Personal Histories: Nawaz Gul Qanungo

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Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

|The Quirks of Kashmir|

KASHMIR — AND THE Kashmiri — is a question with a big Q. It has this habit of throwing up surprises. And then, of course, countless questions. I’ve been struggling with some fresh questions of azadi and elections. But then, in Kashmir, when you look far back enough, well, is it really such a surprise, do we really need more answers? Maybe I knew the answers before the questions were raised.

It was May 2006. A major sex racket busted in Srinagar had rocked the valley. The issue made headlines in the national press. Sabina, the prime accused, had been laughing her way to freedom for years, thanks to her clients, the co-accused, who allegedly belonged to the top brass in the state administration, police and even the Indian security forces.

People had been talking about the issue for long. Now, Sabina was in the dock. And so were her clients. People came out on the streets demanding immediate punishment for the guilty. Soon the anger turned into protests.

On June 2, 2006, a leading national magazine laments: Despite saturation coverage of the protests against a commercial sex racket in Srinagar, their political content remains unexamined. “Long live Pakistan,” chanted the hundreds of young men who, armed with axes and crowbars, had gathered to demolish Sabina Hamid Bulla’s home in downtown Srinagar on May 5. “We want freedom!” One remains ill-informed on [the] political content… Who, for one, were the protestors? Why the violence and the anti-India polemic?

And on July 28, 2006, the magazine finally blames it, well, on the Islamists: Islamists have harvested the public outrage against the Srinagar sex scandal.

Thank you very much! It set me thinking of another time.

It was June of 2004. Under the shadow of a giant chinar tree in Lal Bazaar, a part of Srinagar, I was talking to friends. The topic was an odd event unfolding a small distance away. A potential terror had turned into a bizarre sport for the people of the vicinity. A leopard had escaped from the nearby Dachhigam sanctuary and had travelled all the way to the middle of the town. Everyone was now worried about how to get rid of the creature. Children had been forced to stay indoors. Women were afraid to move out. Meanwhile, young men of the locality were thrilled. Some started throwing stones at the animal. Entertainment, a rare commodity in the Valley, had come out of the blue! It was quite some time now. We were chatting under the chinar, talking about the poor animal. Just then, a couple of gun-shots were heard. The leopard was no more. But entertainment was far from over. After the killing, people intervened. They wanted to carry the beast to the local police station. The police gave in. And a procession started. Dancing, cheering, raising their arms towards the bright summer sky, and punching the air with empty fists, the young men cried: Hum kya chahte hai? Aazaadee.We want freedom! And tossing the dead leopard in the air like a trophy, they chanted: Islam zindabad! Now blame it on the beast. Or the Islamists.

And yes! Coming to more recent times, there was the Amarnath land transfer. Millions poured out on the streets. Anti-separatists sulked and called it the work of traitors and jehadis. Nearly 60 unarmed Kashmiris were killed by the ‘security’ forces. Azadi was in the air. That’s when it was, quite famously, said: “India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much as Kashmir needs azadi from India.”

But come elections, azadi was returned to the freezer. Now millions decided to come out to exercise their franchise. Overnight, Kashmir’s mission critical was up on and over its head. Voices that just days before were breathing fire against ‘friends of the enemy’ looked at them now in delight, with pride. After all, this was the ultimate dance of democracy. And just another Kashmiri ping pong. Until next time.

Nawaz Gul Qanungo is 30. He is a journalist based in Srinagar