Prisoners in Srinagar airport

As our flight began to descend at Srinagar airport on 28th afternoon, Gautam drew my attention to what lay beneath: the landscape around the airport was dotted with army camps; the green rooftops glistening in bright daylight of a mild summer. We wondered how much more land would thus be acquired by a force whose presence is not only an eyesore but a formidable threat to all who live in their midst. But we were arriving here for a trek in the mountains of North Kashmir and hardly able to contain our sense of joy and excitement; despite the lingering discomfort and anguish at what we had just seen from a window in the sky…a grave reminder that we were about to land in one of the most militarized zones, although a familiar one. We have been returning here for any number of years; a little over two decades for Gautam and half of it in my case.

As we disembarked, a police constable came running to show us the way to the arrival lounge. “Why is he showing us the way?” I turned to ask Gautam without realizing or apprehending what awaited us inside. There were a dozen uniformed men who, as we learnt later, belonged to the J&K branch of the CID. As I took hold of a trolley for our luggage, one of them was asking Gautam to follow him to the VIP lounge at the airport; we almost laughed in disbelief at this VIP treatment that seemed to have been reserved only for us while other passengers got busy collecting their baggage and leaving the airport. When we did the same and looked in the direction of the ‘exit’ Gautam informed me that according to the DSP who was thus far persuading him towards the VIP lounge that he, Gautam was being prohibited to enter the city. Unable to make any sense of it I demanded to know from the DSP what the matter was. He said, with a polite smile that did not at all match his words, “Oopar se IG ka order aaya hai ke sir ko Budgam district mein dakhil hone ki ijazat nahin hai, hum toh bus order follow kar rahe hain” – we have received orders from above that he is prohibited from entering Budgam district, we are only following the order. In desperation, I heard myself telling the officer something that I have always contested, rejected: that Kashmir is an integral part of India and we as Indian citizens had every right to enter here whenever we wished! It fell on deaf ears even as our ‘citizenship’ was being challenged; our basic democratic right was being violated, our ‘sense of self’ eroded…

Not willing to follow any verbal order, we asked for a copy of the written order which was procured for us after more than an hour. In the meantime, while we tried to make sense of the situation and reason with them, they were preparing to send us back to Delhi by the next available flight! The ‘order’ was from the District Magistrate, Budgam, who in his authority had invoked Section 144 Cr PC to prevent Gautam’s entry. According to him, Gautam (“social activist”) posed a threat to the prevailing state of peace and normalcy and could disrupt the smooth flow of civic amenities! Even after reading the order, when we refused to leave and said that we would wait until our lawyer’s advice, the DSP’s ‘polite smile’ was replaced with a scowl that indeed suited his demeanor better; now it was in a loud, harsh and arrogant tone, with arms flaying, that he addressed us, “now that you both have read the order, please obey it and do as we tell you. The only option for you is to return to Delhi, give us the money so we may purchase your tickets and send you back. We have other duties too and we cannot carry on with this headache.” Do we have to pay from our own pockets to be deported? “Of course; will the sarkar pay for you? That is not how it is done,” we were told candidly.

While all this was being ‘sorted out’ the last flight from Srinagar to Delhi had already departed and the airport was beginning to take on a deserted look as there were no more passengers in the departure lounge where we had now been brought under strict security. It was instead teeming with gun toting uniformed men and then we saw sniffer dogs being brought in; a mock drill for a hijacked airplane was about to be conducted for which the airport had to be evacuated! But before that the cops had to ensure that our tickets were purchased for us to leave the next morning; an exorbitant amount was thus demanded from us failing which we were threatened that “you will be taken as accused by the police in a PCR van up to Jammu from where you may proceed to Delhi”. When we objected strongly to being treated as criminals, the DSP turned the threat into a sinister joke; “why don’t you make good use of this opportunity we are providing; once we leave you in Jammu you can enter Srinagar (Budgam district) by road, no one will know; who can stop you then?” We refused, paid the money for our ‘return journey’ and were then led outside the airport to wait until the mock drill was over.

