Long Drive to Freedom

Long Drive to Freedom

By Sajid Iqbal

‘We shall meet again in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys and disappear.
Again we’ll enter our last world,
the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.
We’ll tear our shirts for tourniquets,
and bind the open thorns,
warm the ivy into roses.
Quick, by the pomegranate ‘the bird will say’
Humankind can bear everything.’
(Agha Shahid Ali)

Following Eid, I couldn’t leave my house for two weeks; couldn’t step outside; or so much as peep out. What does one do, when forced to stay indoors for so long? Precious little, it seems. Twenty four hours a day, day after day, of doing absolutely nothing constructive; condemned to an animalistic existence, involving for the most part, food and rest. These days, for most people in Kashmir, even food is a luxury. Standards of living are redundant, work is at a standstill and education is elusive. But I refused: refused to merely feed myself and sleep. I wrote. Writing, I find, is the only way to prevent a mind emasculated, neutered by the state from imploding within itself.
But it is impossible to find words to describe the indescribable. How does one begin to do justice to the feelings of a hundred and eleven families for whom life now becomes irrelevant? How does one put in words a father burying his young son, after his coffin was desecrated in yet more violence? Violence in life, followed by violence in death: trying to compile such inhumanity, such cruelty, that level of pain and loss, one can feel supremely insensitive, shamelessly opportunistic and pathologically stone-hearted. But I have to try, or as someone has very astutely observed ‘again, within the context of Kashmir ‘my heart will explode like a bomb. It is for purely selfish reasons that I do so.

I wrote, and also read; devouring every bit of information about the devastation that was unfolding all around. Its an obsession, now. But it hurts so much, to read about the ruin of my people; pains to know that the moment is too big, and I am too small; upsets me greatly to just keep twiddling my thumbs. It seems I almost enjoy hurting myself. Perhaps it’s my way of feeling closer to my people, of sharing in their grief, experiencing their loss. It would hurt even more to enjoy myself, making as if everything was fine. If the state wants to stifle me, I am not going to make it easy for them by killing my own conscience; it would only be dehumanizing oneself.

I have written, I have read. I have also seen: heartbreaking images of death, destruction and violence. The death of boys, girls, women and children; the scarring of the injured; the destruction of the families of the dead ‘indeed, of our society. Waking up in the morning, every morning, to images of death, to stories of the latest accomplishments of an insensitive, predatory state, has been a continuing nightmare. For four months now, lost somewhere between clashing meta-narratives of the ‘political’, has been the ‘human’. Many of our ‘political’ rights have doubtless been snatched, such as the right to free speech, our freedom of assembly and the right to be critical of our government, but so also has been our ‘human’ right to mourn.

Death is no longer viewed as a stand-alone event, or as connected with the Hereafter, and the grand scheme of things envisaged by God. For the people, it is the bitter harvest they are forced to reap of the institutionalised violence of a predatory state; for the state, it is causally related to ‘instigation’: on a good day, by the separatists, and on one that is normal, from ‘across the border’. For someone like me, the lack of compassion in all this ‘of empathy, of humanity ‘is shocking. Every death cannot and should not be part of a broader political meta-narrative, as it is a human event, that touches frail human lives. It should not be usurped by ‘the movement’, or appropriated by ‘the state’. It must be left to individuals to grieve their dead, as in the case of the death of Yasin Malik’s kin; otherwise, for a family robbed of a loved one’s life, they are then robbed of their death.

With such musings on my mind, in addition to a heart full of guilt, I set off on a drive: my long drive to freedom. Having been imprisoned inside my own home for the most part of four months, not having worked for more than a week in that period, I must say that I was quite looking forward to an escape to Jammu…the mind tends to rust when one doesn’t have to use it. I set-off midday, in the middle of the vicious curfew, having been informed that the state mercifully lets you travel the national highway, if that is your sole objective. The first thing I noticed when I left home ‘for the first time in two weeks ‘was that there wasn’t a soul in sight, barring the well protected and heavily armed soldiers and police who, for the average Kashmiri, are irrelevant anyway.

The thoroughfares were stupendously desolate, with even animals seemingly thinking twice before venturing out. The administration had finally succeeded in cowing down the people, forcing them to stay home through brute force. Regardless, as I drove along, of course I couldn’t help noticing that coming at me from all directions were armored trucks. Trucks carrying soldiers, ostensibly there to guard us; to guard what can only be described as a graveyard. I drove past Pampore, Awantipora and Bijbehara, and they kept coming. I passed Khanabal and then Qazigund, but they didn’t stop. It was harvest time in Kashmir, but not a soul was in the fields to harvest. The barrenness of the scene was supremely depressing. Do we deserve this, I wondered?

