On Kashmir highway, an unfinished journey at dead of night (First Person)

Srinagar, July 29 (IANS) It was not a secret journey to be made in the dead of the night. It was rather a compulsion because chances of getting caught in Kashmir’s continuing violence are lesser at night than during the day.

In view of the danger of travelling on the Srinagar-Jammu highway that runs through south Kashmir, where most of the deadly street protests have occurred, I was advised to wait a while before I drive from the restive Kashmir Valley for Delhi with my family.

But I could not postpone it any further. It was already a month after I arrived here from Delhi, on a short holiday, to celebrate Eid with my parents.

My stay in Kashmir got extended in the wake of the latest Kashmir unrest, triggered by the July 8 killing of 22-year-old Burhan Wani, a rebel commander who had become a social media sensation over the past couple of years.

As the unrest – now in its fourth week – faded out of TV screens and street protests, curfew and shutdown turned a routine, Kashmir no longer made headlines in the national media. So I set out.

As the moon shone dim amid a nip in the air, I started off for my second attempt in a week to leave the turbulent valley.

Fear palpable, I drove slowly out of my neighbourhood. My father, seated next to me, began reciting Quranic verses silently for our safety.

The streets were deserted. An eerie silence engulfed the roads south of Srinagar. I moved on. My worried mother, also with us in the car, kept telling me to drive slowly.

A floodlight almost blinded me at a crossing near the Srinagar-Pulwama border. I sensed trouble. A group of paramilitary personnel asked me to halt. I obliged.

Without waiting for questioning, I flashed my Press card and told them that we were headed to Delhi.

“Take care,” a two-star officer said, smilingly. “It is not that easy.”

I heaved a sigh of relief and turned right to hit the highway. Barring a few vehicles, including some military trucks, nothing else moved on this single-lane strategic road – the only surface link connecting the Kashmir Valley with the rest of India.

I would have driven barely 20 km when I first heard a clamour of slogans from a distance. It was Pampore – the saffron town of Kashmir. A mosque loudspeaker blared freedom songs – the sound appeared louder on a clear night.

There was nobody around at this spot where militants killed some eight paramilitary forces in June. Or so I thought.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of a stone hitting a shop front. I stopped and a group of three young men – seemingly in their teens – emerged from a small lane. “Switch off the headlight,” one shouted. “And switch on the cabin light.”

I obeyed.

They looked around and signalled us to carry on but with a warning that the journey ahead is not going to be smooth.

My worried mother requested me to turn back. I calmed her and drove on. Father kept reciting the Quranic verses.

Near Awantipora — home to an Indian Air Force base – I heard a cracking boom of fighter jets. On a routine journey, I would not have noticed the sound of an aircraft on a possible training sortie. But the fear had made all of us more conscious of even a squeaking around. This sounded like a war bugle.

Some distance away, the street was strewn with half broken rocks and bricks – a sign of an overnight stone-rage war between security forces and protesters. But none among the warring groups was there.

I zigzagged through the splattered rocks and reached Sangam – the confluence of Veshaw and Jhelum rivers. It was here where an angry mob had drowned a policeman in the Jhelum when the uprising erupted post Wani’s killing.

I crossed the bridge over the confluence. The road ahead was partially blocked by tree trunks and cement poles as I approached Bijbehara town.

On a barren road, I saw “ragda, ragda” written in big letters, possibly with a white chalk. It is the opening line of an anti-India song that had swept the valley in 2008 and 2010.

“Ragda” means stomping. Angry youth in a huddle break into an impromptu performance with their right feet stomping an imaginary tricolour, shouting “Yeh Ragda! Yeh Ragda” in rhythm.

As I was recollecting the memories of unrest in the last two Kashmir summers, a group of men with stones in their hand came rushing. I applied the brake with a screeching halt, nearly running over a couple of them.

“It is a shutdown,” yelled one, perhaps their leader. “Go back.”

I almost gave up. Suddenly I heard a police vehicle approaching. The boys dispersed and I moved on. But by then, despite the dark night, the stone war had resumed between protesters and security personnel.

I quietly parked deep inside a small lane with my headlights turned off and waited for the calm to return. “Ragda, ragda” protests could be heard from a distance.

I stepped out even as my mother repeatedly told me to stay inside the car. Policemen were around. One of them shouted at me. Maybe they had seen me with the protesters earlier.

But once they realized who I was, they became gentle. A policeman told me not to proceed further. Anantnag and nearby towns are also protesting, he said.

All this was too much. I decided, there and then, that I had to abort my road journey to Delhi.

We returned to Srinagar, shrouded in fear.

Amid all this, my 15-month-old son slept quietly on his mother’s lap, Oblivious to everything that happened in this unfinished journey. I pray he remains untouched and unaware of the violence his elder generation – people of Burhan Wani’s age – went through.

(Sarwar Kashani can be reached on sarwar.k@ians.in)



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