. A few of them talk about how cops some days back took a milk van to the police post and freaked out people for want of milk.
“They only let it go after getting their share,” says a grouchy elder, hurling choicest words at Mehbooba Mufti, Narendra Modi and even at Barack Obama!
The shopfront boys are mad at this “repeated inhumane” treatment. Some of them want to stone the street force, but end up eating their own rebel in disgust after a pal intervenes.
These boys—still in schools—seem to know Kashmir politics at the back of their hands. They talk about 1947, 1953, 1975, 1987, and of course about 1989. They seem to be certain about one thing: they don’t want any further extension in Kashmir’s chequered history. Being Kashmir’s new-age “romantics”, their aspirations seriously dent Delhi’s “integral part” stand.
“Imagine a day,” a boy tells others, “when we will be carrying our own passports!” The others can’t stop smiling over the wishful thought.
Down in Bohri Kadal, popular as Akal Takhta among the ex-rebels of Tala Party of Eighties, a pervasive desolation is quite reflective. Known as the stronghold of anti-establishment rage, the locality is equally famous for housing prominent grocers and ice-cream sellers. There is a legend about this place: It erupted in massive rage, smoking even a government jeep on Feb 11, 1984—the day Trehgam’s Mohammad Maqbool Butt was hanged in Tihar Jail.
The protest, many say, “proved Butt’s rebirth after his demise”. People still talk how massive celebrations erupted here when in exchange of Rubaiya Sayeed, four militants were released in December 1989. Even the prominent militant group HAJY ( Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majeed Wani, Javed Mir, Yasin Malik) was given a rousing reception when they brandished their firearms “first time” here during nineties.
But today the main road remains dotted with freshly deployed camouflaged force called to Kashmir on war-footing to counter the civil uprising. Some of them reckon that they have been called to manage polling booths in the Valley. They wear hostile faces amid pro-freedom graffiti around them.
Behind the main road, shop-fronts are buzzing with chats. The street-talkers are irked with Mehbooba Mufti’s latest outburst at scribes inside the dreaded Papa-II torture centre-turned-Fairview mansion.
“She has lost it,” one elder says. “At least her father knew how to play politics over Kashmir woes.” As they talk, the attendance around them surges. Slogans from some distant mosques reverberate in the area. Mufti Jr. however, continues to be a bashing talk.
“She now talks of rescuing the southern folk from the Task Force knife — as if we don’t know her political motives behind it. She and her father did it to create their own constituency in the beleaguered south that was in throes of the pariah Ikhwan force,” a man sounding as if lecturing a captive classroom says. “By making Islamabad their bastion, Muftis played divisive politics. They made it Srinagar versus Islamabad. That’s why PDP is being widely seen as a rural party trying to muscle out the urbanites.”
“I agree, but the same south showed Muftis their right place by going the business usual the day he died,” the elder says.
“And given the scale of rage, does PDP stand uprooted from south Kashmir now?”
“Uprooted appears a bit hasty-drawn conclusion. Let’s call it a clear apparent shift for Mehbooba and PDP in the south now. It reminds me of the 1989 incident in Maisuma. The militancy wasn’t in full swing but was picking up. So Ali Sagar brings in some musclemen and invades Maisuma because it had suddenly become a hotbed of anti-NC sentiment. What followed was mayhem as his musclemen were beaten to a pulp and he had to flee. Even women spat and hurled invectives at them. Maisuma was a place where previously you wouldn’t dare say anything against Sheikh Abdullah or NC. That’s how things change. The city-side spearheaded the shift. It was like changing one’s religious beliefs. The younger generation that time totally upended everything. The city-side became a no go for NC back then, and it continues to be so till today.”
“So, are you saying that the PDP stronghold south Kashmir has now become Maisuma of yore?”
“Well, it certainly seems so. Already, Mehbooba is seen by the southies as having outlived her utility. That way, the southies are always on the ball. You surely can’t keep them in a good humour for long.”
Nestled around six bridges spanning the river Jhelum, the Downtown houses nearly six lakh souls squeezed in an area of 2.58 sq km. Several heritage structures of the place attract attention for their medieval charm. Intricate alleyways, bustling bazaars and architectural style make the place quite unique with observers who even find a European touch in these old structures.
Founded by King Pravarasena-II over 2000 years ago, Old Srinagar served as the capital city of Yusuf Shah Chak — the last Independent Kashmiri ruler tricked by the Mughal Emperor Akbar when he failed to conquer Kashmir by force. Akbar annexed Srinagar and included it in his own territory. However, striking mosques and gardens came up in the Old City during the Mughal period. But the place apparently fell from its grace under the treacherous rule of Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras.
