People in Kashmir often say: “Better to die once and for all.”
The phrase is a sobering reminder of what ordinary people in Kashmir Valley underwent – and continue to – in the aftermath of the February 14 Pulwama attack in which more than 40 Indian CRPF soldiers lost their lives.
Amidst the additional deployment of thousands of soldiers in the Valley, the arrest of more than 150 Jamaat-e-Islami and other separatists, the authorities ordering hospitals to stock up with medicines and for immediately rationing petroleum products, a palpable sense of dread and confusion pervaded in Kashmir for weeks following the attack.
Was India preparing to go to war with Pakistan, or were they both just playing mind games?
Nobody was quite sure.
One day, at a nondescript snooker club on the outskirts of Srinagar, more than 20 of us gathered to share the latest information we’d come across on our WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
Gripped by panic, we settled down to discuss the recent developments taking shape in Kashmir and what the future could hold.
The snooker club transformed into a debate club that day.
Some of us sat on a long wooden table, some leaned against window sills, while others simply stood. The snooker balls lay scattered on the table in front of us. Nobody wanted to play.
The club – which is usually a raucous affair – wore an unusually quiet look.
A friend started off, saying, “Jets have been flying over us ever since last night; even thunderclaps sound like them! I think India and Pakistan will go to war.”
Disagreeing, another boy sitting next to me retorted, “They’re just creating war hysteria; they can’t go to war during the election season. It’s all about politics in Kashmir.”
“But whatever they’re doing, it’s stripping us of our sanity,” he added.
The seriousness in the hall precluded any frivolity. No one could help but think about the worsening situation around.
Suddenly, the door flew open and Faisal entered. Having just returned from a tuition class, he proceeded to inform us that the shops in town were closing down in protest against the spree of arrests carried out the night before.
More so, a huge caravan of busses had assembled at the city centre, leading to further confusion and half-baked presumptions.
“See? I told you something big is going down. It must be war!” exclaimed one of the boys.
“What’s going to happen now? Are we the next Afghanistan in the making?” remarked another boy standing in the back of the room.
“Yes, but why even bother panicking? Let them finish us once and for all; we’re fed up of dealing with the daily mental and physical violence. Let them bomb us all! Better dead than to live with haunted memories every day,” snapped the most calm and composed member of the group uncharacteristically.
“What kind of life is this? We’ve grown up burying coffins, seeing tears, bloodshed and violence. I wish I’d been born elsewhere – someplace peaceful. Is this the beauty they talk about? Don’t we have the right to live a peaceful life? To hell with those in the seats of power who are unwilling to initiate dialogue and make any effort towards resolving the dispute here,” he said.
Everyone in the room nodded their heads in agreement while listening intently.
“Every day is about cordon, search operations and houses being razed to the ground. This is worse than hell,” he continued. “We’re neither safe in our homes nor anywhere else,” he said, referring to the recent harassment of Kashmiri students in different parts of the country.
That day, I saw my compatriots willing to die rather than to live in what everyone else, barring them, calls ‘paradise on Earth’.
Following a short pause, Faisal’s phone rang. He picked it up with utmost conventionality.
“Every time it’s the same: ‘come home soon’,” said Faisal, defeatedly responding to his mother’s call of concern.
“It’s the same with all of us,” shot back another youngster who sat upon the wooden table.
“See, the government has to understand that politics is not all about the rituals of elections, political campaigning and trumpeting its own successes to score points. There should be an environment of debate, discussion and dialogue in a peaceful setting, yet here they are: bulldozing our right to think or have ideas different than theirs. They don’t understand the value of human life and are clearly more concerned about cattle and their sheds,” Faisal said.
“Look at students our age outside Kashmir. They’re passionate about what they do and aspire to do something with their lives. What do we have? Internet shutdowns, power cuts and water cuts… What wrong have we done to deserve this?”
Another boy chimed in: “We are trapped in a cycle where they [regional and national politicians] do their dirty politics at the expense of innocent lives. Have a look around – we’re so inescapably chained to this game of politics. Schools, universities, marriage functions, picnic spots and other events and locations have all been co-opted as spaces of political deliberation. I see kids no older than 12-years-old discussing India, Pakistan and Kashmir in my school. Where are we heading? We even have people turning to drugs as a result of being constantly stressed about the political situation.”
Before we could just carry on the discussion, the sky outside had already turned dark. It was already close to seven in the evening, and time to make our way home.
As we stood to leave, Faisal offered a few last words: “It’s an achievement itself that we’re still sensible and maintain ourselves with dignity even after being constantly stressed – stressed about yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
The cue sticks would have to wait for another day to be picked up again.
Sheikh Saqib is a 19-year-old writer based in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Image credit: IceBone/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)