Touch and Go

Basharat Peer is a staff writer at the New York Times and the author of A Question of Order: Strongmen and Illiberal Democracies
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India is losing Kashmir. This much is clear

On the morning of 16 September, the doctors at New Delhi’s premier Apollo Hospital gave up on their efforts to save Yasir Rafiq Sheikh, a 27-year-old shopkeeper from Maisuma area in Srinagar. In the evening, on hearing of his death, equipped with a curfew pass, I drove with a few journalist friends past hundreds of edgy soldiers, past the coils of barbed wire blocking the desolate roads, to Sheikh’s home near Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

Yasir was Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Chairman Yasin Malik’s cousin, and lived in a house next to his. Malik wore a traditional black kurta pyjama, and his phone rang incessantly. “They are bringing him home tomorrow,” he said on the phone. Malik’s nephew, Ashfaq Jan, a tall, wiry, 18-year-old, who had been with Sheikh when they were shot, joined us. On 30 August, around 10 in the morning, Jan, Sheikh and their friends were playing carom on the street outside their houses. There was no curfew that day, but separatists had issued a call for a hartal (public strike). Some teenagers had gathered in the street and the armed police deployed there were asking them not to step onto the main road, a block away.

Jan and Sheikh kept playing carom. A policeman shouted at them to go back in. “We said we weren’t protesting or pelting stones. We were simply playing carom,” Jan told me. As the policeman continued shouting, another charged at them and fired a pellet gun. “I saw a ball of fire rushing at us. We tried to run, but I was hit and lost consciousness,” said Jan, a class 12 student who is preparing for medical school. Jan was saved, but several pellets remain lodged inside his body, forming small lumps beneath his skin.

The pellet-gun fires small pieces of metal, and scores of pellets had hit Yasir Sheikh in his abdomen and shattered his aorta, the main artery from the heart to the kidneys. “He had lost most of his blood by the time they brought him here,” Dr Mustafa Kamal, one of the doctors manning the injured-filled surgical ward at a major Srinagar hospital, told me. “Around 20 cm of his intestines were cut by pellets and had to be removed. We gave him 20 pints of blood, but the loss of blood led to the collapse of his kidneys,” he said. After ten days, he was moved to Delhi’s Apollo, but couldn’t be saved.

It has been getting harder to keep track of deaths in Kashmir. The current wave of protests against Indian rule grew after the extra-judicial killings of three Kashmiri villagers by the Indian Army in April in Machil sector near Kupwara, and intensified in June after 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo, who was returning home from tuition, was killed by a teargas shell fired by the police trying to disburse young protesters. In the following three months, the police and paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have already killed 106 Kashmir protesters and bystanders, including children aged 8 and 9. Kashmir’s bottomless rage against the Indian Government and its troops is only growing. Walls all over Kashmir are painted with the slogans: ‘We Want Freedom!’ ‘Go India, Go Back!’

If one had to think of a singular image that has widened the gulf between Kashmir and New Delhi, it is the killing of eight-year-old Sameer Rah in Srinagar’s Batamaloo area on 1 August. On that afternoon, Sameer asked his father, a fruit vendor who was home because of the curfew, for Rs 5 to buy sweets at a corner shop in an inner lane that was open. Fayaz, his father, gave him Rs 2, and the class 2 student rushed out of the house. Sameer, carrying a cricket bat in his hand, had raised some slogans in the street without realising that a group of CRPF men was around. According to eyewitnesses, the men in uniform caught hold of the eight-year-old, beat him up, trampled upon him till he fainted, and then threw him on the road. Of course, the CRPF claims the boy was killed in a stampede. The crowd that gathered to pick up the eight-year-old’s body was tear-gassed. The doctors at SMHS hospital in Srinagar couldn’t save Sameer.

How does one process that? What effect does that have on a people?

To make things worse, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s callous government has continued a relentless curfew, which has not even made exceptions for pharmacies and medical laboratories. Hospitals have been facing a serious shortage of medicines and the impossibility of conducting various medical tests that depend on private pharmacies and medical facilities. In the intensive care unit of SMHS hospital, where the eight-year-old Sameer Rah died, Dr Mustafa Kamal and his colleagues spoke of the desperate need for medicines and certain foods. Over the weekend, I spoke to one of Kashmir’s foremost eye surgeons, Dr Bashir Chapoo, who runs a hospital in central Srinagar. Troops hadn’t let him travel to his hospital for more than a week. “I have patients with eye injuries who might lose their sight if I don’t reach them soonest,” Dr Chapoo told me. Seventeen of his patients had pellets fired by the police and troops stuck in their eyes. I called him a few days later. “I am still stuck at home despite two curfew passes. Most of my patients have left the hospital now, and I have no idea where they are and in what condition,” Dr Chapoo told me Tuesday afternoon. “I couldn’t help. I couldn’t reach there. Two have already lost their eyes in my hospital, and that is one small hospital.”

The curfew continues with a few hour breaks once a week. The bustle of Kashmiri mornings has been replaced by an eerie silence. Stray dogs stroll leisurely on our street and the sound of chirping birds dominates the day. The publication of morning papers stopped after the troops beat up the newsagents. Internet and Facebook updates by young Kashmiris, giving details of what they witnessed in their areas, are chilling.

