I was born in winter in Kashmir. My village sat at the edge of a southern mountain range. Paddy fields, green in early summer, golden by autumn, surrounded the cluster of mud and brick houses.
In winter, snow slid slowly from our conical tin roof and fell on our lawn with a thud. My younger brother and I made snowmen. The footprints we left on our lawn would blur slowly, like pleasant memories, and when our mother was busy with some household chore and our grandfather was away, we would rush to the roof, break off the icicles, and mix them with milk and sugar to make ice cream. We would slide down the slope of the hill overlooking our neighborhood or play cricket on the frozen waters of a pond nearby. Sometimes my grandfather would scold us on his way home from work. As a schoolmaster, he was dreaded as if he were a military or a paramilitary man—not only by his own grandchildren but by every child in the village, and at his familiar bark the cricket players would scatter and disappear.
On those cold afternoons, Grandfather sat with most men of our neighborhood on the shop fronts. They warmed themselves with portable firepots called kangri, gossiping or discussing how that year’s snowfall would affect the mustard crop in spring; though my grandfather had a job in a government school, like most other villagers he depended on agriculture to supplement his income. After the muezzin gave the call for afternoon prayers, the men left the shop fronts, fed the cattle at home, and gathered in the mosque. Almost everyone prayed at the mosque in winter—it was a warm place.
My family’s house was by the roadside. We would stare out at the tourist buses passing by. Multicolored, the buses carried people from faraway places like Delhi and Calcutta and also many angrez, the word for “English” and our only word for Westerners. I would later learn how to tell exactly where they came from. They were interesting; some had very long hair and some shaved their heads. Some rode big motorbikes and at times were half naked. I once asked a neighbor who worked in a hotel, “Why do the angrez travel and we do not?” “Because they are angrez and we are not,” he said. But I worked it out. They had to travel to see Kashmir; we lived here and did not need to travel. We waved at them; they waved back.
Kashmir was the biggest of the approximately 500 princely states under British sovereignty as of 1947. It was predominantly Muslim but ruled by a Hindu maharaja, Hari Singh; his counterpart was a popular socialist leader named Shaikh Abdullah Mohammed, who sought an independent Kashmir. When British India was violently partitioned into India and Pakistan, both Singh and Shaikh Abdullah sought time before deciding Kashmir’s fate. In October 1947, however, tribesmen from the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan, supported by the Pakistani army, invaded Kashmir, forcing their hand; Singh decided to join India, and Shaikh Abdullah, who was a friend of the new Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, supported him. In January 1949, the fighting stopped after the UN endorsed a ceasefire line. It still divides Kashmir into Pakistan-controlled and India-controlled parts, and is now known as the Line of Control (LoC).
The agreement of accession that Hari Singh signed with India in October 1947 gave Kashmir great autonomy. India controlled only defense, foreign affairs, and telecommunications. Kashmir had its own constitution and flag; the heads of its local government were called the President and the Prime Minister. Gradually, this autonomy disappeared. In 1953, India jailed Shaikh Abdullah, who was now Kashmir’s prime minister, after he implemented a radical land reform and gave a speech suggesting the possibility of an independent Kashmir. In the following decades India installed puppet rulers, eroded the legal status of Kashmiri autonomy, and ignored the democratic rights of the Kashmiris. Shaikh remained in jail for twenty years, after which he finally broke down and signed a compromise with the Indian government. Twelve years later, in 1987, the Indian government rigged state elections, arresting opposition candidates and terrorizing their supporters. An opposition polling agent named Yasin Malik crossed over into Pakistan with some friends and began to receive arms training.
The next year, at the age of 12, I was sent to boarding school in a small town, Aishmuqam, seven miles from my village. I was terrible at sports and spent long hours in the library reading British and American adventure novels. In December 1989 I returned home for the holidays. That month, a group of Kashmiri militants led by Yasin Malik kidnapped the daughter of the Indian home minister. It was the beginning of the militant phase of the Kashmiri independence movement.
Instead of the regular village gossip people talked about militants, freedom, and processions. Indian troops opened fire on a demonstration in Srinagar, killing dozens. After prayers and before the recitation of darood, people made spontaneous speeches and shouted slogans of aazadi—Persian for independence. In retrospect, it seemed that Shaikh Abdullah was a traitor. In Srinagar, mobs tried to dig up his grave.
One day a young man from our village who worked in Srinagar gave a speech at the mosque. He grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Kabiran kabira!” The slogan meant, “Who is the greatest?” But no one understood. None of us spoke Arabic. He shouted again and there was silence—then the adolescents in the last row began to laugh. Embarrassed, the young man explained that in reply to the slogan people were supposed to shout, “Allah o akbar!” (God is great.) He shouted again, “Kabiran kabira!” He was answered with a hesitant, awkward “Allah o akbar.” For about a year after, we teased him.
That winter began my political education. It took the form of acronyms: JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front), JKSLF (Jammu and Kashmir Students Liberation Front), BSF (Border Security Force), CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force). To go with these I learned new phrases: frisking, crackdown, bunker, search, identity card, arrest, and torture.
That winter, too, busloads of Kashmiri youth went to border towns and crossed over to Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir for arms training. They returned as militants carrying Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, light machine guns, and rocket launchers issued by Pakistan. The whole of Kashmir was on the streets raising slogans of freedom. war till victory was graffitied everywhere in Kashmir; it was painted alongside another slogan, self-determination is our birthright, on the brick wall of my school building. In the lunch break between math and English class, my friends and I shared stories of militancy. Someone would have seen a militant and he would tell us how the militant styled his hair, what clothes and shoes he wore, and how many days he said it would be before we had our freedom.
The best story was about the magical Kalashnikov. Made in Russia, a gift from Pakistan, it was known to have powers greater than Aladdin’s lamp. “It is as small as a hand and shoots two hundred bullets.” “No! It is as long as a cricket bat and fires fifty bullets in a minute.” “My brother touched a Kalashnikov, he says it is very light. He told Mother that he wanted to become a militant. She cried, and Father slapped him.”
