The new liberal voices that speak of a different freedom in Kashmir
Mohammed Chopan at the site of the 1997 Sangrampora massacre that killed his Pandit friends (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
ON A PATCH OF GRASS, BEHIND which are orchards where his cows graze sometimes, Mohammed Chopan sits quietly. He wears a pheran and carries a stick to support himself while climbing up and down from his house situated at a little height from where he sits now. He speaks a Kashmiri the idiom of which is fast disappearing. In his old Kashmiri, there is a particular way in which one expresses the intensity of one’s emotions.
Kya se chukh wanaan. What are you saying.
This is not meant to ask someone if they know what they are saying. This is meant to portray the futility of a question; this is meant to say that there are some things in the heart that words will never express adequately.
If one walked ten steps right from where Chopan sat, one would come across a few crumbled stone structures on both sides of the narrow road that cuts through the Sangrampora village in Central Kashmir, about 35 kilometres from the capital Srinagar. If one walked ten steps left from where he sat, one would reach a low stone wall. On the other side, a little below, are the same orchards. In 1997, this road did not exist. In 1997, Chopan lived in this part of the village, next to the cluster of Pandit houses. They were all known to him since childhood. The crumbled stone structures on his right are their erstwhile houses. The houses were made in the old style, with huge wooden beams supporting big blocks of stone. Directly behind the cluster on the other side of where Chopan sits, there flows a river down the valley. The last structure closest to the river used to be a temple the Pandits had made in a predominantly Muslim-majority area. Not even its foundations are left now. As the Pandits left in 1990, the Pandits in Sangrampora decided to stay behind. They were mostly agriculturists and did not know the ways of the city where they felt they would have had to go—that, too, in the Indian plains. Then there were friends like Chopan; they were few, but did exist. The Pandits felt no direct threat to their lives.
That changed on the night of March 21, 1997. That night a group of terrorists walked into the cluster and pulled out eight men from their homes. They were lined up in front of the stone wall, on the left of where Chopan sits now, and shot. Only one of them escaped death miraculously.
Soon afterwards, this part of the village turned into a ghost zone. Mohammed Chopan could not take it anymore. “It was very scary to live alone in this part of the village,” he says. So, he shifted to the other side of the village.
But his heart is here, he says. So, every day, he walks down from his new house to this desolate area. The Pandit houses have disappeared, except a few stone bases here and there. Nobody talks openly about it, but some conscientious people remember how others in the village gradually took things from the deserted houses. One of them said that he had spoken to a Sangrampora resident who pointed out his neighbour’s tin roof and said that the tin sheets were taken from the Pandit cluster.
Every day till late in the night, I would be here, talking to Avtar, Ashok, Pyarelal. We were one people, says Mohammed Chopan
It is futile to talk to Chopan about these things. Even if he knows things, it is unlikely that he will talk about them. But about the departed Pandit friends, his old idiom comes to the fore.
Kya se chukh wanaan. What are you saying.
Chopan says this as he is lost in a reverie, in response to whether he misses his erstwhile neighbours. “Every day till late in the night, I would be here, talking to Avtar, Ashok, Pyarelal. We were one people,” he says. The memory of those days brings a smile to his face.
On March 22, at sunrise, among a handful of people who came to check on the village were Javed Beigh and his father and uncles. The Beighs live in the neighbouring Sonpah village. Among the dead, Javed spotted his teacher, Avtar Krishan Pandita, popularly known in these parts as “Masterji”. He was the headmaster of what was then a middle school in the Attina village, between Sonpah and Sangrampora. The mode of teaching was Urdu. But like most Pandits of his generation, Pandita knew Urdu well and taught most kids in the area.
Javed, now 38, is a political activist; he is among a handful of new voices that have come up in Kashmir after 2019 who are now openly speaking about radicalism and professing their love for India. In the process, they also end up speaking about taboo subjects in Kashmir, such as the exodus of the Pandits and the complicity, in many cases, of their erstwhile Muslim neighbours or friends.
As he was growing up, Javed recalls that scores of young men had turned into militants. When he was 17, in 2001, a terrorist attack took place on a camp of the Border Security Force (BSF), killing eight people, including civilians. The BSF personnel were used to venturing outside the camp in the evening and buying ice-cream from a man who would stop his cart at the camp gate. On May 9, 2001, a local terrorist gave the ice-cream seller a box to keep in the ice container. As the BSF personnel came out as usual in the evening, he remotely triggered off the explosive kept in the container, blowing up the seller, BSF personnel and a few others.
