The Crimson Sunset
Shahnaz Bashir delivered the talk as the guest of honour at the seminar titled “Kashmir In Creative Writing” at Government Degree College (GDC) Bijbehara on 25th March 2016. The finer creative susceptibilities got stimulated towards exploring the new themes and ideas of story telling. From nowhere, this sudden euphoria of mental excitement received a blow with a phone call from the Principal, GDC Beerwah who informed me that I have to attend the training in connection with the Bye-Election to the Srinagar Parliamentary Constituency. Not because I abhor it for its very essence, but ever since 8th July 2016 I saw the streets of Kashmir painted red with pellets and bullets, the very idea of holding the inconsequential bye-elections seemed to me a case of political bewilderment. Nevertheless, I (like other employees) had to abide, governed as we are by the service conduct rules.
A Tryst With Helplessness
As we approached the Poll Day, I began to receive the goosebumps and experience mental bewilderment and no matter how much my better half, Sadaf, tried to encourage me, I couldn’t come out of it. We had to move on 08th April 2017 to our respective headquarters to collect the material pertaining to the election. In my case, I had to move to Boys Higher Secondary School (BHSS), Chadoora, the same place which witnessed the deadly violence a few days before the scheduled date for elections. Even though we were asked to reach our respective headquarters by 9:00 AM, I got up at 8: 00 in the morning. May be strange. But then I couldn’t sleep well that night and I resorted to frequent turns and twists. Nevertheless, I had to move. Sadaf prepared my logistics and I left the home at 9:10 AM. A tight hug with my ten months old daughter, UMM E Hani. “Gooo Gooo, Baa, Baa” and I set off.
A driver with two years driving experience had a tough time. The engine started and stopped. Five times! May be a bad omen! May be I was too overwhelmed with anxiety! I couldn’t configure. Finally, I set off. A gloomy morning as there were a few vehicles plying on the roads which otherwise would bustle with horns. It wasn’t the first time I was heading to attend to the election duty. Two assignments before and one of them pertaining to the Panchayat elections, I had enjoyed, served as I was with delicacies and out of bounds respect and honour! Why I felt uneasy and unexpected spasms this time was what I was trying to configure.
By 10: 15 AM I was at Chadoora. A complete shutdown coupled with near deserted roads. I called Firdous (my friend) to help me keep the Vehicle at a safe place. A few minutes and the crows on the trees around began to make noise. I turned around and saw a large posse of CRPF personnel. A deafening silence. My heart began to pound as one of the lady doctor playing her vehicle was asked by a pedestrian to stop for a few minutes. A gap was to be maintained between her and the last security person as a precaution. A friend is always a friend. Firdous, himself on the rolls of election duty list to Beerwah, sent his cousin Rayees whom I handed over the keys. A sigh of relief!
Inside The Headquarters
I was receiving frequent calls from my polling staff especially from Rajesh Kumar who had been waiting patiently for me since around 8:30 AM. Finally, I entered the BHSS, Chadoora, the makeshift headquarters for the Chadoora Assembly segment. Upon spotting a few buses packed with employees, I felt a little scared at the possible official recriminations for showing the negligence. I spotted one of my acquaintance who allayed my fears. These poor employees had been to Chadoora early in the morning and since then were waiting for their turn to collect the election material. The long wait in the mud filled lawns had descended fatigue upon them. No wonder, they thought it prudent to sit in the empty buses to relax. Meanwhile, I spotted Rajesh. The other members of my team, Arshad Lodhi and Ghulam Mohammad, soon joined. Four hours passed and there was no sign of when we will be handed the election material and later deployed to our respective polling stations. At around 2:00 PM our wait was over and we began to check the items provided to us as per the election diary.
