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Suhasini Haidar
Friday , May 20, 2011 at 15 : 45

Covering Kashmir: An outsider's view from the inside - II


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The militants we met were probably the last batch of fully home-grown insurgents fighting in Kashmir. 1995 marked the takeover of the struggle by non-Kashmiri militants - mainly by Afghan-war hardened jihadis. The group of 16 that kidnapped 6 western tourists in July 1995 for example, was all made up of Pakistanis and Afghans. They were called Al-Faran not, as might be hazarded because they were "all foreign", but named after a sacred mountain in Saudi Arabia, a group that disappeared after the kidnappings as mysteriously as it had appeared.

But Al-Faran's impact on the Kashmiri separatist landscape didn't disappear as easily. I remember very clearly the day we were sent video of Norwegian Hans Christian Ostro - killed a month after he was taken hostage. Ostro was dressed in an olive salwar kameez. His hands were folded together, cradling his severed head in them. Since then, I have been witness to many more brutal events in the valley, experienced far more frightening happenings, but have never been physically sick as I was when I saw that image. Years later, when we heard of how Rupin Katyal, the hostage killed on board IC-814 bled to death before his captors, and how journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded twice, once for the camera, I wasn't surprised to hear that elements of Al-Faran were involved in those kidnappings too. Let's remember that Al Faran in 1995 and the IC-814 hostage takers in 1999 both demanded the release of Mazood Azhar, held in Indian prisons then. And the mastermind of Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and killing was Sheikh Omar Ahmed Saied, also released along with Azhar during the IC-814 prisoner swap.

Ostro's killing evoked a sharp sense of revulsion in the Valley too, and even the Hurriyat held a bandh to protest it. As a journalist from New Delhi, who came up to Kashmir intermittently, I felt the atmosphere change. This was no longer only a fight between the state and separatist forces, this was no political battle. Everyone was now a target - tourists (who until 1995 were still coming in large numbers), and also journalists. In September 1995, ANI cameraman Mushtaq Ali was killed when a parcel bomb delivered to the BBC office in Srinagar exploded. The militants were now referred to as terrorists, and for the first time we saw journalists given security guards. Militant training camps shut down in the valley, and they stopped meeting journalists freely. The nature of attacks changed too to fidayeen strikes, where terrorists dressed as security forces to attack security camps, and civilians alike. They no longer wished to be recognized, and their public statements were made not from the valley, but from across the LoC. Security forces too became more trigger happy, constantly on alert, never quite sure when someone in a uniform could turn around and open fire on them.

Other things changed - Kashmir's strong Sufi character developed Deobandi undertones. Women no longer came out at the forefront of protests, singing songs, and arguing with the forces. Cheerful, colourful cheent prints gave way to somber black burkhas; the traditional Kashmiri scarf tied loosely behind the head was now bound tightly around the face. People I met, who had often spoken about a day the Kashmiri Pandits would return, now saw no chance of that happening. In many ways, the state was improving its hold on the security situation, leading to elections in September 1996; but in many ways both mainstream and separatist leaders were losing their grip on Kashmir as they knew it. Ironically, it wasn't till the protests of 2010, that I saw Cheent prints return to the helm of the protests - at vigils way past midnight, I saw women leading the sloganeering in Srinagar, sometimes accompanied by young daughters.

To go back a bit, the elections of 1996 were welcomed by many- but also regarded as having been rigged. From what I saw, the voters turnout figures (More than 50%) was clearly exaggerated, but the results that saw the National Conference win a near a 2/3rds majority may not have been very different. I'll never forget the delight I saw in the eyes of one woman: cherubic innocence, yet a face lined with wrinkles dancing out of the polling booth; thrilled, she told us, to be voting after nearly a decade. I then saw her rubbing her fingernail with some varnish, turn her phiran inside out, change her headscarf, and skip blithely back into the line so she could vote again! But the excitement of being able to vote in a government very rapidly dissipated as the government failed to deliver on any of its promises, and non-Kashmiri players developed a more controlling grip on the valley. The story of that decade is perhaps best told through the life of Firdous Syed Baba.

Doda-born Firdous was the dreaded commander of a group called the Muslim Janbaaz force. One of many 'boys' who went across the LoC and returned full of training and zeal. But unlike other young men of that time, Firdous, or Baba Badr as he was known, never stopped questioning his actions. The questions eventually led him to disappointment with Pakistan. He was captured by security forces, but after some years in prison decided to give up the gun and join the mainstream. He even joined politics, and became an MLC for the National Conference. But here too, he faced disillusionment. That sense of disappointment is always there in Firdous's eyes, of having believed and having been betrayed by those he believed in: his Pakistani handlers, his militant cadres, his political colleagues, the Indian government. Firdous is unusually tall, unusually frail and unexpectedly shy. When I first met him, he had given up politics and was working on the reconciliation process in Kashmir. Over the years he went to Stanford University to study, set up computer training institutes for orphans of the violence, and now is a keen peace activist, writing regular columns in Srinagar.

The inability of the Indian government to involve thinking, independent men like Firdous Syed Baba in its efforts to engage Kashmir is perhaps its biggest failure. While we often hear officials complain about the intransigience of the seperatist leadership, it seldom reflects on why men who have so much to gain from joining the Indian system prefer to stay out. Syed Ali Shah Geelani for example, was an MLA in 1970s. One of his sons is a professor at the Agricultural University there, the other recently returned from Pakistan for good. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Sajjad and Bilal Lone, Yasin Mallik are all invested in the Indian story, certainly far more than in the Pakistani narrative. When I first met the Mirwaiz, he was all of fifteen, a studious boy who dreamed of studying engineering at one of the IITs. That was before his father was assassinated. Sajjad and Bilal Lone, like the Mirwaiz, lost their father to terrorists: both Abdul Ghani Lone and the Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq were killed because they advocated talks with the Indian government. Sajjad Lone and his sister Shabnam have taken big personal risks to stand for elections, without being given much credit for it. And despite his years as a militant, and long stints in prison, Yasin remains committed to 'Gandhian' principles, and is always ready to engage with the government. The fact that none of them have yet been convinced to join the political mainstream is as much a failure of the state as it is their own. The responsibility now lies with the man who has the most to lose if these seperatists were to stand for election: Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who is about the same age as them. Yet it is encouraging that he has consistently supported the idea of talks with them.

In order to complete that reach out, though, Omar Abdullah would have to learn what it was like for them to grow up in the valley over the past two decades. The average Kashmiri sees so many instances of brutality by the time he is ten. The brutality of militancy, but also the brute-force of the state. Young men taken away for questioning, but leaving no answers for where they were taken or what happened to them. Cordon and search operations that strip everyone of their dignity. Convoys that pass through villages firing randomly just to keep people from coming out. At times Jawans hang out of the sides of the trucks with large batons in their hands so as to whack anyone who comes close to the road.

(This is the second post in a four-part series. Tomorrow: Kashmir's darkest period)

Click here for Part I


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More about Suhasini Haidar

Suhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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