After Britain gave up its rule in India in 1947, the region was divided into independent India and Pakistan. The princely state of Kashmir, adjoining both new nations, became a battleground: India had been given sovereignty over the area, Pakistan swept in attempting to seize control, and internal forces clamored for the country’s independence. The United Nations intervened in 1949, dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan along a cease-fire line now known as the Line of Control (LoC). Indian Kashmir—the regions of Jammu and Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley—endured decades of alternating peace and bloodshed over elections and autonomy.
Born in the Kashmir Valley in 1977, journalist and author Basharat Peer was 13 and away at boarding school in January 1990, just as an Indian government crackdown on insurgent forces was creating a new wave of violence—and a new wave of young militants, including Peer’s friends and relatives.
AT SCHOOL, THE TALK WAS OF WAR. During lunch breaks, my friends and I shared stories of militancy. We began drawing maps of Kashmir on our school notebooks and painted slogans like war till victory and self-determination is our birthright on the school walls. One of my classmates, Asif, a boy with big black eyes and careless curly hair who was popular with the girls, talked about seeing a militant from the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. “I saw one walking near the bus stop. He was wearing a green military uniform and had a badge on the chest that said: JKLF! And he had beautiful blue sports shoes.”
“Force 10 shoes?” I asked Asif. Force 10 was a popular running shoe from an Indian company.
“No! No! It was Warrior! Warrior is Chinese. It is much better than Force 10.” Asif began to smile and tell me how the guerrilla’s hairstyle was similar to his own: long, curly locks. I hoped at least one guerrilla commander had short, straight, spiky, oiled hair like mine.
The best story was about the magical Kalashnikov. Made in Russia, a gift from Pakistan, it was known to have powers greater than Aladdin’s lamp. I remember standing outside our dining hall after lunch and getting into an impromptu discussion about Kalashnikovs.
“It is as small as a hand and shoots 200 bullets,” said Shabnam, my cousin, who was a year older than me.
“No! It is as long as a cricket bat and fires 50 bullets in a minute,” retorted Pervez, my roommate and an enthusiastic footballer whose village was a major JKLF stronghold.
“My brother touched a Kalashnikov,” said Showket, who was a few years younger. “He says it is very light. Yes, it is as long as a small cricket bat. He told Mother that he wanted to become a militant. She cried, and Father slapped him.”
One afternoon we were on the soccer field when a militant passed by. We gathered around. “Can we see your gun, please?” Pervez said. He was the center forward, beaming in his blue tracksuit. The militant took off his loose pheran, a cloaklike woolen garment, and showed us his gun. “We call it Kalashnikov, and Indians call it AK-47,” he said. We were enraptured and clapped in delight. From then on we all carried our cricket bats inside our pherans, in imitation and preparation.
Outside our small world, there were endless gun battles between the soldiers and the rebels; grenades were lobbed, and mines were exploded—death, fear, and anger had taken over Kashmir. By the summer of 1990, thousands of young Kashmiri men had crossed the Line of Control for arms training in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. When they returned as militants, they were heroes—people wanted to talk to them, touch them, hear their stories, and invite them for a feast. Many more were trained in local apple orchards and meadows, earning them the nickname dragud, or meadow. Like almost every boy, I wanted to join them. Fighting and dying for freedom was as desired as the first kiss on adolescent lips.
In the autumn of 1991, when I was 14, I walked with four boys from my dorm to a nearby village, looking for guerrillas. We saw a group of young men dressed in fatigues, assault rifles slung on their shoulders, coming from the other side of the road. They were tall and seemed the most glamorous of men; we were awestruck. The white badges on their green military uniforms read JKLF. Standing there in my white-and-gray school uniform, I blurted out, “We want to join you.”
The commander, a lean youth with stubble, laughed. “Go home and grow up, kids!”
