…. to illuminate the physical density of the infrastructure of military occupation in Kashmir, to make visible what is invisibalized in the discourses of normality…
Two major roads bring you to Islamabad. If you are coming from Srinagar in the North you are “welcomed” on the right by Indian Territorial army’s transit camp, which is also a complex for counter-insurgency forces, and includes the notorious Joint Interrogation Center. (“Interrogation” is euphemism for torture). On the left, you have a series of paramilitary (CRPF and BSF) camps, some of which spill into the Government Degree College. As you keep going, you see the District Police Lines, which includes renegade camps. If you are coming from Jammu, on the right you have Police Headquarters for South Kashmir range, and on the left you see the same transit camp you see coming from Srinagar.
Further down, when the two roads meet you see more camps of Army’s counterinsurgency forces on your right. The road brings you to the bridge that crosses into the Islamabad town.
Now, there were two major signs of India’s military presence in Islamabad before 1990. In the northwest side was the transit camp, and a few miles southeast of the town, in the hills of Khundru, the Indian army had established a vast ammunition dump, whose actual spatial limits perhaps no Kashmiri knew. For the people of the town, before 1990, contact with the military consisted of serpentine convoys of army vehicles, passing through the town’s narrow potholed roads, carrying arms and equipment to Khundru, and creating more potholes on their way.
By mid-1990 hundreds of thousands of new Indian army and paramilitary personnel arrived in Kashmir adding to the strength of the hundreds of thousands already present. Many of them were deployed in Islamabad. The army established sandbag bunkers, camps, and checkpoints all over the town. They were so close to each other that one could always see one military post from another. What was not physically covered, or capable of being covered, was patrolled continuously, or opened to continuous surveillance.
The town was situated in the triangle that formed between two major tributaries of the serene Jehlum. Three bridges connected the town with adjoining regions. Bunkers were placed on all these bridges. On the hill, which protruded into the town to complete the third side of the triangle, the army established a large base and set up sniper nests that overlooked the main squares and streets. There is a torture centre in that camp as well, with many gruesome stories to tell.
In the midst of the town, Ikhwanis (renegades) established three camps: in Kadipora, Janglat Mandi, and Mehndi Kadal, all three in large, vacated, Pandit houses—all of them notorious torture centers. Aside from these there were two Special Task Force camps, which called themselves ‘police stations’.
So, alongside the military transit camp, the vast camp on the hill (which had a three-sided view of the town), numerous bunkers on bridges and street corners, and the three Ikhwan camps in the midst of the town, paramilitary forces were (and still are) stationed in two of the three hospitals that existed. They are also in a large but defunct cinema hall; in some vacated Pandit houses along a busier, dusty street; in the general post office; in the telegraph station; inside a temple complex; in a state-owned bank building; in two rundown hotels; in a closed down fertilizer mill etc.
It might be interesting to mention what happened at the ammunition dump in the hills of Khundru. In 2007, the depot caught fire. Such things, for obvious reasons, catch fire by themselves. According to my family members, who saw it from our home 7 miles away, the exploding shells looked like giant fireworks that went on for hours on end.
When I heard, I remember ironically imagining Brigadier Vayu Chamatkaar raising toast “Ladies and Gentlemen, to another people’s movement crushed! It is celebration time!” and the military officers and their wives dancing amidst the fire and sound show. One entire hill was on fire. I wrote the following on the day I heard the news (I wasn’t in Kashmir at that time):
“Khundru has existed long. Its hills, stolen forcibly from its owners, first bore Dogra maharaja’s ponies. Indians went a step ahead, and hollowed out the hills. They implanted their deadly stockpile of weapons and God-knows-nuclear-what. I have passed through the huge depot a number of times. The multiple frisking at its many gates has been a source of humiliation for locals for decades. The locals always feared the day the depot goes up in flames. As if it was certain, beyond any possible doubt, that it would. They would say that ‘when’ the entire depot, hidden under lush green hills that run for miles, explodes, the whole valley will be destroyed. Kashmir will be flattened. No hills will stand.
When I saw the pictures, it looked like a mushroom-cloud, the kind one sees in the pictures of Hiroshima atomic bombing. It was like a mini atom bomb. And now, unexploded shells are spread over dozens of kilometers. A woman far from Khundru died when a random flying bomb hit her. Dozens more, including firefighters, died on the day itself.”
News of deaths from the incident kept trickling. A year later two laborers died from unexploded shells as vast tracts of agricultural land turned into minefields. A few days after the incident, I came to know that the army was asking at least 15 surrounding villages to relocate to make more space for the depot.
The villagers felt this wasn’t the real thing. It was just a prelude.