My roommate Pervez told me there were many militants in his village and they wore beautiful green uniforms. One afternoon, we were in the football field when a militant passed by. Even our snooty games teacher went up to him, smiled, and shook hands. Encouraged, we gathered around. “Can we see your gun, please?” Pervez said. He was the center forward, beaming in his blue tracksuit, and he could not resist asking. The militant took off his loose pheran and showed us his gun. “We call it Kalashnikov and Indians call it AK-47,” the militant said. We clapped. From then on we all carried our cricket bats inside our pherans, in imitation and preparation.
The next morning before the school assembly, the seniors told us not to chant the Indian national anthem. “We are Kashmiris and now we are fighting for independence. We cannot go on chanting the Indian songs, even if the principal might like us to.” The principal, Gulab Chand Sharma, was a tiny man from Rajasthan. He liked to eat raw peas and practice yoga. At the assembly, the students refused to chant the Indian anthem. Gulab Sharma was hurt. He talked about the Indian struggle for freedom from the British and how a lot of the students who had joined it had paid the highest price. Pervez, who stood next to me, simply giggled.
Some months later, a group of seniors boarded the local bus to Srinagar and from there took another bus to a northern border town, Kupwara. There they met representatives from the militants. Some were sent back because they were too small, but others crossed the high snowy mountains (they are part of the Himalayas) of the Line of Control. They trained in small arms and returned to fight the Indian armed forces. I was 14, too small to go, but how I longed to join them. We had to fight for freedom, and every man who died fighting the Indian armed forces was a martyr for Kashmir. Like most Kashmiri youngsters, apart from the usual daydreaming of girls, I also began to daydream of dying.
In 1991, a second cousin of mine, Tariq, crossed the Line of Control.
Tariq’s younger brother, Shabnam, attended boarding school with me. In his dorm room Shabnam listened to Sadaa-e-Hurriyat (Voice of Freedom) Radio, which was based in Muzafferabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Every evening the separatist radio station ran a show featuring separatist songs, interspersed with propaganda and messages from listeners. There were constant stories at the time about boys being killed, losing their way, being arrested by Indian patrols—and we were also beginning to hear stories about the torture of young men in Indian custody, particularly in a place called Papa-2. And so when a militant-in-training wanted to let his family know how he was, he requested a song, and a message was played along with it: “Tariq Peer from Panzmulla village of Islamabad likes the program and requests this song be played.” Huddled around the radio, his family and relatives heard the song and the message and knew he was safe.
Around a year after he left home, Tariq returned. There was an enormous celebration, like the one we had when my father returned from Hajj, years earlier. Shabnam served kahwa, carrying a samovar from one guest to another. Tariq sat on a velvet-covered cushion like the ones Kashmiris use for bridegrooms; relatives and friends filled the room. Tariq’s father, my uncle, was there also. He had once been the chief of security for Shaikh Abdullah, the great prime minister. He found it hard to accept the fact that Tariq had crossed the border and joined a militant group without his permission.
On this day, Uncle sat next to Tariq without speaking. The militant talked; the police officer listened. So did the room full of people, as if Tariq were Marco Polo back from the New World. He told us how he and his friends had met a point man from the militant group at the crowded Batamaloo station in southern Srinagar. There they boarded a bus for the north Kashmir town of Baramulla. The driver played Bollywood songs, and the passengers talked about the militant movement. Some passengers recognized Tariq and his friends as boys heading for the border and smiled at them. On the road from Srinagar to Baramulla there were neither checkpoints nor patrols. (The Indian military presence in Kashmir was just about to increase exponentially.)
Tariq and his friends spent the night in Baramulla at a stranger’s house with two more groups of young men waiting to cross the border. Next morning they all boarded a bus to Kupwara, the town closest to the LoC. The ticket collector refused to accept a fare from them. Kupwara teemed with such young men and boys. Tariq and his friends were introduced to a man who was to take them across the mountains. Such men, known as “guides,” were often natives of the border villages who knew the terrain well. Wearing rubber shoes, carrying rucksacks full of clothes and food, they left Kupwara in a truck.
Two days later Tariq was in Muzafferabad. He was taken to an arms training camp. For six months he trained in small arms, land mines, and rocket-propelled grenades.
He hiked back home in early spring when the border mountains were still covered in snow. He was bolder on his way back; he carried a bag full of ammunition and a Kalashnikov. The trek took three days. The ammunition bags were heavy. Tariq and his fellow guerrillas lightened them by burying food packages and some bullet magazines in the snow.
They had an encounter with Indian paramilitaries near the border town of Kupwara. Three of them were killed. A bullet grazed Tariq’s leg, tearing a hole in his trousers. Later, Shabnam showed me Tariq’s bullet-torn trousers, like an athlete displaying a trophy.
After that night, Tariq could only visit hurriedly, stealthily. Soldiers often knocked at my uncle’s door, looking for him, beating my uncle and my cousins, telling them to ask Tariq to surrender. I saw him for the last time in August 1992, near my uncle’s house, on a plateau that served twice a year as the eidgah, the ground for ceremonial Eid prayers, and otherwise as a cricket field. On this day, August 15, it was used to celebrate Pakistani Independence Day. Shabnam and I sneaked through the crowd to the front row. Militant leaders made fiery speeches in favor of Pakistan and raised separatist slogans. We stared at the militants in their green uniforms holding their rifles. They performed military stunts and sang battle songs to a clapping audience. A militant leader raised the Pakistani flag. His men fired their Kalashnikovs into the air. I still remember one of their songs:
Iqbal ke shaheen hain,
We are Iqbal’s falcons
We are the Hizb-ul-mujahideen.
Then someone said the army was coming, and the gathering dispersed.
