I always cherish surprise visits to home. No matter which corner of the world you put up in, home is always missed and perpetually longed for. But when home is in a place in Kashmir where violence is a routine affair, like buying morning bread, anxiety becomes a furtive companion which stays with me for a long time even after I am gone.
I lived the formative years of my life in Old Town of Baramulla, known among government forces and some journalists as the ‘Red Zone’ of Kashmir. The sentiment of freedom from Indian rule remains high here. On May 7 when Lok Sabha elections were conducted in the town, anti-election and pro-freedom protests erupted in many localities, forcing the authorities to shift the polling centers to ‘safer places’, a euphemism invented to describe places in Kashmir which live at the mercy of forces.
I arrived in the town on May 10. Once a bustling trade center, Baramulla now looks like a dark shadow of its vibrant past. A paramilitary trooper is keeping vigil on a bridge, one of the five that connect Old Town with the recently built swanky bungalows and shopping malls on the opposite banks of Jehlum that bisects the town just before wriggling its way into Pakistan.
On the day of my arrival, a civil curfew was being observed in the town after Kashmir police had conducted raids on previous night and arrested dozens of youths from Old Town who were reportedly involved in stone pelting. Many families had alleged that police ransacked their property and robbed gold jewelry and cash from their homes, an allegation denied by police, forcing the Baramulla Traders Association to call for a three-day shutdown against the ‘police excesses’.
I told the mustached trooper near the bridge to remove the concertina wire so that I could go home. He asked me to produce my identity card. “You have to wait,” he said politely, observing my black waistcoat and Woodland shoes, “Let more people gather sir. We allow people in groups.”
The town looked like a military garrison. Hundreds of troops in riot gear with automatic weapons were deployed on all the five bridges to prevent protesters in Old Town from crossing over into new town. No matter how small or big, the clampdown by forces brings back memories of death and destruction, of crackdowns and funerals, of pallbearers who abandon corpses in the middle of road, of those countless cold nights spent in fear.
As the groups of people swelled near the two mouths of the bridge, the trooper signaled us it was time to cross over. We walked in fear. A women, part of our group, had her Burqa stuck in the concertina wire but she managed to set it free on her own. When everyone had crossed over, the bridge was sealed again.
I was finally home. I felt relieved but I was not happy. I had to meet a ‘12-year-old boy’ whose photograph I has seen on Facebook. The picture, purportedly taken by his friend on the day of Lok Sabha elections in Baramulla, showed the bruised back of the boy with numerous pellet injuries. The picture had gone viral on social networking sites and many people had questioned its authenticity.
My task was clearly set out. I had to locate him. It didn’t turn out to be a task as I had anticipated. When I showed his picture on my mobile phone to a cheerful boy playing cricket on the roadside, he nonchalantly replied: “Oh, this is Shoiab. He was injured by a pellet bomb few days back.” He gave me the address of Shoiab – Syed Karim Sahib Mohalla, a congested locality of crumbling and irregularly build houses in Old Town.
On the day of Lok Sabha elections in the town, six friends including Shoaib, all in their teens, were playing carom inside one of the narrow lanes of Syed Kareem Mohalla, a soon-to-be dismantled locality under a plan for decongestion of Old Town. The boys were focused on the game until a bang in the neighborhood broke their concentration, which was followed by loud cheering.
A teargas shell had been hurled towards a group of youths shouting pro-freedom and anti-election slogans near the Cement Bridge over Jehlum river in the town, five hundred meters away from the place where the boys were playing carom. Stones were flying over the bridge, shooting down on the forces who used transparent shields to protect themselves. Enthusiastic children, without realizing the danger, wanted to be as close to the scene of clashes as they could. They saw dozens of youth pelting stones at the forces. As the crowd of curious onlookers swelled, the clashes intensified. Police and paramilitary forces responded by firing aerial gunshots and pellet grenades at the protesters and also at the crowd of onlookers, according to eyewitnesses.
When a pellet grenade is fired, like a conventional grenade, it sends out hundreds of tiny metallic balls into the air. Although banned by western countries, paramilitary forces and police still continue to use pellet grenades in Kashmir. The lethality of this weapon has led to severe criticism of its use by human rights groups but it hasn’t stopped the government in Kashmir from using them as a tool of crowd control.
In recent times, the pellet grenades have earned India more enemies in Kashmir than any other weapon. It has blinded people. There are young boys with disfigured faces, without eyes, boys whose bodies carry the scars of these vicious metallic balls. In Kashmir, those protesting on the streets have many reasons for pelting stones. Stone throwing is a political statement. But here in Old Town of Baramulla, stone is a weapon for children, not just to express their resentment but also to stare fearlessly in the face of a State whose coercive tactics have failed to obtain their submission.
When the six friends left their game of carom on May 7 to watch the clashes, they sat on a large empty kerosene tank. Within minutes, teargas and pellet grenades were fired towards them. Shoiab, 14, tried to run but a grenade exploded behind him, shooting hundreds of pellets towards him. The pellets bored through a white Tee he was wearing and pierced his back.
“I thought I was hit by bullets. It felt like someone had poured petrol and set fire from my shoulders to thighs but I kept running to a safer place,” he told me.
The boys accompanying Shoaib took him to a makeshift dispensary in Old Town where he was given a soft drink to ease his pain. Once hit, most of the victims are afraid of visiting doctors for treatment, fearing that they will be arrested by cops who are tipped about their presence in hospitals by sleuths in plainclothes.
But the news had reached his home and his mother entered the dispensary, giving him a tight slap. She hugged him then and, after nearly 117 pellets were removed from his back, took him home.
The smell of freshly cemented walls hung in the air as I arrived outside the two storied concrete home owned by Shoiab’s father. Within minutes, the entire family came out to meet me. Shoiab’s father cursed the day when he migrated to Baramulla from a nearby village so that his children could get better education. His elder son who is fifteen-year-old was arrested recently on charges of stone throwing and let off after a warning by the judge when the boy turned out to be a minor.
“He was a stone-pelter but, thanks to a police official, he doesn’t indulge in it anymore. But Shoaib was playing carom on that day. He doesn’t throw stones. He is too small. He had gone there to watch the clashes, like many other kids,” his father told me.
Shoaib’s furious mother joined her husband as they together started cursing their son for joining young boys who were watching the clashes on May 7. I closed my notebook and asked Shoiab if he could accompany me to a nearby street. As I walked out of the narrow alleys of Old Town, I kept thinking about Shoiab and his father’s journey from a small village to Baramulla, and as much I walked away from Shoiab’s home, I felt leaving a dark trail behind me.