Kashmir: Thousands of words lost in flames of oppression

Bhat's house is latest to become the collateral damage in the violence [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

A popular Kashmiri poet laments the burning of his 30 years of work after his house burned in an encounter.

Bhat’s house is latest to become the collateral damage in the violence [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Srinagar, Indian Occupied Kashmir –From his neighbour’s house, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat watched his house turn to ashes. Three decades of Bhat’s poetic work was consumed by the flames during a two-day-long gun battle between freedom fighters and Indian armed forces at Balhama village of Indian Occupied Kashmir.

Bhatt, 52, a popular Kashmiri poet, is still in grief, as a lifetime of his work, most of it unpublished, was destroyed in the inferno.

Balhama is a quiet village nearly 20km away from the main city of Srinagar, and has been mostly untouched by the gun battles, which often break out in the southern part of the disputed region.

Southern Kashmir has been on the boil since a popular freedom fighter commander Burhan Wani was martyred by Indian security forces in 2016. More than 200 freedom fighters have been martyred in gun battles and hundreds of Kashmiris have lost their homes since then.

Bhat’s house is latest to become the collateral damage in the violence.

On March 15, Bhat, along with his wife, was in the lawn of his house, giving water to his cows, when three young freedom fighters came running and took refuge inside his house and became trapped, leading to a battle.

“They tried to flee but the army had already cordoned the area. They asked me to leave the house, seeking forgiveness,” Bhatt said as he removed the debris of his house that was built by his father in 1965.

“I had my 30 years of work in the same room where they took shelter. I have three published books and rest of work was unpublished. The house was burned by Indian army three hours after the gunfight broke,” Bhat told Al Jazeera.

“The smoke continued to rise for two days, it smelled of rice, corn, burning clothes, of wood and everything that once we used to have,” he said in a tone of resignation.

Spike in violence

Bhat along with his family watched as the blaze gutted the six-room house, including his personal library with more than 500 books.

Bhatt and his wife pictured in front of the ruins of their home [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

His wife said that her husband has seen many difficult times in his life as he had been jailed multiple times for reciting his poetry during the funeral of freedom fighters.

“I was in jail from 1993 to 2000. People used to call me to the funerals to recite the poetry. That became the reason for my arrest,” Bhat said.

The disputed Himalayan region has seen a spike in violence in the past couple of years with fears of revival of armed rebellion amid heightened tension between India and Pakistan – the two countries who lay claim over Kashmir.

The 52-year-old poet, who has two sons and a daughter, says he has closely witnessed the decades of violence in Kashmir and wrote under the pen name, Madhosh Balhami.

“Most of my work was focused on Kashmir – its history, conflict and religion. In 1982, I dropped out of the college after passing my first year, since then I used poetry as my passion,” said Bhat whose main source of livelihood is agriculture. He also took up the job of press secretary at a local separatist party – Jammu and Kashmir Anjuman-e-Sharie Shian – from 2000 to 2016.

All of Bhat’s work was written in Urdu and Kashmiri languages.

“I was collecting my work to get it published; at least I had 800 pages of poetry which I had planned to publish into books. I don’t feel sad for losing my house, I feel sad about my lost work,” he said.

‘Won’t give up on writing’

For the last four days, Bhat has been working alone to remove the rubble. “Thousands of people came to see the site after the gunfight, but today, I am all alone collecting the ruins,” said Bhat, lamenting his loss.

During the conversation, he recites a Kashmiri verse: “Kem Khandar banai yath lali zaarus, yi kuth tufan aaw saenis shahrus (Who has turned into ruins this garden of tulips, which storm has hit our city?)?”

Bhat’s wife Fazee says she protested against the freedom fighters entering her house. She said she felt bad for her husband’s lost work.

“He would work hard day and night and keep on writing,” said the 49-year-old.

“Now, I, too, feel for him, it’s all ashes now. I am witness to his hard work of writing. I can’t tell you, he lost his health because of it. I would insist him to rest, to take a break, but he pursued it,” she said while standing outside her small kitchen, that survived the fire.

The poet rues the loss of manuscripts and books, some of them rare and not available in the market.

“I had saved all the books on the history of Kashmir, on Islam. Some of these books are not in the market; that was a real treasure. All the beautiful coloured copies of Quran that were decades old, written by hand, I had saved,” said Bhat.

All that is left is a small room in the lawn, which they used as a kitchen. It is the place where they cook, eat and sleep now.

“How can one explain that feeling to lose a house in seconds, but the situation in Kashmir is such that we have to be ready for it,” said one of Bhat’s sons, a school dropout, who did not want to be named.

Despite losing his work, Bhat says he won’t give up on writing.

“I will continue to write, I will pursue my passion.

Pehlay yeh ghar meray liaye bus ik makaan tha, ab yeh jagah meray liaye eik astaan hai (First, this house was just a home for me. Now, this place is a shrine for me),” Bhat said a couplet in the Urdu language.

The house of Ghulam Muhammad Bhat turned into rubble [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

By Rifat Fareed