Friday prayers began at half-past twelve. There had already been a minor altercation. As I arrived at Nowhatta Chowk, a square on the Srinagar-Leh Highway where a fountain tinkled prettily, Indian security forces were attempting to prevent a group of young men from approaching the Jamia Masjid, the city’s central mosque. I decided to get the lay of the land and walked several times around the burnt-brick structure, built in 1394 in the Persian style, sticking my head into the souks for a look, taking in the street art and graffiti. “8 lakh [800,000] uniformed terrorists versus defenceless Kashmiris,” someone had scrawled across one of the walls.
Latecomers to prayer watched me sitting on the steps outside the mosque reading George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Mountain of Light, in which Gulab Singh, the first Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, plays a key role. They watched with a combination of wariness and concern, the latter apparently for my well-being, before performing their ablutions and hastening inside.
By the time the mirwaiz, Umar Farooq, leader of the separatist Hurriyat Conference and the third and final member of the Joint Resistance Leadership, began leading the Qunut, the building was overflowing with people, the aforementioned latecomers almost praying on the street.
There was a hint of something metallic on the air, and behind me, near the fountain, the numbers of Indian military personnel were growing steadily.
The Kashmiri faithful had come prepared. No sooner were they out on the street than they were adorning themselves with face masks, keffiyehs, and bandannas, and the shopkeepers directly opposite the mosque on its southern side started shuttering their properties.
A press photographer standing nearby donned a gas mask and began flitting about like something out of Cronenberg. There was a momentary, wholly abortive attempt at something like a peaceful protest, a group of young men arranging themselves behind a banner and walking with it towards the iron gates that gave onto the road. But this was mostly pretense. Behind the banner-men, their masked equivalent seethed, and as the first stone soared out in an arc from their midst, so, too, was the first report of gunfire to be heard.
The security forces at this point were showing something akin to restraint, wary of advancing too far beyond the gate. But as more rocks began to land among them, mostly falling short or flying too far, a second group, hidden before now, descended down a second, unseen set of stairs and began advancing along the shuttered shop-fronts. The protesters now faced their opponents directly to their front, and on their right flank, and began a hasty retreat into the mosque, which loomed above them on their left. Not for the last time, and without intending to do so, I found myself on the other side of the front-line, watching as men in fatigues fired tear gas canisters and live ammunition directly into the building.
I know it was live because, at this moment, taking advantage of a momentary lull, I came out from under the awning into the street, where the photographer in the gas mask was fingering a cartridge from a pellet-firing shotgun. He gave it to me and said I could keep it. It was labelled: “Indian Ordnance Factories.” I later left it in a bathroom cubicle at Indira Gandhi International Airport.
In a few short minutes, the scene had changed completely, the ground now littered with stones and pieces of brick. The military men were falling back to the gate in anticipation of the second wave. It came, but not immediately, or at least not in a form that one might have expected. A huddle of men emerged from the mosque holding a bleeding body aloft. A man, a shopkeeper, had been shot: the whites of his eyes were red, his arms streaked crimson.
The soldiers fell back further, to the fountain, where I had seen them denying men access earlier, and a two-door hatchback sped up, an improvised ambulance. I was now among the protesters again, and the second wave could really begin. It did so with a fury, compounded by the sight of the injured man, that dwarfed that of the first.
By falling back to make way for the car, the security services had ceded their advantage, and young men poured through the gate by the dozens. There came the sound of stone on steel as rocks pelted a retreating armored vehicle and the sweet smell of tear gas filled our nostrils as ominous white clouds of the stuff wafted listlessly over the square.
From a shuttered corner store, I watched them push forward: young men in T-shirts, Pakistani and ISIS flags worn tight across their faces, shouting Allahu Akbar and pointing their fingers toward God.
It seemed for a couple of minutes to be over: protesters now controlled the square and the three main arteries leading onto it. One group, apparently spoiling for a fight, began to wander down the widest of these, the Srinagar-Leh Highway heading south. As I went to follow them, another protester stopped me, shaking his head in warning. He pointed, and I watched as a column of riot police streamed out from a side street, forming a line across the highway and cutting the wayward group off from the rest of us. At the same time, to our left, an armored vehicle appeared at the head of Nowhatta Road, and the security services commenced their own second wave.
This, I now realized, was the way things played out here: a constant push-pull between the two groups, one advancing, the other falling back, as though on a pre-arranged schedule, continuing until the fight lost its novelty or, more likely, one side was called away to evening prayers.
The main body of protesters retreated again to the mosque, though some headed right, northwards up the highway, where they were met by another advancing column of troops. A shopkeeper and his wife were waving us over: we ran into their store, cluttered with boxes and inflatable pool toys, and they ushered us up the stairs. We were offered bottles of water for our gas-burned eyes and faces, and small glasses of tea. On the top floor of the building, which was otherwise empty, the protesters removed their masks and breathed heavily. Through broken windows, we looked out onto the mosque, from which Farooq’s voice could be heard, booming urgently from the minarets. There were injured people inside, he said. The security services had to stand down at once.