We returned to our dorm sulking, talking about a better way to join. We could talk to Students Liberation Front (SLF), the student wing of the JKLF. Some of the JKLF and SLF guerrillas had begun staying in our dorm. They would join us for a game of volleyball, leaving their guns lying casually on the grass by the volleyball court. Or they would be sitting on the dorm veranda, cleaning the Kalashnikovs as I left for classes. A small, curious crowd would grow around them. One, who was barely 18, let me hold a Kalashnikov. I felt its cold steel barrel, ran my fingers along its banana-shaped magazine of bullets, posed with its aluminum butt pressed against my right shoulder. It felt fascinating! But he took it back the next minute and asked me to move on.
My friends and I dreamed up ways to go for arms training. Groups of boys left for training camps in Pakistan every other day. We needed money for the bus fare to the border towns, we needed winter clothes and good shoes for a potential trek through snowy mountains, but most of all, we needed a guerrilla commander who would let us join a group leaving for the border.
MY COUSIN TARIQ, Shabnam’s older brother, who had recently finished college, was an excellent volleyball and cricket player. Every time I visited them and my uncle Rahman, I would see Tariq playing cricket on the enormous field near their house, with Shabnam hanging out on the sidelines. Uncle Rahman was a police officer, a tall, dark man who often talked about his long stint as a bodyguard of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, former chief minister of Kashmir.
One late autumn day at school, I saw Shabnam walking out of the dorm with his bags. He was quiet, and there was a darkness in his eyes. “What is wrong?” I asked.
He dropped his bag on the lawn; his face was pale. “Tariq has gone across the border!” Tariq had left suddenly without telling anyone.
A few days later I visited my aunt and uncle. Uncle Rahman was chainsmoking his hookah. He seemed to have aged in a few days. My aunt was in shock and trying to deal with it by busying herself with unnecessary chores. Uncle Rahman watched her in silence and then laughed a little laugh that seemed to scream all his love and all his pain. I fought my tears. I knew that crossing the border to be a guerrilla meant being killed.
Uncle Rahman puffed on his hookah again. “When I was in the police, nobody in my jurisdiction dared disobey me. My son has crossed the border without even telling me.” A rivulet of tears escaped his eye and rolled down his rough, wrinkled face. I had never seen him cry.
About a year later, Tariq returned. Friends, relatives, and neighbors descended on Uncle Rahman’s decrepit house. In the large main room, men, women, and children sat against cushions along the walls. Shabnam and another boy served tea and sweets. A hundred eyes were focused on a single face: Tariq’s. He was sitting on a velvet cushion, the one used for Kashmiri grooms. Every new guest shouted greetings. Men shook his hand and hugged him. Women embraced him and smothered his forehead with kisses.
Uncle Rahman sat next to Tariq; he seemed to have accepted the difficult truth that Tariq had become a militant and was on a path of great danger. I walked up to Tariq and hugged him. His round face seemed sunken; he had cut his long, curly hair short, like a soldier’s, but his eyes had retained their familiar spark. He looked neat in white kurta pajamas, almost like a groom. My eyes wandered to his fatal bride, the Kalashnikov hidden under a thick green sport coat by his side. Outside, neighborhood boys strained their eyes and ears for signs of military vehicles; the family was afraid that soldiers might raid if they got word of Tariq’s homecoming.
Tariq told us about his journey to Pakistan and back. The roomful of people listened as if he were Marco Polo bringing tidings of a new world. He and his friends had taken a bus for Srinagar, where a point man from the militant group waited for them at a crowded bus station. There they boarded a bus for the north Kashmir town of Baramulla. The boys spent the night at a stranger’s house with two more groups of young men; in the morning they all boarded a bus to Kupwara, the town closest to the LoC. The ticket collector refused to accept a fare from them. Kupwara teemed with young men from every part of Kashmir, waiting to cross the border.
