Thursday, 14 May 2015

A tale of passion and deceit, Junaid Qureshi

A tale of passion and deceit, Junaid Qureshi

I had taken my matriculation exams and was awaiting its result. Srinagar was pretty cold. The political atmosphere was rather boiling since a few months, which had also ignited the fire of ‘Azaadi’ in my heart. Like many of my contemporaries, I had also become a regular face at rallies of ‘freedom fighters’. One such rally changed my life.

It was the month of March and the year was 1990. Tens of thousands of people participated in that rally held at Eidgah. All ‘freedom fighters’, who were idolized by me and my friends were standing with guns in their hands on a truck and raising slogans of freedom. It made me believe that indeed ‘Azaadi’ was what we needed and ‘Azaadi’ was what these guns would bring to us. After the rally, the passion of ‘Azaadi’ compelled me to follow one man to his house. This man was standing on the truck, close to the freedom fighters, but did not carry a gun himself.

I reached his home and before he could enter his gate, I told him that I also wanted to fight for freedom. He invited me inside his house. While offering me a cup of tea, he instructed me to keep participating in rallies and raising slogans. He told me, that my time would come soon.

Within a few weeks of our initial meeting, he met me again after one such rally and told me, “Be ready tomorrow morning”. I woke up in the morning and made my way to the local mosque for morning prayers. Before leaving, I kissed the doorway of my home and kept staring at the closed door of my parent’s room. Something in me said that I should see them once before leaving, but then something strange prevented me from doing so. Maybe this feeling in my heart was nothing more than a mere delusion and I just didn’t want to wake them up. I left. 

I was taken to a hide-out in Jama-Latta. There were 8 more boys already present there. I was the last one to join. Three senior leaders of the nationalist group, of which I wanted to be part of, arrived and rejected 2 boys while selecting the remaining 7. Fortunately, I was selected. We were sent to another hide-out in Eidgah. We did not speak much. There was very tense yet exciting radiation which loomed over us. Perhaps it was the excitement of my dreams of freedom or perhaps it was the fear of the unknown. I don’t know. From Eidgah we went to Sopore in two small cars. We were joined by one more person in Sopore and headed towards Kupwara.

At night we boarded a closed truck in Kupwara. We could not see where we were being taken to. We reached Hayihama, where we were taken to the huts of some local Gujjars. Again, there was this eerie silence which was so frightening that it choked me up. I tried to get hold of myself by pulling my hands into my warm pheran, hoping that others would not notice my restlessness and blame the cold for my shivering.

Two guides picked us up around midnight and we started walking towards the LoC. It was awfully cold and there was a lot of snow. Many of us suffered from initial frostbite as we were only provided with rubber boots to conquer these majestic mountains. After 7 hours of non-stop walking, two of us couldn’t go any further. They were exhausted and grasping for breath. Although they were still alive, it was as if the angel of life had left their torn bodies. Their eyes begged for help but our guides insisted that we must move on.

Call it my cowardliness to fight or selfishness to live, but we moved on. We offered funeral-prayers while they were still alive. The look in their eyes, while I recited Holy verses meant for the deceased, has never left my sight since then. Their trembling young bodies and the sheer helplessness in their eyes, still shake my soul. 

We walked for 30 hours before reaching a picket of the Pakistani Rangers at Athmuqam in ‘Azad Kashmir’. I could not feel my legs anymore, while I felt my heart beating in my throat. We were allowed to rest for six hours before another senior leader picked us up from the army picket. We were taken to a house in lower-plate, Muzaffarabad.

It took almost a month before we were taken to ‘Elaka Gairr’ in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan for our much desired ‘training’. The place was arid without any sign of life around. There were no manmade structures and we slept in tents. It was a basic training of 3 weeks in which I learned to operate pistols, Kalashnikovs, rocket-launchers, grenades and LMG’s. Our instructors were a mix of active and retired personnel of the Pakistani Army.

We returned to Muzaffarabad after a short stop-over in Rawalpindi. The situation had changed drastically in the meantime. Dozens of other groups had been born which were propagating Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. Training camps had been established in the area, as the influx of boys from the other side had increased and preparations were being made to provide ‘whole-sale trainings’ for ‘Azaadi’. An old match-stick factory was converted into a camp and another camp was established in Garhi Dupatta.

On our return, we were told to abandon our own nationalist group and become part of one of the Pro-Pakistani groups. We would only enjoy their support if we would take off the cloak of freedom fighters and transform into proxies. I refused.

