That dry December day when trees were stripped of their entire splendorous honor, standing naked to the bone in piercing chilly winds, as if put to a torture technique often practiced by Indian soldiers as a persecution starter on common Kashmiris. That kind of day when winter school holidays had already set in, some kind of pervasive frigid cloak seemed to gradually envelope the city yet there was no trace of snow. My school exams were just over and post-winter options were being evaluated at home. Those laid out winter days, when foot prints on dew stayed longer than on other days, some kind of a lull in Srinagar seemed to have been broken by strange and eerie silences.
On one of these motionless and cold evenings, scores of youth from around the city were seen converging towards Bohri Kadal chowk, the centre of downtown. In fading lights of the evening I too slipped out from home, flowing along the rush amidst these crowds amassing in anticipation of the unknown, like a river in spate not sure of the course it would take or the bank it would breach. It was in this flow of seemingly endless stream of people I met ‘R’ near Naidkadal. He was already a known senior journalist with a video news magazine. The taxi that ‘R’ had been travelling in, while covering the events was suddenly taken over by sloganeering enthusiastic youth; the roof of taxi almost giving in under their scramble. While ‘R’ and his camera team preferred to walk alongside, the pitch of young men reverberated over lost groans of the taxi driver. Later as the cold and dry December evening started to bite wintry and the crowds realized there was nothing more to expect this evening, they thinned. We walked further ahead the meandering Nallamar road that turned to its left towards Khanyar, just close to the spot where the government had not long ago in memory brutally killed scores of civilians over electricity protests, the city was already turning into a ghost town. Crowds we left behind, melted to enveloping darkness and Kashmir kept awake to an uncertain night.
A couple of days back (December 8th, 1989) Rubiya Syed, daughter of the then Indian home minister Mufti Mohammad Syed had been kidnapped by rebels owing allegiance to JKLF. Rubiya Syed an intern doctor at the local maternity hospital had been forced from a matador near her Nowgam home in city outskirts and whisked away into a waiting Maruti car. JKLF had been demanding the release of 5 people against the release of home minister’s daughter. While all this was happening in Kashmir, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had been holidaying in London. For years there had been growing undercurrents of rebellion in Kashmir against New Delhi’s political handling of Kashmir and the apathy of local governments. And the ‘87 rigging of elections had already added more fuel to the prevalent anti Delhi sentiment, followed by alleged widespread torture of opposition MUF cadres. Reportedly after the kidnapping of Rubiya Syed, senior IB officials including Ved Marwah (then Director General NSG) had landed in Kashmir to handle the situation even before Farooq Abdullah had come back.
By the dimming lights of Khanyar square, shopkeepers had downed early shutters and fled to an abandoned evening, with the exception of a lone commodity store by the left bend that turned towards Hazratbal. Interestingly this small store, that in a low ceiling that sunk before the rising road level, in later years acted as some sort of an evening beacon for frightened travelers of a spirit stripped dark city even during the peak of turmoil, daring to remain open on most solitary evenings except the ones when murderous men in military fatigues ran over everything and massacred. Under these dimming lights of the square ‘R’ expressed a need for local support in his story and decided that we meet again tomorrow morning at Broadway hotel, and by afternoon next day I was already a part of his team. Nothing much filtered out on this day; the government was not coming out with anything and the crowds in downtown continued pouring in endless streams, like a river in spate likely to break its banks, drowning everything with it.
Next day it came to fore that a senior journalist from Kashmir was negotiating between JKLF and the government, (later joined in the negotiations by Justice ML Bhat, who was a friend of Mufti Mohammad Syed). Each passing day the crowds started getting bigger in the city square, resonating expressions of anger against the state and slowly opening up voices of dissent. The rare press briefing held at the police control room yielded not much information. It was after one of such briefings, as journalists had retreated to hotels for lunch, a fleeting rumor was passed on to us; two very senior police officials might have been discussing the possibility of a preemptive strike to free the hostage and minutes after their highly confidential meeting had ended the ‘interlocutor’ had called up one of the senior officials “don’t even think of doing that (what you discussed in the confidential meeting)”. The stunned senior security official left stone-faced and at a loss of reaction, called up the other senior officer in disgust “surely one among us is to blame (for the leak)!”
The hotel lobby had become a virtual hub of journalists following this story, each trying to prey on any lead the other may have and each holding close to chest any information they might have sniffed. On the second afternoon during lunch ‘R’ took me aside and pointed to this gentleman in medium height, wheatish complexion with a receding hairline “beware of him!”. Right after lunch the same gentleman approached ‘R’ and exchanged pleasantries with him, trying unsuccessfully drawing him into a longish conversation about events. Late in the evening while we were coming back from downtown, ‘R’ suddenly asked to take a detour from our routine way to hotel. We had taken a totally different path and when back in there a nervous ‘R’ surprised us “Mr.*** (the gentleman in medium height, wheatish complexion with a receding hairline) may look like an innocuous reporter but I am sure he is a mole. We need to secure all our tapes away from the hotel”. The tapes were carefully wrapped and it was decided that I secure them at my home. The taxi dropped me home past midnight, driving over empty roads that had been taken over by howling dogs chasing filtering shadows of the odd street lights. Surely ‘R’ knew something about this ‘reporter’ that we didn’t know, which in later years dawned on me was a norm with Indian agencies scattering ‘plants’ in Kashmir in guises or under cloaked patronage. Then there was this north Indian ‘journalist’ at the hotel who had a ‘successful stint’ in reporting Punjab insurgency and now had flown down (two days after most journalists arrived here) to report on December ’89 incidents in Kashmir. I never saw this ‘journalist’ rush to downtown for reporting or observing the events there, often found him rushing away from the centre of these events to unknown but seemingly opposite directions than ground zero. Years later came to fore that he might have been another ‘national interest reporter’. There was also this lady who somehow in later days got a whiff that we were arranging for an interview with militants and one evening stopped me by her room, from where the ‘national interest reporter’ left as I was walking the corridor, requesting me to help her in arranging such an interview. “We are friends” she tried to tell me, extended her hand from an evening gown. Sweat breaking on my forehead like scattered beads, I stammered, excused right from the door and paced away.
