The Question Of Identity Card
By Majid Maqbool
07 July, 2010
The young driver suddenly applied brakes. The bus came to an abrupt halt on the roadside near Karan Nagar in Srinagar, the summer capital of J&K. Then he switched off the stereo that was blurting out a popular Hindi film song. Outside, a thick plume of dust rose in the air. On impact, all the passengers were pushed forward, and then tossed back to their seats.
“All men”, shouted one of the CRPF troopers emerging from the dust outside, “come out.”
A brief silence accompanied his stern command. A rapid burst of incomprehensible voices was audible from the wireless set he held in his left hand. A group of tense, dark complexioned CRPF men, with bamboo sticks and guns in hand, had assembled around the bus by now.
First, the driver came down from his seat. Then the passengers, exchanging anxious looks, quietly stood up from their respective seats. It was time for that exercise Kashmiris are quite familiar with: ‘security check!’. All the passengers, except women, had to come down from the bus. One by one, and one after another, all men including boys emptied their seats. Sitting beside the unoccupied seats, only women were left behind. All of them looked worried.
I was the last passenger to come down from the bus. I had heard such instructions before. No one – not even the traffic policemen – dare to question such commands on the roads of Kashmir. These are unwritten rules rarely defied by people on the roads. They are obeyed for a simple reason: these rules are drawn by the Indian paramilitary troopers, and not by the Kashmiri traffic policemen, who should otherwise control vehicular traffic. The latter enforce the law of the land and are accountable for it; the former, however, has its own laws in Kashmir. And no one questions them.
A day after a powerful landmine blast shook the Rainawari area of the Srinagar city—killing a woman on the spot, and fatally injuring some policemen – I was travelling to city’s SMHS hospital. My aging grandmother, admitted in the hospital few days back, was ill. For some days now I had been visiting the hospital to see her. Her condition was worsening. Doctors attending her didn’t promise quick recovery.
Today I will be late. I knew that as soon as the bus stopped.
I had forgotten, though only briefly, the humiliating exercise of these ‘identity-checks’ enforced on the roads. There were (are) times when these roadside checks by Indian paramilitary troopers were part of any journey any Kashmiri took anywhere in Kashmir. Today was a prickly reminder of this prove-your-identity exercise. The Indian soldiers can stop you at will, anytime, anywhere in Kashmir. And then they make you go through that mandatory exercise of why-don’t-you-prove-your-identity first:
Identity card? Hands up. Hands down. Turn around. Move!
And if you don’t have an ID card, sorry, make way for others. You can’t move ahead. Be prepared for more questions, more scrutiny, and, less sympathy. Be prepared to be bundled away to some unknown military camp in some mysterious military vehicle with blind windscreens. Be prepared for anything. And don’t ask for reasons. There is no guarantee that you will be released soon, or come out alive, from custody. And if you come out alive, well, you’re lucky! Till next time, that is.
Only an old, outdated election card is in my wallet. In this uncomfortable situation what I want most is missing—my ID card? Unfortunately, I have forgotten it at home today. I curse myself for this lapse. It can be fatal. In Kashmir an identity card is not just a small, insignificant piece of paper: It acquires more importance than your identity. It can be the difference between life and death. No matter wherever you travel in Kashmir, you can’t afford not to carry it. It MUST be in your wallet, always. It’s for your own ‘safety!’
Today I don’t have an identity card. But I don’t tell this to my mother sitting anxiously beside me in the vehicle. Before getting off the vehicle, she emphatically reminds me to keep my ID card in hand. And show it, she said with emphasis, when they ask you to.
I didn’t want to tell her the truth. Truth would pain my mother. A lie would comfort her. So I lie.
‘Don’t worry mother’, I tell her holding her hand, ‘I will show my ID card to them.’ But despite my assurances, she looked worried, as if she knew it was a lie. And as I came down from the vehicle, she kept looking at me from one of the small windows of the bus. I could feel her anxious eyes following me out of the bus.
Close to the vehicle all the passengers formed a long, disciplined line. I wait at the end of the line.
Surrounded by their colleagues - index finger inches away from the trigger of their rifles - the CRPF personnel were eager to frisk us. They looked at every passenger with suspicion. Two CRPF men took turns to thoroughly search the vehicle. They looked beneath every seat in the vehicle. Then they searched the small handbags carried by women. Nothing was found.
The frisking began.
I take out my old, expired election card from my wallet, and keep it in hand. I hoped their eyes miss the expiry date on the election card. I pinned my hopes on the election card to work in place of an identity card. The passport size photograph pasted on my election card is quite some years old. With a slight appearance of beard and a boyish grin, I look younger in the picture. Earlier I had never felt the need to take out the election card from my wallet. All these years, it lay there, unnoticed, occupying a forgotten corner of my wallet. Today, without an ID card, I banked on my expired election card to work as proof of my identity.
I hope they recognize me in the picture, I tell myself while standing in the queue. Only a few people are ahead of me now. After a while, I will be frisked. My identity is suddenly suspect. My heartbeat quickens.
While waiting in the long line of passengers yet to be frisked, an unforgettable incident flashed before my eyes. It dates back to the summer of 2007…
After a tiring day in university, I walk towards the main gate of Kashmir University to leave for my home. Today there are no vehicles on this otherwise busy stretch of road near the gate. The street looked deserted. In the busy market lane outside the university gate, a CRPF man has been shot at by unidentified gunmen in the morning. A tense Kashmiri policeman stationed near the gate informed me about the incident. I was inside the campus at the time of the incident. I remembered hearing a few loud noises accompanied by a panic flutter of birds from nearby trees. Disturbing the morning calm, the rapid burst of noises sounded more like firecrackers to me. But in the end they turned out to be gunshots. I should have known the difference in the two sounds. I have grown up hearing these sounds in Kashmir!