Tariq and his friends were introduced to a guide who was to take them across the mountains. Guides were often natives of the border villages who knew the terrain well. Carrying rucksacks full of clothes and food, the group left Kupwara in a truck. By evening, they had reached a village a few miles from the LoC. They waited in a hideout till night fell. In the darkness, they followed their guide. They climbed ridges, crawled past the bunkers of the Indian troops, climbed again throughout the night. The guide had instructed them not to litter or light a cigarette. Biscuit wrappers in the jungle could expose their route; cigarettes could invite fire if noticed by a soldier’s binoculars. They held hands and walked in silence. Dawn came, and they hid in the brush, behind the fir and pine trees growing on the mountains forming the border. They passed the day, apprehensive of being spotted by Indian troops. Night fell. They trekked again till the last Indian check post. It was still dark when they crawled beneath the Indian post overlooking them and reached the Pakistani post on the other side. The next day Tariq was taken to a camp run by the Pakistani military. For six months he trained in using small arms, land mines, and rocket-propelled grenades. Tariq wandered around in Pakistan for a few months, waiting for his turn to fight before returning home a year later.
Someone asked about the journey back across the mountainous border. Tariq said, “The snow was melting, but still there was a lot of it.” He was bolder on his way back; every guerrilla in his group carried a bag full of ammunition and a Kalashnikov. The trek took three days. The ammunition bags were heavy. “Whoever was tired would lighten the bags. We buried food packages and some bullet magazines in the snow.” Thousands of boys like Tariq had passed through the snows since his journey to Pakistan. He saw the evidence of their encounters with the Indian border troops on the way: skeletons lying under the fir trees, a pair of shoes lying by a rock. Tariq’s group almost got killed when they came face to face with a group of boys crossing from Srinagar. They were dressed in fatigues, as was the fashion among the militants those days. Tariq and his group thought they were Indian soldiers. Their guides whistled, a code signaling they were on the same side. The Srinagar guide responded; the boys shook hands and moved on. Tariq and his friends had an encounter with Indian paramilitaries near the border town of Kupwara. “Three in our group were killed,” he said. “One of them was from Kupwara. He would have been home in half an hour.”
HOMECOMINGS FOR MILITANTS were short lived. Tariq would come to see his parents once or twice a month, but his visits were always hurried and stealthy. He lived in hideouts with other guerrillas, planning attacks on Indian military camps and convoys. Though I had seen guerrillas his age walking around or even preparing to attack a military convoy near my house, I failed to imagine Tariq in battle, firing a gun, hurling a grenade, exploding a land mine, killing. But that was the life he had chosen. And Indian soldiers were looking for him. They often knocked at Uncle Rahman’s door, beating Uncle Rahman and Tariq’s two older brothers, seeking information about his whereabouts and telling them to ask Tariq to surrender or be ready to die the day the soldiers found him.
August 14 and 15 are the Pakistani and Indian independence days. Pro-Pakistan militants hold celebratory parades on August 14, and a day later, the Indian Independence Day is declared a Black Day. On August 15 traffic stops, shops close, schools shut down, identity checks by Indian troops increase, and life freezes.
On August 14, 1992, Shabnam and I watched Tariq and other guerrillas celebrate Pakistani Independence Day on the cricket field. Thousands had gathered for the spectacle. We sneaked through the crowd to the front for a better view. Militant leaders made fiery speeches in favor of Pakistan and raised separatist slogans. We stared at the militants in their green uniforms, holding their rifles. They performed military stunts and sang battle songs to a clapping audience. A militant leader raised the Pakistani flag after the songs. His men fired into the air. Then someone said that an army patrol was approaching the village, and the gathering vaporized.
A year after I saw Tariq in the parade, soldiers stopped knocking on his parents’ door. They had killed him in a raid on his hideout.
Basharat Peer runs the New York Times India Ink blog. A former editor at Foreign Affairs, he has written for many publications, including The Guardian and Financial Times. This excerpt is adapted from Curfewed Night, copyright © 2010 by Basharat Peer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.