How many different kinds of soldiers were on their way in, while I was on my way out, to beat the people into submission? I noticed armored trucks of the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, and the Indian Army. The Army was patrolling the highway, along with the CRPF, with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police thrown in for good measure. How many forces will it take to tame unruly minds, stubbornly refusing to fit into what Chomsky calls the ‘Grand Design’, and so that they don’t dare to think? Crossing the Jawahar Tunnel, I saw the expressions on the faces of all those soldiers in all those armored trucks on their way to Kashmir change; while they had looked stern, even hostile, while I was in Kashmir, they now seemed relaxed, benevolent ‘basically human. It seems we are not the only ones robbed of our humanity.

The trucks kept coming and I kept driving. Reaching Banihal, I finally saw civilization. No longer were roads empty and towns deserted, devoid of any people, like those I had left behind in Kashmir. At last I saw people. Real people. Everyday people. People like us, wearing the familiar salwar kameez, not the alien, if not completely unfamiliar, riot gear that I had been seeing for four months…or is it twenty years? Towards Ramban, the population only kept increasing, much like the heat. My heart soared, only to sink again. Is this what we’ve been reduced to? Am I really jealous of persons doing nothing more remarkable than going out to buy groceries; of a child allowed the luxury of going to the school that was started for him?

This is the life, I told myself euphorically, exhaling a deep breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Why can’t we Kashmiris be more like this? Look at these people, I thought. They’re so…regular. So unremarkable, so normal. I want to be unremarkable, mundane. Why can’t the predatory state let us protest, but also let us shop, study, work, travel? Why do protestors have to pelt stones, or destroy property? Why should all the obligatory rounds of condemnation and justification follow? Batote followed Ramban, Patnitop Batote, Udhampur Patnitop. A strange disquiet spread through me. I wanted to stop thinking, but my mind refused to co-operate. Kashmir is such a politicized land, I reminisced. Look at these people. They are so dull, so free from politics. Or are they?

The legal profession is reeling in Kashmir: professionally finished, I convinced myself to attempt a fresh start in Jammu. For someone loathing politics and craving ‘normalcy’, it seemed a reasonably straightforward choice. Going to court every day, it didn’t take long to get back into the groove, as it were. I was finally working again and it seemed intellectually satisfying; above all, I was relieved to be using my brain for something. Sitting at home causes initiative to wither away, plunging one into mediocrity. Having always enjoyed working for others more than for myself, over the past four months, a deleterious mishmash of the establishment, the separatists and lawyers’ representatives had prevented me from so doing. Although the guilt never really left me, work was good, and the money was trickling in. It was just the normalcy I had craved.

And then it happened. The Government of India announced the so-called eight point formula ‘which did not amount to much in the first place ‘and I realized Jammu was not really as apolitical as I had imagined. The narrative was that the Centre was only trying to ‘appease seditious Kashmiris’, who have ‘gotten used to sops at the expense of Jammu and Ladakh’. What happened next was in much the same vein as politics in Kashmir. Protesting against the said ‘appeasement’, various organizations called for a general strike across Jammu. Like Kashmir, Jammu ground to halt ‘though only for a day ‘and so did my work…again. Trenches have long since been dug, in this supposed battle between ideologies, and in their minds, everyone is right. But what happens to people who do not want to take sides, I thought?

Suddenly, it felt suffocating again. One has nothing against two groups of people taking contrarian stands on a particular issue, but is appalled by the deficiency of analysis, the deliberate lack of objectivity, the obfuscation employed in seeking to validate stated positions: dissent, not reasoned, but for its own sake. One also despairs about the ever shrinking tolerance for, and the out-of-hand dismissal of, persons who so much as dare to think, especially when others do not. If this is true of Kashmir, it is equally true of Jammu; what is lost somewhere, in the midst of all the name-calling, the dishonest posturing and the condemnation, is our basic humanity; the ability to empathize with those who have lost everything.

It happened again. No sooner had our Chief Minister asserted that accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India was conditional ‘which it was ‘that all hell broke loose. Swiftly, he became just another ‘seditious Kashmiri’ for the Panthers Party (who called for a second general strike), the Bar Association, Jammu, and the BJP. Also, he was finally part-appropriated in Kashmir, with separatist leaders tom-tomming his statement as official acknowledgement, albeit belated, of the character of Kashmir as an international dispute. Just as promptly, past sins and ensuing lack of credibility were forgotten. Omar was now a puppet, a traitor and someone who cocked-a-snook at the powers-that-be.

The guilt came flooding back. Is this why I left Kashmir? Was this the freedom I craved? Were these really very different? Where was the objectivity, the dullness I sought? Where was the ideologically neutral liberal space that a mature democracy must have? Why must one be branded a traitor, or a collaborator? Why can’t he be both, or neither? One is constantly suppressed, expected to conform, branded and slotted. Did I really drive to freedom? Was this also not an intellectual cage? Rapidly, I felt suffocated again.

Sajid Iqbal is a human rights lawyer and works with Mercy Corps in Kashmir.

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