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Neutrality in the times of war – Part I

Ages had gone by since he had lost touch with his liberal pandit friends, now living in different parts of the world. But Abdul Rehman was still dwelling in the politically-charged mountains he called home and loved all his life.

But staying back amid tensions was never without costs—the unseen costs, which eventually made him loath his existence.

He was a haggard man who loved solitary strolling—because then, his philosopher would probe about politics. With that skinny frame and terse face, he would come across as a no non-sense person. But most of the times, the passersby would spot him smiling by himself. They wouldn’t tell him how he appeared as an eerie person on prowl and perhaps, he never knew it.

Rehman was neutral—precisely a fence-sitter—and therefore, he was an open book to read. None had read him so far, until one summer morning they read him, alarmingly.

He was returning home with a bagful of vegetables from a local grocer almost 40 days after Burhan Wani’s killing. The grocer would sell vegetables from dawn prayers till 7:00 in the morning. And after that, everything would become militarised: roads, streets, alleys, lanes, by-lanes.

Walking from one of those by-lanes, Rehman heard a boy at a baker’s shop telling his teen friends: “Unless all of us come out, ours is a hopeless case.” Once the boys saw Rehman passing by, one of them remarked: “Do you know this man? I’ve never seen him in any protest rally…”

“In fact,” another boy chipped in, “none of us even know his political stand.”

Rehman could hear the growing whisper. The boys were standing not far from his home. To buy some time to eavesdrop the charged conversation, he deliberately tried to clear his lane from scattered trash.

“I believe, such people are very dangerous—because they keep their cards close to their chest. And you never know their reality,” said the boy who lately appeared in a video shot by a cop inside a police station, wherein they ask him to chant, ‘Bharat mata ki jai!’ The boy wearing a clear defiant face reluctantly obliges in that grainy video, that went viral on social media despite a mobile internet blockade imposed in the Vale.

“Yes, you’re right,” his friend said. “I was reading somewhere that no one knew in Altaf Laptop’s native village that he was a top spy of the J&K police until his death unmasked his real face for them. All I’m saying is, you never know.”

Rehman heard the boys and broke into an uneasy smile. Inside his home that day, he was thoughtful, mulling over the street chat. The chat reminded him of many things. But mostly, it reminded him his own chats held at India Coffee House that was once tucked in the middle of many English style buildings in Srinagar’s Regal Chowk.

War was yet to erupt in the Vale when comrades of yore would map the changing political landscape of Kashmir extensively. It was early 1987 and preparations for the assembly elections were going on. The coffee house would remain charged with political talk.

“Look, Rehman,” his friend Avtar Gigoo told him during one such coffee house meeting, “I think this growing demand for Islamic rule isn’t a comfortable idea. Didn’t you hear how the other day Muslim United Front polling agents raised the slogan: ‘Assembly Mai Kya Chalega? Nizamay Mustafa!’ I mean, where does this leave a space for us?”

The conversation fuelled by steamy cup of coffees delved upon different dilemmas emerging from the valley. Many sections had started feeling threatened—especially the status quoists. Liberals would hate to admit it that they were actually at peace with the status quo, which was now being challenged by the emergence of the new party wearing an Inkpot and Pen as its symbol.

Rehman and his Pandit friends knew that things were taking a different turn. Yet, they were more worried about themselves—because they had so far played it neutral, precisely, like mandated fence-sitters. Any idea of polarity was akin to fanaticism for them. Their tribe was obviously reading many things from the MUF emergence.

“Gigoo, my friend,” Rehman said amid the growing buzz inside the coffee shop, “slogans like the one you just mentioned are nothing new. You see, this new party has a backing of right-wing Jama’at-e-Islami that wants to wed Kashmir with Mamlikate Khudadaad. So chill, the slogan makes a complete sense.”

“That I understand, Rehman. But, what about people like us? In case these guys will emerge winners, I mean, would we still be playing neutral?”

“No, no. Rest assured, they aren’t coming to power. I mean, it is naive on their part to seek votes by invoking djins, flaunting pistol or dress their candidates in shrouds during their rallies. I heard that the fired Persian professor from Botengo is behind all thse theatrics. Such things might trick some commoners out there, but then, we’ve to consider the growing bonhomie between the sons of Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi. They won’t make it a piece of cake for them. Mark my word, this new party will be thrown in the gutter, even if they win hands down.”

“Whatever the outcome, let’s pledge to safeguard our idea of life, our neutrality.”

Two years after that conversation, the rigged polls forced many young, disgruntled polling agents to venture into the other Kashmir for the adventure that proved as a watershed event in Kashmir’s history. Amid guns and gunmen, Gigoo and most of his tribe fled the polarised valley, apparently to safeguard their neutrality. They never returned despite some shrill campaigners in their ranks asserting that they’re homebound, sooner or later.

In the Valley, everything started changing. Neither the chatters remained, nor the coffee house. But Rehman survived. He adhered close to his neutral position and never let the repeated assaults on his brethren change his stance. He had become a prisoner of his conviction—no matter how, at times, the same appeared a naked abuse to him.

But 2016 was different. Never in his 55 years of life, had he seen people questioning his belief—until the boys on street did. He knew it how these boys facing bullets and pellets were being hailed as soldiers on the street, challenging Delhi’s might with stones. He also realised how the brutal state’s response lowered nearly hundred Kashmiris into graves, injured thousands and blinded hundreds.

These grim statistics were perhaps the daily newspaper feed that he used to consume. They were not to challenge his neutrality—but slowly, the street shrill began playing loud on his mind.

Away from the media gaze, the locked down localities were already behaving uncanny. Ire directed at some comfortable class, with enough riches, for questioning the resolve of commoners and making a mess of the movement. The young and enraged wouldn’t take it anymore, and subject those men to scorn and scrutiny during those street chats on the classic shopfront gatherings.

But Rehman would never indulge in such discussions. His only worry was that he had now become a street subject—something he least desired. He even realised during those solitary strolls that it was indeed a death of his detachment.

Perhaps the rule of the game was to make one’s stand clear, or face questions. ‘Now, they’re scrutinizing our silence, too,’ this is how one government cleric described it from a mosque pulpit.

Precisely, this was what was bothering Rehman…

to be continued…


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