2017, Kashmir, Reportage, Srinagar, Telegraph Calcutta

Valley Voices

Last fortnight, I spent some time in Kashmir, trying to sample opinion on the Centre’s new effort to open dialogue.

 

Dineshwar Sharma landed here last week as a text message. A couple of days before New Delhi’s newest emissary to Kashmir presented his person to the Valley, telephones of local notables began to simultaneously ping – mainstream and separatist politicians, opinion leaders in the media, academia and the bar, hand-picked retired civil servants, all from a list of numbers that Sharma had been handed. ‘Could we meet? Want to talk? I’m coming,’ is how Sharma was sounding out his target audience.

The response he received was, to put it mildly, lukewarm, especially insufficient in dropping early winter temperatures. Separatists rejected the overture out of hand; mainstream entities like Omar Abdullah of the National Conference showed little eagerness, settling down for a ‘private call on’ only because Sharma had gone knocking his door; among others in the intelligentsia, few obliged, opting to sense the depth and drift of Sharma’s enterprise before they revealed their minds. Those that arrived at his heavily secured VVIP perch at Hari Niwas – many dozen delegations, authentic and adulterated – had mostly been herded and nudged to Sharma’s presence by administrative fiat. On the eve of Sharma’s arrival, the office of Divisional Commissioner Basheer Khan, occupied itself shooting off directives to any outfit worth the name to present themselves to Sharma – Bakerwal and Gujjar tribesmen, boatmen, tour operators, hoteliers, motley sets of tillers, women’s and youth groups, government-funded NGOs, even a dubious crew of young journalists nobody seemed to know existed. As Sharma laboured on in his exclusive bungalow, trying to shore up respectable numbers of the interested, The Telegraph spoke to a cross-section of those not on his telephone log – young unaligned professionals who remain invested in Kashmir and count among stakeholders as any other. This is what they had to say on New Delhi’s latest venture:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rashid Rather, Sociologist: Kashmiris love talking, we’ve been talking since 1947. The issue is what about. To me the problem here is not about how to deal with separatists, it is how Delhi has dealt with mainstream parties, right from Sheikh Abdullah to Farooq Abdullah to the present generation of leaders. They have been pressed to the wall. Delhi has failed the Kashmiri mainstream consistently, it was made to fail before the Kashmiri people to a point that it had no credibility left. From Indira Gandhi to Rajiv to P.V. Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, everybody made promises and turned on them. That is what has created the space for separatists. There were always separatist pockets here, but they were pockets. New Delhi-inspired failures of the mainstream have expanded the separatist constituency. My message to New Delhi is: don’t be bothered about separatists, look at how you have treated the mainstream, how you have manipulated and emaciated it. But they are not prepared to learn any lessons, they are going on repeating the same mistakes. They have played with the mainstream leadership. Such a record inspires no confidence in us. The new emissary has met many so-called delegations, nearly 40 in two days, but is this a railway platform? What is he trying to do meeting so many delegations in such a short time? Are we to take this seriously? It has become a joke. Please do not come to Kashmir without examining your own record, it will serve no purpose. Go back, introspect and if you realise you’ve made mistakes, a start can probably be made.

Continue reading “Valley Voices”

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2015, Bihar, Patna

Inside story: Why Nitish Kumar fell out with Narendra Modi

TheBrothersBihari

This is an excerpt from my book, The Brothers Bihari.

Narendra Modi was up to something, and Nitish did not like the thought of it. But it still did not bother him as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.

The NDA, pushing for L.K. Advani as prime minister, had scheduled one of its biggest shows of strength in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign at Ludhiana on that date. Invitations had gone out to prominent leaders of all constituent parties and NDA chief ministers. K  Chandrashekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi had decided to participate, breaking away from the UPA. This had brought new buoyancy to NDA ranks.

Nitish was reluctant to join the rally, averse as he was to sharing a stage with Narendra Modi. He had requested JDU president Sharad Yadav to go. Two days before the rally, Jaitley called Nitish to say Advani was very keen he came, he had made a personal request. Nitish did not commit himself immediately. Jaitley then put Sanjay Jha on the job, and Jha was eventually able to convince Nitish that they’d go by chartered flight, attend the rally and return the same evening. Short and clinical. It would make Advaniji happy. Continue reading “Inside story: Why Nitish Kumar fell out with Narendra Modi”

2015, Meerut, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Back in Hashimpura after 28 years: It is not about memory alone; it is about not forgetting

After mass police acquittals, survivors ask: How can we forget loss of 42 sons?

Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987
Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Meerut, April 4: Hashimpura lives down the belly of a violated orifice gaped upon the midtown street. Ripped walls and leaky sewer veins make the darkened cavern; its low dwellings are a mangle of rusted girders poked through unfinished masonry; fly and mosquito squadrons drone about leprous pools of defecation, decay is a work in progress.

It’s a molested air Hashimpura wears. Over the low-voltage trundle of its many loom sheds, residents look upon the arrived outsider with furtive victim eyes.

” Hamari khabar 28 saal purani hai, uske baad yahan kuchh nahin hua (Our news is 28 years old, nothing has happened here after that).”

A patina of weary resignation has come to settle on their anguish and anger, and any hope of redemption there might have been. The pleas they regularly put out – one such vinyl banner hangs limp on the Hashimpura walls calling attention to, among others, the Prime Minister – are no more than notes to themselves, tatty dressing gauze on what won’t stop to bleed.

To sit down in Hashimpura’s bedraggled courtyards and listen to its people talk is to feel the cold suspicion they won’t be terribly beset if justice doesn’t step into their street after all. It’s been gone too long.

Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid
Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid

Almost three decades ago, in May 1987, male residents of Hashimpura were rounded up in a cordon-and-search op by army jawans, herded out onto the main road and handed over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), Uttar Pradesh’s chief paramilitary formation.

It has never been clear what Hashimpura had done to call upon itself the raid, save that it was a time of communal simmer and confrontation. The unlocking of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute had spurred sectarian fires across Uttar Pradesh; Meerut had erupted recurrently – arson and clashes between rival processions in February 1986 that put the city under curfew for a fortnight; in April, just a month before, a more purposeful and bloody collision that brought up a dozen dead, several more injured, and a city beginning to fear itself. Meerut was on the burner.

The custody of Hashimpura from the late afternoon of May 22 accounted for more than 250 persons. They were all loaded onto the back of constabulary trucks and driven off – most to lockups and jails, and 55-odd to the banks of the Gangnahar, or the Ganga canal, which cuts through Muradnagar on the Meerut-Delhi road.

There, by dark, they were ordered down and lined up by the waterfront, arms raised, shot and left to float down the water. Forty-two of those died, a handful survived, feigning death until the PAC jawans thought their job done and departed, lying still on the mud-bank or slithering into thickets of elephant grass.

The Telegraph ‘s front page of June 1, 1987, carries a photograph of Zulfiqar Nasir, then 17, vest pulled over his head displaying wounds from bullets that had grazed his armpit. He’d escaped, pretending to be dead, and come to Delhi, aided by rights groups, to tell his tale.

Zulfiqar’s account was widely put down at the time as “exaggerated” or “hallucinatory”. It was only when dead bodies began to float up and along the Gangnahar as far downstream as Hindon, close to Delhi, that the horrific contours of the Hashimpura massacre began to emerge and be accepted.

An execution squad had gone to work and put dozens of blameless men to death in the lee of the nation’s capital, no more than 60 kilometres from Delhi.

Last week, a lower court let off all 16 surviving policemen accused of murder for lack of evidence. In effect, 42 lives had been collectively and abruptly put to end but nobody had done it. After three decades the combined resources of the executive and the judiciary had conjured a whodunit. Justice delayed, then denied.

Much of it was achieved through serial denial and dereliction – destruction and disappearance of evidence, tardy investigation and case-making, leaden progress in the courts.

One of the first FIRs in the case vanished, the weapons used to kill were never seized or cited, the bodies of victims were swiftly cremated rather than being buried so they could not be exhumed for examination.

Vrinda Grover, counsel for the Hashimpura litigants, is blunt to allege a collusive conspiracy to bury the massacre: “From the very beginning, there was a deliberate plan to either not collect the crucial pieces of evidence, to conceal them or allow them to be lost in the passage of time.”

Zulfiqar, now 45, might well believe it irretrievably lost. In the 28 years since he stood up at a press conference in Delhi to display his wounds and tell the story few survived to tell, Zulfiqar has trained himself as a machine-tools worker, established a small trade, got married, had three children and built a life of sorts.

But his central pursuit has eluded him – murder he witnessed first hand and himself narrowly escaped, but murder he cannot pin on the guilty, a constant shadow he can see but cannot grasp and nail.

