My Brushes with Terrorism in Kashmir

Shehjar Newsmagazine Shehjar e-magazine


t may read like a simple story but the context of the year 1989 makes it a saga of courage and determination of unknown and unheralded people against the monster of terrorism that has since raised its ugly head in Kashmir. The Valley of flowers, orchards and pastures, bedecked with springs, rivulets and lakes that is Kashmir, presents a spoiled visage now due to rabid, religious terrorism by extreme Islamists.

December of 1989 was dreary and dreadful. There was anarchy on the roads and panic in the minds of Kashmiris. Offices, businesses, trade, transport and banks had already come to standstill under the diktats of militants. I was still performing my duties in District Pulwama to oversee law and order situation as a magistrate on a roster. My nuclear family consisted of jut my wife and me. My wife was living at our home at Bagat-Barzulla Srinagar alone because two of our daughters were studying in a foreign land. Our third one who was living with us and studying at Srinagar had to be pushed to Delhi when we received a hand written letter which warned us that our home would be bombed in case we did not stop her sending to school. Although it may have been a prank, circumstances of the time made it sufficient harassment for us to take note and believe it. While I had to travel to my places of duty in the District regularly I also had to return to my wife frequently as she was holding fort alone at Srinagar. Her morale and spirits had to be kept up especially when all other community members from our locality had already been forced into exodus under overt pressure of the militants. I had to start early in the mornings for my work in the District and would return late in the evenings. There were very few officers like me who persisted with their duties those days, even as the entire Administration had gone into hiding and the police was conniving.

My regular travels to my places of duty were being marked with despise by some people around my house who were happy to stay away from their work on orders of the militants. Therefore, it became necessary for me to draw my daily itinerary to and from my residence keeping in view security tactics. I would never take the same route to and from my duty area more than once. In the morning I would take Natipora-Nowgam road to Pulwama and in the evening I would travel by Pampore- Athwajan -Srinagar road so that I could not be noticed on the same road more than once. Failure to attend to such planning in travel would otherwise have facilitated reprisals for non-observance of militant’s diktats to desist from all kinds of duties to paralyze administration, provoke anarchy and civil insurrection in the valley. The arrangement would be reversed every day, yet my movements were being marked and noticed with anger and displeasure.

While people of the valley were boycotting and staying away from work and duties, I do not know what fire burnt in me to keep me working actively and moving in that hostile and vitiated atmosphere. Most Kashmiri Pandits from the valley and all from my locality had already moved in exodus under pressure of the militants and the separatists. Mine was the only Kashmiri Pandit family in my locality that had managed to stay put against all odds of blackmail and intimidation. It was therefore essential for me to guide and educate my wife of all the risks and dangers of the situation we were in. She had to be face with hard facts and I had briefed her not to lose her cool and face the situation with determination and even calm resignation.

Those were the times when landline telephones that rarely functioned properly were the standard, yet these were highly sought after. We had one such at our residence but in those days of confusion and tension phones became a curse instead of a blessing because their tingling would spell uncertainty, danger and even doom. It was on another eerie, chilly December 1989 day that I left for my duties for District Pulwama on a frosty morning with my driver. Before leaving I again advised my wife who was living alone in the house not to get ruffled by rumors and whispers which used to float commonly those days. She was advised not to get agitated and excited about rumors heard through whispers or as propaganda from the adjacent mosque (built illegally on an encroached patch of triangular government land just opposite our house). The rumors were floated to whip up public hysteria and Muslim rage against India and Kashmiri Pandits (who were deemed to be symbols and signs of another religion and India in the valley). My driver had come from Maulana Azad road and planned a return from Natipora -Nowgam road to avoid detection. While leaving my home I could feel that I was being noticed and marked by some people of the locality who did not approve my bold, regular transgressions and would even jeer and groan within my hearing distance. But under the influence of some mysterious fire burning in me, I would ignore all such visual signs of disapproval and proceed on my duties undeterred, like a soldier. Was it foolhardy and unreasonable bravado from me, I can not say?

After visiting areas of Pampore, Kakapora, Pulwama, Shadimarg, Keller and Shopian I returned late in the evening via Niauna, Sangam, Awantipora, Pampore through Pantchok bypass road when it was already pitch dark. There were no lights on the roads as shops and businesses were closed. The lights in the houses were ordered to be put off by the militants and insurgents as a mark of protest for no reason but to create confusion and dread. Even street lights were not allowed to be put on. One could feel that only ghosts and dead bodies were haunting the city to subdue its spirit.

