Friday, May 1, 2009

Memories of an Election Past


Memories of an Election Past

Majid Maqbool

It’s a cold, fogy November morning. The view from the windscreen of the Tata sumo vehicle we are traveling in is hazy, dreamlike. A thick, smoky fog surrounds the outside view, making the houses around – and the road ahead – disappear. Some kilometers into the drive, suddenly an approaching sound becomes more pronounced. There’s commotion in the air. A closer look reveals the first signs of a polling booth: excited people assembled on the roadside, security vehicles, a small middle school thronged by men and women, and tense, watchful CRPF personnel, standing guard.

We are covering elections today, but all of us—a photographer, some journalists, and the driver—are talking about election boycott. As our vehicle stops, the fog clears out, and a polling booth comes in sight. Pheran clad people holding on to their Kangri, and CRPF men shivering in the cold emerge from a thick morning fog hanging heavy in the air. The sight of the crowd comprising of young men, women, girls, old men and women, assembled outside a two-room middle school turned into a polling booth in vadipora, Handwara, lends a festive look to this place. We see long voter queues outside the polling booth. Far from Srinagar, here, people are in no mood to boycott polls. People have willingly come out to vote, they tell us clearly. And everyone comes up with standard answers: the voting is for bijli, sadak, pani, naukri. Men and women jostle for space in their respective queues, waiting for their turn to cast their votes.

There is a lot of noise in and outside the polling booth. Inside, a group of polling agents, sitting like school children on the rugged mats of the small classroom of this government run middle school, are sifting through the pages of electoral lists. Like school children turn the pages of their textbooks in a classroom, the pheran clad and noisy polling agents sift through the pages of the white electoral lists in their hands. The polling booth officer, sitting comfortably on a chair, is like the headmaster here: he’s in command, the authority. Everyone listens to him, except the CRPF men, who keep coming in and out of the polling booth at will. They question everyone—including visiting journalists—but they can not be questioned. Much to the dislike of nervous CRPF men standing outside the booth, some people hang around the booth after casting their vote—smoking, talking in small groups, making noise. And those who are yet to vote try to remain in the queues, anxiously waiting for their turn. And whenever some people break out from the discipline of the long queues, angry arguments break out. The sight of the approaching trooper, with a long baton in one hand and a gun in other, however, ends all the arguments among the voters in the queues. Silence prevails. Voters come in the line, quietly.

Just outside this middle school, an old man – the white bearded tea-shop owner who shows no interest in voting today – is making tea in his shanty, wooden tea-stall. People, who are yet to vote, and those done with the voting, are having their cups of tea here. And in between sips, they talk. Vapors from their tea-cups mix with human breath visible on a cold morning, which then comes out like smoke from the old wooden door of this small tea-stall. Hugging onto their rifles, the tense looking CRPF personnel reluctantly stand guard outside the booth, as if under compulsion. They push around people, and ensure people maintain a disciplined line—though most of them still don’t.

Just behind this busy pooling booth is a young man’s grave. He was killed years back (in 1996). And today, only one person is standing near his grave: his father. And he is not voting today, he says pensively standing near the solitary grave of his son. Resting on a raised slope and protected by iron bars, the grave is everything for this man standing near it. None from my family will vote today, he says after a brief pause, coming out of his thoughts. My son was 18, he adds, when he was martyred by the army. “He gave his life for independence, for azadi, and not for elections,” the man says with eyes transfixed on the grave.

Seeing us engaged in conversation with this man near the grave, the old man suddenly comes out of his tea stall. The two men know each other. There is one thing common to them: they both lost their sons. The old man comes up to us, greets the other man, and tells us why he too is not interested in voting today: his son’s grave lies few meters away from his tea-stall. Pointing at his son’s grave protected by wooden logs, the old man wants me to listen to the story of his son too. He looks expectedly at my notebook, wanting me to pen down his story. But we are getting late. We have to rush towards another polling booth. We will come again to listen to your story, I tell the white bearded old man as I run towards the vehicle blowing repeated horns for me across the street. And as the vehicle drove away from this polling booth, I could see the old man from the rear windowpane of the vehicle: he stood pensively outside the polling booth, near his tea stall, and kept watching people around him vote, and the rest, wait in queues for their turn. As the vehicle accelerated and fog took over the scene completely, the old man’s frail frame faded out of my sight. And I knew I won’t come again to listen to his story.

Weeks pass.

Srinagar goes to polls today. We are making rounds on the empty streets of the Srinagar city littered with troopers and armored security vehicles. Around 3pm, we reach Tangpora area of Batamaloo. Here “poll boycott” is the writing on the walls, quiet literally. “No elections. Election boycott. Azadi”—is chalked on the walls of the alleys of this neighborhood in capital, bold, hand written letters. And small, fading paper posters of affected family members made out of old newspaper clipping adorn the outer walls of the households in the small alleys of this locality. Some distance from a desolate polling booth, around 3:30pm, the agitated people of the locality we stop by have come out of their homes. They have assembled outside the street near the local mosque. Suddenly, one bearded middle aged man emerges from crowd to stand on the stairs of the mosque. And from the stairs of the mosque entrance, he suddenly addresses the rest of the people in front of him. The address, without a mike and outside the mosque, is not a sermon. It’s political. It’s about elections. He reminds them – in loud, defiant voice – of why they boycotted elections today. He reminds them of the three families of the locality they paid homage today—by not voting. Three sons from the locality are still missing in custody, he says. Who is accountable for their disappearance, he asks the crowd. “How can we vote then?” he questions the people in front of him. Only 17 people have voted today, the man says out aloud. And we know who they are, he says, they came from outside. Some women in the crowd, holding each others hand, are listening attentively to his address.

