How many deaths will it take…

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. ~ Prof Howard Zinn, leading historian and author

The air was laden with a hint of festivity. Two friends, let us call them Amin and Javed, woke up to a frosty February morning unsure of what the day had in store for them. They lived in the same village, a picaresque hamlet called Bomai, situated on the foot of a hazel colored Kashmir hillock. It was a special day for the teenagers, one that they had planned over many days. They were going on a trip to the neighboring village, where a locally venerated saint’s birth anniversary was being held. Many boys and girls [along with adults] from the tiny village went on foot across the sienna hammock to visit the astaan [shrine]. The boys were apparently all kicked up.

The thing with the countryside, as with most urban centers, in a conservative place like Kashmir is that religion and rituals can be a damn serious business. It is all pervasive. You will basically come across naïve, loving people who just happen to take their faith and tradition very seriously. The saint lovingly called Mehboob-ul-Alam [love of the world] and Sultan-ul-Arifeen [king of knowledge], was born to a Rajput landlord family some 500 years back in Tujar. Lore has it that he was ennobled from a young age – and preached a unique blend of love and mysticism. People thronged the place to get blessed from him. Five centuries later the love affair continues. His birthday is still a big occasion in the hills.

Days before the urs, as the birthday is called locally, a fair-like aura sets in. Hawkers suddenly get busy installing stalls that sell dumplings and fritters, shaped like small potato wedges. Immigrant sweet-makers erect their small shops to make helva [sweet confection] and paranthas [oily round bread] that sell like hot cakes. Village shopkeepers stock up on everything from Chinese toys for kids to fake perfumes for shy damsels, who put on their best firak-yazar [loose tunics with matching trousers] and set off to the astaan, giggling along the way. Children shriek with joy. Men sing hymns aloud. Boys bum around.

Amin’s mom served him tea and bread for breakfast. He couldn’t eat too well. All he wanted to do was join his friends at the fair. Javed too hurriedly gobbled his breakfast and rushed off to meet his band. Together they wanted to visit the neighboring village, look at the girls, puff off, pay the obligatory visit at the holy saint’s shrine [where incidentally Sultan-ul-Arifeen isn’t buried, being just born there]. They thought they could perhaps come home late carrying small plastic bags with helva and alov-mongey [potato wedges deep fried] in them. Without having to fear a parental rebuke. Such little pleasures.

While the teenagers waited at the village square for other friends to turn up, an army party pulled up, guns cocked and gaze cocky. They began to randomly frisk people. Pushing some and vexing others. The boys avoided eye-contact with the troopers who came from the nearby army camp, notorious for its reputation. Riding roughshod the army men began to eve-tease girls on their way to the fair. Some people gathered courage and asked the troopers to behave. Insults were exchanged. The boys, curious, joined the crowd. 

The day that had begun on a cheerful note was beginning to look morose. A rude interlude hung. People, historically, used to attend the urs had never observed such nuisance. The army tried to chase them away. People refused to budge. This construed an act of defiance. How could the village folk not scoot when they are chased! Guns were aimed at unarmed people. Since people in these parts of the world cannot have human rights and no international humanitarian law applies [India believes UN resolutions on Kashmir are old and hence redundant] — it was decided to fire upon a bunch of harmless village people.

The crackle of gunfire sent people scurrying for cover. The carnival unexpectedly turned into a carnage. Blood splattered on the damp February soil. The hate colored bullets entered Amin. He lay in the village square, Rs 100 bill tucked away carefully in the pocket to buy some snack, dying a slow death. Javed fell to another bullet, eyes wide open. Little dreams lost forever.

Nothing much. Two more innocents. Two more Kashmiris. The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic, I recall of Joseph Stalin.

Protests, some hollering, a strike. Enquires. Commissions. Normalcy.

Amin and Javed, in their teens, go to graves and will never attend the fair again. Not fair. (C) Sameer Bhat

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