As I knocked on the gate of the garden wall of my house, my pale, pallid and panting wife appeared on the door. She almost collapsed while sobbing. I took her in my arms and wanted to console her but she would not listen. She wanted me to leave the place there and then as others had done to save myself and her from perpetual harassment and distress. She could not stand this intimidation and uncertainty any more. I could realize that there must have been a serious problem that must have agitated and knocked her otherwise calm mind off. How else would she, who had exhibited extraordinary guts and courage to face all odds and dangers single handedly when I would leave her alone at home daily to perform my duties become so uneasy so soon. After sobering her mind with a good deal of cajoling, I wanted to know as to what it was that had ruffled her that much on that day. She revealed that during the afternoon of that day she got a call on the phone which informed her in a calm voice that her husband (me) had been shot dead by militants on a road side. This was the period when such selective killings were routinely resorted to by the militants to scare away the Pandits. This was a scenario of utter helplessness and doom for her. She was simply shattered. Even more so; as there were no means to ascertain the veracity of what she had heard. She had lived a restless day of great panic and agony without any means to confirm or rebut the sad news. She could approach no one for help and support because all social support systems had been destroyed by the terrorists with their malicious propaganda against India and Kashmiri Pandits. All such offices which could help in such cases had been deserted and there were no sources to tap to learn facts from or to dispel rumors. Though she had already been briefed by me that she should not lend credence to such rumors and reports whose purpose was to create fear and panic, yet she could not cope with a report of such personal, traumatic nature. I could visualize that she would have been in deep and desperate agony during that entire day. When she saw me all intact, she became mad with rage against me for my intransigence and foolishness. She pitied my stubbornness and asked me to get out of this hell as other members of our community had done already. I tried to console her, yet got jitters as to how this fragile lady had withstood the entire day, which had no seeming end in such misery and pain for no fault of hers. I told her that like all patriots she was also subscribing to the solidarity of the country by her positive association with me in fighting anti-national elements in the state, even by staying back at her place to support me in my humble efforts. After sobering her which took a great deal of time and persuasion we were just readying for our supper which would consist of a serving of rice and a bowl of lentils because no vegetables and other provisions were allowed to be sold those days. Markets would remain closed for weeks on end under orders of the militants. We were likely to start eating when our phone started ringing. It must have been 8.30 in the evening. Though there was total black out in the entire valley under the diktat of the militants we had ventured to keep a dim light on in one of the many rooms of our house, ensuring that all windows were duly covered with thick quilts, not to allow light to pass in order to escape detection. Those days ringing of phone bells would only spell out uncertainty and alarm, more so when it would be night time. It could land one into ugly confusion and chaos, just to hear the phone ring. Though commonsense would prompt one to respond to such phone calls, security concerns would prohibit it in those uncertain and surcharged times. So after some procrastination I risked to lift the receiver.

“Hello, who is speaking?” roared a baritone voice that seemed to intimidate more and enquire less. It was simply not wise those days to respond to unknown voices with normal courteous replies when there used to be no user identity facility in the phones to trace the source of the call and especially when shadows of uncertainty and death stalked all members of my community. So I responded after a pause “Who do you want to speak to?” Instead of revealing his identity the baritone voice on the phone again repeated, “Who is speaking?” This time the voice on other end did not seem to me to be a normal one. I started to conjure up the background and the mission of the voice which seemed vicious to me, only on a prowl with some secret mission to dig out some facts out of me which were needed for some revelation, exposure and punishment. Again I asked the voice as to whom it wanted to speak with. It again avoided identification and added to my sense of panic and alarm. It persisted and I resisted. We spent about 5 minutes on this tug of war on the phone. But when he did not relent I dropped the phone and started thinking of the gravity of the situation I had opted to live in. Was it time for me to lace up and rush out before it was too late? For the first time I realized how my wife had been living all alone in that big house from moment to moment for months on end, surviving against rumors and whispers. But I did not want my wife to sense my tension and so asked her to start the supper.

We must have finished hardly half of our serving of rice and lentils when the phone rang again. I could sense that it was the same voice that was trying to reach me but I avoided it for a while. Yet I could not resist it longer as those were the days when just a moment in time could make difference between life and death. So many apprehensions and dangers lurked in my mind that it was not possible to ignore the phone bell for long despite my wanting to. I lifted the receiver and was not surprised to confront the same full husky voice that seemed to create more dread and convey less, “ WHO is speaking?” it commanded. Again I asked as to whom he wanted to talk to, but he persisted with trying to know my identity. I resisted and he persisted, a number of times. Again I dropped the call midway and resumed to eat the rest of my meal. I again started pondering as to who this man was that wanted to know me, if he did not know me already. And what were his intensions and motivations to approach me and my family, who had ventured to stay put in the face of great pressure and harassment? The happenings of the day when my wife had been informed on the phone that I had been killed by militants on the roadside naturally started explaining the scheme of harassment and intimidation. Was it the same person or agency out to harass us and force us to move from our home as other members of my community had already done? Or could it be a sincere and honest man who wanted to talk something very important to me which was very crucial for me and my family? But I had no way to ascertain it in those days when all communication lines were tapped by terrorists to choke the valley and it was not safe to reveal my identity and get exposed for being other than a common man. I got more confused and so dropped the phone again and resumed rest of my meals which had turned cold by now and lost all taste. My wife could sense my unease and asked me as to what was so disquieting for me. I reassured her that it was all normal and OK. I advised her that she need not to worry and care damn for such things, even though I myself started getting apprehensive about an uncertain and unknown tomorrow. Was someone watching us closely and making us aware that my regular movements for my duty were being watched closely and disliked? And, that all my transgressions would be properly “appreciated” with due reprisals. There was no way to seek consultation and relief from such misery by any measure. Things were dismal and uncertain. Mysterious chilly winds of December were lashing the outside, which seemed to seep through the creaks of large glass windows of our room.