This interlude was followed by an uneasy calm as the employees began to faint and pour out frustration at being made to wait until morning. No signal from the authorities to move. The evening approached and so did the darkness. And darkness adds to the feeling of fear. Our bodies began to writhe with pain. The CRPF personnel allotted to us for security too couldn’t bear it as I saw a CRFP man, next to me, had his eyes closed. Perhaps he was listening to some romantic songs. I felt for them. Their outward appearance told a lot about their helplessness as well. Poverty can make anyone take the plunge into a daredevil job.A job entailing the anger from the local populace. A job entertaining the risk of being ambushed for no apparent fault of its holder. A job that makes a seemingly harmless creature enemy to the hostile crowd who see in him a reflection of their oppression.
It was 10:30 PM and our patience couldn’t bear it anymore. A few of us forced our entry into the control room to give vent to our anger and hunger. We returned assured that everybody even of the rank of the SSP is helpless in the evolving situation. Hemmed between the two extreme narratives, we were virtually caught in the line of fire. It was 11:20 PM and we were still not allowed to move to our respective polling stations owing to the overwhelming fear of Protesters. “What is the election all about? It is about the people expressing their franchise freely in a peaceful atmosphere. When people, at large, are not ready to participate in such process, frown upon those participating in these elections as renegades, what is the fun in risking such unprecedented inconvenience”, the questioning and answering surfed through my cranium. Rajesh was showing the signs of feeling scared. Not surprising. The news of the violent protests had already broken. It started in Beerwah and later spilt over to other places. The rapidity with which news spills over these days convinced the authorities to put an immediate ban on the internet services. Yes, it was argued that the ban was necessary to ensure free and fair elections. Bizzare. May be I am a duffer.
The signal finally came and we set on towards BHSS, Khanda in the dead of night. We took the full ‘safety’ measures. A few of us took the cover of bags. The CRPF personnel were generous and handed over a few riot gear wooden shields which we fixed with the windows. We never knew the big plastic hordes of Election Commission of India meant to cover the ballot units would also act as a buffer between us and the dreaded stones. Meanwhile, the fear I was apprehending was soothed in between my mental alertness and the irresistible dizziness. Somehow we reached BHSS, Khanda.
At 6:30 AM we were ready for the day’s show. The Chowkidar hurried with ensuring the logistics to the minutest detail. A few minutes and the first surprise knocked our makeshift polling booths with four persons entering the two polling booths as polling agents.
“This is a peaceful area ” was what we were told by our respective Booth Level Officers. The polling started and slowly the voters began to filter towards our polling booths.
Shortly after, the phone rang. Papa inquired about my well being. My reply turned him happy and contented. This was followed by more phone calls from my better half, siblings and friends. There was a dichotomy in our conversations. That my polling booth was functioning smoothly made them feel surprised but happy because the news from their side was the opposite of what I was experiencing. The massive clashes had already started.
” Zubair, Our EVM has been broken to pieces by the protestors. Please tell me what to do?” , Arshad, my friend posted at Kandoora Beerwah cried. I consoled him with the advice to let it be brought to the notice of concerned Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) immediately. I began to worry about him. Back home in Soibugh, it was getting more murkier. I called Ilyas, my childhood friend, who was acting as a polling officer. “Yaar, we are under intense stone pelting”, was his typical reply. He has a knack for eliciting fun even from the adversities. I wish I have that stuff.
A Terrifying Romance
I began to feel an uneasy stirring. I pressed the EVM button for the tenth voter. The sound of firing outside and we all stood up to look outside. Stones were flying in tandem. Young boys, gushing with ferocious energy, charged towards us. Rajesh was showing the signs of despair and desperation. I set the table against the door and took cover under a large table at the centre of the room. Ghulam Mohammad, polling officer frozen at the corner. Arshid Lodhi picked up the ballot unit to retaliate in case the protesters crossed the security grid. May be he got the stirring from the Afghan (Lodhi) blood. A peep through the window. The police and CRPF personnel engaged with the protesters and chased them away. But this was a prelude to the impending doom. One of the policemen broke the news of the killing of two civilians in Dalwan. I got terrified. Three civilian killings in Chadoora a few days before the poll day followed by two in the wee hours of the poll day. Sensing trouble, I told my colleagues not to expose themselves before the window panes. All of a sudden the protesters raged with anger pounced upon the SRTC BUS. This time, even the ‘security’ we were provided got terrified. The weaponless policemen immediately changed their uniforms and turned into ‘civilians’. The CRPF personnel converged in one of the rooms. Involuntary sighs and prayers. No. In a flash, the SRTC Bus was consigned to flames. “What next”? May be our room, too, would be set to flames. “What would happen if our Electronic Voting Machines and Ballot Units were snatched from us and later broken or thrown in the SRTC Bus”, I began to have some spasms. Meanwhile, the situation elsewhere turned from bad to worse. The protests were spontaneous and overwhelming. I called the Assistant Returning Officer and informed him about the evolving situation.
