It was a typically warm July evening in Kashmir. I was at my home in Zaldagar, a tightly-packed neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar. I was about five years old. My cousins had come over that day, there were a lot of people in the house. We were playing outside underneath a chinar tree. That’s when the distinct – but not unusual, in those days – sound of gunfire changed the mood all of a sudden. Within a few seconds, my uncle rushed out and carted us kids back inside. Everyone had been bundled together in the kitchen. Nobody knew what was going on, but everyone seemed very scared.
It didn’t take long for murmurs of what was happening to pass through the windows. An encounter had started in the neighbourhood, a frequent occurrence in Kashmir in the 1990s. A local militant, who went by the nom de guerre of ‘Alu’ve’ (potato), had been cornered by government forces inside a house nearby. I overheard the elders saying that his family lived in the same area, but I never found out what his real name was. As the gunfight started raging and additional forces started laying a second cordon of the site, all the men in house and the neighbourhood – even the teenagers – fled, fearful of either being killed, harassed or picked up by the forces. As it grew dark, the only man left in the house was my grandfather, everyone else was either a child or a woman. This was 1995. Armed militants were in almost every corner of the Valley. There was a popular sympathy for them. But there also was a deep-rooted fear of retaliation from the state.
Fast forward 22 years, and armed militancy has been largely restricted. Now only a handful of predominantly local young armed rebels (around 200 according to police) are operating, mostly in villages and in the forests. But the fear, it seems, has almost completely disappeared among the people, especially the young.