Militant in exile: Meeting a Kashmiri in Gujranwala, Pakistan
But, going back to Kashmir, he knew, was almost impossible. He had crossed over to Pakistan without a passport, and so he could not legally return to India. (Representational image). Reuters
On the evening of my last day in Gujranwala, I ambled through the bazaar that spread out in the warren of crooked lanes behind Ammar’s house.
The lanes were clogged with shoppers even though the bazaar was drowned in darkness as the electricity supply had been cut off. I hurried to an eatery at the end of the lane in order to flee the enveloping *****, stench and gut-wrenching chaos.
That was where I met Umar. An attractive young man dressed in a parrot-green sweater, he had a hawk-like nose, pale blue eyes and an almond-shaped, heavily freckled face. A thick mop of deep brown hair hid his forehead. He seemed to be in his early thirties. He sat alone at a table in a corner of the grubby room, whose walls were lined with thick, grey curtains of cobwebs. The other tables were all occupied and so I asked if I could join him. He smiled and pointed to the plastic chair in front of him, indicating that I could.
Shortly, a boy emerged from the kitchen and asked me what I wanted to order. He rattled off, with practised ease, a list of items that were available — a dozen varieties of kabab, chicken biryani, beef pulao, mutton and daal mix, curried lamb’s liver, goat’s hooves cooked with spinach and potatoes.
No, he replied, looking quite taken aback when I asked, there was no vegetarian dish on the menu. The only thing that I could settle for, then, was tea.
Umar put down the newspaper he was reading. ‘Pardon me,’ he said, in impeccable English. ‘I’ve never met a Pakistani vegetarian before. Are you from Gujranwala or elsewhere?’ I answered his question, wondering how he might react.
‘India,’ he excitedly burst out. ‘I don’t believe it! He stretched his hand across the table to give me a firm handshake.
‘Yaar,’ he exclaimed, ‘I’m from Srinagar, Kashmir!’
‘Arey!’ I screeched, unable to control my excitement. ‘I know Srinagar well. I go there at least twice every year. I have loads of friends there.’
‘Hey Raja!’ Umar called out to the boy, who was disappearing into the kitchen. ‘Fetch this brother an extra-special tea with lots of cream, and don’t add any water to the milk.’
Umar kept my hand firmly clutched in his as we continued to talk. In a short while, it seemed as if we had long been the best of friends, meeting after a separation of many years. We spoke in English, which none of the men sitting in the room, who glared at us intensely, seemed to understand.
I drank my tea and Umar finished his dinner. ‘It’s best to talk elsewhere,’ he lowered his voice and said, ‘even though the men here may not understand what we are saying.’
We walked over to a dimly lit park close by, and Umar began telling me about himself. He had been born and brought up in Srinagar. The only son of his parents, he was in college when, in 1989, a group of Kashmiri youths had crossed over to Pakistan to receive armed training and returned to launch an armed struggle against Indian rule.
Soon, it seemed, dreams of independence had fired the imagination of almost all Kashmiri Muslims, long suffering from what they saw as ‘Indian imperialism’.
Along with some of his friends, and without informing his parents, Umar had escaped to Pakistan. ‘I could not take Indian atrocities any longer. I could not sit back and watch my people die,’ he related. This was two years after the outbreak of the armed conflict in Kashmir, when state repression had reached brutal heights. He was then a lad of just eighteen.
For three months, Umar had stayed in a training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, learning to handle weapons that he was supposed to use after being sent back across the Line of Control.
But, soon enough, his initial enthusiasm began to waver. ‘I saw around me how some leaders, who were calling on the Kashmiris to sacrifice their lives for the cause of independence, were themselves leading lives of unimaginable luxury. Their own sons and daughters were kept carefully sheltered away in America and England, and it was us poor Kashmiris who were getting killed. Many of them used Islam just as a tool to serve their own interests,’ he said.
Then, one night, under cover of darkness, he had escaped from the training camp and fled to Islamabad.
Since then, Umar had taken up several odd jobs to scrape an existence. When I met him, he was working as a travelling sales agent for a hosiery company. ‘I came here to fight for freedom for Kashmir and now I am selling undergarments in Gujranwala! Can you imagine?’ he said, his eyes brimming with tears. ‘I’ve ruined my life completely.’
Umar had little complimentary to say about Pakistan, where he had spent almost fifteen years. ‘Pakistan’s claim of being an Islamic state and defender of Islam is absolute nonsense. In many ways, it is much worse than India,’ he spat out.
The country’s educational system was pathetic, he said. ‘Even Kashmir University, which was never among the better-known Indian universities, is far better than Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan’s premier university.
Pakistani politicians, he complained, were thoroughly corrupt. They had bartered the country to America, which he described as ‘the greatest enemy of Islam’. Economic conditions in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, he went on, were miserable, barring the few pockets of prosperity that had emerged as a result of remittances from immigrants who worked in sweatshops in Britain, and as construction labourers and taxi-drivers in the Gulf. And Pakistan’s proclaimed commitment to the Kashmir cause, he added, was ‘as empty a hoax
as India’s’. ‘They both want our land and aren’t at all bothered about our people,’ he said.
Fifteen years had passed since Umar had left Kashmir, since he had last seen his parents. Freedom for Kashmir seemed as remote a prospect as before, but, like most other Kashmiris I knew, the hope that one day their land would be independent still remained burning deep within him. ‘It’s best for all, for us Kashmiris, of course, but also for India and Pakistan, that Kashmir be free,’he mused.
Umar pined to go back to Kashmir. ‘I’ve vowed that I won’t die in Pakistan,’ he said as a torrent of tears spilt out of his eyes. I took his hand in mine and pressed it against my chest.
But, going back to Kashmir, he knew, was almost impossible. He had crossed over to Pakistan without a passport, and so he could not legally return to India. If he tried to slip back into Indian-administered Kashmir, he said, there was no guarantee that he would not be killed — shot dead by Pakistani or Indian soldiers or even by Kashmiri militants, who might treat him as a renegade.
‘Brother, think of a way to help me get back home, back to my parents,’ he stuttered and burst out sobbing.
Militant in exile: Meeting a Kashmiri in Gujranwala, Pakistan | Firstpost