By Ashish Kaul
He’s exasperated! He switches off the TV and then turns off his Wi-Fi. There is something that’s disrupting some old memories! News of the open killing of Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir, Taliban and Afghanistan! Oh no! His head was bursting with pain. His forehead was sweating and heart was racing!
Abhimanyu felt like drowning in a well of strange noises. He is fighting off helplessly with his hands and feet to escape out of it, but the more he tries, the more he drowns deeper. He has felt all of this before! Is the history repeating itself after three decades? Is the time running back? Till when will this all be the same? Will it ever change? If yes, when?
On the ides of January in 1990, loudspeakers across the Valley were blaring ‘Kashmir me rehna hai, toh Allah Hu Akbar kehna hai’ (If you want to live in Kashmir, you have to say Allah Hu Akbar).
Soon, it escalated to ‘Asi gachi Kashmir, batao ros te bataneiv saan’ (We want Kashmir, with Pandit women and without their men).
Scores of men descended on the Valley and blocked all the ways that led out of it. Allowing Pandits to leave now would have invited sympathetic ambassadors. If they allowed Kashmiri pandits to leave the Valley, these refugees would have invited sympathy from various corners.
Many assailants surrounded the houses of the Pandits. They barged in and violently attacked and killed the families. Some were skinned alive, while others were tied to the rear of cars and dragged along the streets.
By January 19, the loudspeakers in the Valley played clear messages demanding any remaining Pandits to leave. Despite a curfew put in place by the authorities, non-Muslim families were taking each breath like it could be their last. With fear in the air, many Muslim families who could not stomach the atrocities on the streets remained inside closed doors.
But, Abhay Pratap Kaul took no cognizance of this fear. He was just leaving his home for office when his landline rang. Abhay Pratap picked up the receiver, and a stern voice on the other side of the phone said, “Abhay Pratap, welcome to your doomsday! Today is the day that will determine your fate.”
Abhay asked, “Who is this?”
“You can still join us, be with us; after all, you are one among us. Where else will you go? Kashmir needs you, this moohim, this revolution needs you,” said the person on the other end.
Abhay shot back in a cold, rude tone: “I’ve told this a hundred times. Your definition of independence is beyond me. Your freedom is a lifetime of religious slavery for everyone who believes in the concept of Kashmir. History will judge us both. I may be remembered for not abetting terror, and I can live with that. But, how will you? Your hands and soul are soiled with the blood of many, for you have murdered the soul of Kashmir. Please don’t waste my time.”
The person on the other end calmly said: “You don’t have enough time, Abhay Pratap. Think quickly. Be a part of our freedom struggle. The people here listen to you. If you become a part of us, the people would line in with our struggle.”
To this, Abhay paused, and in a composed manner, retorted, “Since people here do not tow your idea of freedom struggle, why don’t you abandon it?”
Abhay could feel the change in demeanour on the other end. With clenching teeth, the person on the other end shot back, “The Muslims in the Valley have no clarity due to people like you. They don’t understand their own good.”
“Kashmiris know their good and bad,” continued Abhay, “But they are afraid of your guns. I’m not. If your struggle was righteous, I would have been a flag-bearer to the cause.”
Out came a challenge from the other end, “Talk to the Indian authorities and get us freedom. We would drop the guns.”
“Drop the guns and you would begin to feel the sweet smell of freedom,” replied Abhay.
There was a brief silence on the other end. Then, in a stern voice, the person announced: “This means you won’t join hands with us. If you had, we would have let you live. And of course, Allah Hu Akbar kehna hoga.” These lines reeked of hatred.
“No. I won’t turn against my country. And I will do everything in my power to teach traitors like you a lesson,” Abhay continued with his stoic calmness.
What followed was a rage-filled rant.
“Hindustan has cheated us! You Hindus have cheated us! Your Hindu king brought us here, and we won’t accept that! Till we attain freedom, neither you nor your people will be allowed to live!” Click. The line got disconnected.
As Abhay proceeded to the office, a security official who overheard this conversation stopped him and said, “Sir, we respect your courage. But, please don’t go out.”
“I can’t stay indoors, soldier,” Abhay said with a smile, adding, “That would mean that I’m afraid, and being afraid is not what a Kashmiri can afford in these difficult times. Fear will stoke this fire, and fear is the last thing we need right now.”
Before Abhay could finish his sentence, the phone rang again. They turned to the phone and then glanced at each other. With a pounding heart, Abhay picked it up, and in a frustrated tone, started off, “I already told you what I think!”
But on the other end, there was a familiar voice. It was his assistant, Krishan Avtaar.
“Abhay sir, this is me, Krishan Avtaar. It’s on fire, it’s burning! I tried my best to stop them, but they didn’t listen,” his voice gave way to uncontrollable wailing.