By 13th December early morning Indian ministers I K Gujral and Arif Mohammad Khan flew to Kashmir to break the deadlock. The inertia of local governance that had for years been left at the mercy of an indifferent aristocracy was pushed aside by New Delhi; something was surely moving now within the Indian government and there were feelers that deal had been reached somewhere. By afternoon the tempo in downtown Srinagar was escalating, a deluge of people swarming from all sides converged on this city square. We took vantage positions over the concrete slab of shopping lines on the eastern wing of Bohri Kadal square, close to where the roads led to Nowhatta. Suddenly from among the sea of people a lean keffiyeh donning young man climbed the dysfunctional tall central streetlight of this town square, and hoisted a light green and red flag; the crowds erupted to roars and slogans. The air was electrifying as rallying cries of the crowd pierced everything else. Within some minutes as another young man tried to scale the tall dead light, reached midway and hoisted one more flag, the crowd lost boundaries, erupting in defiance. ‘R’ grappled what angle to shoot from ; ‘there’, ‘here’, ‘swarming crowds’ ‘that sloganeering’, his cameraman a south Indian of sturdy but short build could not keep pace. Those were days of the U-matic media (20 minutes each), where professional cameras weighed a ton, unlike the present day compact palm held digital formats. Hence maneuvering such equipment did not come easy.
At around half past five, there was commotion on the northern side of the square, the road that led to Saraf Kadal; suddenly from among the crowd a young man raised a pistol in the air and shot four or five rounds of celebratory fire. The crowds went into frenzy and amid sloganeering the young man was raised on shoulders, unending hands reached from the crowd to greet and touch him. We cried desperately “are you getting the frame!” ; the cameraman had seemingly lost the shot. As this young man suddenly evaporated within the crowd, minutes later farther down south of the square crowds had spotted somebody and there was a mad rush as the boys were tearing to have a glimpse. We ran through the crowd, south side, behind the mosque courtyard, over the stone paved steps of back street, down three steps, turning right, squeezing through the green collapsible grill that led through this chaos to the green mosque courtyard. We ran over the narrow mosque ladder, pushing our way and to direct sight of the cheering crowds who had this young man raised on shoulders. Amid unrelenting slogans and cheers, some boys were passing bits of paper scribbled in haste; some were jostling and pushing to shake hands or to simply touch him, flowing with this deluge. ‘Ashfaq Saeba’ somebody cried, ‘Bhaijana’ (dear brother) came from the other side. An old man from within the mosque courtyard, standing by the edge of a shop slab that extended from the fringe of this mosque courtyard, with a white flowing beard, creaseless milky white dress and a embroidered white cap shouted ‘khudayas kermaev havaale’ (May God be with you); a sea was out there as he merged unknown into this tide. Meanwhile confirmation came that the rebels had been freed at around 5:00 PM (reportedly near Saraf Kadal and they had silently melted away into the maze of Downtown) and Rubiya Syed two hours later. As evening engulfed over the city, the square was still not dark, celebratory crowds were living the night in roaring chorus of defiance. And the old man with the white flowing beard was already standing on the podium near the flag hoisted dysfunctional tall central streetlight of the town square, raising his fists high among the sea of people, shouting slogans of freedom; the old man’s voice perched high among the defiant crowd ‘hum kya chahte Azadi’ (what do we seek? Freedom). There were women clinging to ornamental latticed windows of old cluttered downtown houses, homes that had lost their shadows to a leaning rapturous evening, responding to every slogan that came from the town square “Azadi”. A city had suddenly woken up from a long enforced coma. Rubiya Syeed had been freed and so had been the spirit of defiance.
As I dragged over a seemingly unending night, I kept wondering about the pieces of paper that many enthusiastic youth had scribbled and passed on to ‘Ashfaq’. By morning the pieces of this puzzle fell into place; lured by dissidence and fed up with an anarchic state, scores of young men in the crowd had been scribbling their names and details with requests to be enlisted in the separatist movement. Voices that had been muted for long enough, had suddenly found a vent in resistance. Ashfaq Majeed was one of the pioneers of rebel movement in Kashmir, from the famous ‘HAJY’ group of JKLF. Ashfaq known to be a bright student, studied in one of well known schools of Kashmir, Tyndale Biscoe School (my alma mater) and later in SP College. New Delhi’s denial of political rights to Kashmir over decades, his personal experiences in ’87 rigged elections and the extreme state torture of opposition activists that followed, led him to the rebel movement. Ashfaq was killed on 30th March 1990. The old man of the city square with the white flowing beard and embroidered whit cap was once known to have been a staunch supporter of the ruling party, but disillusioned with decades of political deceit played in Kashmir, cherished the ‘Azadi’ dream; later reportedly was killed in the Hawal massacre (May 21st 1990).
Kashmir was never to be the same again.
(12 Dec 2013)
Courtesy: From the blog of Saadut