I had come here to fight for an Independent Kashmir. I refused to sacrifice my youth and the dreams of my parents to become a Pakistani. My journey was not inspired by tales of heroism or indoctrinated by stories of injustice to the Muslims. I harboured an intense determination and believed in an Independent Kashmir. Pakistan was nothing more than an elder brother and our benefactor, assisting us in achieving our Independence. Indeed, I was young and perhaps stupid. At times I wonder, whether it was na├»ve of me or sheer cunningness on their part? 

Three boys including myself refused. Our nationalism proved to be a dangerous ideology in Pakistan. It turned us into wanderers. The Pakistani ISI stopped paying for our expenses and we were left at the mercy of local supporters who either believed in our ideology or pitied us.

Later on we were given refuge at an old temple in Rawalpindi by a senior Pakistani politician. We paid him back by conducting his election campaign and raising slogans in his favour, while he manifested himself as the champion of the Kashmiri cause. Our extortion and politics continued in this game.
The announcement of a Provisional Government turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of my dreams. My party got splintered into many factions and whatever hope was left inside of me, died. The ISI started harassing us and pressurizing us to join their Pro-Pakistani groups. We resisted and burned a government Pajero. They tried to apprehend us and we came to a point where we even had to exchange fire.

We were told to create a new Pro-Pakistani group of our own, if we disliked the existing ones. We would then be launched back into the Valley from the platform of our newly created group on the condition that two of us would have to stay back as ‘hostages’. It was becoming clear to me that they wanted to split us and our struggle into tiny bits and pieces. I had also started realizing that they would never support the idea of an independent Kashmir.

 A senior leader from Srinagar came to Muzaffarabad and made a new Pro-Pakistani group. He advised us to join his party. He explained that if we would keep clinching to the idea of an Independent Kashmir, the ISI will never allow us to go back to the Valley. He tried to help us as a Kashmiri and told us that after joining his group and returning back to the Valley, we were free to join our own nationalist group again. He taught us to be smart and deceive. While trusting him, we agreed and the arrangements for our return started in less than two weeks.

In total, it took me a little more than one year to return to the Valley. After 4 days of walking, we reached Kupwara and split into smaller groups of two. I boarded a bus to Srinagar while I played the role of the conductor in order to avoid any difficult questions from the security forces.

I reached Srinagar and tears started filling my eyes. I went back to the local mosque from where I had left and requested the Imam to inform my parents of my return.
….. My father and my mother hurried to the mosque. Tears were rolling down the cheeks of my mother while she cried out my name. I embraced her and nestled my face into her shoulder, hoping that she wouldn't see me cry. The eyes of my father harboured happiness while his face was marked by a pensive mood. He was joyful to see me alive, yet at the same time, he was fearful of what would happen next to me. After the painful reunion, I was sent to my uncle’s home.

After a few weeks, I was contacted by other members of the Nationalist group of which I was part of. I took off the cloak of the Pro-Pakistani group which I had only worn to reach back to Srinagar. I became an active militant and was given a Pistol. Now after all the pain, deceit and politics which I had endured, I was somewhat joyful and hopeful. Now, I was ready to fight for ‘Azaadi’.

Only after becoming active, I came to know that my fight for ‘Azaadi’, would soon transform into a mere battle for survival. Not only was I fighting the mighty Indian state, I was also fighting fellow Kashmiris who, whether genuinely or not, believed in a different ideology. Just like in Muzaffarabad, even in Srinagar the ideology of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan enjoyed powerful support from Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Their created groups started killing us, as our demand was different from theirs. We believed in an Independent, Secular and United Kashmir whereas they wanted Kashmir’s annexation to Pakistan on the basis of their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. My fellow Kashmiri brethren who belonged to a different faith, were also killed mercilessly in order to ignite fear and transform Kashmir into a hell. Again, I was put up with a dilemma. Fight for ‘Azaadi’ or preserve Kashmiriyat?

One prominent member of my group was shot by members of a Pro-Pakistani group in Nowhatta, Srinagar and when he begged for water while fighting against the angel of death, he was given a few drops of water from the waste channel on the street. His humiliation was exacerbated as the water was given to him in a shoe. The rivalry between us and the groups fighting for Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan increased so much that our killings were finding justification as nationalists like me started receiving epithets of ‘Indian agent’, ‘Traitor’ and ‘Enemy of Islam’. I started to comprehend that indeed Pakistan would never support our fight for Independence and in order to root out this ideology they could go to any extent. What more horrendous could they do, than to get a Kashmiri killed by a Kashmiri?