“Save your lives”, was the reply. I rang SHO Chadoora. No different reply. The situation in entire Chadoora was so grim that I should not expect any immediate help for our calls of SOS. The second time I called ARO, I requested him to send the fire brigade because the Higher Secondary School was in the danger of catching the ferocious flames.
In a jiffy, we packed our EVM and Ballot unit and other items and were waiting for the divine succour. It came as one of our Booth level officers told us of the passage on the back side. A family offered us shelter. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the siren of the fire brigade had me relieved.
Travelling a Tough Terrain
We waited for our safe evacuation. Meanwhile, the disturbing news was pouring from all parts of District Budgam. The discontent was very much there but it was never expected to explode this way. It consumed the very logic of elections in its fury.
The in charge policemen informed us to get ready for departure towards our headquarters at BHSS Chadoora as the escort was arriving shortly. It arrived and in the first instance dispersed the crowd before informing us to hurry towards the BHSS, Khanda. We were asked to pack ourselves in Tata Sumo. About twenty people in the Tata Sumo and I literally sit on the broken window panes of it. But then it was an emergency and we had to negotiate the inconvenience. Enroute Chadoora, the CRPF fired at many places where they noticed the protestors. We reached BHSS Chadoora. Six or seven kilometres travel turned out to be the toughest travel of my life. I assembled my polling party and began the necessary paper work.
A few minutes and the news broke of the killing of one of the protestors in Dawlat Pora, Chadoora. My heart began to pound hard. A chill ran down my spine. ” Was the protestor in Dawlat Pora, Chadoora the victim of our escort. If yes, do we share an ounce of responsibility,…”. My heart simply began to bleed but I had to retain the composure. While we were travelling I had all along prayed for the safety of everyone – ourselves, the CRPF personnel and the protesters”.
” What is our position in the larger conflict? The cannon fodder? The Collateral damage”?
Every polling official around was narrating his woeful story. The clock ticked ‘slowly’ as the time was suspended! Finally, the time (5:00 PM ) heralded and we began to complete the official formalities. Around 5:20 PM I handed over the EVM, Ballot Unit and the necessary documents. I deemed it prudent to seek the formal permission to leave from Assistant Returning Officer. He murmured but eventually allowed me to leave. Yes, I had to move at my own risk and responsibility. There was a sprinkling of protestors around the Higher Secondary School, Chadoora and knowing well the lava that had erupted, I took a brave decision. I decided to have a romance with imminent danger.
Rajesh got a call that he had to get ready for Jammu that very night. The train might get suspended the next day and he was confused over the choice of place he would wait for them. I proposed the Noora Hospital, Shalteng.Travelling in the dead of night was perhaps safe in the unfolding situation.
Our next stop had to be Hanjigund, Wathoora. We kept treading albeit cautiously but to our surprise, we found a divine help. Help from a potential protestor. He offered us the lift on his bike. I was too stressed both physically and mentally as to refuse his courteous offer.
Rajesh was still terrified.I could not fathom the depths of his fear. May be he was cultivating the feeling Mohammad Ikhlaq would have experienced when he was lynched to death by the fanatics on the rumours of his having kept beef in his house. He might also have nursed the helplessness of Pehlu Khan who even after producing the proper receipts was mob lynched on the Rajasthan border. Yes, this ‘daring’ act took place in the broad day light. His two sons could do little to save their father. What helplessness.