It is a feature of conversation in most households across Kashmir—in places like Beerwah, where communities are closely knit, everyone knows what the other has been up to. Any conversation involves a rattling off the names of men who became terrorists and those who benefitted from it. In one house in Beerwah, the conversation steers that way. They talk about a local Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist who was killed later. They speak about a Pakistani terrorist, Bilal “Habshi”, who is believed to have had multiple relationships with women across villages. Close to Sangrampora, they say, there is a house that used to be frequented by a dreaded terrorist. He later killed three members of the family after the head of the house shifted his daughter to Srinagar owing to the terrorist’s interest in her. They talk of someone who they claim was involved in the Sangrampora massacre; they talk of another household where they believe the terrorists involved in the massacre had dinner.
People warned me that what I was trying to do is anti-Islam. But I told them that for me it’s part of my heritage, says Javed Beigh
It is in this environment that Javed Beigh grew up. “When I returned from school, my mother would first check my bag for weapons and cigarettes,” he says. Many boys he knew turned to militancy—it was quite common in these parts till the mid-2000s.
In the last few years, Beigh has gradually stepped first into activism and then into politics. It began when he first contacted the Army camp to ask them if some boys from the village could use its sport facilities. It was new for the Army as well; generally, locals would not be even seen near it, fearing someone would spot them in the vicinity and accuse them of being mukhbir (informer). In a few months, thanks to Beigh’s efforts, the interaction between the Army and many local boys grew significantly.
He is now hoping that New Delhi will give him a chance amidst the changing political winds in Kashmir Valley. Among other things, Beigh is now trying hard to save an ancient cave in Beerwah which, according to some accounts, was the place where the 10th-century philosopher, Abhinavagupta, had stayed along with his disciples. “My parents told me about it in the year 2000. When I visited then, I could see idols inside. They are all gone now,” he says. His efforts to revive interest in the cave were met with stiff opposition from several quarters in Beerwah. “Many people, including government servants, warned me that what I was trying to do is anti-Islam. But I told them that for me it’s part of my heritage,” he says.
As the interest in the cave increased, a few locals tried to change its character by painting the exterior with green colour and declaring it the shrine of a Sufi. They also tried to bring the cave down by intensifying quarrying around it. “I complained to senior authorities and got it stopped,” he says.
Most boys of my age had this impression that martyrdom must be our ultimate goal, says Wajahat Farooq Bhat
Beigh is in touch with Masterji’s son and daughter. He was also in touch with a young man, Rahul Bhat, who happened to be the nephew of one of the Pandits killed in Sangrampora. Bhat was shot dead by terrorists in Kashmir in May this year. “The last time he came here he told me that he wanted to open a school here,” recalls Beigh.
“And now he is gone.”
In Bhat’s case, there is no one who will utter the idiom Chopan used for his old friends: Kya se chukh wanaan.
AROUND THE TIME BEIGH WAS TRYING TO revive sport in his area, a 17-year-old boy had his first brush with stone-pelting in another part of Kashmir. In 2008, the situation in Kashmir suddenly turned fragile with a series of protests. Like most boys in his neighbourhood in North Kashmir’s Baramulla, Zia-ul-Islam, then a Class 11 student, began pelting stones at security forces. He had studied at a Jamaat-e-Islami school and had been brought up on a diet of anti-India rhetoric.
The stone throwers were identified. In Zia’s vicinity, he and three others were picked up by the police. Two were let off due to political connections. But Zia and the other boy were booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and sent to a jail in the Jammu region.
It is here that Zia saw the reality of separatism in Kashmir. In his barracks, Zia met a Pakistani terrorist, Abu Abdul Qadir. Hailing from Gujranwala, Qadir, like many others, had been sent to Kashmir after being fed lies about how Muslims were treated as second-class citizens in Kashmir and how they were not even allowed to pray in a mosque.
“He told me that when he reached Kashmir he realised that many Kashmiris themselves were not interested in prayers,” recalls Zia. There was also a separatist leader from the Hurriyat Conference lodged in the same jail. Zia asked him if his children were also involved in “resistance” against the Indian forces. “He told me that his daughter was not mad like me,” says Zia, as he laughs at the irony of it.
