Bare Lives: Making Brooms for a Living

Every year, thousands of non-local migrant workers arrive in Kashmir from various Indian states to make a living. Many among them bring the raw material for making brooms, a trade which gives them a better life than they can think of in their home states.


In the busy, dust-laden market of Batamaloo locality in Indian administered Kashmir, several non-local migrants are sitting on a pavement with stacks of brooms laid out in front of them. A lean, seventeen-year-old, Raju Ram is one among hundreds of non-local broom makers who arrive in Srinagar city every year. Raju came to Kashmir three years ago with his family and started making and selling brooms to earn a living. “This is the only profession I know. I can’t do anything else,” he says with a resigned look on his face. Raju inherited this occupation from his parents who, in turn, earned it from theirs, continuing a family business that has been going on for generations.

In 2011, Raju, along with his family, left Indian state of Rajasthan in pursuit of ‘a better livelihood in Kashmir.’ His father had been coming to Kashmir for more than eight years and he was drawing good business. “In Rajasthan, the broom making business is in decline. Kashmir is far better, although doing business here is a bit tough,” Raju says.

Raju looks older than his age. His face looks burned and he squints while speaking. Poverty and lack of opportunities in his home state of Rajasthan brought him to Kashmir. Now, every day is a battle to eke out a living for himself and his family. Raju rides an old bicycle atop which he carries his stack of brooms which he sells to shopkeepers around Batamaloo.

“My area of operation is Batamaloo. I don’t venture outside of that,” he says. His father travels to other places in the city, selling brooms made from the leaves of date palm trees, ‘which grow in multitude in Rajasthan’. To earn a living by selling brooms was a natural choice for Raju to make. “There is nothing else out there that I can do. My entire family is into this business, so why should I do anything else.” The money earned from this profession is very little. Raju says it’s enough to keep him going but life has no meaning for him.

“Poverty has taught me this lesson. The only thing I know is how to feed my belly.” The searing indictment is followed with a smile. “Ab Kya Karsakte Hain (What can one do)?”

Every day, Raju wakes up at 7 and immediately starts arranging the brooms on his bicycle. “I have to sell a lot of these before I leave.” For past three years, Raju comes every five months to Kashmir and stays for three months.

“During this time, we have to sell our entire stock,” he says. On a good business day, Raju sells about 20-30 brooms. “But business has been bad for many days now,” he says. The raw material costs his family around thirty thousand rupees and to earn a small profit on this involves battling day in and out amidst heat and rain. The only consolation for Raju is that in Kashmir, broom business is better than in Rajasthan.

“Kashmir is beautiful, but not without its troubles. The local people around the place we live trouble us. They want us to leave,” he says. His remark draws a suspicious look from a sari-clad woman who approaches us and takes Raju away. “I am his mother. Please stop bothering us!” she says.

Like scores of other non-migrant broom-makers, Raju lives in on a clearing of land converted into a slum dwelling on Jammu-Srinagar highway near Bemina locality. From a distance, the place looks like a mass of garbage until you see people moving about in it. Small tarpaulin covered hut-like structures lie scattered in the area. These are homes of the broom-makers, handmade by them. A foul stench wafts through the entire place, refusing to evaporate in the air.

In front of a makeshift hut whose contents lie about like the entrails of a dead animal, a woman is sitting on her haunches thrashing a broom on a spiked plane of wood. Her ragged clothes are featureless. Everything here is dirty, torn and reeking of stench. A naked, unwashed child is asleep in the hut as another plays in the dirt.

Khema, a man from Rajasthan in his thirties, is talking to few customers. His wife is in process of making a broom, thrashing the thick date palm leaves on a spiked wooden surface to make them thinner and perfect for a proper broom. The entire family has remained unwashed for months on end. “There is not enough water here to drink,” says Khema’s wife. Khema arrived in Kashmir some two months ago with a stock of brooms to sell. Khema is worried that his stock will not be finished in a month. “Ramadan was a good month for business,” he says.

Khema first arrived in Kashmir eight years ago with a promise of earning a decent livelihood to his family. The money he has earned barely goes above subsistence. He recalls his life in Rajasthan as one of perpetual misery. “Rajasthan is poor. There is not enough to eat and a consistent water scarcity. In Kashmir, we are far better off,” he says.

Khema’s twelve-year-old son, Billo, carefully begins to take off the tarpaulin cover of the hut they live in. On the previous night, strong winds and rain had blown the cover of their hut, exposing the entire family to rain. “But we managed to not let the rain affect the brooms,” Khema says. He joins his son in rearranging the tarpaulin cover.

Billo is an eager looking child who has come to Kashmir to help his father, leaving his studies midway. Khema believes it is time for him to learn the trade of how to make brooms. “There is not much he can do with himself if he studies. It’s better for him to learn the trade as early as possible,” he says.

Asked what brings him to Kashmir every year, Khema rubs his belly and utters a single word – ‘bhook‘ (hunger). As he finishes tying the tarpaulin cover to the roof of his ‘hut’, it begins to rain again.

Originally published here —



‘Celebrating’ Eid: The poignant lives of Kashmir’s Orphans

Suhail Ahmad Khan, 12, is a feeble boy whose bright black eyes give him inquisitive looks but silence pervades his movements. Unlike kids of his age, Suhail isn’t looking forward to Eid, a holy festival marking the end of Ramzan, the month of fasting for Muslims. The festival in fact adds burden to his memories of home in north Kashmir. Suhail is an orphan amongst 40 other odd orphans at Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation in Jawahar Nagar locality of Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar.

