February 22, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

Look sharp, or you will certainly miss him in Srinagar.

Like the mist and the darkness and the signs of an early spring here, he forms the backdrop of this troubled city.

You see his faceless face everywhere. Uniformed, helmeted and encased in his 18-kg bulletproof vest, he looks on clutching his automatic gun as you go about your daily business.

At the bazaar, at Lal Chowk, on Residency Road, all the way to the airport, near the bank, in front of government offices, on the roads, everywhere.

And at night while you sleep, he is awake. On duty. In his calf-high snow-boots and heavy woolens, he is out patrolling or guarding bunkers.

You see him, but you don't see him. Till he stops you for a body-check. Then you see him all too well. And you don't like what you see.

Ordinary he is. Every which way, except for the gun and the uniform he wears. But that makes him your better here.

Nobody likes him, this common soldier on the road. To Kashmiris he is India and India is he.

The face of tyranny, they curse him, may he die in the next blast.

And he, he would give anything to get out of this place. Any place will do, as long as it is not Kashmir.

But before that he is got his 36-month tenure to complete. He is got to take home, Inshallah, 36 princely salary cheques, each to the tune of Rs 3,500 or so.

"Never thought it would be like this," he tells you in the privacy of his tiny room, which he shares with four other faceless people. "Never would have joined up had I known."

The walls are bare but for a few posters of Hindi movie actresses. There are three charpoys, two bedrolls on the floor.

"This is a job I wouldn't wish on my enemy," he continues. "We are on duty 24 hours, every day.

"So far away from home, you feel so alone. The force will look after you professionally -- give you food, medical help, security -- but at a personal level what can it do for you?

"Now things are worse. I wish they would call of this cursed cease-fire. All it has done is rob us of our advantage.

"No checking, no frisking... So the militants move around easily! The attacks that are happening now, they are all because of this cease-fire."

On any given day before Prime Minister Vajpayee's peace offer, he used to frisk at least a hundred people. His colleagues would cover him as he did that, and he, with the experience born of his 13 years in service, would be listening, seeing, hearing everything around as he patted down his man, clinically, from shoulder to feet.

"Look what happened last day. They chucked a grenade at us," he tells you. "It must have been five minutes after I went off duty: 1 killed, many injured.

"They have not had it so good before. They wear this long feran that can hide anything, they sidle up to you in the crowd and then, phut, the deed is done. The first thing you know is the explosion."

Not only he, his colleagues too are of the same opinion: kill the cease-fire, return to us the right to protect ourselves.

"Beat them up! Wreck them!" spits out his friend. "They need to be bashed up. We used to do that before.

"If they threw a grenade, we used to wreck the area. Now... they threw it the other day and we stood there and watched with our arms crossed.

"We had the power to search people, we had that strength behind us," interjects another. "Not anymore... And that makes us feel so vulnerable.

"Yes, the Kashmiris hate us. They are scared of us. That's the way it should be. There was a time, 10 years ago, when if 10 men went on a patrol only eight came back. But for the two we lost, the orders were to finish off 20."

You ask him about the places he has served in before. Rajasthan, I did my training there, he says, and then Andhra Pradesh, Jammu, Assam -- but Kashmir is more khatranak, dangerous, than any of these.

"Even worse than the northeast," he elaborates. "They don't fire or attack you on the roads in Assam. Here they do."

The Kashmiri accuses his force, a paramilitary outfit, of innumerable atrocities, much more than the army and the local police. What is the truth in that?

"We are better off than the rest, I would say," he answers. "If the army goes for a cordon-and-search, their women folk might as well die!

"Yes, there are many among us who behave horribly... But I will tell you one thing: the cruelties the Kashmiris do to us, it deserves this kind of retaliation. What did we do to them to come and throw that grenade?"

He had almost chucked the job twice. But his superiors prevailed on him. If he leaves now, he would lose out on a lot of financial benefits.

"Everyone at home wants me to come back. Yes, I talk to them on phone... That's something all of us here look forward to. I spent about Rs 1,000 a month on that.

"No, no they don't really know how it is here... what do you tell them about -- all this?" he waves his right hand in a vague gesture. "You know, I have lost 10 kilos since I came here. You can't tell that every time you go out of this gate you are not sure you will come back."

Today, for a change, he is happy, relaxed: he is heading home for a short leave to his pregnant wife -- so what if he has to face a three-day journey without railway reservation?

"It is worth all that trouble," he assures you. "At least I am sure that I will be alive for the next 10 days."

What a life. What a way to earn your living.

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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