Kashmir: A walk through besieged but defiant Batmaloo

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Batamaloo protests

Children participate in the sit-in at Batamaloo on Wednesday

Danish Zargar

Srinagar: “We have earned 80 per cent of our freedom,” says a young man, who serves lunch to the protesters at Batmaloo.

Batmaloo, or most of its mohallas surrounding the centrally-located sufi shrine, hardly look liberated: hundreds of troopers and policemen have taken over the streets in most of the locality, one of the largest in Srinagar.

But people say they feel liberated. They assert this liberation the most at Kashi Mohalla, which is like a mini Tahrir Square.

After clashing with the deployed government forces for three consecutive days following the killing of Yasir Salam, a local teenager, the residents of Batmaloo on Wednesday entered into a ‘truce’ agreement with the police and paramilitary forces—that there shall be no clashes, but people shall be allowed to protest peacefully for 72 hours at the square.

The terms were discussed with the police officers-in-command in the morning; they agreed.

“We mutually agreed to the terms, and the ‘truce’ was announced,” the elders explain.

The residents moved to the square for the sit-in. Young protesters, led by the local committee, placed mats on the ground to make their stay comfortable.

A few feet away, tents were erected for the women protesters. And a boundary was made with poles and tin sheets to separate the protesters and hundreds of government forces manning the main streets of the locality.

In a small house nearby, a community kitchen was set up to make lunch and refreshments for the protesters. The women took over the cooking part, while young men assisted them in moving and organising the things.

Just before the midday prayer, an announcement was made on the loudspeaker for more people to come to the square for the protest. Scores of them obliged, walking to the square in groups.

Batamaloo referendum sit-in
Lunch prepared for people in Batamaloo 

Imam of the mosque associated with the shrine led the prayer. In the last rakat, he sought blessings from Allah for resolution of Kashmir issue and end to ‘atrocities’ for about 15 minutes.

Seconds after the prayer concluded, the imam raised pro-Kashmir slogans, and everyone at the square responded at the top of their voices.

From a distant corner, a few CRPF men looked towards the square, but beyond that, they showed no response. In fact, the station house officer of Shaheedgunj police station himself participated in the prayer, the locals say.

“He prayed with us, and also raised pro-Islam slogans before leaving,” they say.

Islamic, pro-Kashmir, and pro-Burhan songs played on the mosque loudspeaker replaced the slogans raised for a brief while.

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Lunch being served to people holding sit-in at Batamaloo

 

 

 

 

 

The youths used the tarpaulin, covering the women protesters, to shelter the men. And the women went inside the mosque to continue their protest and began sloganeering on their handheld loudspeaker.

“Tere bhai, mera bhai (your brother, my brother,” shouted one among them, and the others respond, “Buhan bhai, Burhan bhai (Burhan brother)”.

The men arranged themselves into rows across the cloth sheets used for eating. Youths first carried water in a Tash-Naer for them to clean their hands, and then served turmeric-rice, cooked in the community kitchen, to groups of every four men in traditional metal trays.

A few young protesters chose to eat last, and serve the others first.

“Today, they (government forces) must have got an idea what Batmaloo is. We didn’t succumb to their force and pressure, but we found this noble way to protest,” Waseem Shalla (his nickname), a bearded young man who seems proud of being a stone-pelter, says.

“We went to them in the morning. My face wasn’t covered, and they began to unlock their guns. I told them we have come for truce,” he says.

Shalla says he and two of his friends took Yasir Salam to the hospital where he succumbed.

“The deputy superintendent of police concerned was firing pellets. He exchanged his gun with a CRPF man, and fired straight at him (Yasir Salam),” he recollects.

“He came running a few yards, and then we took him to the community hall from where we rushed him to the hospital in my car. We thought he was hit by a pellet, but doctors said he had received a bullet in his heart. He opened his mouth just once in the car.”

Batmaloo didn’t sleep the night Salam was killed. For the entire night, which came after an evening of immense teargas shelling and pellet firing by the government forces, the residents protested the teenager’s death. And since then, the locality has witnessed widespread clashes.

The signs are eminent all across the locality: almost all houses at Batmaloo are with broken window panes. Most families seem attempting damage control by covering their windows with blankets or sheets.

To keep a control of the situation, the forces have been deployed in strength in the interiors of Batmaloo to strictly enforce the curfew. No one is allowed to enter or exit the locality. The forces do not even allow media to visit the area.

Kashmir Reader team was forced to return from the locality’s main approach route.

“The superintendent of police has ordered us not to allow anyone, including press, to visit the area,” the government forces explained.

The reporters had to manage their way into the interiors through a lateral route. And it seemed like a walk through war zone. After every three feet, groups of about two dozen CRPF and policemen, in full riot gear, remain deployed in the lanes and by-lanes.

Their armored vehicles are dotting the streets, which have a thick layer of stones, thrown by protesters, and bricks on them. The forces point their batons and guns at anyone trying to enter or exit Batmaloo.

The locals blame the forces for committing excesses in the area.

“On Tuesday evening,” they say, “the forces damaged houses and shops before departing.”

“They set the wood stocked outside a baker’s shop on fire and tried to set ablaze the Mohalla transformer with it. We had to call Fire and Emergency Services to douse the flames.

“They broke locks of all the shops. House of a poor family was damaged. The forces tried to break open its gate and barge into the building. The broken window panes you saw are proof of what they did,” they say.

According to the locals, the forces also damaged the local mosque, nearly sparking an argument with the policemen.

“Policemen, who rarely try to save us, were enraged by the attack on the mosque,” they say.

The protesters, including Shalla, accuse the forces of inciting youth to pelt stones.

A youth holding Pakistan flag in Batamaloo
A youth holding Pakistan flag in Batamaloo

While they were speaking with Kashmir Reader, the protest songs and slogans continued to play on the loudspeaker.

A song eulogized resistance in Kashmir; the one after it carried praises for Burhan—the Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose killing sparked the ongoing anti-India uprising in Kashmir.

Women rallied in groups of threes and fours towards the mosque to join the protesters. A kid, donning red shirt and blue jeans, took over the loudspeaker to raised anti-India and pro-freedom slogans, and everyone at the square answered. Later, the men took turns to lead sloganeering using an additional handheld loudspeaker.

A young man hoisted a Pakistani flag on an electric pole that the CRPF men could easily see from their positions. Then, he put on his stone-pelter’s hood to pose with the green flag for a photograph. Another Pakistani flag has been hoisted on top of the mosque.

The forces could see it all, but they do not react, not even when women occasionally raised pro-Laskhar-e-Toiba slogans.

The ‘truce’ agreement seemed showing its effect, which is, however, not visible in the neighbouring street where Yasir Salam lived.

The youths continued to clash with the forces in the lane. They pelted stones, and the forces used tear-smoke and pellets on them.

Batmaloo has suffered at the hands of government forces. In 1965, the entire locality was burnt down by the Indian army.

Batmaloo has produced many militant commanders since the start of militancy in 1989-90. But the area never witnessed any clashes between the militant groups as a result of agreement believed to have been reached between the militant groups operating in the locality.

Batmaloo was at the forefront of the protests in 2008 and 2010.

When this report was filed, the songs continued to be played on the loudspeakers on one side of Batmaloo, while the sound of tear-smoke shelling could be heard simultaneously.

 

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