Some 13 km north to
the town of Anantnag in south Kashmir, my village, Seer, lies in the lap of the
Pir Panjal mountains, the largest range of the low Himalayas. The houses in my
neighbourhood are made of red-baked bricks and slanting tin roofs, and huddle
close together, forming a continuous line along one side of the main road,
which links the village to the town.
The other side of the road runs along the mountains. It has a short row of kiosks interspersed with some houses, fallow land, two graveyards and a few public institutions like the sole government hospital. Our three-storied house with a small yard stands close to the road. Its façade faces the Pir Panjal, which remains perpetually green with tall pine and fir trees until winter arrives. The backyard leads to an alley, which meanders through the dense and inner areas of the village, and meets a huge expanse of paddy fields, yellow with mustard in spring, and golden with paddy in autumn.
That year, winter set in early with a heavy snowfall. A thick white sheet spread over the hills and covered the fields. Snow hung from the roofs of the houses. On the third day when snow stopped falling, I came out in the yard and looked at our house.
Its roof looked like the soft dog-eared woollen cap I was wearing. At night, the sky cleared and the stars appeared. Like life, the view of the hills had frozen. They stood there looking over us in silence, a breathtaking, alpine beauty.
It was the month of January and we were experiencing Chillai Kalaan, the harshest phase of the Kashmiri winter. That morning, I was sipping nun chai, traditional salty tea, with Babeh, my grandfather, and Naen, my maternal grandmother, who sat close around me, leaning against round cushions in the kitchen. The chill was bitter, and our breaths formed white curls of vapour. Frost had created flowers of ice on the glass windows. Our view of the outside was blocked. We were cut off from the rest of the world, trapped in an endless spell of snow, in the mighty mountains.
“Trath pe taedi, (Damn this cold),” Naen remarked.
She noticed the runny tip of my nose and wiped it with the hem of her pheran. She doted on me for I was the son of her eldest and favourite daughter, Hameeda.
Seeing my mother clean the house, grandmother whined, “The girls get up late every day. Hameeda has to do all the cleaning by herself, and given my stiff back I’m unable to help her.”
Grandmother complained about the laidback attitude of my maternal aunts, Ruby and Tasleema. My parents, maternal grandparents and aunts, my elder brother and I constituted one big family and lived together in the house.
Naen had been suffering from osteoporosis and the cold worsened her backache. My grandfather broke into a smile.
The door was now being bludgeoned. As it opened, a pack of soldiers burst inside. Kalashnikovs and SLRs were slung across their shoulders. They pointed the guns at us, ordered all the males to move out of the house and assemble on the road outside.
“The real cause of the backache is the posture you sit in now,” he said.
“But you are also sitting in the same posture,” she said and let out a muffled laugh.
Babeh and I also laughed. Though Babeh was a strict man, the headmaster of the village school, he loved Naen for she had been a caring partner, ever since their marriage in the late teens. She went to the oven and fetched him another cup of boiling tea and a lawaas, unleavened bread. She came back and again sat down close to me. Babeh was telling her about his fears of the flow of life being hampered if snow continued to fall when a heavy rumble made the carpeted floor tremble; army trucks passing on the road came to a jolting stop. The reverberations hadn’t ceased yet when we heard someone hammering on our front door. Babeh, angry and curious, went to see who was it.
“Open the door!” I heard someone shout as I followed Babeh to the corridor. The door was now being bludgeoned. As it opened, a pack of soldiers burst inside. Kalashnikovs and SLRs were slung across their shoulders. They pointed the guns at us, ordered all the males to move out of the house and assemble on the road outside.
It was still early morning. Loudspeakers from the neighbourhood mosque began to blare with the announcement: “We, the residents of Seer, are under crackdown and are supposed to gather in the school playground.” Roughly half a kilometre from our house, the public high school sat on a high ground abutting a hill and overlooked the village.
A “crackdown” in Kashmir means a thorough search operation by troops to locate guerrillas in a village or town. The women were allowed to stay in their homes. However, wary of the soldiers, they carried grass mats to sit together. I waved a nervous goodbye to my mother who was shepherding her younger sisters to our neighbour’s cement lawn, where women from our locality had started to gather.
Soldiers in army camouflage were herding the men to the playground of the public high school. Boys in early teens, adults young and old, all walked with a sense of urgency, arms held high and pointing towards the sky; everyone’s closed fist revealed the corners of his identity card. I walked with my childhood friend, Arif. In the march we spotted some of our locality’s shopkeepers, neighbors, and acquaintances.
My friend, Imtiyaz, a wiry boy with golden hair, was stopped by an army officer, who introduced himself as a major. He threw a barrage of questions at my friend, “What is your name? Where do you live? What do you do? Why haven’t I seen you before?”