And then, all of a sudden, the man makes an announcement:

“Let me tell you now that yesterday I was told by someone from the authority that our young men have been killed. There is no point in waiting for them now. And their families should perform their last rites….”

A sudden hush descends on the crowd. There is a brief silence. No one speaks. Shocked and surprised faces look at each other, and then at the man who is addressing them. Hearing this news, some elderly women, who were listening to this man silently, start mourning now. And weep inconsolably. Their mourning becomes more pronounced now; their feeble cries lapse into loud shouts of grief. Rolling the edges of their white scarves, the old women around them wipe their tears, and each others. And the younger women, who are part of this small crowd outside the mosque, have tears in their eyes, too. But they try to console the elder women first, extending a comfortable shoulder for them to grieve on.

Hesitantly, I negotiate my way through the crowd to approach one of the old women. She is particularly inconsolable, repeatedly calling out loud, one name in particular: Mushtaq Ahmad, her son. And when I ask her about her son, she weeps some more. She is not able to talk. Other women accompanying her, speak for her. They ask me to come to her home situated at some distance from the mosque. And I walk slowly to keep pace with this group of grieving, elderly women to one of the small one storey house nearby. And as soon as we step into a small room, the old women, Rahte, grabs a framed picture of her son kept on the upper windowsill of the room. And before I can clearly see her son’s picture, she hugs it tightly, holding it close to her chest, not letting it go, as if it was her son who had come back home today. Then she wept, all the while gently swinging her head back and forth, in mourning. And, in between, she would frequently shout her disappeared son’s name, addressing his photo as if he was in front of her. The constant surge of tears from her sad, sunken eyes seemed to acquire a material form palpable in the room: for a brief moment, I felt as if I could touch her grief.

By now many women from the neighborhood had assembled in this small room. And I was struggling to take notes. Amidst tears and mourning from each family member present in the room, many narrations of their disappeared family member competed on my notebook. Narrated by many grieving women surrounding me, I was finding it hard to listen to all the women speaking at the same time about one man’s disappearance years back. Unable to pen down much, I closed my notebook. And as I was preparing to leave, one of the grieving women said that many people like me have visited their house before, heard the story of disappearance of Mushtaq, and then left, never to return again. And our Mushtaq also never returned, said another woman with moist eyes sitting in one corner of the room. I had no answers for their questions. I just scribed them on my notebook, and left the house along with their story – like many journalists, human rights activists had left before me—leaving behind grieving family members, in tears.

Latter in the day, as the voting in the Srinagar city was coming to an end, and light was fading on the empty streets of Lalchowk, near Ghanta Ghar something unusual was happening. It grabbed my attention: A mock exercise in which a group of CRPF women around Ghanta Ghar, in turn surrounded by tangled meshes of concencreta wires and armoured vehicles, were getting filmed by their female colleague. She had a handy-cam in her hand, like you take out on a family holiday. She was trying to focus, trying to bring all her colleagues in frame. She was repeatedly asking her subjects to smile, raise their batons in the air, and pay attention. She wanted to capture a perfect shot. But her subjects looked tired, and unwilling for this exercise after a tough day on duty. Unsatisfied, she would line up her wary subjects again, and do a retake. And as our vehicle drove past them, the CRPF woman, undisturbed, kept filming her colleagues who were doing their moves once more for the camera. Finally they managed to put on fake smiles for the camera. And this time the CRPF women soldier seemed satisfied with the shot. Happy, she walked up to her subjects, and showed them how they looked like in the video. All of them surrounded her, and saw themselves in playback mode: captured, happy, smiling.

This final image from the last phase of elections in the last, fading hour of voting kept playing on my mind like an unforgettable movie scene. Each one of them, I thought, would take the videos home miles away in some state of India, and show it to their children, mother, father, husband, fiancée, lover. They would take our home to their homes. These videos would become part of their family videos perhaps, I thought as the scene faded out of my sight to play on my mind latter. And the videos would show a different Kashmir—different from those shots in that if-there- is-paradise-on-earth Kashmir paraded on those ‘Incredible India’ ads on TV.

That Kashmir is of innumerable troopers, of desolate streets, of armoured military vehicles, and innumerable checkpoints; of sandbag bunkers with guns pointing out, and troopers, inside, outside. And one can imagine the sub-titles of those videos shot in Kashmir: We came to Kashmir, in armored vehicles. We came with guns. We made bunkers. We stopped them on the streets, searched their bodies, and asked for their identity cards. And we filmed it all, kept a record, for you. Of course we did all this for their security. You must be wondering: what else we did in—and to—Kashmir? Simple: We captured it for you.

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