“Are you a tourist?” one of the protesters asked me.
“I’m a journalist,” I said.
The man nodded and turned back to the window. On the rooftops above the shops facing the mosque, figures occasionally appeared in silhouette, lobbing stones down at the patrolling military and disappearing before they were answered with tear gas.
“This is what we have to put up with,” one of the protesters said.
I went downstairs. It was quiet now. In the alleyways around the square, small fires of refuse had been lit by unknown samaritans, providing smoke for those affected by tear gas. Old men in phirans glanced out tentatively from their doors, amazed, it seemed, to see me there.
It wasn’t like this at the time, and indeed my photos now suggest that the day had been bathed in riotous colour. But in my memory, the afternoon hewed yellow. The air, the dust, the grey of the concrete, all of it comes back to me in tones of faded newsprint. I remember following two children up the highway to the north, the kids arm-in-arm, no older than 12, skirting around some abandoned sandbags. I followed them briefly past the mosque’s eastern entrance. At the gate, Indian security forces stood waiting, shielded by the gate’s pillars on either side. Protesters in the mosque threw rocks up the path. These skid fitfully across the road, hitting nothing. Some shattered. A soldier stepped out, exposing himself to their barrage, and made a gesture that seemed to say: “Is that all you’ve got?” The other soldiers laughed. Even this I remember in yellow. Why is that?
I returned to the corner store where the protester had stopped me from walking south. There was now an armored vehicle parked there and a European photographer and her fixer were talking to a soldier, who was smoking.
He was from Hyderabad and he eyed me warily.
“Are you a journalist, too?” he asked.
“I’m a tourist,” I said.
“You can catch an auto over there,” he said, and pointed to side street to the south.
“I’m all right,” I said.
The woman’s fixer was from Chennai in the south. He was several shades darker than the Muslim men on the street. He felt safer around the military, he said.
“I mean, I understand what they’re protesting,” he told me quietly, a little way off to the side. “But if they see me here, they might think that I’m military. Because I’m Indian, you know? That scares the shit out of me.”
The third wave of protesters began advancing from the mosque. Despite the fixer’s concerns, we waited while the military retreated, and then began advancing, too. We were heading up Nowhatta Road, getting farther away from the mosque, but the security services were pulling a bait-and-switch and advanced again almost immediately.
For the first time, the two groups were close enough to see one another’s faces, and there was true pandemonium as we tore up a side street to our left and found ourselves huddled in the doorway with an old man who was fumbling for his keys between us.
A stone flew past us, perilously close, and we made the stupid decision to follow the men who had thrown it, putting ourselves between the two groups. I was ahead of the journalist and her fixer, and, as I turned back to check on them, a flash-bomb detonated between us. As our pupils dilated, we looked at each other in stupefied wonder, amazed that none of us had been hit.
We kept running. At the end of the side street, protesters were milling about: their opponents would think twice before venturing this far into the maze. The fixer handed the journalist a motorcycle helmet and kick-started the bike they had left here earlier. He gave me a half-hearted salute. “We’re getting out of here,” he said.
My own mind was tending this way, too. I had seen what I’d stayed in Srinagar to see. With protesters on either side of me, I hesitantly retraced my steps to the chowk. Other young men coming up from the mosque had once again pushed the security services back.
“How long is this going to go on?” I asked a young man in a Pakistan flag bandanna. He misunderstood the question.
“Until Kashmir is free,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I mean today.”
“Oh,” he laughed. “Until tonight.”
That was at least three hours away: the clashes were only halfway over. I found an auto-rickshaw where the Hyderabadi soldier said I would and told the driver where I wanted to go.
“You don’t protest?” I asked him as we left the running street battles behind us, there to continue the inevitable cycle until dusk. He didn’t understand what I was asking him, either. “A stone-pelter,” I said. “You’re not a stone-pelter.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” he said—people were always calling me “sir” in India—“I am a stone-pelter sometimes, too.”
I was overcome by a feeling I have experienced several times in the past, a curious sensation of relief lined with guilt. It was so easy for me to walk away, to call time on my experience. It was a choice I was at liberty to make. The protesters had that choice as well, of course, at least as far as their protesting was concerned. Firdous’ right-hand man, Younis, had made it after 10 days in prison, my driver in favor of a cab fare. But they could not choose to walk away from the situation completely. It would continue to define their lives here whether they protested or not. They could not leave, as I was soon to do, and pretend that nothing was going on back home. Even Sameer Yasir, the journalist, who makes a point of visiting Japan once a year—the better, he told me, to ward off post-traumatic stress disorder—always eventually comes back. This is his reality. No Kashmiri is at liberty to choose, not really, not in the end.
