(Proud and honourable people).
These were some of the questions posed to me by Hayat Ahmed Butt, the pro freedom leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim league, in a conversation I had just two days before he was picked up by police from Anchar, adjoining Soura in Srinagar on Wednesday, October 16.
Butt, a charismatic force, has been inspiring the people of this locality on the outskirts of Srinagar, to stage spirited protests and make defiant statements after the government imposed its massive lockdown from August 5.
Lockdown measures by the state, many of which continue, in the aftermath of abrogation of Article 370 and trifurcation of the state, include massive deployment of about one million security troops, night raids in which youths are whisked away, hundreds kept in illegal detention or then held under preventive detention of Article 107 of the Criminal Procedure Code or then the draconian Public Safety Act, restrictions on movement and assembly of people and cutting off people’s access to phones and the internet.
In the midst of such unprecedented khauf or fear, Anchar and Soura captured widespread global attention for the resistance its people displayed. It became the centre of a row between the Indian state and BBC in the normalcy debate. Eventually the state had to concede what BBC and other foreign media like Al Jazeera were reiterating. Namely that protests had occurred on August 10 and the security forces had fired and used tear gas upon the crowds.
Indian media has since flocked to this “media friendly” oasis earning it the epithet of Little Gaza or Chhota Pakistan. Others have proclaimed it to be a violent neighbourhood, under the influence of gun-toting militants. Or then scoffing at the charge that those protesting had been met with a volley of pellets creating another burst of controversy.
Proud legacy of protests
However, as Butt pointed out this locality has a proud history and legacy of political and social sensitivity and awareness. The roots of its people’s struggles date back to days of the Dogra rule when agitations against begaar or forced labour were carried out.
Soura is the birthplace of Sheikh Abdullah, who was born in a family of those in the shawl trade. It was here that he nursed his constituency and developed the first political party of Kashmir _ the Muslim Conference and its avowed intention to fight feudalism. Later the Muslim Conference morphed into the National Conference and it was from its Soura base that the Rashumari tehreek or fight for plebiscite began.
In 1989 during the armed freedom struggle this hitherto National Conference bastion became a base camp for the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front with its founders Ashfaq Majid Wani, Hamid Sheikh and Yasin Malik. In 1996 Yasin Malik announced his decision to eschew the armed struggle and the JKLF became a political party.
The shift from an armed struggle to the awami tehreek (people’s movement) Butt said, was reflected by the way the people in this locality participated in the ehtijaaj or protests of 2008, in 2009 and 2010.
When floods ravaged Srinagar in 2014, it was the youths of Soura who set out in the small boats to rescue people in various parts of the city. A community kitchen was set up in the adjacent Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) where food was prepared for doctors, patients, attendants and other medical staff.
The ehtijaaj from 2016 onwards have exemplified this strong sense of community whereby even the elderly, women and children become willing participants. He added that the organized way in which they resisted and created roadblocks had made it impossible for the police to enter Anchar from 2016 onwards.
(As of now there are no details of how the police entered and picked up Butt on October 16 and whether there were clashes.)
Another political observer drew my attention to the fact that in this year’s general elections Soura recorded an incredible zero per cent voting. He added that this was a politically mature neighbourhood with people of various political strands coming together to provide a uniform stand where resistance is concerned. This is what has baffled an Indian understanding.
Working class neighbourhood improvises roadblocks
A walk through Anchar revealed to me how the topography of narrow lanes and alleys has been ingenuously exploited by its working-class population to create roadblocks with use of big stones, corrugated sheets and wires. Trenches have been dug to prevent access to the police and CRPF armoured vehicles that stood at the entry points.
The men and youths guarded these points at night, taking turns to ensure that the police attempts would be thwarted. Inhabitants said that on the eve of Eid in August, warnings were made by loudspeakers and intimidatory tactics with use helicopters and drones were deployed but the community strength and tactics ensured that prayers could be offered at the historic Janab Sab, unlike other places of worship, where prayers or offering namaz was denied.
A group of young girls, women and an elderly woman whom one met later spoke of the tension they experienced every time the brothers went out on these night “duties.”
“We are scared of informers. We have never felt so much fear. A young boy playing carom was picked up and whisked away by plain clothes police,” they said.
And yet, they were eager to be an integral part of this resistance.
One of the notable features of the 2016 protests was the way women of Anchar-Soura had lain down on the streets to prevent passage of the armoured vehicles that came to take their children away.
The spirit of sacrifice is palpable even as they concede the cost of such struggle in a neighbourhood, dominated by labourers and working class, where sustenance is on the basis of daily wages. “Our father is a Sumo share taxi driver. He has not been able to ply because of the hartal. The battery is almost dead,” said one adolescent.
A college student from Ganderbal, visiting her nanihal (mother’s native home) spoke of how a young woman, who had stepped out of the mohalla to buy medicines, berated a vendor for breaking the hartal or strike. These hartals are being enforced by the people as part of the protest and to counter the official narrative of normalcy. The police promptly arrested her, laying weight to the suspicions that there is, perhaps, an attempt by security forces to incentivise vendors who choose to sell goods outside the hartal hours. A big delegation of the community went to the Soura police station where she was detained and ensured she was freed.
Scoffing at rumours of Pakistan funding the sustainability of such a long term hartal, Butt pointed to the Islamic notion of zakat and baitulmal. (In very broad terms zakat is a community wealth tax seen as a religious obligation. Baitulmal meaning treasury is a kind of exchequer and institution in an Islamic state and economy whereby social justice can be ensured to the needy and poor.)
What has emerged through the 75 and still counting days of lockdown is the way this jazba was fuelled by the strong visual images coming out of Anchar that have been imaginatively created. A banner says, “Welcome Imran Khan” after the United Nations General Assembly. Graffiti proclaiming “Azadi” or “Chhota Pakistan” is painted across building fronts. Pictures of Burhan Wani, the militant whose killing in 2016 sparked massive protests and other slain militants, hailed by Kashmiris as martyrs, is pasted across locked and shuttered shop fronts. On a Friday protest, a youth emerged with his head around which barbed wire had been entwined. A powerful, potent representation that went viral.
I recollect how Butt said in parting