“The entire Kashmir is burning, Avtaar! Stop sobbing like a child and tell me what happened, Goddamn it!” an agitated Abhay said.
“They set the newspaper’s office on fire, The Truth is burning,” Avtaar bellowed.
Abhay froze. The receiver slipped off his hand as he stumbled. The soldier broke his fall and helped him to a chair. For the seasoned chief editor, The Truth was not just a newspaper — it was an extension of Abhay Pratap Kaul himself, a beacon of excellence in journalism built on a lifetime of struggle and toil.
As Abhay recovered, he picked up the hanging receiver beside him. Avtaar was shouting on the other end “Hello, hello! Sir?”
“Where are you? Where is the staff,” Abhay asked.
“We’re safe, sir. All of us exited the building. I’m calling you from a payphone nearby. The fire-brigade refused to help. Do something, sir!” Avtaar said in a dejected voice.
“Avtaar, just leave it, I’ll take care of it. You rush home… get yourself to safety,” the born-leader in Abhay spoke. The chief editor was worried about the safety of his people, over that of his belongings. He then cut the phone and rang up the fire brigade. He heard the phone ringing, but no one picked it up.
Abhay grew impatient. He picked the receiver once more, and dialled. In the third attempt, he got throug.
“Hello…,” a frail, hesitant voice on the other side said.
“Hello, I’m Abhay Pratap,” he said, “There is a fire in my office building. Hurry, please!”
There was no response from the other side.
“Hello? Did you get me? The Truth is burning! Hello? Please send someone there right now,” Abhay was pleading now, “I’m coming there as well.”
Stuttering, the person at the fire brigade replied, “We can’t, sir…”
“What? Why?” Abhay blared.
“No one will drive us there, sir,” said the fire-brigade official.
“Why aren’t the drivers available? And if they aren’t, you come along,” Abhay said.
“Sir, it is not that there are no drivers. No one will go. We received a message here today. It said, ‘whoever goes to save The Truth will lose his life’. No one is willing to take the risk, sir,” there was fear in the voice.
Abhay banged the phone. He thought for a few minutes, and then picked it up again and dialled another number.
“Hello, DSP sahab, Abhay Pratap here,” Abhay enquired.
“Yes, sir,” the DSP responded.
“What has it come down to, DSP sahab? Government departments are being threatened, and have stopped functioning out of fear,” Abhay said.
Feigning ignorance, the DSP inquired, “What happened, sir?”
Abhay relayed the situation about his office and how the fire brigade responded. The DSP changed his demeanour, and said in a mocking tone, “Janaab, how do you deny someone who holds a gun on your forehead? Why are you cursing them?”
“Well, you have the means to answer the guns with guns. Do something,” a baffled Abhay responded.
The DSP continued, “Sir, honestly, I’m helpless. This thing has turned communal. My family also lives here. You must understand this. And sir, it is just a building. Consider yourself lucky that you were not inside the building. Let’s not put lives at risk. Do you understand what I am trying to say, sir?”
The line then got disconnected.
Abhay felt betrayed. The voices he heard on the phone from both the fire brigade and the police were not that of the people of Kashmir he knew.
Feeling out of place in his own homeland, Abhay briskly walked to his car. As he opened the door to the driver’s seat, an army truck drove in to his front porch.
Commandos rushed out of the truck and stopped Abhay. A young Major among them said, “You’re our responsibility, sir. We saw what happened to your office on the way here. It was a group of Jihadis, with nothing but death on their minds.”
“If anything happens to you, people would question the army. Sir, please cooperate with us, and stay inside the house. Otherwise, we will have to keep you indoors with the use of force. Please cooperate, sir,” the Major said in a stern voice.
A dejected and defeated Abhay went back inside. And then, the phone rang again. He picked the phone, and it was the Jihadi who had threatened him earlier.
“We’ve burnt down your nationalistic fervour, Abhay Pratap. Join us now,” came a triumphant mock.
“My patriotism isn’t contained in a few bricks or pieces of paper. What you proved is your mindless goofiness. There are thousands with me, like me,” Abhay shot back, angrily.
“Well, time is up, Abhay Pratap. Stop your preaching and begin praying. You have time till dusk today. Come to our side, or else we will read the first namaaz of tomorrow from your place,” bellowed the Jihadi, as he disconnected the phone.
The calm and composed chief editor was now filled with rage. He had to channel it, and there was one sure way he knew how. He picked his pen and started writing:
“You’re watching the fire burn down the city, while your own house has crimson Chinar leaves on it. There’s wind behind you, and your luck against you…”
(Ashish Kaul is a senior mediaperson and doctoral research scholar. Three of his books on Kashmir have been bestsellers. The views expressed are personal)
By Ashish Kaul