A native of Kashmir, Ahmed bin Qasim’s father has been in jail since he was an infant, and his mother has been in prison for most of Ahmed’s life. For him, the Indian siege of Kashmir has been a permanent affliction.
It must be around six in the morning when the faint creak of the door awakened me. In my dimly lit room, I saw my mother’s bright face coming into view. As she walked towards me, there was hesitancy in her steps that came to a halt at my bedside.
She was staring intensely into my face in a manner that hinted at remorse. I jerked out of drowsiness when I discerned that her eyes were clouded with tears.
“What happened, mother?” I asked her as I rubbed my eyes anxiously. She pressed her lips together tightly and kissed my forehead. But before she could tell me hopeful lies, two Indian policewomen barged into the room.
“Hurry up. We don’t have forever.”
One of them said, in a savage voice. My heart started palpitating like a drum, but my face, from habit, was probably grim. A sense of despair spread over me. I had an overwhelming temptation to grab my mother’s hand and flee. Or to hurl the night lamp at the two strangers who assumed they had the right to break our family. But any resistance from me would have made things worse for my mother.
So, I ran to my mother’s bedroom. A hollowness and depression had descended upon it. It had become aware of its emptiness. I packed her medicine for asthma and arthritis. I plucked a page from my notebook, and on it, I hastily wrote:
To the best mother in the world,
Remember, I do not get used to your absence. I am proud of you, and I love you more than any child loves his mother.
I folded the paper into a square, only to flatten it out again hastily. The child inside me added:
I will wait for you. And pray for your return.
I placed the note next to the medicine and rushed to her.
“Are you done?” the policewoman asked me callously.
I kept walking towards mother. An agonising silence filled the room. She looked at me in a way that conveyed her helplessness. It made me embrace her. I kissed her head.
“Tomorrow is Eid, mother,” I said, almost sobbing.
She wiped my face and said, “Remember what your father said?”
I held back my tears as the memory raised my spirits, and said aloud, “It’s all for nothing without freedom.”
It was almost time for us to part. A metallic sound was drawing nearer.
“You have to be handcuffed.”
The policewoman’s words set my belly on fire. My mother gave my hands a tight squeeze, and my face was an open book for her. They escorted my smiling mother out to the police jeep, and off they went.
Five years have passed since that day. Every Eid, I hope for her return, but the novelty of hope dies each time.
I was born in 1999, into the home of two political dissidents. Two months after my birth, my father was jailed for fiercely defying the Indian occupation of Kashmir. He has been sentenced to imprisonment till death.
I have not spent a minute with him outside the prison walls. For countless other Kashmiri children and me, the only time we will meet our fathers under the open sky will be at their funeral.
I must have been five or a bit older when I asked my mother about the whereabouts of my father.
“He was jailed for speaking the truth,” she told me.
I could not believe her. Why would anyone suffer for doing the right thing? I thought. My brother, who probably read my mind, answered in a broken voice, “He was jailed for not doing his homework.”
It made sense to me as a child. For years, this was what I believed. One day, when I was missing my father, I decided to skip my homework, it was the only way I could live with him permanently. But it did not happen.
I confronted my mother. She took me to meet my father in jail. He sat me down, lifted his shirt and showed me the scars on his back from torture. I was overcome by horror like never before. I closed my eyes to feel safer. He stroked my head, smiled and told me that India is a monster, that robs kids of their fathers and childhood in Kashmir.
At present, however, it is not just my parents or our faceless political prisoners who feel locked up. After revoking Kashmir’s special status, an act that establishes settler colonialism in the region, the entire Kashmir has been made a prison.
People are confined to their homes, their own land. A native Kashmiri needs to show a curfew pass to an Indian soldier to come out of their home, even for a medical emergency.
Every connection to the outside world — the internet and mobile phones— remains shut. Schools are closed, and children have been abducted from their homes, in the dead of night. The streets are deserted.
At least 700,000 Indian armed forces have been deployed to suppress any form of protest. The sight of these soldiers is a harrowing daily reminder of occupation.
I see George Orwell’s 1984, coming to life, in Kashmir. The parallels are striking. Similar to what the Ministry of Peace did in the dystopian novel, the Indian state has imposed a bloody war on unarmed Kashmiris, that it says is for the sake of bringing peace.
The infernal siege has been eulogised as the dawn of
development by the Hindu supremacist Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. The Thought Police are on the ground and have locked us in our homes before anyone has committed a crime.
The Indian authorities have arrested at least 2300 people during the lockdown.
In their backyards, people have found drones hovering overhead. Any Kashmiri who espouses the right to self-determination is committing a Thought Crime and is deemed a terrorist. You do have a choice though: either killed, jailed or placed under house arrest.
The Indian media serves the function of the Ministry of Truth in the novel. It is an instrument of Indian occupation, whipping up Islamophobia, fake news and the demonisation of Kashmiris.
On social media, a majority of Indians are celebrating our pain. Even the leftists are busy justifying the persecution. I wrote a tweet highlighting my mother’s illness, denial of basic medical facilities to her and her prolonged detention in solitary confinement and nearly every Indian responded saying that they await her death. Some went so far as to say she should be hanged publicly without any delays. The antipathy is unprecedented.
My mother used to call me from prison once a month. The call would for around five minutes. She is not allowed to call anymore. So, I wrote a letter to her a week ago, but it never got to her. I found out that India has shut postal services in Kashmir too.
Now, I search for her name online to see if there is some news about my mother. The last time we talked was a few months ago; her voice sounded weak. I asked her about it, but she kept on telling me to look after myself and not to lose hope. She asked about my father’s health. I told her that he was fine.
The reality though was that though I was outside, I knew as little as she did. At the end of the call, as soon as she said goodbye, I heard her cough heavily. I realised that she was stifling the cough throughout the call. She tries to be my rock while she’s caged herself. When it comes to bravery, the mothers in Kashmir surpass all.
Three years ago, I had to attend a parent-teacher meeting alone as both my parents were in prison at the time. The next day, filled with resentment, I went to meet them.
“Why can’t we have a normal life!” I shouted at them.
My father, with an air of calmness, told me that our life was as normal as it could get. I thought he was indifferent. I left the meeting room, furious. But growing up in a conflict zone, one understands that slavery is abnormal and inimical to human nature. Resistance is normal. Living happily without freedom is abnormal. Being imprisoned for standing up to slavery is normal.
To exist under an occupation that is designed to break us is a revolutionary act. Surviving this siege, that was designed to strike terror into all us, feels like a victory.
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