The first time I came to Kashmir, I heard it more than once that every street in Kashmir has seen bloodshed, every family has multiple experiences of tragedy. Every bridge, architecture and river has been a silent witness to the bloody past and present of Kashmir. But in my short stay I did not get the time to fully grasp and experience this narrative of the people.
On my second visit, as I was looking for potential themes to work on, I got to know that the video team from my workplace is shooting a video to document the memories of the survivors of Gaw Kadal Massacre, 1990.
I did not know about this massacre, but my immediate learning was that it’s one of the bloodiest massacres that took place in Kashmir, and is often compared to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in India under English occupation, where the people were trapped and fired upon. Little did I know, that what I was about to uncover, would shake my world.
Not wanting to just read about it from the internet, I requested the editor to join the video team while they shoot. I wanted to meet the natives who were either eyewitnesses of the massacre, or were in close range when the carnage took place.
The thoughts of what I would uncover, and how brutal it could be, and what effect would it have on the way I see myself, India, and Kashmir, I did not know.
I met the video guys on a cold winter morning, near the Gaw Kadal bridge. Kadal in itself means bridge in Kashmiri. The bridge, one of the many that cut across the river Jhelum, connects two part of the old town Srinagar, one of the oldest cities in the world, with artifacts discovered here from the neolithic period.
The Siberian chill in the wind and the slow winter fatigue of Jhelum did not make it easy for someone like me, from the humid subtropical plains of Bengal.
Initially, it was hard to find people who were either eyewitnesses, or part of the procession on which Indian paramilitary forces opened fire, resulting in the first massacre of post armed-rebellion Kashmir. Many that we did manage to locate, were either too afraid to speak up, fearing a government backlash, didn’t want to recall horrific memories of trauma once again.
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Moving from location to location, talking and negotiating with the contacts my crew had built, we finally managed to convince a few people to appear before the camera. Some were eager to talk, as therapy maybe, about their traumatic memory of that fateful day.
Thus started my knowledge building, from the day that served as a catalyst of the long and gruesome evolution of the movement for freedom, that the people of Kashmir would witness in later years.
“We were not used to the sound of guns then, as we are now, at least not machine guns. The rat-a-tat of the machine gun startled me,” narrated Shakeel Ahmed sitting in his auto-repair shop in Gaw Kadal, Srinagar. His drifting eyes, searching for words to describe a day when he was just a twenty-four-year-old youth, being exposed to the brutality of occupation.
Fayaz Ahmad Najar was sitting in his home, listening to the radio commentary of Australia-Pakistan test series when the sudden sound of guns made him look down his window. He can never forget what he witnessed. A blood-stained street, people clamoring to run away from the firing Indian troopers. Some trying to take shelter in nearby homes. People who were close to the firing range, either pretending to be dead, lying down on dead bodies and putting their blood on them, or jumping in the freezing water of Jhelum.
In the events leading up to the massacre, a protest rally was organised by the people, against the unwarranted raids, beating up of civilians and molestation charges, a night before in the nearby area of Chota Bazaar.
What is now a regular occurrence in present day Kashmir, was very new for the civilians here then. Angered by sudden raids, with forces barging into homes, in this Muslim majority place, the people rallied against this violation of their human rights. A protest rally on January 21 January 1990, was organised, ripe with the slogans for Azadi (Independence). When the procession reached the Gaw Kadal area, the CRPF, without any warning fired on the unarmed protesting crowd, “creating a situation similar to the Jallianwala Bagh,” says the local, aware of invisiblisation of their history, as opposed to a more Indian reference, taught in their history books.
“We sheltered many people in our homes. There was curfew for the next three days. We had to tend to the wounded ourselves. Some of us could sneak out of our homes and bring medical supplies from the nearby hospital. They did not let the people go out, so even getting medical help was difficult. In the absence of doctors, we had to secretly bring in some veterinaries to look after the wounded. They could finally go home after three days,” concluded Shakeel Ahmed.
“Aapko kya lagta hai? Hota hai hamare sath zulm?” (What do you think? Are we oppressed?) was a question thrown to me by a teary-eyed wife of a survivor who escaped being shot from a very close range.
During the assignment, one of my teammates asked me how does it feel to be on the same street where scores were either killed or injured for protesting for their rights? I scanned the very mundane normal looking street and I had to imagine Kashmiris getting killed or pretending to be dead. I looked at the Jhelum, into which many of the protestors had jumped in the frozen winter, to escape the firing soldiers, and instead had met death from the very river which they thought would protect them.
I had to try hard to imagine and feel that, and it would send a chill though my spine.
As opposed to the Minars and Memorial stones commemorating the Jallianwala Bagh massacre victims, there are no signs which would stir some emotions in the people, to commemorate those who were victims of one of the bloodiest massacre in the history of Kashmiri struggle for independence.
It is visibly clear, that this is history that the state wants to wipe out from public memory. Maybe in the name of development and urban planning, the whole area will be revamped, like building structures on top of mass graves, in some parts of Kashmir.
Through invisibilizing their death, a part of the movement is being annihilated from the history of Kashmir. The students here read about Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but are forced to forget Gaw Kadal.
‘The Bridge of no return’ has metamorphosed into a busy street, with fading memory from the public conscience, of a ‘preferably silenced’ population.
Utsa Sarmin is a research scholar from Cambridge University, United Kingdom. She has completed her M.Phil in development studies.
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