It was the year 2013; I took an auto-rickshaw from Dal Gate to Shankaracharya temple. As the auto-rickshaw took a right from the Boulevard towards the road that goes to the temple it was halted by a long queue of vehicles, mostly cars.
I could see a security-check post from the distance, men in uniform grilling the drivers and their automobiles with the same thirst. You have to clear it before you pay visit to the deity.
In Kashmir, these security-checks posts are just like traffic signals we habitually obey and cross in Delhi or in any other city, every day, every few kilometres. As I got off from the auto to take some fresh air a faujee approached me. He inquired from where I was coming, a very friendly tone in his voice.
I was not new to these security-checks. I am half-Kashmiri, half-Punjabi, half-Sikh, half-Indian, half-Pakistani, half- refugee, and many others halves I could never put together to give a name to. He was visibly happy to see an ‘Indian’ in the land of ‘terrorists’, probably mistaken by my Punjabi/Sikh appearance.
I’m more Kashmiri than a Punjabi though. If it were 1980’s or 1990’s the approach would have been different. Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, were terrorists those days. There are few other adjectives he used for Kashmiris I would like to skip.
I instantly gathered all my Indian-ness and replied in an equally friendly-Indian tone to his friendly-Indian questions. It was a casual chat.
Then, he went to the auto-driver in his role as a uniformed Indian in a ‘conflict-zone’; spoke to him in a dialect ‘only Kashmiris understand’, gave a green signal and in few minutes our middle-class auto-rickshaw bypassed all the expensive cars with JK number at the rear.
Then it was the year 2016; I was taking a leisurely walk through a small bazaar of less than a kilometre’s length, the only bazaar here, in a place called Kashipur.
Here people call Kashipur the Kashmir of Orissa but if you Google Kashipur you would learn that it’s a small block that falls under Rayagada district in Orrissa, known to the outside world for starvation deaths, Malaria epidemic and Moist insurgency; and recently in news for Anthrax attack.
What it doesn’t highlight is that it’s an exceptionally beautiful landscape with numerous hills patrolled incessantly by wandering clouds and armed men.
It used to rain for six months a year, now it is about 3-4 months. People never knew of summers but now for 2-3 months they have to sweat in their fields under the blistering sun.
This time I was stopped by two men in civil dresses. One was taller and broader and uglier than me; the other was shorter and darker and less uglier than me.
I could sense a strange authority in the taller guy’s voice when he asked me ‘who I was’ (otherwise my favourite question when I’m in a self-interrogation mood) and ‘what I was doing there’ (otherwise the most depressing question when I look around at the world).
It clicked me instantly that they were either local cops or BSF jawan s who were stationed there to counter Maoists. For the first time in my life my Punjabi-Sikh-Indian identity betrayed me, I felt vulnerable, and could sense a subtle fear gripping my heart slowly- partly because I didn’t know which half of my complex identity to put at play, and partly because I didn’t have a satisfactory answer to what I was doing there.
I gathered my poise and replied confidently that I was there to meet Mr. Achyut Das. I had been told that everyone knows Achyut Das there.
He responded with a total ignorance of the name. When I first visited Mr. Achyut Das, before this brief encounter, his wife had advised me to wear a turban when I went outside, as the bandana I wear is what rebels (Maoists) wear.
I took the advice and whenever I visited villages in Kashipur I had my turban unforgotten. In the villages the Tribals would ask my guide if I was a CRPF wallah. In Rayagada town, I couldn’t convince a shopkeeper to believe that I was not a foujee . That day, too, I was wearing a turban but it didn’t come to much help.
By this time I had pulled my fearless character from a distant image I had of myself; I smiled and replied that I was there to learn sustainable ways of agroforestry from Achyut Das, who is a well-known social-worker working with Tribals on Eco-village models.
He surely didn’t understand it completely but couldn’t trouble me further on the topic. This was one trick I had learnt long ago- to throw familiar but complex words in difficult situations where you can’t think of anything else.
He demanded some identity proof and I extended my PAN card. While he was studying my PAN card (I am sure my mentor hadn’t read my dissertation, which I thought was interesting, with such intensity as he went through my meek, humble, and harmless PAN Card), the other guy tried to be friendly, “Oh you are from Jammu! It must be very cold in Jammu right now, isn’t it so?” he asked.
I asked him if he had ever been to Jammu to which he replied, “Yes, for many years”. I smirked and said that then he would be aware that it must be boiling there right then. Tricky question, good cop-bad cop, non-sense!
In the movie Haider, there is a scene in which a Kashmiri freezes at the door of his house, he cannot enter it until Roohdaaar (played by Irfan) comes and ceremonially asks for his proof of identity. He shows it and then enters the house.
The Jews had to wear the Yellow Star of David displayed on their apparels in Hitler’s Germany. The whole population has to be humiliated and psychologically tortured to the extent that they accept whatever is marked on their forehead. Nation building, you know!
The state marks its visible suspects, sometimes its beard with a turban, sometimes its beard without a moustache, and a many other times its beard with a kurta.
We are reduced to a certain aspect of our identity, stored in databases, tracked and followed, all of us are suspects. In ‘conflict-zones’ it’s more naked and brutal, a pictogram of states authority on an alien or a rebellious territory.
Standing there I felt humiliated; I still didn’t know for sure who these men were. I started looking away at the by-passers and shops, shielding my uneasiness, trying to convey that I was bored then.
Finally, he returned the PAN card and cautioned me about that ‘dangerous’ place. I put the card back in my wallet and went my way. I looked back; they were still standing there.
Few halves got connected, few melted away. No triumph for the middle-class auto, I thought. Good!
This article was republished from Kafila.org.