As we present the last of the moments of remembrance from this participatory memorial, by artist Alana Hunt, we would like to remind our readers that Kashmir Reader started serialising this bouquet of conversations and memories from June 11, 2016. In the face of the violence of 2010 in Kashmir, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage, Hunt evolved ways to speak, to connect and to write in a form that would reach places where the news headlines do not. By July 2012 she had invited 118 people to share a cup of nun chai with her as a simple act that acknowledged this loss of life. Like an ever-growing memory the endeavour unfolded over two years of tea and conversation – across Australia, Europe, parts of South Asia and Kashmir – into a gentle yet challenging refusal to allow that loss of life to simply pass.
The memorialising words and images appeared on these pages thrice every week from June 11, 2016, except between Oct 3 and Dec 28 when the Administration barred publication of this newspaper.
‘Peoples’ will would always find a way’
Umar had been a classmate of Tufail’s. “We played cricket together after our tenth-class exams. Tufail wasn’t a stone thrower. He was gentle. He was walking to his maternal home, carrying his school bag, and they shot at him.” Umar spoke with simplicity. Boys grow so much between the ages of 17 and 19. Sitting beside me, Umar was a man. It was hard to imagine him in the same class as Tufail, whose own boyhood had been frozen in time by the small passport-sized photograph that circulated in the media after his death.
Farooq, who seemed almost old enough to be Umar’s father, spoke about their work as caretakers of the Martyrs Graveyard in Srinagar, known in Urdu as the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa and in Kashmiri as the Shaheed Malguzaar. “It is our service both to the nation and to Islam. We are carrying fourth a Sunnah. Our Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) used to deliver the burial rights for his companions too.” Farooq and Umar’s vocation brought them to a world in Kashmir where loss was at its most visible and pain was raw. This is their everyday. Umar buries his friends.
Farooq told me the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa in Srinagar was formed just 22 years ago when the armed conflict began in earnest. “It was the will of the people, and when people come together in their thousands,” he said, “there is little the government can do to oppose them.” The Mazaar-e-Shohdaa in Srinagar was envisioned as a place where martyrs from all over Kashmir would be laid to rest. But once the government recognised the historic importance this place would engender every effort was made to thwart that process of memorialisation. Each martyr’s grave is a piece of historical evidence—ever accumulating as the conflict continues—that the state does not want around.
It is estimated that 70,000 people have died in the last two decades though only around 1,000 have been laid to rest in graves here. Due to the violent repression the government has employed over the past two decades, it is no longer just Srinagar, but now almost every town across Kashmir has a Shaheed Malguzaar of their own. As Farooq said, the peoples’ will would always find a way. But before the 1990s Kashmir did not have the culture of maintaining martyrs’ graveyards as it does today. Historically, there are the 13 July martyrs who in 1931 rose against Dogra rule, but for Farooq this was something very different. “It was only in the 1990s, when death and struggle became a part of Kashmir, that the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa became a part of us.”
Both Farooq and Umar spoke of how the armed forces would cordon off the area around the graveyard with barbed concertina wire—especially during the uprising of 2010. They would beat people who had come to bury their loved ones. They would refuse them entry to the graveyard. The armed forces would fire on people at funerals. As a result, in the process of attempting to bury the dead, more people would die. Farooq and Umar told me that now many burials take place in the dark of night, without a proper funeral service at all.
Another young man suddenly joined the conversation. “We are disconnected today from the repression that is still taking place around us. We feel things are fine, as if peace is in the air, but in reality boys are taken away in the night and we have no idea in what condition they are detained.”
“Confrontation and violence won’t achieve anything” Farooq interrupted, “conversation is what we need.” The young men remained silent, but didn’t seem convinced.
Umar took us to the grave of his friend Tufail. Then he took us to the grave of another friend who also died in 2010. “In three days it will be the second anniversary of his death.” Umar’s friend was named Aanas Khursheed. Like Tufail, he was also 17 years old when he died. But Aanas was known as a fierce stone pelter. He had been under the watch of the authorities for some time. On August 3rd 2010, Aanas decided to throw stones at the CRPF vehicle that was stationed in his locality. There was nothing happening on the streets that day, so no one expected much response. But a senior officer signaled for one of his men to take aim. Aanas received a bullet in the abdomen. The CRPF then placed a heavy drainage pipe over his bleeding body and left him there. The CRPF refused to let anyone recover his injured body for hours. Finally Aanas was taken to hospital, and declared dead on arrival.
