In Lailahaar in Pulwama District there is a house with a bullet mark on a glass window just near the roof. In this house, fifteen-year-old Bisma dreams of becoming a heart surgeon. Her older sister Uzrat,18 wishes to join the Kashmir Administrative Services. Close to ten years back their father was shot by an unidentified man from behind and died on the spot. Being a former militant nobody knows whether he was killed by the security forces or the militants. Ever since then the job of taking care of the two girls lies with their mother, Gulshana.
Both the girls receive scholarships from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation but the last time they received the funds were in 2014 which are now not enough to support their education. Gulshana does whatever she can to support the girls, be it living with her brother since her in laws ostracized her or borrowing money from the neighbours to help buy their books. Gulshana is adamant to ensure that her daughters are well educated and get good jobs because in her own words, "So that they don't face any of the hurdles I had to." This is the story in almost every household in Pulwama. An example of this is Bisma's best friend who lives in the opposite house and her own father was also killed, she too wishes to be a doctor but unlike Bisma she wants to be a neurosurgeon.
However with poverty and the societal norms binding their hands and the added trouble of being caught in the tussle between the militants and the security forces, for the time being the dreams of these girls looks very bleak.
Before coming to Kashmir I had decided that I wanted to meet and talk to people who were affected by the conflict, but as I reached Kashmir and spent a few days I realised how nonsensical and moronic a statement that was. There is nobody who isn't affected by conflict here, either directly or indirectly it seeps its way into everybody's life. An example of this would be a political rapper, Shayan Nabi, I met in Srinagar. He along with a few of his friends produce songs highlighting the sentiment amongst the youth in Kashmir. Another example of this is Raunak, an aspiring actor who lives in downtown, Srinagar.
When another friend of mine and I went to his house on a Friday (that is the day when the stone pelting generally takes place) I got extremely excited and said that I want to go and see the entire scenario. He replied in the most nonchalant manner saying, "You'll get away with just watching but they'll pick me up and take me into custody because all they need are people to arrest." Here the "they" being referred to is the J&K police and the CRPF. It then struck me how disappearances and killings had become such a routine in everybody's lives in the valley. It is a tough reality everybody has to deal with. Each time it happens it's not like it any easier to deal with but because of the simple fact of the abundance these abductions and killings taking place the people see it as routine exercise. Death in this form has become something almost each Kashmiri household has become accustomed to.
This struck me the most when I met the women of a village called Soozet in Budgam district. A lady, Asha, whose husband was a weaver left to go across the border for militancy training close to twenty years ago leaving her behind with a newly born daughter and two year old son. When asked about him she replies sadly saying, "Who knows if he is dead or alive, if he managed to cross the border or not, if he remarried or not." And asked if she thinks about him she replies sadly saying, "I do sometimes but I try not to because it is a futile exercise and only makes me feel sad." When asked if she approached the authorities for help to find her missing husband she vehemently says no as she had no faith in the authorities as she had none with the militants. Its the typical story for every Kashmiri civilian and almost every person in a war struck place, it is the civilians who get caught in the crossfire between the military and the militants. And they have to pay the biggest price for it.
All this information was being meticulously explained to me by my translator Shazia, whose own father was beheaded by the militants in the paddy fields in the nearby village of Kausa. She was only 8 years old then and she felt the weight of the financial burden on herself as she had a younger brother and her mother suffered from many health ailments, her father was the only bread earner of the family. Now twenty one years old Shazia still admits that the anger of her father being killed hasn't diminished in any way since.
In Tral, visiting the houses of children getting scholarships because their fathers had been killed was one of the most emotionally draining days of my internship, especially that of Azra and Faisal. One 16 and the other 18 respectively. They were extremely young when their father was killed in Srinagar, nobody knows by whom though it is suspected to be by the security forces. Their mother moved to back to her hometown shortly after the death of their father and they now live with their paternal grandparents. Riddled with poverty these children are extremely closed and have vey few words to spare. The entire atmosphere in the household is dreary with the grandfather being diagnosed with alzheimers and the grandmother left to take care of the household. Azra is adamant to crack the Civil Services Exam and Faisal wants to get into the medical business to take care of his grandparents.
The one thing which struck me at almost every avenue throughout the internship was how the greed for power has damaged the astounding beauty of this place and its people. With everybody staking claims to the region either internally or externally, without really bothering to consider what its people desire. One such lawyer, Advocate Babur Qadri said, "That if you give me the right to self-determination I will be a far better citizen of India than I am now." When I went almost two months back, after interacting with the people of all strata, self-determination was not synonymous with secession. It was a way of deciding and most importantly it was a right which was promised to them many years ago as way of inculcating the people of Kashmir into the Indian Union. And the importance of this right to many people in the valley is a mark of respect and a way of showing that they too matter in this country rather than the after effects of self-determination.
However after the killing of Burhan Wani with the way the security forces are firing pellet guns at the youth and injuring them grievously it is but natural if self-determination is now synonymous with secession. After all if for half a decade a government of a country did not respect the government of a state, the results of elections in which its citizens voted and instead rigged them, had an overwhelming military presence to do whatsoever they pleased and get away with it under the Armed Forced Special Powers Act and misused it indiscriminately on multiple occasions and was staking claims to the state without caring about what the state or its people desired. It is but natural if the people of that state felt alienated from the country.
In Srinagar, I used to travel around in the local buses with the people very kindly helping me reach my destination, interested in what I was doing, complete strangers inviting me over to their houses for tea and meals, asking to come again. And now its saddens me to hear and see the same people suppressed under curfew in the state, me being unable to contact them because the phone lines have been cut, the same vibrant streets of Lal Chowk now deserted, the beautiful architecture and the character of Downtown only witnessing protests and firings.
In an extremely short span of time I found a connect with this place and its people which has impelled me to return to it. This may brand me as an anti-national, desi drohi or unpatriotic. But in the words of Howard Zinn, "Patriotism is not obedience to the government, instead it is obedience to the principles for which the government is supposed to stand for."
Revathi Krishnan is a final year student of political science at Hindu college in Delhi