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An agony named Kashmir

KOCHI: On August 2, a day curfew had been imposed in Srinagar by the security forces. But eight-year-old Sameer Rah stepped out to play along with other children in the lane outside his house

Published: 23rd November 2010 11:45 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 04:57 PM   |  A+A-

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KOCHI: On August 2, a day curfew had been imposed in Srinagar by the security forces. But eight-year-old Sameer Rah stepped out to play along with other children in the lane outside his house in the Batamalloo neighbourhood. Imitating the adults, Sameer shouted separatist slogans. He did not realise that there was a group of Central Reserve Police Force soldiers standing nearby. Angered by what he was saying, they beat Sameer with bamboo sticks. Then they threw the boy on some poison-ivy bushes nearby.

Sameer was rushed to the hospital but it was too late. He had become a martyr, another addition to the growing number of deaths of young people this year. In the last three months, 106 youngsters have been killed by the security forces.

“His father, Fayaz Rah, was shattered,” says Basharat Peer, the author of ‘Curfewed Night’, a searing account of life in Kashmir. Fayaz, 39, is a fruit vendor. He has three sons. “The police said my son died in a stampede,” Fayaz told Basharat. I ask Basharat whether the father has become radicalised.

“People make the wrong assumption that when something like this happens, the family becomes militant,” says Basharat. “The point is you have to put food on the table. You have to buy medicines for a father who is old. There are sons whose school fees have to be paid. Living is more difficult. Fayaz will continue in his job as a fruit vendor.”

Today, Kashmir has become quiet after months of disturbances when young people threw stones at the paramilitary forces, and the troops opened fire. “It is difficult to sustain the intensity of an agitation for five months,” says Basharat. “So things have petered out but the questions remain.”

These include demilitarisation, the revoking of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, better governance and accountability. So far there has been no official investigation as to how Sameer was killed. This lack of justice triggers violent agitations. “The youngsters are very angry,” says Basharat. “They have grown up seeing people being arrested, tortured or killed. And when they see somebody from their school or the neighbourhood being shot, it makes them angrier. This is one generation which has grown up seeing nothing but death.”

But Basharat also says that because of the fragility of human life, people care a lot more for each other. “The bonds are stronger,” he says. “This year, when there was curfew for months, the poor had nothing to eat. But once it was lifted, everybody helped each other.”

At the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Basharat is a featured speaker. Even though he is articulate, Basharat looks tense and nervous. He is taken aback when a girl, a college student, comes up with tears in her eyes and sympathises with him over the recent killings in Kashmir.

A freelance journalist, Basharat writes for international newspapers like the ‘Financial Times’ and ‘The Guardian’. He is also a fellow of the Open Society Institute at New York where he lives for six months. The rest of the time he is in Kashmir or in other parts of India. As one who has travelled all over the country, I ask him the reaction of people when they come to know that he is a Kashmiri.

“It is different with me because I am a journalist,” he says. “They talk to me as a reporter. But for other Kashmiris there is a mixed reaction.”

Sometimes, when they want to rent a house and the landlord realises that they are Kashmiris, he will say no. This happens often in Mumbai, Delhi, and other parts of north India.

“Things are much better when the Kashmiris go to Bangalore, Chennai, or Hyderabad,” he says. Basharat looks amazed when I tell him that there are a few hundred Kashmiris living in Fort Kochi. “That’s great,” he says, smiling for the first time.

Meanwhile, Basharat is busy at work on his next work. “My role is to tell the stories so that people have a clear understanding of what is going on in Kashmir,” he says. From the audience reaction in Thiruvananthapuram, it is clear that he has succeeded admirably.

shevlins@gmail.com



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