I asked him what Eid meant for an orphan like him. He looked down and started fiddling with the hem of his shirt. He had no answers to my questions, any question. “He is a silent kid and he remains occupied with himself,” said one of the men at the office attached to the building which houses the orphanage.

In 2009, Suhail, then aged six, was brought to Yateem Foundation by his cousin. He is among the few whose relatives have ‘stopped coming for him’, says Bashir Ahmad, program executive of the JK Yateem Foundation. On the occasion of festivals like Eid, Suhail has to spend it at the orphanage unlike most of the kids. “When nobody comes for him, I take him to my place,” says Bashir. “He is a pretty lonely kid,” he remarks.

Most orphans at Yateem Foundation go to their extended families on Eid and are returned after three to four days. On fewer occasions during past Eids, Suhail’s cousin would turn up at the orphanage and take him to his home in north Kashmir’s Uri, but this year the prospects are bleak. “His cousin has stopped visiting him after he got married. It doesn’t look like the kid is going home this year,” says Bashir.

Suhail smiles softly when asked to write his name. He speaks Kashmiri language with an accent inflected with the dialect of Gujjars living in mountains of Kashmir. He says the Yateem Foundation ‘is good enough for me but not as good as home’. His home is in Nellusa village of Uri town, some 105 km from Srinagar. A massive 7.6 earthquake on Richter scale in 2005 flattened Uri. Nearly 1500 people died in the disaster and thousands of homes were shattered to a mass of debris. Suhail’s home was reduced to rubble too.

The image of home in Suhail’s imagination is built by his fond recalling of being a darling of his father and a nuisance to his mother. Speaking of the tragedy which befell his home on October 8, 2005, he recalls it as if nothing has happened. “Gar saara toot gaya tha (The whole house had broken down),” he says as if speaking of a broken toy. There is no emotion in his voice. Suhail seems to have settled in his fate of an orphan.

His father, Mir Ali Khan, a woodcutter, died shortly after the earthquake for which he blames his mother. “Mother poisoned his food. One morning we woke up and found him dead. White froth was coming out of his mouth,” Suhail says in a matter-of-fact tone.

One morning, his mother left to fetch firewood from a forest nearby but she never came back. Suhail and his sister were left alone. “My aunt took my sister and I was brought here by my cousin,” he explains. Suhail recalls his childhood at home marked with fights between his parents. His disregard for his mother, his father’s second wife, is upfront and he doesn’t shy from speaking out about her. “She fought with father every day and was hostile to me. She beat me up regularly for no fault,” he says.

One Eid when Suhail was aged four, his elder sister Kulsum had gone out to fetch a pack of biscuits for themselves. On returning home, he found her mother seething in anger. “She had fought with father and when she saw me, she leapt up and beat me with a stick,” he says.

His Eid was ruined and he had a sore back but Suhail says that celebrating Eid at home was still pleasant as he had his elder sister to play with. The death of his father and further disintegration of his family due to the earthquake has left him with no hopes of availing those pleasures. At the orphanage, he has no friends, no pals, to call his own, “I had one friend at school but he too left after meeting an accident which left his legs injured.”

At home during Eid, his father would spoil him with love. Suhail would hop on his shoulders and go around the village. “I loved my father more than my mother,” he declares. Suhail felt his father’s death keenly and his brow twitches in remembrance of him. His father called him Zameer Ali, he says boastfully.

At the orphanage, Eid is a sullen affair for Suhail who prefers silence over brouhaha. Every year on Eid, he and other children get two new Kurta-Pyjamas, a shiny shoe or slippers and some ‘Eidi’. “We all look so alike here. It’s the code of this place,” he says wryly.

Life at the orphanage is marked with obligations of which religious obligation is the primary one. “It’s important to give these children a moral education to help them grow up to be religiously upright,” says Bashir Ahmad. But this comes with a denial of little freedoms that childhood is blessed with. “At home, you can do anything. Not here,” says Suhail. He quickly adds that he loves this place as it has given him an education which he wouldn’t have availed at home.

On Eid, Suhail and other children at the orphanage wake at the crack of dawn. “We first offer the morning Salah and then have tea in the hall.” Afterwards the children would be taken to the Children’s Park of Jawahar Nagar. This is the happy little time they would get. “We all play in the Children’s Park. I love it there,” says Suhail. Would he like to go out more often? “Yes, but we have to be obedient here. We cannot go out on our own.”Suhail’s happiest moment on Eid is when he buys a toy gun from the Eidi. His eyes lit up when asked what he would do with it. “I like to play with the toy-gun. It makes me look like a mujahid.”

Suhail says he has three options for the career he wants to pursue, which he calls umeeds (hope). He wants to be either an Islamic scholar, a teacher or a mujahid. “My father always told me to fight for my deen (religion).” On the day of Eid, he indulges in the militant dream by playing with the toy-gun. “Without a toy gun, there is no Eid,” he says.

Suhail takes little solace in his studies with Urdu as his favorite subject. He reads newspapers and innocently says what is going on in Kashmir – the insurgency. Deep inside a structure which allows these children no freedom to experience the life outside, it is difficult to believe that children like Suhail look at the armed insurgency with awe and romanticism.

In the first twenty five days of Ramadan, Suhail observed fast for seventeen days. “I like Eid ul Fitr better because of Ramzan,” he says, “On this Eid I want to play at home.” But there are no signs yet of this wish to be granted. His cousin hasn’t called on him for eight months. “I phoned him but he tells me he is busy,” he says.

