HOW DO you introduce yourself to people you have just met? In my case, it’s easiest and most accurate to say I am a photographer. Sometimes, I may introduce myself as someone who loves motorcycles. And beer. I might talk about the school or college I went to. Or that I am from Delhi, have lived and been educated in the city all my life. My parents live here, my grandparents lived here. Perhaps, at a visa office, I might describe myself as ‘Indian’.
If I belong to any nation though, it’s the nation of photographers, or of owners of beautiful Enfields. Or so I thought.
Last Saturday, I found myself at Jantar Mantar on assignment. It was the usual chaos of a functioning democracy. I was there for the small knot of protesters against the government’s decision to hang Afzal Guru. When I was in school, student body elections involved racing out into the corridor and screaming the name of your preferred candidate as loudly as you could. It was delirious, exhilarating. The fun was in shouting down the opposition. Of course, we did actually vote. So the groups who shouted loudest didn’t necessarily win. It’s a lesson you learn early.
At Jantar Mantar, there were many groups, shouting for many things. There was a group of RWAs from Ghaziabad, demanding, according to their banners, a wider road. A man in white was giving a stirring speech. “About tarmac?” I wondered as I made my way towards the cheers, “How exciting could that be?” “Now that we have killed Afzal Guru, it’s time to get the rest of his family. Put each and every one of them in jail.” Ah, the road can wait. He was drawing applause from other groups, from those who support capital punishment, from those who want the formation of ‘Gorkhaland’. From the biggest group present at Jantar Mantar: the police.
The small group of protesters against Afzal’s execution was heavily outnumbered by the media, the police and Bajrang Dal supporters identifiable by items of saffron clothing and their spittle-flecked self-righteousness. Each time the protesters tried raising a slogan, they were shouted down with abuse, accusations of being anti-national Pakistan-lovers, hooting, cackling laughter, and more abuse. The protesters were being split apart until ever smaller groups found themselves surrounded by emboldened mobs. A group of Kashmiri students, young men, girls in hijabs, began a chant: “Azadi, hamey chahiye azadi.” Their banners proclaimed Afzal did not get a fair trial. The Bajrang Dal mobs went berserk. And the police let them, arresting some protesters, but only after the thugs had got in a few punches, a few kicks. None of the men actually committing the violence were arrested.
A female colleague of mine was jostled. I saw one skinny kid, who looked a little like me, running away from a group. I followed, as any photographer would. I saw he was about to be trapped between two groups of right-wing Hindu men intent on violence. At this point, I tried to help the kid, push a few of the men off him, and help him run.
I am of Kashmiri origin. My grandparents left Kashmir. I don’t speak the language. But I have, what my family jokingly calls, a Kashmiri nose. I look like the kids who were being beaten up around me. I have always been aware of my heritage, but it has never been how I defined myself. And here I was, all of a sudden, not a photographer, not a motorcycle rider, but a Kashmiri running and fighting alongside other Kashmiris.
I got smashed in the face by someone unseen, a fist or a forearm in the jaw. I swung my camera in defence. “Arre, yeh toh presswallah hai,” came the surprised shout, obviously confused because I looked just like the other kid. It was strange because that’s how I had thought of myself all afternoon, as a ‘presswallah’, but for a brief moment, while I was helping that kid (who the mob saw as an ‘anti-national Kashmiri’), I too became an ‘anti-national Kashmiri’. I am an experienced journalist. I have been at other protests. But this one left me more than usually affected. To see the police arrest not a single Bajrang Dal hooligan; later, I saw a couple of cops and hooligans share a cosy, packed lunch. That Saturday, I got a lesson in identity. How we see ourselves and how others see us. They saw me, however briefly, as a Kashmiri. They see themselves as great patriots. I see them as bullies. Cowards.