One afternoon I walked with four boys from my dormitory to a nearby village looking for guerrillas. We wanted to join their ranks, cross the border into Pakistan, and fight for Kashmir. We soon found a group of youths dressed in fatigues, assault rifles slung on their shoulders. They were tall, handsome, and armed. The four of us in our school uniforms—white shirts and gray trousers—introduced ourselves and hesitantly told them our story. The white badges on their green uniforms read JKLF.
“We want to join you,” I said.
The commander, a lean, stubbly youth, laughed in my face. “Go home and grow up, kids!” His tone was patronizing. I was up on the internal politics of the independence movements and said: “If you do not take us with you, we will join Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.” Hizb-ul-Mujahideen was one of JKLF’s ideological rivals. The guerrillas burst into laughter again and walked away.
The JKLF commander we had approached turned out to be a former student of my grandfather’s. Not long after, he ran into my grandfather in the market and told him about my intentions. A meeting was called at home. My grandfather, my parents, and my uncles held long discussions. Grandfather was furious. He wanted to come to my boarding school and set me right once and for all. My father argued against it. One of my uncles, a bank manager in his early thirties, was dispatched instead.
My uncle was an interesting man. He wore his hair a bit like John Travolta in Grease, and he had a distinctive English accent, picked up during a friendship with some German tourists. He wore loose baggy denims and checked shirts. He arrived at my school while I was in math class. One of my friends had a few minutes earlier shown me a silver gray Chinese pistol he was hiding inside his jacket. “Got it from the SLF,” he whispered in my ear. Students Liberation Front was the student wing of the JKLF; its members often stayed in our hostel. My classmate intended to show the pistol to the teacher because he loathed the man for beating him when he couldn’t solve his sums. Then there was a knock at the door. The teacher went out and returned to tell me my uncle was here.
Uncle and I went to my room in the hostel. He had brought an elaborate lunch from home. “Your mother made it for you,” he said. We talked about my studies. He said my family dreamt of seeing me in the Indian Civil Service. “I know you will do us proud,” he said. “I met your school principal and he had great things to say about you.”
He went on to paint a romantic picture of the colleges and universities in New Delhi. “Man! You would have a great time there. Two more years and we will send you. Your father and I were talking about it last night.” He wanted me to come home with him for a few days. I agreed happily, unsuspecting. We left the school premises and walked to the nearest bus stand. A scrawl of graffiti on the wall of a house nearby read: war till victory—jklf. “So that is the group you want to join,” my uncle said, smiling. I was startled. I denied everything. He shook his head slowly. He said, “We know it,” and then he told me about the meeting waiting for me at home.
When I arrived home, my grandfather made me sit next to him. He talked about the excitement of the day I was born—and how I ran back home on the first day of school. He recalled how, inspired by my Superman comics, I once jumped from the first-floor window. My younger brother had helped me tie my pheran like a cape. I broke my right arm.
My grandfather fixed his watery green eyes on me. “How do you think this old man can deal with your death?” he said. “You don’t live long in a war, son.”
My grandfather, the dreaded headmaster—who was proud that nobody in our village lit a cigarette or raised his voice in his presence—had tears in his eyes. He was pleading with me.
My father returned from work. He was carrying several books; they turned out to be commentaries on the Quran in English. He said, “You must read them. The commentaries will make you understand Islam and also improve your English. You must also read the Bible, which is again a very good way to improve your language skills.” Father went around in circles, talking about the Biblical and Quranic versions of the story of Ishmael and his father, Isaac. He connected their story to an anecdote from the life of Prophet Muhammad about the obligation of children toward their parents. Then he began talking about my intentions of joining a militant group. “I would say that maybe you should read and think about it for a few years and then decide for yourself. At that point I will not say that you should or should not join any group. From what I have read I can tell you that any movement that seeks a separate country takes a very long time. It took India many decades to get freedom from the British. The Tibetans have been asking for independence from China for more than thirty years now. Czechoslovakia has its freedom now, but it was already a country. And even that took a long time.”
He continued to argue that rebellions were long affairs, led by educated men. “Nehru and Gandhi studied law in England and were both very good writers. You have seen their books in our library. Vaclav Havel is a very big writer. The Dalai Lama has read a lot and can teach so many things to people. None of them used guns but they changed history. If you want to do something for Kashmir, I would say you should read.”
I did like reading, especially in my father’s library. I first saw Sartre’s Iron in the Soul and Nausea on his bookshelves, next to Nehru’s Discovery of India and the Orwell novels. Yet reading had hardly enabled him, a government bureaucrat, squeezed between two powerful foes, to help Kashmir.
A few days later, as I was leaving to go back to school, my mother took her scarf off her head and laid it at my feet. “Please don’t try that again,” she said and hugged me. She was crying. A head scarf is a symbol of honor in Kashmiri society. It is the most desperate act of pleading to lay your headgear at somebody’s feet. In my world there was no argument more powerful than that. I could not walk over my mother’s scarf to an arms training camp.
I remember these arguments very well now, all this time later, not only because they were so dramatic, and because I had never seen my family in such a state, but also because I was, secretly, so relieved.
The next winter, I was home again for vacation. One cold morning we did not hear the predawn call for prayers. Instead, the muezzin announced that the Indian army had cordoned off the entire village and all the men were ordered to assemble on the grounds of the local hospital by six. The muezzin, Gul Khan, was a tiny, aging farmer who lived in a brick hut next to the mosque; few responded to his early-morning calls for prayer. But announcing the crackdown gave his voice the power to move the entire village. Within minutes my family had gathered in the kitchen.
A small, reluctant crowd began the short journey toward the hospital compound. The women had been ordered to stay at home so they could open the doors of every room and cupboard. I was worried about my mother and my aunts. Kashmir was rife with stories of Indian soldiers misbehaving—a euphemism for molestation and rape—during crackdowns. I walked behind my father.