The life at an orphanage is predictable and it attunes to children’s need of education, but it leaves them wanting for the desire of freedom. “When I came here, I felt like coming to a prison, like I was being locked up. I cried for whole days till I started adjusting,” says Suhail. When his needs were met, Suhail stopped complaining. “They gave me whatever I asked for. There are good people here.”

The number of orphans in Kashmir is pegged at 2.4 lakh, of which around 20000 are sheltered at orphanages. Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation is one such orphanage out of hundreds which boasts of satisfactory infrastructure. The forty odd children at the orphanage study at private schools. “I study at Soliha Sublime, Rajbagh and it’s a good school. The teachers are also good,” says Suhail.

However, there are other several orphanages in the city which are un-registered and un-regulated and the children at these places are living in the worst imaginable conditions. Only 27 orphanages are registered with the Jammu & Kashmir Social Welfare Department. According to officials, the department directly runs 11 Bal Niketans and six Nari Niketans where it provides lodging, boarding and education to orphans.

But there are many orphanages that operate outside government control in Kashmir. A narrow lane in Barbar Shah locality of Srinagar leads to a dilapidated old Pandit house. The structure houses the Alamdar Yateem Trust, an orphanage which looks after 30-odd children. The house is decrepit, the stairs creek and a foul smell emanates from a dirty room in which a row of little children are learning to read. The walls of the room are plastered with dirt and are without paint. Every child is wearing a dirty skull cup over a frilly Kurta-Pyjama.

Bilal Ahmad Querishi, 14, is an orphan who lost his mother in childbirth which brought him to the trust. It’s Bilal’s eighth year now. He looks weak and there are white spot marks on his face. Coming from a poor family in Bandipora, Bilal and his elder brother were taken up by this orphanage. While Arif has left the place to earn a livelihood by working as a salesman in Srinagar. Bilal wants to become a doctor, an announcement which induces laughter from other children in the room. “I want to treat him,” he points to a frail-looking boy in the room. “He is so weak,” he remarks.

Bilal is sitting cross-legged with a torn school bag in front of him. He brightens up when asked what he wants to do on Eid. “I like Eid because we go out on an outing to Childrens Park,” he says. The children go on outings like this twice or thrice a year and this year after the Eid is over, they will be going on a picnic. On the second day of Eid, the children will be leaving for their homes; most of them are from far-flung areas of the Valley.

“We will meet our relatives and then return,” says Arif Ahmad Nayak, a thirteen year old kid whose handicapped father left him at this place three years ago, “There is nothing much at home, Eid or no Eid.”

There are no preparations for Eid for these children. They don’t ask for clothes or accessories. “We provide them with whatever we can. New clothes and shoes, etc.,” says Mudasir Bukhari, general secretary of the Alamdar Yateem Trust, which has been accused in past of forcing the children into begging.

But Bilal says he likes it here more than home. His family has very limited means to sustain themselves. Poverty and the resultant hardships force these families to send their children to orphanages. “Some of the children here belong to very poor families and they leave them here because they can’t take care of them on their own,” says Bukhari.

Alamdar Yateem Trust is an unregistered orphanage and is run on public funds. “We generate funds to the tune of Rs 7 Lakh per annum,” says Bukhari. Being an unregistered orphanage, the funds go largely un-regulated. And the conditions of the place speaks for the neglected treatment it gets.

Arif and Bilal are best of friends at the orphanage and they would like to spend the Eid in playing cricket. “Arif supports Pakistan cricket team and I support India, so there is always a tussle,” says Bilal. This year, if all goes according to plan, the day of Eid for them will begin by waking up early in the morning to offer pre-dawn prayers. Thereafter the children will offer congregational Eid prayers at a local mosque and then leave to the chairperson’s home, where they will have tea and snacks, “Once we are back, we will burst firecrackers and make merry,” says Arif.

Sometimes the longing for home is overpowering for these kids. Some years ago, Bilal was restless to go home and would run to the gate and try to escape. “But older children caught hold of me,” he says sullenly. When the longing for home becomes too much, Bilal likes to stay alone with no one to sully his silence. When I asked him whether he misses home, ten-year-old Sharif Ahmad Khan, a resident of Bandipora, offers a sordid reply, “I miss home every moment of my life.”

Festivals like Eid come and go, changing nothing in the lives of these children. For Sharif and others like him, the occasion of Eid is an opportunity to visit home, however dreary the life at home is. “Home is where I always want to be,” he says ruefully.

Originally published here —

Imagining Gaza in Kashmir

As I write this, Gaza is in mourning. Outside my home in old Srinagar city, a strict curfew is in force. The celebration of the 13 July Martyrs Day, like any other commemoration of martyrdom in Kashmir, is met with a clampdown by the state. There is mourning in Kashmir too for 150 dead Palestinians of Gaza Strip. Mourning takes the shape of protest, of clarion calls for freedom of all oppressed people in the world. Except us.

We are a strange people. On Friday, sermons delivered from the pulpits by the clerics call for the freedom of Palestinians, freedom of the Afghans, freedom of the Syrians but they forget their own. Does God forget too?

The streets reverberate with the rousing slogans of solidarity for Gazans. I imagine Gaza in the night. The raining bombs freeze children in their sleep. A boy hugging his sibling in an embrace of death. The death of a mother robbing her children of sleep.

Gaza is not Srinagar. I imagine Srinagar to be Gaza. My friend scoffs, ‘A single bomb will flatten Srinagar.’ A house in Gaza is split into two. The family rushes to find their daughter in the rubble. A toy is found.

