BY DR OMAR AKHTAR
There was something about the old man that struck me.
I had seen him two decades ago. Both of us were younger, a lot younger, and Kashmir had seen far fewer violent deaths back then. He was addressing an Eid prayer congregation in a north Kashmir town. There were a few thousand people in the biggest mosque. Militancy had by then been struck a blow, and there was no open demonstration of weapons, nor was there the open collecting of funds that would accompany such large congregations in the early days of militancy. The middle-aged man, the one I met again, was addressing the crowd, calling upon them ‘not to forget Kashmir,’ and reminding India that ‘the Kashmir issue remains unresolved, and will always remain so, until resolved according to the wishes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people.’ Few people bought the argument. I got a chance to meet him after prayers, and conveyed my respects.
I had not met him since. Until a few days ago, when I heard him address another congregation, this time of mourners, mourning the passing away of a prominent citizen of the same north Kashmiri town. He spoke volumes about this citizen and her family, and refrained from making any comment on the ‘Kashmir issue,’ save a passing reference. The man had aged a lot. His cheeks were hollow, his beard white, his eyes grey, his hair covered with a warm cap, his body draped in an ordinary pheran, his feet in ordinary shoes.. By his speech, dress and walk, he could have been the ‘ordinary Kashmiri.’ After the congregation, he walked home, alone, on foot. It was raining, but he did not have an umbrella, and he did not have anyone to hold one out for him.
Here was a man, who two decades ago, sought to draw attention to the ‘unresolved Kashmir issue,’ who was an ordinary, middle-class, Kashmiri back then. He ostensibly worked for an outlawed party, perhaps the one founded by Sheikh Abdullah, until the Sheikh changed its name to make it sound more ‘secular.’ Years would see him in and out of jail, his family torn by the unpredictability of his pursuit. But his resolve remained unbroken.
In the decades that passed, many Kashmiri leaders like him had forsaken their lofty ideals of ‘resolving the Kashmir issue’ by violent or non-violent political means, and had surrendered their ideology at the altar of ‘Mother India,’ or ‘Bharat Mata,’ and her ‘secularist’ goals. Such Kashmiris would earn their names in notoriety, in infamy, and would break the fabric of Kashmiri society. They would also earn truckloads of money, buy property and shares, invest in real estate and businesses outside Kashmir and become the nouveau riche of Sheikh Abdullah’s ‘Naya Kashmir.’ Not this frail, old man. He would abide by the principles he started his political life with, would remain faithful to his people, to his ideals, and pay a price for that.
There were more like him whom I met in that congregation, including a younger leader, from another banned outfit, who had travelled far and wide to speak for the Kashmir issue, including a famous trip to Geneva in 1996. Not once had this leader claimed asylum, or residence abroad. He returned to work for the same people, in the same town, for the same ideals. His manner also spoke of his dedication to the cause he espoused. Alone, he too walked out of the congregation, in a kurta-pyjama, and a sleeveless jacket. No security guards, no pilot vehicles, no jostling of crowds around.
Alone: they – and their ideals.