After we finished our tasteless meals I started to realize that we were living on the edge with open risks to our life and the situation was really grim and critical. Again, after some time the phone broke the all encompassing silence by ringing. This time, the ring rattled me a great deal. I could not therefore ignore the bell for long because at such traumatic moments one is too hungry for any kind of news. After some more prevarication, I lifted the receiver and started without waiting for a response,” WHO IS IT speaking, please open up?” I intoned. “Please do not drop the phone I want to talk something very important with you”, back came the answer in a subdued tone. When I asked him as to what it was all about; he wanted to know from me as to if I was speaking from Srinagar. When I confirmed that I was speaking from Srinagar, he wanted to know the exact place from which I was speaking. Again his query sent me into a tizzy. Again I cut him short and asked him if he needed to talk about anything else. Like me, the voice on the other end was adamant yet reluctant to reveal its identity and intent. Both of us tugged on the phone for about half an hour. He was demanding my identity and I refusing to oblige, so much so that I got annoyed and dropped the phone yet again.

Thereafter I went to my bed to refurbish my sagged and tensed energies but could not resist the pending call for the reason that it could well be a message of hope from a well-wisher for my safety and eventual evacuation; and thus lifted the phone yet again though with reluctance.

The voice on the phone by now had become very clear due to absence of congestion on phone lines during night hours. The voice pleaded that I need not be scared. And that I need to hear him and inform him on the things that he wanted to know. He wanted to know what the ground conditions in Kashmir and Srinagar were in particular at that time. That seemed to be again a catch for me. I could neither say that the conditions were normal nor could I depict them to be highly volatile. Both ways it could lead to my exposure before my unknown enemy if he was one. So I could not answer the question honestly even if I wanted to. So I did inform him that the situation is well known as it is reported in press as well as other media. (While national media underplayed and ignored the erupting insurrection in the valley in the initial stages, local media sensationalized all attempts of anarchy and sabotage as great acts of bravado in the struggle for Azadi). He persisted very hard to know the details of civil turmoil which I equally resisted to furnishy. He also wanted to know as to how many Kashmiri Pandit families were still living in my locality which I equally avoided to spell, not that I did not want to share information with him. Only that any such communication from me was fraught with the risk of exposure and reprisals if it went into wrong ears. Every question of his seemed to be loaded with covert suggestions to expose me and my inclinations. But as a man encircled in a hostile environment, yet aware of security concerns I avoided all his questions and yet engaged with him to elicit his real intent. This exercise persisted up to midnight when he again wanted to know my name and address. But I still resisted apprehending some unforeseen calamity visiting me after I revealed my identity. He gave me some hints which suggested that he knew my area very well. I got frustrated by his intransigence and persistence. Finally I told him that I was dropping the phone and would not lift it again. I dropped the phone and snapped its cord so that it could not menace me any more. I slipped under my warm quilt to ponder over my role as a helpless prisoner of terrorist anarchy who could not even talk freely and frankly in the face of immediate reprisals. Those who were daring to speak and oppose the merchants of death and destruction prowling the valley those days were being done away with regularly. I am still at a loss to understand as to who that person could have been who wasted five hours of his and mine on that sable night of December 1989.

I wonder if any Kashmir historian would ever record innumerable such stark but dismal facts of a religious, terrorist insurrection that was aimed at creating civil anarchy and social chaos in the valley. That seems to be a far fetched possibility because all impartial and independent historians stand muted under the influence of the guns of trained terrorists, who claim to be acting in favor of Islam. This campaign was sponsored by Pakistan, a state which funded and guided terrorists in the winter of 1989 to seek secession of the valley from the union of India. I venture to record this for posterity.

*P.N.Ganjoo was born in a modest Kashmiri family about 7 decades ago, lost his father early and was raised by his honest, hardworking mother. With her efforts he received his education in Srinagar and went on to serve in various Government Departments before retiring as a senior grade KAS officer.

Presently he is working on his varied interests besides being a consulting Director of a software services company.

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