Friday, October 29, 2010

Why I'm Not So Fond of the Army

I came across this on FB:

I confess I didn't read through the whole thing. Certain phrases caught my attention* and that was sufficient to goad me into writing this.

This is not a theoretical exercise: I'm not very well versed with theories etc. It's an account of certain personal experiences: in Dilli and in Srinagar.

Before my two days long trip to Kashmir in April 2010, I was looking for catteries (cat creches, sort of) to leave my cat. I found a rather expensive but quite good one near my home. The people seemed genuinely fond of animals and the space was like a fairly good sized room. So I went to drop of my cat and gave them detailed instructions about her food habits. The whole process was mediated through the person in charge, a gracious, suave old gentleman: some retired Major of the army. He asked me where I worked, where my parents lived etc (as is the wont of all Indian people who are slightly older than you). He expressed surprise that my parents let me go--a single girl and an only child--out in the big, bad(ass) world (the infamous capital, no less) to earn my living. He also asked me what kind of surname Chakraborty was. He'd had a Bengali friend in the army called Mukherjee who'd come up with very apt truisms about how brainy brahmins were (I don't recall exactly what or why Mukherjee proved his superiority but I do remember being appalled at being identified as kindered soul: a fellow Bengali brahmin)
So it transpired I worked for a small NGO and that I was going to Kashmir the next day. The first thing he asked me on hearing that was "Are you not afraid of Muslims?" I don't quite remember what I said, mumbled something vague, ike "" I suppose. I was repulsed but at the same time did not want it to turn it to an ugly confrontation: my priority was my cat who couldn't defend herself against neglect or deliberate cruelty. I wanted to piss off no one. Anyway, in the middle of this Sajad (an oviously Muslim name), my colleague from Kashmir called. That seemed to stem the flow of anti-Muslim talk from him. Then he started on Kashmir. He said something along the lines of it's not just Kashmir, but also Jammu and, I added, Ladakh. At which he seemed incredibly pleased and patted me affectionately on the back. I was trying to escape before I had to hear more invective against which I'd have to steel myself and not respond. But there was, alas! no escaping. He started saying (not the exact words, but as close to them as I can remember): What these stupid people have started: Azaadi, Azaadi. We give them so much more money than our own states. Ungrateful bastards! [last two words are an exact quote]
His face (that of a fairly handsome, pleasant North Indian man) was contorted in hatred and fury. So much so, that he permitted himself to utter the "b" word in front of me.
Then he kept insisting that I take numbers of people high up in the bureaucracy and Army in Srinagar because he knew them quite well and they can be of help. I mumbled something about there being colleagues in Srinagar who can help and made my escape.
I felt horribly guilty and disturbed at not contradicting him.
And above all, I felt he was very nice very courteous to me and that I sort of cheated him into behaving that way with me. What if I'd come out and said what I really felt about Kashmir, about women living on their own and working and not generally needing muscular men to stand guard, about "being a Brahmin", etc? But maybe he would still have been indulgent towards me: after all I'm a featherbrained young female and so easy to dismiss.

I discovered how huge a coward I was when I lived in Srinagar from late July to early September in 2009. I'd always known I'm a bit chicken: especially when it came to heights, high waves, darkness after watching a scary movie--you know, scary things. But the true extent of it became obvious after I started living in Srinagar. I would chafe against curfew (after night fell, which, luckily in July, was after eight) imposed by people in charge of my accommodation (first in Saida Kadal and then in Rajbagh) but would feel eminently unsafe in the relatively empty streets (and completely emptied of female pedestrians) patrolled by CRPF and with men giving me surprised glances (maybe because I was a youngish looking tourist out after dark or maybe because I was a woman out after dark: I don't know which). Not that I should have been scared of the CRPF-wallas. They were more concerned than my worried parents about my safety. The second day of my stay, I was out with a Kashmiri friend who was showing me around the city center, answering my queries (I didn't know what poplars or willows actually looked like before I went to Kashmir. I remember thinking so these are those almost mythical trees peopling English literature!). We were passing by a State Bank Branch near Pratap Park, heavily guarded by barbed wires, sand bunkers and armed CRPF men. I just remembered I needed to find out where the state bank ATM was ( I was the proud possessor of a brand new ATM/Debit card that I'd experimented with once before in JNU and instantly became the laughing stock of my friends because of my lack of atm/card savvy-ness). So I asked my friend, A, whether he knew. So we stopped on the pavement, and A pointed me to the direction of the atm. I was a little slow on the uptake (my sense of direction is appalling and often I have to think of which hand I write with before I can judge left and right) and a burly (CR)policeman intervened. I instantly cringed a bit internally and nervously mumbled something about ATM at which he imperiously waved his hand in the right direction. I was about to heave a sigh of relief when he started interrogating ( I cannot use any other word for it: it was brusque, business like and quite unfriendly if not hostile) my friend: how do you know her? where are you going? Then he turned to me and started what can only be called cross questioning:how did I know him etc. By this time my hands were quite clammy and I didn't know what could be counted against my friend or me and so just stuck to truth: my best friend was doing his PhD in the same US university with A. That seemed to calm him down or at least he gave the interrogation a rest (Kashmiris from US were, presumably, not as dangerous as Kashmiris living in Kashmir). He relaxed and started asking me where I was from and what I was doing in Kashmir. I, on the other hand, was not quite relaxed and was quite eager to be away from armed policemen who asked questions. I said I was a tourist and that I was from West Bengal. Instantly he became super friendly, A was completely ignored like he didn't exist and said he was practically my neighbour being from atna (yeah, South Calcutta sits right next to the capital of Bihar). I sort of nervously smiled and generally scarpered.
It would take me a few more interactions with jawans to understand how lonely they must be and also to perfect my safety-net plan. The safety net plan was required when even though being obviously non-Kashmiri and "Indian", I somehow managed to provoke the displeasure (or feared I had) of the armed personnel (doesn't work with the Kashmiri Police, I warn you). I would innocently widen my eyes and say "Yihan, aap me se koi, Bangal se nehi hai kya? Main Kalkatta se hoon." [excuse the bad Hindi] or words to that effect. It worked like magic every single time.

This started as a rant against militarism as an irrevocably right wing institution. And turned into my first account of any significant link on my Kashmir visit in July-September 2009. More installments upcoming.

*The political class, including the government and the supreme commander of the armed forces, the President of India, are not acting as even as missile after missile is being hurled at national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Scathing attacks, both overt and covert, on the armed forces are not an aberration, but are virtually becoming the norm in Indian democracy today.

The corridors of government, which should be responsible for keeping defence structures and pillars intact, are more or less either mute spectators or providing impetus to actors who are eroding the morale of the armed forces.


hack said...

well, you write beautifully.

olidhar said...

i have been wondering a long time about you in kashmir. write more.