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A Collaborator in Kashmir

“A Collaborator in Kashmir” appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.

After flights from Delhi to Jammu and then on to Srinagar, I rode north in a taxi to Sopore, closer to the Pakistan border. I’d come to Kashmir to meet Tabassum Guru, whose husband is on death row in Delhi. But when I stood before her, Tabassum waved me away. She had no desire to meet with journalists.

For his role in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, Mohammad Afzal Guru was sentenced to death by hanging. Another defendant was condemned to ten years in prison; two others were acquitted. Afzal Guru’s hanging, scheduled for October 20, 2006, was stayed after a mercy petition was filed with the President. In its judgment on his appeal, the Supreme Court had recognized that the evidence against Afzal was circumstantial and that the police had not followed legal procedures. Nevertheless, the judgment stated, the attack on the Indian Parliament had “shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

In response, a group of Kashmiri leaders passed a resolution that read, in part, “We the people of Kashmir ask why the collective conscience of the Indians is not shaken by the fact that a Kashmiri has been sentenced to death without a fair trial, without a chance to represent himself?”

Afzal’s family could not afford a lawyer, and the court-appointed lawyer never appeared. A second lawyer was appointed, but she wouldn’t take instructions from her client and agreed to the admission of documents without proof. Afzal then gave the court four names of senior advocates, but they refused to represent him. The court chose another lawyer; this one said he did not want to appear for Afzal, and Afzal expressed a lack of confidence in him. But the court insisted—which is why the Kashmiri leaders asked whether it was Afzal’s fault that Indian lawyers thought it “more patriotic” to allow a Kashmiri to die than to ensure that he received a fair trial.

Only the naïve assume that the conflict in Kashmir is between fanatical militants and valiant soldiers. The real picture is darker and more complicated. In a system where the conventional economic nodes no longer function, and all resource lines intersect at some level with the security-state, there is a sense of enormous, often inescapable, dependency on those who are clearly seen as oppressors. This has bred complex schizophrenia. The writer Arundhati Roy has written, “Kashmir is a valley awash with militants, renegades, security forces, double-crossers, informers, spooks, blackmailers, blackmailees, extortionists, spies, both Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies, human rights activists, NGOs, and unimaginable amounts of unaccounted-for money and weapons….It’s not easy to tell who is working for whom.”

Tabassum Guru illuminated this murky landscape in the night-flare of a statement she wrote for The Kashmir Times in 1994. “A Wife’s Appeal for Justice” is anguished and unafraid. It tells the story of how the police and the armed forces have turned Kashmiris into collaborators; although the statement is no more than fifteen hundred words long, it starkly demonstrates the costs of military occupation. She begins with her husband’s story.

In 1990, like thousands of other Kashmiri youths, Afzal Guru joined the movement for liberation. He had been studying to be a doctor, but instead went to Pakistan for training. He returned three months later, disillusioned. The Border Security Force gave him a certificate stating that he was a surrendered militant. His dream of becoming a doctor was now lost; instead, he started a small business dealing in medical supplies and surgical instruments. The following year, in 1997, he got married. Afzal was twenty-eight, and Tabassum eighteen.

After his surrender, Afzal was often harassed and asked to spy on other Kashmiris suspected of being militants. (Sartre, writing more than fifty years ago: “The purpose of torture is not only to make a person talk, but to make him betray others. The victim must turn himself by his screams and by his submission into a lower animal, in the eyes of all and in his own eyes.”) One night, members of a counterinsurgency unit, the Special Task Force, took Afzal away. He was tortured at an STF camp.

Dravinder Singh, one of the officers mentioned in Tabassum’s appeal, has been frank about the necessity of torture in his line of work. He has stated that torture is the only deterrent to terrorism. Singh spoke to a journalist about Afzal Guru in a recorded interview: “I did interrogate and torture him at my camp. And we never recorded his arrest in the books anywhere. His description of torture at my camp is true. That was the procedure those days and we did pour petrol in his arse and gave him electric shocks. But I could not break him. He did not reveal anything to me despite our hardest possible interrogation.” Azfal’s torturers demanded that he pay one lakh rupees, and Tabassum sold everything she had, including the little gold she had received when she married.

