Casualties of the “Freedom” Struggle

It was April 1990. Everyday life in Kashmir was under siege. Schools and colleges were closed most of the time. I spent my days tending to the household work in the kitchen with my mother and my sister or reading in my room. We hardly went outdoors during those days, and when we did, we were apprehensive. There were militants and armed forces everywhere. Even sitting in the garden or basking under the sun was not acceptable anymore, especially for girls. People killed time chatting with neighbors, reading newspapers, or making plans for the grocery. In the evenings, we sat diligently in front of the television to listen to the news — everyone’s daily obsession and one of the primary sources of information about the incidents happening in town besides listening to BBC radio and the hushed gossip of friends and neighbors. It was one of these days when everyone in the family was alerted as my father came in after a neighborhood chat. A neighbor’s car had been stolen.

That evening, like every other day, we switched on the television for the news. “Professor Mushir-ul-Haq, the Vice Chancellor of the Kashmir University has been kidnapped by unknown gunmen.” Everyone was shocked to hear the news. “His personal secretary, Abdul Ghani, and an orderly were accompanying.” The incident happened on a Friday, when the VC was leaving for his prayers in a white ambassador car. A group of four armed men had stopped the trio at gunpoint as the white ambassador was turning towards (now) Sir Syed Gate of the University. The men forced their way into the car and ordered the driver to move as directed. When they reached a certain place in the old city, the gunmen shuffled the kidnapped into a standing red Maruti.

Four days later, on April 10, the bullet-ridden bodies of Professor Haq and his secretary were found near a canal on the roadside at a place near the Airport Road. The entire academic community was shocked. My uncle was the Public Relations Officer of the university then. We had heard a lot of things about Professor Haq which he would share with us. The student wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the gruesome murder. Haq’s body was quickly flown to his hometown in New Delhi where he was buried.

Later that year, our neighbor Waheed, the owner of the red Maruti van, was arrested from his house during a nocturnal crackdown. While the neighborhood was asleep, the security men “barged into their bedroom from the window. The couple was in bed at the moment.” Everyone was in total awe for many days. There was no news of Waheed for months. About six months later, suddenly Waheed came home, a completely different person. He looked withered and old, and his hair had turned gray. “They had to pay money to rescue him. You think they would free him otherwise?” somebody said. Waheed had been tortured in custody. “His kidneys were damaged due to the physical torture during the interrogations,” said a family member.

In 1991, when militancy and the sentiment for azādi (“freedom”) were at their highest peak in Kashmir, I took my Higher Secondary Part I (i.e., Class 11th) exams amidst extreme tension and turbulence, like many others of my generation. My school, the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Soura, had been burnt down and many of our classes were held out in the open or in makeshift rooms. I still remember the charred logs and wretched beams and the deadly cold winters. Our hands would freeze while writing in absence of any heating arrangement. Right before the exams we were warned by somebody that there was “no need to study this time”.

On the first day of the exams, when the question papers and answer sheets were distributed, one of the examiners came forward and said: taamath bihivu ithay paeth, pata bihiv raundas manz ikwatta ‘Sit properly like this for now, in a little while you can make a circle together’ – words that resound in my memory in the same order even after literally two decades. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets when she instructed the girls to bring their notes and materials from their bags so that they could copy their answers in the answer sheets. A handsome young man was standing guard at the entrance to the examination hall holding a pistol. Tears fell from my eyes, perhaps not at the state of affairs that had unfolded but because I could not bear the fact that the girls who barely managed to pass in the previous examinations might receive a higher score than I could possibly make despite having worked very hard. My friend turned to me, “You are insane! Why don’t you do what others are doing?” I kept quiet and wrote my answers half-heartedly.

The next few years of school and college were no better. With a large number of teachers from the Kashmiri Pandit community having fled the valley, we had to make-do with the leftover teaching staff complemented by ad-hoc staff. A number of quick hirings were made at gunpoint or at sifaarish. Besides the hundreds of lost school days, the quality of education offered deteriorated drastically. Consequently, a monstrous private-tuition industry propped up and flourished, while the burning of educational establishments continued over the years.

I still remember the day when my college was partially burned. It was a cold winter night of February 6, 1996. We were watching a local television channel when I suddenly stopped at the horrific news about a “mysterious” fire that had broken at the Government Women’s College, M.A. Road. As I saw the footage of the flames on the television screen, tears began to roll down my cheeks. “Two cylinder blasts,” someone said. The Old Science Block and the Auditorium were gutted down after the blasts were heard. I wasn’t able to visit my college until after the winter vacations in spring. “Why educational institutions?” was a question that bothered me just like many other people, but there was no answer.

A huge number of educational institutions were sacrificed for the “freedom” struggle in the coming years. Although many non-government establishments were also attacked, the main targets were the government-run colleges and schools. In fact, not only were a large number of schools and colleges burnt down, many government buildings, bridges, museums and libraries were also targeted as part of the “freedom” struggle. When the Islamia College of Arts and Sciences was put to flames in the October of the fateful year of 1990, I saw tears in the eyes of some of my neighbors, my uncles, and my older cousins who had received their education in the college. It was a catastrophic fire that engulfed the entire college complex. A monumental structure in the heart of Srinagar by the foothills of Hariparbat, the Islamia College had housed some of the rare books and manuscripts. “Everything was burnt to ashes; nothing was left,” said people who were able to visit the college campus later.

Incidents were also reported about explosive devices planted or set-off in Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson schools. Attempt to set ablaze the Burn Hall School was reported earlier on March 17 of 1990. In the same year, Srinagar’s famous D.A.V. (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) School at Rainawari was burnt down. “My high school was burnt with petrol stolen from the cars of our village. We never attended school during rainy days; there was no room with a roof,” a friend from Anantnag narrated to me many years later in December 2012.

I also witnessed multiple attempts to burn a local boys’ government high school situated just a block away from my home at Shri Bhat. During the first few attempts the locals succeeded in dousing the flames as soon as the fire had started, but in the final attempt a heavy amount of petrol and probably also kerosene in big cans was used before the school finally burned down to ashes. We saw the flames from a second storey window facing the school. It took many years for the government to build a replacement.

On July 5 2004, the historic Islamia School situated near Rajouri Kadal (the area and its surroundings were renamed Shahr-e-Khaas in the later years) was also set on fire by “unidentified gunmen”, possibly by the use of petrol. I was doing fieldwork in Srinagar and also working as a columnist and sub-editor for the daily Kashmir Observer.

The loss in education was an irreparable damage; it took a heavy toll on our society. While a number of voices of dissent were either warned from time to time or even silenced, a lot many people chose to leave the valley in pursuit of education and for jobs and never returned. Hartals and shutdowns became a norm crippling all of our civil institutions – education, economy, and healthcare. Often we were forced to stay indoors for months at a stretch as schools and colleges were closed. My peers and I lost two precious years of school during a five-year period in the 90’s. Consequently, many of us started looking for opportunities outside the trouble-torn valley. Few of those who left found a path to return.

Looking back today, it seems our next generation is going through exactly what my generation did. The cycle of loss is simply getting repeated over and over again with very few dividends. A blind leadership of a limping struggle isn’t really leading us anywhere; it’s only making circles amidst a façade of a “movement” which is making rounds without making any advances. The cycle must break so we can determine a path of progress and prosperity for our children, our future generations. This is what wisdom asks of us, and this is something we really owe to our future generations.

Published in the daily Rising Kashmir on November 18, 2016:
Reproduced in the Pakistan Observer on November 20, 2016:

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