It is nine in the morning. Overnight drizzle has darkened the winter bare trees. The hill, around which the town is wrapped, has disappeared in mist. I look out onto the road in the distance to see if anyone is moving. There was an explosion a couple of hours ago. It must have been somewhere close. A few jeeps can be seen moving fast every few minutes. I am curious to see if people are going out to vote. My family advises me to stay indoors. We have been without electricity since last evening. I use this fact as a pretext, and announce that I am going to go out to get it fixed. I see large boot prints in our mud-spattered kucha. Soldiers must have been moving about in the night. It is election-day in Anantnag, and bandobast is tight.
A few meters ahead, after a bend in the kucha, two people from the colony, father and son, are looking dejectedly at the electricity transformer that supplies our neighbourhood. The father turns to me: “Every soldier in this cinema has a heater and a boiler of his own. They get two phases. And the rest of us get one. It can’t take this load.” He is talking about the cinema hall in our neighbourhood which was taken over by military almost 18 years ago, and turned into a camp. It houses more than two hundred soldiers. Our colony has around thirty houses. The transformer was installed way back in the 80s for these thirty houses and the cinema. Each night of the winter the fuse blows.
An elderly man comes out of his house with a piece of aluminum wire in his hand.
“To hell with them. And if that wasn’t, why would they be here!” he spurts.
We laugh. A military chopper comes out of nowhere, and flies low overhead. Our laughter is drowned in the sound. It disappears quickly; both the laughter and the chopper. We can see the main road from where we are standing. Angry soldiers stop a car. The driver is asked to come out. He shows some papers. One soldier flings his door open. As soon as the driver steps out, another soldier lands his heavy muddy boot on the driver’s behind.
“Oh, ho, they have destroyed his perfectly clean pheran. How will he wash it now in this cold winter with no electricity?” quips the elderly man standing next to me.
The man giggles at his own black sense of humor. His own son was beaten to pulp two months back, and soldiers had dug a hole in his arm with a screwdriver. The driver receives a rain of blows, and soon passes out. Soldiers drag him to the side. The father bets the man is pretending to be unconscious. He is right. One soldier kicks him hard in the belly, and the driver is up. He limps back to the car, and drives away.
Two trucks packed tightly with sullen and frozen Kashmiri men move down the main road.
A young man, who has joined us, says wryly: “They are bringing people from outside to vote. They don’t need our vote.”
A sumo cab is driving toward us slowly. We are alert, and ready to dart back into our homes. It is a Kashmiri driver; it is safe. He stops near us. A thin vein of blood is issuing from the corner of his mouth.
He begins instantly: “These sister-fuckers pulled me out of my home in the night, and asked me to ferry troops to Kadipora. They gave me a paper telling me no one would ask me questions on my way back. But at every checkpoint they stop me and hit me, even after I show them this damn’d paper.”
“Hatta haz, they have no sympathy, no humanity,” the elderly man commiserates.
I come back home to write.
For the last two months elections have been taking place. Kashmir’s assembly elections are happening in six phases. Anantnag is the fifth one. Srinagar will be last. Today, like in all other phases, the rest of Kashmir is under an undeclared curfew. It reminds me of Dr. Aziz in Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” observing the body parts of his future wife through a perforated sheet, one by one.
Beyond the regular election-day restrictions, people have been barred from going out on Fridays as well. No prayers have been offered in the largest mosque in Srinagar, Jama Masjid, for the last six Fridays. People are not allowed to assemble. The main preacher at Jama Masjid, and head of Hurriyat, Mirwaiz Umar, is under house arrest. Thousands of separatist activists have been bundled into jails. Against many of them draconian black laws have been slapped, which means they can be put into prison for the next two years without trial. Yasin Malik, who has already been in jail at various times for a decade, is one of them.
In Anantnag, last month a hundred parents were picked up randomly by police, and asked to warn their sons not to indulge in the pro-independence campaign. Many young men have already been beaten up, and warned to stay indoors. A friend, who works with a local newspaper, was threatened, and his younger brother tortured, for reporting police atrocities. He was told to do favorable stories about the election. He is following orders to the word, he tells me. He doesn’t want to leave his job. Pro-government Ikhwani militias, which are funded and armed by the Indian state, and wreaked havoc on Anantnag for a full decade, have been reactivated. Many of the militiamen who were integrated into the army wander about the town in civvies and harass people.
A lot of people want to vote, if not in Anantnag town, then in the villages. They need their representatives to relieve them of the tremendous pressure the Indian state puts on them. During the past few months of pro-independence protests thousands were arrested and harassed. They had no one to go to for redress. Governor’s rule meant one inaccessible Indian bureaucrat controlled everyone’s lives in Kashmir. A legislative assembly means they can go to people who’ve at least some say. That is what contestants are promising. People in jails shall be released. The level of military oppression will be brought down. Government militias will be reigned in again. Major parties, like the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, are saying this vote is not a vote for India. And thrown in between are a number of others who have one or the other motivation to contest, and none of which is loyalty toward India. One contestant, who I’ve known since childhood, told me privately that he is contesting to get some special papers and a residence in Jammu so that he can take his ailing mother away from Kashmir.
In Delhi, sharp political analysts are yet again claiming victory over separatists. Indian newspapers and TV channels are agog with percentages, 68, 51, 57… The numbers encouraged Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come to a village in Anantnag a few days back, to support a Congress candidate from there. The village he visited is surrounded by hills full of bombs. Indian military has one of its largest ammunition depots in the region. Last year the hills in Khundru exploded into a huge ball of fire and gulped dozens of Kashmiri lives. The military asked villagers in fifteen villages surrounding the depot to vacate so that the depot could be expanded. To his Kashmiri audience, Manmohan Singh said India will defeat terrorism soon. He was talking about Mumbai.
Across the stream that runs behind my home, young men from the neigbourhood who were leading stone-pelting duels and protests against Indian soldiers over the summer and the autumn are playing cricket. The stream almost dries up in winter, leaving a little plain island behind. Soldiers can’t see it. It is almost three in the afternoon, and I haven’t seen anyone go to vote, yet. But there are two more hours to go, and who knows.
And then there is Bush who is insisting the shoe didn’t hit him!