We sanctify death. Yes, we do. In death we announce the worthiness of our lives. Of lives shorn of dignity and freedom attained finally in death. There is silence in death. The silence of freedom. We shout freedom from the clock tower at Lal Chowk, only to find it in a bullet.

“What is freedom/Azadi?” my friend asks. There is no answer to this. He knows. Gazans are fighting to be like everyone else. There is similarity in every struggle. I imagine Gazans thinking about Kashmir. I imagine them smiling at us. I imagine them acknowledging that our fight is similar.

I imagine Gaza in the afternoon sun. The debris of houses shining in the scorching sun. I imagine its children picking stones, aiming them towards the enemy, becoming men in the process. And I imagine Mahmoud Dervish silently writing these lines for Gaza:

“Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon. Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of their resistance to occupation. That is the only competition there. Gaza has been addicted to knowing this cruel, noble value. It did not learn it from books, hasty school seminars, loud propaganda megaphones or songs. It learned these values through experience alone and through work that is not done for advertisement and image.”

Originally published here —

In Conversation with Mridu Rai

murmurs-whispers-conversation-mridu-rai-1405017165AM) You were supposed to deliver the first ‘Pt Rughonath Vaishnavi Annual Talk’ but the authorities sought permission from organizers which they had not taken and the program was ultimately cancelled. Was there any laxity on part of JKCCS or is it just the State exercising its military muscle to prevent public intellectuals from speaking on the issue of Kashmir?

MR) I wouldn’t know the details but from what I understand the requisite permission had been asked for. This was a last minute decision by the authorities to put pressure on the venue owner to prevent the seminar from happening. I find it completely surprising because I don’t think I have anything to say that is particularly dangerous. It’s a pity that there isn’t more openness about having conversations flow naturally. Driving a conversation underground is probably more dangerous than letting people speak their minds.

AM) The clampdown on public spheres where conversations can take place is another feature of the State’s repressive machinery. Do you think denial of space can lead Kashmiris to think and consider violent means to voice their views?

MR) I like to think that violence is something that anyone takes to as the very last resort; there is too much to lose. But certainly, a lack of transparent dialogue is always dangerous because it opens up the ground for innuendo; for suspicion, for conspiracy theories and it fosters an atmosphere for repression. We have seen in 1987 when the elections were rigged. Large number of Kashmiris finally gave up on using the idea of democratic way of accessing their rights. I certainly hope that we never see the kind of destructive violence; destructive for Kashmiris themselves that we saw in 2010. Certainly, it’s always better to talk. The state can only stop you so far. It still has to offer you some reason. I would be interested to hear what reasons they offer for having cancelled the event yesterday.

And I think as a historian, I must be the most harmless person (Laughs). I doubt they have any interest in historians writing on pre-47 Kashmir. I think there is a deep suspicion about JKCCS perhaps and it creates the condition in which dialogue is no longer the alternative.

AM) What do you make out of the whole peace process that has been built, some would say manufactured by India and Pakistan involving a gamut of shady NGOs and peaceniks to tell the larger global community that all is well in Kashmir?

MR) I think these are damages that have been done. The silencing in the international arena on Kashmir, the K-word that has disappeared and precisely the kind of collusions that you have referred to.

In 2010, I was invited to join a panel discussion with various experts on Kashmir. I said that if you look at the peace process and various groups involved in it, the security experts especially have the tendency to produce the most counterproductive ways of approaching the problem. They define the problem in Kashmir according to the solutions they want to apply. Does that make sense, rather than the other way round? You should be looking for solutions once you have understood the problem. The security analysts will do it constantly. It misses out on the human dimension of Kashmir issue.

The security experts don’t have time to think about the sadness of enforced disappearances because those things don’t yield solutions. What will yield the solutions is, may be, reshaping the territory, the external boundaries of Kashmir or maybe formalizing the LoC because these are doable things. But that is not understanding the Kashmir problem. That is completely missing out on the whole point.

The fact that LoC stills exists as LoC means that the settlement of Kashmir, the issue of Kashmiris is constantly put on the backburner.

AM) You have written an excellent book ‘Hindu Rulers Muslim Subjects’ which is an important reference to understand the political transitions that have taken place in Kashmir. As a subject of historical enquiry, when and how did Kashmir interest you?

MR) Well, I got into doing my PhD at around the same time as 1989. For me, it was all people were talking about. Punjab was still a very disturbed state. Kashmir certainly interested me but there were many other reasons why I found Kashmir to be a fascinating and important region to study. For instance, the idea that Kashmiris had this regional identity that was so pre-eminent, that had defeated religious identity. It always made me curious because I come from Bihar myself which people suggest has no regional identity; that caste and religion takes over. So for me, Kashmir was interesting in that sense. I have moved a long way from that position and I do think religious identities matter in Kashmir as well and it can’t be avoided. In fact, the putting down of protests often takes the line of religious difference.

1989 – 90 was such an important period in not just Indian history but also globally. People were already talking about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the brining down of the Berlin Wall. Once again, the idea of self-determination, new nations coming into being, was talked about. The languages adopted by many Kashmiris actually echoed that as well. It fascinated me; there was no way to avoid it.

AM) You contend in your book that political mobilization by Muslim subjects against Dogra rule was informed by a religious sensibility in response to the overt Hindu state. Since the Indian state presents itself as a democratic one, do you see a change in response to the religious sensibilities of Kashmiri Muslims?