While the tickets were being purchased, phone-calls were flying between the cops and the SSP regarding where to put us up for the night. I overheard one of them; “Sir there is a madam with Mr Gautam (turns to me to ask ‘yeh aapke kaun lagte hain? Who is he to you?). And there’s no place here at the airport to keep them”. We were unaware of whatever instructions might’ve been given but each one of the cops maintained a rigid silence in response to our repeated query about where they would take us from here. One of them, perhaps in an attempt to soothe my frayed nerves declared that he was like my son and I should trust him as a mother would! So, here in the midst of these surrounding policemen and what seemed like a surreal, endless drama unfolding, a new relationship was being forged with me. I wondered whether he would call Gautam a ‘father’ if he were alone in their midst? Gender, Citizenship, Democracy, Rights; all were distorted, wrenched of their meaning. A personal visit turned into a political farce? What do I tell this new-found son? Listen to your new-found mother? No, I had to listen to him he said (doesn’t that happen in ‘real’ life elsewhere?) as he drove and brought a caged PCR van and told us to get in; does he expect me to feel proud that I had suddenly acquired a young cop-son who was telling me to sit in the front seat with him while Gautam and the luggage were ‘placed’ in the back of the van along with gun wielding men. “But where are you taking us,” we protested and I, the new-found mother told him that it was the most infuriating, humiliating experience for me and I refuse to have a son that drives his ‘mother’ in his police van to an undisclosed location. “Please don’t worry; we’ll make sure you are comfortable,” he said.

As the police vehicle sped out of the airport with two of us as their ‘captives’, I began to think of the hundreds of ordinary, innocent citizens that are ‘picked up’ as a matter of routine here to maintain ‘law and order’, to ensure that ‘civic amenities’ are supplied uninterruptedly, to keep up the charade of ‘peace and normalcy’ and to show the world that tourism was thriving here; so what if there were “minor hiccups” such as this one; nothing compared to the brutal suppression of others. So what if we too had come here, on this occasion, as tourists desiring to visit the mountains to trek. There are tourists indeed but one among them here was a seen as a threat to tourism itself, a threat to the prevailing state of peace. How fragile is this peace, how fragile a State that (mis)uses its power and authority to prevent one from entering, how fragile the belief that an ‘order from above’ is enough to demolish one’s fundamental rights…Truth is not fragile, it cannot be made captive; ideas have a way to flourish even in a State that is afraid of them.
The short drive from the airport was the longest for us in terms of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the moment; where are they taking us, we kept wondering, silently now. And then we saw the vehicle enter the premises just outside the airport gates: JK Police Mess, Humhama! Promptly, room 14 was allotted to us; “you will be our guests tonight”

we were told and ushered into the room; a suite with a small sitting room, a bedroom with an attached bath; a guard in uniform with a gun slung across his shoulder was posted outside along with a sturdy man in plain-clothes. It was nearly 8 o’clock in the evening now. I told them not to lock the room from outside; oh no, how can a son lock his mother? You are free now said the new-found son. However, ten minutes later, when a few friends came to the gate to visit us, we were not allowed to meet them, not even I whose name was not mentioned in the DM’s ‘order’. “You will not be allowed to re-enter these premises if you step out; these are orders from above” I was told and ‘requested’ to step back into the room.

Perhaps to compensate for the “inconvenience caused” to us, the cop-son informed us cheerfully that we could order anything we wished for dinner; “please have chicken; the quality of the mutton is not so good tonight; they’ll also give you vegetables and dal, rice and roti, relax and enjoy the dinner”. He returned after sometime and took Gautam to a corner in the room to ask, “Sir, would you like to shift to another suite as it has two rooms? One for madam and the other for you, would that not be a better arrangement?” No, we’ll stay together in this room, said Gautam. The cop-son did not address me as mother again all of the following day!

One cop we met next morning expressed regret at the fact that we were detained in this manner. He said he’d seen and heard Gautam on television and wondered why he was being treated in this manner for speaking the truth. He said that in the ten years of his employment here he was witness to how the army was expanding its base by erecting camps in the surrounding villages; “villagers cannot breathe easy, there is always fear and tension in the air. Children and others wake up to the sound of firing (we both did too) as there is a firing range here; instead of the sound of birds chirping, children hear firing in the air. They are terrified of stepping out but they have to go to school. Villagers have appealed to the authorities to shift these camps and the firing range but who would listen to us?”

An hour later, we were back in the caged police van that was headed for the airport; one ahead of us while another followed us – baggage screening was waived in our case as the vehicles sped along, we were whisked past the waiting civilian vehicles, past the waiting queues of passengers, past the security check-in area with cops on either side and finally into the departure lounge. As I turned, there were no cops following us anymore; we were now ‘free’ to depart! However, just in time for boarding, a young man in civilian clothes greeted us and asked us to follow him for boarding; he too whisked us past all other passengers with an urgency, right up to the door of the aircraft; it was on the way he disclosed, to my question, that he was an CID officer who had been instructed to take over from where we had been left by the cops.

On our way out, we were given two airline coupons worth Rs 500 by the airport manager (‘as and when we book our flights again’) and on arrival in Delhi, the first few pieces of baggage that came belonged to us! I am quite certain these were not ‘orders from above’. Could it be the new-found son who had made these arrangements?