” Khaate-peete hain, lekin naa izzat hai naa insaaf,” he says. ” Lekin chhor kaise dein, bhool kaise jaayen (We are well-to-do but we have neither self-respect nor justice; but how are we to let it be, leave it alone)?”

You don’t give up on your living; often, you don’t give up on your dead. It is not about memory alone; it is also about not forgetting.

It may seem a despondent enterprise but it is the enterprise of each Hashimpura home – an honourable closure. Unassuaged shadows shift about in these homes, heaving in dank corners, waiting to present themselves to anyone who would care.

Each home had men. Each home suffered scars from the operations of the afternoon of May 22, 1987. Those scars have aged but they remain sore, awaiting the poultice of, if nothing else, respect.

Zamanuddin, 78 and retired from most of life’s chores – “Now I just sit around and enjoy the company of friends while I can, there’s not much else to do” – wouldn’t bring up his murdered son until more than an hour into our conversation.

He wouldn’t bring up his battered other son, he wouldn’t bring up the rifle-butt wounds received on his own back that afternoon. He spoke at length of general grief and grievance.

“Everybody suffered, this whole mohalla, each of my friends, all these men you see.”

Half a dozen of them were there, seated under the dappled shade of a wizened creeper in the old-fashioned well of the house. Then the squeal of a child from some quarrel in some part of the house brought on the tears: ” Bachche rote hain to dil phat jaata hai (When children cry, it tears the heart).”

And the tears brought on a photo-frame and in it the fading image of a young man. Qamruddin, Zamanuddin’s eldest, photographed as he set out at the head of his baraat, handsome as a groom can get on wedding day, garlanded, portrait-ready.

It’s the only picture Zamanuddin has of Qamruddin, or would still be willing to see. There exists another but he has refused to hold or see it all these years.

Azizuddin, Zamanuddin’s youngest, fetches it – a black and white image turned sepia. It shows Qamruddin prone, a bullet hole in his upper chest, dead. He was among those the execution squad took to the banks of the Gangnahar on the night of May 22, 1987, and never came back.

“I was taken out too that afternoon and because I came back I assumed Qamar would too, we had done no wrong,” Zamanuddin says, now choking.

“I was 50 and they spared me for my age, they were after the younger lot, but it did not strike me while they were separating us, it did not strike me that was the last I was seeing of Qamar.”

He asks for the photo-frame be taken away, back to its dark corner in the anteroom; he gives his face a wipe, and then he steps out into Hashimpura’s rancid belly to point to us the way they were taken by the bayonets.

2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah

An elderly lady embraces Omar Abdullah on the campaign trail in rural Beerwah
An elderly lady embraces Omar Abdullah on the campaign trail in rural Beerwah

Beerwah, Dec. 6: Out barnstorming the countryside a day after multiple terror hits to the Valley, chief minister and National Conference spearhead Omar Abdullah spelt out a blunt “no” to any post-poll deal with the BJP.

“That’s not going to happen, people can keep speculating and dreaming about it,” Omar told The Telegraph in an exclusive chat along his roadshow. He was touring his newly adopted rural constituency Beerwah, southwest of Srinagar.

It appears imminent the ongoing elections will throw up a hung Jammu and Kashmir House and there has been speculation in some circles Omar could ally with the BJP, or support its power effort from outside. Omar conceded the mandate may be fractured but said nothing will drive him to an alliance with the BJP, which is making an audacious first-time bid for power in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Continue reading “Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah”

Essay, Kashmir, Telegraph Calcutta

Grave caged by Parray’s life

Kuka Parray's elder son Wasim at his graveside in Hajin
Kuka Parray’s elder son Wasim at his graveside in Hajin

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones – Julius Caesar , William Shakespeare

Hajin (North Kashmir), Dec. 4: Where Kuka Parray is interred an argument still rings between good and evil, between what he was and he was not.

Who’d argue with a daughter whose eyes moisten when she points in the direction of Parray’s grave and lets out a sigh: ” Meray Papa… my father.”

Who’d argue with the fathers and mothers of those that Parray’s men wantonly killed – “that traitor who preyed upon his own”.

Not a blade of grass springs on Parray’s graveside, much less a blossom; and birds don’t alight to sing. For a cage it is where he lies, a padlocked enclosure of mortar and wrought iron filigree erected on his front lawn, a stained general in his cold labyrinth.

He wouldn’t be safe elsewhere in a place under open skies. He denied himself the eternal liberties the way he lived and died.