MR) No, I don’t. While my book doesn’t really present in detail the history of Kashmir after 1947, what it alludes to is the fact that the unrepresentative nature of indigenous rule in Kashmir is just as unrepresentative as it was under the Dogras. Instead of the British in Delhi, you now have an Indian State which may describe itself as democratic but when it comes to Kashmir, it has chosen the path of conniving with anyone who would not challenge the accession of valley.

I also think that the Indian State, in many ways when it has dealt with Kashmir, has also emphasized the Muslim nature of Kashmiris. It’s their way of saying that see Pakistanis could not take away the majority-Muslim area. Even in terms of characterizing the Kashmir’s inclusion with the Indian Union, it is very important for the Indian State to point to them as the largest population of Muslims in the subcontinent. All these reasons suggest that there is long term continuity.

AM) Speaking on the question of justice, in view of Indian State’s inability to deliver justice in Kashmir, who should Kashmiris seek justice from? And does not seeking justice mean the disintegration of Indian State in Kashmir because if they deliver justice, it means they effectually don’t exist?

MR) Well, that’s right. If you are talking about seeking justice where Kashmiris will have to go, one very important arena without which there won’t be sufficient pressure on the Indian State to deliver justice would be the international arena. There is considerable pressure that can be brought upon the government of India to at least tone down its overt instances of forcible occupation in Kashmir. But another very important arena for Kashmiris to access is that of the opinion making Indian classes, because there they seem to be so little interest in Kashmir. It takes excessive acts such as violence against Kashmiris in 2010 for Indian middle class to sit and notice. And then it is forgotten too quickly. There has to be a way to bear pressure on the Indian government so that the trend of impunity in Kashmir is not allowed to continue. And pressure is the only way to do this. History has already shown that violent resistance doesn’t take Kashmiris very far.

It’s easy for the State to put down violence and it gives them legitimacy in the international community to say that this is a violent militant movement informed by fundamentalism. These are all the characterizations that Indian State has used. And it makes it easy to justify putting it down.

The legitimacy of movement in Kashmir is even constructed but you need to build a consensus amongst these two quarters. It also means to bypass the Indian state. Telling it that look, we don’t believe that you can deliver justice. You have not shown the capacity to deliver justice. Instead of rectifying the wrongs, you don’t even acknowledge that there are any wrongs done. Now you tell us who is behaving unjustly here, who is more violent!

AM) Your book Geographies of Justice: Caste and Violence in Colonial North India is said to focus on the questions of caste and violence in the context of new ideas about community, nation and territory and nation in the north of India. Can you tell us more about it?

MR) As I said, a lot of questions arose from researching Kashmir. Questions like how do you legitimate out and out violence? You see that in case of Kashmir, different languages that are used to legitimate that violence, the security State’s own languages, that it is India’s threat to democracy, that is why it is all justified.

In case of caste, it is the same questions that you don’t think about the international threat, you are not thinking of the security of the State, but you are talking about internal security and social stability. So those languages are used to legitimize out and out violence. If you think about the number of deaths caused by caste wars in India, it outdoes the number in Kashmir.

AM) What are your current academic engagements? Are you writing a new book on Kashmir? Apart from teaching and writing, what keeps you busy?

MR) Well, right now I am trying to finish my second book which is not directly related to Kashmir. It is about caste and violence, particularly Bihar. A lot of questions that I ask came from my first book on Kashmir. In the arenas of caste, I look for the appeal to social justice. I don’t see them working. The different languages through which people try to overcome caste domination and why is it so easy to put down caste resistance with violence. In the past as well, there was violence in caste relations but there used to be at least an attempt at portraying some kind of legitimacy of ideology. But now we hear about caste war. Why does violence become so acceptable?

But after this I hope to return to Kashmir and write a book on the much more contemporary period.

After teaching and writing, is there anything else? (Laughs). It’s an interesting phase in my life; teaching is a time consuming job. Whatever time I have left is for sleeping a little (Laughs). I really feel like a nerd who has nothing else to do but teach, write and read.

It’s not spoken about very much. People just assume that caste violence happens in Bihar. It’s an automatic assumption. But nobody really knows the numbers and extent of caste violence. It’s same like in Kashmir where the extent of violence is become routinised and made invisible.

AM) Tell us something about yourself. You recently shifted from Dublin to teach at a university in Kolkata city. When did you visit Kashmir for the first time? How often do you visit Kashmir now?

MR) I am from Bihar, the polar opposite of Kashmir (Laughs). I have never really lived in Bihar, unfortunately. My father used to be in the Indian Diplomatic Service. If in India, I have always lived in New Delhi, so I consider much more myself a Dilliwalli.

I have just returned from spending something like twenty five years of my life in abroad. I went to do my PhD in the United States and then I decided to stay on and teach. I ended up teaching there for almost thirteen years and then moved to Dublin. And finally Kolkata.

While it is so wonderful to be at these institutions in the West, I feel to teach South Asian history, you have to be in South Asia. I get to teach things without having to explain from the scratch. I am at Presidency University in Kolkata, and I am looking forward to teach a course in Kashmir.

The first time I visited Kashmir was a long time back in 1985 on a holiday with my parents and brother. I thought I had seen Kashmir, from the movies shot here but nothing prepared you for the place. I loved it.

That was my first visit. After that I came for research in 1994 and ’95. And then back again in 1997 and then back again very briefly in 2000. And then again in 2005 and now after nine long years in 2014. I hope with this new project I get to come much more frequently. It’s easier to do it from Kolkata then it is from any place abroad.

AM) Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MR) Well, thank you very much for having this conversation with me.

