To many, the reaction to the violence in the Kashmiri town of Handwara last week that followed allegations that a schoolgirl had been molested by a solider is a conspiracy against the army. But for many ordinary Kashmiris, the incident is a reminder that no place is safe for anyone, not even children.
For the rest of India, the schoolgirl, whose identity was revealed to the world in a video released by the authorities as a clarification, will become just another footnote in the sad history of Kashmir. The names of the five people killed in firing during the protests will disappear from the news columns. But if there is something that Kashmiris have become adept at, it is remembering. The Handwara incident will be filed with our other memories, scars on our collective psyche.
The girl experienced a more traumatic coming of age than most of us have ever had to face. But in Kashmir, every boy knows what its like to be stopped on road randomly and frisked by the forces and very girl knows what its like to be leered at from behind machine guns.
Many in the Indian media have considered the case closed after the girl made a statement to a magistrate denying that a solider had molested her. But this raises a question: why do so few people in Kashmir believe it?
The answer isnt that far to seek. The armys record in Kashmir on sexual violence is tainted. Kunan Poshpora, the village where soldiers of the Rajputana Rifles are alleged to have conducted mass rapes of between 23 to 100 women in 1991, is in the same district as Handwara. But as Kashmiris know, the fact that the army controls every aspect of life in the rural section of the Valley, especially in the border towns, makes it harder for anyone to go against them.
But even as many are sceptical of the state narrative , the authorities are attempting to push another line, hitting the press through controlled stories. This has resulted in many so-called experts in television studios constantly asking why an ordinary crime turned into a mob frenzy. They refuse to acknowledge that every Kashmiri knows what it’s like to be as scared as that schoolgirl.
These people out on the roads were not just fighting for that girl. They were fighting for themselves and for their families.
I was in Class 9 when I was stopped for the first time and my ID cardchecked. The army man even asked me to state Newtons three laws just to check whether I was actually in school. It might be he was simply having some fun with me. But to this day, even though I live in the safety of another city far from Kashmir, I still carry my ID card with me everywhere.
Climate of fear
Growing up in Kashmir during the 90s, we did not need stories of bogey men or monsters under our bed to scare us. Our monsters lived just outside our gates, we could hear them walking down the streets, coughing in the middle of night, shining industrial-strength search lights into our bedrooms. We still sleep behind locked doors, scared of midnight knocks.
For me and for the millions of us who live through this fear every day, it has become so ordinary that we barely notice it. The fact that every move you make and every conversation you have is seen, heard and recorded is simply a fact of life. We know it under our skin and on the edges of our consciousness.
For others, who come to see the mountains and lakes and gardens, the presence of the men in olive green is reassurance. For us, the man behind the sand bunkers has his LMG pointed at our hearts, with its safety cock off.
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