I had a glimpse of the sorrow and anger that is swelling in Kashmir on Friday, 17 September, when Yasir Sheikh’s body was flown back from Delhi for burial. Hundreds of men and women stood in grieving circles outside his house. The men raised loud slogans for freedom from India, but it was the women and girls, dressed mostly in floral printed suits, who articulated the loss. As Sheikh’s body was brought out in a wooden coffin, the women sang the songs they traditionally sing for a groom when he leaves to get his bride. The lyrics, sung in Kashmiri, praised the slain boy’s beauty and youth. “Raju morukh begunaah!” (An innocent Raju was murdered!) went the refrain. Raju was Yasir Sheikh’s nickname. As the pallbearers moved past the spot where he had played his last game of carom, a thousand tears dropped. His distraught old father followed, showering him with almonds and confectionery.

Kashmir has seen this moment thousands of times earlier. I walked away wondering: how much sorrow can a people bear? How many more deaths will it take for Delhi to come up with a significant political response?

The Cabinet Committee on Security and All Party meetings in Delhi last week had only added to the disappointment in Kashmir, since even moderate demands like revoking or repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) were rejected—despite recommendations of a committee set up in 2006 by the PM himself that these laws ‘should be reviewed and revoked’ because they ‘impinge on fundamental rights of citizens and adversely affect the public’. Scaling back troops from residential areas wasn’t even discussed, but a delegation of MPs was sent to Kashmir to assess the scene.

Kashmir has been a world away from the hopeful spring of 2007, when back-channel talks between Indian and Pakistani diplomats, encouraged by Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, came close to an agreement on a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian and Pakistan controlled parts, followed by demilitarisation of the region. “It was supposed to be an interim arrangement for the next five or ten years, and then the people of Kashmir, India and Pakistan could take a call and move towards a final arrangement,” Mirwaiz Umer Farooq told me. 

But Musharraf lost power, talks lost steam and then broke down after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008. Moderates like Farooq, who championed peace talks without any results, found themselves marginalised in Kashmir. The popularity of the 81-year-old separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani has soared, and the only lull in the protests in the past few months occurred when he appealed to protesters last month to desist.

On 20 September morning, when the MPs were about to fly to Kashmir, while the Army and police guarded the road from Srinagar airport to the city, the state government got municipal workers to whitewash the separatist graffiti on the walls and houses along the way. The visit was turning out to be of little consequence, as Kashmir remained under lockdown and they met a carefully chosen few at a much-guarded conference centre on the outskirts of Srinagar.

But things can change in a moment. That afternoon, five MPs led by the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury showed up at Geelani’s Srinagar home. Two other groups met Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik. Geelani had set five preconditions for peace talks with India: New Delhi should accept Kashmir as a dispute, set political prisoners free, demilitarise the region, punish the troops guilty of civilian killings, and withdraw controversial laws like the AFSPA. “If the Centre responds positively to these demands, we will review the ongoing agitation in the state and renew the engagement. If there is no response, then we will have no option but to continue our struggle,” Geelani told the delegation in front of TV cameras that he had insisted on. “We will take up the five points with the Government of India,” said Yechury.

The meeting is being seen in Kashmir as an acknowledgement of the troubles and need to begin a conversation. Soon after the meeting with Geelani ended, I walked a few miles from my south Srinagar home to Lal Chowk to the newspaper offices complex. The roads remained blocked with coils of barbed wire, and on producing a journalist’s identity card and requesting the CRPF men to let me proceed, I found myself answering questions they had about the delegation. “Has anything happened?” I was asked at every checkpoint. I repeated the story about Geelani’s meeting with Yechury and others. “Arre yeh toh badhiya khabar hai. Geelani baatcheet karega, tabhi yahaan kuchh ho sakta hai,” one said. “Phir toh shaayad kal parrson se shanti ho sakti hai,” another hoped. They too seemed tired and hoping for a serious conversation to begin that would lead us out of this unending siege.  

Imran Bhat, a college student, is one of the best known stone-pelters of Srinagar. He sees the visit as achieving something only if some of Geelani’s demands are conceded: “It is good they have talked to Geelani, but they need to follow this up with some concrete steps. They must act on some of the demands he placed before them. For one, they must release the hundreds of political prisoners imprisoned under the Public Security Act. Otherwise, we will be back on the streets.” Back? In actual fact, even as the delegation spoke to politicians in Srinagar, there was a fresh bout of stone-pelting downtown.

Under such circumstances, what Manmohan Singh’s Government does next on Kashmir will be its big test. In Delhi, the BJP has already distanced itself from the decision by members of the All Party Delegation to engage with separatist leaders. With little more than a month left for the much-coveted visit of US President Barack Obama, it will take political courage for Delhi to offer what has been suggested among others by the People Democratic Party’s Mehbooba Mufti: unconditional talks. That could open some space not just for Geelani but for moderates as well to become part of the peace process. It may well be the only way to save Kashmir—and India itself—from future calamities.

Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night