In the statement she wrote in 2004, Tabassum Guru sees her suffering in the light of what other Kashmiris have experienced: “You will think that Afzal must be involved in some militant activities that is why the security forces were torturing him to extract information. But you must understand the situation in Kashmir, every man, woman and child has some information on the movement even if they are not involved. By making people into informers they turn brother against brother, wife against husband and children against parents.”

After his release from the camp, where his interrogators had attached electrodes to his penis, Afzal needed medical treatment. Six months later, he moved to Delhi. He had decided that he would soon bring Tabassum and their little son, Ghalib, to a place he had rented. But while in Delhi, Afzal received a call from STF’s Dravinder Singh, his former torturer. Singh said that he needed Afzal to do a small job for him. He was to take a man named Mohammad from Kashmir to Delhi, which he did, and he also accompanied the same Mohammad to a shop where he bought a car. The car was used in the attack on the Parliament, and Mohammad was identified as one of the attackers.

As Afzal waited in Srinagar for a bus to Sopore, he was arrested and brought to the STF headquarters and then to Delhi. There he identified the slain terrorist Mohammad as someone whom he knew. This part of his statement was accepted by the court, but not the part where he said he was acting under the direction of the STF. Tabassum wrote, “In the High Court one human rights lawyer offered to represent Afzal and my husband accepted. But instead of defending Afzal the lawyer began by asking the court not to hang Afzal but to kill him by a lethal injection. My husband never expressed any desire to die. He has maintained that he has been entrapped by the STF.”

When I arrived in Sopore in my hired car, I noticed soldiers on the streets and on rooftops. There had been soldiers in Srinagar, too, but it was different here. We had left behind the painted roadside signs put up by the army and paramilitary units with messages like “Kashmir to Kanyakumari India is One.” In this town, there were only small, often half-finished houses and grimy stores. I got out of the car to ask about the hospital where Tabassum Guru worked.

She was at the cashier’s desk in the Inpatient Block, a tall woman in green shalwar-kameez, her head covered with a dupatta. She said she didn’t want to talk to me. I went outside to call friends in Srinagar, and learned that a week or two earlier two journalists from Delhi had done a sting. Afzal’s brothers had been collecting money for his defense but using the cash to buy property instead. The journalists had brought a spy camera and asked Tabassum if she felt that she had been betrayed by the Kashmiri leadership.

I decided to wait. I had come too far. Patients kept walking up to the entrance of the hospital, and a pony cart dropped off a sick woman. My driver, Shafi, having learned that I was visiting from New York, wanted to know where in America were the World Wrestling Federation’s matches held. We talked for a while, and then went inside the hospital again. A large crowd waited in the area marked Outpatient Block. Most people stood in the corridor, jostling against each other with a feverish energy that required good health. The few chairs were occupied and those who were sitting had adopted postures that suggested they’d been waiting for days. A sign on the wall said: UTILIZE YOUR WAITING TIME EFFECTIVELY—PLAN THINGS TO DO—MEDITATE—DO BREATHING EXERCISES—CHANT A HOLY NAME—READ BOOKS. I studied that sign for a while but felt agitated and decided to tell Tabassum that I was leaving. She nodded and half-smiled, then said goodbye.

From the road outside the hospital, lined with walnut and willow trees, I could see the snow-covered mountains. Shafi was full of ideas about how I might have persuaded Tabassum to talk to me. He said I should have told her that what I wrote would help her husband. But I had seen pictures of mobs in Delhi and elsewhere burning effigies of Mohammad Afzal; activists for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party had exploded firecrackers on the streets outside the courthouse when he was first condemned to death; the print and television media had repeatedly described him as a terrorist mastermind. How could I have assured Tabassum that what I wrote would help?

When the journalists had interviewed her about Afzal’s brothers, Tabassum had said that she had never asked anyone for money to help in her husband’s legal case. She had said, “Mera zamir nahin kehta” (“My conscience doesn’t allow it”). I thought of that statement again when, in Delhi a week later, I watched Sanjay Kak’s film Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), which documents the cost of violence in Kashmir. An indigent woman in a hamlet is asked whether she has received the promised financial compensation from the armed forces for the wrongful death in her family. The woman, her hands beating her breast, replies, “They have snatched my child from my bosom. I’ll eat pig’s meat but not accept compensation from the army.”