Originally published here —

Virtues of an Unpaid Journalist

“If it’s for money, it’s not journalism,” said an engineer friend over a bout of salvos directed at my profession. She feels that journalism and money are two parallel lines which should never meet, like the way engineers are taught that parallel lines must never cross into each other.

The world, according to my friend, is ordained by clear set of rules which, if followed, will make it a better place. One of them is that journalism is not a profession. It’s a duty. Hence, to be an unpaid journalist serves this rule better as there remains no eye on reward. Truth be told, before being a journalist, I had similar views. However, practicing journalism made me see the fault in this view. I found out that there were no ‘intellectual professions’ in the world. There were only jobs; you were a tailor, a barber, an engineer or a journalist.

In a place where the distinction between truth and fiction can become a reason for war, the role of a journalist is undoubtedly contentious and attracts suspicion. The ensuing discussion with her revealed to me several ‘high-brow’ values which, in her view, will make journalists work for the betterment of society, without getting paid, of course.

“If journalists in Kashmir were not after money, Kashmir would have been free a long time back,” goes another of her oft-repeated statements. The virtue we can glean from this is that freedom of Kashmiris is squarely dependent on the money journalists earn. If we stop earning a livelihood, Kashmir may get its long-desired and rightful freedom. Cheers to the thought!

An unpaid journalist in Kashmir is a specimen in itself, remarks another friend of mine. “They are punctual, hardworking, hardly complain and understand the profession as it is – a duty,” he added.

Whether punctuality is a virtue in Kashmir where bullets are more punctual than government employees is a matter of debate. It is, however, certain that those journalists who are not getting paid heavily use this ‘virtue’ in their defense, along with ‘honesty’.

“You see, being unpaid can teach you a lesson in life. It makes you value money, because you never see it,” an older journalist friend of mine reasoned one day. There was virtue in his advice. The virtue was clear to me like daylight. Since that day, the virtue rings in my head every time I sit down to write. It’s the one joker offered to his colleagues in Dark Knight, “If you are good at something, never do it for free.”

Originally published here —

A Night of Raids, Arrests & ‘Loot’ in Baramulla

On the night of May 8, a day after Baramulla went to polls in 16th Lok Sabha elections, Sajad Ahmad Mir, 30, was woken up by loud noises emanating from the ground floor of his house. Within minutes, several uniformed men barged into his room and smashed windowpanes with their guns. They had come from Baramulla police station to arrest Abdul Rashid Mir, Sajad’s youngest brother and youngest son of Ghulam Din Mir. “My wife fainted when they kicked open the door and started breaking the windows. They were looking for my younger brother, but he was not here. They locked us inside the room and repeated the assault in other rooms,” Sajad says in a soft voice. The family lives in a two-storied house in Stadium Colony of Baramulla’s Azad Gunj locality. The house is bereft of several window-panes. Small heaps of shattered glass lie at each end of a porch where two women are picking vegetables. A broken window is set against the wall of the lawn, as if to showcase the police assault. “It was tore of its ridge by policemen. They smashed everything that came in their way. They behaved like beasts,” one of the women said.

Over the past several years in Kashmir Valley, nocturnal raids carried out by police at the houses of youths involved in protests has left their families terrorized. Since the beginning of Amarnath land agitation in 2008 which brought down the People’s Democratic Party – Congress coalition government, police has been making profile of youths who are frequently involved in street protests, based on which they are booked under various charges. Thousands of youths held in such raids are languishing in jails, many under Public Safety Act, a ‘draconian’ legislation condemned by Amnesty International which gives police powers to make arrests without warrant and hold detainees without trial for months.

“There are three categories of protesters; first-time offenders, habitual but redeemable youths and hardcore criminals who are sometimes paid to throw stones. Youths held in protests are accordingly booked under various cases, depending on the gravity of cases and frequency of their involvement in protests,” a senior official in J&K police’s Criminal Investigation Department says.

In the last four years since 2009, 9166 youths have been held in 1733 cases including attempted murder, waging war against the state and rioting in nine districts of Kashmir Valley. Out of these, 228 cases involving 1811 youths were withdrawn under a policy announced by Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah, in August 2011. A senior police official said the activities of these youths are almost always known to the department through an intricate network of spies and the use of technology.

“Some of them return to normal lives, but in some cases there are repeated offenders. It becomes difficult to keep track of them. We may call their parents to police stations and urge them to convince their wards to give up their activities. It is quite possible that they (family members) may be held to put pressure on the offender but it doesn’t mean they are harassed or tortured,” he said.

This tactic was used at the Stadium Colony residence of Ghulam Din Mir on two occasions previously. The first raid took place in middle of the night of November 14, 2013 when the family was preparing for the wedding ceremony of Sajad and Muneer Ahmad Mir. “They came at around 1 am and asked for the whereabouts of Rashid,” says Sajad, the eldest among the three sons of Mir. When the family feigned ignorance and asked police to leave without creating fuss, this agitated the police personnel and they took away Sajad to Baramulla police station. “I had to show them wedding cards and Nikah papers to set me free,” he says.

Rashid, his family claims, didn’t visit home in eight months. He has been on the run ever since he was first caught while throwing stones at police in 2008, but he no longer participates in street protests which are a frequent occurrence in old town of Baramulla. “He gave up stone-throwing and joined Tableeghi Jamaat. He doesn’t come home, but police refuses to believe us. They punish us by detaining us and damaging our property. In his place, they take away father and my brothers just to put pressure on us,” Sajad says in a lamentable tone.

“Since the day we came here as brides, we have not seen Rashid,” Neelofar Jan, wife of Muneer Ahmad, says thoughtfully, pointing to a sallow young women sitting cross legged across her.

