The cart and the soldier at the city ‘gates’

The cart and the soldier at the city ‘gates’

By RAFIQ AHMAD

It is nearly a week ago when a question from an Indian news anchor, on one of its national news channels, to his Srinagar correspondent evoked a particular in depth examination of the sources of people’s resilience. I waited desperately for the anchor to finish, and to hear the reply from the correspondent. The question was an effort to understand how people in Srinagar city in particular, and Kashmir valley in general, manage to organise “the daily necessities of life” and continue to survive through more than a month of curfew and stifling restrictions.
The answer was simple, quite simple to state, but at the same time too complex to understand for an outsider, as the news anchor himself was, I assume, struggling as he said, “in the last few decades, Kashmiris have been through such intense situations off and on, and have somehow learned how to survive”. It all boils down, as one might imagine, to the basic, concrete, survival skills in times of adversity. But I dare ask another question, where do these survival skills come from, how are these skills historically constituted, and in what possible ways are these skills honed and tried?
There is an amazing “economy of survival” operating in Kashmir that gradually took shape, through extraordinary practices of trial and error, which at times even resulted in fatal consequences, in the decade of the 1990s when unprecedented conditions radically transformed our ways of being, thinking and doing what is otherwise regular. One important aspect, among several others, of this radical transformation was the reversal of the daily routine, forced upon us by the state apparatus.
Our day turned into night, and our night into day. The intense curfews and shoot-at-sight order of the day forced people indoors, and they chose to “sleep” through it. The night took on the robes of the “light of the day” and became our daily hope. Quite interestingly, the two particular durations of time at the intersection of daylight and darkness – the early dawn and the twilight—became our common meeting ground. It is these two fragments of space and time we stole from the colonial clock of the state, which gradually shaped the character of resistance mounted by the people as a “community of resistance”.
We learned to organize everything, almost everything, around these two temporal joints by carving out spaces of survival out of what Fanon calls the “spaces of terror”. We mastered this habit by performing small, but concrete and meaningful acts like visiting a relative, a doctor, delivering milk in the neighbourhood, buying bread from the baker, delivering newspapers, ferrying a boatload of vegetables to the shore, pushing a fruit cart along the narrow by-lanes, grazing a lamb in the nearby community park, attending a funeral, procuring a gas cylinder, appearing in an entrance test, fetching a bride on the wedding night, going to the airport, and so on. All these acts of survival that constitute it and might be called the daily life in the colony had to be organized around these two fragments of space and time.
These are the codes of life that circulated the living networks of the “curfewed city” and have not just come to stay as our modes of survival since the early 1990s, but have over the last several years in particular become our active modes of resistance against the authoritarian regime of the state power. It has kept alive our idea and belief in our population as a cohesive community, not just an imagined one, which practically connects individual spaces, specific times, individual aspirations, and individuals, through a crisscrossing of urban, the semi-urban, and the rural.
We come closer when separated, the emotional coincides with the existential, the practical. The city breathes, the city lives, the city resists, in league with the outskirts and the hinterland. An incredible exchange of commodities across vast areas of the Kashmir valley, defying the logic of modern-day mobility, gets animated that forms the main driving force of the “economy of survival”. Fruits and vegetables, rice and timber from the rural peripheries circulate through nooks and crannies of towns and the city, the early morning shouts from the itinerant vendor down in the street, when the soldiers in the barracks are just getting ready to take the road back from the lull of the night, wake up even the dead.
These necessities of life and the newspapers now reach us much earlier than in the “normal times”. The horse cart, the scooter, the bicycle, the pushcart, the ambulance, which would be normally invisible during other times, now transport life across the colony. Not surprisingly, therefore, this city refused to relent, to give up, and surrender to the “mythologies of power”. And it is this refusal that demystifies the mystique of “colonial rationality”.
The state reacts, in the way it is supposed to, historically. It lays a siege, “walls” are erected around the city. The supplies are cut, the horse-cart is returned from the city gates, the fuel is the scooter dries up, the vendor in the street is beaten up, his cart smashed, fruits in thrown in the drain. The newspapers are seized, the lamb in the park calls out to silence, the ambulance driver gets “shot in the arm.” The nocturnal raids on houses intensify. Windows come unhinged as soldiers barge in and belongings are flung out. There was an effective imperial tactic that goes back to the times, long before the western colonial state was institutionalized, employed almost invariably across various empires (the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Timurids, the Hans) when rival cities were conquered by laying a siege.
The conquering armies would surround the usually walled city, close the gates and restrict the movement of the people, goods and everything else in and out of the city. The Greeks did this to the city of Troy, the Homer’s great epic tells us. The Timurids did the same to the city of Damascus in the early fifteenth century. The “post-colonial” state of India in the 21st century, driven by its colonialist desires, seems to have exhausted all historical tools of control and violence, and it now only has the tactic of laying a siege as the last resort.
Whatever the consequences this time, one thing is surely delighting about this; there will somehow be something new, a new habit, a new ‘cart’ that the people might have added to this economy of resistance, when the siege ends and the soldiers disperse.

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