At the very beginning of the movie, Hamid, the character Rehmat Ali answers his master’s question as to what colour he will paint the boat he has built with, “Red—the usual. It suits the Jhelum river”. No dailogue sounds more haunting today in the context of Kashmir.
After a minor easing of restrictions, the curbs on movement, internet and mobile access are back in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). For three weeks, there has been a complete shutdown ever since Article 370 was made irrelevant and the region’s special status revoked.
An innocent seven-year-old Hamid, the movie’s protagonist, dials the numbers 7, 8, 6 in hopes to “connect to Allah”, so that he can talk to his missing father. This part of the film, too, is symbolic of the perseverance of Kashmiris around the world as they try their best to get in touch with their kin in the Valley.
I am reminded of the countless Hamids in Kashmir who await their father or brother’s return. Reports say at least thousands have been detained (4,000 according to this report) in Kashmir over fears of unrest, under the draconian Public Safety Act. This Act allows arrest without trial for two years.
While I worked with the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society or JKCCS, we travelled across the Valley, documenting alleged cases of torture to prepare the first comprehensive report on torture along with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). This 550-page report details the horrific nature of the crimes committed against the Kashmiri citizens, allegedly by the armed forces.
The report lists around 432 testimonies of Kashmiris who allege water-boarding in chili water, sleep deprivation and electrocution of private parts to sexualised torture, including rape and sodomy. This is the hidden reality on to which an additional layer of tens of thousands of soldiers has been deployed to further strangulate the world’s most militarised zone.
On August 5, 2019, at around 2 p.m, I sent my last text message to friends in Kashmir. Since then, not a single call or text has gone through. A Kashmiri friend in Delhi said travelling out of the Valley is not possible because a flight ticket requires an internet connection, and the internet has been banned. Purchasing a ticket at the airport is not possible because no one is allowed to go to the airport without a ticket.
Indians, most of whom have never set foot in Kashmir, are lauding the move by the government to find a loophole through which the orders on Kashmir were passed. But at what cost is all this being done.
Home Minister Amit Shah in his speech mentioned that “development” will now come to Kashmir, but J&K has, according to the Planning Commission figures of 2010, the country’s lowest proportion of rural population living below the poverty line, at 8.1%. This makes the region second after only Delhi, where the rural poverty rate is 7.7%. Of course, geographically, the rural areas of Delhi are hardly comparable to J&K.
The main reason for this figure of 8.1%, which is far below the national average of 33.8%, is because J&K was the first state to introduce and carry out large-scale land reforms, which are still unheard of in most Indian states.
In the film, Hamid tells a soldier whom he befriends in the movie over the phone that his father told him never to pelt stones because that would get him shot at. (How can stones stop bullets?) His mother fights her own battles in the meantime: carrying the missing husband’s photo and other records to the police station everyday, always in vain. The women of the Valley march in silent protest when the chief minister visits, and ask him to bring back their loved ones.
Everyone in Kashmir has always resisted, in their own way, through sit-ins, art, poetry and more, all coming from the life they have been made to live.
Many argue that Article 370 gave Kashmiris unfair advantages over the rest of the country. But would they trade their lives for even a moment with Muzaffer Ahmed Mirza who, as alleged in the JKCCS report, had a rod inserted through his rectum, rupturing his internal organs; or Manzoor Ahmed Naikoo ,who alleges in the same report that a cloth was wrapped around his penis and set afire? Or any of the other alleged civilian torture victims in the Valley?
Hamid tells his friend, who was being indoctrinated by a radical Islamic preacher, that ‘Allah doesn’t talk like that’ because he believes that the jawan on the other end of the phone is Allah. Through its portrayals, the film looks at various sections of Kashmiris dispassionately; does not paint them as flawless.
The debate around the pros and cons of Article 370 is yet to give the Kashmiris a voice. Their elected leaders are under house arrest, local journalists are detained and young men and women are being picked up in order to control tensions.
The most genuine voices are always the ones that come from the affected populace themselves: because nothing substitutes lived experience. Through art, books, movies and documentaries, Kashmiris have been trying to talk to us. Have we been listening?
Like Hamid, visual resources such as the Jashn-e-Azadi, Inshallah Kashmir, Kashmir Torture Trails, In the Shade of the Fallen Chinar, have for long depicted the situation in Kashmir, but we have conveniently chosen to ignore them.
At this juncture, the least we can do is to raise our voices against this mockery of democratic ideals and not belittle the trauma of the people. As a Kashmiri friend puts it, the most humiliating and frustrating thing you can say to a besieged population is, “it’s for your own good”.
If we stay silent for a while, we can hear the whispers from the red shikaras on the rivers, rowed by hundreds of Hamids, all narrating their harrowing life.
Bibin Sam Thomas is a student-activist. Views are personal.