On May 8 when police conducted the third raid at their residence, they detained Muneer and his father when they couldn’t find Rashid. While senior Mir was released after two days, Muneer says he had to spend eight days in police lock-up. “Why is police harassing us in this way? There is a design behind this which is to steal our belongings,” Muneer says. “They took Rs 3 lakh cash and jewelry worth Rs 15 lakh on May 8. We don’t know what our crime is. They come in the night and steal like thieves?” his wife, Neelofar, says.

Neelofar is an earnest, voluble young woman who is angry with the way police broke into her house and damaged their property. She remembers the night of May 8 when she was dragged from her room by uniformed men and locked inside the kitchen with her mother-in-law. “There were around fifty policemen in the lobby. I was scared to death. I feared for my honor. They kept demanding where Rashid is. They looked frustrated and went berserk, hitting everything that came in their way,” she says.

“What kind of justice is this? They were unable to arrest Rashid and instead we had to pay the price,” Sajad says, “we complained to the district administration about the police harassment but they didn’t hear our grievances. Many people told us to register a case against police but we know we can’t get anything out of it. It’s obvious that police will deny all of this. They carried out these raids during nights and every time they scaled walls of the compound to enter the house. It was all planned that way.”

The night of May 8 was another signal to Rashid to show himself before his family was punished further. Following the raid, the family decided to give him up. “He came home a couple of days after the raid. We talked him into showing himself before police and finally he gave himself up on June 1,” Sajad says.

The family runs a successful business and is fairly well-off but the police raids has left them fuming. Sajad says it took ten years to build their house, “We toiled hard. We put our blood and sweat together but there is no peace here. Our brother is in jail and the police are harassing us now,” says Muneer.

The family thought about seeking judicial intervention to prevent harassment and nocturnal police raids, but they are apprehensive of getting involved in a protracted legal battle. Their son is in jail; their house is broken and cash and jewelry are gone. “We are simple folk. We don’t have much money and we don’t want to get into any legal hassles,” says Muneer.

Kashmir police has, however, denied claims of Mir family that their jewelery and cash was looted by the raiding party.

Sajad’s mother walks into the room. She is a talkative woman who shows me around the house, like a zealous in-charge of museum. In every room, there is a broken window. To keep dust away, they have covered broken windows with polythene sheets. There are broken wash-basins and smashed mirrors. “This is the extent of police brutality. They went berserk that night,” she says. There is also a broken LCD television in one of the rooms. “They threw a marble tile at it,” Sajad points out.

Azad Gunj locality of Baramulla is restive and one of the most sensitive places in north Kashmir which frequently erupts in bouts of protests. A strong anti-India and pro-freedom sentiment runs deep among the locals of Baramulla’s old town of which Azad Gunj locality is a small part. Stone throwing incidents on the day of Lok Sabha elections were reported here, resulting in severe clashes in which many youths and police personnel suffered injuries. Some voters had their inked fingers slashed by angry youth.

“Police says that it was us who cut the fingers. Our house was, in fact, stormed by people. These are all lies,” Sajad says.

It was a crisp, sunny June day in Baramulla when I ran into several youth who hesitantly whisper about the nocturnal police raids and arrest of family members in lieu of the alleged stone-throwers. “It’s a common occurrence here,” a teenaged boy who participates in protests told me.

Ever since the 2008 uprising against the transfer of a piece of land to a Hindu shrine board, old town has become a volatile place. Pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani has a strong following here and his calls for shutdown and protests are devotedly observed here. Boys as young as seven year olds participate in street clashes with forces which has resulted in a number of casualties, most of them residents of old town, and further angered the local population.

Walking along the narrow lanes of old town, a blonde boy took me to Ganai Hamam. The aura of this place resembles that of Srinagar’s old city. Cramped houses huddle each other, as if to seek comfort. In one of the houses in a narrow lane lives another family who met the same fate as Mir’s. Around 2:45 am on May 9, the Halwai family woke up to a furious thumping at their door. Showkat Ahmad Halwai rushed down only to meet a posse of ‘wrath-laden’ policemen.

“They had come for me,” he says, “one of them abused me and I abused him back. It led to a scuffle but I managed to flee from the spot,” Showkat recalls.

A tailor by profession, Showkat says he first took to streets in the smoldering summer of 2010 when the death of a teenager, Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, who was hit by a police teargas shell sparked a violent phase of third continuous mass agitation against Indian rule in Kashmir Valley. Showkat had lost his nephew in the ensuing bloodletting. “I started throwing stones after my nephew’s death,” he says.

Showkat carries a stern expression on his face while recalling the details of the fateful May 8 night. In the meantime, an aged lady enters the room, “They not only smashed our home and beat us, but they also took away Rs 25, 000,” she said in a sad voice. Showkat looked up and spoke to her in an assuring tone, “Mouji, Azadi manz tchi yim cheez aamith (In the fight for freedom, these things happen).”

Halwai family lives in a modest, two-storied house. A cramped staircase leads to a room where Sajad says his toddler son was sleeping on the night of police raid. “They fired a teargas shell into this room. My son could have died,” he says angrily. The nocturnal raid was first of its kind for Showkat and his family. “I stopped throwing stones after my marriage but police are raking up old cases to harass us,” Showkat says.

When Showkat and his younger brother escaped from the house during the raid, police detained their father. “My father remained in custody for three days. They slapped my mother and abused her,” he says. Showkat shows me a black spot on a stairwell which he says was caused by the impact of a teargas shell fired by police.  “The whole house was filled with tear-smoke,” a young lady remarked.

