Conflict

When I saw Conrad’s ‘incomprehensible desolation’ in Kulgam

Even as the upcoming Lok Sabha elections have resumed unionist political activities in parts of south Kashmir, Kulgam’s desolated imagery tells some other story. Here, a Kashmiri journalist narrates his impressionable interactions on the ground.

As he popped another pill—this time, a painkiller, with a sip of Noon Chai, he took a long-blank look at the front wall inside his murky room. His wasted appearance gave away his tormented trial and traumatic experience. He took his time to tell how he grapples with his 2016 summertime dungeon flashbacks, recreating his “harrowing” ordeal, over and over again.

Three years later, this 16-year-old Class 10 student frets over the menacing military movement in his countryside domicile and doesn’t want to recall his brushes with operational forces. “Stripped bare,” he reluctantly said, on a somber note, defying the sense of a normal conversation, “they lashed on my back and buttocks with belts. But I bit one of them on his hand when they talked dirty about my mother. Then, they all beat me ruthlessly, until I fainted.”

Next day, Mudasir had opened his eyes in SMHS hospital, in a bed, with his weeping mother besides him.

“My body was burning, as if I was inside an anthill,” he recalled. “I still feel that sensation all over my body. That’s why I take too many medicines.”

***

That summer, Kulgam witnessed massive protests and processions over the passage of the lionized insurgent commander, Burhan Wani. As soon as he fell along with his two associates in south Kashmir’s non-decrepit hamlet on July 8, 2016, the likes of Mudasir rocked the streets with protests.

Soon the trail of anger would make some southern parts a no-go-zone. But eventually, as another seething summer thawed in the valley, the forces intensified crackdown against dissenters. And soon, Mudasir was dragged to the dungeon.

Representational Picture.

Since then, Kulgam has witnessed an overwhelming situation.

Many youngsters—some of whom had protested in 2016—picked up arms and were subsequently killed in different gunfights. As insurgent ranks swelled despite Op All Out, Kulgam witnessed an emergence of new military installations. These command posts are now enforcing a renewed military writ in the region.

One of these camps has a message for Kulgam folks: “Best among you are the peaceful—Prophet Muhammad.”

The green poster is tacked on the main gate of Redwani army camp, established in 2018, on the main road connecting the village with the main town.

The major processions post-2016 would pass through this route. And in the summer of 2018, say the villagers, the camp was established to check the ‘anti-India rallies’.

***

Mudasir’s mother looked at him longingly, craving for his well-being, with tears in her eyes. “Son, see what has become of him,” she told me, sobbing. “He’s just a kid, but takes so many medicines like an ailing old man. The torture swallowed him whole.”

The only child of his parents, Mudasir wants to become a businessman after earning an MBA degree. He attends tuitions daily, travelling thirteen kilometres to town. His movements, however, are under “watch”.

Facing regular summons, he said, he tried to tell cops in past that he’s a ‘normal student’ who wants to study.

“But they think I’m dangerous,” he said, still struggling to strike a normal conversation.

***

In the interiors of Kulgam, the masked cops were searching identity cards and other documents. Weather-beaten paramilitary lay scattered all over the landscape, mostly behind drop-gates and stringent checkpoints.

In the side mirror of my car, I saw an iron hoarding near the barricade, on which, in large bold font, was written: WELCOME TO KULGAM.

Half an hour later, I stopped at the cricket ground in Churat village, where three civilians—Showket Ahmed Yatoo, Neelofar Shah and Sayida Mir—were shot dead by armed forces during the uprising in 2016.

“What’s there to write about?” a group of boys playing cricket match asked me. “We’re tired of talking to the media persons. Doesn’t the world already know what’s happening in Kashmir?”

Churat village. (FPK Photo/Nayeem Rather)

Since Pulwama attack, one among them said, “our homes are being raided. What’s the fun of talking to you when you can’t even report such obvious harassment!” The anger in his tone was palpable, so was the barking comment on the state of affairs in the valley.

***

Back home, Mudasir wants summons to end. They remind him of his tortured past, he said. “And later my head aches for the whole day,” he gave me a blank, helpless look of someone caught in a vicious cycle. “All I want is to study. But I don’t know how to overcome this humiliation, which is making me think of committing suicide…”

He quickly earned a reprimand of his mother for mentioning the word—suicide, “for it’s the weapon of weak,” she put up a stern face.

He silently sipped his salt tea, flashing thoughtful expressions. In his nonchalant state, Mudasir conveyed his loud sense of defenselessness.

