The day that changed Kashmir

On January 20, 1990 Jagmohan’s first television address as Governor of the state stunned me. It was very provocative. He said: “I will not take any salary. I will just take Rs 1000 to meet my personal expenses. I promise you a clean administration. If anybody creates a law and order problem, meray hatoon say amun ka pata khisak jaye ga (the cards of peace I am carrying will slip away from my hands). It was a clear warning to lesser mortals like me.

Behave or I teach you a lesson. In less than twenty-four hours the threat was carried out. Chacha (Father of JKLF Area Commander, Sheikh Abdul Hamid) called on me. The speech had frightened him as well.  “They (the government) are going for a massive search operation. What shall we do now?”  I had no answers but I told him to keep cool. “If they have decided to go for searches there is nothing we can do about it. Let them come and search our houses. We have nothing to hide.”

A harsh reality dawned on Chacha notwithstanding the heroics of his son. We were too weak to fight the huge military might of India. By the time he stood up to leave, his face had fallen. I felt sorry for him. The sun also did not shine on that day. Embarrassed by molestation of women at Chotta Bazar during the first ever search operation in Kashmir, it hid behind the clouds. The molestation of women sent shock waves across Srinagar. People came out to register protest.

 Allah-o-Akber Kabeeran Kabeera (Allah is great; greater than the greatest). This slogan was chanted across Srinagar that evening.  We also assembled in Magarmal Chowk and expressed solidarity with Chotta Bazar people. Around midnight, two army vehicles arrived. Many people ran for shelter. But the troops had arrived to rescue their officer who lived in Magarmal Bagh. The officer and his family left Magarmal Bagh for good that night. Soon after, a bearded man from Sarai Bala, who used to play cricket with me in the erstwhile Hazuri Bagh came. Ashfaq Sahib (Another JKLF commander) wants you to take out a procession tomorrow morning.  I did not trust him. I had absolutely no reason for not trusting him but something deep inside me forced me to seek clarification from Ashfaq Majid Wani. Somebody called him. Good God! He had not talked to the person and did not want people to take out processions in the morning. He urged us to restrain people from doing so. We tried our best but destiny had something else in store for Kashmir that day.

Processions were organised from Batmaloo, Rajbagh and elsewhere. I was with Chacha in Batmaloo desperately trying to keep the people indoors. In the process, I found myself arguing with a stranger on the Silk Factory Road near DAV School. Chacha was nowhere to be seen. Here the CRPF personnel fired several rounds in air. People ran for shelter. I reached interior Sarai Bala. A small group was walking towards Lal Chowk. I joined them. Meanwhile a huge procession appeared from Rajbagh area. Many people joined it and we started marching towards Chotta Bazar.  

The peaceful procession was intercepted by a party of Jammu Kashmir police and CRPF led by DSP Allah Baksh. The men in Khakhi opened fire without any provocation. I did not know what to do. Everybody was running for his life. I also started running. I saw my brother’s driver, Farooq Ahmad, falling to bullets. I could not do anything for him so I did not stop. Running for safety was my only priority then. But while running I saw something that had never happened before in Kashmir. A CRPF trooper with a light machine gun (LMG) was firing indiscriminately on the scared people.

Rouf went to him and tried to snatch his gun. The trooper sensing danger emptied the entire magazine in his chest. Rouf fell in a pool of his own blood. He happened to be the younger brother of my elder brother’s friend. I knew him well but did not have the gut to pick him up. I somehow wanted to run away from there. At last I made it to Lal Chowk.  I reached my place in the evening. I hated myself for not helping Farooq and Rouf. But could I help them?

The morning of January 22 was very painful for me. I was awakened by Chacha. “There are nearly ten bodies in the control room.  Get up, we have to bury them”, he ordered. I murmured something. Most probably I abused Chacha. Why? I do not know. Anyways, I was out in the graveyard in fifteen minutes. Many people were waiting for the bodies. The truck came with the bodies and things went out of control. A few graves had been dug. I think we buried the bodies without offering Nimaaz-e-jinaza (funeral prayers). My elder brother was taking photographs of the bodies. I appreciated his wisdom. The identity of the bodies could not be ascertained. Infact it never was notwithstanding my brother’s photos.

 A police man accompanying the bodies told us that fifty-two people had got killed on the spot and around 250 had sustained injuries.

A few bodies were buried at Sarai Bala as well. We went to the graveyard. One of my friends, Muhammad Ashraf was there. He too had received a minor injury at Gaw Kadal.  His eighty-year-old neighbour was among the dead. “What a lucky man he has been. He died a martyr’s death after enjoying life for eighty years”, Ashraf said. I had no comments to offer.  

A few days later, renowned journalist, Tavleen Singh visited Kashmir. Somebody gave her my number. I took her around. We visited the massacre site. A heap of shoes and slippers was still there. These had been left behind by the processionists while running for safety. “The heap of shoes is mocking at Indian democracy”, I told Tavleen. She hung her head in shame.  

Many people from India visited Kashmir in February 1990 to take stock of the situation.  All of them posed the same question. What will happen now? “This is going to be a turning point in our history”, I would answer them. The coming months proved me right. The massacre had made the movement a mass uprising. The people in Delhi also felt the heat. Tavleen came again. She called me and we met in Broadway Hotel. She wanted to see the leaders. I could not help her. Finally she wanted me to accompany her to a place which she did not disclose. “George Fernandez, the Kashmir affairs minister wants to talk to the leaders. New Delhi is ready for granting total autonomy. Please come with me and talk to him.”

Tavleen had forgotten, I was an ordinary lawyer and not qualified to represent people. But Tavleen’s desperation conveyed a lot. The blood shed at Gaw Kadal had made an impact.  New Delhi was desperate to discuss future of Kashmir with a commoner!   

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The massacre had made the movement a mass uprising. The people in Delhi also felt the heat. Tavleen came again. She called me and we met in Broadway Hotel. She wanted to see the leaders. I could not help her. Finally she wanted me to accompany her to a place which she did not disclose. “George Fernandez, the Kashmir affairs minister wants to talk to the leaders. New Delhi is ready for granting total autonomy. Please come with me and talk to him.”