Thinking of the Indian panhandler and Indian guns in Kashmir

To read this piece you might want to place yourself in the last few days of Ramazan because that is when it was written and slated for publication. Since internet is always slow in Kashmir, it reached Raiot desk as people were gearing to say goodbye to fasting and getting goodies for Eid. Soon after, on the third day of Eid Kashmir plunged into a different kind of reality; a resurgent Summer Uprising that has since taken a heavy toll of life and limb; and continues. This piece still holds true, tracing the contours of the occupation and its symbolics pointing to why people are on the streets in Kashmir. All images by Ather Zia

While walking the streets of Kashmir even on a usual day but especially in the month of Ramazan, you can’t help but juxtapose two stark Indian presences. One is that of the Indian soldiers patrolling or bunker bound – brandishing their guns, poised and ready. Second is the iconic face of the Indian panhandler – dusty, beseeching, and tired. The military a symbol of India’s physical and ruthless prowess while the panhandler, a manifestation of a deep-set, endemic poverty of its viscera. India’s poorest of the poor, the panhandlers manifest a specific kind, almost laudable type of professionalism, which the Indian military has failed at instituting and which should be the wont of any occupying force. The Indian state has employed its army to implement the cruelest possible methods to repress Kashmiri will for self-determination and freedom. Thus, exposing the severity of the non-professionalism that exists in the army ranks. The single-mindedness of the Indian military’s lethal tactics are evident in their record of extreme human rights abuses, more than 90,000 killings, 8,000 plus enforced disappearances of both combatants and non-combatants; and a continuing unchecked power on Kashmiri lives. On the other hand, the hapless panhandlers who emerge from the innards of what is touted as a “largest democracy” in South Asia put a face to utter desperation of India’s poorest.

Panhandler 1These panhandlers ceaselessly beg on the streets of Kashmir, displaying a zeal for survival. Their uncanny understanding of the social and religious triggers of Kashmiri populace enhances their craft and yield. Theirs is a well-knit network committed and trained to perfection in the art of beggary. They haunt you while walking, standing and sweating at the red lights. They do not relent; if proselytizing fails, they resort to praying – if general prayers fail, they customize them according to the nature of couples and non-couples; if that doesn’t work, they invoke your pity. A malnourished baby, or a missing limb is produced to accompany the entreaty. If invoking pity doesn’t work, they beseech your appreciative side by dispensing unsolicited labor. They will begin cleaning your windshield or offer you towels, pens or incense to buy. If everything fails, chasing you, till you give-in is always is an option. These panhandlers work in small combat groups, manning strategic sites and deploy different heart-tugging characters. Figures such as “the mother-child duo,” or “the handicapped, ” or “the disfigured” emerge in a timely manner to trigger best responses for yielding maximum alms. These are quick-second decisions, requiring great resource, patience and a merciless eye on the prize – the “Gandhi” of any denomination. These people are in a no less a war of another kind that India fights on the streets of Kashmir. A war of extreme survival staged by the most marginalized, exploited and hungry Indians and which form most of its population. Also, of note is that this battle for survival by the panhandlers is fought amongst a people who their country does not hesitate from killing at the slightest pretext.

The panhandlers, the powerless Indians are bent on emptying only your pockets. Their entry, in surprising massive numbers into Kashmir is facilitated by sly bureaucratic norms that according to some sources are also strategically creating a non-native demographical disturbance in the valley. Kashmiri media reports that the administration has adopted an “ostrich” attitude to the beggar influx. These panhandlers are more drawn to the valley because Kashmiris are known to be generous in alms giving especially during the month of Ramazan; notwithstanding that the panhandlers are from the land of their oppressor. Newspapers report that these panhandler networks retreat to their shantytowns, drowning their pains in smack, liquor, fighting, petty crimes, and public indecency. They are also on radar of public health officials for the threat of AIDS and prostitution.

All this happens while the 600,000 plus military presence that impose a siege, stay poised in direct combat with the Kashmiri people – those who readily give to its hungry brethren. To many readers, posing the Indian military as being in “direct combat” with the people might seem a stretch because generally the soldiers are not perceived to fight civilians. But it must be recalled that the scourge of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which India has imposed in Kashmir has created conditions that have enabled the troops, police, and informal militia to commit human rights violations such as arbitrary killings, fake encounters, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and enforced disappearances of combatants as well as non-combatants. Thus, it is not only the armed fighter but also every other civilian Kashmiri who is implicated in this warfare – body, mind, and soul. All Kashmiris are perceived as enemies and their bodies perceived as easily “killable.” No questions need to be answered even if the Kashmiris are shot, maimed, tortured, incarcerated or buried in unidentified graves. All those cases against the Indian troops that disappear at the sanction level in the Indian Home or Defense Ministry, and that no RTI’s can find ever, are a testament to the impunity against Kashmiris.

During the last 60+ years of Indian machinations, the Kashmiri people have suffered many political, cultural, religious, and military incursions. These range from heavy military presence – the 1 trooper for every 8 Kashmiris to the seemingly trivial deluge of the hapless panhandlers. The “gaze” of the army is always accusing, AK-47 nozzles pointed at all times, aiming to “empty” the potential Kashmiri enemy of life, and the desire for freedom. The panhandlers on the other hand, have their “gaze,” beseechingly aimed at emptying Kashmiri pockets to ensure a survival that their country has failed at. Even though India is a behemoth of a country, bleeding a massive defense budget in places like Kashmir puts the financial burdens on the likes of these panhandlers and its other poor populations. That the Indian soldiery has ceaselessly stood on the Kashmiri land since 1947, and increasingly since 1989, also ensures that the number of India’s marginalized continues to multiply and stay poor. The presence of the massive number of Indian troops and the flood of panhandlers in Kashmir – both represent the failure of India as a country – one as a brutal power that incarcerates Kashmiris in an open prison, and the other powerless one that begs in that very militarized ghetto.

Even after recognizing the difference that of the military as a powerful entity, and the panhandlers as powerless there is something uncannily similar between the two. For one – both military (except for most of the top brass) and the panhandlers emerge from the extremely disposable populations in their country. While the panhandlers are visibly marginalized, a recent news report again revealed the social strata that are generative of the soldiery. After being killed in an encounter in Kashmir, an Indian soldier in Firozabad was refused a funeral because he was from a low caste. The country, which had deemed it correct to send a lower caste body to an unjust war did not consider his posthumous figure up to par for funeral on upper caste lands. The soldier’s life had been befitting for an employment that required death and was just another disposable that upholds the brahminical tyranny that soaks India’s innards. Such is the irony. So if ever – on the bunker-laden streets of Kashmir, the Indian soldier were to ruminate with his fellow-country mate the panhandler – they’d both know to leave Kashmir the heck alone, and return to take their country to task.


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Ather Zia Written by:

Ather Zia is the editor oF Kashmir Lit ( magazine.

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