War loves to seek its victims in the young.
A pall hung over like a grey curtain. People were on their way outside the main gate. The Cantonment was winding up for the day. Autumn leaves lay in heaps on the ground, freshly swept orange piles, as the security checks went on relentlessly. Things seemed peaceful, a bit too peaceful for Srinagar, a city prone to blasts and bloodshed. However, the cantonment was like a fortress... entering it meant going through a rigmarole of frisking, questioning and stringent checks. The men in green knew their jobs and went on with it like clockwork.
Suddenly the quiet of the evening was shattered by loud explosions. Since it was Diwali eve, it was assumed that fireworks were being let off. But there were people who realized that these were gunshots, and that they sounded very close by. The news spread like wildfire, as guards scrambled to warn people off the streets, “Hurry up and go home! There is firing going on!” No one waited to listen further. They took to their heels, and locked themselves up in their warm secure homes, worried about those who were out in the cold.
The story was out soon enough. Three militants of the Lashkar-e-Toiba group had taken refuge in the Cantonment Board building right next to the main gate, waiting for the right chance to plunge in and attack. Showering bullets at the security guards at the gate, they clambered over the outer wall from the top of a bus, and charged into the first building they could find... the office of the Public Relations Officer. At the sound of the first gunshot, the PRO, Maj. Purushottam, who had three Kashmiri journalists with him at the moment, hurriedly pushed them into the bathroom, and picked up his telephone to inform security. The two armed ruffians crashed through the door, shooting haphazardly at every person they saw, killing as many as they hit. They found the PRO behind a sofa, trying to get his call through, and they shot at him point blank, injuring him fatally.
The whole Cantonment was in shock at the brutality and the futility of the incident. There were ten men lost in the shootout, and many more injured, for after the massacre, the two militants ran back and took refuge again in the Cantonment Board building. A couple of brave officers went after them and tried to get them out of their holes, first by cajoling and sympathising, then through promises and enticement. When those did not work, they resorted to firing, and in the process, they themselves suffered splinter injuries as the intruders lobbed grenades at them. Lady Luck was with them, however, and soon the two gunmen were dead. There was no trace of the third who was assumed to have been a lookout and seemed to have looked out and saved his own life at the opportune moment.
What is tragic in this case is the loss of lives of innocent people... those who contributed their mite by providing information to different media sources. The unkindest cut of all was that they were unarmed and defenceless, cut down in cold blood by hired assassins who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for a fanatical cause. It is in such situations that we realise the significance of the saying that ‘Man’s life is like a candle in the wind’. A puff can blow it away, leaving anguish and heartbreak in its wake.
What is done cannot be undone. However, security was stepped up further and all loopholes plugged as far as possible. After the Red Fort break in and the Srinagar Airport firing, things seem to be snowballing on us. Today as the Government waits for a positive reaction to the ceasefire that began during the month of Ramzan, the country stands with bated breath for a solution to the Kashmir crisis. But the truth is that as long as men take oaths to achieve their goals, courting even death in the bargain, it will be difficult to make a place absolutely impregnable. For it is the fear of death that makes a man retrace his steps, and when that fear is snuffed out of him, he becomes the deadliest weapon ever known. For then there is no stopping him ever! How true this is in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre buildings in the USA and the Indian Parliament. For this article was written when we were posted in Srinagar, but the carnage still goes on and innocents are still dying for nothing.
An extract from Deepti Menon's 'Arms and the Woman' that was published in 2002 by Rupa Publishers, Delhi