The biker enquired about our next stop.
” Hanjigund, Wathoora where Rayees is waiting for us”, I replied.
The biker set the bike rolling. He stopped and looked right.
“This is the place where a deadly encounter took place a week back. The protestors showed a lot of resistance in ensuring the safe passage for a few militants”, he said with confidence. I could see the battered house from a little distance before again mounting on the bike. We reached Hanjigund where Rayees was waiting for us. He took us straight to the house of Firdous.
“Mubarak Chew hates hate pheri, Zuv Bacheaw” (congratulations a million times for surviving the ordeal) was the involuntary uttering from the Firdous’s mother. The hot Nun Chai was served to us. We narrated the ordeal. Meanwhile, Shafaat, a teacher and my neighbour, called me. I told him to manage till Hanjigund Wathoora from where we will set on for our home together.
I had to take Rajesh to Noora Hospital, Shalteng where he could wait for his friends to arrive from Magam. We started our journey. Wathoora, Kralpora, Mochua, Chanapora, Hyderpora, JVC Bemina and Shalteng. Yes, we made it. No protestor did any harm to us.
The Subtle Conscience
“Why did the protestors went hammer and tongs at the polling stations “?. The biker had perhaps answered my uneasiness. “You are innocent but the helpless unavoidable victims of the situation”, was what he had told me after he found us in utter despair. I inferred a few conclusions. May be wrong! That protestor aimed stones at us were a protest against what we symbolised at the polling stations. That protestor tore apart the security grid and broke the EVM’s and Ballot Units was the reflection of their deep anger against the Indian establishment and no wonder many employees who resisted them (out of the fear for their bread) were manhandled. That protestor resorted to intense sloganeering in and around the polling stations was their veto against the status quo. That protestors protested was because of the intransigence of the Indian establishment to arrive at a peaceful political solution to the Kashmir issue.
I dropped Rajesh at the Noora Hospital and wished him a happy journey. He responded with thanks.
“Thanks for everything Sir”, a relieved Rajesh said as he entered the hospital compound. But before taking a leave from me he surprised me about his observation about Kashmir and its people:
“Sir, I have found the people of Kashmir blessed with overwhelming mercy “!
May be he had seen how the young boys took the injured Yatris to Hospital braving the danger of bullets and pellets in the summer of 2016- The year of dead eyes. May be he had learnt about the extraordinary gesture the youth of Kashmir showed in the 2014 floods when they even offered food to the police and CRPF personnel stuck in floods. May be he has witnessed how the local Kashmiris welcomed their Pandit brethren at Tulmulla on Shivratri despite the persistent anti-Muslim (Kashmiri Muslims) rants of the Pandits in the TV studios, newspapers and the like. It was later that I came to know of many stories where the protesters even after taking hold of the CRPF personnel had escorted them to security. It indeed needs a greater courage and conviction to let off your dreaded enemy in a fit of rage and anger.
The Promised Hug
I along with Shafaat left for Soibugh and as I reached home there were hugs and handshakes. Perhaps, it was more dangerous to have been at Soibugh than acting as the Presiding Officer at BHSS, Khanda. In Soibugh, a helicopter was pressed into service to monitor the exploding situation and shower ‘shells’. Did it or not, it has got embedded in the folklore of Soibugh.
Deep inside, I felt for the polling staff of the different polling stations of Soibugh who were still holed up in the army camp for ‘security reasons’. Arshid was at DIET Beerwa under ‘protecting cover’ of police. A few of the colleagues were in the police station, Nowgam waiting for their evacuation. They might have to ‘travel’ again in the dead of night. Lots of ordeals.Hungry and angry. Away from their near and dear ones.
Yes, I was perhaps the luckiest to have made it to home so early. I slept and upon opening my eyes in the morning called Rajesh. He had crossed the Banihal Tunnel. Cheers.
The author is an Assistant Professor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Oracle Opinions.