Between folk singer and folk terror, Kuka Parray became a blistered chapter in Kashmir’s contemporary tales, a chapter nobody fondly recalls but nobody would wish to forget in this neck of the woods.

Continue reading “Grave caged by Parray’s life”

Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Lone’s unlikely asset in Valley – ‘No’, ‘yes’ and Modi

Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.
Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.

Handwara (north Kashmir), Dec. 1: Sajjad Lone is walking too many paradoxes to bother finessing them.

His political legacy is separatist but he is pushing for an elected mainstream ledge. His wife Asma is daughter to the Pakistan-based chairman of the JKLF, Amanullah Khan, but she is scurrying tirelessly around town and hamlet canvassing an Assembly seat for her husband.

His shadow ally in this militancy-infested border outpost is the “Hindu nationalist” Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. The taunt that has relentlessly trailed Sajjad’s campaign is: “Jo Modi kaa yaar hai, gaddar hai, gaddar hai (Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor, is a traitor).”

But if Sajjad’s adversaries — chief minister Omar Abdullah and challenger Mufti Mohammed Sayeed — believe they are embarrassing the People’s Conference (PC) leader with the Modi link, they are shooting north Kashmir’s grey chill.

Continue reading “Lone’s unlikely asset in Valley – ‘No’, ‘yes’ and Modi”

2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

The passing of Kashmiriyat – A quarter century on, mistrust busts an old myth

On Tuesday, Jammu and Kashmir casts the first vote in what’s probably its most consequential election in many decades.

The house of the Abdullahs, the first family of Kashmiri politics, is palpably in decline. A new “outsider” claimant to power — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP — is in dramatic surge.

he field is abuzz. Players like Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s PDP and Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference too are backing themselves in what is the most open contest the state has seen.

It is an election pregnant with implications, for India and for the region. What could it mean if the
BJP were to grab controlling stakes in India’s only Muslim-majority province? How will it impact relations with Pakistan, which occupies one chunk of Kashmir and is deeply and violently enmeshed in the affairs of the part India governs?

There is another, oft ignored, facet that this election could be about, a brutally plucked piece of the riven map of J&K — this is also the 25th anniversary year of the hounding of Kashmiri Pandits from their homes, a calamitous chapter that left a populace adrift and the Valley a radically altered space.

Kashmir’s Pandits restively await the end of exile. Is this election to be the herald of that hour? A status report on India’s unspoken Partition

Mun tu shudam
Tu mun shudi;
Man tan shudam
Tu jaan shudi;
Takas na goyad bod azeen
Mun deegaram
Tu deegaree

(I am You and You are me; I am your body, You are my soul; So none should hereafter say, I am someone and You someone else)

So singing out Amir Khusro’s sufi verse, Mohammed Sheikh Abdullah turned to embrace Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmiri Musalmaan to Kashmiri Pandit, in front of thousands gathered at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

It was November 2, 1947; the ink on Kashmir’s accession to India was only a week old. What followed would knock the stuffing off that sublime vow and render it a tattered feast for vultures.

Banihal, Nov. 24: This is an obituary notice that has long required posting: Kashmiriyat is dead.

But never mind, nobody’s shedding tears. Not least the standard-bearers of that celebrated covenant of syncretic concord and peaceable, if not also rich and festive, cohabitation.

A quarter century after they tore ties, suture upon suture, Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits have heckled Kashmiriyat to gory expiry. That achieved, they have dumped its cask and stomped off opposite ways to curse the faith they once together espoused.

The few that insist Kashmiriyat is still alive are stoking wishful rumour, frosted embers at the bottom of a kangri, the signature Kashmiri hotpot. Kashmiriyat? Then you must also believe the “Happy Valley” suffix to Kashmir isn’t a cynically deluded indulgence.

Down opposite sides of the Banihal Pass, up 9,291ft in the Pir Panjal bridgehead between Jammu and Kashmir, has come to prosper a migraine aspiring to become a civil war. If there is a broken truth on earth, it lies here, it lies here, it lies here.

The mouth of the Jawahar tunnel at Banihal Pass which links Jammu to the Kashmir Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The travesty is, there aren’t a more kindred people likely to be found — they come from common roots and genealogy, they kiss the same soil, eat the same food, speak the same language. But their conversation has become a grisly caterwaul ringing in the depths of the Jawahar Tunnel, a connector that has now become a divide three kilometres long.

Continue reading “The passing of Kashmiriyat – A quarter century on, mistrust busts an old myth”