On July 8, Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old rebel, was shot dead by Indian soldiers and police officers in a small village in the central part of Indian-occupied Kashmir. News of his killing spread as fast as the bullets that had hit him. Cellphones, emails, social media went wild: “They’ve killed Burhan! They’ve killed Burhan!” Everybody called Burhan by his first name.
He had become an Internet sensation over the past year, first in Kashmir, then in India and Pakistan, after putting together a small band of Kashmiri militants. Barely out of their teens, they had taken to the forest and social media to challenge the Indian government. Photos they posted on Facebook show them in military fatigues and with stubbly chins, posing with AK-47s against backdrops of apple orchards or mountains. In one video, Burhan plays cricket. A dozen boys with a few guns — they were no threat to the Indian army, one of the largest in the world. There is no record of Burhan and his crew waging any attack. Their rebellion was symbolic, a war of images against India’s continuing occupation of Kashmir, where about half a million of its soldiers, paramilitary and armed police are still stationed.
Protests erupted on the day of Burhan’s funeral and were repressed by Indian troops with indiscriminate force, including pellet guns: As of Monday, about 50 people had been killed and 3,100 injured, nearly half of them Indian troops but also children as young as 4. Instead of opening political negotiations to address Kashmiris’ calls for independence, India continues to unabashedly use military force to maintain a status quo that for years has suffocated millions in the region. When I first saw the photos of Burhan and his boys, I thought: another generation of young Kashmiris about to be consumed. Those apple orchards and mountains in the background, which I know intimately and call home, brought back memories of the early ’90s, when I was a teenager in southern Kashmir. An armed insurgency and a popular rebellion were underway then, triggered by the Indian government’s meddling in a recent state election.
By the time the insurgency was quashed in the late 2000s, more than 70,000 militants, soldiers and civilians had been killed. Still, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris would occasionally take to the streets. Indian troops continued to respond with violence, even against civilians armed with nothing or nothing more than stones. Hardly any soldier has been prosecuted for civilian killings because Indian law has long granted immunity to troops posted in Kashmir and other troubled regions.
Burhan came of age with this inheritance of loss and rage. He was 15, a top-ranking student from a middle-class family, in 2010 — that summer alone Indian forces killed more than 110 Kashmiri protesters. One afternoon that year, Indian police officers posted in Burhan’s town reportedly sent him and his brother Khalid to fetch cigarettes and then beat up the boys when they returned. Humiliated, Burhan left for the mountains and joined a tiny group of militants. Then last year, Khalid, who was doing post-graduate work in economics, was killed by Indian soldiers.
I reached Kashmir from Delhi on July 11, and the next morning when I woke up in my parents’ house in southern Srinagar, I heard only crickets chirping in the backyard. The streets were desolate except for groups of Indian paramilitary troops with guns and bamboo sticks. The pro-India politicians who run the Kashmir government had all but disappeared from public view.
I walked into an ophthalmology ward. There were about 20 beds with a teenager or young man in each and relatives standing around in anxious huddles. Almost every patient had large, black sunglasses. “Seventy-two patients with pellet injuries arrived here in one day,” one doctor told me. As of Sunday, SMHS Hospital alone had received more than 180 people with serious wounds to the eyes. A single shot from a pellet gun sprays more than a hundred pellets. A pellet is a high-velocity projectile 2mm to 4mm around and with sharp edges. It doesn’t simply penetrate an eye; it ricochets inside it, tearing the retina and the optic nerves, scooping out flesh and bone.
I walked through the hospital with Dr. Javed Shafi, a surgeon in his early 40s, as he was making bed calls with his patients. The day before he had operated on Shafia Jan, a pale, slim woman in her mid-20s from Arwani, a village about 50 miles south. She had stepped out of her house after hearing commotion on the street during protests following Burhan’s death, she explained. A police officer fired his pump-action gun toward her. “I didn’t feel anything at first. Then, my left leg crumbled and I fell. I saw my intestines falling out,” Ms. Jan told me. She pushed her guts back into the wound and held them in with her hands. Scores of pellets had pierced her lower abdomen, opening up the scars of an earlier C-section.
Omar Nazir, a reed-thin boy of 12, barely filled one corner of his bed. A thick swathe of bandages formed a cross across his chest and belly. He had black, adult-size glasses. “He’s lost both his eyes,” Dr. Shafi said. Doctors had yet to deliver the news to Nazir Ahmad, the boy’s father, a day labourer in Pulwama, a district in southern Kashmir, but he already seemed to know. Mr. Ahmad, tall and wiry, looked at the doctor, his eyes liquid with entreaty: “Dr. Sahib, we own one-fifth of an acre of land in the village. I will sell all my land, but please make him see.” In other corners of the hospital: A young man with the face of Adrian Brody whose penis had to be amputated because it had been shredded by pellets. A four-year-old girl, her legs and abdomen riddled by what she called “firecrackers.” And Insha Malik.
I had read about Insha, 14, in that morning’s paper. The photograph accompanying the article showed a face with red wart-like wounds. Her nasal bridge was a lump of raw flesh held together by black surgical thread. The bloodied lids of her left eye had been sown shut. Her right eye was a red alloy of blood, flesh, bone and metal. Insha was in the surgical intensive care unit of SMHS Hospital, a few rooms away from the ward I visited with Dr. Shafi. Afroza Malik, her mother, a woman in her early 50s, sat right by the ICU door on the bare floor. Her husband, who had a leg injury from an earlier accident, was lying on a blanket, his head in his wife’s lap. She was stroking his graying hair.
Ms. Malik explained that on July 12, she, Insha and several relatives had taken refuge in an upstairs room of their two-story house in Sedew, a tiny village 40 miles south of Srinagar. They closed the thick wooden windows and sat on the floor. They heard tear gas canisters being fired; they heard gunshots. A loud noise followed. A pellet gun had been fired at the window. Insha was sitting nearby. “The window was blown to pieces,” Ms. Malik told me. “I heard her wail and saw blood flowing out of her eyes. She fell on the floor.”
A few days later, the police raided the offices of Greater Kashmir, the daily that had run that story about Insha, as well as several other local newspapers, and shut down the printing presses. The authorities’ familiar silencing routine had begun again. Indian officials and thought leaders fell back on tired rituals of obfuscation and denial. But already one line of graffiti had appeared on every other wall throughout the entire valley: “Go India, Go Back!” — The writer is the author of “Curfewed Night,” a memoir of the conflict in Kashmir, and the forthcoming, “A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen.”
— Courtesy: The New York Times