Soon after my return from Kashmir to upstate New York, where I work, I read Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul. In his youth, Pamuk wanted to be a painter, and he still saw his city with the eyes of an artist. “To see the city in black and white,” Pamuk writes, “to see the haze that sits over it and breathe in the melancholy its inhabitants have embraced as their common fate, you need only to fly in from a rich western city and head straight to the crowded streets; if it’s winter, every man on the Galata bridge will be wearing the same pale, drab, shadowy clothes.”

Reading those words, I thought again of Srinagar. I had flown in from “a rich Western city,” and everything there looked drab to me, draped in a dirty military green. Every house that was new looked gaudy and vulgar or curiously incomplete. Many structures were shuttered, or burnt black, or simply falling down due to disrepair. Pamuk writes that those who live in Istanbul shun color because they are grieving for a city whose past aura has been tarnished by more than a hundred and fifty years of decline. I believe Pamuk was also describing plain poverty.

Jashn-e-Azadi had shown me another Srinagar. The film’s richness lay in the space it created, in the viewer’s mind, despite the violence, for thought and for color. The filmmaker had discovered again and again in the drabness of the melancholy the gleam of memory: the memory of blood on the ground, of the beauty of the hills and red poppies, of the keening voices of mothers and painted faces of village performers. Also the memory of the dead, of falling snow, of new graves everywhere, and the shining faces crying for freedom.

In a travelogue written more than four decades ago, V.S. Naipaul described how out of the “cramped yards, glimpsed through filth-runnelled alleyways, came bright colors in glorious patterns on rugs and carpets and soft shawls, patterns and colors derived from Persia, in Kashmir grown automatic, even in all their rightness and variety…” In Kak’s film, riotous color is glimpsed only when we see tourists donning traditional Kashmiri costumes for photographs, holding pots filled with plastic flowers.

When I think of the melancholy of Afzal and Tabassum Guru, it isn’t color that I seek, but a narrative to give sustenance to their lives. That is what was powerful about the story that Tabassum told: She gave coherence to what had been their experience and the ways it resonated with the experiences of other young Kashmiri couples.

As with Pamuk’s Istanbul, I found traces of Srinagar in a film about another distant place. Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, tells the story of two friends on the West Bank, Said and Khaled, who are recruited to carry out a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv. The two young men are disguised as settlers going to a wedding. The would-be bombers get separated at the border, and the plan is called off, instigating some reflection and doubt on Khaled’s part. But Said is determined. We learn about his motivation when, in the company of Suha, a young woman who has just returned to Palestine, he goes into a watch shop, and Suha notices that videos are also available at the shop. These videos show the execution of collaborators, and Suha is shocked. She asks, “Do you think it’s normal that those videos are for sale?” Said replies, “What is normal around here?” Then he tells Suha, quietly, that his father was a collaborator. He was executed.

In Nablus, cars keep breaking down. Nothing works. The houses look either bombed or unfinished. In all of this, Nablus resembles Srinagar. Nablus is also like Srinagar in the ways in which its children are scarred by violence. I’m thinking of Ghalib, Afzal and Tabassum’s son, as well as thousands of other Kashmiris. It is horrifying but not difficult to imagine that many of them will find words to offer as testimony which are similar to those Said, sitting in an empty room, speaks to the camera just before he leaves on his suicide mission:

The crimes of occupation are endless. The worst crime of all is to exploit the people’s weaknesses and turn them into collaborators. By doing that, they not only kill the resistance, they also ruin their families, ruin their dignity and ruin an entire people. When my father was executed, I was ten years old. He was a good person. But he grew weak. For that, I hold the occupation responsible. They must understand that if they recruit collaborators they must pay the price for it. A life without dignity is worthless. Especially when it reminds you day after day of humiliation and weakness. And the world watches, cowardly and indifferent.