Imagine the mix of fury and desperation that pushes a young boy to throw a stone at a man with a gun and the legal immunity to kill him. Now imagine the fury in that boy, as he lays there with the knowledge that he has been shot.
This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Nawaz Gul Qanungo as translator.
How it began and kept brewing
Conversation, Memory and Hope
Alana Hunt started Cups of nun chai in 2010 in response to the incessant killings during the mass uprising that shook the Kashmir valley. She was visiting Kashmir that year when three innocent villagers were killed by the Indian army in a place called Macchil and passed off as foreign terrorists. The entire valley erupted in protests, pelting the army and police with stones. The protests grew louder, and by the end of summer more than 120 protesters and bystanders had been shot dead.
Hunt was in Delhi that year when a 17-year-old boy, Tufail Mattoo, was killed by the police with a tear gas canister shot straight at his head. She began to understand how this kind of death had become normalised even for some like her who was not from Kashmir, in just the short time that I had been to Kashmir.
“And this work,” says Hunt, “became an attempt to move against that process of ‘normalisation’. It sought to stop, and to say no, this isn’t normal and shouldn’t be accepted as such.”
But why nun chai?
“I remember one day the death toll had hit 69,” Hunt recalls. “It just struck me that there were now 69 cups of nun chai in 69 different homes that wouldn’t exist anymore, as those people didn’t exist anymore.”
“Nun chai became a way to mark that loss,” she says. “And to start a conversation, to recognise that whatever was happening in Kashmir wasn’t normal.”
Hunt then began to memorise conversations around and about Kashmir as and when they happened, and write them down soon afterwards, accumulating them on a website and eventually documenting them into a book and art installation. As Hunt began, however, the toll kept mounting reaching well beyond a hundred. And with it, the number of cups of tea also increased.
“Nun chai was relevant because it was a part of daily life in Kashmir, for the rich and poor. It moved across most occasions—morning and afternoon, celebration and bereavement.” Its everyday-ness makes it work, she says.
Back home in Australia, however, Hunt found people far removed from the turmoil in Kashmir. “The Commonwealth Games were beginning in Delhi,” Hunt recalls. “The media were lamenting we couldn’t send our athletes to India because the toilets were dirty, and there was a security threat. But there was not one mention of the human rights violations.”
Cups of nun chai began from here. “On one level it was an absurd gesture. But I’m not entirely averse to absurdity. This world is absurd at so many levels. When you start breaking things down into what they are, especially military occupations, even these things have a strong tendency to become absurd. And to these things sometimes one needs to respond in a slightly absurd and different way.”
“Moreover,” Hunt says, “The nun chai became a means to open a discussion, a gentle yet challenging refusal to forget, an ever-growing memory, that began simply with acknowledgement. That’s the essence of what I was looking for in Australia at that time: acknowledgement.”
“Holding tea cups with one’s hands is itself like a caring gesture, and compiled together they became an allegory of possibility,” she says.
One of the people Hunt shared a cup of nun chai with was an old man, Rusty Peters, a senior indigenous artist in Australia. “When we started talking about Kashmir,” Hunt says, “he felt like we were talking about Australia’s history.” Rusty’s own paintings have depicted a lot of massacres that happened in early 20th-century Australia during British colonisation, she says.
Hunt met many others from within Kashmir and outside. Among them, Uzma, a young Kashmiri writer, who described 2010 as “mad times”. Through her work Uzma had visited a number of families whose kin had died. In one such visit, Uzma went to the family of Adil Ramzan, a 12-year-old boy who lost his life to the forces’ bullets.
Hunt says, Adil’s family had not been allowed to remove his injured body from the street. Hours later when they eventually reached the hospital the army also arrived, and it was here in the hospital that they eventually shot the 12-year-old to death. At his home Adil’s mother had shown Uzma his cupboard, left almost untouched as if they were waiting for his return. Uzma looked through one of his school books, in which he had written about the democratic ideals of liberty, sovereignty and justice. Adil had met his death at the hands of the world’s largest democracy. These were mad times, indeed.
With her acts of memorialsing Hunt kept brewing nun chai and sprinkled bits of the Kashmir story around in her world.
“From small beginnings that lie in a simple cup of nun chai, it has grown, carrying Kashmir’s story into an accumulating reflection on loss, conflict, freedom and memory around the world.”