Why you should care
Growing up and going to school in Kashmir was not without its challenges. First among them: the possibility of sudden death.
I was five years old, and looking at the anxious faces of the adults in my house, I knew something was wrong. It was a summer morning, and I was waiting to get ready for school, but the school bus never came. It was 1990, and my school had been set on fire by “unidentified gunmen.”
My parents moved me to a school closer to our house. This one had no playground, and the stench from a nearby garbage dump wafted into the classrooms. But it was easier for my family to fetch me from there every time a gun battle broke out between the militants and the Indian army or our neighborhood was cordoned off by security forces for search operations. Two years later, that school too was burned down.
This was the norm in Kashmir.
It was a time when Kashmir was witnessing an armed resistance against the Indian administration that had erupted in the winter of 1989-90. Massacres of protesters, assassinations of dissenters, intense militarization and daily gun battles occurred at a brisk pace.
My mother started homeschooling me.
When I was in class, a gun battle between militants and the army broke out nearby. We lay down … covering our heads with school bags and crying.
Ours was a strict household. I was taught to be silent and submissive. Even laughing out loud was considered bad manners for girls, but for about six months, my mother taught me at home before I joined another school. And the battle for Kashmir only grew bloodier by the mid-1990s, as I turned 10. Shutdowns and curfews kept us home frequently.
During those years, my awareness of the war grew acutely. We often heard about random arrests. One day my father was randomly picked up by the army for questioning, and I saw my mother crying, silently. When the sun was beginning to set and he was still not home, a sense of gloom descended on the house. I remember breaking into tears when I saw my father walking back home late that night.
Life in downtown Srinagar was filled with fear and uncertainty. Men were supposed to be home before sunset; women were scared to go out alone. By now, I had no reason to believe school would be a safe haven. My grandmother used to walk me to school through the city’s muddy, narrow lanes. Although my school was just a few blocks from our house, my mother insisted that somebody accompany me: I was a young girl and there was a military barrack on the way. Once, when I was in class, a gun battle between militants and the army broke out nearby. We lay down on the classroom floor, covering our heads with school bags and crying.
Over the years, the Kashmir conflict has resulted in thousands of deaths. I was 17 when one of my closest friends died from shrapnel injuries after a grenade exploded on a street where she was walking. Later that October evening, I heard her name among the dead on the radio. I was numb for days; her death froze something inside me.
In 2009, I started my career as a reporter with a major Indian daily at its Srinagar bureau. I had a degree in communications, but some of my most important education would come from my local reporting in that conflict zone. Soon, I began to see that nothing in Kashmir was untouched by conflict. When I wrote about the women who had lost their loved ones to bullets or the mothers whose sons had “disappeared,” I only had more questions. Had they been killed by militants or Indian forces? Were they being tortured in the army’s infamous camps? Why was my homeland being torn asunder?
Kashmir continues to erupt periodically. In August 2008, people spilled onto the streets demanding freedom from India. Those protests were the largest since the 1990s. I was becoming angrier. My father had turned into a cynic. And in 2016, hundreds of Kashmiris were blinded when Indian security forces used pellet guns to disperse protestors.
In the summer of 2012, just before leaving for my graduate studies in the U.S., I decided to visit my old school in downtown Srinagar. I remembered it as a single-storied brick-and-cement building. I navigated the narrow streets and as I kept walking, memories of the days when my grandmother would walk me to the school came back to me. I kept asking shopkeepers to guide me to the school. One old man said, “There is no school now. The building now belongs to somebody else.” I felt a tinge of sadness.
I kept walking and recognized a playground that has now been turned into a sports stadium. I walked inside a nearby tailor’s shop. The man inside pointed to the next door. “There. The school building. Inside this gate,” he said. I opened the gate and saw a thin strip of the old building, abandoned. That was my school. In my mind’s eye, I saw children laughing and squealing. After a while, I left. I kept walking and didn’t look back.