Heavily armed soldiers stood along the road and shouted at us to walk faster. Another group asked us to pull out our identity cards and raise our hands. Within seconds a queue formed at the hospital gate. There were no distinctions of age or social status or class, no line drawn between the farmhand and the judge. There were just two long parallel rows of raised hands—the right, clutching an identity card, held a few inches higher than the empty left.
After the identity checks we were asked to sit on the cold ground, which had a few leaves of grass left on it. An army officer ordered all guests and visiting relatives to stand in a separate group. Then they walked in a queue past an armored car. Every man had to stop near the window and show his face to the Cat. The Cat was a masked Kashmiri, probably from a neighboring village, who had become a collaborator. He was supposed to know who in my village was a militant or a supporter—and it was possible that if he didn’t know, he would simply point out a nervous or hostile-looking youth to please his masters. Most people passed the test; some were hustled away to the residential quarters of the doctor, which had been converted into an ad hoc interrogation
Over the next few hours we formed queues and walked past the Cat. If he raised his hand, soldiers pounced on the suspect and took him away to the doctor’s quarters. My turn came. I stood facing the Cat. His eyes stared out at me from behind his black mask. My heart galloped. The Cat waited for a moment and told me to move on.
I joined my group on the ground. But Manzoor, our neighbor’s son, was taken away for interrogation. His arrest made everyone in our group nervous; his father was tense but silent.
Manzoor’s family used to run a hotel in a nearby tourist resort, but after the fighting began and the tourists stopped coming to Kashmir, they had locked the hotel and opened a grocery shop. On the days of general strikes, which happened more and more frequently and closed down the schools, Manzoor manned the shop. He was a gregarious teenager. Occasionally the militants passing by would stop to buy something from his shop or simply to sit and talk. Manzoor loved the attention he received and flaunted his position. Word seemed to have reached the Indian army.
Now two soldiers came toward us. “Is there someone called Basharat Peer here? He is a ninth standard student.” They had the name of my school. I stood up. “Come with us,” one said. “But . . . I am a student,” I protested. “We know,” the soldier said. “We just need you to identify somebody.” They walked me to the interrogation center. I followed them, not turning back to see how my father and grandfather were reacting. We entered the three-room building. I had been there many times; the doctor was a family friend. I was asked to sit in a tiny storeroom. The soldiers slammed the doors behind me.
Every two minutes, I looked at my watch. I heard the shrieks of the boys in the other rooms. Over and over I heard the words: Khodayo Bachaav! (Save me, God!) and Sir nahin pata! (I don’t know, sir!) I muttered all the prayers I had ever known. About two hours later the door opened violently. A pair of soldiers pointed their guns at me. I stood up. My face must have been white with fear. I thought it was my time to shout the words I had been hearing. But they did not hit me or take me to the other rooms. One of them began questioning me.
“Which group are you with, KLF or HM?”
“How many of your friends are with the group?”
“Where are the weapons?”
I was not a member of any militant group and that was my answer for all his questions. I showed my identity card again and again, repeating: “I know nothing, sir! I am a student, sir!”
“Come on, tell us. You know we have other ways of finding out.”
“I know sir! But I am only a student!” I pleaded.
“Think harder. I will come back in a few minutes,” said the interrogator and left. The other soldier stood there in silence. I tried to persuade him that I was telling the truth. “Talk to the officer when he returns,” he said. The interrogator returned and the same questions and answers were repeated. “All right,” he said. “Do you know Majid?”
“Yes sir!” I said. Majid was a boy in my class who was visiting relatives in my village. He was not connected to any militant groups, as far as I knew. “He is in my class,” I said, and followed with information about Majid’s father—his name and profession, and the name of their village. I also mentioned that he had relatives in our village. The interrogator looked at me for a moment and said, “All right! You can leave.” I thanked him profusely and walked back to join my group. My father and grandfather rose. I hugged them. My father said, “Did they beat you, commander-in-chief?” Grandfather’s eyes were moist; he threw an arm around my shoulders and said nothing.
Manzoor too was released after a while; he was limping and bruised. His father forbade him from manning the grocery shop. Later that day, when the crackdown was lifted and the neighbors and acquaintances who had come to ask about my welfare left, my father gave me his shaving set. Traces of a mustache and beard had begun to grow on my face. Indian soldiers were particularly suspicious of anyone with any kind of facial hair. It felt awkward, but with directions from my father I managed my first shave.
A year later, in 1993, my parents insisted I join a college in India, hundreds of miles away. They had the money to send a child there, which was not true of everyone’s parents, and so I went. I studied at the Muslim University of Aligarh, a few hours from Delhi. My generation of Kashmiri students was sent there because the university and the surrounding town had a sizable Muslim population; in other parts of the country, an ugly xenophobia had developed against Kashmiris.
Eventually I moved to Delhi and became a journalist for an Indian news site in 2000. I lived in a run-down student neighborhood in south Delhi; landlords in better neighborhoods had turned me away because I was a Kashmiri Muslim. But I learned to ignore these irritations. India had opened its economy in the early 1990s. Round-the-clock channels broadcast the news, and the number of magazines was growing. Young anchors and reporters asked tragedy-struck people questions like “So how does it feel?” in their fake American accents. I saw Pamela Anderson’s breasts.
The newly moneyed capital of India prided itself on its special DJ nights, malls featuring Marks & Spencer showrooms and Nokia outlets, and the belly dancers performing in its luxury hotels. Thousands of Toyotas ferried call-center executives for night shifts at the suburban BPO offices, among them a flatmate of mine, a boy from a small southern Indian town, who had been told to jettison his traditional name, Sateesh. He would tell me about his job and begin acting out his calls: “Hi! This is Jack Smith calling from JC Penney!”