It was a small intervention by a young Army officer posted near his house that led to a change. The officer went by the name of Captain Asif—most likely a false name. He and Zia got talking and the officer counselled him to build his life instead of wasting it. He started giving him books to read. One of them, recalls Zia, was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
One day, the Army organised a medical camp near Zia’s house, which was a big hit. The same evening, many beneficiaries of the camp were out, pelting stones at the same camp. Zia recalls a handicapped man who had been gifted a special scooter by the Army putting up Pakistani flags on the scooter and roaming around town like that.
With a small group of people, Zia is now persuading others to not take the path he took many years ago. He is now part of a small organisation run by a former stone-thrower like him. Wajahat Farooq Bhat, 26, comes from Baramulla as well. In 2014, during a pelting incident, he became a hero overnight among his peers after a brick thrown by him at an Army Casspir vehicle broke one of its windshields. “Most boys of my age had this impression that shahadat (martyrdom) must be our ultimate goal,” he says. It stemmed from the imagery of terrorists being eulogised as heroes around them.
Like Islam, Bhat was also finally counselled by a local police officer. While counselling, Bhat recalls, the police officer told him a story. Once a Pakistani terrorist was injured badly and hospitalised. When he regained consciousness, he saw a nurse and asked her, “Where are the other 71?”—alluding to the impression that he had died and gone to heaven where, according to radical Islamist belief, 72 virgins await the ‘martyr’.
Later, Bhat joined a National Cadet Corps (NCC) camp and was surprised to see that girls were treated on a par with boys. “An instructor was making a bunch of girls roll over on the ground as part of some drill, just like boys,” he recalls. His eyes opened up to the outside world. Now, he and Zia conduct talks all over Kashmir, speaking to young Kashmiris about the futility of guns and radicalism. Since 2016, they have organised more than a hundred such events across Kashmir.
There is also a woman in their group who now works as their programme head. Anika Nazir comes from Kupwara, along the Line of Control (LoC). She had done her schooling from Srinagar and had to go back to Kupwara where she says she felt claustrophobic. She wanted to return to Srinagar, but her mother was not comfortable with the idea. “She felt that she could protect me by keeping me near her,” she says. Nazir, 22, resisted the idea and got admitted at a Srinagar college for paramedical training.
The Pakistani terrorist told me that when he reached Kashmir he realised many Kashmiris themselves were not interested in prayers, says Zia-ul-Islam
It was around that time she was invited to attend one of the programmes organised by Bhat, which was an open platform of sorts. Anyone could take the podium and speak about anything. It was here Nazir says she felt free for the first time. She went up to the dais and spoke about sexual harassment in public places, a subject taboo in Kashmiri society. After her impromptu talk, many girls came up to her in private saying they too had faced harassment, she says. But they could not share it with their family. The first reaction to that would have been to curtail the freedom of the girl rather than confronting those who harassed her.
But her association with the organisation evoked suspicion among her family. The fear was that the organisation was an NGO which was working to promote Christianity. “But I spoke honestly with my father and he understood,” she says. Her father is a religious man, says Nazir, but never imposed a dress code on her.
In college as well, Nazir became an object of hatred for her pro-India approach. When India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat died in a chopper crash, she took part in a candlelight event in his memory.
“On our class WhatsApp group, other girls ganged up against me,” she says. But the same girls would later ask her about how to apply for the PM Scholarship Scheme. “The irony is that I could myself not apply for it, but guided many others to apply,” she says.
AS NAZIR SPEAKS, MANY KASHMIRIS ON Srinagar’s Boulevard Road, along the Dal Lake, stare at her. Her identity as a Kashmiri is clear, but perhaps they do not approve of her apathy towards the dress code which has only increased in Kashmir in the last decade.
Later that night, at the famous Lalit Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Lake, a few families, part of Kashmir’s new elite, eat their dinner. Their children speak to each other in fake American accents. On the road outside, cavalcades of security forces wait for their bosses who won’t be visible inside if you looked.
On the pavement, a few waiting jawans have opened their modest tiffins. One of them is pacing on the side, talking to someone, most likely a family member.
“Nahi nahi, Lata, mein tumhe miss kar raha hoon.” No, no, Lata, I miss you, too.
At that moment one wished Mohammed Chopan’s fast-disappearing idiom to express emotions was somehow revealed to him.