Grenades and roses in Kashmir

13 February 2009
The Hindustan Times
Ashiq Hussain

Srinagar: Muzamil Ahmad was never consulted; he was just informed whom he was getting engaged to. And there was a minor point he was unable to bring up: he was in love with a girl from the neighbourhood. It was the year 1988. Muzamil was 19. 'Such was the fear of the parents and neighbours that I never met my girlfriend during daytime. It was only during night that I would meet her,' he said. A year later, it became even worse. Kashmir collapsed in the rage of the separatist insurgency. 'Nobody dared leave home after sunset,' he said. 'Sometimes (she) and I couldn't meet for months together.' They could not get married. Now 42, the father of two children, Ahmad said he did not protest even once when his parents his marriage to a female relative, without once asking him. 'I could not bring myself to tell them about (his girlfriend),' he confessed. Two decades on, love is witnessing better days in Kashmir. The arrival of cable television in the Valley in the late 1990s brought wider social changes as well. Young people took their cue from the protagonists in the soaps they saw. Suddenly most urban youngsters knew all about Valentine's Day, which their parents' generation knew little about. The mobile phone, which reached the Kashmir valley only in 2003 due to long-held concerns over security, further helped them get around social restrictions. 'Cell phones have helped lovebirds a lot,' said 30-year-old Mohammed Ather, who runs a school in Srinagar. 'When we were young, we had only landlines and our parents could watch and even eavesdrop when we used them,' he said. 'But the cell phone allows today's youngsters to talk to their lovers all the time without parents getting to know.' That was because it was not the militants whom Mohammed Ather feared each time he arranged to meet his girlfriend at Srinagar's epicentre of Lal Chowk in the late 1990s. It was the family and neighbours. As the years of militancy wore on, the fundamentalist streak in some militant groups revealed itself. Certain groups tried to force women to wear burqas outside their homes. They threw acid on the faces of some who defied their diktat. Beauty parlours were attacked. But Kashmiris drew the line at such coercion. 'Even the top hard line separatist leaders publicly disapproved of such actions,' said Mohammed Sultan, 50, a retired businessman. 'Most of our women continued to go out without burqas ignoring the threats.' Since 2006, there was a new threat to lovers. An army of burqa-clad women called Dukhtaran-e-Milllat, headed by the mercurial Asiya Andrabi, began barging into gift shops along with her activists, tearing up and burning Valentine's Day cards, calling them un-Islamic. But she only succeeded in popularizing Valentine's Day. 'I had girlfriends all right, but February 14 was just another day for me until the Dukhtaran-e-Millat campaign began,' said Ishfaq Ahmed, a Kashmir University student. 'We Kashmiris were conservative, but never orthodox,' said local resident Masood Ahmad. 'Our society is now changing, but it will not change too much. We Kashmiris have always believed in moderation.'