India was grotesque, and fascinating. While the virtual courts were being introduced to expedite cases for the rich, thousands of poor people wasted years of their lives in prisons waiting for a hearing. A few hundred meters from the luxury hotels and the multiplex theaters, the urban poor lived in mud huts. Online matrimonial sites received a million views a month, while a few hours from Delhi lovers could be killed for being from different castes. The elites bragged about being a nuclear power, yet the laborers in the uranium mines didn’t have enough protective clothing and lived with radiation-related sicknesses. A few hours from the technology parks of Hyderabad, thousands of farmers committed suicide after failing to repay their debts. Every summer and winter more than a thousand homeless people were killed by extreme heat and cold; meanwhile fancy suburbs with names like Beverly Hills grew around every major Indian city. In the noise and chaos of this India, I might have forgotten Kashmir—might have turned it into a place I visited every two or three months as a reporter—but I could not. The Kashmiri body count appeared almost every day in the newspapers; Kashmir was the text and subtext of my professional, personal, and social worlds in Delhi.
In 2003, I decided to return to Kashmir.
The nature of the separatist militancy had changed. In the early ’90s, the secular groups had been dominated by the pro-Pakistan Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. By the mid-’90s the pan-Islamist militants from Pakistan had taken over. They did not mingle with the population like the Kashmiri militants. Especially after 9/11, their presence in Kashmir won India major diplomatic credit with the West. Any criticism of Indian policies in Kashmir could be rebutted with the argument that an officially secular and pro-globalization India was fighting Islamic terrorism. The jihadis also believed in suicide bombings, which the Kashmiri militants had avoided.
The Indian military presence in Kashmir now numbered more than half a million. Around three thousand Kashmiri and Pakistani militants were fighting them. Srinagar was a city of bunkers, armored cars, and soldiers with assault rifles. Road patrols and checkpoints had become as much a part of the Kashmiri landscape as willows, poplars, and pines.
In November 2003, a few days after Ramadan, I took a walk from the center of Srinagar past a colonial mansion painted blue and white. Its architecture was of a dying style, a blend of Kashmiri woodwork and British mock-Tudor. A plaque on the gate read: United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan.
A short walk from the UN office lies Gupkar Road, a well-bunkered and well-patrolled neighborhood of government offices and the residences of ministers and bureaucrats. Until the late ’80s, passersby marveled at the buildings and the splendor of their surroundings. But from the early to mid-’90s, people dreaded Gupkar Road. It was the road to Papa-2, the most notorious torture chamber in all of Kashmir. Hundreds who went there did not come back. Those who returned are wrecks.
Papa-2 is a large mansion built by the pre-1947 dynastic ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh. In the late ’90s, a top government official renovated the building and made it his residence. Before moving in, the officer called priests of all religions to perform exorcisms. Now the building was the home of a state government minister, and a friend had gotten me permission to visit. I was supposed to be interested in the architecture.
Soft, honey-hued curtains hung on the windows of the minister’s room on the first floor. A brown bedspread covered his bed; books on law and literature filled the book racks. My guide, a local man my age, pulled the curtains from the windows; clear, bright light fell on the mementos and awards resting on the shelves. A carpet woven with verses from the Koran hung from one wall, and a canvas by the Indian painter Raja Ravi Verma adorned the other. There was a woman in the painting; the colors were red and brown. I looked studiously at the chairs, the sofas, the tables, the ceilings and whitewashed walls.
My guide was silent; he knew what it was about. Finally he spoke. “This was Papa-2, brother! This was Papa-2.”
An hour later I was in the city center, Lal Chowk, talking to two friends about my visit. “Where can I find someone who has been at Papa-2?” I asked.
“Ask anyone on the street. Half of Kashmir has been there.”
“Or just walk up to Maisuma, you will find ten guys who have been there.”
I walked past the soldiers and policemen and turned toward the J&K Liberation Front office in the nearby separatist neighborhood. A group of young men stood outside the nondescript building. “Papa-2?” A brief silence followed. They asked each other: Were you there? “No. I was in Rajasthan.” “No. I was at Kot Balwal.” “No. I was at Gogoland.” “No. I was in Ranchi.” Names, pouring out in their young voices, identified a whole geography of Indian prisons. They were all about my age. “Shafi was at Papa-2.” “Irfan was there.” “And Irshad was at Papa-2.” “Sayeed was there too.” In less than five minutes I had six names. “Shafi will be home now,” said one of the young men, Abid. “Let us go.” We walked through a labyrinth of lanes. Abid stopped to greet a few men on the way. He asked them whether they had been at Papa-2. Some talked about their friends who had been in Papa-2; others talked about other jails and other torture chambers.
Finally Abid stopped at a crumbling two-story house. He knocked.
A woman’s voice asked, “Who is it?”
“Abid here. Is Shafi around?”
“He is at the mosque,” the voice shouted back. “Wait here; he shall be back any moment.”
A few minutes later we saw a tall, frail, bespectacled man in his early thirties limping toward us with the help of a wooden staff. He shouted a happy greeting at Abid. They hugged and talked for a while; Abid introduced me and left. Shafi shook open the door and led me in. We climbed a creaking wooden stair and entered a neat room with a layer of cheap green distemper on its mud walls. In a corner a bedspread covered a stack of bedding; there were no wardrobes. Shafi pulled two pillows from the stack, adjusted them as cushions against the wall, and asked me to sit.
In another corner a short, plump, dark woman sat near a kerosene stove. On the wooden shelves on the wall facing her were a few cups, plates, and utensils. “She is my wife,” Shafi said. I greeted her; she shook her head and muttered a greeting. She rose and pulled down a curtain between the makeshift kitchen and the drawing-room area. Shafi asked for tea, saying to his wife, “Do not add sugar. He will take as much as he likes.” His eyes seemed to disappear behind the thick glasses. His cheeks were deeply hollowed, though his hair was still brown and curly. He lit a cigarette, bent toward me and said, “I was at Papa-2 for seven months.”