This rivalry also ignited the fire of revenge in me and in the hearts of many members of my group. We also started killing them. Instead of fighting for Kashmir’s ‘Azaadi’, we all started fighting for our own small, personal ‘Azaadi’. We started liberating localities from the rule of each other. The rivalry spilled over and even members of Pro-Pakistani groups started killing each other. Due to this rivalry thousands of Kashmiris were killed by Kashmiris. Parents, widows and orphans of those who were killed, were left at the mercy of God and used to be presented with a copy of the Holy Quran. Their livelihood and the future of their children were not considered part of our ‘struggle’.

I used to ask myself what would happen to my parents if I would get killed. Although all of us, the ones killed by the security forces and the ones killed amongst each other due to rivalries, were buried in the Martyr’s graveyard at Eidgah, I wondered whether I would still be called a Martyr if I would get killed by my own Kashmiri brothers in this bloodshed? Was martyrdom just dependent on the place of burial or did it matter for what I would die?

We also lost track of our normal activities as we used to do an action just to remain in the news. Our actions were only aimed at keeping our group and ourselves alive. The aim of ‘Azaadi’ had long faded away. We used to hurl grenades at moving trucks of security forces and subsequently open fire, with total disregard to whether the truck was moving in a busy market street or on a deserted road. More than often the grenade would miss the target and explode on the street.

The explosion, firing and retaliation fire from the security forces used to kill dozens of civilians. At best, one or two soldiers endured injuries, while usually children, women and innocent men would become the victims of our ‘Jihad’ for righteousness.

My disillusionment grew by the day. I did not want to murder Kashmiris. I did not want to be culpable of the death of innocent women and children. I did not want to get killed by fellow Kashmiris for the sin of asking ‘Azaadi’. I did not want to be guilty of transforming this valley of Saints and Reshis into a valley of blood and destruction. I was tired. I wanted my life back.

I had now understood that the fulfilment of my humble wish for ‘Azaadi’ would never be allowed by those who were determined to keep me a slave. I now, just longed for my own, small, personal and selfish freedom. At least, my freedom would free me from the sin of murdering Kashmir and Kashmiris.

While firmly standing by my ideology and without surrendering any arms, I surrendered myself to the local police in the hope of embarking upon a path which was at least free from violence. The police advised me to join an anti-militancy militia, sponsored by the state. I explained to them that I did not surrender because I had given up on my ideology or because I harboured any vengeance against the militants. I came to them as I did not want to kill Kashmiris. And now, you are advising me to kill Kashmiris? “I will not be part of this game of deceit”, I yelled.

My refusal triggered their refusal to acknowledge that I was a human being. I was interrogated and tortured to the extent that mere words will not be able to describe my ordeal. Without any court proceedings or charge-sheet, I was kept in jail for 3 years. The years in jail were filled with days and nights of torture, humiliation and loneliness. Years which made me believe that indeed, I was not a human being and thus not worthy of any humane treatment.

After my release, I tried to start a normal life of a common man. However, to my surprise the whole scenario in Kashmir had changed. The heroism and regard once attached to militants had turned into resentment and disrespect. I struggle to find a suitable shop in order to start a small business, as I am an ex-militant. After so many years, I still struggle to find a suitable bride as I am hunted by my past of being a militant.

The state apparatus which once encouraged people like me to abandon the path of violence, made life even more miserable. An ex-militant like me is not able to get a job anywhere. My life turns upside down whenever a dignitary visits Kashmir or whenever Independence day, Republic day or any other national day is celebrated. I, and along with me many others are called to local police stations or Army camps on these days where we are degraded.

Many of my contemporaries including the more fortunate ones like Doctors, Engineers and well-settled business-men are humiliated at these places. We are ordered to sweep and clean the Army camps and Police Stations. Some of us are made to sit on dirty floors while all of us have to face their abuses and harassment. 
Conquering snow-clad mountains and reaching Pakistan for that deceitful dream was somewhat less painful than my failed journey to acquire a ration-card, identity card, driving license or a passport. My parents were denied a passport due to which they were unable to perform Hajj as their son used to be a militant. Even distant relatives of mine were not given a passport. My nephew still wants to go abroad for higher studies, but he can’t as his uncle used to be a militant. 

I am still looked at and treated differently by fellow Kashmiris, the police and by India and Pakistan. Perhaps because I neither became a Martyr nor a ‘Leader’. Neither do I have a political party nor do I appear in the newspapers. Neither do I call for Hartals nor am I placed under house arrest.

All because, I refused to kill Kashmiris and become part of a proxy war. Others who did not refuse, at least became someone, while I even lost myself. At the end, their deceitful lies defeated my truthful passion. 

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