Of anger, ballot and tombstones: A Mumbai scribe’s day out in Srinagar

Lok Sabha elections might be over in the valley, but the response it drew is still being debated. Here, in a first person narrative, a Mumbai-based journalist writes about his latest interactions and impressions in Srinagar.

Tulips were in full bloom, when I arrived in Srinagar to cover Lok Sabha elections this past April. Unlike in mainland India, the polls were a quiet affair and understandably so—because post-Pulwama, the valley had been grappling with different security permutations and combinations.

It didn’t take me much time to understand how years of atrocities, violence, and rights abuses in the bright green valley of Himalayas has created a unyielding generation of youngsters, which is the disturbing new reality of Kashmir.

For me, the face of that new reality was young Ashfaque.

In his mid-twenties, the soft-spoken young man — sporting a full-grown beard and carrying a slightly-built body-frame — answered with a smile, but used metaphors to register his anger, which was directed at the politicians, the humiliation and the siege.

I was soon away from the troubled city’s chaos—close to a neighborhood of timber and brick homes in old Srinagar. This is where, Eidgah, an open space for Eid prayers, lies—spaciously haunting.

Once a paddy field, it’s mostly a dusty playground now. After the emergence of insurgency in 1989, this place became the home of conflict casualties. Rows of tombstones of deceased, as old as 2-years and as old as 72, are part of the cemetery known as ‘Mazar-e-Shouda’.

A tombstone at the Martyr’s Graveyard in Eidgah. (FPK Photo/Aaquib Khan)

“Kashmiris can forgive but they’ll not forget what has happened to them,” Ashfaque said, as we sat to talk.

Srinagar’s poll mood was reluctant. Yet, in some pockets, banners and buntings showed some local unionists wearing smiling faces. In rest of Srinagar, hardly anyone gave two-hoots about the so-called democratic display.

The mood stayed indifferent, even as life-sized billboards, TV promotions urged Kashmiris to come out of their home and exercise their “democratic right”—the right to vote!

“Political parties in Kashmir are New Delhi’s sub-contractors,” Ashfaque said. “What the military cannot do directly, they do it with a civilian face.”

On the day of polling, Srinagar looked like a curfewed city. Fear of some unprecedented incident was in air. Armed forces were guarding bridges and roads amidst the snow-laden mountains. A few media vans stood outside the deserted polling booths. Hardly any voter was visible, except some in the select few pockets, with unionist sway.

FPK Photo/Aaquib Khan

By evening, these pockets had taken the overall voter percentage of city at around 7%.

“Kashmir has never seen democracy,” Ashfaque told me. “New Delhi is conducting these elections in a conflict zone to impress upon United Nations that Kashmiris are with us, which is a farce.”

From a distance, the fenced cemetery looked like a green patch of land. The graves bloomed with fresh grass, irises, white and purple coloured flowers. Verses from the Quran, couplets of Urdu and Persian poems about the martyrs were on full display in the cemetery. Every epitaph is grained with the word Shaheed—martyr—over them.

Outside the graveyard, besides the larger remaining part of the prayer ground, children played cricket and youth learned driving bike or car. Some of them were of the age of those buried in the cemetery.

Here, the dead and the alive live together.

But in decade-long repression in the valley, many seem to have lost all hope, and all fear.

Referring to the latest heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, Khurram Pervez, Srinagar-based Human rights activist, said that youngsters like Adil Ahmad Dar—the suicide bomber who brought India and Pakistan on the brink—wasn’t merely a “brainwashed” young man, who decided to blow himself overnight.

FPK Photo/Aaquib Khan

“If you permanently choke political space and do not allow people to organize peaceful political programs and rallies what are you actually investing in? You’re pushing people to the wall and forcing them to join militancy,” the rights activist said. “So is Government of India not responsible for this?”

It’s in this backdrop that educated and politically-conscious youngsters like Ashfaque are being moulded around the stories of violence and betrayal. They’re living an undignified life under the shadow of Bandook and barracks.

And that’s why, for them, election is just a gimmick.


 Aaquib Khan is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Mumbai, India. He tweets @kaqibb


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