In 1990, at the age of 19, he had decided to join a militant group. JKLF was the most influential and charismatic group in his part of Srinagar, and he joined its student wing. His war with India began: attacking patrols of Indian soldiers, moving with guns from one hideout to the next, and evading arrest in crackdowns. “We thought Kashmir would be free in a year or two.” Instead, he was arrested by a paramilitary patrol. After an initial interrogation at a local center in Srinagar, he was sent to the Kot Balwal and Talab Tilloo jails in the southern province of the state of Jammu. Two years later he was released. Back home, he met his comrades-in-arms. “I began working for the movement again.”
One day in the autumn of 1992, he was walking in central Srinagar. A local boy recognized him. “I knew him,” Shafi said. “He had become a BSF informer and pointed me out to the BSF personnel. I was not carrying any weapons and was arrested that very moment.” Shafi’s wife called from behind the yellow curtain: “The tea is ready.” He rose, brought a tray full of biscuits, two cups, and a flask. He began pouring tea but fumbled with the cups, squinting. I volunteered to help, and he let me. I put his cup next to him and he touched it as if reassuring himself of its presence. “They kept me in the local BSF camp for a week before shifting me to Papa-2.” At the BSF camp, he was interrogated, beaten with fists, feet, batons, guns. They wanted information about his group; they wanted his weapons. He did not tell me whether he gave them the information. I did not ask. It is hard to ask that question if you are a Kashmiri.
Shafi was moved to Papa-2. “It was hell,” he said, fumbling now to find the cigarette almost burned off in the ashtray. He was thrown into a room crowded with twenty men. The floor was bare. Smears of blood blemished the whitewashed walls. Every man had a coarse, black blanket for bedding. “We called them lice blankets,” Shafi said, and laughed. Shafi and his fellow prisoners slept laid out like rows of corpses. Throughout the night men woke up shouting, cursed the lice, tried to sleep again, only to be woken by the next man battling the vermin.
Some managed to sleep, though the electric lights were never extinguished. “During the interrogation I was made to stare at very bright bulbs. Even in our room the light burnt my eyes. I craved darkness.” Darkness came. “I began losing my eyesight there. I can barely see now despite my glasses.”
After his release from the prison, doctors prescribed a surgical operation to restore his sight. “Why didn’t you have the surgery?” I asked.
Shafi smiled. “I cannot afford the cost.”
He could not find work anywhere. In summer he sold secondhand garments on a wooden cart in Lal Chowk; in winter he followed his brother to Calcutta, hawking Kashmiri shawls door-to-door on commission. His family wanted him to get married and begin a new life. They looked for a girl for him, but nobody would marry Shafi, physically and psychologically shattered by his militant days, his prison years, his nonexistent prospects. “You would know how choosy Kashmiri girls are,” he said.
His brother knew a Muslim family in a Calcutta slum. They had a squint-eyed girl whom nobody would marry. Her family was happy to marry her off to Shafi. Now she was there behind the curtain, asking whether we wanted more tea. “She is pregnant and I have to take her to Calcutta for the birth.” He sounded tense.
He lived off a thousand rupees that Yasin Malik, the JKLF chief, gave him every month. “I did ask other leaders for help. I said that I am here because I spent my youth for the movement.” Some separatist leaders asked him for proof of his being a militant, of his jail days. “They live in big houses and drive big cars bought from the money that came for the movement. But they are not willing to help those who destroyed their lives for the cause.” His face contorted with anger; he took long, hard puffs from his cigarette. “I never went to them after that. None of the separatist leaders except Yasin had to go through what the boys endured. They cannot even imagine what being tortured is like.”
Shafi drank the last gulp of tea and lit another cigarette. “They made you sit on a chair, tied you with ropes. One soldier held your neck, two others pulled your legs in different directions, and three more rolled a heavy concrete roller over your legs. They asked questions and if you didn’t answer they burnt you with the cigarettes.” He paused for a while and as if suddenly remembering something said, “The worst part was the psychological torture. They would make us say Jai Hind (Long live India) every morning and every evening. They beat you if you refused. It was very hard but everyone said it except Master Ahsan Dar.” Dar was a top commander of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Then Shafi stopped speaking abruptly. “I cannot talk about it. It makes me crazy. I am sorry.”
He said I should meet Ansar, another former militant who had been in Papa-2. Ansar would talk about the torture and what it did to people.
I met Ansar at his brother’s grocery shop near the grand mosque in downtown Srinagar. We sat in a small, poorly lit room in his house behind the roadside shop. Ansar was a robust, mustached man in a beige shalwar kameez. He had joined a separatist organization, People’s League, in the mid-’80s and became one of the earlier members of its militant wing. One day he was visiting his parents when the BSF raided their house and arrested him. “They had information that I was here. Someone in my neighborhood was the informer.” He talked about various prisons he had been in.
“And Papa-2?” I asked.
“How can I forget it? Not even stray cows would eat the food they threw at us there.” He passed a plate of plum cake to me. “That place destroyed most people who were there. You do not live a normal life after that torture. It scars you forever.
“They beat us up with guns, staffs, hands. But that was nothing. They tied copper wire around your arms and gave high-voltage shocks. Every hair on your body stood up. But the worst was when they inserted the copper wire into my penis, deep into the urinary canal, and gave electric shocks. They did it with most boys. It destroyed many lives; many could not marry after that.” After his release Ansar was under treatment for urinary tract infections and some other disorders he did not mention. “I was not ready to marry. But my family supported me. I agreed to marry only after I was treated for a year and a half. Thank God, now I have a daughter and run my small business.”
I had heard about the practice of torture throughout my adolescence, but only now, in my late twenties, did I understand what it meant. A few days later I called Shahid, a doctor friend at Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. I talked to him about Ansar. “We have had hundreds of cases here,” he confirmed. “Those electric shocks led to impotence in many.” Shahid, a short, jolly man, grew up in a southern Kashmiri village. On weekends he drove home and treated the villagers for a nominal fee. “I am going home on Sunday. If you come along I will introduce you to someone with this problem.”
