The afternoon sun shines bright on Srinagar’s busy MA Road. Honking cars jostling for space give a tough time to the only traffic cop present. His whistles are lost in the din; each car systematically ignores him. Dressed immaculately, with a turban crowning his bearded head, the cop keeps a straight face and pretends to direct the unruly traffic. The veins in his neck stick out; his red face and blood shot eyes are proof of the pressure he is under. With each whistle blow blood drains out from his face, only to return slowly. From a short distance atop fortified towers two paramilitary troopers, guarding the chief minister’s residence, watch him.
A car grazes against another one; a verbal duel ensues. Few heavily armed policemen in battle fatigues, accompanying some bureaucrat’s car, hurl abuses as they lung forward to intervene. On the other side of the road Tibetans have begun to assemble. A cop walks up to them, says something, and then hurriedly withdraws.
The Tibetans put on headbands. One of them brings out placards and banners from a waiting auto-rickshaw. They form two lines, one on either side of the road, and start marching. In two long rows they walk silently. The traffic cop is distracted; he looks on dreamily at these strange marchers. He is woken from his reverie by the sound of horns and cars coming to a screeching halt around him.
Boys from the nearby SP College, evading the wrathful eyes of baton-wielding policemen who act as Kashmir’s moral cops too, wait as usual for girls to come out from the adjoining women’s college. They look surprised to see the marchers. They don’t know what the march is about. Some of them look at the marchers and at the police in quick glances. Past few weeks have not been good for protestors in Srinagar: first the employees of the electricity department were beaten black and blue, then the striking state transport employees were thrashed badly, and, in the nearby Maisuma, young Liberation Front activists were being tear-gassed and baton-charged every Friday.
As the police stays put, some students move forward to read the banners.
Stop Cultural Genocide of Tibetans.
The bright yellow headbands also attract curiosity. They are Tibetan flags with their red and blue rays radiating out from a yellow sun rising from behind a snow mountain, and the two snow lions protecting Buddha’s three-coloured jewel.
“What is this?” a student asks.
“This is our flag,” replies a smiling Tibetan.
“Who are you?” asks the confused student. A man sitting on a railing, caresses his well-trimmed beard, laughs awkwardly, and says:
“Don’t you see these are Botta? They are from Ladakh. Tibetan market.”
I cringe at the ignorance about a people who have been living among us for decades.
The marchers keep moving. At the end of the road they turn right toward the Tourist Reception Centre, of which only a burnt plinth is now left. A billboard, with pictures of a sari-clad Sonia Gandhi, blue-turbaned Manmohan Singh, and a traumatized mug-shot of Mufti Saeed, celebrating the inauguration of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service as a historic step toward peace, stands tilted face-forward in front of what is now an open space. The long yellow wooden building, with its green conical roof that once housed tourism bureaucracy, is no longer there. The date ‘April 07, 2005’ is partially blackened by the soot from the burning building where two holed-up guerrillas had died fighting only a day before the bus was to be inaugurated by the Indian prime minister.
A man comes forward from the adjoining state transport yard; he yells hysterically: “Hey all come see Botta!”
The man, apparently a mechanic, with grease spots on his clothes, hands, and nose-tip, slowly reads the word, F-R-E-E-D-O-M. Taking some time to make the necessary connections, he sighs sadly. He asks some questions in Kashmiri; the Tibetan he asks responds by bowing a little with a smile on his face. A burly sumo-driver from the taxi stand on the other side makes a bawdy physical gesture, and in Kashmiri, shouts bitterly: “Yeah, right, we received it long back! Only you haven’t!”
A group of rural folk with bags full of merchandise pause to look; they put their load down, and stretch and ease themselves. An elderly woman in the group is told by a college student what the march is about. The woman’s eyes well up. A man consoles her. She wipes her tears, inhales deeply, and prays aloud with her hands raised: “May my Shah-e-Jeelan protect you!”
The Tibetans smile at passers-by. Their leader looks at his watch, takes out his phone, and makes some calls. They turn right once more, now towards the Residency Road. Many people watch from the sides. Cars slow down to read the placards for a while, and then drive away.
By now a host of photographers and cameramen from the nearby press enclave have descended on the scene. They take close-up shots, and then they zoom out from marching Tibetans to focus on the overlooking Takht-e-Sulaiman in the distance. One cameraman moves close to a protestor’s face, focussing on his eyes, perhaps to capture his emotions. Some Tibetans bring out pictures of Dalai Lama. The cameramen find it difficult shifting their stands; the marchers will wait for them. After a while the march resumes, but comes to an end shortly afterwards.
A bearded young man pulls a young Tibetan to the side, and tells him: “Become Muslim, and we will fight them together.”
The young Tibetan excuses himself, hurriedly jumps into a waiting auto-rickshaw, like his other compatriots, and leaves. A Kashmiri ex-rebel commander, coming out of a shop in Lal Chowk, tells his entourage: “We must learn from Tibetans. See how they have brought the mighty Chinese to their knees.”
He quickly adds an Urdu verse, which isn’t quite apt, but conveys the irony he rightly feels:
“Ek shehanshah ne bana ke haseen Taj Mahal,
Hum gariboon ki mohabat ka udaya hai mazaak.”
(Some emperor built one beautiful Taj Mahal; he mocked at the love of us all, poor people.)
“By asking for their freedom in Srinagar, Tibetans have made fun of the Kashmiri people.”