Showkat believes the spate of night raids by police in old town Baramulla is for nothing but money. “They stole my hard earned money which I had kept under the pillow. They damaged our modest home. They also took a piggy bank of my brother’s wife, such is the level they have stooped to,” he says.

While the tactics used by police to nab the elusive stone-throwers are not new, perhaps dating back to early nineties when armed insurgency first erupted in Kashmir Valley, it is the normalization of such practices by police that has left the rights activist fuming. “The extra-judicial arrests of family members of alleged stone throwers is despicable,” says Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender, “whether it is Indian Army, paramilitary forces or police, they have lost no opportunities in harassing Kashmiris. This has been going on since 1947.”

While the human cost of a conflict has found many voices, but the economic toll Kashmiris have borne over the past two decades has been ignored more or less. “The economic war on Kashmiris is evident. Look at the instances when the entire villages were burnt in Handwara and Sopore. Or when entire houses are blown away in an encounter,” Khurram says. He traces the economic persecution meted out to Kashmiris back to the days of armed insurgency during early nineties. “This is nothing new. In early nineties, the orchards of many pro freedom activists were cut down by Ikhwaan. Why would they cut down an apple orchard but to punish and persecute. One way or the other they have always used economic weapons to persecute people,” he says.

While Showkat Ahmad Halwai wants to live a life devoid of fear of police harassment, he says the police are not allowing him to earn a livelihood and lead a normal life, “They are forcing us to go back to stone-throwing,” he says.

Halwai family’s house wasn’t the only house damaged in the multiple night raids conducted in old town of May 9. Their neighbors’ houses too faced the wrath of police action. Noora Begum is a widow whose house lies adjacent to Halwai’s. “What was our fault? They broke our doors and windows,” she asks soberly.

“When the entire locality woke up, we came out and shooed away the police. Locals ran after them,” Showkat says.

A four day long strike was observed by the town after the May 8 nocturnal raids and it was only after the intervention of Traders Association of Baramulla that Showkat’s father was released and the strike discontinued. “They need to stop digging old cases. I have left stone-throwing. They should have verified it before barging into my home, beating and abusing my family, stealing cash and detaining my father,” says Showkat.

Lateef Ahmad Khan who lives in Tawheed Gunj locality of Baramulla is hesitant to speak about the May 8 night, “I don’t want to talk about it. We are an oppressed lot. Our media plays to the gallery,” he says. He is angry, justifiably so, perhaps, given the manner in which the protests were reported by local and national media organizations, but he brushes aside the nocturnal police raids as not unusual.

“This is war. A few broken window-panes are a small matter,” he says.

Originally published here —

Ghost Stories – A Review

reporters-journal-ghost-stories-review-1402904667I discovered Coldplay’s music like someone looking for water and instead laying hands on an oil well. In middle of a smoldering summer of 2008 when blood and stones flew abundantly in Kashmir, I found peace. It was an unmusical time compounded by harsh sounds of bullets and teargas shells. Music was a vestige, like the forgotten verses of Lal Ded. On lips, in hearts, were the songs of mourning and what it promised – freedom. Coldplay elevated me to a sudden state of upliftment. Coldplay’s music sounded distinct, yet profoundly earthly. They had an ethereal quality to it which was heightened by Chris Martin’s deeply ecstatic voice.

Six years on, my appreciation of Coldplay has grown from an odd fascination to a zealous fan with minor hiccups like Mylo Xyloto shaking my belief a little. Thankfully with Ghost Stories, my faith is restored. Ghost Stories carry water, an album reincarnating Coldplay from the debris of popular culture which Mylo Xyloto and Viva La Vida had pushed them into.

What’s positive about Ghost Stories is that this album meets the Coldplay image of an alternative British act known for its range in bringing easygoing, yet profound music to listeners all over the world. The album flows like a tranquil river going about its course, unperturbed by the ebbs and flows.

Introductory tracks, Always in my head  and Magic are opposites in sound, yet the flourish of meditative romance brims in both. Most of us will find Magic that one song we can turn to at any hour of the day. The somber falsetto of Chris Martin reaches its zenith in this song but it’s nowhere near the optimism of songs like Yellow and Fix You. It often appears unfair to compare an album with the band’s earlier one, but Coldplay have set high standards for themselves with albums like X&Y and Parachutes. That comparison is hard to miss.

Ink and Anothers Arms are two standout tracks from the album with True Love making listening to the album a pleasurable and profound experience. Ghost Stories, unlike Viva La Vida , is uniform and compact. There are hardly any tracks which look out of place.

Ghost Stories is an album buzzing with emotions of love lost to bitter fallouts. Here lead vocalist Chris Martin’s break away from wife Gwyneth Paltrow can’t be understated as tracks Another’s Arms  and True Love  signify. However, it lends the album a lazy aura of a sad lover whining tirelessly to a world which doesn’t bother to listen. The songs drag you into a state of lament, which Coldplay heavily drools out, in the process making it a tad dull. Ghost Stories veers towards this symptom more often than not and this quality makes it a pitiable version of songs like The Scientist and Clocks .

Ghost Stories is melodious but the album lacks imagination. The lyrics are ordinary but rendered well in sound so much so that you tend to forget the simplicity of it all. The plainness of song writing in Coldplay songs begs a consideration – This is a band which has churned out relatively simpler, affirmative and soul-pleasing songs without sounding high-strung. For this quality, Ghost Stories balances itself quite well.

Originally published here —