On Sunday morning I set out with Shahid to his village to meet his cousin, Hussein, who after being tortured in detention thought he was impotent and refused to marry. “The problem is that he is not ready to meet a doctor. He does not even talk to me,” Shahid told me as we drove toward the south Kashmir town of Bijbehara. We passed through clusters of mud and brick houses, groves of walnut and willow trees, and vast stretches of fields.
A handpainted Red Cross sign hanging from a roadside wooden shack with his name misspelled announced Shahid’s clinic. It was barely nine in the morning and a crowd of patients was already waiting for him. Hussein, his cousin, was there. We sat on an empty shop front in the sun. I offered Hussein a cigarette, which he reluctantly accepted. Instead of asking about his life, I told him about Shafi, Ansar, Papa-2, and the medical correction of torture-imposed disorders. He listened in silence, for the most part expressionless. Finally he began to talk about his experience.
He was in the first year of college when the armed militancy began in 1990. He was the eldest son of a teacher and had four siblings. One day he left home with a group of thirteen other young men. After spending three days in the northern Kashmir town of Baramulla, they boarded a truck and drove toward the town of Kupwara near the LoC. Halfway from Kupwara, a convoy of the paramilitary Border Security Force stopped them.
They were taken to a local camp. In the morning, Hussein and his groupmates were taken into tiny tin sheds lit by bright electric lamps for interrogation. “I was asked to undress, be naked. The first time I resisted, was beaten, undressed forcibly, and tied to a chair. Then they tied copper wire to my arms and gave electric shocks. I could not even scream—they stuffed my mouth with a ball of cloth. I thought I would die. They would suddenly stop, take the cloth out, and ask questions. I was in no position to answer and fainted a few times. But I was brought to my senses again and they inserted a copper wire into my penis.”
Most of them broke after two days of this. “You cannot bear pain beyond a point. Everybody talks,” Hussein said. “We admitted we were going for training and were shifted to jails in Srinagar.” He added as an afterthought, “Maybe I should have admitted straightaway. Life could have been different.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, then looked away onto the road and the patients waiting their turn at Shahid’s clinic. An old man walked up to us and asked me whether I was a doctor. “No, sir. I am only the doctor’s friend.” The old man told me how “the situation” had given him problems with high blood pressure. Hussein and I walked down the road leading out of the village through the fields. We sat down on a parapet by the road. Hussein lit his cigarette and resumed the story. “I can’t tell you about the pain one feels when they give the electric shocks. I thought I would die. At times I thought every shock lasted for a minute or two, at times it seemed an hour,” he said.
After his interrogators threw him back in his cell, Hussein kept losing consciousness. “At least during the blackouts I felt no pain.” He was bleeding when he urinated, his penis was swollen, and pain crawled up it like a leech. By the time he was moved to the detention center at Srinagar, an infection had set in and he saw pus and blood in his urine. There was no medical aid for weeks.
“Then a Sikh paramilitary officer asked me about my condition. I told him what happened. He was an angel; he got me some medicine, cotton, and Dettol antiseptic lotion. That helped a lot.” Hussein became very emotional when speaking of this, and it made me think of what Ansar and Shafi told me about different interrogators: “Some were sadists and some were decent men.” They had both remembered the first names of the “good” and “bad” interrogators, names like Ravi, Nishant, Anand, names like my friends in Delhi had.
Hussein was released from jail two years later. A year afterward he began running a very small business that dealt in carpets and shawls. His family insisted he marry; he refused. He thought he was impotent. He had not spoken about it to anyone.
One night he did not sleep until he heard the morning call to prayer. “I went to the mosque, prayed, and broke down while asking God for help. Only God knew what I had been through.”
Hussein decided to talk to his brother-in-law, a school teacher, who listened patiently and suggested they meet a doctor. “For a year I went to various doctors at Anantnag district hospital. They wrote a long list of medicines but it did not help much.” Shahid, his cousin, wanted to take him to the Medical Institute at Srinagar for psychiatric counseling. Hussein was not comfortable talking to Shahid. He refused to meet any more doctors, spent his days running a small grocery and praying at the village mosque.
His family gave up until another crisis arrived—Hussein’s younger brothers were getting married. In Kashmiri tradition a younger brother does not get married before the elder. Hussein’s father, brother-in-law, and uncles tried to convince him again. He insisted his younger siblings go ahead with their lives. They did. Hussein plays with their kids.
We walked back to the clinic. I turned to him and said, “Hussein, you will be all right. I have spoken to some urologists and read in the most respected medical journals that your condition is curable, just like nasal congestion.”
I told Hussein about Ansar’s marriage and his three-year-old daughter; I told him about the corrective urological surgeries I had read about, about the drugs, about psychiatric counseling, about Prophet Muhammad saying that hopelessness is a crime. Hussein listened patiently. We entered Shahid’s mud-walled, bare-floored clinic and waited until the patient he was examining left. I turned to Hussein and urged him to talk to his doctor cousin. He looked into my eyes and smiled. “I will. Thanks.” We shook hands, and I walked out of the clinic.
The militancy changed many people. My father survived a land-mine blast by militants, who had decided that his work for the Indian government was compromising. My cousin Tariq was killed in late 1992 in a raid on his hideout in a village a few miles from mine. Pervez joined the militancy after he left our boarding school and was killed. Manzoor stayed away from boasting about meeting any militants, trained as a paramedic, and worked in a hospital in a nearby town. My grandfather had a habit of arguing with everyone, both Indian soldiers and Kashmiri militants, and the family made great efforts to quiet him down. Eventually he did.
