Naik Ahmad left more than two month ago from his duty station to organize the marriage of his kid sister, an apple of his eye. Twenty one years ago in this very month of October, he was enrolled in the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Regiment at its Centre near the Srinagar airfield.
Eldest son of a landless daily wage earner, Ahmad’s enrolment in the Army helped the family to lead a secure life. Not merely secure, a better life indeed. Ahmed’s savings and his father’s labours made them build a permanent roof over their head. His two brothers and sister did not end their studies with the three Rs like the rest of the youngsters in their village. All the three went to the high school and beyond.
When Ahmad left for the Army, the sister was five –year- old. She is a nurse today having completed a two-year course after intermediate. She is working in the immunization programme at the local hospital. The family is getting ready to welcome a well- educated boy as their son- in- law. The Oldman of the house is confident that a bright future awaits his daughter. And his old lady too is happy at the prospects.
Ahmad last visited his home in March. Life in the village was normal then. But now on this visit in the month of August, he found many things unfamiliar, nay different – not just in his native village but in the valley too. A calendar is hung on the door walls. Published on the directions of a separatist leader, the calendar lays down the dos and don’ts – a sort of daily regime.
“All activity in the valley is governed by the timings set forth in the calendar,” his old friend told him as he looked in bewilderment. Local shops are forbidden from opening according to theirs and their customers’ convenience. “The shop-keepers are warned. Follow our timings or face music,” the friend said as if on cue.
He did not stop there.
He went on to say in a hushed tone letting Ahmed into a new secret: “You do not know. Things have changed. You cannot hold social functions as you like. No, you cannot cycle. You cannot take out a bullock cart whenever you want. People with cars cannot drive out as and when they want. All our movements are controlled by the diktats of separatists. Not only here in our village. In all other villages in the valley also. Frightening. What can we do? We have resigned to the situation…….”
Ahmad came home this time to make arrangements for his sister’s marriage. As the eldest brother, he has some responsibilities. Leave is something difficult to get generally but his CO approved leave saying, “I too have a sister too. She is still young. But I know our traditions and customs. Go. Celebrate the marriage. And come quickly.” He nodded in agreement. Bosses are difficult to handle and much less to please. In his two decades plus service, he had seen good bosses and bad bosses, mavericks and jolly good fellows.
From the Regiment centre, Ahmad travelled on foot to the village. His son wanted to see the wedding and joined him on the long walk. The boy carried the I-card the Army has given him. He has, of course, his own Army Identity card and the new acquisition – the biometric Adhar card. The Adhar card came in handy whenever stopped by the goons running the street show.
Ahmad was heartbroken at the new reality at hand; the writ of the State does not run any more.
What has gone wrong? How? When? His childhood friend has no answers. He mumbled something as if it was meant only for Ahmad’s ears.
“We looked to the State Government in Srinagar. Our leaders are on job training. Probably. Our prayers went unheard. Delhi is too far away. We have learnt to be resigned. Our hope has not died. Like your father, we are all living with the hope that the government in Srinagar and Delhi will wake up, become proactive, and set right things. In your Army, your CO is your father, mother everything for you. Because the CO cares for you. Looks after you. In our social life, elected leaders, leaders whom we have voted in elections are our COs….”
Marriage of Ahmad’s sister took place in an atmosphere of fear. The celebrations minus fanfare started at 11PM. Guests arrived quietly, as if attending a home in grief. And departed as quietly at around 5 AM.
This is the norm these days in the valley. Marriage is no longer a celebration to herald the union of two minds and hearts in the presence of elders and friends and well-wishers. It has become a hush-hush affair between one hour before the midnight and one hour before the dawn of a new day.
A whiff of festivities means trouble. Who knows who will descend from where to vandalise? They may burn the house as they have threatened. Ahmad kept his fingers crossed as the sister was going through the marriage rituals. His old friends were keeping guard outside the door.
Nothing untoward happened to his great relief. His father sported a smile as the guests were departing. It was then he heard that the vehicles of two-three guests came under a barrage of stones as they were driving to his house. “Relax. It is not a big thing”, murmured his friend.
On his return journey Ahmad started from his home two hours before day break. “Why so early at this unearthly hour, 4AM”, his mother asked. He smiled. She understood. And kept quiet silently blessing the son and the grandson as they set out on foot.
One of his cousins accompanied him till the National Highway, which was quite a distance though. They could have hired a vehicle. But motor lights and noise could have woken up the neighbourhood. That is inviting trouble. Not only for himself. For the family and the neighbours too.
On reaching the Highway, Ahmad found no trace of activity. In fact the entire stretch, as far as he could see wore a deserted look. He walked up to the Army transit camp, nearby.
Disappointment awaited him there. “No convoy plying. Go back. Do not hang around,” he was advised.
Ahmad was crestfallen. His leave is running out. He must return to his post. And be worthy of his word to the CO.
As if no slow march, he started taking the first steps to the highway again. Just then, he spotted an old friend – both had worked together somewhere in a forward post.
From his uniform, it is clear the friend is now a NCO with Military Police. After exchange of pleasantries, and notes on old times, the long lost friend extended an invitation: “Hop on to my ambulance. We are going your way. Not exactly to your place. Beyond that. So I will drop you at your station.”
The friend was true to his word. The vehicle rolled out after two days. And dropped Ahmad and his son at their place. As the ambulance resumed its onward journey, kicking up a trail of dust, Ahmad walked back to his station. With only one prayer: Let this experience be an aberration.
Back in Ahmad’s village, his childhood friend too was offering a similar prayer. Like Ahmad, like many others, he too has a wish list. Not for themselves. But for their children. They, the children, are the future citizens. They must have a secure future.
Security and stability in life comes from education. But for this schools must open and the boys must go to classes. Not roam around the streets- throwing stones and turning roads into battle grounds with the police. When will the street mayhem end? When will normalcy return? As he was walking home with these thoughts, FM channel was saying: “PMF Recruitment rally held in Srinagar received an overwhelming response.”
Boys throwing stones at police yesterday, are standing in the queue to join the same Police force. If only our leaders also turn the leaf like these boys, understand the geography and demographics, demonstrate a clear vision and commendable communication skills, we will get our votes worth.
Will we live to see that day? Suddenly a smile appeared on his bearded face. No. Hope is not merely eternal. With some effort, we can realise and live the hope. Ahmad’s friend quickened the pace. He is suddenly in a hurry. To reach home. And share his new find with his beloved wife and dear mother. Both of them, like all women, probably, keep telling him – not to lose hope. They may be right, at least for once!
– Bhupesh Kumar Jain, Maj Gen (Retd)