My friend pleaded that he had grown up in the village but for the last few years he had been away at Aligarh Muslim University. But before he could finish the explanation, the officer gave him a tight slap and ordered him to move on.
As we approached the school, soldiers standing on either side of the road yelled at us, “Say, Jai Hind” and with heavy hearts the villagers repeated, “Jai Hind”.
We walked hurriedly towards the school to avoid being beaten up. Latecomers and procrastinators were being thrashed by the troops. Some received a few slaps, punches or kicks and the more unfortunate ones got hit with rifle buts and canes. One elderly man had been badly beaten. His house sat amid a huge tract of land surrounded on all sides by a high concrete wall. The only opening was provided by a tall iron gate, which stood furlongs away from the house. He heard a loud thumping on the entrance of his house, which was followed by a hail of kicks. He quickly unbolted the door and it was flung open to reveal armed soldiers. Before he could provide any explanations to the troops, he was knocked down by a powerful kick. For the next few minutes, the soldiers hit him all over with boots and rifle butts.
The soldiers fumed that they had banged on the gate several times and finding no one in sight, they had climbed over the high walls and jumped inside the compound. Suspicious, they searched the house but found nothing incriminating. The old man and his sons sat with us. The people sitting around him expressed their sympathies and cursed the soldiers in repressed voices. Two villagers, Khalil and Rehman, junior bureaucrats in the local government, raised their hands in prayer, “May God punish these oppressors! May they disappear from this earth!
Touching his bruised forehead, Khalil, one of the bureaucrats, started recounting another tale of woe, “On hearing the announcement Rehman and I decided to leave for the office. We dressed and started walking together on the main road to Anantnag. We wanted to walk beyond the military cordon and catch a bus in the neighboring village to reach our office in town. We had walked hardly a hundred metres when a patrol on foot stopped us: ‘Stop! Hands up! Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? Don’t you know it is a crackdown? Show us your identity cards’?
“We froze for a moment. Regaining our composure, we raised our hands in the air. Hardly pausing and waiting for our answers, the soldiers kept asking questions. Summoning courage, I asked a soldier. ‘Can we lower our arms to show our identity cards?’ My raised arms had started to hurt and I hoped our credentials would impress the soldiers who might allow us to proceed to the neighbouring village.
“ ‘Yes!’ the soldier replied curtly.
“While he was examining identity cards, I addressed his colleagues, about half a dozen in number, ‘We are government employees and need to attend to office’. The soldier shifted his gaze from the cards to our faces. ‘Didn’t you hear the announcement? It’s a crackdown. Nobody is allowed to leave the village. All men have to assemble in the high school ground. By now you should have been there’. My colleague could not restrain himself and responded in a firm voice, ‘But we are government officials and we should not be prevented from discharging our duties’. Visibly irritated the soldier replied, ‘Didn’t you hear me?’
“‘But we are government officers’, I bleated. The soldier grew furious. ‘Here I’m in command and I couldn’t give a damn if you’re the chief minister! You guys are talking too much. You need a lesson. Now start somersaulting on the road’!
“In utter shock we stood motionless. The soldier repeated, ‘Start now or I’ll break your legs’.
“Helpless, Rehman and I exchanged looks and started rolling on the road. I could see Rehman struggling. His humungous frame and belly made it doubly difficult. The punishment lasted ten to fifteen minutes. Pebbles and the rough surface of the road left our hands and foreheads bruised. To add insult to injury, the soldiers forced us to give an undertaking in writing that we had been briefly detained for violating the crackdown and our interrogation had been carried out in a dignified manner. We were then asked to double up to the school ground.”
Arif and I slowly dragged our bodies to the centre of the detained population. We, like most youngsters, preferred the middle of the crowd. Sitting on the margins exposed one to direct contact with the soldiers. They would often poke you with their guns or even kick you if you were perceived as guilty of staring at them or giggling in their presence.
We were anxious about the identification parade about to commence. A military informer wearing a mask sat in the driver’s seat of a military jeep parked to face the assembled men. His job was to identify guerrillas. A bigger military vehicle, commonly referred to as “one-tonne” by Kashmiri civilians, was parked close by. A helmeted soldier gazed from the domed hatch, surmounted by a light machine gun.
You bastard! You all are Pakistanis!
The parade started with men forming a long line, which moved slowly in front of the vehicle. Soldiers standing near the jeep regulated the process, directing men to appear before the informer one by one. The troops held almost everyone by the shoulders for the masked informer to have a good look. If the informer waved his hand, a person was adjudged a civilian and if he pressed the horn of the vehicle, he was deemed an insurgent or guilty of assisting the guerrillas. The horn ensured a quick arrest.
“What do you do?” an Indian soldier asked me while I was being paraded in front of the informer. “I study at Hanafiya School in Islambad.”