Since 1931, the place tagged as “anti-establishment” kept shaping K-discourse through its active politics. Perhaps that’s why, one senior Indian scribe once remarked about the place: “Downtown Srinagar shapes the perception of Kashmir outside the Valley.”
But now, life has apparently come to a standstill amid strict curbs and constant curfews. At the banks of Hydaspes at Safa Kadal, the streets are littered with bricks, shattered glasses and empty canisters. The rusty locals talk about the change “staged by state” to undo the city’s signature resilience.
“It was laughable when government talked about making Downtown a heritage city after running bulldozers to decimate hundreds of its heritage structures in guise of road widening,” a man on shopfront tells others. “Where in the world do you decimate heritage habitations like this? Not only did the decimation prove to be a surgical strike to reduce Downtown’s characteristic dissent, but it also disintegrated its native, unbending population.”
“Most natives were sent packing to city outskirts after 2010 and many more migrated in the face of disintegrated neighbourhood,” says a lookalike of Hollywood actor Vin Diesel. “The void left behind was mostly filled by the people of Gurez — uprooted by Kishan Ganga Power Project. Most of them got settled closer to their relatives, already working in Downtown parts as Wazwan chefs.”
“I always knew that Downtown’s dynamics were changing silently,” says another man, beaming thoughtful expressions. “But this population shift is news to me.”
“Not only that,” says a middle-aged man, “just see how many youth are currently behind bars, who used to be at the heart of downtown’s rebellion. Even dead dissenters of the place these days are being named Wanted in police posters!”
“Are you talking about that Narwara boy who figured in recent police poster?”
“Yes. Despite killing him in the 2010 uprising, police have still named him Wanted in 2016. What an atrocious move!”
Nearby, on a main road, some locals are pleading with a posse of police and paramilitary road-party for a desperate road cross. One woman is seeking permission to visit the SMHS hospital. “Kya beemari hai tumhe?” a CRPF personnel brazenly asks her. Visibly left unnerved by the brash query, the lady stammers to answer, “Need to do some maternity tests.” A sharp dictate follows: “Go, but do show me your medical report on return.” The woman hardly in her early thirties lowers her gaze and walks away.
Some distance ahead, a motley group of men have turned up at the spot that became the flash-point of the 2010 uprising. They are discussing the state of affairs near Rajouri Kadal’s Gani Memorial Stadium where the schoolboy Tufail Mattoo was shot dead on June 11, 2010.
“I believe Hurriyat needs a serious strategy makeover,” suggests one of them.
“I second that,” a boy sporting a crew cut replies. “You can’t bring revolution with chalos (marches)— despite knowing that the state for sure will derail them every time you call them. Why not do it the Egyptian way: come out of homes, reach Ghanta Ghar square, stay there, till achieving Aazadi, once and for all.”
“Yes, talk revolution in the times of clampdown when you aren’t even able to move your butt,” a man who identifies himself as an ex-militant says. “At least, people have a path to pursue with Hurriyat calendars. Likes of you want to render us leaderless and create shots in anarchy. At least, let’s learn to have some faith in our leadership.”
But perhaps, talking politics in the place being termed as a “security lab” has its own perils. That’s why many try to sound politically correct during the shop-front discussions—fearing, a sleuth might be stalking them.
Still, they talk how every newly introduced arsenal is being used and tested in Downtown since long. The nerve centre of Downtown’s dissent—Nowhatta—is an evident sample of this repeated security experiment.
Tagged as “Groznied” after parallels being drawn between its streets and that of Chechnya’s capital, Nowhatta witnesses youth gatherings on parapets of narrow lanes every Friday to engage forces in a fierce street-confrontation.
It was the epicentre of 2008 uprising after Indian armed forces opened fire on protesters here on June 23 that year, killing one person, and wounding 40. That was reportedly the first protest against the controversial land transfer in the valley. Two years later, in 2010, Nowhatta behaved no different.
But in 2016, Nowhatta looks comatose amid a callous clampdown. The residents talk about their former uprooted neighbours, displaced in guise of road-widening shortly after 2010 thawed. To escape tensions and state wrath, the locals did “distress sales” with their properties and left. Some fled on health grounds after pepper and smoke repeatedly choked the life out of them. Locals say the anti-dissent gas even lowered scores into the graves, silently, and thereby, hastened the “internal migration”. Those who stayed put have a chronic history of being gassed, whipped and coerced.
Today as Downtown’s heart of dissent stands choked with military footprints amid repeated olive branch appeals both from the erstwhile Papa II and 7RCR, a Nowhatta youth on a shop-front speaks something very screaming: “Kashmiris want neither their honey nor their sting!”