2013, Essay, Kashmir, Telegraph Calcutta

Kashmir’s Kolyma Tales: An Excerpt Retold

Put together in a volume these could become a chronicle from our own Gulag. Or pages fallen off Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” from deep Soviet Siberia, grim tales of misery that man can wilfully bring upon man.
There is nothing new or extant about these stories. They come, in fact, from two decades back.

Only, they haven’t been told enough. Kashmiri ears are so stuffed with them by now, they can’t accommodate any more. They have turned numb to their hurt. Perhaps they have also come to bore because there is nothing to them beyond repetition. “I am in a peculiar quandary,” says their bewildered author, “I think these are stories to be told but whenever I begun to tell them people say we’ve heard it all before, so what?”

These are stories in search of an audience. These may begin to explain to us how nettled the sutures can be between law and justice, between the clinical application of the former and the emotional implication of the latter. These may probably also annotate to us why a moment such as the hanging of Afzal Guru turns momentous, what sores it rubs into, what carbuncles it opens up.

…. “…There were several winters we did not go to sleep, not a man who they thought able. We’d be ordered out at three in the morning, sometimes earlier, and be lined up on the snow piled up along the roadside. We were not allowed shoes and only minimal clothing. They did not want anyone concealing weapons. It used to be freezing, the snow would be packed and hard. It was cold but it felt like burning coals on the heels. We were meant, each one of us, to hold lanterns aloft in our faces so we could be identified and then we were meant to jump up and down on the snow like monkeys to assure our masters we weren’t carrying any arms, up and down, up and down in the snow till we could feel our feet no more. That was the start of the morning. They used to call it convoy duty. We would walk single-file on each side of the road for miles, human shields against landmines or cruder explosive devices. Whatever it was, we dragged the snows to secure the road for passing military convoys. Nobody stopped unless commanded, not even to your feet back from numbness or to answer nature’s call. If you did, you’d be hit by a rifle butt. And you were not meant to fall. If you did, you got kicked in the belly by boots. We did this each morning, hundreds of us from villages and hamlets in Mawer, monkeys securing the road for the army. We’d go all the way till they had another lot of men from other settlements to take over, and then we’d have to run all the way back, single-file, each one carrying a lantern close to the face, just as we had come. It used to be very cold, I cannot explain how cold, I just have a memory of it. They called it duty but we got not wages for it, it was ‘begaar’, bonded labour, and some of us did it for 13 years, we were not given a choice. They called it national service. Are you surprised why some of us are so angry against such a nation? ……”

Engineer Rasheed of Langate
Engineer Rasheed of Langate

…. “…There was a young man called Mohammed Yusuf Shah whose family tended a small orchard near the village of Drumsu. Each afternoon, Yusuf would fetch tea from home for his father Ghulam Hassan who spent all day working in the orchard. One afternoon, an army officer accosted Yusuf and asked him if he was ferrying tea and refreshments for terrorists hiding in the jungles. Yusuf explained it was only for his father, he did that every day. The officer was not convinced. He impounded Yusuf’s samovar (large tea kettle) and asked him to bring him fresh water in a pitcher from a stream three miles away. But before that, he commanded Yusuf to strip naked. He was to put the pitcher on his head “like women do” and walk all the way up and down naked. Yusuf had no option. He complied. But when he reached the first settlement en route, he was so overcome with mortification, he passed out. Villagers did not come out to help him for fear of earning the wrath of the army, Yusuf just lay there, naked. Meantime, his father came looking for him and he too was detained by the officer: Where is your son, have the two of you been feeding terrorists in the woods? Ghulam Hassan was nonplussed and did not know what to say. He just sat at the officer’s feet, wondering what had happened to his son, or his pot of tea. Presently, seeing Yusuf had not returned from his errand, the officer asked his father to get a pitcherful from the stream. He too had to strip, put a pitcher on his head and walk the three miles through hamlets. Ghulam Hassan stripped, put the pitcher on his head and began his trek. Some way down, he saw his son, naked, like him, and unconscious….A few days later we heard the old man had hung himself….”

…. “….There used to be a schoolmaster called Abdul Khaliq Butt, and elderly and respected man. One morning, just after he had returned home from convoy duty, he was summoned to the army camp. The commander wanted the chinar tree abutting the camp stripped of its leaves and small branches. He ordered the schoolmaster up. Khaliq Butt begged to be excused, he had never climbed a tree, and he was getting on. But the commander was adamant. He forced the schoolmaster up on gunpoint. It was a huge tree. He managed for a while, snipping leaves and branches, but the higher he was commanded up the more nervous and exhausted he got. He again begged to be allowed down. He was shown the gun. He forced himself up. Then, suddenly, he slipped and fell and instantly died…..”

…. “….In a small village called Shahnagri lived a frail young woman with her mother-in-law and a blind daughter. Her husband was a fugitive, in fact a militant cadre of the Hizb-ul-Mujahedin who had escaped across the border. The woman tended a small patch of land and did odd jobs to eke a living. She was also pregnant, and so it was known that her husband steal his way back home off and on. The army suspected her of concealing his whereabouts. She always protested she did not know. Her husband came once in a while, yes, but she had no idea where he vanished. She was not shielding anyone, only letting her husband in. One winter night, word was sent to her from the army command post that her husband wanted to see her. At once elated, the unsuspecting woman made to leave her house even though it was late and a blizzard was blowing. The moment she open the door of her hutment, a hail of bullets hit her; her womb, live with child, spilled out onto the fresh snow. Beware, the villagers were told, that’s the fate informants meet….”

There is no disclaimer to these stories. They happened in the decade of the 1990s in the Langate area of Handwara in north Kashmir. Militancy was at its peak, the army was tasked with its suppression. Their author is not an anonymous entity. He is Engineer Rasheed, independent MLA in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, from Langate in the northern Kupwara-Handwara pocket. His signature on these stories have made them a matter of public record, he now seeks closure to these wounds. “I have nothing against the Indian army or security forces,” Rasheed told The Telegraph in a conversation, “I only want an admission and an unqualified apology.”
Some of these stories have been published in local Urdu periodicals, some of them form part of a complaint to the state human rights commission. But they lie there, stories in search of a larger audience. “The Prime Minister says he wants to talk and I say yes, let’s talk, but first apologise for what you have done in Kashmir, admit it and apologise and then we can begin to talk,” Rasheed says, “If for nothing, for the bonded labour I and many others were forced to do for years and years. I am a character in these stories, they happened to me. I am still willing to talk, but hear my stories to start with.”

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