I could think of only one friend who had been in the militancy and left, and that was Asif, with whom I’d been at boarding school. Asif’s father owned large, prosperous apple orchards, but also went into court sometimes and practiced law, as a hobby; as for Asif, he was a dandy. I remember envying him the female attention he received at our boarding school, and his accessories—like his Kamachi shoes, a Russian sneaker favored by militants. The militants made the war a sort of fashion runway; they wore Kamachi shoes, so schoolboys wore Kamachi shoes. Militants replaced the stones in their rings with pistol bullets, the boys replaced the stones in their rings with pistol bullets. An entire range of militaristic jewelry became fashionable. The militants modified the Sufi tradition of wearing an amulet by adding a Kalashnikov cartridge to the string.
One day in August 2004, I took a bus to Anantnag, where I boarded another bus for Asif’s village further south. I wasn’t sure whether he would be there; I didn’t even have his phone number. The bus passed through scores of Kashmiri villages surrounded by groves of mulberry, poplar, and apple trees swaying in the wind like drunken men. Indian soldiers in bulletproof jackets, carrying Kalashnikovs and machine guns, patrolled the roads or stared from behind their bunkers. An hour later the bus stopped at a military checkpost near Asif’s village. I followed the routine of raising my hands, showing my identity card, talking about coming from Srinagar to visit a family friend. The frisking, providing proof of identity, the rude questions—all were routine now, like brushing your teeth.
The soldiers let us pass; the bus moved on and stopped in the village square. I walked through the bus yard to a grocery store with a Coca-Cola billboard. It displayed a life-size picture of the Miss Universe turned Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai. Two boys idling at the shop front volunteered to show me Asif’s house. Hens and cattle competed with us for the right of passage through a maze of lanes, which brought us to the entrance of a mansion with wooden balconies jutting out from the first and second floors. One of the boys rushed inside and returned with a lean, balding man wearing a Nehru jacket. This was Asif’s father.
“Is Asif around?” I asked.
“Who are you?” he said, surveying me keenly.
I introduced myself. His face relaxed and he welcomed me into the house. “I am sorry,” he said. “One has to be careful.” We sat in a carpeted drawing room. Asif was visiting an uncle at the other end of the village. His father sent the two boys to fetch him. “We got a phone booth for the whole village last year,” he said, “but the militants thought it could be used to inform the army about their whereabouts, so they blasted the house where it was installed. The house was damaged and half the family was killed. Nobody even thought about getting another pay phone after that.” His village and the adjoining village were known to have a strong military and militant presence. People obeyed one group or the other. Asif’s sister brought tea. She was at the university studying literature, while Asif studied history. I asked Asif’s father about his practice. “Well! I visit the court occasionally. My heart was never in law. I make my living from my apple orchards.” He paused and then added wearily, “I always dreamt of politics. I wanted to contest elections, be a politician. That remains my sole ambition.”
“Have you joined any political party?”
“You think I want to die?” he laughed.
“Basharat!” An eager voice came from the door. “Where have you been all these years?”
Asif was now a tall, athletic young man with cropped hair. We greeted one another and he sat down. His father went outside to his orchard so we could talk freely. I was there to ask about Asif’s militant life, but I found I could not. It felt wrong to meet an old friend only so I could understand what my own life could have been—it felt selfish. But after a while Asif began to talk about it himself. He had gone back to his village after school and joined a local college. In the lap of brown barren mountains, his village was a militant stronghold. Militants paraded in the open, slinging assault rifles from their shoulders, hanging hand grenades from their belts. Indian troops stayed away most of the time. There was no television, no telephones, not even a hospital or proper municipal services. Militants stayed with the locals and ate at their houses.
Asif befriended some militant commanders. He was impressed, and their influence on him grew. He left home. At various hideouts, he learned to use an assault rifle, throw a hand grenade, blast a land mine, and plan an operation. He roamed from one village to another with his comrades-in-arms. I tried hard to picture Asif in fatigues, carrying deadly weapons or using them. He had been a militant for two years.
“What was it like?” I finally asked him.
“Scary,” he said.
“My battalion treated me very well. We moved around together and were generally quite happy being the way we were. But at a personal level it hurt me when we had to move from village to village, seeking shelter and food. I felt people hosted and fed us because they were scared. I felt unwelcome, almost like an armed beggar. I had grown up in luxury and my parents bought me everything I asked them. And then I was a militant sleeping in a house whose owner was scared that the army might come there, who smiled at me and wished we would leave. I could not sleep and I missed my family.”
I had an urge to ask him if he had shot anyone. I couldn’t. “One day our commander told us that we had to attack an army convoy. I picked up my Kalashnikov. We were about to leave and I began shivering. I was too scared and death seemed so real. I left soon after that. My commanders were kind enough to let me go.”
We left his house, walked to the bus yard, bought two Cokes from the shop with the Aishwarya Rai billboard. Asif loved Aishwarya and watched all her films. I thought she was plastic and told him so. The talk lightened the atmosphere. We were boys again. Asif said he was thinking of going to school in Delhi or some other Indian metropolis. I voted for Delhi. “It is the best Indian city for a student,” I said. “You find good teachers and wonderful libraries. You must try for Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.”
He agreed. “It must be fun being there.”
“It can be great.”
He had a mischievous smile on his face. “Tell me something?”
“Did you go to a discotheque in Delhi? Did you dance with the girls?”
I told him some stories of my awkward and comical attempts at dancing. I told him that he would be better at it than I was. A shadow of longing flitted across his face.
I reached Anantnag after sunset. The town was deserted, the shops closed. A few groups of commuters huddled together in the bus yard. I decided against heading for Srinagar and waited instead for a bus to my own village. An auto rickshaw stopped and the driver yelled the name of an area near my village. Soon I was knocking at the iron gate of my ancestral house. No one answered; the silence dragged on for minutes. Then my grandfather asked, “Who is it?” “It is Basharat, Baba!” The door opened. I shook hands with my grandfather and two of my cousins, who were standing behind him like bodyguards. They were unsure who might be at the door.