The adrenalin of the protest dissipated quickly and I found that I was trembling slightly. For most of the afternoon, it seemed, I had been on the verge of hysterical laughter, and most of my exchanges with the protesters had concluded, on both sides, over massive, somewhat unhinged smiles. It is amazing what the body is capable of, and amazing, too, how quickly it shuts down again. I was, I realized, fighting back tears.
The next day, outside Yasin Malik’s office, where I had returned to record some minor details I haven’t wound up using in this series, I was bitten by the dog.
I spent my final night in town with Shehla Rashid and the Bangalore-born journalist Nidhi Suresh, who was at that time reporting for the Kashmir Observer. They were discussing the role of women in the separatist movement. It remains, they agreed, a bit of a boy’s club. The women didn’t ask me about the afternoon prior and I didn’t tell them about it. I was sure they’d heard it all before. The only extraordinary thing about my experience was how utterly ordinary it had been. Across the road, on what William Dalrymple once described as the pellucid waters of Dal Lake—a one-word description so utterly perfect that I have since used it several times without attribution—fountains danced in the fading light. Behind them, the hills turned indigo.
The following morning, in those same mountains, I was ordered out of a shared taxi and asked to fill out a departure form. The Indian soldier flicked through my passport.
“Australia,” he said. “You have kangaroos there, yes?”
“Yes,” I said. “We have kangaroos.”
“What were you doing in Kashmir?” he asked. He was looking at me as though I were mad.
“Tourism,” I said. “Just a bit of tourism.” After my experience at Friday prayers, it seemed somehow truer than not.
He looked at me a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and handed back the document. I stole a glance in the side-view mirror as we pulled away from the shoulder: the soldier was standing there, on his mountaintop perch, happily waving me goodbye.
A week later, while I was receiving a rabies shot in Amritsar, Kashmir’s bloody Ramadan became a whole lot bloodier. At Friday prayers, a military vehicle mowed down protesters, killing a 21-year-old. His funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, who carried banners and shouted slogans. By the time that Eid al-Fitr rolled around, in mid-June, Narendra Modi’s Ramadan ceasefire had been declared something worse than a failure. Terror-related incidents, as the Indian press called them, more than doubled during the month-long period. Militant recruitments were said to have climbed.
At the beginning of Eid, the editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari, was assassinated, ostensibly by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terror group. On June 19, the Bharatiya Janata Party ended its alliance with the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and the state returned to direct rule by governor for the fourth time since 2008.
Within days, all three members of the Joint Resistance Leadership had been detained. Syed Ali Shah Geelani described the detentions as “state vandalism” and accused the Indian government of attempting to “create a 1990-like situation ... to justify the use of lethal weapons against unarmed and innocent youth.”
At around the same time, the U.N. Human Rights Office released its first-ever report on Kashmir, which accused the Indian security services of operating in a state of “chronic impunity.” While the 49-page report also noted militant abuses, it was difficult to ignore the numbers. From July 2016 to April 2018, the report alleged, the Indian security services killed between 130 and 145 civilians. The militants killed 20. The former’s use of pellet-firing shotguns, like those I saw employed outside the mosque, was particularly concerning, killing at least 17 people, and wounding more than 6200, between July 2016 and March 2017. At least 780 of those injured by the pellets sustained serious eye injuries, including blindness.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement that he would urge the Human Rights Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations, a call that was later backed by Secretary-General António Guterres. India’s Ministry of External Affairs described the report as “fallacious, tendentious, and motivated.”
The violence has not abated since. Indeed, if anything, it has gotten worse. Earlier this month, Yasir wrote an article for the New York Times in which he described a “new and often fatal development in the decades-long struggle”: the increasing willingness of civilians to put themselves in harm’s way, to play human shield, in a vain attempt to protect militants from the security forces. According to rights groups, at least 148 civilians have been killed by those forces this year, many of them teenagers. On December 15, seven civilians were killed, and more than 50 injured, when Indian troops fired on a group protesting the killing of three militants in Pulwama district. The U.N.’s numbers, which pre-date Ramadan and its aftermath, now seem almost quaint.
In the wake of the Pulwama incident, the Joint Resistance Leadership called for a three-day shutdown and a protest march on the Indian army's Chinar Corps headquarters in Srinagar’s Badami Bagh neighbourhood. Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, the former defying the terms of his house arrest, were quickly apprehended.
After being released on bail, Malik, whose health has deteriorated in recent months, was arrested again and charged under India’s “attempt to murder” law for his role in the protest. It was a charge that struck many, to borrow a phrase, as fallacious, tendentious, and motivated.
“New Delhi’s iron fist and its armed forces have left ugly footprints everywhere in the state,” Geelani said in a statement this week. “New Delhi should accept the [reality on the ground] in Kashmir before it is too late to mend the situation.”
Earlier in the month, Farooq put it more plainly. “There is no semblance of democracy in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.