I had barely uttered these words when the soldier gave me a violent slap on the face. “You bastard! You all are Pakistanis!” I was dumbfounded. My school was in the town of Anantnag. Though now officially Anantnag, its popular name remains Islambad. Unaware that my Islambad predated the Pakistani capital of Islamabad by a few centuries, the Indian soldier deciphered my reply as reflective of Kashmiris’ allegiance to Pakistan.
While the parade
continued, troops searched the houses and buildings in my village. By late
afternoon I was bored and sulking. Like my fellow villagers, I had already
spent 8-9 hours sitting and squatting in the playground. Previously, I had
visited the school to deliver home-cooked food to my grandfather, who had
served as headmaster. Every morning at assembly, he had, like a proud General,
lectured his boys on the virtues of discipline and hard work. Known as “Master”
in the village, he commanded great respect.
For the crackdown, the old headmaster, like all villagers, sat as a potential suspect. His face betrayed a sense of hurt pride and weariness. He seemed to be at a loss for words. Barring a few brief utterances, he listened to what others around him were saying about the day’s happenings.
During the whole afternoon, my stomach continued to growl. No one had been allowed to carry food or water. The grumbling in my guts caught the attention of my friend, Arif, who jokingly remarked that he could hear the thunder in my stomach.
A military informer wearing a mask sat in the driver’s seat of a military jeep parked to face the assembled men. His job was to identify guerrillas. If the informer waved his hand, a person was adjudged a civilian and if he pressed the horn of the vehicle, he was deemed an insurgent or guilty of assisting the guerrillas. The horn ensured a quick arrest
Though hunger and thirst were bothering me, being a shy teenager, I was more worried about any possible bowel movement. To be able to relieve oneself, one had to first plead with the soldiers and convince them of the urgency of nature’s call. Once the permission had been granted, one had to scour the area for a thick concentration of trees or rocks, which could offer some privacy. Nevertheless, the soldiers did not allow you to go too far; you had to stay within the field of their vision. Fortunately, my empty stomach spared me the embarrassment.
An air of uncertainty and nervousness pervaded the place. I saw most men micturate repeatedly. Arif’s father bit his lips constantly to battle anxiety. Already suffering from an ailment of frequent urination, he relieved himself a number of times. A boy sitting a few metres in front of us stood up and raised his hand to beckon a soldier’s attention. The soldier looked enquiringly. The boy shouted for permission to urinate. The soldier asked him to sit down and wait as some boys had gone to relieve themselves and he would have to wait till the group returned. When he persisted the soldier hurled a wet cake of mud at the boy, who ducked and the mud landed on an empty space between people. Soon people around the boy entreated him to sit down lest the soldier got agitated further. The boy obliged.
The operation lasted some 12 hours, during which the males of the village had been denied food and water. For us, the crackdown ended in rather “abnormal” fashion. No one was arrested.
In the past most
crackdowns had led to the arrest of some village youth. I carried fresh
memories of one when we were asked to assemble on the hospital lawns.
Crackdowns gave a new meaning to our association with village public spaces. My
friends from the village named them after the venues of detention: “hospital
crackdown”, “high school crackdown”, “Eidgah (Eid prayer ground) crackdown” and
In one of the “hospital crackdowns”, the guests in the village, many of whom happened to be visiting sons-in-law, were asked to form a separate group, teenagers formed another, young men and the elderly constituted two more groups. Half a dozen suspects were arrested and we could hear the shrieks of men being tortured in the hospital, which had been transformed into a makeshift torture chamber.
Every civilian looked anxious and petrified. A deathly silence descended as the heart-rending cries of the men undergoing torture resonated through the stillness. Their relatives were inconsolable; tears streamed down their eyes as armed soldiers watched over us. My friend Asif commented in hushed tones that given the unending power cuts during winter, soldiers were using their truck batteries to render electric shocks to the victims.
The hospital abutted a cemetery. Both the hospital lawn and the graveyard were rich repositories of stinging nettle. When an ignorant soldier from the Indian plains asked a boy from my neighbourhood about the plant, he mischievously declared that it had medicinal properties and was good for the skin. For a moment, the soldier looked at the foliage with a skeptical eye. However, he plucked a leaf and was soon forced to scratch his irritated skin. He hurled a barrage of profanity and threatened to beat the boy to pulp but our collective and fervent pleas saved the day.
As the troops wound up the operation and marched to board their vehicles, the youth vented their anger by whistling at them. The vehicles also carried the tortured boys who were likely to face even worse torture during interrogation in the army camp. As dozens of mouths raised a storm of whistles, the troops lost their cool and fired some warning shots in the air.
Some village elders, fearing the confrontation could turn very ugly, managed to restrain the young till the soldiers boarded their vehicles and disappeared from sight. Jaded and hungry, my friend and I walked back home slowly. It was the end of another crackdown in our teenage life. Many more were to follow.