| A jawan lies on the ground after he was wounded in the grenade attack. (Reuters)
Within minutes of landing at Srinagar airport I picked up a new acronym — IED, or Improvised Explosive Device, for what was called a home-made bomb in the thrilling days of Bengali revolution. Over explosions bursting like crackers in the winding lanes of the old city shrills the rhetoric of 31-year-old Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, 14th bearer of the title. “No election. No selection. We want Freedom!” he screams, echoed by hundreds of lusty voices.
IEDs erupt all the time as Srinagar edges on its nerves through bursts of gunfire and clouds of tear gas towards Monday’s D-Day when voters will defy the Mirwaiz’s ban to choose between the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s Ghulam Nabi Lone and National Conference president Omar Abdullah.
Running people and the crackling of gunfire at the crossing of Lal Chowk and Badhshah Chowk, strung with the National Conference’s red pennants and the People’s Democratic Party’s green flags, was the first sign. Our way was barred but the police were nonchalant. “This happens all the time,” they said. “It’s only an IED.” A shopkeeper translated: someone had lobbed a grenade at the Congress party office. My hotel was a hundred yards down the road but we were forced to take a circuitous route.
Near the old golf course and another round of firing. More people running back into the lanes and another roadblock. This time the police are angry and blustering.
“We are having one encounter after another,” they bawl, “and you want to go there!” A car does go through the cordon, but that belongs to the chief minister’s establishment. We must again go round, take an even longer route. My Kashmiri driver blames the police, not those who lob IEDs.
The rumours are fiercest around the Mirwaiz’s elegantly crumbling mansion, Maulvi Mahal, in Rajoori Kadal. The CRPF company, 37 Battalion, has set up headquarters right outside, flying an outsize Indian tricolour from a stumpy little pole. It’s like red rag to a bull as I wait with a steadily growing crowd of followers. I am the only non-Kashmiri there until a Swedish TV cameraman and reporter join us.
We are waiting for the Mirwaiz to return from Friday prayers at the Jumma Masjid up the lane. He combines religious and political roles for he is also head of the Awami Action Committee and was formerly the Hurriyat chief.
Some say a fidayeen — suicide bomber — has slipped into the Congress office. Others accuse the CRPF of opening fire without provocation. The Mirwaiz’s white Ambassador arrives without him, giving rise to fresh rumours. The police have attacked a peaceful procession; he is walking back; he has been injured. The tear gas hurt his foot, they say, and I wonder at this novel damage.
The crowd swells, an elderly woman in black shrieks at me that Mussulmans are being killed, others mutter and I turn into the house. It’s a beautiful old building, flat grey stone and carved wood, half-timbered and buttressed, with gables, bay windows and mullioned glass. Winding stone stairs ascend to dizzy heights from where I can look down on the bazaar.
At last he arrives, slim, scholarly and spectacled as I last saw him at a Centre for Peace and Progress seminar in Calcutta’s Punjabi Bradree. An astrakhan cap on his head as always and draped over one shoulder a fine Kashmir shawl. I cannot resist telling the Mirwaiz that he is the only non-Bengali I have ever seen wearing a Kashmiri shawl. What I don’t tell him is my last shawl encounter with a Kashmiri. It was at Madhavrao Scindia’s daughter’s wedding to Karan Singh’s son in Gwalior and I was gingerly picking my way, dhoti and all, under the chandeliers, when a voice behind me said, “Glad to see someone patronises Kashmir’s national industry!” I turned to find a beaming Dr Farooq Abdullah.
The Mirwaiz is too austere and political polarisation here too sharp for pleasantries. He climbs to the roof to harangue the crowd, then sits crosslegged on a raised gadi with an ornamental railing while the faithful squat crosslegged on the carpet all round him. As an outsider, I am allowed to perch on the edge of the gadi, while followers stand up behind the mike one after another to pour out what sounds like a heady stream of mystically inspired political invective.
Has he been injured' The Mirwaiz brushes aside my enquiry. But an elderly follower comes up just then and with tender care ties a handkerchief round his right ankle. I leave him there, one ankle bandaged, enthroned in a room resonating to the chant of Azaadi and We want Freedom and No Election, No Selection interspersed with Koranic verses.