By now all the shopkeepers had fled the market. Some shopkeepers, in panic, had left shutters of their shops only half down. As people around started disappearing, more CRPF personnel were deployed on the street. They were all furious.
I particularly remember a chatty vegetable vendor on my way to the university. He was there on his chosen spot, everyday, busy in his work. On my way back home, I found him on the same spot. Outside the university gate, just across the street, he stood out from the rest of the vendors that occupied the road. He had a cheerful demeanor. In his unusually loud pitched voice he would call people passing by that street. I always found him busy in attracting passer bys towards a heap of fresh vegetables piled on his handcart. Besides selling vegetables, he had a storehouse of jokes. He never ran out of them. Everyone who brought vegetables from his handcart left him with a smile.
Today he was absent. His handcart, left unattended on one of the street corner, was almost empty. All his vegetables lay scattered on the ground. Only a few pumpkins and some potatoes were left on his abandoned wooden cart. In the chaos that followed the gunshots, he too had fled the spot.
All around there were only uniformed men, and armored vehicles, and hurried steps. They were shouting, at times abusing people who were still moving around on the street. Rage was written all over their angry faces. One of their own men had been killed. They couldn’t keep quiet: they could kill. You could tell from their eyes. They wanted revenge. Some of them, in addition to the guns, wielded long bamboo sticks. They were threatening to hit anyone who crossed their paths. Their violent instinct sought a physical release. Someone was going to be hit.
I was stopped by a Kashmiri policeman near the main gate of the university. Other students coming out of the university were also prevented from moving ahead. We watched from a distance. The Kashmiri policemen, too, watched from a safe distance. The street was ruled by CRPF men.
As we waited anxiously to be allowed to move ahead, a boy suddenly appeared on the scene. He started walking freely from the other end of the street. Dressed trendily in jeans and a t shirt, he looked in his early 20s. He was about to break an unwritten rule. He mistook a momentary lull in CRPF patrol for a signal to cross the street from the other end.
‘This boy will get in trouble,’ a Kashmir policeman standing near me whispered. From a safe distance he tried to get the attention of the boy, but all his attempts failed.
Unaware of what lay in store for him, the boy kept walking. A worked up, angry CRPF trooper, as we feared all along, saw the boy. He ran after him, shouting. The boy, growing increasingly nervous, stopped running. He was now within the hitting distance of the CRPF trooper. Holding his bamboo stick with both hands, the CRPF trooper swung it upwards in a quick motion. Then he hit the boy. The blow came down exactly where it was intended – on the boy’s head. The skinny boy let out a feeble cry. He tried to bring out his ID card from the back-pocket of his jeans. But the blows kept his hands busy in self defense.
He tried to evade the blows, but he was hit with increasing frequency. In between blows, the trooper kept shouting a mouthful of abuses at him – some things about his mother and sister. Another CRPF man came running to the spot. He too had a long bamboo stick in his right hand. He too tried to hit the boy, once again, on his head. This time the swift swing of his bamboo stick missed its target. With one hand placed on his head, the terrified boy ran. He ran as fast as he could. He ran for his life. The CRPF men chased him to some distance. Then, they stopped. And from a distance, they hurled some more unmentionable abuses at him.
The boy didn’t look back. He ran, faster.
The blow had opened a wound on his head. Blood rushed out of his head, covering his sweat soaked neck and parts of his face. In the rush of running he was unaware of the extent of his head injury. Seeing a group of people assembled some distance away, he slowed down. They were watching his beating from a safe distance. Gasping for breath, he sat on the roadside, near them. More people surrounded him now. They tried to comfort him with some insignificant words of sympathy. He paid no attention to them, or their words. He said nothing. He was overwhelmed with growing pain. Meanwhile, someone came out of his home with a glass of water in his hand.
With his blood stained right hand, he quickly gulped down the glass of water. Blood stains left an imprint on the glass frame. After gathering his breaths, the boy kept touching his head. Someone handed him a white handkerchief. Instead of crying or wincing in pain, the boy smiled. It was a strange smile, an uneasy smile. Narrowing his eyes, sweaty faced, he quietly soaked the handkerchief with blood that had moistened his hair by now. That painful smile (of relief) was, I guess, for being alive. He came out beaten, bleeding, and humiliated. The only consolation: he was alive! He couldn’t believe it. A painful blow – a big wound, loss of some blood – is still better than death by a gunshot?!
People who had assembled around the boy felt pity for him. They talked in hushed whispers, trying to console him as he assessed the extent of his head-injury with his trembling hands. More blood showed up on the tip of his shaky fingers. He repeatedly touched his head. Few blood droplets from his wound had stained the ground where he sat. Hi..hi..bechures waeluk khoon (the poor boy is bleeding), someone said in a sympathetic tone. Zyade mae logoae (Does it hurt…?) Someone asked in concern. The boy said nothing. With his blood and sweat-soaked handkerchief, he pressed his wound hard. And then he walked away from the spot, quietly disappearing into the distance.
The wound must have healed by snow. The biggest scar, however, will be on his memory. And memories, unlike body injuries, don’t heal that quickly. They fester. They come back to haunt you, from time to time to time. Unforgettable, unhealed.