Quite often, notably, police and allied agencies justify such summons as their “regular task” to check dissent and disturbance. But the past, many reckon, is often being invoked to cripple the present, which, in turn, “creates a cul-de-sac” situation for youngsters like Mudasir.

***

From the cricket field, I was now heading towards the village of Kral-e-Gund, where a tea-seller, Mashooq Ahmed Sheikh was killed in 2016.

The road was zigzag — uphill here, downhill there. There was eerie silence all around. A tall hill, with an Indian flag atop it, rose in front of me. A camp of the Indian Army’s counterinsurgent wing Rashtriya Rifles lay stationed there, overlooking the village, akin to a watchtower. Besides the hill, a trail of conifer trees lays solemn—forming a wall, tapered slowly on its both ends, until it ended into a stream.

“That day a stream of blood had flown out of his heart,” began Zareefa Begum, Mashooq’s widowed mother. “He was hit right here in the middle of his heart. He was my eldest son and married only a year before. He left behind a daughter, who was only four-month-old when he was killed.”

Mother of Mashooq Ahmed Sheikh showing her slain son’s picture. In the foreground is Sheikh’s orphaned daughter. (FPK Photo/Nayeem Rather)

Now three-year-old, Mashooq’s orphan, Zuha Jan hasn’t smiled for long, Zareefa continued. “She keeps asking about her father, and we keep telling her that babies are born without fathers. I don’t know what to tell her. But eventually, one day, she’ll know what happened to her father.”

***

Mudasir walked me outside his home, which lies in the middle of paddy fields, on the periphery of the village. I strolled on the narrow paths, and furrowed field. The horizon ahead was grey with clouds.

“Can you feel it?” he quizzed me.

“Yes, I can,” I replied, matter-of-factly.

“You see, I always feel this sense of fear. I feel it’s in the air, in the fields, in the trees and inside me…”

At the end of the fields, Mudasir pointed towards the road and was about to say goodbye.

“Keep your ID card with you and go back home before it is dark,” he told me.

Then, he made a parting remark, and stunned me: “Someday, if I don’t die, come and meet me again!”

A few fleeting seconds later, as I looked back, I saw him walking, a lonely figure, in the vast paddy fields, until his silhouette disappeared.

***

Suddenly it went dark. The clouds, which had been assembling slowly, abruptly invaded the sky.

By early sundown, the streets turn deserted in this part of the world. And soon after the evening prayers, the villagers close the gates and remain inside. “Fear reigns in this area,” a youth in Redwani told me. “The elders say that it’s worse than the nineties.”

The desolation on the road made the surroundings darker. I circumvented through a dilapidated road, with mud-drenched trees. It took me twenty minutes more to reach the village of my friend.

After dinner, my friend’s brother, shared his backyard suffering with me. Four days ago, he said, while playing cricket in the village-field, a group of army men, on patrol, were jeered by some kids.

“They chased the kids but didn’t catch anyone,” he said, as the silent evening intermittingly rattled by dog barks became daunting.

“Later, they marched towards us. They rounded us all, around 30 boys, and beat us with gun butts and stumps, leaving some of us with fractured arms and legs.”

At a place where a school principal returns home—tortured and dead—such instances, perhaps, hardly bat an eyelid now.

Army camp in Redwani.

As evening passed into night, the village appeared haunting, reminding me of Joseph Conrad’s descriptions of African bush at night in his novels. And the only word that came to my mind, to describe the night, was again one of the most used words of Conrad—incomprehensible desolation.

After a while, we went out to have a smoke on the balcony. We lit two, and hid the burning ends of cigarettes with our palms. We didn’t want the red flicker being noticed.

On the other side of the village, the dogs began to bark. We dragged in haste, puff after puff, and extinguished the cigarettes, half finished. We scurried like two frightened cats into the room, turned off the light and began to talk, almost in whispers. Outside, the dogs kept barking, sometimes fiercely, sometimes slowly.

Next morning, I was heading home, with a local engineering student. “Lately they began to install new camps at different locations, temporarily, depending upon the area they want to control at a particular time,” he said. “As far as I understand the geography of this area, they’ve divided the district into numerous sections. Each section has a base camp somewhere in the middle. And twenty to thirty villages encircle the smaller camp, forming a perfect circle. And in the circles are people, trapped.”

Back home, finally, I was wondering about Mudasir, the boys in the cricket field, Mashooq’s mother and his orphan, and my friend’s brother and his beaten sporting brethren. So many traumatic tales, of so many tormented lives, trailed by just one dogged conflict.

 

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