Monday 8 December 2014

The never ending conflict

The doctor who treated a sixteen year old boy

Recently released from an interrogation centre asked,

‘Why didn’t the fortune tellers predict

The lines in his palms would be cut by a knife?’

-Agha Shahid Ali

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (Random House India,2009)  had been lying on my book shelf for some time but  I kept postponing  reading it. Then came Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Haider’ (an adaptation of Hamlet,set in Kashmir)followed by all the controversy about the depiction of armed forces in the film. After watching the movie (which has been co-scripted by Basharat Peer) I just could not resist reading the book any further. And I am glad I finally decided to pick it up. It was a pleasure to read it. As expected those who have seen ‘Haider’ will find a lot of scenes from the book reflecting in the movie including the infamous torture scenes in the curiously named interrogation centre Papa-2.The author was born and brought up in a village in the district of Anantnag in Kashmir. When militancy tore apart normal life in Kashmir, he was sent off to Aligarh where he completed his graduation and then moved to Delhi enrolling himself in the law faculty of Delhi University with the plan to prepare for civil services as his parents had wanted him to. However, he was more inclined to be a writer and soon found himself working as a journalist for a leading magazine. Well I guess the government’s loss was literature’s gain. After spending a few years in Delhi he felt the need to write about  conflict in his state ( accentuated by the fact that there was absence of any good literature on the same) and decided to return to his parent’s house (who had moved to Srinagar after narrowly escaping a bomb blast) and started putting pen to paper. He travelled extensively in the state meeting old friends, acquaintances and through them interviewed a whole cross-section of the society including survivors from the notorious Papa-2 Detention Centre, surrendered militants, half-widows, relatives of ‘disappeared’ boys and many others who bore the brunt of the atrocities of the armed forces as the battled the home grown and Pakistan sponsored militants with the backing of the draconian AFSPA. As the author slowly peels the layers off the society, we are exposed to more and more of the debilitating effects the years of militancy has had on the people of the valley. Perhaps the most moving encounter is the one with the couple Rashid and Mubeena. The bus in which they were returning after their wedding was stopped by BSF men and before they could realize the bus came under heavy firing. Five bullets hit Rashid and three hit Mubeena. She, along with her bridesmaid was dragged to the mustard field beside the road and raped by an unknown number of BSF  men (‘I could not even remember how many they were. I had lost my senses’). An enquiry was ordered and some soldiers suspended. However worst was to follow. For Rashid’s family and his village, Mubeena was a bad omen for she had brought them misfortune. It is then amazing that the couple survived this horrible incident, thanks mainly to Mubeena’s parents and friends.

In a conflict of this nature, where it is difficult to distinguish between an innocent bystander and a militant (as we saw earlier in the case of  militancy in Punjab ) the worst sufferers are the innocent citizens as they are caught in the cross-fire between the armed forces and the militants. What adds more poignancy to the Kashmir conflicts is that it has taken place in the background of a beautiful landscape and the author’s poetic prose adds weight to the narration of the tragedy. The reasons behind the conflict are  many and  complex and the author briefly touches upon them in the beginning. But in end there can be no denying of excesses committed by the armed forces and a sense of alienation which pervades the population of the state. The militancy has come down in recent times and the state witnessed a record turnout in the ongoing assembly elections but as recent attacks by the militants show, Kashmir will always be on the edge. If at one end of the Kashmir conflict are the innocent residents, at the other end are the Kashmiri pandits who were forced to leave their homes in the valley at the peak of the militancy and many of whom live in pitiful conditions in Jammu and Delhi. The author has an emotional reunion with his school principal, Chaman Lal Kantroo, who now stays in his one room home in Jammu with his family , a far cry from his multiple rooms house in Kashmir. However if you want to read in detail about the displaced Kashmiri Pandits then this may not be the book for you.  I wish that if the author had met a few people from the armed forces, it would have given us a more rounded view. But what I most disliked about the book are the somewhat derogatory and sweeping statements he makes about Muslims habitats in Delhi. Maybe he did not spend enough time in the capital or did not engage enough with Muslims in the city. Maybe since then (the book was published in 2009) his views may have changed. But then this book is not about Muslims in Delhi so we can overlook such minor lapses in an otherwise excellent book.

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