By: Majid Maqbool

The Indian government recently announced a ban on civilian vehicular movement on the 300 km-long Jammu-Srinagar highway for two days per week to allow exclusive passage of army and Central Reserve Police Force convoys in the Kashmir region.

An Indian army or police reserve convoy is more than just a passage of military vehicles. A convoy of identical military trucks and jeeps carrying armed troops zooms past, stopping civilian vehicles on the roads, bringing back memories of previous such convoys, moving swiftly in an uninterruptable assembly line, one closely behind, in turn followed by another.

It also brings back my own convoy of memories. I live close to the highway in the Srinagar city outskirts. The long convoys have been moving on the bypass road near our home ever since I grew up. I don’t remember a single day during my high school and college and university years when the convoys were not visible. The next one was always around the corner, and anyone interrupting it would face the wrath of the soldiers atop those vehicles. Sometimes blows followed on the body of the offending vehicles, with bamboo sticks and aluminum cans.

On a sunny summer afternoon when I was a teenager, my father surprised me with a gift after I’d returned home from high school. It was a brand new bicycle. I fell in love with it. I’d wipe off any traces of dust to keep it new and shining. I would often take it out for aimless cycling trips.

One day, I decided to skip the public transport to my high school, traveling on my bicycle.  That afternoon after an uneventful school day, I was returning home. I had taken a longer route back home to enjoy some more cycling. I was cycling with a moderate speed on a recently blacktopped highway stretch that required less effort. A few kilometers away from home, an army convoy suddenly announced its arrival. The approaching whistles, blown repeatedly by personnel atop the first few army trucks, traveled way ahead of the convoy.  As the whistle grew shrill, I pedaled in an attempt to escape. But then I’d have to slow down. I steered on the edge of the highway. Now pedaling slowly, I waited for the convoy to pass by.

Anyone who has grown up in Kashmir knows that whistles emerging from army convoys register differently from the whistles blown by traffic cops. You can tell them apart. The traffic cops blow their whistles to ensure compliance with traffic rules; the army troopers blow them to ensure no one breaks their rules.

Those whistles delivered an urgent, clear, message – get out of our way, and be quick! And every whistle blown grew sharper, and more piercing, than the previous one. Phhhrrr! Phhhhrrrrrrr!! Phhhhhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrr!!!

The whistles grew louder. The sound of the approaching army truck engines combined into a frightening noise: you come in its way at your peril. No one could afford to take that risk. Every civilian vehicle – even ambulances, school buses, for that matter – plying the road at that particular time had to slow down, pull over on the roadside and make way.

Until the last army vehicle drove past, no one could move ahead. I didn’t want my brand new bicycle to be caught in conflict with a passing convoy. I’d slowed down. I was now cycling on the edge of the road, thinking this was a safe distance to keep.

I was wrong. The leading vehicle leading the convoy came dangerously close to me. Before I could react, or pedal faster, I felt the forceful swing – the hit of a baton on my back. I let out an involuntary cry as if some hot water was suddenly splashed on my back. The trooper atop that army vehicle had kept his baton horizontally stretched in the air, I later realized. He didn’t make much effort to hit me. The speed of his vehicle, as it rushed past me, did the job.

I had not been in the middle of the road. When I tried to feel my back with my right hand, the front wheel of the cycle wobbled. I lost control and came crashing down. My legs and back hurt. My school bag was flung away, my books scattered on the roadside. Luckily, I fell near a patch of grass on the edge of that bypass road. I suffered some minor bruises on my elbows and knees. Much to my dislike, I found some damaged spokes in the front wheel of my new cycle.

As I fell flat on the roadside, the convoy quickly drove past me, one vehicle after another. Vroom!…Vrooom!…Vroooommm!!! It went on as all the army trucks in the convoy zoomed away. Soon, the military vehicles were out of my sight. I remember that army soldier who had just hit me a minute ago, continued to whistle and wave his baton in the air as if nothing had happened, as if I didn’t exist.

While still on the ground, I could see him from behind. He kept waving his baton to keep away any civilian vehicle.

After the fall, I remember I couldn’t feel anything for a few minutes. The noise around me was dying. The noise inside me was growing. More than my physical injuries, seeing that wicked smile and that unconcerned look on the face of that trooper hurt me more than the fall. Even more than the baton blow and bruises on my back.

At that moment, I felt a strong urge to take revenge – to hit back, to settle the score. I wanted to wipe that smile off his face. I couldn’t do anything. What could I do? The convoy and the soldier atop that vehicle were long gone.

Helplessness is a crippling feeling. Helplessness is worse than fear. As I gathered myself and slowly tried to get back on my feet, I felt a mix of anger and powerlessness. I was also angry at myself, at our helplessness and the normalization of such everyday violence.

I was also a little embarrassed at my condition. Some people had gathered around me by then. They helped me to get up and tried to wipe the dust off my clothes. A couple of young men collected my scattered books. They dusted them off and carefully slid them back inside my bag. An elderly man said a few sympathetic words to fill the uncomfortable silence.

I didn’t explain anything to them; they didn’t ask anything either. We understood each other in that loud silence. I got my cycle up from the ground, put it on its stand, dusted it a little, and thanked all of them for their help. Someone among them gently tapped my back as I was preparing to leave. After walking some steps, I got back on and pedaled away, slower this time. Every clockwise turn would hurt my back. But I peddled on. I tried to forget the pain.

I said nothing about the incident at home. I parked the cycle far from the main gate. When my mother asked me why I was late that day, I made up some reasonable excuse and rushed to my room to avoid further probing.

I looked into the mirror, took my shirt off and inspected the bruises on my back. I could see a gash – a red line imprinted horizontally across my back. That night, and for a few subsequent nights, I slept sideways to avoid the surface pressure. That would hurt. On other nights, I slept with my back facing the ceiling of my room.

The injury did heal with time. The bruises are gone. The memory remains like an unhealed, festering wound. For quite some time after the incident, every time I was hugged by friends or a relative, and every time I would bend while running, playing or lifting a heavy object, or at the time of prayers, my back would hurt again. And the accompanying memory came hurtling back.

Recently, much older, I was travelling to northern Kashmir’s Baramulla district from Srinagar city. On that day there was no ban on the movement of civilian vehicles. I saw a few army personnel who doubled up as traffic cops on the roads, stopping all civilian vehicles. They’d stopped even some bikes and bicycles to let the army convoy to drive ahead first. An army man didn’t allow a young man on a bike to go ahead even he was going to impede the convoy.

Ager road clear be hai, to be nahe jana,” the soldier told him sternly, taking offense at his simple request to let him move ahead. (Even if the road ahead is clear, you can’t move ahead) …. As the convoy came near me, I could see one of the soldiers standing out from the slit near the driver’s seat. He was threateningly waving a long baton in his right hand and blowing his black whistle.

From the day onward from the time that baton hit me in the back, every time I heard those approaching convoy whistles on the bypass road, signaling the arrival of yet another army convoy, it would send shivers down my spine. The incident would crawl back in my memory. And that feeling of helplessness and powerlessness mixed with anger would rush back to haunt me, like a nightmare seen at daytime. Like a convoy of unforgettable memories.

(Majid Maqbool is a journalist and writer based in Srinagar, Kashmir. Email:maqbool.majid@gmail.com)